All of downtown New York came out to celebrate the reboot of Bernadette Corporation and its retrospective at Artists Space during Fashion Week. For the uninitiated, Bernadette Corporation is a collaborative group of artists and designers that spearheaded the underground New York fashion and art scene in the mid-late 90s, and moved on to examine their ideas into art, publishing, and cinema.
I sat down for lunch with the curators of the show, Stefan Kalmár and Richard Birkett, and talked about the birth of Bernadette Corporation, 90s "ghetto" fashion, Rihanna, and why Bernadette Corporation is as relevant today as it was back then. Check out my interview and photos from the opening night.
Edward Lorenz: What is Bernadette Corporation?
Richard Birkett: It is quite an amorphous thing. It’s been through different phases over the last 20 years and it’s never taken on a fixed identity. The people involved in the group have adapted over the years as they've moved from organizing club nights to having a fashion label, to publishing a magazine and novels, to video work, to functioning in political spheres, and to the art world.
Stefan Kalmár: Bernadette is a real person but also a corporation. The name Bernadette Corporation is an intentional play on the relationship between the individual and the corporate sphere, the fictional and the real. The real Bernadette was one of the first members, and then came the idea of the corporation. The retrospective is a chronology of BC.
RB: BC’s fashion collections were and are investing in particular notions of streetwear and a kind of “ghetto” fashion. It’s a lot more relevant today than it was then. Today, fashion is referencing high-end streetwear from the 90s.
SK: There was a time when things were not just styles, but when the style of local subculture actually had meaning among communities. However, since the 90s, global brands have drastically increased the commercialization and the appropriation of subcultural styles, bringing them into the market and into the mainstream. By doing so, they are debasing those "styles" from their local (subcultural) context, and hence negating the place of difference and resistance.
RB: Antek [Walczak, a member of the Corporation] recently said that people who were into haute couture during the 90s were seen as freaks. It’s not like today where couture is an aspirational thing—it was the reverse. People who were into hardcore fashion were seen as freaks.
EL: Do you think BC influenced this? Was its world recognized around the world?
RB: In a way. The stuff BC did with magazines like Purple
—mediating images through a photographer’s work—that’s really important to the fashion world these days. Today, fashion is not just about producing clothes but it’s about producing images. So that’s where there’s influence to be seen.
EL: I see a lot of BC references in today's fashion and publishing spheres.
RB: Yes, I think there is very clearly a lineage that needs to be considered in today's very different context. I don't think BC was ever attempting to find an economic strand to exist within; it was more about finding different spaces for confluence.
SK: BC was never ironic. Today things are often presented as ironic and there is this very exclusive humor that comes with irony—it is a humor that distinguishes between the "insider" and "outsider" —as a last resort. The idea of being unsuccessful and not selling out is what BC really is about. I'm sure Bernadette could be styling for, say, Vuitton or consult for a brand but she chooses not to. It is her political choice not to be a part of that aspect of the current fashion economy.
EL: How many people were involved in the Corporation, since its inception?
RB: In the beginning it was Bernadette [Van-Huy],Thuy [Pham], who now runs United Bamboo, and Seth Shapiro, who went on to do American Manufacturing. Then it became Thuy, Bernadette, and Antek. Then Bernadette, Antek, and John [Kelsey] in the late 90s. But through those stages there were a lot of people involved: collaborators who have come in and out of different projects.
EL: How did they all meet?
RB: I think Bernadette came to New York in ‘92 or ‘93 to study fashion. She met Thuy in college and possibly Seth too. It was a social scene, like the nightclub scene, and they were hanging out with people like Susan Cianciolo.
Bernadette as a stylist and a designer achieved some really amazing things during the 90s, John is a writing persona outside of the corporation, and Antek has his own practice as an artist. Hopefully this exhibition recognizes all their work.
EL: If BC existed in today’s social media world, how do you think they would be perceived and what would its method be?
RB: I think BC's recent work has been very related to social media. The project they did at Galerie Neu last year included these high-end plumbing objects and etched onto them were excerpts from blog comment streams about Rihanna. The project, Media Hot and Cold, also included appropriated covers of classic books, such as Moby Dick, but with a photo of Rihanna that she took of herself in the bathtub as the cover. Inside the book is the comment stream from a Rihanna blog. In a way, they preempted this notion of the individual projecting an identity into the world and creating their brand.
SK: It’s this idea of fictional authorship and having multiple identities at work, real or imagined. There were 25 authors who worked on the BC novel, Reena Spaulings. This too preceded the notion of the Internet.
EL: If you look at a Twitter feed, it’s what’s going on at that exact moment but it's different perspectives. Reena Spaulings is mimicking that. Can we talk a little about the BC film, Get Rid of Yourself (2002).
RB: This was when BC went to Genoa and filmed the G8 riots. In the film, Chloë [Sevigny] plays an actress rehearsing lines taken from actual interviews done with Black Bloc anarchists. It’s a play on Chloë herself: being this subjective vessel of cutting-edge fashion. She appears alongside images of disenfranchised graduates in Italy with no jobs, very similar to Occupy Wall Street in America.
EL: What do you think is the most iconic image on show at the retrospective?
RB: It's important to remember the notion of a reboot because none of what you see in the retrospective is really that close to how it would have been experienced originally. They are showing Get Rid of Yourself, but with a new trailer for the film—so they have produced new work. All of the images and work has been filtered through this idea of a reboot. A lot of the fashion images are really iconic. It's hard to point out one iconic piece!
EL: What are the next steps for BC? What are the members doing after this reboot?
SK: Retrospectives are funny because they force the artists to ask themselves questions they’ve long avoided. I think for them, seeing everything out in the open is scary. The question still remains as to what has been achieved? That is the question they continue to work with.
Through December 16, 2012
Photos by Justin Bourdeaux
ARTISTS SPACE: EXHIBITIONS
38 Greene Street, 3rd floor