The Bernadette Corporation (BC), one of the most significant art collectives working today is presented in their first UK retrospective exhibition, at the ICA in London. BC have been influential in presenting a conceptual alternative for making art. The group emerged in 1993 in a New York obsessed with Calvin Klein and Kate Moss but hit by recession. Their eclectic work over the past 19 years, which started with the foundation of a high-end fashion label and later came to include film and writing, explores consumerism and branding strategies while reflecting the economic and social history of New York and the impact of 9/11 on the city. While three figures – Bernadette Van-Huy, John Kelsey and Antek Walczak – have always been central to BC, the collective has collaborated with a number of artists including Rita Ackermann, Mark Borthwick and Chloe Sevigny. This exhibition at the ICA traces BC’s work and influence and presents their major fashion, film and writing projects for the first time in London.
The group formed as a ‘scene’ at Club USA, a nightclub that existed between 1992 and 1995 near Times Square. Kelsey recalls, “Nobody had money, everybody was young, so it made a lot of sense to band together and do things collectively. There was a real DIY ethic at that time.” Nineties New York was dominated by big brand fashioning advertising and the creative crossover between art and fashion was in bloom. In response to this, the first project launched by Bernadette Corporation was their own high-end fashion label. Mimicking the visual strategies of the fashion world they explored the hierarchy of fashion and art and the economic drive of the fashion world, while working on fashion shoots with the world’s glossiest magazines. This irony saw them insert references to immigration and class as well as counterfeit goods into fashion shoots, and audition models for their catwalks through the Yellow Pages.
The label lasted until 1997 and was followed by the magazine Made in USA in which fashion imagery and advertising was placed alongside philosophical art texts. At the height of the anti-capitalist movement in 2001 they started working on the film that would eventually become Get Rid of Yourself mixing images of anti-global protest with footage of Chloe Sevigny re-performing sections of activists’ speeches in a kitchen. In the middle of editing Get Rid of Yourself, 9/11 changed everything – including the film. In response to these changes, BC started a collective writing project that resulted in a novel by one hundred and fifty writers – Reena Spaulings (2005). Loosely based around the central character, an identity-less, blank, bland model, it is also a story about the post-9/11 New York landscape. While BC has continued to make films, explore promotional campaigns and instigate collective writing, recent projects have seen more emphasis on the ‘object’, following the failure of a cinema project in all but its merchandising content.
The ICA exhibition will present projects from the last 19 years, including the bodies of work mentioned above, through a timeline mapping their archival material. This is accompanied by a pavilion, designed in collaboration with Gideon Ponte, which will present a series of works including Media Hot & Cold, 10 hardcover publish-on-demand books, and video work Get Rid of Yourself. Vitrines and lightboxes will present a variety of Bernadette Corporation ‘merchandise’ such as Mug Stanzas, digital printed coffee mugs and Retrospective Scarves, 7 inkjet printed silk scarves. In addition, graphic wall based works including Smash False Dreamlands and Village Voice novel review will also punctuate the gallery spaces.
In conjunction with Bernadette Corporation the ICA presents The Independent Group: Parallel of Art & Life in the Reading Room, which brings together a range of artworks, design objects and ephemera. The Group met at the ICA in Dover Street from 1952-5 and included Alison and Peter Smithson, Richard Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Turnbull, Frank Cordell and writer Lawrence Alloway. Celebrated today as the so-called “Fathers of Pop”, the Group worked with art, science, technology and popular culture. The Group challenged modernism working beyond traditional boundaries and conventional discipline areas. Bernadette Corporation continues that trajectory, in their own words “these are the final days of contemporary art and we’re happy to have a seat at the table.”
Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years ICA London 26 March – 9 June 2013