They don’t look like works of art. Antek Walczak is 44, in khaki shorts and a vintage T-shirt, with a mop of dark hair that leaves him looking younger. John Kelsey is 47, taller and slighter and shier, with cropped hair and a tendency to withdraw under his baseball cap. They could be webmasters. In fact, however, it might be best to think of them as Brushstroke One and Brushstroke Two in a living, thinking, ever-changing work of art called the Bernadette Corporation, one of the most successful avant-garde creations (and creators) of the past 20 years.
If a cutting-edge artwork could talk, it would speak like this pair. “For us it's just natural that things as they are absolutely need relentless questioning,” says Walczak. "I think all artists somehow try to undermine the codes of art, in a way, while affirming them on another level,” adds Kelsey.
It’s late August in New York, and Walczak and Kelsey are sitting at a conference table in the Artists Space bookstore off Canal Street, trying to explain (or mostly to avoid explaining) what they will be getting up to in the art center’s gallery, a few blocks farther north in SoHo. On Sept. 8, the 40-year-old nonprofit will be opening the Bernadette Corporation’s first retrospective.
BC is most famous for being an early player in the vogue for anonymous artists’ collectives, now all the rage. Its mutating membership began by invading the world of fashion, carried on into magazine publishing, made a splash with a collective novel (dozens of authors contributed to it), and hit it big, in the art world at least, with a video about the Black Bloc riots that preceded 9/11.
It’s no wonder Walczak and Kelsey won’t, or can’t, sum up BC’s achievement. "I don’t think it can be boiled down—that's probably what is interesting about it,” Walczak says.
He explains that in the early 1990s, when BC first adopted its corporate persona, the thinking was that “the punk thing's been done, we're not hippies, so what can we do that would be as irritating as those were in their times? So we thought [of] maybe just going for the corporate.” The cryptic BC logo they adopted acted as a kind of front, Kelsey says, “and behind it was this kind of wilding possibility of just doing whatever. You never knew how many people were behind it, or what they were doing or if they were doing anything ... I think you can point at BC in any year and describe it as a different kind of entity—2006 is very different from 1996."
When Walczak joined BC in 1994, the year of its official founding, its members were launching a fashion line, under the creative control of designer Thuy Pham (no longer with the corporation) and stylist Bernadette Van-Huy herself, the only BC member who has never left. (She bagged out of this interview at the last minute. “She never says anything, anyway,” Kelsey insists. But given BC’s slippery ways, I won’t be certain Van-Huy exists until I’ve seen her in person and checked her ID. Call me a Bernadette birther.)
The clothes the collective came up with were a mashup of urban street wear and Parisian couture, with the surreal juxtapositions we expect from fine art. “We weren’t calling ourselves an art collective … We had this idea that we were going to be a huge pop-culture force,” says Walczak, explaining that money troubles killed the line after only a few runway shows. (A corporate pose has never led BC to corporate returns. This corporation’s “officers” have always held day jobs.)
When Kelsey joined in 1999, “BC didn’t know exactly what it was,” he says, and he helped it move toward magazine publishing. BC produced three issues of Made in USA, a fashion glossy that could include coverage of H&M alongside French philosophizing. That got BC the attention of the art world—as though Marcel Duchamp had not only presented a urinal as sculpture, but had founded a company called MD that labored over page layouts and ad sales. The Bernadette Corporation could be considered a sentient ready made: “I like this idea of not thinking about art in the context of art,” says Kelsey.
In 2004, BC published Reena Spaulings, its vastly collective novel (reports have mentioned anywhere from 20 to 150 authors), and the move into the straight avant-garde seemed complete. Although the book pretends to tell the story of an ingénue’s rise in New York, the writing’s too disconnected to work as standard fiction. (Its authors didn’t always read each other’s contributions.) "Instead of ‘a New York novel, by so-and-so,’ it's like ‘NY vomits forth this novel, at this particular time,’ " says Walczak. But the truth is that the novel is less about either its character or setting than about how it got written.
Kelsey remembers how, as a boy, he sent a fan letter to Franklin W. Dixon, whose name was on the spine of the Hardy Boys books, “and I got this letter back that kind of shocked and fascinated me, and it said, 'We're sorry, but Franklin Dixon doesn't exist' ... It always stuck with me: the mystery of how a book can be written by a nonauthor." That mystery is the true subject of Reena Spaulings. (Reena Spaulings, the character, also got a second life as the fictitious dealer behind New York’s Reena Spaulings Gallery, which is a very real art business that Kelsey runs with a partner.)
The most complete artification of BC came with their Black Bloc video, called Get Rid of Yourself, which has done well on the exhibition circuit. At first the piece feels like a straight-ish documentary, about rioters at the G8 summit in Genoa, Italy, in July 2011. At a certain point, however, BC starts cutting in scenes of the actress Chloë Sevigny struggling to memorize and deliver the words we’ve just heard the rioters utter, as though they might have been scripted from the start. It’s hardly news to point out the collapse of reality and fiction and the scripting of life, but Get Rid of Yourself does a particularly good job of making that collapse seem real, and scary.
The Artists Space survey will include an "action-movie trailer" for the one-hour video, which came as close as BC does to a standard artwork. But beyond that, Walczak and Kelsey insist that the show will be nothing close to a normal object-filled retrospective, and may feel more like a SoHo retailer’s display. "Let’s say there won’t be such a dramatic change in going from street level upstairs to Artists Space,” says Walczak. “You could think that this retrospective is when we're finally coming into the art world—but we're not.” He compares the exhibition to a planet whose gravity can slingshot a rocket farther out into space. Kelsey takes that riff further: "The show will be our ejector seat, our launch pad, our final disappearing act."