The Enigma of Bernadette Corporation, the Anonymous 90s Art and Fashion Collective
Kaitlin Phillips In Person with the Elusive CEO, Bernadette Van-Huy
- Interview: Kaitlin Phillips
- Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Bernadette Van-Huy
Olivier Zahm once told me that the funny thing about New York is its citizens expect you to prove why you’re famous, over and over, while Parisians just respect you for getting famous once. I don’t get the sense that Bernadette Van-Huy—the New York native born in Queens, the namesake of art collective Bernadette Corporation—has ever tried to prove anything to anyone.
Bernadette Corporation has always been tied to the anti-corporate aesthetics of the 1990s—it was their distaste for the commercialization of the art world that gave the collective their name, and fuelled their interest in appropriation and other expressions of detournement. Calling themselves a corporation, they claimed, “was the perfect way to alienate the politically-correct types.” They genuinely had fun with their practice. “The Bernadette Corporation encourages people to ‘run out of energy,’ ‘become no one,’ and act ‘drugged’,” explained the Village Voice.
There’s this idea that people in the 90s operated without permission, but it seems truer to say there were just a lot of creative bodies organized around the principle that members should work outside their oeuvre. They focussed on the things they were bad at. (The lack of expertise also guaranteed that you would always need your friends to help you complete your project.) If you draw a map of Bernadette Corporation’s peers and projects, you’ll see they were avidly skipping rocks, trying to send ripples across any industry that would have them: fashion, advertising, publishing, video, black bloc, fine art. They sent thrift store clothes down the runway, with affixed tags; an entire collection was inspired by “those wild A-train girls.” They started a print magazine at the cusp of the millennium, in the face of the crystallizing utopic possibilities of the internet. (“We call our magazine Made In USA because it is the title of the worst movie Jean Luc Godard ever made (also a very good movie).”) They organized 150 people to write the only funny 9/11 novel, about an art world it-girl named Reena Spaulings, which spawned the cult Chinatown gallery of the same name.
But the social scene is still their great masterpiece—creating one, and then once they realized they’d done it, parodying it. (“We can still see everything going on in the real New York, but we can't touch it or talk to it,” they said about Made in USA.) It’s fitting then that for one of her first projects outside Bernadette Corporation, Bernadette has published In Person, an artist’s book of photography and text meant to capture and investigate a “big night out.” She cast two artist friends, Genoveva Filipovic and Rita Ackermann, to act out two different social characters that she might herself tap into: the dark poet, and the comedic actor. The photos in the book—staged to be somewhat camp and uncanny—reflect little of the physical presence of Bernadette when I meet her.
She emails my phone from the top step of the Met: “I’m here, Asian, bright white champion T-shirt.” She was dressed almost ostentatiously normal, like a tourist: green tinted sunglasses shaped like hearts, New York City-brand baseball cap, cheap loafers, jeans. (She emailed me later: “I wear the same thing all the time. Men’s t-shirts, jeans, loafers, some jewelry, baseball caps. I’m a realist—look at me—what’s the point?”) Small, enigmatic, polite but not ingratiating, she’s so soft spoken that the transcription service I hired sent back the tape and my money. In interviewing her, I would say I learned she doesn’t like to talk about herself and that she has a real private life. It gave her a noble aura, which is to say I’m not sure I learned much at all, but I liked her very much—and I greatly await her memoir, which she’s also writing. Her tendency towards opacity is punctured frequently by disarming honesty, a trait very endearing in someone who peppers even the most depressing anecdotes with laughter.
Our conversation has been edited by Bernadette herself, who prefers to write answers:
To be honest, I don’t actually know what you’re up to, which isn’t weird in other parts of the country, but in New York, I feel like I always know what someone is working on.
I know. I seem to hibernate, getting up about once a decade, and then sliding back into sleep mode. During the last few years, I was writing. I went through a difficult time, starting about ten years ago. Terrible deaths in my family. And a long aftermath of dealing with them. Then when some happiness was introduced into my life—after a long time without it—it triggered some strange after-effects in me, so strange that I had to write them down, and then I decided to write a book about all of it, because since many years I’d wanted to write anyways. But the kind of writing that naturally came out of me was always rather abstract.
Nothing could be more unnatural to me than exposing myself in a personal narrative. The personal writing was terrible at first. Like someone dancing who’s never seen dancing before. I couldn’t see myself, or it, and it took a super long time before I could.
Would you call this book you’re working on a memoir?
Technically it is a memoir—of just that compact period of those events—but it’s not written in a memoir tone or voice. It’s handled like fiction.
I’ve read a lot of people say that there aren’t good grief memoirs—
I would say I have a good disposition for it, because I’m already dissociated! I can separate myself from my emotions, my experience, very easily. And cast an objective eye on them.
I’m not too susceptible to sappiness. I only mean that it occurred to me to do it, but I chose not to whitewash anything, out of respect for their memories. I think the truth, at least the truth for me, of the way things were and happened, for example, if there was animosity at times, are far more worthwhile to pass on, than only speaking delicately about people who’ve passed away. There’s no way I could or would want to capture the totality of what happened. But if it were possible, that would be more akin to chemical warfare. Bottling up the awfulness and infecting others with it.
Do you now see yourself as inextricably entwined with your family and their memories?
I had adolescent depression, and this on its own, removed me from my family, from being close to anyone in fact. But what I now see, is that I am exactly 50% my mother and 50% my father. If you opened me up I think you’d find everything inside precisely composed like that.
The years before they died I had had almost no contact with my family, and I believed that one’s friends are one’s family, the family that you choose. But I learned that that’s wrong. It sounds corny, but what I learned was your immediate family and you are a tree—and chopping off any part is monstrous.
Can you delineate the difference of your inheritance from them, so to speak?
My mom was an artist. Though this was left dormant for much of her life. As a Vietnamese immigrant in the 60s her artistic-ness was considered a talent, but not taken seriously, not made much of. And she spent her life doing some job to contribute to the family’s income. It was only when she retired that she took up these activities again, and then it poured out of her—hundreds of paintings, and other creative endeavors. She was also autistic, in my unscientific diagnosis. Maladjusted. Poor language skills. She only ever spoke with a child’s simple sentences, and simple perspective. Highly private. The only company she accepted was our immediate family.
My father was a book man. He was a professor of French and French literature. Because I’m 50% my father, I’m better adjusted than my mother. My father was orphaned as a child, had a hard life in Vietnam, through which he had a great modus operandi: laugh and read! He was jovial, but also impervious. I’m far wimpier than him.
What do you mean? Do you win fights with people?
I do win fights. Because underneath I’m a violent maniac. Who’s softened with the years, by the way. But I can’t handle the slightest disturbance to my comfort.
Socially you mean? You’re discomforted?
Yes, that too, but I mean more physical comfort. For example at home I adjust my clothing every ten minutes to slight variations in temperature. Also I will open and close the window, raising it an inch, lowering it an inch.
How would your friends describe you?
They would say I’m a bit over-sensitive. It’s like the Princess and the Pea test. Every pea—if I didn’t sleep perfectly, if I feel a vague cold coming on, if I have a faint hangover—has enormous significance to me. And then I have to relay this slight deficit in optimum well-being to everyone.
That’s very artistic. This fantasy that you make no compromises.
Yeah, that’s it. It’s because I’m uncompromising. [Laughs]
That’s a good segue into asking you why you wanted to take your own portraits for this interview.
I’m camera shy, so I wanted to take my time to see if I could overcome it. What I discovered from the 500 photos I took was that I have a wood face when faced with the camera, with only one expression, stressed and worried. (But for some of the photos, I had a friend take pictures of me at the Met, and for these I was able to at least laugh at my discomfort.) One lesson I learned, as an amateur photographic subject, is that you’re automatically trying too hard. You’re trying to go up, to give something more. But that’s already overdone. And you have to get a grip on that reflex.
In your new photography book, what narratives are you trying to tell? Are they little stories, or straight portraits?
It’s an artist book, not a photography book, meaning that I’m making use of the camera for this project, and am not over fussy about technical perfection.
I shot two close friends for the book, Genoveva Filipovic and Rita Ackermann. One plays the dark poet, in bed or the gutter, the other plays the other side, moving through events like a comedic actor. The book tackles a simple narrative: How to construct a social face? How are you going to present yourself? It tells the story of this big, going out night. Romantic writers like Poe are in it—the book starts off in the gutter, that’s for Poe, who was often so insensible that he’d be found there. There’s a lot of sleeping in the book. Basically a lot of reality-defying, or reality-ignoring. And then the book ends in a blizzard of Monopoly money.
What kind of night out is this?
Ah. Big. Very big. And, you’re 50 pounds heavier than you’d like to be, and need some training, metaphorically speaking. You just need some definition. What I mean by training and definition is maybe acting. Being aware of your physical aspect and your personality aspect, and the ways they communicate. For example, it’s all acting anyway, so why not refine the artifice more. And facilitate how you are read.
While we’re talking about going out. Day-to-night dressing, do you subscribe to that?
Yes. As well as to the next day, on to the next week.
In an old issue of Purple, you styled a spread that I liked. It has your “latest ideas" about makeup. "Violet and Black lip gloss, pink eyebrows… pre-Raphaelite tresses.” (I think Rita was in it, but I can’t remember! I wrote this down in a notebook once.) A lot of blonde hair and white skin. I was curious what current trends interest you—or if you could start any, would you?
I don’t remember saying that! I’m not very up on what’s happening nowadays in fashion, I don’t follow it like I used to. I like the pajama and bathrobe trend. I considered that one. In my fashion days I started quite a few trends. Acid-wash jeans for one. You’re welcome.
Kaitlin Phillips is a writer living in Manhattan, and a contributing editor at SSENSE.
- Interview: Kaitlin Phillips
- Images/Photos Courtesy Of: Bernadette Van-Huy