Notes on John Armleder at The Swiss Institute & The Bernadette Corporation at Artist Space
December 9, 2012
It wasn’t supposed to look like this: Ornate parlor rooms and messy factory floors giving over into clean white walls, abstract lines of steel and glass. Gehry designed corporate towers. Helvetica as every corporate font. Apple i-design chic. John Armleder at the Swiss Institute and Bernadette Corporation at Artist’s Space allow us to follow the story of a modernism between the revolutionary and the corporate.
The Swiss Institute focused its selection of Armleder’s work on a number of his furniture sculptures from 1979 to the present. Upon entry you are confronted with a large wooden construction; you walk around and realize it is a wardrobe-mirror, two identical jackets hung to either side. Further in the exhibition, there is a chair, its lattice-embroidered gold backed seating, and simple mahogany-hued frame is painted white across half the seat-back; a single black painted line, bent like a crook intrudes from the left-side of this impromptu canvas. There is also a three sectional seating arrangement, gray and airline-streamed modernist, its upholstery lightly embellished with a single primary-hued dot, one seat cocked slightly askew from the rest. Another: A constructivist-like painting hung from a coat hanger. Or: minimally striped surfboards hung near a similarly minimally striped canvas. A transparent-orange drum-set on a pedestal. This is art as it arcs towards design, style, and fashion.
These pieces combine minimalist and constructivist modernisms with retro-design modernist furniture. There is clear precedent for this work, particularly with the Bauhaus school, whose craft-modernism shaded into a high-design productivism, but the Bauhaus always maintained a radical agenda; the remaking of life by art. The production of furniture was, for them, simply one more method of fusing their vision of a better world with the lifeworld that was inhabited by so-many commonplace objects.
Armleder’s work has a softly ironic attitude that subtly denigrates the status of painting to mere design, while archly raising furniture to the status of sculpture. We cannot say that the revolutionary potential of the Bauhaus ambition has been wholly subverted, but rather than discovering the incompatibility of the bourgeois with the new sensibility, Armleder examines the restructuring of the bourgeois lifeworld under the aesthetic innovations of modernism. The old order never quite goes away, it is simply subsumed under the new. Or, and also: the old must always submit to the experiments of the new.
There is, of course, an entire history here concerned with the social and material re-organization of culture whose legacy derives from the beginnings of capitalism and into the industrial mode of production prevalent in the the 19th and early 20th centuries. What the modernist avant-gardes proposed, and what Ranciere recognizes as the distribution of the sensible , is that there is an abstract form of sensibility which may communicate to a generalized intellect beyond the class forms of the Bourgeois and the Proletariat, but unite them them as a subject beyond class, according to the forms of perception itself. Constructivism, Suprematism, Minimalism, etc., very broadly, are concerned with the reflexive relationship to their own perception, in part because that perception itself elides the particular social determinants that divide people into class and focuses the viewer upon an awareness of their own material condition in a way that is not already enframed by ideology, thus opening up that condition to the possibilities of redefinition and revolutionary potential.
As Armleder’s objects point to, this meta-politics achieved not a revolution, but merely another instance of capitalism’s creative destruction. Under the factory-format of capitalism, the world of work is intimately tied to space. Because labor on the the factory floor is visible to both boss and worker, the perception of the space and its meanings becomes contestable. Beginning in the 70’s, however, as labor is globalized and moved increasingly off-site from the centers of capital in the West, its object becomes more fluid and generalized, more perfectly approximating the abstract and generalized form of capital itself. The sensibility of the general, the universal, becomes the sensibility of capital itself.
As Meyer Shaviro argues:
The antagonism between capital and labor has, of course, haunted capitalism since the very beginning. All the conditions that Marx explicitly noted in his analysis of capitalism were already implicitly acknowledged in the work of Smith and Ricardo. And as a practical matter, problems arising from the conflict of interests between labor and capital continued to trouble capitalism for most of the twentieth century. But neoliberalism eliminates this tension by simply redefining it out of existence. When I sell my labor-power as a commodity, receiving in return money as the means for a certain level of subsistence, what I am really doing, according to the neoliberals, is “investing” my “human capital” in the competitive marketplace, and receiving a return on this investment. We are now, Foucault says, “at the opposite extreme of a conception of labor power sold at the market price to a capital invested in an enterprise. This is not a conception of labor-power; it is a conception of capital-ability,” formulated in such a way that “the worker himself appears as a sort of enterprise for himself”. Economic competition as an endless war of all against all thus entirely displaces class antagonism. 
The generalized and abstract capacity of sensibility becomes the individual and abstract capacity of “capital-ability” — how best do I leverage my capacity for recognizing the creative possibilities of the sensible? And, if I fail to do so, to what degree am I responsible for my own failures? I think here we can begin to see the beginnings of the melancholy that has haunted the revolutionary potential of an avant-garde leftism.
This then, is a good time to introduce the turn that occurs in the work of the Bernadette Corporation. The Bernadette Corporation shifts the focus of its projects from one sphere of production in the life-world to another: a magazine, a fashion show, a book, etc., all ruled under the branding of the collective. At Artist’s Space, these various activities are represented in the form of a documentary exhibition whose beautifully designed and plastic forms coldly and ironically catalogue the collective’s various interests. The exhibition is a matryoshka doll, laying bare the dissected exhibition in its display codes, only to reveal another set codes below them. As Armleder empties the form of painting and injects the furniture of the world into it, the Bernadette Corporation flows their activity into the empty form of the corporation.
By the 90s, when the bulk of the activity that Bernadette presents here occurs, even the left-wing of American politics had largely abandoned Keynesian/New Deal strategies that focused on social welfare in favor of the rhetoric neo-liberalism. Remember, NAFTA and welfare reform were birthed during the Clinton administration. Sleeping with the enemy was never a more viable tactic; they went ahead and elevated it to strategy. With Made In the USA, a magazine that delved into art, fashion, music, and other cultural fields, they engaged a number of authors and critics in camping out in the various cultural parking-lots late-capitalism had built to produce “a place we can all disappear to, instead of being anti-everything and writing the new manifesto, or instead of being pro-everything and buying the latest CD.”  There is an explicit refusal of the decisional that divides the inside from the outside: capitalist or revolutionary, artist or hack.
Greenberg hated Duchamp’s work, because it pointed to the limit of his own theories, which were intimately tied up with Kant’s aesthetic theory. For Greenberg, art had a teleological destiny to realize the limits of its own medium specificity, thus painting emphasized flatness and color. What happens with Duchamp, however, is that the general category of art, like the generalized category of painting, empties out into itself. Anything can become art because the artist says so. There is no particular material organization in which art must finally resolve. Thus, in the Duchampian gesture of the readymade claims objects from the lifeworld for the artworld. It is this gesture that always resets the boundary between art and life — for what is this gesture if not a pointed reference to the transcendent limits of “what art is”, a circumscription of the boundary qua boundary that brings it back into play with a vengeance.
Contemporary art is, to paraphrase Nick Land’s description of the sociality of capitalism, a field “in which the pouvoir of dominance is perpetually submitted to the hazard of experimental puissance.”  Thus we see Armleder positing within and between the formal categories of painting/sculpture/furniture these objects that are neither/or and both/and. As John Russell puts it:
This is a procession/recession of limits, from art/non-art, to finite/infinite, to the fiction of the ultimate limit of life/death – the ‘master-limit’ which validates and codes all other limits. As Reza Negarestani writes, this is an ‘ontological apartheid’ or ‘instrumental capacity’ pseudo-articulating ‘the vitalism of the living and the givenness of its ontological status (the Ideal) in relation to the fiction of ‘the dead’ A correlation between ‘the contingent outside qua undetermined and the determinable necessity of being / the living, whereby ‘only by binding the dead as a negative agency can the living establish its myth of inherent persistence, intelligibility and difference or determination as such.’ A persistence which is mirrored in the limits of capitalism, where ‘the contingency of the outside […] is subtractively transformed to the intensive necessity of capitalism so as to both extend capitalism to an afforded outside and affirm the existence of capitalism as a necessity’. A persistence which is maintained, as in art, by a criticality concerned with the fetishisation of limits as the promise of transcendence. 
Armleder’s works thus begin to reveal an important step in a direction that we see more fully expressed with the Bernadette Corporation; that is, an embrace of the non-difference between living and dead. The Bernadette Corporation’s claims that their corporate format and mode of operation is “the perfect way to alienate alternative politically-correct types” . This isn’t just a push back against a pious leftism, however, it is an understanding that that capitalism needs the other to maintain its dominance. This is the death-drive insinuating itself into the language and grammar of neo-liberalism. The body of the work is corporate and radical, embracing the exorbitant excess of both in the dead husk of the expanded field. They do not make capitalism over into a utopia, or even micro-topia, but gleefully embrace it, pooling formaldehyde and blood in an immanent and immediate un-life.
1. Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2006
2. Meyer Shaviro, “The Bitter Necessity of Debt: Neoliberal Finance and the Society of Control”, May 1st, 2010, accessed: http://www.shaviro.com/Othertexts/Debt.pdf, October 19, 2012
3. “Made In the USA Press Release”, Badlands Unlimited, September 2012
4. Nick Land, “Making it with Death”, Fanged Noumena, Urbanomic 2011
5. John Russell, “Dear Living Person”, Meta Mute, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2011
6. “Bernadette Corporation: 2000 Wasted Years”, Artists Space, accessed: http://artistsspace.org/exhibitions/bernadette-corporation/, October 19, 2012