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Art

Bunny Rogers’s New Performance Turns Violence into Spectacle

Bunny Rogers, Sanctuary,  for the Performa 19 Biennial. Photo by George Etheredge.

Bunny Rogers, Sanctuary, for the Performa 19 Biennial. Photo by George Etheredge.

On Saturday evening in New York, artist turned her ongoing obsession with the Columbine massacre into an immersive haunted house. During two performances titled “Sanctuary,” part of the 19th edition of the Performa performance art biennial, the audience filed into the Lower East Side’s Essex Street Academy and confronted an apocalyptic scene. Dark hallways glowed with green lights emanating from behind classroom doors. Some actors slouched against the walls, while others sprawled prone across the speckled floor. Decorated with fake blood and chalky make-up, as immobile as rag dolls, they evoked the victims of a school shooting. White confetti dropped from the ceiling, like fake snow. In the nearby auditorium, Rogers and her friends performed musical numbers, intentionally amateurish acts meant to evoke high school talent shows.
Rogers, in other words, turned trauma into spectacle, then asked her audience to watch the equivalent of a mediocre band practice. As an exercise in bad taste, the entire performance could have succeeded. There are plenty of cultural productions that lean into controversy, provocation, and ugliness and achieve their desired results—whether the audience likes it or not. Take, for example, ’s eye-bleedingly bright, maximalist assemblages; ’s graphically violent artworks; or the Red Scare podcast’s explicit trolling. It was, in fact, apt that one of the Red Scare hosts, Dasha Nekrasova, was on stage, singing with Rogers. Yet Rogers’s intent with “Sanctuary” seems muddled at best, and thoughtlessly self-indulgent, at worst.
Bunny Rogers,  Sanctuary,   for the Performa 19 Biennial. Photo by George Etheredge.

Bunny Rogers, Sanctuary, for the Performa 19 Biennial. Photo by George Etheredge.

After so much conversation over the past few decades about the stories that artists should and should not tell, especially when they’re related to violence and tragedy, it’s impossible not to see “Sanctuary” within this framework. This still holds true when considering the nature of Performa, which gives artists like Rogers, who don’t traditionally work in performance, a platform to experiment. According to the performance brochure, Rogers wants to dissect how her “own internal world was shaped by the media consumption of her youth in the late 1990s and 2000s.” She was affected by seeing violent and pornographic imagery on the internet as an adolescent—and to address this, she created her own horrifying tableau.
Rogers was traumatized by television coverage of the 1999 Columbine High School shootings; it’s been central to her practice since she began exhibiting in 2010. In critically acclaimed shows at Société, Greenspon Gallery, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Zollamt MMK, and other prominent venues, she’s offered haunting, expansive, and mysterious multimedia installations. Her work includes animated films, websites, 3D portraits, and installations that feature cafeteria tables, melting chairs, a sealed-off flower shop, and hollow apple sculptures. With these presentations, viewers could piece together oblique stories about violence and memory.
Yet Rogers’s latest aesthetic response has been to offer a cosplay of the whole ordeal, far too literally, 20 years later. Far from Colorado and the families actually affected by the tragedy, Rogers and her bohemian New York friends played keyboard and guitar and sang songs about heartbreak. Rogers donned a cheerleading uniform for one of the numbers, a fairy-tale gown for another. “Sanctuary” was so far removed from the actualities of the events and people that inspired it that the entire premise was almost laughable.
Yet the tone of “Sanctuary” was full of misplaced earnestness, an attempt at empathy that ultimately rang hollow. Instead of offering an incisive critique of violence, or a strange new understanding of what it means to live in a country where nearly 40,000 people die of gun violence per year, Rogers offered a magical realm where snow falls in hallways and gun death is a romance of good lighting and stage makeup. The performance connects to Rogers’s 2016 animated film Mandy’s Piano Solo in Columbine Cafeteria, in which the titular character performs in a snow-covered room.
Bunny Rogers,  Sanctuary,   for the Performa 19 Biennial. Photo by George Etheredge.

Bunny Rogers, Sanctuary, for the Performa 19 Biennial. Photo by George Etheredge.

Rogers’ inspirations for “Sanctuary” include the MTV animated series Clone High, as well as the aesthetics of animated television shows and video games. Devoid of its own complexity and enigma, “Sanctuary” hints at the quandary that undergirds Rogers’s project: How can an artist thoughtfully make work about a trauma in which she wasn’t involved?
As soon as the first performance was over and the audience had filed out of the auditorium, one of the Performa staff members called into the hallways: “Zombies, time for pizza!” The undead marched into the room, ready for dinner. All the world’s a stage. While American high school students continue to feel unsafe in their own classrooms, in Lower Manhattan, you can take an acting gig for a night, play dead, and get a free slice.
Alina Cohen