Bunny Rogers

Hot young thing: an artist unpacks fetish and (self-)objectification in the art world

14 December 2016

I am still haunted by one of the worst nights of my life. I was a teenager, very active in my city’s art scene. I worked for a venue and, that night, supervised an event featuring mostly older male poets and performance artists. One of them started his set by singling me out. He claimed he knew me and had written a poem for me. He described it as “a poem for a girl you want to have sex with, who doesn’t know you want to have sex with her.” It was an ode to how he imagined my vagina, overwrought with symbolism of oysters, flowers, berries. I tried to leave the venue but was prevented by my employer. I stayed until the end of the event, escaped through the back door, ran as far away as I could. I wanted to hide. I found the stairwell to an apartment complex, enclosed by an awning. Humiliated and violated, I sat down and I wept.

The Marxist philosophical concept of cultural hegemony refers to the domination of society by a ruling class, and the repositioning of that class’s worldview as the cultural norm, a universalized dominant ideology. In the patriarchal context, it naturalizes the subordination of women to men. And as an institution within cultural hegemony, art inevitably acts as a site of reification for this ideological relationship. This is true not only in terms of access to power — countless studies exist exposing sexism in the art world — but also of men’s and women’s comparative approaches to art, and to each other and themselves as artists. As such, a male-dominated art institution parses female artists misogynistically. Men and women are, additionally, encouraged to create as artists per how they are socialized. The above episode, for instance, evidences the practice of that male artist: to comfortably and acceptably project his subjectivity onto an object. It also signifies my status as an object within the institution. Moreover, my immanence implies a practice of its own, which is to allow the objectification, typification, and exploitation to occur, arguably to the extent that I participate in it myself. I find this profoundly reflected in my personal history. I was a female visual and performance artist who exclusively self-objectified in my work. I therefore only engaged with the institution of art through the pretense that I was an object, and my work served to reify that objecthood.

I attribute this to the combined forces of socialization and social coercion. The first is outlined by Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, in her chapter on female narcissism. It works in tandem with ‘bad faith’ phenomenology, or, women accepting their subordination to men as natural and inevitable. She describes the phenomenon as a “well-defined process of alienation: the self is posited as an absolute end, and the subject escapes itself in it.” To me, my body was not my own, but an object in which I was situated, from which I was alienated. I could not conceive of myself as otherwise existing. As a woman, I had been socialized to understand objecthood as a fixed, stable social position. Because I am sexually androgynous, I have, since childhood, been subject to a heightened form of scrutiny vis-à-vis womanhood. Compulsory femininity manifested in the continual degradation of my behavior, affectations, and appearance as ‘masculine’ and/or ‘unfeminine.’ I internalized my anomalousness, becoming further alienated from/obsessed with my body and image through the constant reevaluation of my sex characteristics. Still I lived to appease men through self-sacrifice, which is to say, self-destruction (de Beauvoir continues, “the narcissist, alienating herself in her imaginary double, destroys herself”). My artistic work involved mirrors, disparate or multiple selves, and brutal self-documentation, which stemmed from dissociation, sexual dysphoria, and self-harming behaviors. I saw myself as incapable of merit, and unauthoritative in terms of the conceptual framing of my own art. I was, in every sense, a fetish object to myself, simultaneously glorified and hated.  

This self-concept effectively facilitated coercion. My initial entrance into the public sphere, at age 15, was engineered by two men who controlled my life via physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. As my career progressed, I became the charge of various others, mostly men, for whom I was like a puppet or a plaything. They told me what to publish and produce, how to express and position myself, effectively shaping my private self through their construction of my public persona. One prostituted me; one attempted to steal my identity; through it all they referred to us as ‘collaborators,’ partners. Ultimately, these men were social agents, working to foster an acceptable womanhood in me by way of misogynistic oppression. My sexual exploitation in these relationships directly led to my becoming a sex worker. I maintained the roles concurrently, and I often thought of my exchanges with clients as reenactments of such victimizations. There is no difference, in my view, between an art world figurehead coercing teenage me to send him nudes, and a male fan of my former persona requesting that I flog him, or, for that matter, a client paying me to engage with his fetish. Exploitation is exploitation. In these examples, I am not an individual with subjectivity, but an abstraction, representative of sexual gratification and obligated to gratify. This is corroborated by how my work — which, despite a lack of self-awareness, necessarily expressed the emotional torment and trauma of my social condition — was often misogynistically misread, fetishized as masochistic. Accordingly, my most popular and best-received projects were those that exposed my face and body, and/or featured eroticizable (i.e. less disturbing) acts of self-harm. Much of the artwork sought resembled or derived from sex work and/or sexual trauma specifically — reenactments of reenactments. In rewarding exhibitionism as ‘aesthetic’,  the art world effectively obfuscated my socialized self-exploitation from me, ensuring the extraction of labor would continue in perpetuity. By my 20th birthday, the sex worker and artist personae, far-removed from my actual self, merged into one dysfunctional public image: the ‘sadomasochist,’ externalizing and re-internalizing violence.

The combined influences of the sex industry and my religious practice of Catholicism were, paradoxically, what liberated me from this cycle, precipitating the resurgence of myself as a subjective being, rather than a traumatic abstraction. Both of these, as institutions, are, of course, fraught; in contrast to the art world, however, they brought me into stark, painful awareness of my own exploitation. The former was ideologically formative. It disproved the artistic notions of ‘performance’ and ‘authenticity’ with which I had aligned — the idea that a ‘performer,’ by virtue of his or her own self-awareness in ‘performing,’ has implicit control over his or her audience. My approach to sex work subsumed this fallacy, in that I thought my androgyny precluded me from ‘real’ womanhood, ergo from heterosexual recognition as a woman and the commandeering of my sexual labor by capital. But my androgyny is as irrelevant as my lack of authentic sexual interest in such labor exchanges — I still performed, embodied, and, therefore, momentarily became the object I was paid to be.  

I found resistance in religious practice. I had always been a Catholic, but ‘bad faith’ obstructed and complicated my faith in God. My social condition prescribed immanence: my body was central to my worth, and I could not transcend it. Yet my subjective experience contradicted that. Even prior to becoming devout, I engaged, unawares, with mysticism. For years I had visions of angels and saints, and wept whenever I was in church, particularly at the sight of the Eucharist. I pathologized these occurrences but could not subdue them. My former self-concept faltered within this existential tension; my faith was irreconcilable with de Beauvoirian narcissism. I effectively and compulsively worshipped my own image, conflating self-hatred with the mortification of the flesh. This is religious, in the sense of Marx’s definition of fetish: an object, such as a cult icon, onto which the power of the abstract is displaced. Hence, I could accept, on some level, how my Catholicism, like any other aspect of my person, was fetishized; to fetishize me was to partake in the ritual. Now, I ‘authentically’ love God, and so I struggle very much with the idea that I, necessarily, also exist as a ‘Catholicized’ sexual commodity. This ‘good faith’ provides self-worth, a context in which to self-transcend, but it cannot change how I am mediated by society.

I often find myself questioning the utility of what could be considered,  contemporarily or historically, ‘feminist’ art. Much of it attempts to elucidate oppression through, more or less, the replication and/or invitation of oppressive action. Can self-objectification truly be ‘performed’ without self-objectifying? Is the ‘performance’ of self-harm, a la socialized masochism, differentiable from self-harming? Given my experiences, I think not. I find kinship in artists who, rather than replicate the action, replicate themselves in a way that achieves distance. Bunny Rogers is exemplary.  She produces her own fetish objects, such as the Mourning Mops (2013-). These are deck mops that Rogers dyes, soaks in water, and ties with ribbon. The mops are exhibited in corners, casually leaning against walls. They derive, but are abstracted, from her life and self, emotive but alienating to both artist and viewer. It is a self-annihilating practice, a conscious decision to remove, or estrange, oneself from one’s work, to negotiate the inevitability of one’s fetishization by society. Aligning myself thus, I changed my name, reinvented my public persona, and no longer feature my own image in my work. I, additionally, cannot relate to any old artwork of mine, which invites fetishism by its design. Even then, as I made it, I was alienated from it, compelled to act out a different sort of self-annihilation, in which I had no choice.**

Header image: Bunny Rogers, ‘Self portrait (mourning mop)’ (2013). Courtesy the artist.

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Pure Fiction @ Marian Goodman Gallery, Jun 10 – Jul 22

9 June 2016

The Pure Fiction group exhibition is on at Paris’ Marian Goodman Gallery, opening June 10 and running to July 22.

Curated by Julie Boukobza, the show presents selected works by artists living a “double life” in using both visual and written means as part of their practice. The survey spans people born between 1899 and 1990, including Ed Atkins, Win McCarthy, Josef Strau, Michael Dean and Pierre Klossowski, along with works like Bunny RogersCunny Poems and Lily-Reynaud Dewar’s A body as public as a book can be.

The press release opens with a quote from Belgian-born poet Henri Michaux —also included in the exhibition — that says “Born, raised, educated in an exclusively ‘verbal’ milieu and culture, I paint to de-condition myself”.

Accompanying the exhibited works, will be books and writing presented on a shelf that doubles as a long frieze, while others contributions come from Robert Filliou, Giuseppe Penone and Marcel Broodthaers.

See the Marian Goodman Gallery website for details.**

Bunny Rogers @ Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti @ Hester, New York. Image courtesy Ijin Chung.
Bunny Rogers @ Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti @ Hester, New York. Image courtesy Ijin Chung.

Header image: Michael Dean, ‘analogue x’ (2015). Install view. Courtesy the artist + Marian Goodman, Paris.

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Bunny Rogers @ Société, Apr 7 – 23

6 April 2016

Société will present solo show by Bunny Rogers Columbine Cafeteria opening April 7 and running April 23.

Columbine Cafeteria is the second solo exhibition that Rogers has had with the Berlin gallery, following Columbine Library in 2014, where the artist’s book of poems Cunny Poems —bringing together distance and intimacy in each of its individual fragments —was read aloud by an avatar of Rogers in a video projected in the space, among prints and a large shelf of stuffed toys and accessorised children’s backpacks.

There is little information surrounding Columbine Cafeteria, but we might assume it extends the artist’s exploration of the idolisation and fetishisation, both personally and societally, of the shooter and victims in the continued aftermath of the famous 1999 Columbine High School massacre.

Société’s homepage is currently taken over by an image that looks curiously like a Rogers digital drawing, which might give a clue to the tone of the coming show.

Rogers has recently performed readings alongside Die Ashley and manuel arturo abreu for Rapport de face à face, and collaborated with Hannah Black on the Columbine Library artist’s book.

See the Société website for (limited) details.**

Bunny Rogers, image from collaboration with Brigid Mason (2014). Courtesy the artists.
Bunny Rogers, image from collaboration with Brigid Mason (2014). Courtesy the artists.
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Bunny Rogers + Martine Syms @ Vasa Kyrkogata 5, Dec 8

7 December 2015

Bunny Rogers joins Martine Syms for an artist talk and screening, respectively, at Gothenburgs’s Vasa Kyrkogata 5 on December 8.

The event comes as the fourth part of the Communicating the Archive: Inscription lecture series arranged by The Regional State Archives and the School of Design and Crafts and curated by Gluey-c.

American artist and poet (and author of Cunny Poem Vol. 1 and My Apologies Accepted) Rogers kicks the event off at 5m with a ‘cuntalks’ artist talk, followed by a screening of ‘Notes on Gesture’ by LA-based artist (and Dominica founder) Syms.

The night caps off with a Skype DJ-set by Californian interdisciplinary artist and DJ 8ULENTINA (Esra Canoğulları).

See the FB event page for details. **

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Reclaiming the rapport de face à face by D. Dragonetti

23 November 2015

“Emmanuel Lévinas’ face-to-face relation (rapport de face à face) describes the duties between beings in the IRL encounter. Faces “order and ordain” us into “giving and serving” the Other. But with the corporatization of the internet revealing the illusory nature of the URL/IRL split, the two merge to reconfigure the face-to-face encounter, conflate the face with the selfie, and re-inscribe systemic inequality through the trap of visibility. As such, these poets interrogate the “defenseless nudity” of the Levinasian face in digitality. Working with found text, digital practice, post-confessional lyric, and other poetic forms, the four readers explore the reconfiguring effects of trauma on memory and temporality, working in a mode that, to paraphrase Bunny Rogers, exists in a perpetual mourning which still retains jouissance.”

…so goes manuel arturo abreu‘s text written for the press release of the Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti poetry reading held at New York’s Hester Gallery on November 7. Featuring manuel, Sophia Le FragaBunny Rogers, and yours truly, the room where we read is also home to Erin Jane Nelson’s Dylaninstallation. Her use of strong sensory elements, such as aromatic teas and spices, thermodynamic textiles, and glass-blown figures is evocative of a body, literally engulfing the space. It’s an immersive experience that effectively becomes part of the event, (re)orienting us from digitality to the physical present, with an intention that’s not dissimilar from our own, in reinterpreting digital or digitized works for a physical space.

manuel arturo abreu @ Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti @ Hester, New York. Image courtesy Ijin Chung.
manuel arturo abreu @ Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti @ Hester, New York. Image courtesy Ijin Chung.

The URL/IRL split refers to the relationship of the internet to so-called ‘real life.’ Our work contends that the perceived split is a fallacy, considering how the online has altered, to draw on philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas, the face-to-face relation. One of the ways in which digitality does this is through uncovering what is ‘hidden’ by the individualized, affective relationship. The Levinasian rapport de face à face encompasses only the one-on-one interaction, the ‘subject’ to the ‘Other’.  The position of the subject -as each and every individual self from the perspective of that self -is mediated by the larger context of society, connecting the two positions to subjectivity as an ideological structure. When we question the relation of the artist or performer to the audience, we must therefore also question how their subjectivity is socially evaluated.

Die Ashley @ Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti @ Hester, New York. Image courtesy Ijin Chung.
Die Ashley @ Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti @ Hester, New York. Image courtesy Ijin Chung.

All of the works read involved the reconfiguration of narrative and trauma. manuel read from a collection called areítx, which they describe as “a refusal of colonial narratives regarding the ‘original Dominicans’, the Taino people, arguing instead that these post-apocalyptic survivors of European settler genocide passed down their traditions through syncretic coalition with escaped African slaves”. Sophia read from ‘I DON’T WANT ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE INTERNET’, suggesting conflict: a rejection of or exhaustion with the corporatism of the URL, coupled with a #neoneoneoromantic reuse of classical elements in post-technical contexts. I read an email sent to a man who aggressively fetishized me, presented as found text, between two other works about gendered violence wherein I practiced self-flagellation. Bunny read from ‘My Apologies Accepted’, a work that, through reliance on simple language and conventions, seeks to reveal the brutality of the norm. Lévinas writes of the gaze of the Other as saying, “do not kill me”; Bunny writes, in the poem ‘Not my mama’s feelings’, “if you want to kill someone / U hav every right to / Best wishes from my kitchen to yours.”

Sophia Le Fraga @ Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti @ Hester, New York. Image courtesy Ijin Chung.
Sophia Le Fraga @ Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti @ Hester, New York. Image courtesy Ijin Chung.

Our works are representative of how colonialism, gender, and capitalism mediates the affective expression of the oppressed. And though incorporating sociological context into the face-to-face experience modifies the rapport, we cannot reclaim our selves. Foucault writes, “visibility is a trap”: we have no control over the audience’s subjective experience, or their interpretation of our work, of us. As manuel touches on in their text, we also cannot transcend the mediation of our expression by both digital and physical institutions -hence the capitalism of visibility, the appropriation of ‘invisible’ identities to be curated, co-opted, and synthesized into a new hegemonic discourse. The institutions of society mediate the Levinasian rapport, exporting violence to where it is ‘hidden’; our curation of a rapport ‘unhides’ the violence but does not prevent our experiences from being assimilated.  **

Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti was on at New York’s Hester Gallery on November 7, 2015.

Header image: Bunny Rogers @ Rapport de face à face. Rogers / Le Fraga / Abreu / Dragonetti @ Hester, New York. Image courtesy Ijin Chung. 


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Bunny Rogers et al @ Konstfack, Oct 23

23 October 2015

Bunny Rogers comes to Stockholm’s Konstfack University of Arts, Craft and Design for a “kind of reading” tonight, October 23.

Rogers is joined by fellow poets and artists Hanna Rajs Lundströmat and Elis Burrau, who had organized the reading so they could open for their favourite poet (Lundströmat as the “opening act” and Burreau as the “opening act for the opening act”).

The evening will also bring a performance by Eugene Sundelius von Rosen and tunes by Yoko Bono.

See the Facebook event page for details. **


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Private settings film screenings @ MoMA Warsaw, Dec 10

8 December 2014

The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw will be hosting a film screening event titled ‘Total Body Conditioning’ to coincide with the Private Settings, Art after the Internet group exhibition on December 10.

The event focuses on “the body as an object and a brand”, exploring its representation within the public realm and within contemporary visual culture, and how they, in turn, affect one’s relationship with his/her own body as it continues to be “disciplined by technological mediation on screen”.

The event brings a handful of artists who have in their own ways explored these questions through their video works and films, like Agnieszka Polska and Sarah Abu Abdallah, as well as Kate Cooper, Jesse Darling, Hannah BlackJennifer Chan, and Bunny Rogers.

See the MoMA Warsaw event page for details. **


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Bunny Rogers, Hannah Black + the ‘Unusuble Chaire’

14 November 2014

Bunny Rogers‘ voice is unmistakable. Often described as flat or monotone, it is also sublimely expressive. At the opening of her solo exhibition, Columbine Library, at Société in July, Bunny launched Cunny Vol 1, an archive of the poetry she published on her Tumblr, Cunny Poem from 2012-2014. Downstairs from the exhibition space, in a grimy, empty flat, Bunny read from Cunny as if her words bore an unbearable weight. They visibly dragged her down so that by the end of each poem she seems to have to scoop herself back up before beginning the next. She reminds me of a character from a Dame Darcy comic book. Following the reading Joseph Beers performed Bunny’s favourite Elliott Smith song. The atmosphere was drenched in ennui; the acoustic strumming, the sticky floor, the black and purple stripes. It was like being in 1999 without nostalgia, as if for the first time.

Almost two months later, the show is still open, Bunny has returned from New York with a series of multiples (her “merchandise”) and she is launching the Columbine Library artist’s book. A collaboration between herself, artist-writer Hannah Black, animator Elliot Spence, designer Guillaume Mojon and editor John Beeson, it is a picture book cloaked in purple camouflage posing as a school exercise book. Inside it is poetry, sad, intelligent and brutal.

Bunny Rogers, Columbine Library, published by Société. Courtesy the gallery.
Bunny Rogers, Columbine Library, published by Société. Courtesy the gallery.

Illustrated with a computer generated ‘photo’ series by Spence documenting the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre, which Bunny’s show borrows as its ‘backdrop’, the images are slick and clean. Liquid pooling on cafeteria tiles is purple and grey, not red, it could be spilled fruit juice. The omission of gore, damaged humans, has the effect of off-screen violence. Rendered invisible it is felt rather than seen.

The subjects of Columbine Library and its opening ‘Unusuble Chair’ poem are inanimate. Utilitarian household objects, often chairs, often stood alone as disused usables, feature repeatedly in Bunny’s work. By turning them into art, by making them beautiful, Bunny renders these ordinarily expendable objects indispensable. She offers them value but not use. With her text, Hannah allows the Columbine chairs to speak, she gives them desires, she traces their convoluted agency. “They lie on their backs for the first time and hold their limbs to the ceiling … set free into uselessness, they will become…trash.” They’re offered meaning.

When I first saw Bunny Rogers’ ‘SELF PORTRAIT (MOURNING MOP)‘ (2013), I thought immediately of a scene from Disney’s Sleeping Beauty in which two of the fairy godmothers have a wand fight over the colour of Beauty’s debutante dress. An oblique, perhaps unintentional, but important reference, Hannah writes, “The old world is blue and real and imaginary, and the new world is pink and real and imaginary. At the corners they melt into each other, but the word love is fatally contaminated by violence.” At the climax of the magical, fairy godmother tussle, the dress is left ruined, stained pink and blue.

Illustration from Bunny Rogers' Columbine Library by Elliot Spence. Courtesy Guillaume Mojon.
Illustration from Bunny Rogers’ Columbine Library by Elliot Spence. Courtesy Guillaume Mojon.

To quote Wangechi Mutu, “Females carry the marks, language and nuances of their culture more than the male”. This statement resonates throughout Bunny’s body of work, and significantly in this exhibition of which she has described her choice of subject matter to Harry Burke as “research into social absorption of the Columbine Massacre registered as a complex puzzle necessitating subjective assembly”. Hannah reiterates this sentiment as devastating poetry, “They all look basically the same – only the marks of use differentiate them… The marks of use and boredom.” In the story of White America, is the Columbine Massacre a fairytale, yet?

At the book launch, Hannah Black is reading. We return to the same abandoned flat underneath Société, but this time we file into a front room. Here the walls are bright, the floorboards look fresh, it is Sunday afternoon and the sun is out. Hannah’s words spin you off to other places, but you are in no doubt that you are with her in the room, hearing her words. She reads with a rare ease of presence, engaged in the present. This afternoon it is unmistakably 2014.

Writing this review, I am keenly aware of my desire to reference Hannah and Bunny not only as artists, but also as bodies. I recall a point that Elvia Wilk made at a recent Goldrausch Talk Series, ‘The Thing with Images, that, at least anecdotally, when one searches for a woman artist online the query will almost always return pages of links to images of the artist herself, whereas an image search of a male artist’s name will show up pictures of his work. One only needs a basic feminist analysis to understand how being seen primarily as an image/body is one site at which women (not exclusively) are vulnerable to oppression and exploitation. That being consumed as a representation of physicality is a process of the body being denied its viscera.

Hannah Black @ Columbine Library artist's book launch, Société. Courtesy the gallery.
Hannah Black @ Columbine Library artist’s book launch, Societe. Courtesy the gallery.

The smooth, blemish-free underside of a round table with lanky metal limbs, spreads across centrefold, captured in image as if it were being watched from lying position on the cafeteria floor. On the following page, Hannah’s text, “now in the pause between worlds … this frozen time / living in an aftermath”, feels like the eye of a storm; a long waiting that stretches across the limbo time-space of the rest of Columbine Library. In the aftermath of what has been, there grows speculation of what is yet to come. Is there something eschatological about this current moment of feminism?

There are countless contemporary and historical examples of women artists whose works succeed in connecting representations of the body to the lived experience of its fleshliness, and by flesh I mean everything from the pink and green coil of an intestine to the electrical collectivity of intellect. Hannah and Bunny are two good examples of the diverse engagement of artists, ubiquitous in this regard. Their collaboration is brilliant and fleshy. There is something transcendental about it – almost divine – it embodies “the ecstasy of becoming trash.” **

The Columbine Library artist’s book, published by Société was launched at the Berlin gallery on September 21, 2015.

Header image: Illustration from Bunny Rogers’ Columbine Library by Elliot Spence. Courtesy Guillaume Mojon.

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Bunny Rogers @ Société, Jun 24 – Aug 8

21 July 2014

Société will be exhibiting the latest solo exhibition of artist and poet Bunny Rogers titled Columbine Library at their Berlin space from June 24 to August 8.

Inspired by the Columbine High School massacre of 1999, Bunny’s exhibition uses a multitude of media to explore themes that have become synonymous with her work: evolution, grief, demise.

Through drawings, videos, writings, readings and a large-scale installation of the infamous library, Bunny explores tragedy and loss using various characters, including that of Joan of Arc.

This exhibition comes on the heels of Bunny’s latest book launch, titled Cunny Poem Vol. 1, at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room on July 2.

See the Société exhibition page for details. **

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Cunny Poem Vol. 1 Launch @ Issue Project Room, Jul 2

30 June 2014

Rhizome is hosting the book launch of Cunny Poem Vol. 1 in an event titled Internet as Poetry and taking place at Brooklyn’s Issue Project Room on July 2.

The over 200-page cloth-bound book features the poetry of Bunny Rogers –collected from her cunny4 tumblr, on which she started posting her poems about addiction, desire, and being a woman at the close of 2011 –as well as the artwork of Brigid Mason.

The event will also feature artist Kevin Bewersdorf, who, after managing the popular website Maximum Sorrow that explored his “philosophy of corporate spiritualism” has taken all of his textual and visual content offline, changed his name to Kev, and launched a new website that features only the online flicker of a flame, inspired by his Taoist practice.

The event will feature Kev’s first public reading of his poetry, as well as a presentation by Bunny and Brigid that will include music, poetry and sculpture.

See the Issue Project Room event page for details. **


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An interview with Hannah Black

26 June 2014

“It’s funny, because a lot of people think of me as someone who produces theory,” says Hannah Black, the British lilt of her voice amplified over Skype and harking back to the 90s UK teen dramas that lay the backdrops to my adolescence. “I did this talk with Evan Calder Williams and he actually described me as an artist and theorist, and I just thought that was so funny. As though I’m some sort of expert.” She laughs, and I do too, out of courtesy, but I’m not sure what there is to laugh about besides the self-deprecating modesty with which some of the most intelligent people I know reliably live.

Black is now in New York, having just finished her Independent Studio Program at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, following a half decade-long string of education stints, from film school drop-out to “very strange” art writing Masters at Goldsmiths. When I express surprise that she’s part of the Whitney’s Studio Program as opposed to its Critical Studies one that runs alongside, Black seems surprised in turn. To Evan, she was a theorist; to me, she is a writer. The fact that she does anything else strikes me as secondary, not because she is not good, but because she is already so good at writing.

Video still from "My Bodies". Image courtesy artist.

When she talks, Black is breathless, seemingly bursting at the seams of her own mind. She dismisses feminist waves with one sentence, invokes Marx and Shulamith Firestone in the same breath, says things like, “she just gets completely fucked over through all the factors by which beautiful, celebrated women are usually fucked over,” when asked about Whitney Houston. She finishes a sentence out of ten, her train of thought unfolding less like a linear theory and more like a sky of fireworks exploding in unison. When she does finish a sentence, it is skillful, the kind of line someone would post on Twitter to show that they, too, read incisive things.

But Black is, as she says and the Whitney Museum confirms, more than a writer; or rather, she is more than any one thing. She is one in the slew of artist-cum-theorist-cum-writer-cum-curators working the post-internet contemporary art scene, though perhaps it is more fitting to say that she is one of the best. Often, for those that do many things and dabble in many trades, the cumulation of their work is necessary to appreciate its success; with Black, the merit of each piece stands alone, each medium working to answer questions the other couldn’t.

Apart from your writing –which you do a lot of, and well –what other mediums do you work in?

Hannah Black: I mostly work in text and in video, and I’ve also been doing these latex drawings/hangings/tapestries, but I see them all as linked and there’s often a literal bleed between them – something that I can’t accomplish in one medium will reappear in another. The writing and the art are continuous; it’s not just that I write and it explains the video, or vice versa.

For example, the essay ‘K in Love’ for The New Inquiry is actually a failed video, or at least an unfinished one. And in that piece, which is about this process of substitution and also about undercover cops, the substitution of the love object became just a text. But then, in the opposite sense, the ‘My Bodies’ video came out of a failed essay that LIES Journal, a really great material feminist journal, asked me to write for their new issue. And I tried to write this thing about the abolition of the body, about this idea that if we were to abolish genderif that could even be a serious political horizonit would involve a complete re-imagining of the conceptual train of the body, an unthinking or de-creating of this idea of having a body.

But I couldn’t cohere it all into this proper theoretical thingI couldn’t write it as theory, I couldn’t even write it as writing. So in the end, as much as the video is an oblique take on that, for me it really expresses what I was trying to say. And for the first part of the videowhich is kind of a joke and I hope is funnyI was literally Googling “CEO” and “executive” and found these corpulent white guys in these classic business poses, overlaid with the voices of mainly female African American musicians singing “my body”kind of exploring who does and does not have a body in our society. And then the second section of the video sort of takes the model of re-incarnation to ask the question: if you came back, would you choose to have the same body or not? Would you have the body of a woman again? Or a woman of colour? The body is always a vector of domination; having a body is a signal of your vulnerability to the world.

So one medium seems to answer the other’s deficiency. What do you think of the “self-consciously feminised” craft tradition of artists like Amalia Ulman and Bunny Rogers.

HB: Bunny literally does things like beading and cloth flowers and iron-on badges, and some of the things coming out of her studio are very much in that register of softness, but I think to even include them in that scene is to give the scene more credit than it deserves. Not everything has to be judged on its own ideas about itself, but it just doesn’t seem like a very interesting one.

In terms of Bunny’s work especially, there was something quite enabling to me about that – being able to do these latex sculptures and latex hangings. It made me feel like it was fine to do something messy and handmade. I was going to have them professionally cut, but then in a conversation with Jesse Darling, who is an artist and a very good old friend of mine, she said, ‘no, you absolutely should do this by hand’. And it was truethe experience of cutting the latex by hand is quite intense, and evokes, for me, anyway, this self-harm/emo kind of thing, but also a kind of loving gesture. I felt personally very enabled by the idea that you could bring in this teenage-girl-hand-crafted feel to your pieces and insist on them being an important realm of cultural production.

When I read “self-consciously feminised”, I didn’t at all think about the fact of these artworks being hand-crafted, but it was actually the reference to household things that women were historically enslaved by.

HB: I think you’re absolutely right; the handmade-ness isn’t necessary to it. But there is something about this minuteness, especially with something like beading, that happens on this incredibly minute scale. It’s like a refusalof its own importance, perhapswhich is actually quite an interesting counterpoint to this pompousness of some of what I see as this post-internet indication of industrial production or commodity production.

I know you’re very involved with The New Inquiry, co-founded by Rachel Rosenfelt, and also with Adult Magazine, founded by Sarah Nicole Prickett, both pretty great feminists in their own rights. What do you think of this female-fronted literary scene that’s growing out of NYC?

HB: That’s interesting, because their projects are quite different. I came into writing for The New Inquiry through Jesse Darling, who at the time was doing this section in which she was framing as texts things that could also operate as artworks. So I contributed pieces like ‘Value, Measure, Love’ and ‘Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Hot Babe’, which were both performance texts to begin with.

But now that I’m here, I’m more aware of them being literary scenes. [Rachel and Sarah] are both amazing in terms of promoting women, supporting women, giving platforms to women in different ways. These things are still important, but it’s also almost embarrassing that that is still important. That you still have to say: ‘You should publish women. You should publish people of colour’. And I would also hazard to say that the more bro-y the publication, the more likely they are to pay you, so there’s that.

In your ‘You are Too Much’ essay, you write: “Love at present is always about gender, just as beauty at present is always about white supremacy.” What do you mean by that?

HB: I’ve been thinking about that a lot recently. Of course, like with anyone who does this relentless interrogation of concepts like these, ideas of love and beauty are very important to mea deeply attractive proposition. But at the same time I think about how those terms have operated in my life, as signs of not having, as signs of lacking, as things that have been regulated in my life quite intensely in ways that have been painful. I’m not sure that these terms can be salvaged. I mean, I guess they have to be because they’re still being used, and there’s no reason to set yourself against reality.

Love is about gender in that it always seems to invoke things that are coded through masculinity and femininity, even when the people in the relationship are queer. We still heavily rely on these kinds of narratives. There are a lot of really commonplace things about straight courtship that are horrifically rape-y. I think when you try to talk about these concepts, though, they often fall really flat.

Love and beauty are completely fissured and fucked over and produced by structures of domination. Like, who is beautiful? And, as with someone like Lupita Nyong’o, there are sometimes efforts to try to expand the category of beauty to include dark-skinned black women, but you see how much effort that takes in terms of making a statement in pop culture. When you see how people, how African American women, react to public figures like Beyoncé or Lupita, you have to understand it as a register of how negated people feel  even in terms of the ‘legitity’ of their existence.

Your work deals a lot with both feminism and communism, though the two have a complicated history with one another. What’s your perspective on that?

HB: Last year, before I left London, I was very happily involved in this feminist Marxist reading group. There is a long tradition of Marxist feminism, and to me, they don’t seem very different. I didn’t know a lot about the suffragette movement, for instance, but came across its history in the The Dialectic of Sex where Firestone talks about how the idea was for women to get the vote and then not vote. It was a kind of anti-state politics, and a lot of these issues are more radical than they get depicted as.

I don’t want to end up sounding like I’m subordinating feminism and struggles against white supremacy to a logic of class or capitalism, but there are ways in which they sort of fold into each other.  The problem is when you try to get Marxist bros to read feminism, and they just don’t care. They literally just don’t care about women. I mean, if you subordinate race or gender to class, you’ve already stated your politics, you’ve already said that you don’t care about racism or sexism.

I don’t want to do that, but at the same time there is a structure of thought to Marx and way of grasping things that’s been so helpful to me. Understanding that inequality and suffering are produced and reproduced by capitalism is really helpful. I don’t want to do a banal critique of Lean In feminism but it is true that will always be a sort of betrayalnot everyone can be Sheryl Sandberg.

In “Value, Measure, Love”, you use the mechanisms (or perhaps just the fates) of capitalism and love seemingly interchangeably. What do you see as the parallels between them, how they function, and their points of dissonance?

HB: That came out of a specific moment in my life – out of a kind of relationship, or non-relationship. I’d never felt very strongly identified with being a woman; I’d always had this mildly gender dysphoric womanhood. I’d dated men but found it stressful, and tended to ascribe that stress to myself in terms of I’m not good at being a woman. And that was partly about race, of course; I went to a very white high school, so I didn’t have a lot of images of what it was like to be both a woman and a mixed-race black person. I was the little girl who would drape a towel over my head and pretend it was my long, beautiful, white-girl hair. I had this sort of slightly tragic relationship to blackness.

And then I found myself in this relationship with this person who was not very nice to me, and it made me feel like, oh, I guess I’m a woman. It was through this completely awful, kind of abusive scenario that I felt, I must be a woman because you treat me how you treat women. In that sense, this ‘Thingness’ of being a woman is what a lot of young women who engage with feminism struggle with. Because you start with this almost ecstatic repudiation of what suppressed you: Fuck you! I’m not doing this! I’m not doing that! But in what is basically still a completely patriarchal world, there’s really not much outside of patriarchal social validation. So it’s not an analogy with capitalism, but is literally happening with it. You have to almost consent to this self-erasure in order to survive in the world.

What’s next for you?

HB: I’m working on a joint project with another artist that will probably end up a video. And I’m writing a text for Bunny, who has a show in Berlin coming up. And I’m going to continue writing for The New Inquiry and being an editor for them. Just trying to make enough money not to become destitute.

That’s the dream. Falling somewhere north of destitution.

HB: We’re all doing these magazine interviews and no one is getting paid very much, but we’re all very supportive and interested in each other. Like a little mini communism, but with more possibility of starving to death. Yeah, we’re all fucked. But interestingly fucked? **

Hannah Black is a New York based artist.

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