The works of multimedia artist Bunny Rogers exist somewhere between real and virtual universes. At just 28 years old, she had her first solo show last July at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The exhibition, “Brig Und Ladder,” was a diverse exploration of digital animation, industrial design, and installations that probed the darker sides of the American psyche. The surrealist showcase blended fact and fiction with a head-spinning array of visual references, including a pink replica of a character from the children’s television show Thomas and Friends. There was also a computer-generated cartoon paying homage to the Broadway musical Cats while revisiting the trauma of the Columbine school shooting. Her dense and layered works often examine the role of clothes in self-representation, whether that means toying with the conventions of the fashion industry (last September, Rogers walked the runway for the New York–based brand Eckhaus Latta) or coming up with outfits for her assortment of digital avatars to wear in her video installations. Here she shares with Barneys New York the ways in which Bugs Bunny, sewing lessons, and the digital world have influenced her wildly imaginative creative process.
The Window: You’ve previously encased a rack of clothes behind green-tinted plexiglass and made wool blankets with embroidered logos from an internet-based child modeling agency. Do you consider fashion part of your craft?
Rogers: I think fashion is a performance for everyone, whether you want to embrace it or not. For instance, when I was a teenager, I was very interested in dressing a certain way to attract male attention or just sexual attention more generally. And now I’ve made peace with that—it’s not at the forefront of my objectives for getting dressed in the morning. Now it’s more about dressing in a way that reflects who I am on the inside, whether I’m buying from a store, making something, or having it [custom made]. I want to feel comfortable, but at the same time that doesn’t mean the clothes are comfortable. You know what I mean?
How did your relationship with fashion start?
I’ve always loved drawing. When I was a kid, the second thing that developed [after drawing] was a love for fabric and making clothing. [Before] I started working with the internet, which was around ages 8 to 10, I was already sewing clothes. I remember watching Looney Tunes and Tex Avery cartoons and seeing animals in performative characters. Bugs was always putting on costumes, whereas Tex Avery was very much representative of his time with very tailored outfits of the ’40s and ’50s and even the ’60s. The female characters in the Tex Avery cartoons are highly sexualized and very beautiful. These caricatures of women in cartoons jump-started my imagination around clothing and performance. It was early, but I knew I was attracted to this type of thing.
It’s interesting you were thinking about the expressive power of clothes at such an early age.
I started taking sewing lessons when I was 5 or 6 years old. I begged my mom to somehow set that up. I took lessons from one of our neighbors for a while. Soon after, I was making full outfits, comforters for the bed, and Halloween costumes. I loved being able to draw something and bring it to my sewing teacher and [say], “How do we make this? I want to learn how to make this.” It’s a similar process of how I make art now, where it starts as an abstract and really ambitious idea and I don’t know how to do it or pull it together, and then slowly the pieces start falling into place.
The details of what the characters are wearing in your digital animations are striking. Where does that come from?
Designing my own avatar and putting her in precarious situations allows me to be able to see myself from a distance. I used to do a lot of performance art where my body was very present in the work, and now I feel like that’s not [really] necessary and that there are other ways to show the body—or the absence of the body. For instance, my animations of where I am using stand-ins for myself and other people in my life. It’s being present, but at the same time not being visible.
Do the personal style and fashion choices of these animated characters evolve over time?
Definitely. [From the ages of] 18 to 20 years old, I experimented a lot with the [online service] Second Life. I was most interested in dressing my avatar in a fetishistic and symbolically youthful way. It was good to get that out of my system when I then started making animations of my own. With my animations now, when I dress characters, I’m thinking about what I want to reference and what the overall feeling is that I’m going for. If I were to actually do this in real life, what would I wear? It’s definitely like dressing yourself or creating costumes for a play.