The Columbine High School massacre happened a little over 15 years ago, on 20 April 1999. Having killed 13 people and injured 23, and planted dozens of explosive devices throughout the Colorado high school campus, shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold have been historicised – and sometimes idolised – as the progenitors of now-commonplace high school mass shootings. The actions of the pair, who were reported to have identified with goth music, ignited a nationwide moral panic condemning goth culture, all of these events taking place amid the gestation of the social web. Formed in the years following are online communities of people who identify with Harris and Klebold’s perceived struggles and ultimate action against their social alienation. These communities, unthinkable in their depersonalisation of the massacre’s victims, fawn over the shooters, obsessing about their actions and the intimate details of that day – right down to the design of the school’s furniture.
Bunny Rogers’s exhibition Columbine Library takes the massacre and its reception as its subject, using Y2K-era cartoon characters as surrogates for the identities of Harris and Klebold, as well as for the artist herself. The videos Poetry Reading in Columbine Library with Joan of Arc and Poetry Reading in Columbine Library with Gaz (all works 2014) feature cartoon characters reading rather morbid poetry written by the artist, Joan of Arc of Clone High representing Dylan Klebold and Gaz of Invader Zim representing Eric Harris. In their respective cartoon shows, Joan of Arc and Gaz play intelligent, antisocial female goths – characters usually but not always tagged to a male gender. Within Rogers’s video, Joan of Arc reads, “I want a fine arts valentine / One that’s steady and that’s true/I want a fine arts valentine / I spend so much time in school / When I look around me / All I see is kids / Kids I’d like to spend the day with / Kids I’d like to eat a meal with / It’s hard in school / To know your boundaries…” That two female characters from cancelled mid-noughties cartoons stand in for Harris and Klebold is obviously a stretch. Yet Rogers connects them by an uncanny, implicit logic: both are subjects upon which many project glorifications or condemnations of teenage angst and social alienation that we so often experience through the screen. Rogers’s exhibition illustrates the collectively shared, personal desire to connect with others who suffer from social alienation – how it is massproduced in society, and felt personally.
Further works in Columbine Library include Clone State Bookcase, a lifesize replica of a Columbine High School library bookcase filled with custom-produced plush toys recalling an item found on the gaming website Neopets, festooned with what Rogers terms mourning ribbons and appropriately titled Elliott Smith after the deceased singer. In an adjacent room lie replicas of massacre-era and revamped versions of Columbine High School chairs, draped with either custom-produced backpacks sporting velour roses and hand-beaded patches of Gaz’s and Joan of Arc’s faces or duffel bags inspired by those in which Harris and Klebold hid bombs. These saccharine-looking duffel bags are also strewn ominously throughout the gallery, including under the viewing benches (also produced in this institutional Columbine style) in Soci.t.’s screening rooms. Less remarkable are a series of framed, 3D-rendered self-portraits as Clone High’s Joan of Arc in various poses.
While angst and social alienation are certainly not new topics of artistic inquiry, one can hand it to Rogers for coming up with a new way in which to understand how we seek to communalise psychological suffering in our formative years, and how this has been amplified by the emergence of online communities. However, it does come off as a missed opportunity that Rogers has rooted this exhibition’s aesthetic in the relatively slick mass-produced object, whereas her past, handmade, awkward and haptic works more accurately depict the earnestly felt personal grief of these massproduced mournings.