Bunny Michael is an American visual artist, musician, and rapper with an evolved sense of the tragicomic. They grew up in Dallas, Texas, and have been based in New York since 2001, when they moved there and established their practice. Michael's music has long explored the multiplicities within the self — this video from 2014 playfully illustrated that in a video game style — but in the second half of 2016, their visual work crystallized a concept they'd been exploring for a while.
Drawing on a body of their own multimedia work, Michael began posting meme-style images on their Instagram in August that featured two versions of themselves. In a "double," as Michael refers to them, one version of them is caught up in a moment — for example, in the throes of a tantrum — and the other is poised and reflective, sometimes meeting the viewer’s eye with a wry look. The latter represents Michael's higher self — a wiser, more worldly side of themselves that we all have, even if we don't always listen. Michael's higher self observes the scene and invites the viewer to consider the multitude of conflicting directions that western systems pull us all in. The results often hit with a catch-your-breath sense of recognition; both funny and sad in the way of the best tragicomedies.
Two days after Donald Trump won the election, I met up with Michael in the back garden of Happy Fun Hideaway in Bushwick to find out about the ideas and inspiration behind their work, and glean advice for moving through a world that wants to flatten everyone's experience.
What's the story behind the first meme-style image you posted back in August? The one where you're watching yourself have a tantrum with a knowing look.
Do you know who Chani Nicholas is? She's a very popular astrologer. She's queer, so she kind of speaks to that as well. I just started following her, and I'd bought this workshop — she does these online workshops — and it was about your “second house,” which is supposed to be like your assets, the things you've been birthed into. In that workshop, I saw that my second house and my assets were dealing with emotional psychology and being a healer. I realized that that was what my art has been about this whole time anyway. The whole reason why I make music, the whole reason why I make art, is to bring about more healing on the planet. That really solidified that I wanted to speak more directly to the psychological workings of how we feel about ourselves and how we feel about other human beings and the planet, and how we can be of more service.
Right after I did that workshop, I made that video where I'm watching myself go into a fit. I posted it on Instagram, and then I saw that Chani Nicholas liked it — I didn't know she was following me. So then I wrote her a DM, and I was like, "I just want you to know that I started making these memes because of your workshop," and she was like, "Oh, they're amazing, keep going.” And then she was like, "Do you want to do a collaboration?" And so we were planning on doing a collaboration in January based on the astrological charts and having me illustrate what each of the houses mean. I've looked up to her as a healer for a long time, and having that universal validation was very empowering.
Who takes the photos?
Anybody who I know [laughs]. Actually, my partner takes most of them, the poor thing. We call them a "double." I'll say, "Will you do a double over here? That's a double opportunity." I'm always thinking about this. I do them at work all the time. All of my co-workers, they're all on this meme game, helping me out. I'll ask my friends, "What do you think about this one?" and they're like, "Hmm, I think it's a little wordy, maybe try this." It's just been this thing that I'm trying to get better at and hopefully touch on something that everyone is feeling, and keep going with that.
The harder ones [to put together] are where it's a video or the ones where I have my arm around myself. Those take longer, obviously, because I have to sit down in Photoshop and go through it. But other than that, most of them I just make on my phone on the fly. That way, I can be in the moment with it.
How do you decide if an idea is going to work for the double series?
I think it's a lot of intuition. The ones I feel like the people most relate to are when I'm literally, directly talking about what I'm going through that day. I also do read horoscopes and stuff as inspiration to maybe think about what people are going through. I trust that if I'm in a channeling place, that I'm going to hit some nerve. The whole purpose is to help people feel connected to something that we're all going through. When we realize that we're not alone in the struggle of becoming a more enlightened person, of bringing more love into your life and more inner peace, that's always a constant battle.
When I first started doing the doubles, which was years ago, it was a reflection of a huge spiritual transformation I was going through. The struggle between being in this human form and living in this realm, and also knowing that I am actually a spirit moving through this. I've done a lot of plant medicine healing and hypnosis and things like that. In a hypnosis, I saw my higher self. I was going to therapy, and I had a vision of my higher self comforting me and hugging me and being like, "You're okay, you're doing your job." And it was such a powerful feeling, embracing my own self. That's when it kind of started.
What made you decide to present the series in a meme style?
I've always thought [with] who you are in social media, there has to be a consistency behind it in order for people to understand it. That's why I made a conscious decision to only do meme-style things. Meme language, or meme thought, is a context that a lot of people can understand already, so you already have that joining force. Then if you say something within that, people will relate to it.
Meme culture was originated by black culture. And that is because black culture has always been ahead of the game of self-awareness and self-actualization. Being a non-black person of color who is also a rapper — another art form originated by black culture — it’s been a real education to understand the depths of my own privilege, as well. And to have gratitude for the cultural gifts of black culture and to honor them, to listen and stay humble to my own ignorance.
One of the things I think your double series illustrates so clearly is the inner conflict that some people feel about the systems that govern us all. Whether it's capitalism, patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, gender standards — you've addressed many of these things across the series. Human beings are the problem as well as the solution, which is sometimes kind of paralyzing on some level.
I believe that it literally is about changing your thoughts. All of this outside stuff, all of this reflected patriarchy, racism, oppression — it begins in the mind. It begins in how we think. It begins in how we start our day. It begins in our consciousness. The outside world is a reflection of our inner consciousness, as a collective. In my practice, meditation is very important because it connects you to a source of inner strength and inner peace. For me, trying to purpose my day with "use me, universe!" or "use me, God!" or "use me, spirit!" to be in the service of love. For me personally, if I meditate on that in the morning, it carries me through the day. Then I can be in the right mindset, so when these challenges happen, or when someone comes to me, I have the inner strength and power to conquer that. If I don't, if I'm weary and I'm not centered, I'm going to fall into chaos in my mind, which reflects to the outside. I had a work situation — I work as a waitress part-time — and there was somebody at my job who said something racist. I freaked out. And yes, it's very valid to freak out, and I've freaked out many times in my past, I've freaked out and gotten really fucking mad at them. But I can't keep doing that to myself. There are ways to be strategic in changing the way things are done. You can't make right choice and right action from this chaotic place of consciousness. This is what I believe.
How did you reach this mindset? I was reading an old interview with you in which you'd said you'd gotten a bit ego-obsessed after finding success with your music a few years ago. Was that a turning point?
Yeah. I was young, and I just hadn't had the emotional maturity. I feel like the way we grow is when we gain perspective. I just didn't have the perspective of love, which is literally the opposite of — in my definition — an ego, which is finding power in the power over other people. I realized that the only power, really, is love. No matter how much quote-unquote “success” [you have], as far as fans or validation through likes on Instagram or whatever, it's never going to be enough if [feeding your ego is] your goal. That's exactly what's happening right now in the world. We've made ego — a.k.a. lovelessness or greed — our god here now. We've elected that to our presidency now, and it is the sickness of the planet that has been growing, growing, growing. So we're at a precipice where we are evolving to realize this isn't real power, this isn't real success, and privilege isn't always a blessing. Because our struggles bring us to our knees, which bring us to realize what's really important in our lives, what's real value. Not money, not that kind of success, but love and giving and peace. Now is the time. I've been struggling as an individual, learning how to make music and learning how to perform and stuff. I never imagined rapping or doing music or anything like that; I fell into it. It was a mixture of healing trauma from childhood and healing these learned, ego-driven ideas that we all learn here, and growing out of that, making a conscious decision and realizing my purpose was to be a force of healing in the world. I believe it's all of our purpose, we're just at different parts of our journey and we all have a different role. We are awakening to that, but old habits die really hard.
How did your childhood shape your outlook?
My dad is a second-generation Mexican-American and my mom was born and raised in Samoa. My dad grew up in Dallas in a heavily Mexican-populated neighborhood, grew up very poor. He was the first person in his family to graduate from high school and go to college. So when he married my mom, my mom really didn't want us to be raised in that neighborhood. She was very biased against it; she was worried there wasn't any good schools, so we grew up in a white neighborhood. We didn't have a lot of money, so we were the poor Mexican-Samoan family going to the white schools, having white friends. So I grew up with a lot of insecurity about my race, the way I looked. I heard racist things a lot. I didn't realize how much it shaped my life until my adult years. I was lucky because I was able to go to a performing arts high school. I came out when I was 15 at that school, which probably was the best environment because there were already out people at the school. It wasn't easy: my family didn't accept me for a long time, and I ran away from home and went through this really difficult time in my high school years. But I've since healed those wounds, and I'm very close with my family. My family has different political views, and it's been a really long journey, finding the love beyond the generational and cultural differences.
What kind of strategies do you recommend for people coping with the world as we move towards a Trump presidency?
I don't think we realize how powerful we are. That's what this world has done to us. That's the sickness of the world. The imbalance of feminine and masculine energy, a.k.a. the patriarchy, that's a sickness of the ego, that's a sickness of greed. We were born into a world of insane thinking. It's our job on a personal level to try to dismantle the sick thinking that we have been born into, which goes against the grain of everything in our environment. We have enough abundance on the earth to feed everybody. There's no reason for us to be killing each other. The thinking of the world is insane. All I can [do] every day [is] check myself. Checking: where am I being judgmental? Where am I not being loving? What are my limits to love?
What we all have to do as activists now is to realize our inner strength. We were all born with magic, we were all born with so much power. We don't even realize how powerful we are because we've been told for so long that we're not, that we need all these outside things to be powerful: money, a better job, cars, TVs. All these so-called privileged people that have all this access to all this material fucking bullshit that literally does not even make you happy. I know a lot of really successful artists and musicians who are touring and doing all this stuff and they're still not happy. They're really fucking depressed, actually.
Where do we find [our inner strength]? We've always had it. It was always there, it has been in us since we were born — the capacity to love ourselves and to love other people, and to see the beauty in people, and to see the beauty of this planet and the beauty within ourselves. You know those days when you walk around and you see the sunshine, you see the trees, and you just feel fucking blissful? It is that. I think what happens with meditation — and I don't want to be preachy about meditation — but what happens is that you're connected. You're taking the time to connect to that place everyday. It's only going to help you feel that throughout the day, and feel more empowered to do work, to keep faith, to feel strong, to be coming from love and all of your interactions, and to find the strength to do the really hard work.
Why do you feel a responsibility to heal? I agree that it's everybody's responsibility, but not everybody embraces that.
I feel not everybody embraces it, maybe, because they don't realize that they have that power yet. Everybody has the power to heal their own wounds and to help heal the wounds of other people. That could be as simple as smiling at a stranger on the subway.
It's crazy how powerful that is. We can still say hello to each other even if it's a horrible day.
Maybe even more because it's a horrible day.