The Art of Compassion at the International Animal Rights Conference
6th – 9th September 2018
No sane person could remain unchanged after attending the 4 day ‘International Animal Rights Conference’, which explains why I returned from the event with my brain like an overstuffed suitcase – bursting at the seams with emotions, facts and new experiences. By unpacking my thoughts, sorting out the pertinent bits and binning the rubbish, I’ve tried here to make some sense of it all.
Setting off from home in Somerset, I embarked on a none-too-swift car/bus/coach/another coach/plane/ taxi journey to the door of our caravan in the hilltop campsite above Esch-sur-Alzette in the south west of Luxembourg. The land-based journeys were all fine, although my nerves were jangling on the plane flight from Stansted Airport, so I was very grateful that my Art of Compassion travelling companions suggested a ridiculous game to distract me. I’m guessing this was the only game of ‘Animal Rights Activist themed Pictionary’ ever played 33,000 feet above the English Channel.
9am the following morning found Sara, Helen, Aisha and I wheeling our heavy cases filled with art prints, postcards and posters down the steep, winding road through the woods, heading for Esch. We passed allotments, tennis courts, and châteaux hidden within high-walled gardens, before arriving at the wide city streets that led to the venue.
KULTURFABRIK Cultural Centre is a collection of low buildings beautifully decorated with wonderfully colourful graffiti and murals. From 1885 – 1979 it was a public slaughterhouse and is now home to a cinema, a café, two bars, an art gallery and a concert hall.
The ghosts of the millions of animals that had met their deaths here still hung silently in the air, drifting past the murals, gathering beneath the sunflower borders and drinking from the grass-filled water troughs. The machineries of their deaths have all but vanished, though reminders of the brutal past remained – chains, hooks, metal runners, a furnace and a chimney… echoes of a history of violence.
And now here in this poignant and perfect venue was the immaculately organised International Animal Rights Conference, delivering a healthy dose of INSPIRATION, EDUCATION and VALIDATION…
INSPIRATION – Hundreds of animal rights/environmental activists from all over the world, all fighting for a common cause, gathered in one place to network, connect and share ideas.
EDUCATION – Offering a smorgasbord of lectures on a huge variety of topics – from anti-capitalism to sexism, from the devastating effects of factory farming to the education and empowerment of teenagers. Guidance on how to use social media creatively and effectively, and how to combat toxic behaviour in the vegan community. Talks about the role of animal sanctuaries, the history of the AR movement, humane education, etc.
And at the 3 morning plenaries there were reports about the progress of AR groups from Germany, Australia, China, Brazil, Sweden and Portugal. It was profoundly moving to hear from these incredible campaigners in person.
VALIDATION – This was the first time the AOC has been involved in such a multinational event and it proved that art truly can cross the divide between different languages and cultures. The exhibition was a hit with everyone…
It occurred to us afterwards that our wall of posters was a perfect metaphor for the way the AR movement should be: all different, all equal, all-inclusive and – most importantly – all effective in provoking thought, emotion and discussion.
At 4 years old, and now with over 150 members, the AOC couldn’t have had a more perfect birthday present than this IARC art show – and as a bonus, the organisers asked us to return next year!
In the old livestock shed, beneath the metal runners and dusty windows set high in the concrete walls we sold 70+ posters over the course of the conference. Prints both large and small were carried off to continue their silent activism on placards, in private homes, school classrooms, universities and student halls. They went to some (or all) of the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa, America, Israel, Rumania, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the UK, Australia, China, Holland, Portugal, Argentina….
Wherever our animal artwork is seen, rather than ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ it may be more accurate to say that ‘a picture saves a thousand lives’.
During the conference we met so many people that it’s impossible to remember everything (this was also due to the freely available coffee making us more than a little hyperactive) but here’s a small selection of the lovely people that spoke to us – people who truly put the ‘ACTIVE’ into ‘ACTIVIST’:
Polina, a tutor from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, who wants to use her performance art skills to support us. Andreas Setzer, owner of a private collection of AR art in Stuttgart that includes one of my very first anti-dairy paintings from 2015. He was responsible to a large degree in inspiring me to keep going by purchasing my early work, and got a big hug from me for that. Michelle Berghäll, an exuberantly vivacious Swedish activist, who took a poster to use in protests against Sweden’s last remaining animal circus. Students from the University of Toulouse who were extremely keen to put on an exhibition of our artwork. A teacher from Germany who bought a selection of our harsher prints to use as a discussion topic in her English classes (subversive educational activism!). Activist Yael Hanna Chitrik who connected me with some Israeli artists and showed me photos of emotional and dignified protests against livestock imports in Israel, as well as shocking photos of the numerous dead cows washed up on the sun-drenched beaches of Tel-Aviv. Mario Burbach (who gave a superb lecture on ‘Capitalism vs. Ethics’) took a copy of my gruesome picture ‘MEAT’, as well my ‘CONSUMER’ t-shirt, with promises to wear it whilst looking moodily intellectual in cool bars in Berlin. Archivist Tom Zimmermann who requested a copy of the new AOC book for the Official German AR Archive. Dutch journalists Anna and Derk who were inspired to try to use our art in the social commentary columns in their newspaper. They were accompanied by their charming little 3 legged rescued Chihuahua, Fieps, with whom I instantly fell in love. (Well, to be fair, everyone did.)
After Sara and Helen made an announcement on stage at the final morning plenary saying ‘Everything Must Go’, we were mobbed at the stall (literally) and the walls were left virtually bare after a flurry of taking euro and rolling posters.
We were also interviewed by a Luxembourg TV station, a Latvian online radio station, and had the whirlwind of energy that is ‘Jane Unchained’ (Jane Velez-Mitchell) arrive at our stall in a storm of words as she went live on social media for her thousands of fans, giving our artwork glowing reviews before whirling away into the crowds. In a slightly quieter way, we were also paid a visit by other well-known figures: Dawn Moncrief (from the amazing charity ‘A Well Fed World’), Melanie Joy and Lisa Kemmerer (both very well-respected authors and lecturers) and – you guessed it – Fieps (less well-known admittedly, but who was virtually a celebrity by the end of the conference!).
But it obviously wasn’t all just ART. It was film showings (‘Dominion’, ‘Kangaroo’ ‘The Vervet Forest’), live music on stage on Saturday night, gallons of coffee, gloriously massive cakes, and FREE FOOD on the opening night, which resulted in a mass piranha-style attack on the tables laden with pizza, sandwiches, cakes and fruit. I took full advantage of the tasty meals throughout the 4 days, and repeatedly buried my bean chilli beneath a mountain of cheese, luxuriated in the cookies and chocolate cake, and have never attempted to down so many sausages at breakfast before.
But then, it’s a well-known scientific fact that you don’t put on weight when you’re ‘on holiday’. And no-one’s looking.
Sara and Aisha withstood the mental battering of watching ‘Dominion’ in its entirety – something only a few managed. When they emerged from the screening, one look at their haunted expressions and tearful faces was enough to tell me all I needed to know. It was a salutary reminder of the desperate position our species is in, caught in the grip of a worldwide disaster of our own making. We no longer have the luxury of regarding veganism as a ‘lifestyle choice’ as it’s now a most urgent necessity for each and every one of us – without exception. Leading a compassionate, healthy, ethical life is easy, especially in our wealthy, privileged and information-saturated society. All that is required to do the right thing is a kind heart, a little guidance and willpower.
Okay – let’s get real. It’s not quite that easy. And maybe it’s a forlorn hope. But without hope, without action, without events like the IARC, we may as well give up entirely.
But that’s not an option, is it?
TEAM AOC took it in turns to attend lectures and absorbed a tonne of facts and opinions. It was a haven of discussion and debate, and I learned a LOT. I’ve briefly listed the 5 most important issues below (just scroll down if you want to get back to the fun stuff).
- 1) The widespread problem of sexism and male privilege within the movement – a very sobering lecture given by Lisa Kemmerer, making me think much more carefully about the use of language, being aware of social boundaries, and learning to have empathy with others.
- 2) The need for critical thinking as well as listening (to each other’s opinions and experiences) in order to keep a fair and open mind. The need to think about how to think. Helen later summed it up perfectly, writing this:
‘As vegans and animal rights activists we are already in a minority, and we arrived here via a deeper way of thinking, a widening of our perception. As such, we should reject majority thinking, which has a tendency to be reactive, somewhat shallow, and not helpful in moving us forward. Even within a social justice group, there can be a reactive majority who, due to the bias of where we sit, still have that propensity to lean toward the majority thought. We are human, and it is natural for us to seek a belonging and a comfort zone. But we have already had that courage to step away and into the minority, and we must not be complacent now we are here, and need to remind ourselves constantly to think critically at every turn.’
- 3) The dangers of ‘toxic communication’ infecting the AR movement from within, thereby reducing its effectiveness. The mental damage caused not only by misogyny, bullying and oppression in the movement, but also by the denial of its existence. Melanie Joy’s talk on this subject was extremely affecting for me personally, as I was subjected to vile behaviour like this last year, leaving me isolated and demoralised. When Melanie asked the audience to indicate if they’d been affected by this issue, it was a truly shocking moment when almost everyone put their hand up. From another lecture (on the history of animal rights) I learned that these pointless and shameful conflicts have been around since the formation of the movement. Whilst this is no surprise, it’s now time to recognise behaviour like this, hold it to account and eradicate it wherever possible. We owe it to the animals – the exploited millions – to concentrate on fighting for them, rather than amongst ourselves.
- 4) The need to dismantle capitalism and adopt a radical new approach to presenting the vegan/AR argument, rather than being content with the current piecemeal approach to change. To destroy the businesses that exploit animals and people alike, instead of praising the ‘greenwashing’ approach of corporations that promote tiny improvements in animal agriculture whilst leaving the overall structure unchanged. To demand large scale changes rather than the symbolic concessions and miniscule ‘victories’ that distract from the real issues. To reject the idea that it’s possible to ‘buy our way out of trouble’.
NB: During Mario Burbach’s talk on this subject, I had the image in my mind of crowds of smug people striding towards a cliff edge, all proudly clutching pots of luxury cashew nut ice cream, oat milk lattes and ethically sourced chocolate, utterly oblivious of the sheer drop up ahead of them.
- 5) The building of a new culture that goes far beyond any one particular group or movement. Creativity and expression in writing, art, architecture, theatre, music, fashion, etc. form the building blocks for a society free of all exploitation in which compassionate, ethical living would thrive. No one would need to join a movement or sign up to group, as it would simply be the way we all lived. Art is a major part of this idea. And that’s where the AOC come in!
All these big ideas reminded me of an occasion when I made excuses for someone’s bad behaviour, saying to a friend of mine “But they’re only human.”
My friend replied, “But that’s not really good enough, is it?”
HOWEVER – the IARC was an example of hundreds of people collectively trying very hard to be better, kinder and more enlightened. People fighting against ignorance and apathy. People educating by example. People supporting and inspiring one another. Strong-willed, resolute, intelligent people striving to rise above the lethal inertia of being ‘only human’.
And in case that all sounds incredibly serious (okay – I know it does) I’m happy to report that on many occasions TEAM AOC laughed until we cried (at inexplicably stupid ‘jokes’ mostly involving a lot of shouting), messed around like excited kids on the venue’s sofas, AND I wowed the crowds with my light-up-in-the-dark shoes. Well, Fieps was impressed anyway. Did I mention Fieps? I may have.
We left the venue on Sunday afternoon, slipping away with the conference still in full swing, all four of us wanting to stay in this new world in which we’d felt so at home. After a flurry of packing posters and zipping up suitcases, we wheeled them through the blazing hot streets of Esch to the train station, embarking on a long journey home, beginning with a double-decker train to Luxembourg City. Before catching a bus from there, we took a quick look at the huge, vertiginous viaduct leading across the wooded valley into the Old City, saw a massive, contented looking Maine Coon cat (like a grey lynx) being carried down the street. Then it was a blur of queues, planes, buses, cars, and finally a crowded coach from London that smelled like an old sock.
Sara, Helen and Aisha vanished at various points along the way, leaving me with a suitcase-full of memories, a rare sense of camaraderie, and a longing to return to the wonderful world of the IARC, where anything seemed possible, and where respect, care and kindness were shown to ALL creatures, human and non-human, large and small.
And very small.
Did I mention Fieps?
AN OVERVIEW OF THE AOC AT THE IARC: