Five amazing days…
10.30am – A train journey on a summer’s day from Bristol Temple Meads, through the London crowds, and onwards to Stansted airport to meet up with Helen Barker. There was some frantic re-packing of suitcases, followed by having to point out to the customs officials that the large, suspicious looking packets of a white substance stashed in my bag was, in fact, white tack.
8.00pm – A rainy flight to Luxembourg city, followed by an excitingly speedy late night taxi drive to Esch-sur-Alzette – truly a day of ‘planes, trains, and automobiles’. Swiftly to bed in the hilltop campsite at midnight. Strange chomping noises from just outside the caravan window.
The cause of these strange nocturnal noises was revealed when we woke to find a very handsome bunny doing slinky yoga moves outside our caravan.
It was very gentle welcome to this most exhilarating and exhausting of experiences – the 9th International Animal Rights Conference, and the 2nd in which the Art of Compassion Project (AOCP) had been invited to curate an exhibition. This year, armed with 166 posters donated by 51 artists, we had the entire central hall at the venue to fill. With the art prints sorted into coherent, titled sections by Helen, the undertaking would require several hours as well as large amounts of non-illegally smuggled white tack to bring to fruition.
Before all that was achieved we had a long walk down the hill to to the city, through the woods, past allotment and tennis courts, and also past some meat lorries emblazoned with sickeningly infantile cartoons of animals. One of these lorries was parked right outside the conference venue when we arrived, which neatly illustrated the huge, invisible gap between the worlds of ‘animal rights art’ and ‘animal agriculture art’. Both were forms of propaganda – one trying to end the status quo, the other to maintain it.
This really made us proud of what we were about to do, as well as confirming how relevant our conference talk would be on the following day.
But first, we were welcomed into the arms of Kulturfabrik Arts Centre (an abattoir from 1885 – 1979) and were greeted by friendly faces, frighteningly bare walls, and a sanctimoniously healthy breakfast of yoghurt and bananas. (Fear not – we had cake, chocolate and beer planned for almost every other meal).
From 11am until 8pm we covered the walls, pillars and railings of the central stalls room with our beautiful art prints. The unique AOCP art book was also prominently on display, and almost immediately we made sales and garnered praise as the conference participants began to arrive in time for the 2pm Opening Plenary.
The ‘Welcome Reception’ outside the hall at 8pm was indeed a very ‘welcome’ treat as it consisted of a huge IARC logo-shaped cake, pizza, panini, chocolates, etc. – all provided free of charge by the organisers. Yet another example of their diligent hard work in making this event such a delight and so effective – and, of course, fully appreciated by the 500 hungry conference participants.
With the colourful bunting and graffiti art of the venue lit up beneath clear night skies, I realised that, for one of the few times in my life, I felt truly ‘at home’ here among the eclectic mix of international activists, who all share a deep-rooted bond with each other through the cause of animal rights.
Breakfast 8.30am, after which we were treated to a joyful reunion with Fieps (the 3-legged rescued chihuahua who was the diminutive star of the show at last year’s conference). Fieps had graciously allowed her owners/servants (the Amsterdam-based journalists Derk and Anna) to accompany her.
Despite selling prints at a pleasing rate and seeing many people studying and photographing the art, Team Barker-Downs suffered from quite severe anxiety all morning. We coped with this firstly by getting extremely tetchy with each other, and then by setting up benches in front of the exhibition to keep us occupied as the minutes up till 2pm ticked by. At the appointed hour, we were given a very respectful and professional introduction by an IARC moderator called Evgeni, and then it was far too late to worry, and we took the plunge.
Extensive research (by Helen) and fabulous trousers (by me) saw us through, and our talk ‘Art, Propaganda and Personal Stories’ was a resounding success. As Helen began to speak, I felt incredibly heartened to see that the audience was attentive, supportive and thoroughly engaged in the facts and stories she was conveying.
You can read Helen’s talk HERE.
We owe a huge debt of thanks to the amazing activists Michelle Berghäll and Martina Vedin who had agreed to photograph our talk, and who’d also decided to indulge in ‘crowd control/door shutting’ and ‘professional shushing’ of the crowds outside the room. Seeing these two darting around as we spoke really allowed us to (slightly) relax and (almost) enjoy the experience.
After Helen’s ‘Propaganda’ part of the talk, I spoke about my personal journey from veggie to vegan, from activist to artivist. I held up some large prints of my artwork – from ‘The Ghost Camera’ to ‘Journey’s End’ – to illustrate the 5 years of my development as an animal rights artist. It was deeply affecting to have earned some spontaneous applause and to find out that some of the people listening had been moved to tears.
I was so proud to be there, to stand with Helen and have the privilege of representing our collective of over 150 worldwide artists. In my diary for that day, I noted that ‘my body hated it, but my heart was singing’.
A bit embarrassingly pretentious perhaps, but hey – that’s artists for you.
Immediately after the talk, because Helen had explained the ethos of the AOCP so well, we received donations and made more sales, and we could finally relax and get some celebratory cake down us.
NB: Fieps, watching from the balcony behind us (in the ‘posh seats’, of course) apparently fell asleep during our talk, but later claimed to have merely been ‘listening with her eyes closed’.
Honestly – everyone’s a critic.
The rest of the day was a pleasant blur – Helen met a German vegan ex-butcher, Peter Hübner, who had educated and converted 50 fellow butchers to veganism, and I talked to someone equally amazing – Steffan Frietag – who works at the Land der Tiere Animal Sanctuary in Germany. Apparently, last year at IARC, when he asked if I’d donate some art prints for an educational room within the sanctuary, a friend of his – Andreas Setzer – overhead us and it gave Andreas the idea of donating his entire private collection of AR art to Steffan. So now there’s a permanent, educational art gallery at the sanctuary!
Within the melting pot of IARC, it’s precisely these sort of random, unexpected connections that lead to actions that have permanent and far-reaching effects.
The stalls room remained open till late, but finally Team Barker-Downs repaired to the bar next door where we met Michelle and Martina, thanked them for their help, had some serious discussions, as well as sharing some ridiculous jokes (mostly about how much I look like Fieps).
It was SO necessary to let off steam after such an intense and important day.
NB: Martina told us about one particularly effective method of campaigning she’d used to spread the vegan message to non-vegans. This was the innocently brilliant technique of writing simple animal rights messages onto paper cut-outs of animals and then handing them to the patrons of a busy bar, accompanied by the simple statement ‘You look like a kind person – I thought you should know this.’
A cold, drizzly day. I had an animated discussion (with a fan of our exhibition) about Francisco Goya’s civil war pictures whilst standing in the queue for the showers. At 7.15am.
We then had a heroic breakfast of pancakes, jam, cheese sauce, fruit, and salty fake meat slices.
We attended the morning plenary for some very depressing reports from Russia and Vietnam, but also heard a very uplifting story about how one Dutch lecturer, using the ‘environmental argument’, has persuaded his entire University to convert to predominantly vegan food in all their canteens, so that now any meat option is seen as an exception to ‘the new normal’ of the vegan option.
The single lecture I managed to attend was Melanie Joy’s ‘Powerarchy – The Psychology of Power’ – one of the central tenets of which is that meeting violent behaviour with equally violent behaviour will never work in the long run. Something that the ‘Anti-Nazi group’ who daubed the conference toilets with violent slogans had obviously chosen to ignore.
But this was an isolated case of ignorant behaviour. The whole of the conference was otherwise a hotbed of ideas, connections between organisations, and positive thinking. There was a sense of striving to better ourselves – as individuals and as a society. There was also a noticeable increase in the sensitivity shown towards gender identity and personal privacy (in being filmed or photographed). This was all very admirable and forward-thinking, but I must admit that it was surprising to find that applauding in the conventional hand-clapping way had been largely replaced with quieter, ‘non-triggering’ alternatives. An auditorium full of clicking fingers made me feel like I was in a weirdly cool Arthouse film, but when everyone around me waggled their hands in the air, it was more akin to a bad 1970s stage musical.
Helen didn’t make it to a lecture, but instead she really bonded with a hero of hers, academic and author Lisa Kemerer, whom she lured into the hall using the offer of chocolate! Lisa was on her way back to her hotel when she walked passed us as we sat outside at 9pm, enjoying some much-needed peace and quiet. Helen gave her a personal tour of the whole art collection and also had in-depth discussions about how to move the Pig Save Movement forward.
The two of them made a really great team, and Lisa said to Helen ‘That’s because I have the soul of an artist and you have the soul of a thinker’. What a fabulous compliment (and richly deserved too).
The evening saw more sales, more donations, and many conversations with yet more people from all walks of life – Luxembourg locals, young families, chefs, musicians, students, teachers, artists, dancers, doctors, playwrights, etc. To encounter people from such a variety of different backgrounds and with so many hidden talents was a very humbling experience. Anyone I met there could’ve been a hero.
Yet again, it proved that inflated egos have no place in the world of animal rights.
The hall closed as the ‘Vegan Karaoke’ began in the main auditorium. The melodious sounds of Nik Kershaw, Culture Club, Duran Duran, et al. wafted out on the night air. Team Barker-Downs (quite sensibly) exited for the 10.30 bus, missed it, and ended up stomping to the campsite alongside another latecomer, Dutch activist Elz, discussing the Extinction Rebellion protests planned for London next month. Strange and exciting times lie ahead. Change is in the air.
And that hill up to the campsite is bloody steep.
Efficiency finally broke down today. Up at 6.50am. Forgot my towel, almost left my suitcase at the bus stop, and Helen nearly ran off with the caravan key. But at least the bunny was on time, outside the caravan door as usual for yoga and breakfast.
We packed up from 9.30am until 1pm – rolling and labelling all the prints we’d sold, ready for collection and transportation by car/train/plane to new homes all over the world.
Then there were lots of heartfelt hugs and farewells to our ‘customers’ and friends – old and new. It’s surprising how quickly you make friends in this environment, and it felt genuinely sad to leave them.
Au revoir, activists!
Just before we jumped in a taxi and left for the airport, there was one final, deeply gratifying meeting of minds (and sale of a print!) with a couple of American ladies, Cheryl Ruggiero and Deborah J. Anderson – lawyers from San Francisco and Washington respectively. They told us of the long, slow battle they were both engaged in, fighting for changes in animal law in the U.S. – a fight they funded with the fees from their regular law work. It was very heartening to hear that improvements are happening, as younger, more empathetic judges (not just extremely elderly white males) are now being appointed, and that small, but nevertheless landmark, cases are being won.
So we two artists (from the east and west of the U.K.) met two lawyers (from the east and west of the U.S.). There couldn’t be a better symbol of what IARC stands for – entirely different disciplines from different continents, bonded by a common aim.
Creativity has a unique place in this animal rights movement, and this IARC experience simply confirms that he AOCP collective has an integrity and aesthetic value that is recognised and respected by all who see it.
7.45pm Flight home to Stansted. Welcomed back to the U.K. with evening sun and spaghetti bolognaise at Helen’s house. Whisky and chocolate for pudding.
Actually, LOTS of pudding…
(Also Proost! / Santé! / Salute! / Prost! / Skål! / Na zdrowie! / Saúde! / Kanpai! / Gesondheid! / gān bēi! / На здоровье!)
To watch a video of the whole experience, click HERE, and to have a look at those ‘fabulous trousers’ mentioned earlier, check this out: