This was the 9th year for this beautiful conference in Luxembourg, held annually at the welcoming Kulturfabrik in Esch-sur-Alzette. A former public slaughterhouse until 1979, there is evidence all around the buildings of that terrible past, and a fitting reminder for why we meet here as activists for change to those systems. Around 500 participants visit here for talks, films, workshops and discussions, running continually from breakfast until late every day, and are delighted to sample the delicious and plentiful food provided by a tireless and wonderful team of volunteers.
Myself and fellow artist and friend, Philip McCulloch Downs, curated an animal rights art poster exhibition, with 166 pieces from our group The Art Of Compassion Project, changing the blank walls into two vast canvases of colour and thought-provoking work. With 51 artists from the collective represented we were kept busy with questions and conversations. Our presentation on the Friday was well received by a small audience, and generated some lively conversation through the rest of the weekend. We presented in the room where the artwork was displayed, and due to logistics the talk was not filmed nor did we have a screen or microphone.
This is the transcript for my part of the presentation, which ran to about 25 minutes. For Philip's part of the talk please see here.
Many thanks to the conference organisers, and our two wonderful photographers Martina Vedin and Michelle Berghall, both dedicated activists against speciesism.
ART, PROPAGANDA AND PERSONAL STORIES
Hello and thanks for joining us here with The Art Of Compassion Project! It is great to be back here for the second year with the art poster exhibition. My name is Helen, and I know some of you are familiar with the project, so we'll just start with a quick introduction about our group. Then Philip and I will both be sharing our personal stories using art as activism, before we talk a little bit about the historical use of art within social justice movements, about the importance of using art as a propaganda tool for the advancement of animal rights, with an introduction to some of work from our diverse collective.
The AOC was started by just one amazing, dedicated woman, Leigh Sanders. After Leigh completed her first Veganuary challenge in 2015, she was inspired to find a way to raise money for the charity which had been instrumental in her journey to living vegan. With the wonders of the internet and social media, she found several like-minded vegan artists who were delighted to join her in using their art for change, one of those first artists being Philip! What began initially as a coffee-table book project grew into an international community of almost 200 artists, coming together to raise the questions of animal rights through their work, while raising funds for vegan charities across the world.
To date the collective has raised over €9000 for charities, and we continue to exhibit this diverse work across the world, wherever we can. This month we have a poster exhibition at Vegfest in Dublin in aid of Irish Council Against Bloodsports. We are currently running two online auctions of artwork, one in aid of Fish Feel, an organisation devoted to recognising the sentience of fishes, the other raising funds for The Rainforest Trust. And in October we'll be back at London Vegfest for the third year running, raising funds for Hunt Saboteurs Association.
As we commonly exhibit at vegan fairs or conferences such as this one, our aim in the UK is to hold our own art event, to bring the issues of speciesism into a public, non-vegan place. We have applied for funding without success to date, though we are continuing to work hard on that, and all the art posters you see here today will raise funds enabling the group to expand the message. You can read more about us on our website, and we have a sample copy of our beautiful namesake book on our stand if you'd like to have a look.
I've been creating artwork of some kind ever since I could hold a crayon, and all I ever wanted to draw was animals. It's only in the last few years that I've focused everything on the issues of animal rights. This turn-around came directly after my first time bearing witness with Essex Pig Save, where I felt that I finally knew where I wanted to go with my creativity. Three years later I am one of the organisers for that group, still bearing witness and sharing my writing and photography based around that.
Being part of the Art Of Compassion project has given me so much confidence, not just in my work but across the board in my life. The work has gained exposure which I could never have attained by myself in this particular field, and has been exhibited around the globe. Some of my pieces are going to be used by Farm Sanctuary in the US in their upcoming art-education curriculum, teaching children as young as 8 years old about the sentience of the animals depicted. I use my art to raise awareness as well as funds for sanctuaries, and my small t-shirt line donates 100% of the profits to a wonderful vegan sanctuary in the UK.
My work is mainly illustrative, and I'm particularly interested in challenging the ways that the use of other animals is marketed as something positive by the systems which profit from their exploitation. (Here I introduced my 'Cuts' series, explaining how a search for photos of animals online led me to discover how so many of them in art are reduced to parts which we erroneously call meat). This insidious selling of misinformation surrounding the use of others animals is the most terrible form of propaganda in the modern negative sense of the word. Everyone here knows the pain of seeing those endless billboards, bus shelters, newspapers, TV and supermarket ads, with their carefully marketed lies. I think that with art we can parody their corporate branding, those million dollar marketing campaigns. We can appropriate and sabotage their message, turning it into the truth.
Protest/Social Justice Art in History
I'll just talk briefly about the history of protest art/social justice art, because I don't want everyone to go to sleep at the mention of the word 'history'... but seriously it is a fascinating and complex subject!
Historically, the use of art for social justice goes back generations, and its only when you start researching that you realise we are really standing on the shoulders of giants! I can't possible hope to cover even a tiny part here, but I would encourage everyone in our movement to check out a bit of this history for themselves, as that history is a freely available and essential place to learn how to take our movement forward.
If you look up 'protest art' in a search engine today you'll find so much amazing protest art out there in the world, some of it you probably know already, though you might not be aware of its use in social justice protest! And it is not just two dimensional, protest art can be music, poetry, performance, or even using our own bodies, such as the remarkable work of Alfredo Meschi, who has been here at this conference in the past, with the 40,000 crosses on his tattooed skin speaking of the horrific numbers of animals killed every second. Alfredo has a fascinating project on the go at the moment so I would recommend following him on social media.
As far back as ancient Greece, playwrights made use of their staged dramas for their political, social, and moral teachings, and no doubt much of it was centred around the injustices of the day.
Picasso had his incredibly powerful anti-war painting, the iconic Guernica, speaking of the horrors of the Spanish civil war in the 1930s. It still serves as an incredibly powerful damnation of the devastation of war around the world, even though there has been some controversy surrounding the work. (well it is propaganda after all!) Other artists too have used their skills to protest war, such as Francisco Goya and Edouard Manet, plus many other international war artists.
At the turn of the 19th century, the burgeoning animal welfare groups in the US and UK used art heavily in their advocacy, and even ran poster competitions for the best designs “illustrating humanity and inhumanity to animals”, and these were then printed in their propaganda magazines.
You may have heard of The Guerilla Girls, an anonymous group of feminist artists, who have been fighting against the history of patriarchy in the art movement for over 30 years, using the truth, simply stated in a very direct way, and wearing gorilla heads!
There is currently a project under way in the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan, which brings those shattered communities together with collaborative art, bringing colour and life to a desolate environment and spreading messages of hope to local residents. We have the website address on the stall if anyone would like to check it out.
Art has been used in campaigns for Civil rights, anti-war, women's rights, LGBTQ+ rights... the list is endless. Art has the power to create change, by inspiring, informing and ultimately galvanising people across all socio-economic backgrounds to come together for a cause.
The clenched fist, so well known and a part of the Conference logo, is universally recognised and has a weighty history. It can be highly embellished or reduced to very simple graphic form, yet just to see it we know it represents an uprising, a symbol of solidarity against oppression, and in that way I think it is one of the most successful themes ever in protest art, with the potential to bring different movements closer towards a revolution for justice.
Of course all protest art falls under this lovely umbrella called 'propaganda'.
A long standing and outspoken member of the animal justice movement, John Curtin, said in a talk at Vegfest Brighton earlier this year, “Propaganda's like a dirty word – but its what you do.” and I for one love to think of myself as a propagandist for truth, spreading through my art the real stories of the other animals I represent.
So now I'm gonna do that annoying hands-up thing! How many hands feel that when we talk about propaganda, that has negative connotations? And how many feel it has positive connotations? (Only two people raised their hands for the latter, all the others felt the term has negative connotations)
The word Propaganda actually derives from the Latin word to propagate, which is a term for growing plants, so I think it applies well to all of us here, as we often refer to our advocacy for social change as 'sowing seeds'. So 'propaganda' was originally a neutral term for the dissemination of information in favour of any given cause. It is only relative recently, mostly due to war propaganda in the 20th century, that the term became associated with manipulation and negative bias.
All of us here are acutely aware that the continuing oppression of other animals is shaped by the visual culture which is the marketing of their bodies. We are surrounded by it everywhere we go. Those who seek to profit from exploitation spend endless pots of money on advertising the positive benefits of using their products, and this is of course the most terrible propaganda of all. We have a folder on our stand with many examples of how the use of animals has been falsely promoted as humane, healthy and normal, and it saddens us that such gorgeous artwork has been used for such heinous ends.
In the brilliant book “Art For Animals” by Keri Cronin, she says in her conclusion - “images can normalise a particular behaviour, but they can also challenge and unsettle the status quo.”
Every time we share an image or a piece of writing relating to animal rights, we are using, or creating, propaganda. In our work as advocates we use images, imagery, as our strongest back-up tool, and as an artist whose main objective is to spread the propaganda or the message, social media is an absolutely ideal platform.
With social media we can share art like never before. For those who require to make their living from their work, sharing can be a risky business. Online theft of high resolution works is common and it can be very difficult to track down the actual perpetrators and take them to court. However, as an artist whose main objective is to spread the propaganda or the message, this platform is absolutely ideal. The biggest benefit in the digital information age is that you cannot stop an image! It can't be disappeared or fined for being naughty. It is a free agent once it gets out there. Art BECOMES the advocate because it doesn't just illustrate an idea, it plants the seed.
Propaganda is widely understood to be biased, and our art definitely comes with a bias which allows no compromise.
Many of the artists at AOC use positive imagery as a means to create much-needed empathy in the viewer. (Please click on the photo for more information about each artist)
Lynda Bell says in the Art Of Compassion book that she is 'driven by my idealism of how I want the world to be', and that is so evident in her vibrant, happy canvases. One of our best selling artists actually so she is obviously touching hearts out there.
Cameron O'Steen uses his photography to 'highlight the animal's own voices', and his images of animals safe at sanctuary certainly help the viewer to see them as the autonomous people they truly are.
Sara Sechi's work subtly challenges the viewer to see their own speciesism, such as her popular piece Find The Difference. She has volunteered for AOC since very early days and now she is moving to Australia we'll really miss her.
Pascale Salmon is our event organiser in France, and her very distinctive work, always on this theme of silhouettes, is deeply absorbing and really makes people think about the subject.
As well as a vast catalogue of more graphic images, Twyla Francois takes iconic images and skilfully puts her cheeky twist on them to show us all a better world.
Others in our group use a more graphic style.
Jane Lewis' work is exquisite and her palette restful to the eye, yet she doesn't hold back on vividly damning the exploitation of other animals.
Karen Fiorito is a political artist who's had a huge billboard in Arizona since March 2017 depicting an extremely controversial work featuring the current US president. She has had death threats as a result, but the billboard remains in place. She shares with us her popular Buddha series, and some tougher and provocative images such as this work 'Lamb Of God'.
Jade Bello uses a soft pastel medium to draw the eye to some explicit subjects. Pure New Wool and King of Hams come from her series 'Unroll a Life' and it's well worth checking out the rest of them on her website.
As a professional artist, Dana Ellyn's work is very well known on social media and often shared. As she writes in the book, she knows her art does not convert everyone to veganism, but she does know it is helping people to open their eyes to the plight of animals.
Tommy Kane is one of our newest members and a heavyweight, prolific artist in his own right. He positively allows his art for animals to be used freely, and has kindly donated us three hard-hitting pieces in his distinctive, cartoon-like style.
We need to always remember that what we're protesting about is largely invisible to the majority of people. The oppressed group we work for are in the dark and it is our job to illuminate them. Visual images tend to stick with us humans deeper and for longer than just the written word. Apparently about 90% of what we retain is in the form of visual images, rather than facts and figures.
What is also important is that social justice art doesn't just have to be graphic in telling the truth. We need it also to uplift us, fill us with positivity and give us vision for a better future.
As we all are too well aware, the situation for the planet and all her animals is dire and we urgently need to act. Art is just one of the endless ways we can bring that urgency into the greater consciousness. We aim to encourage more activists to become involved in taking art activism – 'artivism' – out of vegan spaces and into the eyes of the general public.
With this is mind we will be really interested in speaking to any of you to brainstorm new ideas on how to effectively apply this medium to further advance the cause for animal rights. So please feel free to come over and talk to us any time over the weekend.
Now I'll hand you over to my friend and colleague Philip. He has a deep personal story in this world of art activism, so he's going share some of his work with you.