Friday 23rd March, Bristol city centre.
Weighed down with two heavy bags stuffed with art prints, t-shirts, posters, badges and emergency chocolate, I boarded the coach. Two coffees, six veggie sausage rolls, five hours on the motorway and one embarrassing fizzy drink spillage later I was arriving at Brighton seafront. Emerging bleary-eyed onto the windswept esplanade, I dragged my luggage past the famous pier and onwards to the Brighton Centre, home of the Brighton Vegfest. The seafront shops were bedecked with the ephemera of any traditional English seaside resort - multi-coloured sweets, smutty postcards and sticks of pink, minty rock. The air smelled of salty chips and sugary donuts, and the sea was a cold grey strip some distance behind the barrier of the sea wall. And that was the closest I got to it.
Once inside the maze of the Brighton centre, after spending a considerable amount of time utterly lost, I finally stumbled across the Art of Compassion exhibition area, and was greeted by the sight of two familiar faces, sixty two art posters lying on the floor, and a LOT of blue-tack. Fellow artists Sara Sechi and Helen Barker were already hard at work arranging the artwork in an aesthetically pleasing way, as well as swearing a lot. I was feeling apprehensive about the whole event (still not used to my new life as an independent artist) so I was very pleased and reassured to see my new VAM FAM (Vegan Art Movement Family, obvs).
Some hours later the prints were on the wall and looking magnificent - challenging, beautiful, brutal, and full of emotional depth. And so, we left the venue in search of burgers and beer, dragging our bags to our seaside lodgings just down the road. The place we’d booked turned out to be more ‘Hostile’ than ‘Hostel’, ominously claiming to ‘WELCOME STAG PARTIES’. They weren’t kidding. Over the next two nights we achieved almost four minutes of sleep, enjoying the combined sounds of a nearby nightclub, a jazz club, several drunken arguments, a wildly enthusiastic rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ sung in French, and the thundering hooves of a herd of rampaging wildebeest who had apparently rented the floor above us. It was an interesting experience, made more than bearable by the fact that it was as cheap as chips, as well as by the resilient humour of Sara and Helen. Also, who could resist the thrilling experience of hiring a towel for £1.00 from the front desk? Not us. (Mostly because we’d forgotten ours).
And so to the Vegfest. Of the 7,400 visitors that attended, the eclectic mixture that stopped by at our stand hailed from all over the world, and consisted of everyone from teenage art students wanting to join up, to families buying prints for their kids, to elderly activists telling us how glad they were to see veganism finally becoming part of mainstream culture.
The 62 prints on display stopped passers-by in their tracks and drew them in, the first comments routinely being “This is unusual”, then veering towards “This is amazing”, and ending up with “This is the best thing here” (to be fair I only heard that once – but still). People were intrigued, upset and impressed in equal measure. Some teenagers even used the more graphic images to chastise their non-vegan parents. One group of young boys, attempting to ridicule the artwork, were quickly overheard to be feeling uncomfortable in the face of these quietly provocative images. Their reaction was as valid as any. The truth can be disturbing as well as liberating. All it may take to change a life forever is for one single image to really hit home and carry a clear message into someone’s conscience, bypassing any intellectual or social barrier.
I met one particularly lovely school teacher from Las Vegas who was fascinated with the art on show and the ethos behind it, and who wanted to promote the AOC in the U.S. She told me that she regularly sneaks clips of the infamous documentary ‘Earthlings’ into her school lessons (under the radar, obviously). If only more people would dare to be so uncompromisingly truthful in their daily lives.
I also listened in on the talent competition in the hall next door and heard my favourite song of the moment (‘What hell is like’) being blasted out by the singer Queen V. With all the subtlety of an enthusiastically inept stalker I asked her if could use her beautiful music to accompany a video I’d just made of my collection of AR artwork. Luckily she said yes, and the results are posted in the next blog. I really think that her music is incredibly powerful. No one has done it better. And of course she won the competition by a mile.
And so, the whole weekend truly was 'altruism and art in action'. It was an exchange of ideas and stories, underpinned by a shared aim. It was also (let’s face it) a great way to show off what we, as artists/activists, do best – in my case painting, talking a lot, and having great hair.*
*A matter of opinion. My own, mostly.
£269-00 (a spookily pertinent figure) was made from the sale of prints and was handed over to the ‘Anonymous for the Voiceless’ group who also had a stall at the show. The art prints that were sold will now be on display in homes, in student halls and on activist placards all over the UK and beyond.
In our free time (at pre-show coffee shops as well as a post-show pub and pizza restaurant), Sara, Helen and I shared stories of our arty lives and of how we came to be animals rights activists. We also traced the history of the VAM and I found that the coherent narrative was very satisfying as it provides one of the few major threads in my (recently very incoherent) life. It also binds us together in a shared, worldwide story that includes the 100 or so other artists whom we were representing on this occasion.
So, despite the sleep deprivation and aching backs, when it was all over we found ourselves really missing the teamwork and sense of camaraderie, for, despite hardly knowing one another, the fact that we share the same deep-rooted beliefs seemed to bypass the need for small-talk and made us firm friends from the word go. The world of animal rights is, by necessity, grim and unbearable, and so to feel on such a high was a rare relief.
Overall, helping to create and curate this art show proved to be an exhausting, inspiring and colourful experience. But most of all it was EFFECTIVE - as our comments board proved.
I truly believe that no-one is innately cruel. It is only our media-saturated, too-busy-to-think, lazily ‘traditional’ society that keeps the majority of people in a state of ignorance and cognitive dissonance. The farming/food industries would like us to remain like this, but the increasing number of events like the Brighton Vegfest - all over the world - show that the public are beginning to take action and question the way we live.
So this was one seaside rendezvous in which I didn’t visit the beach, ate NO candyfloss, and didn’t even skim a stone on the sea, but instead had a mini-break in an entirely vegan world… one that isn’t quite here yet, but is most certainly on the way.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Philip McCulloch-Downs is a talented animal rights artist based in the UK.