Animals in the Hen House

0 Posted by - March 13, 2012 - Blog, Conversations, Performance, Visual art

Back in January I posted an article highlighting a video about Sue Coe’s art that was produced by Our Hen House, a “Multimedia hub for people who want to change the world for animals.” Jasmin Singer, one of the founders of Our Hen House, immediately stood out as someone who was not only passionate about animals, but who was passionate and knowledgable about the artists whose work creates discourse on diet, lifestyle, and, for you yogis out there, the practice of ahimsa (non harming, or the avoidance of violence).

Her work in curating these artworks inspired me to ask her more about her experience, why she does what she does, and how Our Hen House is affecting its audience.

Art Threat: To start, can you tell me a bit about Our Hen House, and what you do?

Jasmin Singer: Our Hen House is a multimedia hub of opportunities for people who want to change the world for animals. Every day, we highlight a story or idea for getting involved with this kind of change, focusing on how everyone can use their own talents and skills to mainstream the movement to end animal exploitation.

The most fun part is our weekly podcast (which is available both on iTunes and on our website). We’ve produced 112 episodes so far – never missing a week – and each episode, which is fun and fast-paced, includes an interview with a different mover and shaker from the world of animal rights (like Peter Singer, who has been on twice, TV personality Jane Velez-Mitchell, and artists, professors, writers, ethicists, activists, students, the list goes on). We also always include a current events section focusing on news items from the world of animal rights, a review of a film, product, or book, and what we call “vegan banter,” which is basically a look into our world in the animal rights and vegan scene in NYC. We also bring the podcast with us on the road when we travel (which is frequent, as we give talks regularly). And we have a daily blog, and a video production arm.

The other founder is my partner, Mariann Sullivan, who is an animal law professor (and is quite fabulous and brilliant – the official brains behind the organization!). Given my own background in the arts, and Mariann’s in law, Our Hen House highlights advocacy opportunities within these worlds – arts and the law – as well as heaps more.

Our style is “indefatigably positive,” because we feel that in a world that is full of so much suffering (including that of animals in factory farms, labs, zoos, puppy mills, etc., etc.), if we focus our energy on creating a positive change, then we can make a strong and everlasting difference in the way animals are seen by society. Hopefully others will follow suit, tap into their own compassion, and also work to change the world. The way we see it, there is no option.

What was the inspiration behind putting together the Art of the Animal series?

Before starting Our Hen House, I was an actor with an AIDS-awareness theatre company, and that ultimately led to connections that opened my eyes to animals. Plus, my mother is an artist, so my entire life has revolved, in one way or another, around the arts.

When I learned about the ugly underbelly of animal agriculture, I could not look away. There I was, devoting my life to speaking up for social justice, with a focus on LGBT activism. It seemed abundantly clear that I needed to extend my own compassion to all animals – not just the human variety. I was already a vegetarian at that point, but when I learned about the true horrors of the dairy and egg industries (the most egregious subsets of animal agriculture), I became a vegan and an animal rights activist.

As I explored the various outlets that I wanted to try on for size regarding my own animal advocacy, the arts seemed like a natural fit. The more I delved into that parallel, the more I discovered how many artists of all kinds were lending their talents and passion to the greater good of animal awareness. Part of the reason we started Our Hen House was to provide an outlet for established artists who have begun to use their art forms to speak up for animals and open people’s eyes, as well as for budding artists who are looking for opportunities to do just that. The arts have an incredibly powerful way of seeping in and changing hearts and minds. With the enormous, unfathomable suffering of animals, the arts is another way to turn on the light and inspire others to act. And it’s an extremely profound way to do that.

How long has the series been ongoing?

The Art of the Animal series is the same age as Our Hen House. It falls within the overarching umbrella of the organization, along with The Gay Animal series (which focuses on activists within the LGBT community who speak up for animals, too).

What type of work are you looking for for the series, and what are some of the most surprising or interesting artists or concepts that you’ve come across so far? (If you have associated images or videos that you could share, that would be great!).

Through the Art of the Animal series, I have been exposed to so many artists of all kinds who are devoting their lives to raising awareness of animal issues by way of their plays, their paintings, their poetry, their photography, and on and on.

Perhaps the most profound story we featured was that of Sue Coe, a British-born activist whose work is as harrowing as it is educational, and as moving as it is gut-wrenching. I am a long fan of Sue’s work, and meeting her was a remarkable experience. I already knew that Sue’s art was mind-blowing (my favorite recent piece of hers is called “Riot of the Fowl” and features a bunch of hens on the streets of London, where they are rioting and getting back at humankind), but what I didn’t expect was how brilliant she would be at telling stories, and sharing her passion. The most difficult edit we’ve ever done was to cut down her interview, since the way Sue communicates the important connections between art and animal rights is extremely articulate, and as far as I’m concerned, something everyone must hear. If you’re not familiar with Sue’s work, that needs to be rectified, because it’s life-changing.

Dan Dunbar's "The Last Thing You'll Ever See."

And let me tell you about another piece of art that moved us to tears. For our blog, we covered NYC’s first vegan art show, which was full of paintings and drawings from the animal rights community, and featured both dark and comical pieces. In the corner, I noticed a life-sized painting of a butcher. The way the painting was hung, the viewer was observing from the point of view of the animal about to be slaughtered. It was like a kick in the stomach, yet, again, I could not look away. Appropriately and hauntingly, the painting was called “The Last Thing You’ll Ever See.” The artist was Dan Dunbar, co-owner of Brooklyn’s new vegan doughnut shop, Dun-Well Doughnuts. When I chatted with Dan about the piece, he said that although we all have perceptions about what it’s like to be a non-human animal, their experiences, like the one in his painting, are something none of us are actually privy to. He told me, “Nobody understands what it’s like to be a pig or a cow or a chicken in these situations, but I think that everyone has empathy, and artwork in particular can be a way of allowing anyone to tap into a certain perception that is not their own.” Dan’s piece, and his words, are in so many ways at the core of Art of the Animal.We’ve also featured theatre, like the one-woman play produced last year in Los Angeles, “I’m Sorry: How a People-Pleasing Apologist Became an Animal-Loving Activist,” written and performed by Katya Lidsky, and “Leakey’s Ladies,” which tells the story of Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey, and Birute Galdikas. And we’ve featured poetry, such as the video we made about animal rights poet Gretchen Primack. And some more outside-of-the-box type things, like the work of Cynthia King, a dancer in Brooklyn who runs a dancing school, has a line of vegan ballet slippers, and did an incredible choreographed routine with her young students that aimed to imitate various forms of animal confinement and, ultimately, liberation.Our Art of the Animal series also sometimes highlights calls for artists, as well as sheds light on artistically-oriented activism. We recently featured two photographers – one who dresses up shelter animals and photographs them, with the hopes that the snazzy photos will attract adopters, and the other who takes portraits of dogs right before they are euthanized, also trying to raise awareness of their plight. The point is; if you’re artistically-inclined at all, you need to think how you can do something with that talent that is for the greater good.

Tou Yun-fei' s "11:38am, 08/01/2011, Taiwanese public animal shelter, time until merciful death: 29 minutes."

What kinds of reactions are you receiving from your audience? Have you heard feedback from non-vegetarian or non-vegan friends about how the art that you’ve shared has impacted their dietary decisions?

Yes, absolutely. An example is the video we made about Jonathan Horowitz, who had an exhibit called “Go Vegan” which was on display at a former meat-packing plant, La Frieda Meats. It was harrowing multimedia exhibit that included a portrait gallery of more than 200 celebrity vegetarians, a video installation featuring Paul and Linda McCartney, and footage of animal slaughter. We were contacted by people who saw our coverage of the exhibit and who then went to visit it in person. There was something extremely eerie about seeing it live. There were bloodstains on the ground from where the animals were slaughtered, and the facility, which had only recently closed, still smelled like death. That kind of experience is enough to make anyone rethink their dietary and lifestyle decisions, especially when coupled with the extraordinary impact of the multimedia artwork. That exhibit reached well beyond the animal rights community and into the mainstream. No wonder it was called “Go Vegan.” People did.

Generally speaking, people who would be attracted to our Art of the Animal series are people who are already at least somewhat awakened, or at the very least intrigued, by animal issues. It’s so beautiful to see the power that comes when they start connecting the dots between a painting, a drawing, a piece of theatre, a photograph, a story, or a song, with the plight of animals. And we watch as they realize the absolute importance of living a life that is not only free of animal exploitation (as much as humanly possible, that is), but also the responsibility of using our privileges as humans to speak up for them in whatever capacity makes sense for us.

Our Hen House was named the “Indie Media Powerhouse” winner in VegNews Magazine’s 2011 Veggie Awards – can you talk about the other work you’ve done that’s contributed to winning that title?

Thank you! We were extremely thrilled to receive that award. After we got it, Mariann and I kept walking around the apartment saying, “We’re an Indie Media Powerhouse!” Whenever we’d make a decision, we’d say, “Would an Indie Media Powerhouse do A, or would an Indie Media Powerhouse do B?” It was a hoot. It still is. We’re incredibly humbled by that title, and grateful to VegNews for foisting it upon us!

Producing multimedia content on a consistent, regular basis, shedding light on ways to create change, is at Our Hen House’s core. I think our positive style is refreshing to a lot of people. And rather than focus on things like “celebrity culture,” we opt instead to focus on people who are doing what they can in their own communities to work toward ending animal exploitation. On this subject, we’ve written extensively (both for Our Hen House as well as other publications), given talks around the country (and beyond), made videos, and, of course, produced a weekly podcast. We also shed light on ways that every single person who comes to our site can get involved in changing the world, and we break down those categories into everything from the arts, to legal opportunities, grassroots, media, academic, and others. And we review books, movies, products, etc., all from an animal rights bent. The reason we call it “Our Hen House” is because we like to think of it as a community, belonging to all of us. Our tag line is “a place to find our way to change the world for animals”. I also think that the fact that there are really only two of us “behind the curtain” allows for people to relate to us, to get to know our voices and our personalities. So it feels extremely familial. Hopefully and excitingly, that is why we were named the “Indie Media Powerhouse.”

Do you have upcoming projects you’d like to share about?

2012 is poised to be a huge year for us! We are in the process of expanding to an online magazine, taking us a bit away from our current blog format, which has some limitations. Our new online persona will include more in-depth features, editorials, multimedia interviews, and even an optional pay wall – behind which, “our flock” will be able to receive some wonderful incentives, as well as additional content that isn’t available elsewhere. The new site will also include an animal rights-centric news ticker, a “This Animal on This Day” photograph section, and some columnists that will knock your wool-free socks off. We are a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and are always extremely grateful (to say the least) for donations. In fact, we’re reader and listener supported, so we rely on them. And we offer some snazzy thank you gifts for our donors, so you get stuff, too!

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

The horror that is happening to animals behind closed doors is astronomical. It is almost impossible to bear to think about. Every second in the U.S. alone, 267 chickens die. It is a number I actually have tattooed on my left wrist, because it keeps things in perspective for me, and reminds me why it is absolutely vital that I keep going. There is a lot to be horrified about (and I am, I’m horrified), but if you channel that into something positive, something creative, and something that taps into what you’re good at, the power that can come from it can be otherworldly. We will make change, there is no question. We just have to go out there and start chipping away at that massive wall of denial that mainstream society has built to protect itself from the hideous reality, in the best way we know how.

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