Power, oppression and abuse: performing animal tests

The purpose of a protest is to plant the seed of a public debate. It is possible (and desirable) to control the content of the performance or stunt. But the debate that it generates: the awareness that it raises and the action it inspires is something beyond the control of the performer or of the company who commissioned her.

Lush – as part of our ‘Fighting Animal Testing’ campaign – allowed a performance artist to represent animal testing for the cosmetics industry in our flagship shop. The images were brutal, yet the representation is a fraction of the horror that occurs behind the closed doors of laboratories across the world. It was also a performance – at any moment Jacqui could communicate with us or walk out. Laboratory animals are bred for human use and end their life of abuse as an anonymous victim in a bin bag.

The overwhelming response has been positive – a public grateful to be informed that this archaic practise is still ongoing and that we can all do something to make it end. We have – however – also received criticism for our portrayal of an anonymous victim suffering at the hands of institutionalised violence.

I am the campaign manager at Lush -a committed activist in many social struggles – and this is my personal response to those criticisms:

I am very aware and very sad that campaigning groups (and all sorts of other groups, industries etc) have capitalised on titillating images of women – or worse – on images and storylines that encourage the abuse of women. It is a depressingly simple way to cause a stir whilst reinforcing certain power structures. It is a way of generating ‘attention’ that both I and Jacqui condemn.

Our performance was much simpler and starker than that. We used our flagship shop to put a window onto one form of oppression that all who buy cosmetics thoughtlessly, are complicit in. This is a tough truth to acknowledge and be challenged by but it is also an essential truth for all cosmetics’ consumers to recognise if we are going to have an animal cruelty-free industry.

We did not perform a sexy version of oppression or create a teasing ‘naughty’ campaign. Instead – led by Jacqui’s desire to perform an endurance piece that would respect the actual suffering of millions of animals – we performed a version of oppression in which we are all complicit, to challenge women and men to consider the dark secrets of a beauty industry that insists it exists to make us ‘feel good’.

It was a performance of violence (not violence against women) where – unsurprisingly – the oppressor was male and the abused was vulnerable and scared.

We felt it was important, strong, well and thoroughly considered that the test subject was a woman. This is important within the context of Lush’s wider Fighting Animal Testing campaign, which challenges consumers of cosmetics to feel, to think and to demand that the cosmetics industry is animal cruelty free. It is also important in the context Jacqui’s performance practice: a public art intervention about the nature of power and abuse. It would have been disingenuous at best to have pretended that a male subject could represent such systemic abuse.

Our aim was most certainly not to titillate. The bodysuit was not attractive (however the mainstream media may have presented or written about it). The costume made her an anonymous test subject and stripped her of the accoutrements of sexuality or eroticism. It was horrific from beginning to end and the more so for the actual horror that it intends to represent.

We are sorry if this has hurt women who have suffered sexual violence or assault. It is a horrible compromise that to perform animal testing and abuse could conjure up such distressing lived memories for real women.

However – knowing how much careful thought Hilary, Jacqui, Oliver and myself gave to every moment of this performance, we stand by its intended goal: to challenge public complacency which always allows powerful forces to oppress. And to reject the notion that in any way this was a cheap stunt trading on the objectification of women.