FREE THE BEASTS

Activism Through Performance Art

written by CORT CUNNINGHAM
photography by JOSEPH DUPLANTIER & JULIAN MACKLER

Two masked human bodies move fluidly between one another, writhing on stage in a strange trance-like dance. The harsh light captures glimpses of their anthropomorphic human-animal bodies and casts long shadows on the wall. Ghostly bull-like forms devoid of color move like living puppets in a surreal performance, each movement pierced by the steady ringing of a cowbell. That singular object, searing into the mind an animal species caught in the crosshair of the human-built industrial machine.

Ed Note: In early spring 2019, we met Shelly Voorhees and Vilma Duplantier of Artemis Beasts at Rockwall Studios in Ridgewood, NY to discuss the origins of their artistic collaboration and their vision for creating awareness of speciesism. Shortly thereafter this piece was first published and is being republished here in its original form.

Just a few short blocks from the lost souls in the interlinking cemeteries straddling the border between Queens and Brooklyn, Shelly and Vilma meet three days a week to sketch ideas, create content, and produce materials for their next performance. Down a corridor of studios rented by sound editors, stagecraft fabricators, and artists, their windowless space is brightened by the energy shared between them — two women inextricably linked to each other — a chance meeting as neighbors in the same building to realize a shared passion for health and art. They greet me as if I’m a newfound friend, and we dive into a lengthy and enriching conversation.

We wanted something poetic, something different.

Free the Beasts - Animal Rights Activism through Performance Art - Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media
Free the Beasts - Animal Rights Activism through Performance Art - Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media
Free the Beasts - Animal Rights Activism through Performance Art - Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media

Connecting Animal Rights and Human Rights

At the center of their very first performance entitled Disturbed Minds Live In Distress, stands the bull. “I think they’re the most hurt of all the mammals,” claims Vilma. Both tauruses, Vilma and Shelly naturally looked to the bull as the first animal protagonist for their ongoing collaboration. “We wanted something that was not really discussed, something poetic that could show something different,” Shelly shares. The duo explores the intersection between animal and human rights through visual media, sculpture, sound, and poetry — one animal at a time. Each performance focuses on a singular animal or topic and points toward the cognitive dissonance between most humans and the systemic mistreatment of animals. Shelly and Vilma are not afraid to call it what it is — animal slavery born from speciesism — but their performances are intentionally created to allow space for the audience to absorb the message, everyone connecting at the same moment, with the same emotion.

“Each time we think about an animal, it always reflects into human life too,” Vilma shares. “Animal slavery is the oldest slavery in human history and we set an example for how to treat each other. That some lives are more important than other lives, it’s all related. It’s deep in us, our traditions, our history, it’s imprinted in us.”

The signature aspect of each Artemis Beasts performance is the animal mask which they create from plaster. They wear the mask to embody the role of the animal and to share the idea with the audience that whether human or non-human, we’re all one. They explain to me that when they enter the mask, they feel more like the animal. It changes their natural movements which they see as the transformation into the bull; or the horse or rabbit, two of their latest subjects.

Who is who, what is animal, what is human?

“We’ve always said, ‘Who is who, what is animal, what is human’? That’s one of our favorite lines,” Shelly shares with me. “And ‘Free the beasts!’, our mantra to ourselves,” Vilma interjects. Shelly continues, “Yes, our mantra. But you identify with something that looks like you, that’s why we keep the bodies human.

Art to Expose New Ideas Without Judgment

Shelly and Vilma seem to effectively balance the line between exposing the audience to a difficult and emotional topic yet not offending or passing judgment. “I’ve definitely had people say that it’s made them start thinking about the way they’re eating and the environment,” Shelly states. “To have that effect on people who say they were haunted by what they saw. But we leave a lot of things open, because it’s art. Art makes you think even more so later, when you’re looking back on the piece.”

Free the Beasts - Animal Rights Activism through Performance Art - Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media

“At the same time,” says Vilma, “it’s not a vegan audience. It’s artists in general. It feels like we shake some things, but it’s very challenging for the mind to admit that it’s wrong. Those habits and traditions are so deep, we all have to change little by little. We don’t want to be harsh, we don’t want to show horror. We go to people gently through poetry, through thought. We want to offer respect back, because that’s what we want for animals too.

The dedication Shelly and Vilma put into their art becomes evident the closer you look. “We put so much time into creating, each day it’s leading to something better and better,” Vilma states. “We work hard to develop the whole experience,” Shelly continues. “We do this all out of love. It’s all just from the love of creating something that’s meaningful for us that hopefully has a greater impact and develops into something bigger.”

Free the Beasts - Animal Rights Activism through Performance Art - Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media
Free the Beasts - Animal Rights Activism through Performance Art - Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media

With each new performance, they continue to incorporate new media into their work, with sound being one of the most critical to bring a new layer of meaning to it. From the constant ringing of a cowbell, to the harsh clanking of horseshoes, the use of animals through history and the harm that seemingly benign objects inflict upon them becomes ever more audible. Paired with the human voice, the anthropomorphic hybrid comes to life that much more. “We started to sing. We found our voices!”, Vilma laughs. “Mine sounds underwater, which is perfect,” Shelly shares. “I’m more like the undertone of Vilma’s voice. We’re working on something water related now, ocean issues. Our voices are part of the communication of the creatures.” 

Vilma returns to why they created Artemis Beasts in the first place, and what keeps them going. “When you find something that is very important, you want to follow that mission. Because at some point it becomes not enough just to be a vegan. You then want to do something about it. The beauty of being human is we can make conscious decisions. We can own the responsibility. It’s good to be part of a revolution. You see so much good happening. I’m happy to find our part through performance art.”

It’s good to be part of a revolution. We found our part through performance art.

Free the Beasts - Animal Rights Activism through Performance Art - Antagonist - Radical Kindness Media

Creative Partners in Crime

It’s this bond between Vilma and Shelly that seems to make Artemis Beasts even more special. “Somehow our connection helps in our characters, how we see things, and how we talk,” says Vilma. “When we’re finally doing it, it’s such a good duo. I can’t believe the powers we have between us and how we feel together.” “The two of us together is so empowering”, Shelly adds. “We push each other to do things beyond ourselves. It’s a really special bond.” Vilma adds, “We trust each other.” “So much trust!” Shelly exclaims. “It’s hard to believe, because art is so internal, it’s yourself and your decision making. It’s that here too, but now it’s empowered by this other person.” “It becomes a relationship”, Vilma continues. “She calls me partner in crime and my husband says, ‘You mean my partner?!’”. “Definitely some jealousy” (laughter). “I found my soulmate in art,” Shelly concludes. “It’s all been very natural. We show up, we’re additive, we’re always like what can we do to make it feel more. We just kind of go and find something to build from, and allow it to develop naturally. We really want it to be from us.”

Before I leave, I try on the bull mask. Sound has become muffled, my visibility narrowed. I can feel the heat of my own breath engulfed in the space between my now animal-human form. If only more people could experience the interconnectedness of all living beings, perhaps some of the most harmful traditions could soon be part of the past; a shared memory of the way animals used to be treated by the hands of us humans and a vision for a more just world. Through Artemis Beasts, Shelly and Vilma are certainly giving that a go.

Another Ed Note: Artemis Beasts has been inactive publicly since spring 2020. We’re hoping they’re not another artistic casualty to the covid pandemic as we’re trying to get in touch with AB. Once we catch word, we’ll update this piece accordingly.

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Cort Cunningham A New York resident with a career built on creative strategy and content production, the writer & editor brings a strong narrative prowess to Antagonist’s editorial work.

© Antagonist – est. 2021

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