Interview with Daniel Hellmann: try walking in my hooves

Pro Helvetia Shanghai, Arts represchentativs

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Try Walking in My Hooves is an art walk followed by a concert in August 2023, conducted by Daniel Hellmann, presented by Eaton HK. Pro Helvetia supported his research trip to Taipei and performance in Hong Kong.

Animal rights, climate activism, music and queer feminism – spiced up with a good dose of drag: that’s Soya the Cow. The alter-ego of Swiss performance artist, musician and activist Daniel Hellmann, blurs the boundaries between male and female, human and cow, and manages the balancing act between a serious desire to change the world and a humorous sense of lightness. After performing at animal rights and climate protests, international tours in theatres and art festivals, and appearances on TV shows such as The Voice of Germany, the singing drag cow comes to Hong Kong for the first time. With emotional songs and surprising storytelling, Soya immerses people in her fascinating bovine universe that challenges the human self-image as the center of the universe.

For Try Walking in my Hooves, Soya the Cow takes the audience on a philosophical walk through the city. The focus is deliberately on the presence of non-human bodies: dogs walking their friends. Pigeons that have transformed a monument into their toilet. Bodies of killed animals that are carried through the streets by humans as food or clothing. Soya the Cow invites a change of perspective that challenges visual habits and self-image. In a playful and musical way, she calls for a new constitution of the relationship between humans and other animals, based on our common animality.

Daniel Hellmann, Trying Walking in My Hooves, © Eaton HK, photo by Au Tze Long, 2023

What do you feel about the Hong Kong edition in general? Did anything unexpected interaction happen during and after the performance that made you remember in particular?

My art walk in Hong Kong was very special. Since we did it during the evening, it was my first ever nightlight edition. I remember well the beginning in Kowloon park, even before the performance started, a family with five children came to me asking for a group photo. They were laughing, fascinated and a bit intimidated. Walking through the paths of the park, the busy streets with restaurants, shops and markets, with this concentrated herd of humans felt very special. Hong Kong is loud and bustling, and it seemed that our silence and our heightened senses brought a completely different energy into the city. 

Daniel Hellmann, Trying Walking in My Hooves, © Eaton HK, photo by Au Tze Long, 2023

In a city that has one of the highest beef consumption in the world, how do you think the Hong Kong audiences on site resonated with Soya’s message? In what sense will the story of Lantau Island bring new inspiration?

Walking through Hong Kong, the omnipresence of dead animals is making a very loud and direct impact. They are visible in shop windows, on plates or publicity boards. None of these animals have actually been raised in Hong Kong, they are all imported from other places, mostly from the mainland China. 

In order to feed that immense hunger for beef and other animal bodies in Hong Kong, the concerned individuals have to endure horrible conditions and violence – from birth to slaughter. But this side is hidden and we have been taught all our lives that this violence is ethically irrelevant. My prejudice was that my message of animal liberation would not resonate so much in Hong Kong, but I think that I was wrong. The audience stayed with me until the end. And we even crossed a huge billboard on the street from the brand “Soylution” that explained the links of animal agriculture and the climate crisis and why we should eat soy products directly, rather than feeding them to chickens, pigs or cows in factories. This shows me that in Hong Kong, change is coming, because we have no other choice.

Daniel Hellmann, Trying Walking in My Hooves, © Eaton HK, photo by Au Tze Long, 2023

Another beautiful example for this big social, cultural and economical transformation has been my encounter with feral cows and water buffaloes on Lantau Island. They have been let free in the 1970s, when the buffaloes in the rice fields were replaced by machines and the dairy farms moved away to the mainland China. Now around 1200 buffaloes and cows live freely on the island. They walk around the city, graze in the fields, take mud baths or just chill at the beach. For me, this is a wonderful example that peaceful coexistence is possible, without exploitation and killing. This is what our future should look like!

Daniel Hellmann on Lantau Island with a real cow
Daniel Hellmann on Lantau Island, photo by Au Tze Long, 2023

Is this the first time you’ve adopted a mixture of an art walk with concert, any challenges about this new format?

I like to end my art walks with a musical moment to give some space for reflection. Music has the magical capacity to open up doors that have sometimes been closed for decades. Music can touch people’s hearts in a different way than what the intellectual learning of information does. Music connects us with our own animality. Ideally I’d like to sing in pubic spaces at the end of the walk, so that also random passers-by can get drawn into Soya’s universe. In Hong Kong, we ended in the beautiful music room at the Eaton Hotel. It was more intimate, but felt also like a big relief after seeing so much violence against non-human animals in the streets. It felt like a little sanctuary and was a beautiful closing of the art walk.

Daniel Hellmann, Trying Walking in My Hooves, © Eaton HK, photo by Au Tze Long, 2023

Soya was created after your six-month residency in San Francisco, what will be the next step after your research trip in Taipei? Will Soya undertake a new level of transformation and what’s her ultimate mission?

The time in Taipei and Hong Kong has allowed me some deep learnings about the complexities of this world we live in. I’m thinking a lot about the simultaneousness of realities and perspectives – different cultures, different species, and most of all, different individuals. I have been looking for strategies to allow more multi-perspectives in my work and came to the conclusion that I needed to expand my animal liberation drag family. If anyone is interested to become a drag shrimp or drag lama, please reach out to me!

Biography

Daniel Hellmann, dance and theater maker, singer and performer from Zurich, Switzerland.

Hellmann’s works investigate bodies, bodily relations and desire, and question social norms in the fields of sexuality, human and animal rights.

Since 2018, Hellmann has been performing with his art figure Soya the Cow, a vegan drag cow.