The Unreliable Bestiary: A Conversation with Deke Weaver
Deke Weaver is an interdisciplinary performance artist whose lifelong project has been the construction of a multimedia Unreliable Bestiary. I first met Deke in 2007 when we were fellows at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois. Since then, I’ve followed all of his Unreliable Bestiary productions with great interest.
In 2019, my husband, Philip Phillips, and I hosted a house performance of TIGER. Deke’s performance was utterly riveting, turning our home into a multimedia landscape of tiger stories from around the planet. Community members, faculty, students, kids, and teenagers all gathered to watch Deke’s transformation into multiple characters whose stories intersected with the lives of tigers in diverse and unexpected ways. By the end of the performance, you could have heard a pin drop as we all silently absorbed the intense experience.
I spoke with Deke Weaver about the thinking behind Unreliable Bestiary in early 2021. Thank you to Jason Croft and the University of Illinois’s public radio station, WILL, for allowing us to conduct this interview in their state-of-the-art recording rooms.
Stream or download our conversation here.
This interview has been updated and edited for length and clarity. In addition to the interview highlights below, a full transcript is available here.
Brett Ashley Kaplan: I want to hear more about how you came up with the idea to develop art projects around 26 different endangered animals, one for each letter of the alphabet. From all of the animals in the world, how did you choose MONKEY, ELEPHANT, WOLF, BEAR, and TIGER?
Deke Weaver: The Bestiary idea is morphing; what’s going to come next may be either PRAIRIE or TREE, so it’s endangered organisms and habitats. And even then, these titles are broad, almost fairy tale categories—there are lots of monkey species, lots of tree species.
I guess the idea for the Unreliable Bestiary project started by realizing that most of my work would have animals in pivotal roles. I’m probably just trying to get my dad’s attention. My earliest memories are from a time when he was getting his Ph.D. in wildlife and natural resources management. He still seems most at home out in the field. As a little kid, I was able to see animals a long way off. I’d literally get his attention by seeing animals. So, if I’m psychoanalyzing myself, that’s probably at the root of it all.
But on a less reductive note, I’m taking this fascination with the natural world and all of its interconnections—taking this fear of it slipping away—and using that to frame a lifelong project of making 26 different performances . . . events. It is a big, audacious gesture that is minuscule and ridiculous compared to the horrors that we’re inflicting on our planet. Most of the people I spend time with are becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural world. My students, friends, family, all of us spend way more time with our screens and the virtual world. It seems that live performance for a communal audience has become far less common than everyone sitting at home on their couch nursing their phone. I’ve had some of my most transformative experiences by myself in the woods or with an audience either watching a performance or making one. For me, live performances and experiences in the natural world offer similar portals, doorways to worlds that are much, much bigger than our workaday, quotidian lives.
BAK: It always strikes me that there are so many multifaceted parts to these performances—and they’re also completely different from each other. So, starting backwards, BEAR not only invites the audience to move through the actual space where bears might have been, the beautiful Meadowbrook park [in Champaign–Urbana, Illinois], but it also has a very literary ending.
In addition to being a performance artist, you’re also a video artist and an actor. Your pieces overall incorporate dance and other artistic elements, but to me it felt like the scale of BEAR was so very different from the scale of ELEPHANT or the scale of WOLF in part because it ends in a narrative. You tell the story of a man who loses his partner, his dog, and his cat on the same day, but (so far) there aren’t any bears in that narrative. Can you articulate how that relates specifically to BEAR and to all of your other projects?
DW: The seeds for these performances take all kinds of shapes. Sometimes it’s writing. Sometimes it’s a drawing. Sometimes it’s reading a particular article or book or hearing a particular podcast. Sometimes it’s someone telling me some intense personal anecdote. So, the research starts. I try to throw the net out as wide as possible. I read. I’ll interview people. I’ll travel to where the animals live. Sometimes the piece will end up taking a very defined through line, but most of the time it feels like I’m weaving a story, or making some sort of quilt, if there’s such a thing as an elliptical quilt.
I love this book by Keith Johnstone, Impro. It’s about theater and storytelling. He paints the idea of someone listing a series of actions or events. The listing of actions doesn’t make up anything we’d call a story. But if a storyteller introduces an element—a character, a boat, a genie, whatever—at the beginning of a story and then brings back that element toward the end of the story, the audience can sense a kind of satisfying narrative. This reincorporation can have a transformative quality that is like catnip for human brains. Johnstone points out that even three-year-olds recognize this structure. E. O. Wilson has said that he believes story and narrative are part of our DNA.
So, at the beginning of the fall section of BEAR, the ranger would meet the group and give them an introduction to the world they were stepping into. The rangers told each group that the year was 2020 (remember, we did this in the fall of 2016), the ice of Greenland had slipped into the sea, ocean levels had risen 20 feet, 40 percent of the world’s human population was fleeing the coast, the North American power grid had collapsed . . . and so we’re going to try to get everything back in place by bringing back the bears to a habitat where there haven’t been bears for 120 years. If we can get a crucial umbrella species like bears back, then we can start getting the climate back on track.
The rangers told everyone to be quiet throughout the walk. We would bring back the bears by walking a path over and over in silent meditation, and, surely, the bears would feel our sincere intent. The ranger would then lead the audience walking through the woods and prairie, leading the group to the four different bear stations where the group would hear recorded information about the different bear species, and then to the station with the bear dancers. Finally, the group winds up at a barn. Each person crawls down through a tunnel of sweaters and blankets into this small den where everyone would be given a bear mask and sit very close to each other and listen to the story that you’ve described.
For some people, the day was very hot. For one group, they walked through a thunderstorm. We did six shows a night. The first group left at 4:00 p.m., so their whole trip would be in daylight. The last group left at 8:30 p.m.—everything in darkness. Each group had a different experience on their walk. Each group had an experience that prepared them for how they were going to receive the final story in the den. Some people would take it in contemplatively. And, you know, for some people, it was just a stupid walk and a stupid story. So now everyone’s sitting in the den listening to the last story. For 20 minutes, there are no bears in the story. Where’s the bear? Where’s the bear? And then—finally—there’s a bear at the very end. Big transformation moment. The story includes someone’s wife leaving, depression, death of a dog, cat suicide, cancer, a huge operation. And this whole story is juxtaposed with the silence of walking in the woods. It’s all a little absurd and funny and scary. And I’m hoping that the juxtaposition of this live story with the walk in the woods might, for some people, serve as an imaginative portal to different ways of understanding ourselves. Which sounds really self-important, but why not hope?
BAK: I was also thinking about how all of your projects are simultaneously local and global. There are no native elephants here in Central Illinois, and there are no native tigers, either. But there are certainly elephants in zoos and in people’s imaginations and in kids’ stories, and there was the elephant in North Dakota, so all of the animals are global and local all at once.
DW: That’s always the thing. Does it matter? How can I make these extinctions happening on the other side of the world matter to people here? How can I connect these creatures that aren’t native to this place to me or a suburban soccer mom? How can I tell a story about a slow-moving process that feels urgent, immediate . . . you know, like an emergency? One of the first stats I ran up against in my tiger research is that there are more tigers kept as pets in the state of Texas than there are tigers left in the wild. We’re in a really, really strange time.
A lot of the stories that I end up putting together operate in cities or suburbs, or agricultural deserts like East Central Illinois. So, it works here, but if I told the same stories in some parts of Montana, well, some of those folks might have to deal with grizzly bears every day, and not in any sort of sort of abstract, cute way. They’ve got grizzly bears in their backyards. Literally. When they go outside at dusk, they’ve gotta be really careful. You have to change the way you live, otherwise, you know, you’re going to be in trouble. Or maybe you won’t be in trouble, but the bear will be in trouble, because if a bear does something weird, they’re gonna put the bear down. We haven’t had bears living in East Central Illinois for 120 years. It’s really a different experience. So, here, we can all laugh. There aren’t any bears or wolves. But go to other parts of the world and it’s totally different. There’s no irony there. I’ve started thinking of the strategies for these events as speculative ecologies.
In 2016’s BEAR, the rangers tell people that we’re in a world that’s four years in the future where there’s no electricity, sea levels have risen drastically because of the breakup of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets—who knew that 2020 would be different kind of climate-driven nightmare. In the WOLF world, we took people into a small park, a kind of tiny biological island. Inspired by the success of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone, we told everyone that we’d reintroduced wolves to this Illinois park, but here there’s also a slow slip into a mythic understanding of wolves that is on equal ground with the science. So, by the time the audience is in the barn, a transformation has happened, where we’re all in the underworld together—where a new way of being is possible.
BAK: I don’t know how fully you are going to switch from strictly animal into habitat—prairie, maybe trees. How does that feel to you to switch from an animal to a habitat? I mean, obviously they are completely interrelated. And are you thinking beyond TIGER, of other animals? I was thinking of the Yangtze river dolphin as a good candidate. My first contender was blue whale, but both the “B” and a “W” have been taken. But with Yangtze river dolphin, it could touch upon whales and oceans.
DW: Or cetacean. It would be great to do both whale and dolphin, you know? I’m treating the alphabet-naming part pretty loosely. There are, like, 250 different monkey species—more, I don’t know. Earlier, you were asking how I choose the different animals for the shows. I’ve started with the idea of charismatic megafauna, these animals that have been the superstars of our children’s books, cartoons, and zoos. So, Yangtze river dolphins could be put in a show called CETACEAN, which could include orcas, whales, and porpoises.
I think the stories are incredibly important. Yes, of course, the biology, the science, is crucial. But even more crucial is connecting people to the science through stories, through art, song, culture, experience, and spiritual practice. Hitting people emotionally. We’ve all heard the term “change the narrative.” That couldn’t be more important than right now. The arts and humanities have been taking a beating for years, but all this emotional human behavior is what drives policy. It’s driven policy in the past and will drive policy in the future. We can find all kinds of biological reasons for why it’s important to protect these creatures and the habitats they live in, but finding emotional, spiritual reasons for why it’s important to protect these creatures and the habitats where they live? The habitat is just as important—more important, you know?
For more of this conversation, read the complete transcript.
Featured image: A performance of ELEPHANT from Deke Weaver’s Unreliable Bestiary. Photo by Valerie Oliveiro, 2010.
Deke Weaver is an interdisciplinary performance artist, video artist, and writer. He is professor of new media at the University of Illinois, with affiliations with the Department of Theater, the Department of Dance, and the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies. Deke has won numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Creative Capital grant, and he has been a resident at institutions including Yaddo, MacDowell, and Ucross. Deke’s lifelong project has been the construction of a multimedia Unreliable Bestiary. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Brett Ashley Kaplan directs the Initiative in Holocaust, Genocide, Memory Studies at the University of Illinois. She publishes in Ha’aretz, The Conversation, Salon.com, Asitoughttobe, AJS Perspectives, Contemporary Literature, Ninth Letter, and the Jewish Review of Books. She is the author of Unwanted Beauty: Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation (University of Illinois Press, 2007), Landscapes of Holocaust Postmemory (Routledge, 2011), and Jewish Anxiety and the Novels of Philip Roth (Bloomsbury, 2015). Her first novel, Rare Stuff, is currently under review. Website. Contact.