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Photo: Valerie Oliveiro

The performance artist is spinning 26 tall tales of our 'precarious moment in natural history.' It may not be completed in his lifetime

I’ll never forget that night. Deke Weaver’s electric baritone crackled as he recounted the sinister rendezvous between a anthropomorphic wolf and a sheriff, a world caught between Little Red Riding Hood and True Detective. Even though he spoke from a stool in a dull conference room, the audience was rapt; the air prickling from the bloodthirsty narrative tension. He dared the audience to empathize with the so-called Big Bad Wolf.  

Weaver is a master storyteller with a big box of tricks. That story layered atop other lupine tales, both fact and lore, Weaver told that night. One included multimedia of Lake Superior’s Isle Royale, the Michigan island where a 55-year predator-prey study was completed with the wolf population, and where Weaver spent three years as an artist-in-residence with the Isle Royale National Park. Another story used video footage of a choreographed performance of dancers cloaked in fur and stalking around like wolves in a barn, a haunting primordial waltz.

At that 2014 performance at Oregon’s Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, Weaver, an Illinois-based video and performance artist, was presenting “Wolf,” the third chapter of his mammoth project The Unreliable Bestiary, which he describes as, “stories from our precarious moment in natural history.” His lifelong project will run the alphabet (albeit not in order), with each letter representing an animal or habitat. It began with “Monkey” in 2009, followed by “Elephant” and “Wolf.”  “Bear” will wrap this year, and Weaver will soon delve into “Tiger.”

With each chapter, Weaver and his collaborators—choreographer (and wife) Jennifer Allen and composer-sound designer Chris Peck—curate a storytelling performance through spoken word, video, music, dance, geocaching, colossal puppets and ephemera like maps and illustration. All of this is buttressed in wide-ranging research rooted in everything from interviewing biologists to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. The goal is to avoid didacticism, not guilting the listener into action, but rather wooing the audience’s curiosity with mystery, beauty, humor and the absurd.

If you’re lucky enough to live nearby the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the school where Weaver teaches, you can have the live immersive experience. Weaver, perhaps in the guise of Park Ranger, may guide you into the woods or sit you on the floor of an old barn while he weaves his tales. (For the rest of us, Weaver takes his show on the road for small national tours and video of some performances is available online.)

The project is so immense that Weaver is the first to acknowledge the impossibility of it, the fact that it may not be complete in his lifetime. “In some ways it’s a little absurd and maybe impossible the way I’m doing it, but I guess that’s part of it: showing how big the problem is,” he says. “It was sort of putting a big frame around this idea: seeing what was happening with different environments and different creatures and watching it all crash really hard, really fast. I really love live performance, and I really like being outside. I get similar feelings from both. It sort of catches people’s imaginations.”

Weaver’s ultimate antagonist is man-made climate change and how it pushes flora and fauna into uncomfortable new realities and, perhaps, extinction.

To fully understand Weaver’s opus, however, you must wrap your mind around the world he’s created and its many parts: the medieval bestiary, the unreliable narrator, the anthropocene epoch and the hope a man-molded future can bring.

Deke Weaver's performances tell animal stories from our "precarious moment in natural history." Valerie Oliveiro

A Menagerie for the End of Times

“So far it’s really been starting with the charismatic megafauna,” Weaver says of his project. “These animals that are the stars of our zoos and the stars of our cartoons and our fairytales.”

Weaver is drawing on what he describes as the medieval bestiary, “the idea that every single thing on the planet has a purpose,” a sort of curiosity cabinet of the natural world with a dash of mythology.

He has chosen animals that we relate to, creatures that we have anointed with human characteristics while also endangering their survival. A trip to a tiger reserve in India inspired the upcoming chapter, which is slated for 2019.

“Going to India and just seeing the people and how things are built there and the pressure on the small islands of forest where tigers are—they don’t have a prayer, they really don’t,” Weaver says.

Like many high schools across the United States, Urbana High School is “Home of the Tigers.” Weaver says he would love to perform this chapter in the school’s gym, reinforcing the fragile balance of a beloved symbology and a contradictory truth, with one hand propping up these animals on pedestals, while the other hand destroys their habitats. Or, at the least, we look the other way while our mascots are marched towards extinction.

“Why does it matter if tigers go extinct?” Weaver poses. “I’m hoping I can sometimes shake people into feeling that there is a connection, and it’s much more than some cute story about tiger.”

Who Can You Trust?

The concept of the “unreliable narrator” was coined in the 1960s, but it’s an age-old trope—the premise that the person telling the story may be mishandling the facts, whether he’s a conman, a clown, a braggadocio or a rube. Weaver puts his own contemporary spin on it: We are the unreliable narrator.

“A lot of us have this idea that, to some degree, we can predict the future; we know where we’re going,” Weaver explains. “We trust this narrative of capitalism, or this narrative of technology always getting better, or this narrative of ‘We’re going to be fine.’”

However, he points out, nature always bats last. He uses “Elephant” as an example. During the “Elephant” performance at the Urbana university’s cavernous stock pavilion, Weaver projected a series of questions on large screens.

“It would says things like: ‘Is it true that elephants billow intoxicating perfumes towards potential lovers with their ears?’ That is true. That’s what African elephants do,” he says. “You start taking things from Pliny the Elder’s time, when elephants were battling dragons, and that was taken as fact.” Many ideas we once believed science has now debunked.

The same goes for the concept of the Big Bad Wolf—is this mammal a pesky predator, a savage beast encroaching on the domain of ranchers or a delicate species teetering on the brink of extinction at the hand of man?

“We do want to give you the experience, the chance to imagine what it’s like to feel like you’re being hunted. I tell ya: It will get your heart pumping,” Weaver told one audience. “There’s nothing that will make you feel more alive than realizing you’re part of the food chain.”

Valerie Oliveiro

The Epoch of Man

While it hasn’t received an official stamp of approval, many scientists propose that we now live in the geological time of the Anthropocene, when the main force shaping the planet is man. That’s Weaver’s jumping-off point.

“It’s just the old Barry Lopez idea that our imagination changes a particular environment, a particular ecosystem,” Weaver says. Our mythologies, our imaginations are “going to affect policy, which is going to affect the ecosystem. It’s not even abstract. You can connect it really clearly.”

Weaver suggests we are in dire need of shifting our imaginations in order to save the planet, or at least forestall it becoming uninhabitable for man. He compares it to the AIDS crisis and activism of the 1980s.

“Everyone around that movement knew it wasn’t a science problem; it was a political problem, and a political problem is ultimately a storytelling problem,” he says.

The Light in the Dark

While Weaver finds it difficult to be optimistic about the global environment, he sees hope in focused, local efforts, like the “Uncivilization” manifesto of the Dark Mountain Project, an international collective of writers, artists and activists who are forgoing tired ways of thinking about the environment and its demise—e.g. “It’s too late” or “There’s nothing I alone can do”—while offering new narratives in hopes of shaking the world’s human inhabitants awake and into reversive action.

“The guys who wrote the Dark Mountain Manifesto—I really like what they’re saying. … Maybe we can’t save the whole world, but maybe we can save part of it.”

This has got Weaver thinking. “One of the things about this project is continuing to find ways to connect these stories to me, to the soccer mom. Trying to spin out why it does matter,” he says. Weaver wants to crack the code on how to get people to care about something that is so large in scope, it’s abstract. The artist wants you to see the world from the perspective of the Big Bad Wolf, of the prey to an omnipresent predator; the wolf has as a valid a claim to this earth as the people who hunt it.

As he writes in his own pseudo manifesto of the The Unreliable Bestiary: “Through our stories of animals, climate and people, we’re creating experiences that subtly draw out the connections between wildly disparate local and global dots, experiences that continue to illustrate how the personal is political.”

For more info, see unreliablebestiary.org