URBANA, Illinois — This fall we learned once again that “all politics is local,” as Tip O’Neill famously said. All the theories and polling and arguments for the greater good paled in influence on voters compared to the circumstances of their daily lives, their immediate relationships, and the “call of stories” that fuel “the moral imagination,” as psychiatrist Robert Coles wrote a quarter of a century ago. Artists have been telling us all of this for at least two decades, with a swell of local performance and art scenes burgeoning across the globe. No one can be everywhere or see everything, and the internet has made us all aware of how much is going on that we’re missing. Even among the viewers of a single work, “there’s not one vantage point that should be seen or a unique point of perception,” as Christo explained in a 1983 interview.
This abundance and diversity makes the conversation richer, with more outstanding artists in more places than ever. But there are more audiences too, and people in downstate Illinois need outstanding works of art just as much as anyone. They’re getting them with — among other works — an exciting series of multimedia performances by Deke Weaver in and around the University of Illinois. On December 22nd, Weaver released the first online video for Part Two of his current “Bear” project. Five more of these one-minute teasers are going up on the “BEAR” page of The Unreliable Bestiary each week in January. Weaver will use geocaching to draw viewers into area parks to find clues that will lead them to surprising discoveries. The videos anticipate a culmination in stories and videos at a nightly performance that will run February 16 to 25 at the Station Theatre in Urbana. Will the videos capture field sightings of local bears? Will they reveal steps on a path of discovery in the AMK Habitat Corridor? We don’t yet know. But we do know what has happened so far in Part One.
It was dark as we headed from the parking lot toward the gateway to the AMK wilderness corridor. Three uniformed “park rangers” met us. They arranged the small group of 12 and then, lit by a bright camp lantern on the ground, two of the rangers faced us, with a large painted cutout of a polar bear behind them. Off to the side, a wooden wall crudely portrayed the U.S. National Soccer Team with cutouts for us to put our faces in, like a carnival concession for our souvenir photo. After taking a group picture, we set off into the damp, dark woods. It reminded me of Boy Scout camp in the more innocent world of 50 years ago.
Deke Weaver’s immersive, magical performance “Bear” began in front of these rudimentary signboards, as we listened to prerecorded stories on an eco-friendly hand-cranked voice recorder that one of the rangers held up before us. Like Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, the artificiality of the sets stood out deliberately. Over the tinny speaker, Weaver told us about different species of bears and the impending decline of our global eco-structure. The rangers held up signs on stakes; one of the extended texts read:
Greenland slides into the Atlantic. The power grid collapses on August 4th, 2017. The Totten Glacier and West Antarctica break off into the sea. Sea levels rise 12 feet, and now, 2020, we’ve got 40 percent of the world’s human population leaving the coasts and headed inland.
Like stories told around a campfire, Weaver described an Eskimo approached by a polar bear, who sniffed him up and down, breathing into his face as he lay motionless on the ground, and about the Eskimo’s companion who didn’t play dead and was eaten. We heard about polar bears breaching, like whales, rising eight feet out of the water, about polar bears running at 40 miles an hour, about a polar bear that swam 200 miles without stopping. The 12 of us together, we learned, weighed less than one large polar bear. Along our journey into the woods, at six stations (one for each of the six months of hibernation), we heard recordings about other species of bears. After learning about the black bears of the southeastern United States, who make their dens 60 to 90 feet above the ground in the trunks of hollow trees, we looked up to see one sleeping, gently breathing (by a remote-controlled motor) among the branches by a clearing.
Weaver’s “Bear” belongs to The Unreliable Bestiary, an ongoing series, with each installment about a different endangered species, corresponding to a different letter of the alphabet. The imagined AMK (Allerton-Meadowbrook-Kickapoo) habitat alludes to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), a real corridor created to bring grizzly bears back to the Rockies. Weaver began his series with “Monkey” (2009), then moved on to “Elephant” (2010), “Wolf” (2013), and now the first of the three parts of “Bear.” As the artist describes the project, “Inspired by the literary concept of the unreliable narrator and the medieval bestiary, which gave every living thing a spiritual purpose, The Unreliable Bestiary is an ark of stories about animals, our relationships with them, and the worlds they inhabit.”
Weaver has created a video for each of the projects, rich with stories and clips of the performances. Yet the experience of being there is unforgettable — and being there is the point. The feeling of trudging through the park in the dark of night, with the tall grasses brushing your face, the sounds of rustling in the woods, and the sensation of stepping along uneven, muddy, invisible paths all made the fantasy world of “Bear” palpably real. We were in it.
Half a mile into the woods, we came upon three dancers costumed as bears who came right up to our faces, sniffing and breathing like the polar bear with that hapless Eskimo. We huffed and puffed in rhythm with them, held hands as we encircled them, and then walked off, single-file, into the darkness. Touching each other was important. At the end we all took off our shoes and crawled into the confined space of a bear den, where we huddled together, wearing bear masks and listening to Weaver — looking “grizzly” with a six-month growth of beard — tell the story of a man slogging through his quotidian existence until one day he slowly began a metamorphosis into a bear.
The Unreliable Bestiary evolved around these interwoven stories, illustrated with beautiful videos of animals and habitats, maps, researched data, and costumed dancers in barn-like interior spaces and out “in the wild.” Weaver, his choreographer wife Jennifer Allen, and their troupe of collaborators performed “Monkey” in an experimental theater space. They staged “Elephant” in a stock pavilion with bundles of hay and bleachers around a large dirt-floored livestock arena, and during the show, a life-size, impressive but intentionally unrealistic elephant puppet walked into the space. We heard about the trip that Weaver and Allen had taken to a school for mahouts (elephant handlers) in Thailand, and this adventure wove in and out of the tale of Hero, a circus elephant the townsfolk of Elkton, South Dakota, shot to death during a snowstorm on May 15, 1916. The sounds of clinking leg chains, elephant cries and trumpets, and music composed and blended by Chris Peck haunted “Elephant” and transported the audience into the stories. The choreography of “baby elephants” learning to play with soccer balls heightened our empathy. Weaver told us about the real adventure of learning to ride an elephant from a mahout and of Anastasia, an old lady in Elkton who remembered the death of Hero. Costumed as Jojo, another circus elephant whose attempted escape likewise ended in disaster, Weaver took an interview on a TV talk show.
For “Wolf,” visitors boarded a tour bus in the city and watched “informational” videos while uniformed “rangers” prepared us for our hike into a woodland park where we encountered “wolves.” A wolf (costumed by Susan Becker) ran past the group on the path, wolves were spotted chasing Little Red Riding Hood in the distance, and later we came upon the remains of her basket and cape. The trek ended in a dimly lit barn with eerie sounds and “wolves” wandering among the audience as Weaver gave a nature talk with real data, and, as the artist described it, “unsettling, decidedly non-scientific details, shifting from the every-day towards a waking-spirit-world.”
The performances in The Unreliable Bestiary rely in part on the physical involvement of the small groups of viewers. You squeeze into cramped dens, sit on hard bleachers, and walk through puddles and shrubbery, swatting mosquitoes in the dark. The environment is literally in your face, and that opens you up to the experience on a physical level, to a reimagining of the world and your place within it in a fresh way. In the micro-urban setting around the University of Illinois, these events have taken on legendary status, like the performances of Calder’s Circus in 1920s Paris. Urbana isn’t Paris — although, of course, that Paris doesn’t exist anymore either. The “center” moved to New York around 1940, but after 1970, that New York disappeared too. Now the center is wherever you happen to be. That’s part of what’s new about the art world of the 21st century and about this body of work. The internet, travel, and the diffusion of information and images has made it possible to engage with the art world from anywhere, while also making the world seem oddly disembodied, even if you’re in Brooklyn. In The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, Warhol observed that “people sometimes say that the way things happen in the movies is unreal, but actually, it’s the way things happen to you in life that’s unreal.” The brilliance of Weaver’s performances is that they assert a palpable awareness of being in the world just when “the world” most feels like something on TV.