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CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. — I traveled down to Champaign-Urbana carrying two cassette tapes of BESTIARY, a mix tape by the music label Hairy Spider Legs. On my Amtrak ride back to Chicago, I held zero cassette tapes in hand, and instead carried with my a head full of WOLF, the third installation in Deke Weaver’s lifelong project, The Unreliable Bestiary. This felt like a reasonable swap to me — I traded cassette tapes inspired by medieval bestiaries, also known as the “book of beasts,” assigned a spiritual purpose to every animal, and contained bestiary manuscripts that acted as a visual language for the public, which was usually illiterate.
Weaver’s project takes its inspiration from the literary concept of an unreliable narrator and the medieval bestiary, twisting and modernizing it along the way. It considers our stories of animals, humanity’s relationship to said animals, and the worlds that animals inhabit now. In the medieval bestiaries, there are a number of animals per letter of the alphabet; in Weaver’s project, there is only one animal per letter, and there is also an end date with a far less magic, far more soberingly realistic message about the future of each species. By 2050, climate change and surging populations will send approximately one-half of the species on Earth into a state of extinction.
As this was the third performance, it’s important to note that MONKEY and ELEPHANT occupied the first two slots. Weaver is in no hurry and not running through the animals in any sort of alphabetical order. The performance/video began with two coach buses parked outside of the Krannert Art Museum. En route to the Allerton International Biosphere, passengers watched as those tiny TVs onboard played videos about wolves — Disney cartoons of the iconic big bad wolf and an interview with a farmer (played by Weaver) who declared that wolves were eating his cattle were among the videos playing on the bus en route to “The Zone,” aka the Wolf Zone aka the Allerton International Biosphere. Passengers participated in a group sing-along, a revised version of “Home on the Range,” ripe with darker lyrics. One verse went like so: “My shotgun is gone, I’m not traveling on, I’m so tired, flat-broke and lonely.”
Upon arriving at the Allerton International Biosphere, the crowd of 35 or so people began feeling more like a group of tourists heading out on a nature hike — well, almost. Played by Weaver and other guides, we were led through this zone until happening upon a wolf — or rather, a human-wolf hybrid, a performer wearing a wolf costume, lying on the forest floor. It quickly dashed off, and we followed it down a path that ultimately led to a barn. On the first floor of the barn, we encountered various altars and homages to the wolf — a collection of wolf paintings, a golden wolf adorned with furs and skulls, and a drawing of a wolf curled up across the Midwestern states on a map. After a brief tour through the barn’s first floor, we were led to the second floor where the hour-ish long performance of WOLF took place. Arriving at this place felt like an achievement in and of itself, however. Here, the information about wolves kept coming — now in a format more linear, yet no less reliable as it was delivered previously.
The hour-long performance began with a story of how the troubles for the wolf began — with Loki, the Norse god of fire who was also known as a trickster, the father of Fenris the wolf-pup, who kicked him out of the stars. Next up we learn the story of Isle Royale on Lake Superior, which had been a wolf sanctuary for 30 years until the literally disastrous shit of a domestic dog named Buck basically destroyed the wolf population. There were more narrated stories about the wolf’s devastating near-extinction and subsequent attempts of wolf repopulation at Yellowstone Park.
Peppered in between these longer tales, viewers were dazzled with anthropomorphism of the wolf in conversation with a hunter who knows secrets of Snow White and the forest. She’s a sham show — she’s buying valleys, bringing in cattle, liquidating the forest, and then buying up buildings in Shanghai — protecting her investments, as it were. The secret’s out — capitalism’s supply-and-demand rules this forest, this land, and the fate of the wolf. Animals are no longer sacred members of the spiritual Medieval Bestiary, but rather commodities to be traded and slashed and cut to pieces for their beautiful fur and raw meat.
The Unreliable Bestiary ends with a foreboding overtone, which makes sense given the conceptual premise of this lifelong project and the grim realties of climate change. But it does not condemn the Disney Empire for its perpetuation of the wolf as evil, big, and bad, or bark at American consumer culture. Rather, it tells the story like it is, bringing to the fore the nature of our world, or the way that nature will soon go if we just sit back and let it unfurl.
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The Unreliable Bestiary: WOLF ran September 12–16, 2013, in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois.