Featured Artist #15: Deke Weaver

Deke Weaver

The Performance Artist from Saint Petersburg

Deke Weaver’s universe is an extended road trip through a landscape of wild animals and mysterious characters. Magical realism meets the farm boy from Michigan. Imagine cold and fog, but with an ample dose of tenderness and humor. The Performance Artist From Saint Petersburg begins in a nearly deserted subway train and ends ... well, you’ll see. Visit Weaver’s website to learn more about The Man Himself, and experience more of his stories. Excerpts from his performance The Crimes &Confessions of Kip Knutzen, and a work in progress called The Palimpsest Project are particularly recommended.


What inspires you?

All kinds of things inspire me. The inspirations change. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere. Other times you make it or find it or dig it up. I love reading good fiction. I’m reading more nonfiction these days. I love love love reading. The time when I’m most open, most in the zone, the flow... whatever you want to call it ... is on long road-trips. Not so great for the environment, but it’s from growing up. We’d drive 15 hours a day. Once our family drove to Alaska. On the way home, my folks were tired of stopping so we drove all the way from Banff to Minneapolis.

I like movies – but I’m getting to a point where I have less patience for the formulaic ones. I’ve been seeing a lot of documentaries lately. I love certain radio programs – old Joe Frank programs. I used to listen to This American Life, but then it started feeling predictable and a little condescending. There’s a kind of hypnotism possible with the voice that I can’t get enough of. The first time I ever heard Joe Frank I was in the car driving home. I got so sucked into his story and the way he was telling it, that I drove past where I was living.

Live performance is intense. When it’s good, there’s nothing better. Unfortunately, it’s rare when it’s that good. And, worse still, there’s a LOT that sucks. For some reason a crappy movie is just a crappy movie, but a bad performance is like you’ve lost two hours of your life that you’ll never get back... but I keep going because I keep hoping I’ll hit one of those times when it absolutely blows you away.

Where do your characters come from?

Well. I guess a lot of them are connected to people I knew when I was a kid. The Minnesota ones, and some of the midwest/western/rural characters for sure. The New York ones are probably from movies – at least the accents and the swagger, but then, living there? You’d meet these folks every day. The characters find a way to say and do things I’d personally never do in real life.

Do your ideas unfold first as words on the page, or in cinematic detail, or do you have some other way of understanding and describing your process?

The ideas and stories and performances and videos all start in different ways. One day I was carrying a glass of milk back to a studio when I was at a residency. I spilled the milk walking in the door. I thought about crying over spilled milk. I thought about being a farmer and how spilling a big jug of milk – hours of work – would be a huge deal. This image set off a whole series of ideas and connections about origins of language and origins of humanity. It drew all these things I’d been reading and writing together. So that splash of milk acted like a catalyst for all these other things.

A rare time or two I’ve gone into a room with a tape recorder and let myself yammer. For me, I have to feel really safe, not watched or listened to when I’m doing this. Then I’ll go back and listen and transcribe the recordings. Some of the characters you stumble on during that process will have all sorts of things to say.

Sometimes it’ll just be a gesture, or somebody telling a story or reading an article online or in the paper. It doesn’t need to be much to send you off on a whole chain of associations. Sometimes I’ll hear or get an idea or a phrase for a very good ending and then it just becomes the task of writing the story that gets to that ending. That sort of work can almost feel like production work – it’s completely clear and finished in your mind. You just have to get it out of your mind and into the world.

For this particular video – The Performance Artist From Saint Petersburg – I had written it on the train leaving Prague in 1991. I liked the writing. I could hear it in my head. It had a very particular way it had to be read/performed. But I didn’t actually make it into a video until 2004 when I was building a show made up of short monologs and videos. So it sat in one of my journals for 13 years.

You are a writer and an actor and a video artist. Do these roles have any kind of hierarchy in your mind (or heart)?  What are the various pleasures and perils of each part of this trinity?

No, I don’t think they have a hierarchy. I’m usually thinking about making live, in-the-room performances. Often they become a hybrid of the writing, acting, video and sound. I don’t necessarily feel embraced by any medium or the communities that spring up around certain mediums. I mean, I don’t think the writing is strong enough to stand up on it’s own, like in a novel or collection of short stories. The video can do o.k. on it’s lonesome, but it doesn’t really hit all the buttons that die-hard experimental film-makers like. I haven’t really acted that much in other people’s plays – it always feels like I’m helping somebody else do their work, even though, for full-on actors that is their work – to interpret, embody, become the passions of a writer that – quite often – isn’t even in the room. I’m a little bit addicted to live performance. I feel like anything is possible. Truly anything. The heat of live performance carries a particular texture, and then the cool, contained video with it’s cinematic images and intimate radio voice has a different texture – audiences respond to the combination of the two things, but – for me – it comes down to the stories and the experience of being in that room, in that moment of time. On one wavelength of personal anxiety I worry about the jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none scenario, but when I’m in the moment, I don’t worry much at all.

Do you have any pets? What are your thoughts about all the animals that show up in your work? Fascination? Obsession?

Animals. Hm. Nope, no pets right now. Growing up we had dogs, and at one point we had a couple of baby swans in our garage, a screech owl in the Christmas tree, a cat, a couple of corn snakes, rabbits and gerbils. My dad is an ornithologist and wildlife/natural-resources guy. The best way to get his attention was to see an animal or a bird. I had really good eyes. I’m working on a project now called The Unreliable Bestiary – a combo of the literary idea of the unreliable narrator and the medieval bestiary. I want to make a performance for every letter of the alphabet. Each letter represented by the stories, science, myths and behaviors of a particular endangered species. It feels like we’re in desperate times. I guess the animals end up becoming sort of like the characters for me – they seem to carry information that isn’t necessarily accessible to me in my everyday life. They’re surprising. They’re funny. They tell the truth. The human race has had a long history with these creatures. They’re everywhere in our myths and dreams and college mascots and corporate logos. So, I think they still have a lot of power in our psyches.

This project is partially supported by the Illinois Arts Council

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  © Ninth Letter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.