Silence and Stories by Deke Weaver

Earlier this semester, the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology partnered with the IPRH to host an event on “Academic Freedom Across the Disciplines.” The forum sought to promote mutual understanding among the diverse body of scholars on our campus to address the vital shared principles that sustain research. Among the faculty who spoke for the event was Deke Weaver, Associate Professor in the School of Art & Design’s New Media Program. Here, he speaks to the violence of habituated silence, and how the quiet mundanity of its force might be met with the power of raw, individual speech acts. — ac


* If what follows was a movie, it would be rated R.  Please note: There will be salty language.  There will be nudity.

Here’s one way to define art:

01 matisse

“What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity devoid of subject matter – a soothing, calming influence on the mind, rather like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Henri Matisse.

If your life is a storm, maybe art is a safe harbor.  Maybe art is a place to have a good cup of coffee and a nice piece of pie.  I love coffee.  I love pie. But I know that there’s more to our world than comfort.

I played hockey growing up in Minnesota. I was a goalie.  In my first varsity high school game I got bombed. By the end of the second period it was something like 7 to 0 and they replaced me with the other goalie. We lost 10 to 0. It was completely humiliating.  The next day in class, one of my favorite teachers asked if we had done our reading.  I said no.  He said, “What, were you out playing hockey and losing 10 to nothing?”  And I said, “Fuck you.”  The room went silent.  He said, “What did you say?”  And I said, “You heard me.”  He cancelled class and sent me to the principal’s office. I’d never been to the principal’s office.  Ever.  But, apparently, I had a line.  And someone had crossed it. I wasn’t taking in any consideration of possible consequences, but it felt very important to say, “Please, please, go fuck yourself.”

02 dogTEAM

I grew up in a WASPish family with alcoholism kicking around in my grandparents’ generation.  So there were a lot of moments where black was white and white was black.  What I was told was the truth was not necessarily the truth. When I discovered performance it was an oasis in the desert.  The white-hot light on stage was where you were supposed to tell the truth.  Tell it all.  Tell it well. I could do anything in performance – fly, slip my skin, become a god. I could be whatever I wanted to be – and in this new creature that was me – this new creature could tell the truth. So when someone starts telling me that there is only one way to live a life, that there’s only one way to love, that there’s only one way to make art or speak or be civil … well, my small-minded ignorant friend … I have a line, and you’ve crossed it. Here’s a videotape I made in 1990. (this link contains adult content):

I made this pubic service announcement at the height of the Culture Wars. Four artists – Holly Hughes, John Fleck, Karen Finley, and Tim Miller – had been awarded National Endowment for the Arts grants and then they were taken away – similar to what’s happened recently on this campus. The “Don’t Be A Dick” tape struck a nerve and literally played all over the world. It got picked up by Damned In The USA,  a British documentary on US censorship. Donald Wildmon, head of the American Family Association, sued in an attempt to ban the documentary from being shown in the US.  Because of the lawsuit the documentary gained even more notoriety. And my penis became a poster child for the movie – the Village Voice, Playboy, LA Times, lots of places.  And then the documentary won the lawsuit.  The film had a nationwide theatrical release and then it even played on PBS. They didn’t censor the film on censorship so my penis was on TV.  Now, this videotape I made was not curing cancer. But, the tape had a way of finding like-minded folk.  It was a ridiculous gesture to point out other ridiculous gestures, gestures that happened to be making policy in our country.

So.  Policy.  Art that determines policy?  Really?  Yes.  Here’s another way to define art:

“Art is not a mirror to be held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” Bertolt Brecht.

03 riis-2

Jacob Riis was a photographer who worked in New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1800’s.  The photographs in his book, How The Other Half Lives had enormous impact and spurred reform for tenement living and child labor.


The effect of photos like Nick Ut’s famous Vietnam War shot are the reason the military has banned releasing any images of body bags returning from our wars of the 21st century.  If you ban an image or refuse to let a story be told – you are silencing that story. Silence can be a terrible thing.

Girls Rock is a rock n’ roll camp for girls age 8 to 18.  In one week you learn how to play an instrument, start a band, play a concert. It’s a powerful thing to speak.  To find your voice.  It’s an even more powerful thing to scream into a microphone. Part of the Girls Rock credo says:  WE BELIEVE CREATIVE VOICES OF GIRLS AND WOMEN NEED TO BE AMPLIFIED TO CREATE SOCIAL CHANGE.

National Book Award winning author Barry Lopez will be 69 years old this year.  He’s not coming to the Krannert Center for Performing Arts this November because of our university’s dismissal of the first amendment. Lopez wrote an essay that was published in January 2013’s Harpers magazine.  It came out when he was 67 years old.  “Sliver of Sky” tells the story of his boyhood.  Starting when he was 7, Lopez was raped repeatedly by a predatory family doctor.  This went on for four years. The memoir does not sugar-coat stark facts. After 55 years of silence, Barry Lopez spoke.


Eve Ensler wrote a play called The Vagina Monologs.  It’s been staged all over the world.  There’s a lot of silence and noise around genitalia. God knows how many people live in the dark.  Shame.  Miscommunication.  Brutality.  To speak can be an act of courage.  Not necessarily civil. Telling the truth can literally save someone’s life.  Ensler started a foundation called V-Day.  Its mission is to shed light on domestic violence and rape.


The Chinese government has imprisoned, beaten, and tortured Ai Weiwei for his art. During the 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China, schools collapsed, killing thousands of children.  It turns out that, in order to save money, the construction company used shoddy material to build the schools.  For a Munich retrospective, Ai Weiwei used 9000 children’s backpacks to spell out the sentence “She lived happily for seven years in this world” – a quote from a mother whose child died in the earthquake.


How about stories closer to home?  Dave Eggers wrote a non-fiction book called Zeitoun. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four, chose to stay through the storm to protect his house and contracting business. He traveled the flooded streets in a secondhand canoe, passing on supplies and helping those he could. But, on September 6, 2005, Zeitoun abruptly disappeared – spirited away into a secret makeshift Louisiana prison system.  This was not Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, or El Salvador of the 70’s and 80’s.  This took place twelve hours south of Champaign.


Ferguson, Missouri is three hours south of Champaign. Police silenced Michael Brown’s story forever.  And then they tried to put a lid on that. Al Jazeera was detained, the Washington Post was arrested.  What would be a “civil” reply to police-state murder, the shooting death of an unarmed man holding his hands up in surrender?

Sometimes I encourage students to question the status quo through their work. One young man asked, “Why would I want to do that?  For me, things are pretty good.”  Here’s why:  because we’re more complicated than the status quo.  Because our stories are deeper and fuller than the story that we’re sold.  The status quo flattens and simplifies and dumbs things down. We’ve got to allow messiness and confusion. Sometimes it’s important to be completely uncivil.  We have to keep questioning the status quo, because sometimes it’s just plain wrong.


Learning the limits of the world can stop you from imagining you can fly.  Many cultures had tricksters, jesters, sacred clowns – characters that deliberately made fun of the status quo to keep everyone humble and honest.  They’d live their life backwards and upside down. The sacred clown lets us reconnect to the fact that the world is a much bigger place than what we come to imagine it is.


1916 was the year of two of the bloodiest battles in human history.  Over 500,000 people died in the Battle of Verdun.  The Battle of the Somme saw over one million men wounded or killed. Civil speech could not encompass the horror.  What to do?  For five months in early 1916, young artists gathered in Zurich at a small café that became known as Cabaret Voltaire.  Dada.  Madness.  Poems without words or language.  Hugo Ball, one of the Cabaret’s founders said:

“…every word spoken and sung here says at least this one thing: that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect.  What could be respectable and impressive about it?  Its cannons?  Our big drum drowns them.  Its idealism?  That has long been a laughing stock in its popular and academic edition.  The grandiose slaughters and cannibalistic exploits?  Our spontaneous foolishness and enthusiasm for illusion will destroy them.”hugoBALL

Absurd?  Definitely.  Uncivil?  Oh yes, absolutely.  But in the face of 70,000 casualties a month …  how absurd, how disgusting, how uncivil can you get?

Here are some holy clowns.  At the height of the Vietnam War, Chris Burden had a marksman friend shoot him in a Santa Monica gallery.


David Wojnarowicz sewed his lips shut in this ACT-UP image.


Guillermo Gomez-Pena has worked with ideas about the Border, identity, racism, and nation for a long time.gomezpena

Here’s one of the iconic images from 20th century art – University of Illinois alum, Carolee Schneeman – with her 1975 work Interior Scroll:  she extracts a carefully rolled scroll from her vagina, unrolls it and proceeds to read – part poem, part manifesto – irony, male arrogance, sexism.schneeman

Kara Walker has spent her artistic career working with race, sex, slavery, and violence.  Her work isn’t “about” provocation – her work is intentionally provocative.


One of the NEA 4, Karen Finley’s work has unflinchingly confronted sexual abuse, AIDS, suicide, and American politics while embracing full frontal female sexuality.


The tricksters, the jesters, the sacred clowns, the artists – they know we are asleep.  Their job is to wake us up.

Christmas time in Barcelona: there’s the familiar story – baby Jesus.  Mary.  The wise-men.  The animals.  But in Barcelona … the Nativity also includes the caganer.  A peasant.  He’s got his pants down.  He’s taking a dump.


This tradition has been around since at least the late 17th century.  People in Catalonia are fiercely loyal to the little figure.


Maybe the caganer is keeping it real? Even Jesus had to move his bowels.  In Barcelona you can get all kinds of caganer figures:  here’s Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, Sponge Bob.


As Oscar Wilde said, “We’re all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”  If Barcelona’s caganer is the earth, Antonio Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia is the stars – a cathedral that has been in construction for the past 132 years.

Church of the Sagrada Familia interior in Barcelona

It is completely absurd.  It does not fit the status quo.  It does not make sense for any corporate bottom line.  It is not civil.  It is painfully beautiful.

Wake up my friends.  Wake the fuck up.


Deke Weaver is a writer-performer and media artist. His performances and videos have been presented throughout the U.S. and abroad in experimental theater, film/video, dance, solo performance, and broadcast venues such as PBS, Channel 4/U.K., the New York Video Festival at Lincoln Center, the Sundance Film Festival, the Chicago Humanities Festival, the Berlin Video Festival, the Museum of Contemporary Art/LA, the Moth, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and many others including livestock pavilions, national parks, night clubs, backyard sheds and living rooms. A Guggenheim Fellow and Creative Capital grantee, a resident artist at Yaddo, Isle Royale National Park, a two-time resident at Ucross, and a four-time fellow at the MacDowell Colony, he has been awarded commissions and grants from the city of San Francisco, the states of New York and Illinois, and other public and private foundations. He is currently an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with appointments in the Department of Theater and the School of Art & Design’s New Media Program. 


About anitacks

assistant professor of media and cinema studies at the university of illinois at ubana-champaign. + digital ethnography, inter-disciplinary approaches to media and technology studies, and hybrid pedagogies. engaged in research on/with innovation policy and practices, global digital cultures and translocal interventions, latin american science and technology studies.
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