Cynthia Hopkins on This Clement World

Cynthia Hopkins on This Clement World
Photo by Ian Douglas 

Singer, composer, and performance artist Cynthia Hopkins returns to the Walker this week for the Midwest debut of her new show, This Clement World, a piece that addresses climate change. The performance combines original songs, storytelling from multiple characters, and projected video from a trip Hopkins took to the arctic ocean.

We took a moment to chat with Hopkins about her process.

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Cynthia Hopkins on This Clement World
Photo by Pavel Antonov

How did you end up going on this trip to the arctic? 

I had been invited to an event organized by Tipping Point, which is a British organization that fosters dialogue about the climate crisis by inviting scientists and artists to conferences. They organized one at Columbia's Earth Institute in December 2009, where I attended a speech by a climate scientist named Wallace Broecker, who inspired me to make some kind of piece about this issue of climate change. 

At that conference, I ran into a friend and colleague named Ruth Little. She contacted me two months later to say she was working for Cape Farewell, which is another British organization that basically has the same mission as Tipping Point but instead of organizing conferences, they bring climate scientists and artists on expeditions. She invited me to go on an arctic expedition.

These two things kind of just fell into my lap. I mean, I was already aware of climate change and was disturbed by it. Everything I make springs from disturbance.

Cynthia Hopkins on This Clement World
Photo by Pavel Antonov 

Can you say more about everything you make springing from disturbance? 

I make artistic work as a survival technique. I suffer from chronic depression, and, basically, to stay alive I make work. The survival technique is to peg whatever disturbs me the most at any given moment, and to transform it through the process of making musical-theater performances, writing songs and text and creating these elaborate performance works. That's the kind of alchemical process where the disturbance is transformed into hope and inspiration for myself and for the audience. 

Can you talk a little bit about the multimedia element of the show? 

I work in a narrative form. The narratives tend to be convoluted and sometimes tangential, but they are in some ways straightforward narrative pieces -- they're not abstracted pieces. This particular piece tells the story of the arctic expedition and me learning about this subject matter. It's kind of like watching a documentary film that's narrated and enhanced by live music and punctuated by songs.

The footage is a combination of footage that I shot on the boat, and then footage that was shot by the head of Cape Farewell, David Buckland, and Matt Wainwright, the videographer on the boat. That footage is really stunningly beautiful. A lot of my footage is of interviews. I interviewed almost everybody on the boat because I was really fascinated by the people on the trip. I was trying to learn as much as I could, but I'm a shy person. So making the video of the interviews was a way of connecting with the other people.

I should mention that documentary prosaic travelogue is then inter-spliced with wildly fictional characters. And those fictional characters -- one is from 200 years in the past, one is from 200 years in the future, and one is from outer space -- provide a much wider perspective on the climate crisis that we're experiencing here in this present moment on Earth. The piece shuttles between the very idiosyncratic, personal, intimate perspective which is my story, and a much wider and more imaginative perspective. 

Cynthia Hopkins on This Clement World
Photo by Pavel Antonov 

Can you tell me about the American Indian character? How did you go about researching that character, and how did that character end up being in the story? 

Well, it was somewhat by chance that before I went on the arctic expedition that I just happened to be reading Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which is a book about the decimation of the Native population in America. It was just in my consciousness.

Because this book was really strongly in my consciousness at the time, I wanted there to be a ghost of a Native American who had been slaughtered during that time period. It's really important for me to have that perspective, especially because it's a way of life that was prevalent in this country, and was then destroyed and is no longer prevalent. It represents the mortality of the way of life, and the mortality of any given civilization.

Of course, the Native population in this country is not extinct, but it is a way of life that was prevalent and is no longer prevalent. So what I hope that it sparks with the audience is the fact that our way of life -- the Western, industrialized, capitalistic civilization that I live in -- is mortal, is transcendent, is something that is guaranteed not to last. 

Cynthia Hopkins on This Clement World
Photo by Jeff Sugg 

Did you work with any American Indian people for this show? 

No, that one book was my one source for that particular character. 

Have you gotten any criticism from the Native community about dressing as a Native? 

Interestingly, the only negative criticism I've received about that character has come from white men, and I think it's because of her tone. She was murdered in cold blood, so she's a little bit angry. There's a little bit of an accusatory tone, and she speaks only in the third person. She doesn't speak at all, actually. Her text is written and projected, but her sentiments are directed at the audience.

In my mind, what they are directed at is actually not individual people, but kind of an entire population, a Western civilization, really. But I think the people who have been upset by it are people who take it personally, as if it's a message delivered from me directly to them. That's not what it is at all, of course. It's a fictional character that is a representation of something larger than any one person. 

Can you talk about your decision to dress as an indigenous person? 

Well, I play a lot of different fictional characters in this piece, and they are different genders than me, and different ethnicities than me, and different nationalities than me, and that's part of what it is to take on a character that's a different person from me. That's about the extent of the meaning of that from my perspective. 

How do you create a political piece of theater without turning people off? 

Well, I wouldn't call this a political piece of theater, myself. To me, it's an homage to the miraculous clemency of our world, and it's also meant to convey the fragility of that clemency. It's a message of hope that fundamental change for the better is possible.

There's a metaphor presented between my own experience as an alcoholic and drug addict in recovery, and the possibility of recovery from any kind of addiction. The connection is made between that and the addiction of our current species and population and civilization to fossil fuels, and so the message is that a fundamental shift away from fossil fuels is not only possible but essential to the survival of the clemency of this world. So it's a message of hope, and I don't consider that a political message. 

My hope is that people will be inspired to learn more, and to figure out what's happening. I don't feel that it's the job of my piece to educate anyone, but to spark or inspire consciousness and hopefully inspire them to learn more. 


This Clement World
8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday
The Walker Art Center's McGuire Theater
For free downloads of some of Hopkins' songs, visit her soundcloud profile or Facebook page
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1750 Hennepin Ave.
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