This Clement World, a staged multimedia event written and performed by Cynthia Hopkins, isn’t what most people think of as a typical night at the theater. At one point, the performance artist—in character as an amiable visitor from outer space—delivers a bellowing narrative of the mass extinctions that marked the end of the Cretaceous period, backed by a four-member chorus and a seven-piece rock band. At another point she provides the voices for the amateur documentary film that makes up a sizable chunk of the show, lip-synching over the muted testimonies of the documentary’s subjects.
That film, as it happens, chronicles a 22-day expedition that Hopkins made to the Norwegian Arctic in 2010 at the invitation of Cape Farewell. This British organization connects artists and scientists in order to “stimulate the production of art founded in scientific research” and to assist artists in the task of “communicating on a human scale the urgency of the global climate challenge.” This Clement World was born of that trip, and what Hopkins witnessed while on it.
Hopkins’s past work has explored her father’s battle with Parkinson’s disease and her own struggles with chronic depression and addiction. But over the course of her 15-year career, even as she garnered Obie Awards and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Hopkins began to worry that her art had become too solipsistic. Her latest project, then, represents an attempt to link the notions of destructive personal behavior and destructive societal behavior. The result is a highly idiosyncratic, often funny, and ultimately poignant study of how our private addictions are mirrored by our larger addiction to fossil fuels, and how our collective denial may prove to be our undoing.
I met with Hopkins last spring during rehearsals at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, where This Clement World traveled after its debut in New York City. The piece will make its West Coast debut this October at REDCAT, the interdisciplinary arts and performance space nestled within the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex in Los Angeles.
What makes theater generally—and performance art specifically—a good vehicle for transmitting the urgency of a complex scientific topic like climate change?
Unlike in film—where special effects can often mean that very little is left to the audience’s imagination—in the theater you have to use your imagination to picture things. And then there’s the fact that climate change may or may not be something that will be experienced by an audience member directly in their lifetime, but will almost certainly be experienced by future generations. That’s why my personal story in This Clement World gets spliced by commentary from fictional characters from the past and the future and from outer space. They offer a wider perspective.
What got you thinking about climate change as a potential subject?
I attended a conference at Columbia University’s Earth Institute that was geared toward artists and other creative people. [Earth Institute director and economist] Jeffrey Sachs was talking about the pervasive degree of miscommunication regarding climate change. After he spoke, someone in the audience asked, “What can an artist possibly contribute to this issue?” And he said, “Well, you can communicate in a way that’s more viscerally and emotionally powerful than a scientist or a journalist can, perhaps.” It made me think of what I do in a new and different way, as a form of translation.
And so then you decided to spend three weeks among total strangers on an Arctic icebreaker.
I was terrified to go on that boat trip. I was afraid of getting seasick, of shipwreck, of the cold. Of course, what ended up happening was that I found the experience of being aboard this little floating world—of not having all the stuff that I would normally have around me in my life in New York City—really liberating, even exhilarating. It suggested the equally exhilarating possibility of switching over to a simpler way of life, of not having so much disposable stuff that one thinks one can’t live without.
Did the expedition succeed in its stated goal of getting you to see the world differently?
It led to such interesting shifts in perspective and scale. It’s hard to judge distance, for example, out in the Arctic Ocean. There just aren’t that many familiar objects, besides birds, to use as reference points. You see a glacier, and you think you’re right next to it. And then you sail and sail and sail, and it turns out you were really, really far away from it. Since there’s no visible evidence of human civilization out there, it can feel a bit like being on the earth before people entered the picture.
Then, just when you’re starting to feel tiny and insignificant, you’ll get this jolting reminder of the incredible impact we’ve had on the environment. One day we visited this particular island, Moffen Island. There have never been any humans living there at all, but you step onto the shore, and then you look down, and there’s garbage. Plastic bottles. The current carries them over from Siberia. So we’re polluting these places where we’ve never even lived, and which only a handful of humans will ever see.
That seems like exactly the kind of image that both an activist and an artist might be able to convey powerfully, albeit differently.
Art can crack open our consciousness in a way that other means of describing the world can’t. Even if my piece just makes people think about what’s happening to the climate for an hour more than they might have otherwise, for me that feels like a triumph. The more people are made aware, the more likely they are to make choices—even tiny ones—to live more sustainably.
Each one of us has agency, and the truth is that fundamental change is possible. Part of that perspective may come from my experience as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. I had to make this huge psychic shift from thinking that certain substances were somehow necessary for me to survive to realizing that living without those substances actually resulted in a much better life. We may think that we can’t live without fossil fuels or that we can’t survive without all of the stuff we manage to amass, but we can—and we can have a better life for giving them up.
Getting just one person to kick an addiction is hard. But when you’re talking about billions of people. . .
I know. But again, just to use my own story as an example: my life was being totally destroyed, and I still wasn’t willing to try any other way until things got so bad that I finally hit bottom, in the language of recovery. We spend all this money on fracking and deep-sea drilling, on extreme efforts to get an ever-diminishing supply of fossil fuels out of the ground. To me, that’s the familiar insanity of addiction. We’ll go to any lengths to get this stuff that we know is destroying the habitability of our environment, rather than taking those same resources and putting them toward clean energy.
Nothing will change unless and until we go through that same shift in consciousness that I experienced. There’s a line in a song from This Clement World—a song based on Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” in fact—that goes: “The bottom is when the digging ends.” What the song is saying is that we can’t wait until we’ve really and truly hit bottom before we decide to act. We’re always free to make the choice about when to begin getting better.
Photo of Cynthia Hopkins by Christopher Lane
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