Katherine Cooper addresses a series of letters to performance artist Cynthia Hopkins in response to her work, This Clement World.
Cynthia Hopkins has just returned from a journey to the Arctic aboard the Noorderlicht, a Dutch sailing vessel which has been chartered by the British organization Cape Farewell, and had on board ten artists and five marine scientists from around the world. These passengers set sail on a twenty-two day voyage around the Arctic to “encounter the magnificence of this extreme and threatened environment and engage with the scientific research being conducted on board.” Hopkins was then charged with shaping her experience of that trip into a performance which she has titled This Clement World. And then she came to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
I. A Small Disturbance
I cried. I wasn’t planning to, but within the first few bars of her singing I was in tears. What she was singing wasn’t even particularly “sad,” nonetheless my lip quivered and my breath and heart quickened. I agreed to listen but I didn’t agree to cry.
White girls crying at other white girls singing about global warming. Ugh.
But I’m still crying.
Hopkins stands alone on the St. Anne’s Warehouse stage in Brooklyn with an accordion. She wears a plaid shirt and jeans. She has short brown hair and bright eyes. She sings:
Oh the ocean
The harmony emerges from nowhere. Almost animal. Almost human. A sound that sounds like it was always there and I’ve just now started to hear it. On the last “Hallelujah,” Hopkins strains at the top of her register, her voice wavering, almost a squeak, until it settles down back into itself and the song concludes. Ostensibly, Hopkins is trying to get me to think about global warming. But I’m not thinking that much. I’m feeling. This is no Al Gore-esque Inconvenient Truth powerpoint presentation about the facts. Rather, Hopkins’s first notes feel like a lamentation or a funeral rite for a planet. One last gasp for all of us to get together before we put granny earth in the ground.
My untrained ear can just barely distinguish between a major and minor chord but as far as I can tell this opening song is all minor. My sudden affective response makes me wonder at the resonances (historical and acoustic) that her instrument already brings with it. The accordion is a nomadic instrument, kinda nerdy, meant for the people. I’m hooked and teary. Ultimately, I’m not sure how I feel about feeling. Especially when it comes to feeling sad and especially when it comes to feeling sad about global warming. I’m ambivalent about feelings and politics: I love them as much as I hate them. And so, I am moved. And disturbed.
I don’t really think that it’s fair that you made me cry in the opening number of your show. I prefer to be cynical about these things. I don’t have a lot of room for sentimentality when it comes to things like global warming and the planet. Global warming is a fact. It’s a scientific fact that people should take logical steps to combat. I’m pretty sure that there are a lot of scientists and doctors (people with PhDs in the HARD sciences I mean) that are taking care of that. And congresspeople. And activists. And I know that I’m doing my part by living in an urban center and making conscious food choices and recycling and staying informed and voting against fracking at every opportunity. So why do I need to feel anything about it? What use is it for a white girl living in Brooklyn to cry about global warming?
Also. I think you should know that I intended to write something that was about laughter and how you set up jokes. I started to try and write that and all I could write were the parts where I cried. Big old white girl tears. You really don’t seem to shy away from raw emotionality. I have to say, I admire that.
Can I be honest? There is a really cynical paranoid part of me that feels like you just wanted to go on a trip to the Arctic to find yourself and you got some funding to do it and then you saw a bunch of pretty wildlife and met a bunch of romantic scientists and sedimented this whole experience as somehow part of “The Arctic.” And then you had this grant funding and you had to make a play about it and this is the play you made. And you’re just trying to convince all of us here in Brooklyn that we should feel worse about not doing more. And that bugs me. That’s so naïve! You are so naïve! You really think you’re going to achieve anything materially by making people feel bad? That’s crazy!
I’m sorry. I should start over.
I really admire your work.
I’ve been listening to your song, “The Success of Failure, The Failure of Success:”
I want things to be back the way they were.
When I was new in the world.
Want to pretend that I am free.
Not held back by longing for the way things used to be.
What the earth was it isn’t anymore
But evolution is an open door
yes evolution is an open door
ah the earth was a paradise
if only I had realized it then.
I held heaven in the palm of my hand
It’s a funny sentiment—longing for a time when there was no longing. Paradoxical. I get that. Nostalgia is easy to dismiss. This writer Marla Carlson says that the word nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos, meaning to return home, suggesting “a desire to return to already-known conditions of the past.” I can see how that would be easy to dismiss as a useless feeling. We will never be able to go back so why long for it? Nostalgia can seem like a lazy emotion, can’t it. Carlson doesn’t seem to think so though. She reminds us that the second part of the word (algia) means pain. It was a medical term used to describe the pangs of longing soldiers felt when they had sensory reminders of home—smells, pictures, foods, etc. The only way they were susceptible to cure was by returning home. Do you think there is a cure in returning? Is music the easiest way to get us there? To give ourselves the permission to want to return to a home? To a childhood? To a new world that never was? Is there something useful about longing?
I noticed that you often sing at what sounds like the top of your range. I think it makes you sound sort of childish, in a good way. By using the most childlike quality of your voice it’s almost as if you are returning or going back somehow. Those high notes give me the feeling of wavering—of new territory just being explored. Uncertainty. It brings tears to my eyes.
But I can’t help but think that’s it’s a little bit dangerous, this nostalgia. Because, you know, there wasn’t ever really a time of innocence or purity. And all of my associations with people and ideas who try to argue that there was are really pretty negative. A myth of false purity is responsible for a lot of nasty stuff. Do you ever worry about that? I do. I worry about a lot of things—global warming, sentimentality, hoarding, getting too close to things that I’m writing about so that I have nothing to say to them anymore and all I can do is listen.
Anyway. I’m really enjoying the album. I listen to it when I walk to the subway to block out all the noise of other people.
III. The Band.
Back at the theater.
A seven piece band and an eight person chorus back Hopkins’ songs. These musicians join her in song but not in speech. They remain invisible, separated from the downstage area by a thin scrim as the audience enters the theater. As Hopkins begins to play her accordion, slowly, the lights illuminate the bodies behind the scrim as they join her in an anthemic ode to the earth and the ocean (the same one that had me wiping tears from my eyes within the first four bars). Throughout the piece, the band accompanies Hopkins on almost every song but usually the lights don’t illuminate them until after they’ve started playing. Even then, they are only in partial light—indiscernible as individuals but recognizable as a massive source of sound. I’m reminded of a distant herd of animals or dancing shadows on a cave wall.
Hopkins performs as one voice among many. While she plays, she affects an ignorance of the voices and instruments that accompany her. She stands downstage center singing to the audience as if she were alone. This is of course a trope of many genres of musical performance, but in this case the relationship seemed integral to the piece. The moments when light illuminates this group of people behind her produce a vibration in me of a higher frequency. It feels like a dawning of awareness, an small internal gasp, a recognition of a totality beyond Hopkins and beyond myself. It is as if I, as an audience member, am able to achieve omniscience for a short moment, to see and hear the totality of this particular group.
Unlike the orchestra pit which is usually either dark or consistently illuminated, this group is alternately concealed and revealed—fully heard and partially seen. The transition between visibility and invisibility dramatizes the kinds of questioning that can happen around political action: Does anybody agree with me? Can I really make a difference? Does it even matter? Can you see me? Can you hear me? Political action can feel like a process of illumination and darkness—recognition and misunderstanding. Unrelenting failures with occasional dawning moments of success mark the personal political process.
Global warming can be a defeatist topic. Among the liberal urban circles I run in, I’ve found that it’s generally agreed upon that it’s happening, it’s bad, and that we could all be doing more to stop it. However, recycling feels less and less noble every day. Riding my bike and taking public transport feels heroic only to a point and eating locally sourced meat and greens often feels more expensive than righteous. Doing your part gets banal. When a hurricane puts my city underwater and climate change bills fall flat on their face in Congress, idealism starts to seem like a resource in short supply. But hearing Hopkins sing as the frontwoman of this group of people shows me a situation where the action of an individual might actually effect a degree of change. When Hopkins starts singing, others join her. This feeling that I experience, a feeling that we might all be on the same page, seems key to the universalizing messages contained in her work and the call to individual action that it sounds. It’s as if she is whispering, “you may already be part of a like-minded group, you just don’t know it yet.” The lyrics of another one of her songs echo this sentiment:
And I can see through strains of light: we already have everything we need
All my friends are falling in love. What the hell, right?
They’re dropping like flies. And the best and worst part is that they’re falling in love with EACH OTHER. The thing about watching people fall in love, as in, truly fall in love, is that they sort of become more themselves. They get bigger. They take up more space. Their skin seems brighter. It’s enough to make you want to vomit. Or sing for joy.
Are you in love Cynthia?
I couldn’t help but notice that you were alone onstage most of the time. Is it lonely up there for you? I always wonder about people like you and me, who are drawn to solo performance. Because it’s true—you sort of are in charge of everything when you are up there and your relationships do get blurry. Where does the character start and where do you end? You can start to lose yourself alone up there can’t you? When you’re performing This Clement World do you ever get lonely? Do you ever see somebody in the crowd and fall in love with them a little bit? Do you ever forget where you are?
I’ve been looking at some footage of your other shows besides This Clement World. Why don’t you ever write shows where you fall in love? Does it just not interest you? Perhaps the politics of falling in love are not in line with the politics of the shows you’re making. Love is, after all, problematic. Susan Sontag defined her version of being in love recently. She writes: “Being in love (l’amour fou) a pathological variant of loving. Being in love = addiction, obsession, exclusion of others, insatiable demand for presence, paralysis of other interests and activities. A disease of love, a fever (therefore exalting). One ‘falls’ in love. But this is one disease which, if one must have it, is better to have often rather than infrequently.”
She’s probably right. Is it better to be right and unhappy? This obsession at the core of being in love seems at the core of so much of what you are critiquing in your piece. We live, after all, in a culture of addiction, excess and consumption. And talking about the environment isn’t exactly … erotic … is it? Maybe you are too busy falling in love with the Arctic to fall in love with a single person. I know that feeling. Do things speak to you, Cynthia? Do you think that they can make things happen? Are you seduced by them? I think I might be … I’m writing to you because of a thing after all, aren’t I? The thing that was your show.
You did write a love song to a boat. I thought that was pretty … curious. I looked back at the lyrics to “Noorderlicht.” You sang:
When you were born a hundred years ago, you were a beacon of light,
Noorderlicht. And then under
you became a different kind of haven, Noorderlicht.
Then you were stripped down to your bones, and left an empty shell, oh!
You wrote a whole song to a boat. I mean, that’s a lot. We don’t usually have as much control over the material world as we think we do, huh? Sometimes something like a boat can overpower us completely. Objects sweep us off our feet as much as people do. Have you ever walked through Brooklyn in the late afternoon and looked at the light on the side of a building and found that you are suddenly filled with a deep sadness? The light turns into tears and an image becomes a feeling and all of a sudden you are on the sidewalk, 15 minutes late for an appointment, overcome with longing and unable to remember how to get to the 2 train.
Cynthia, do you have a crush on that boat?
You describe the Noorderlicht as having a skeleton and a shell. It is at once animal and mineral—embodied and material. It seems apt then that you would have fallen in love with the boat you were riding on, as much as Captain Ted, or the older British scientist, or that crackpot Swedish lady that you interviewed. Isn’t part of the job of the bard to pay enough attention to objects so that you can render their essence in text? So you can sing of their materiality in a way that makes them present to other ears and eyes?
So then maybe you did fall in love with a boat as a part of a life and a planet that you were also falling in love with. And perhaps it was that boat’s ability to guide you, house you and protect you that seduced you. Perhaps you would have us fall in love with boats and ice flows before bothering to encounter each others fleshy materiality.
But you are not only falling in love with things in the Arctic are you? Your acting partners—the objects onstage with you—are also your companions. You may be seduced by a boat far away but you are holding the body of a guitar in your arms when I see you. When you are alone on stage, your props become your acting partners. And we all know that acting partners fall in love all the time. Do you have a type, Cynthia? I suspect you have a thing for chambers of resonance—the enormous wooden body of a boat, the incurved sidewalls of your guitar, the vast box of the warehouse itself. Bodies that resonate with the materiality of sound.
I keep thinking of that closing projection of yours—the one where you’re walking naked through the snow in boots? You disappear into the ice and snow at the end of it after you walk up to the camera and look us (the audience) in the eye. It seems like you’re evaporating into thin air or maybe you’re just giving yourself over to the Arctic. Is that the danger of falling in love with a boat or an ice flow or even a person—that you don’t become more yourself, you simply disappear? I don’t know that I want that Cynthia. I’m not sure what I want. Maybe it’s not really up to me. I’m working on it, I really am. It seems like you are too.
V: Another Disturbance
Hope, it seems has gone out of fashion.
After a great resurgence in 2008 it has been enfolded back into cynicism. A recession, a war, a warming planet, a president who is not a poster but a man, might all be contributing factors. I too, have lost hope. Or at least, sequestered her somewhere. Hope and her sister optimism have become traps rather than ways out. Caring about global warming it seems to me is deeply linked to hope. If you want the planet to continue to be habitable, you must believe that there is something worth saving in humanity, that we’re worth it, that life is worth saving.
Hopkins has said, “All of my work emanates from a particular disturbance or sometimes a collection of various disturbances. But disturbance is kinda the seed or impetus of my work always and it’s a very organic process.” Sound is a disturbance of air, molecules and bodies. It arrives in waves. It is a vibration which can be heard when it reaches an ear and small bones knock against each other. It’s no surprise then that Hopkins’s work emanates from what she calls a disturbance. Hopkins’s songs are personal political disturbances that crack me at the level of my emotions. What gets in those cracks?
Logic and facts have ceased to have the desired impacts on my psyche. They no longer induce hope. They fall on deaf ears. But song is different. Song cracks something in me and, maybe, hope gets in the cracks.
I’m exhausted. Like, really really tired. Have you ever gotten so tired that you just want to give up? That you just want to throw in the proverbial towel, call up your parents and see if they’ll still let you move back in with them? Perhaps this is what they call depression.
I opened Ann Cvetkovich’s book with the self-same title, Depression, to take a peek. She turns to older ascetic models of depression in order to re-examine how we think about it today. She writes that fourth-century Christian John Cassian identified a genre of feeling called “acedia” or “carelessness.” It bears a resemblance to our contemporary understanding of what we call depression. Cassian describes an unhappy monk who has come to dislike everybody around him and become lazy and sluggish in the confines of his monk dormitory. It’s sort of the 4th century equivalent of that moment you decide all your friends are idiots and you’d rather write in your journal, take naps and look at the moon rather than speak to them. That moment when fear of missing out becomes a laughable idea and you opt for IMO (Intentionally Missing Out ((on everything)). Every Facebook invitation is an obligation. Every text message an unwelcome interruption. Every phone call becomes an opportunity to sigh and turn the screen face down in favor of rolling over, eating another spoonful of peanut butter and hitting repeat on that song by The National. Anyway. Cassian wrote that this state of our lonely monk “produces a desire to sink into slumber and intense feelings that lead to a powerful urge toward movement or flight so strong that the solitary thinks he will never be well unless he leaves his cell and so often goes out of his cell and frequently gazes up at the sun, as if it was too slow in setting.”
I’ve been taking a lot of breaks.
I’ve been planning a lot of road trips.
I’ve been looking at the sun.
And the moon.
It’s been a strange spring this year hasn’t it? It’s my favorite season and it feels like it’s getting shorter and shorter. The thing about writing, Cynthia, is that—
Wait. Oh my god. Oh my god.
I’m sorry I just took a second to google you and to see if you went to college.
And, oh my god.
You went to Brown University?!
I WENT TO BROWN!
THIS IS THE BEST THING THAT’S HAPPENED TO ME ALL DAY AND IT’S SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED YEARS AGO.
I mean, that’s really quite a coincidence isn’t it?
So then, I guess you can probably relate to my frustration about this whole white girls crying at white girls talking about global warming thing. It’s ubiquitous up there.
Do you remember how the magnolias at Brown always blossomed right at graduation? Well I was up there the other week and they were already flowering. In April. That’s ominous.
Back to depression. You seem to be no stranger to that particular feeling. In an interview with somebody from the Brooklyn Rail you said: “This Clement World confronts climate change, but it took me a circuitous route to get here. For me, before I could really consider issues outside my own psychodrama, I had to make a few plays about my psychodrama. (laughter) It’s like Virginia Woolf’s essay, ‘A Room of One’s Own.’ She talked about having to work through your own issues of life and death before even considering issues outside of yourself.”
So you have issues, huh? I hear you.
I looked into “A Room of One’s Own.” It’s shockingly topical. The part where Woolf writes about historical women, like the poet Lady Winchilsea, attempting to write strikes close to home. She imagines Winchilsea in a room in the country, torn asunder by bitterness, suffering from melancholy. Winchilsea never gained any recognition in her lifetime. She died a wife, nothing more. Sounds an awful lot like depression—a feeling of uselessness, bitterness, shut-up-ness. Lady Winchilsea must have spent a lot of time looking at the sun in between writing lines of poetry that would never be read.
I started listening to your earlier albums. The ones you recorded as Gloria Deluxe? It sounds like you’re no stranger to melancholia. The laziness and sluggishness that Cvetcovitch and Cassian talk about reminds me of the first lines of your album in “Teeth Like Yours.”
Saw someone with teeth like yours
can’t work anymore
I am rotten to the core
I’m a lazy whore.
I’m a lazy whore.
No I’m separate from you all
and even you my closest friends
I don’t even know you yet
though we’ve been lovers for so long
There’s that accordion again.
There is something about women in isolation isn’t there? There’s something about a person alone, longing. When that person happens to be a woman, it’s very scary to people. We think they’re crazies before we give them the chance to be geniuses. You don’t hear so much about women alcoholics. Or female suicides. At least I don’t. Women are supposed to be able to cope a bit better maybe, be a little bit better at getting back to the daily grind of the material world. Something about our pelvises being slightly heavier on average, closer to the ground, etc.
Cynthia. I have a confession. I haven’t started recycling more. I also haven’t given up meat or gone to any fracking rallies.
I hope you’re not disappointed.
I have been thinking a lot more though, in the library, at my kitchen table, and I do seem to be writing.
Writing from a depressive state, from an attention to the sun, from love.
I imagine all of a sudden a confederation of these writers of different statures across time:
Virginia Woolf at her writing desk in Sussex.
Ann Cvetkovich crying at her computer at Cornell, trying to revise chapters to submit to non-tenure track jobs in the 90s.
Cassian staring at the slowly setting sun.
Susan Sontag smoking a cigarette in New York City after having her novel trashed by the Times.
Lady Winchelsea rattling around in Eastwall towers, Kent.
You, in Brooklyn, the Arctic, Brown University, lost in your own “psychodrama,” calling yourself a lazy whore.
Me. Here. On the couch. Listening to you.
Katherine Cooper is a Brooklyn-based performer, writer, and director with an MA in Performance Studies from NYU. Recent work includes Healthcare (Farm Theater Company), Love in the Seventh Kingdom of Wrath (FRANK Theater), and W.H. Salome (Dixon Place).