Sea Change

Cynthia Hopkins‘ musical “This Clement World” interrogates the climate change crisis with facts from the field after a 22-day voyage in the Arctic Ocean.

Joseph Kleinschmidt


What: “This Clement World”

When: 8 p.m., Thursday throughSaturday

Where: Walker Art Center, McGuire Theater, 1750 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Cost: $22 ($18 for members)


Within 600 miles of the North Pole, a crew of 20 stopped short in freezing waters aboard an aged ship. The group of scientists and artists were stuck in a mass of ice aboard the 100-year-old schooner Noorderlicht.

“While we were waiting there, this polar bear just walked across the ice and came right up to the ship,” David Buckland said. “And waited.”

Buckland, the photographer and founder of Cape Farewell, remembers having to contact emergency services as the ship drifted further into danger.

“The ship was within 200 meters of some rocks, and the ice was forcing it into that direction,” he said. “So you know, it’s good material.”

He means material for artists like Cynthia Hopkins, who transformed her three weeks with Cape Farwell for an upcoming performance at the Walker, “This Clement World.”

Created by Buckland in 2001, Cape Farewell enlists artists, scientists and communicators to instigate a cultural response to climate change. Past expeditions include travel to the Arctic and the Andean Rainforest.

Hopkins remembers her encounter with the patient polar bear all too well.

“It was a moment of realizing how vulnerable I would be in the wild — I would be lunch,” she said. “From the perspective of the polar bear, we’re just lunch.”

For the Midwest premiere of “This Clement World,” Hopkins collaborated with 11 Twin Cities-based musicians to set a folk score to the vivid images and video of the Arctic, captured during her time with Cape Farewell.

Musicians Martha Wainwright, Leslie Feist and novelist Ian McEwan have all collaborated with Cape Farewell’s team of oceanographers and biologists. Citing the impact of human-caused rises in levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Buckland sees Hopkins and the artists involved in Cape Farewell as integral to communicating the ongoing environmental crisis.

“The culture of our existence is causing climate change,” he said. “So if that is the case than who better to tell the story of what this is than the artists, the writers, the filmmakers, the musicians and the architects that we’re involved with?”

Hopkins uses “This Clement World” to engage with environmental issues, but her revelations arise organically. The musical escapes any preaching, instead combining a semi-fictional documentary of the Arctic expedition with folk songs and outlandish characters.

Video shot by Buckland, Hopkins and Matt Wainwright shows the desolate and beautiful tundra of the Arctic Ocean. Hopkins inhabits each character in the performance, including members of the crew, ghosts from the past and the future and an elderly physicist she met on the trip.

“He actually sails into the bay and stays [in the Arctic] over the winter,” Hopkins said.

“He said, ‘I could’ve been in an old peoples’ home, but this is so much more exciting,’”**** Buckland said.

The idiosyncratic nature to Hopkins’ artful rendering of her Arctic surroundings lend to an avant-garde but accessible performance. A personal underpinning to “This Clement World” packs more emotional punch than a graph or data set could contain.

“I was addicted to drugs and alcohol, which means I thought I couldn’t live without them,” Hopkins said, paralleling her past personal addictions to a global dependence on fossil fuels. “Now, I not only live without them, but my life is much better and happier in a way that I couldn’t have imagined.”

“This Clement World” represents a love song to the earth’s fragility, a tone Hopkins developed directly out of the 2010 expedition. Optimism carries the storytelling, as Hopkins pays homage to her revelations in Arctic waters alongside the researchers confirming the environmental crisis.

“What artists can contribute to the issue is to communicate what’s actually happening in a way that’s more visceral and emotionally palpable than journalism or science,” Hopkins said.

“This Clement World” avoids a moral or didactic tone, instead finding a mode of art born out of hope for solutions for the “future truth,” a term Buckland uses to describe the reality of climate change.

“We are really committed to making this a very big popular dialogue,” Buckland said. “You don’t need specialized information; you just need really good entertainment to engage with this.”