Interview: Lindsay Hopkins

An Interview with Lindsay Hopkins

by Alix Anne Shaw

I’d like to begin with some questions about your artistic work and activism.

You are part of a theater company, Dramatis Personae. Can you describe the work that you do? How long have you been part of this company?

Dramatis Personae is a performance collective. We focus on original performance and try to build artist community through our multi-disciplinary Artist Gumbo events. Inspiring social change is part of our mission. I have been working with DP for two and a half years. A small but exciting part of the work that we do is in a new partnership with the Howard Area Community Center; I worked there for three years prior to the partnership. To stay involved, I began to do programming involving both.

Dramatis Personae is currently putting together a performance based on issues of food justice. It will be called Food & The Soul. Could you describe this project?

Sure. This spring, we are digging into the questions: What role does food play in our lives? What is our relationship with food and food systems? We have been working on a collection of shared stories about identity, community and our relationship with food. We have interviewed urban farmers in Chicago, people who live on the gift economy and gift food from their farm in Oakland, CA, foodies, and restaurant owners, all with the hopes of collecting stories about food, food sharing, locally grown food. The stories will then be turned into a performance. We are exploring the ritual of food in our lives and in our communities, in order to more deeply explore participation and authenticity in daily life.

During the rehearsal process, these stories will be used to create an ensemble performance piece. This performance is interdisciplinary in nature and will include elements of theatre, movement and sound installation. As a performance artist, I am interested in curating stories as a way to tell personal journeys through a collective, interpersonal lens. What do we have in common? What sets us apart? How do we support each other? How do we destroy each other? I am interested in using this performance as a vehicle to tell stories and explore different identities and perspectives.

How do you balance being an activist and an artist?

[Laughs.] Well, if you’re doing that kind of work, it probably also means you’re working really hard to pay the bills! For me, being an activist has been doing youth work, talking about these issues through theater. Theater gives you the chance to teach in a different way. You are learning through play and not being talked at. Sometimes it’s hard, but sometimes it goes really well together. And I love the combination of the two. For me, there has always been something more behind wanting to be creative.

What are some points where these two practices don’t merge as well

For me, there is no conflict between the fit of the two. I see that more in expectations outside of me…what other people view as social justice as opposed to art and what kind of art they want to see.

What got you interested in this issue? Have you always been interested in food justice, or is this an issue you came to through experience?

So many things happened because of Howard Area Community Center. I knew that I was interested in social justice and food but not in a structured kind of way. I had a so many awesome co-workers I learned from. For example, a staff member I was working with in Spring of 2011, Chris Stortenbecker, got us a grant to make some beds for a small garden at CMSA in Rogers Park. The next spring I was able to invite a friend and local urban farmer out to use the garden beds and lead some workshops with the youth about gardening. I co-created some social justice content about food supply, access and food deserts. That led to a lot of documentaries.

What have you learned that most shocked or surprised you in the course of collecting material for this production?

What shocked me the most were the major differences in the way people view food. That sounds simple, but it’s huge. There are people in Oakland who do permaculture and see food as its own entity with the soul, and there are people who are well-intentioned but who refuse to change things because they are busy and don’t want to take the time. That’s a cycle—the way we live and the food we eat makes us tired, and then we don’t want to deal with these issues. I think the most shocking thing was the contrast in people’s ability to think about things in a reflective way. But I’ve noticed that a greater social awareness can come from changing the food that we eat and looking at food production in a more holistic light.

What do you hope to accomplish through this production?

I think I’m learning to not “hope to accomplish” anything. I think for too long I wanted to accomplish something to make the pain I was seeing and feeling go away. So I’m not trying to accomplish anything except to tell these stories in a real, authentic way. My hope is that somebody takes five minutes to connect with a story. I try to remain true to the stories I’ve collected, and enjoy the process of what I’m getting out of it as an artist. That makes for better art anyway.

Do you believe that art can effect political change in the world?

I believe it absolutely has the power to, because it helps us see things from a different brain-space. For example, Theater of the Oppressed has actually changed legislation in Brazil. But sometimes I’m afraid that in the United States, we’re too far gone as a society to have that kind of reflective change. I do think that art has a power to help us reflect, grow and change. I think on the individual and neighborhood level that we can build something better and more inclusive.

Now for some questions about food.

Tell me a little about your personal relationship to issues of food and food justice. 

In my own life, I had a lot of anxiety and depression. I got lost in the medical system and prescription drugs. I did not have health insurance and was paying out of pocket. Personally, I felt this has got to stop. There was no sense of relationship in the medical system. I realized I had the ability to create a plan for myself. I also realized that you can really help some of those problems with food. I started thinking about preservatives and how they could affect my brain. Once I started changing my eating habits and becoming more aware of how I felt, I had to figure out how to eat differently based on my own access and on label reading. I realized how socially-conditioned we are not to look at labels. It’s not that we don’t read them—because many people actually do—we just aren’t educated about what we should be looking for.

What do you see as most lacking or necessary today in our relationship to food?

Knowledge. Access to information about what it is that’s really in our food. The information we have is quick and short. It’s meant to shock and awe. It’s an advertising system that doesn’t leave room for real information. I think a huge issue is people not wanting to take the time to think about changing their choices. We do lack time because we are so dictated-to by how we’re supposed to live and all the stuff we’re supposed to buy. We’re working so hard we don’t have time to think.

What do you see as the most pressing food issue that we are facing today–locally, nationally, or globally?

There are so many. The media and advertising systems in the United States love to say that we have choices. They say that to cover up the fact that we don’t have a choice, and to makes us argue with ourselves and each other. But we don’t have a real choice because we don’t have real information. If we don’t know that what we’re eating can create diseases down the road, or if we are not informed about GMOs, then we don’t have choice. Not having access to information means that people can’t make decisions about our own bodies.

What’s your ideal vision of the way a community would grow, consume, and relate to food?

It would be neighborhood-based. At this point, because the systems have gotten so big, we need to work locally and small. Locally, because sustainability and local factors are better. Not having to ship food, using small systems, is better. Even for getting information out, focusing on one neighborhood at a time is easier. Information can be shared from neighborhood to neighborhood. You see that happening with farmer’s markets. You can walk to them in your own neighborhood. It’s easier for people. I also love the simplicity of a community garden: it’s small, something people can access, walk to, you know what’s being planted and how it’s being planted, you can get involved even if you don’t know how to grow things.

And finally, a few political questions…

Most people involved in these issues wear many hats. Are there other activities that you personally do that have to do with issues of sustainability/ political and/or food justice?

I’ve spent so much time exploring information, I feel like that’s kind of my role right now. At my house, we are starting to compost, but it’s hard in Chicago because you have to figure out where to take the compost and what to do with it if you don’t have the room to have your own garden. I want to get involved in either a food co-op or an urban farm. I’ve been teaching and collecting information and doing youth work for so long and making artwork about it….now I want to do something with food and I’m trying to find out what that might be.

Do you see yourself as a radical? If so, in what way? If so, what is the simplest and most radical component of your practice?

Yes. I ask questions every day. I use asking questions as a model in youth work a lot. For example, What is the root of different forms of oppression? It takes lots of questions to get there. We use the metaphor of a tree to think about this: you have leaves, branches, trunk, soil and finally you get to get down to the root. It’s the same with the food system. What’s coming from the ground?

Do you support / shop at Whole Foods? Why or why not?

I do shop at Whole Foods. I don’t always want to. I want another option. Whole Foods locations often take time to get to. Their bulk section is the reason I go. It’s hard to find places that will have a bulk section and access to organic produce that isn’t too expensive. During the winter in Chicago, you have everything stacked against you: winter, traveling, and you can’t get access to locally grown vegetables.

At my house, we get all of our produce from New Leaf Grocery because they are small and more local than Whole Foods. My food-buying process is everywhere, to get certain food for certain reasons and to keep the price down. That’s why I’m excited about the fact that there’s a food co-op starting on the north side, although it will be a while before it’s up and running.

What is one simple thing you would recommend that people do in their lives to make them more sustainable/ to improve or alter their relationship with food?

Just take ten minutes to think. Sit. Turn off your computer and your tv. Allow yourself a minute or ten to think while you’re eating while you sit there. How does your body feel? We often don’t think about ten minutes of not doing something. Think and ask yourself questions…who knows where that will lead?

I think of this process as brain cleansing. A friend of mine in Oakland once said, “ We clean our bodies and go to the bathroom but we don’t let things exit from our brains.” Just being quiet for a minute and flushing your brain of things can be so beneficial—and difficult. You don’t have to spend more than ten or 20 minutes doing it. Just think about cleansing in your own mind and what that means for you. It doesn’t have to meditating or even quiet, but take ten minutes with yourself.

When will your performance on food justice, Food & The Soul, take place? Where can folks read more about it and about your work?

Well, we’ll be doing a preview at the Rooting Symposium spring meal on May 5th.

The longer performance will take place on May 18 and 19 and June 2. You can read about it here:

http://dpchicago.org/projects

You can also read about the awesome Howard Area Community Center here: http://howardarea.org/

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