Feral queerness – an interview with Associate Professor Alyson Campbell

Associate Professor Alyson Campbell. By Giulia McGauran.
Associate Professor Alyson Campbell. By Giulia McGauran.

Running interference? Going feral? Alyson Campbell discusses her research projects and strategies relating to her own queerness and the queerness of others.

By Thuy On

Associate Professor Alyson Campbell says there’s always a sense of self, of autobiography, in her work.

“When I write about queer performance – mine or anyone else’s work – my own lived experience is never separate. I’m dealing with theory and abstract things but I’m also a person navigating a system that I am in and a part of.”

Campbell, who has been teaching at the Victorian College of the Arts since 2013 and is Associate Professor in Theatre (Directing and Dramaturgy) in the Graduate Masters Coursework Program, is talking to me about dual strategies she has developed around her own queerness and the queerness of others: running interference and going feral.

Running interference

“While a lot of gay people in academia aren’t necessarily explicit about their sexuality, I am,” she says. “I’m lucky to be able to say at the beginning of the school year, ‘Hello everyone, I’m a queer woman’. There’s a lot of places where you still can’t do that. I’m deeply interested in the relationship between everything we learn and our lived experiences, in the sense that learning is not some separate idea – it’s your life.”

Over the last decade or so, Campbell, from the North of Ireland originally, has been exploring what it means to be queer within academia, and she remains uneasy with the “queer academic” label. “Queer, at its most basic, is something that resists the normative, and our universities are the epitome of normativity,” she says. “So, in many ways, the term ‘queer academic’ is an oxymoron.

"There’s no getting around the fact that universities are colonial, white, mainstream, elitist institutions. There are moves to change this, of course, but on the whole it’s a slow process. As a salaried member of staff at the university, I’ve found myself questioning my own queerness because, as I see it, I’ve been domesticated into the institution.”

For Campbell, “running interference” involves disrupting this cushy domestication. “It’s literally about interrupting the type of heteronormative language that can be used in management meetings and that may be as simple as saying, ‘What about the people who identify as queer?’ I pass as a straight woman, so it might also be about saying in those very formal meetings, ‘Hey I’m a queer woman, this is how I think’.”

It includes ensuring non-normative voices are on committees, seeking new funding sources to support new work, being careful about language and of assumptions of gender binaries and pronouns, for instance.

Going feral

In terms of "going feral", one of the creative outputs – and confluences – of Campbell's thinking and her work has been Feral Queer Camp, established with her research collaborator Stephen Farrier. Essentially a queer performance network outside of university, the camp has had iterations in Belfast in 2018-19 and a run in Melbourne at the beginning of 2020. It will run again as part of Midsumma Festival this year.

Facilitated by a team of queer academics, it’s open to anyone in the community – enthusiasts, developing artists, practitioners and those not within higher education; anyone really, who wants to experience “a utopian queer curriculum largely of their own devising”.

Another of Campbell’s feral ideas is to go against the status quo of equating success with big venues, audiences and ticket prices, in part by staging shows in non-traditional spaces. Though only in its infancy, she’s enthusiastic about a new show she’s working on called HERD.

“It’s building on the idea of queer community as part of a herd, whatever positive or negative connotations that word brings in term of patterns of behaviour. There will be songs, but it won’t be a musical. It’ll be a hybrid of theatre and cabaret. Maybe the venues could be empty nightclubs and we can film solo performers, so it’s like a ghosting of those places.”

Of the impact of COVID-19 on live performance artists, Campbell feels for students and practitioners in this uncertain environment but remains upbeat about the potential for innovation.

Inspired by Indigenous artist Jacob Boehme, she says: “One of the upsides is we have to rethink the civic value of theatre. If you turn up in unexpected places, for instance a theatre for six people, the relationship between performances and audience is very different than being in a thousand-seater with the fourth wall in place. As always, there will be invention – artists will find ways.”