Queer Performance, HIV Activism
and Feral Queer Camp

Alyson Campbell

Learn about the contrasting histories and legacies of ACT UP New York and Melbourne through an exciting partnership between academics, artists, activists and ‘feral’ queer campers at this year’s Midsumma Festival. ‘Feral’ is defined as ‘having escaped from domestication and become wild.’ I have been pondering this concept for a number of years now, and the Feral Queer Camp to be held at Midsumma in 2020 is a direct outcome of this thinking.

The feral is intricately interwoven with work I have been lucky enough to do in partnership with Living Positive Victoria and people living with HIV. When Melbourne hosted the International AIDS Conference in 2014, Living Positive Victoria and the Victorian College of the Arts supported me to create a new work for the arts strand that sat alongside the conference. I led a pilot work made with students called GL RY. We used the idea of the glory hole as a metaphor for transmission and transformation to ask: what histories, secrets, stigma, information, art, affects might slip through a small hole? Part installation, part performance, the structure at the heart of GL RY hosted durational performance, video work, storytelling, information, intimate one-on-one encounters and impromptu cabaret spectaculars.

We had a tiny budget and less than six weeks to make the work, so I was scrambling for resources, particularly a venue. When I met my mentor and dramaturg, Kim Davis, an artist and activist living with HIV, she generously offered to share the public space she had organised for her Pink Pos caravan project. When I talked to her about my concerns about our lack of knowledge and our right to be making work about HIV, Kim gave reassurance and support about the importance of being an ally. One of her ingenious strategies to help us was her suggestion that she could be our ‘feral neighbour’: when we felt out of our depth we could call on her and her team for advice and information. I wrote in some length about this in a chapter on women and HIV and performance in Viral Dramaturgies: HIV and AIDS in Performance in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave, 2018), explaining how Kim’s use of the word ‘feral’ had really stuck with me: “What does that mean, to be the feral neighbour? In this case, that those of us studying and working in the academy do not hold the answers to the embodied experience of living with HIV as a woman in Australia today; that our neighbours held this knowledge and were willing to share it through conversation”. This offer had a huge impact on me.

I began to consider my own position as a queer person within the elite environment of academia, to struggle more and more with the inequalities that saw me tenured, salaried and privileged in all sorts of ways connected to being in an institution like the University of Melbourne, while other members of our queer communities are excluded from it and places like it. I have become ‘domesticated’ within academia and, if I am to remain there, I have to remember what that means and use everything at my disposal to make the university more welcoming and accessible for queer students and scholars while also, perhaps, taking the resources I have access to (funding strands, spaces, equipment, etc.) out from the institution. In other words, to ‘go feral.’

As a result, the first Feral Queer Camp was held at Outburst Festival in Belfast in 2018 and a second in 2019. The Camp aims to build capacity in developing and talking about both queer performance and queer theories outside of the usual academic papers, books and conferences, through partnerships with queer arts festivals and a ‘feral cohort’ who would see performances together and meet regularly to discuss them. In each case, my collaborator Stephen Farrier and I have encountered brilliant, bright minds hungry to be part of a queer arts community, willing to share their knowledge and experience and to engage critically and generously with the work they were seeing and the artists they were encountering. I think it is exciting and important that Living Positive Victoria is part of this Feral Queer Camp at Midsumma with us, not only because the organisation has been instrumental in the genesis of the idea, but because queer performance and HIV are interwoven in deep and meaningful ways: the DNA of queer performance is threaded through with the performance modes, venues and communities that emerged in the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s; and performance, along with other arts, offers powerful ways into understanding the experience of living with HIV, not least the ongoing stigma that far outweighs the physical impact in a place like Australia.

During Midsumma Festival 2020, a panel conversation at Hares and Hyenas will feature Living Positive Victoria’s Brenton Geyer and activist Monica Pearl from ACT UP New York. Monica will also be delivering Teach-In: Assemble, Advocate and Activate.

To join the Feral Queer Camp or find out more visit midsumma.org.au. Dr Alyson Campbell is Associate Professor at the Victorian College of the Arts, Melbourne University and the co-editor of Viral Dramaturgies: HIV and AIDS in Performance in the Twenty-First Century (Palgrave, 2018).

The Feral Queer Camp is supported by the Creativity and Wellbeing Research Initiative and The Victorian College of the Arts - The University of Melbourne; and Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.