Performance As Its Own Country: An Interview with Camille Turner

Part of Special Issue #2 – Bodies as Archives: QTBIPOC Art and Performance in Toronto

Co-authors: Alvis Choi and Camille Turner

July 9, 2015. Miss Canadiana Camille Turner leads the Cultural Parade as Its Your Festival kicks off at Gage Park. Photo by Kaz Novak, The Hamilton Spectator.
July 9, 2015. Miss Canadiana Camille Turner leads the Cultural Parade as Its Your Festival kicks off at Gage Park. Photo by Kaz Novak, The Hamilton Spectator.

This interview took place on March 16, 2016 at Crossroads, York University, Toronto. I (Alvis) conducted the interview as part of a research for my Master’s studies at the Faculty of Environmental Studies. My final portfolio, supervised by Dr. Jin Haritaworn, is titled Fantasies of Time and Space: Queer of Colour Performance as Transformative Strategy. I interviewed Camille Turner (and Tom Cho) for the key component of my portfolio, “Out of Time, Out of Place: The Queer Landscape of Fantastical Performance.” Among many other things, we discussed the transformative nature of queer of colour performance, as well as its time-and-space-transcending ability. I am immensely grateful for Camille for agreeing to being interviewed and for the knowledge that she and I have co-produced during this two-way process. It is my hope that this work will bring insight and affirmation to those who perform, those who don’t and those who aspire to.

Alvis Choi: Performance has offered me ways to cope with situations but also to transform myself in some way. As a queer person of colour, I am curious to find out how queer of colour performance can be used as pedagogy for different marginalized communities that might or might not identify as queer. In addition to performance as an artistic expression and instead of looking at performance only from the perspective of the audience, I am also interested in knowing what happens within the performer. 

Camille Turner: Yes, yes. I think this is fantastic. I’ve always thought that [performance] is an incredible tool for self-making.

AC: Yeah. And I think people don’t talk about it enough. 

CT: No they don’t. I always thought it would be so cool to use it as a tool in leadership. A friend of mine who is a ceramicist uses clay as a transformative tool, and he uses it in leadership training [at the Banff Centre]. I always thought performance is so perfect. I know how it’s helped me, so I think it would be so great.

AC: I am doing this interview for research purposes, but I am also just extremely interested in your work and very excited about this opportunity of talking to you about it. To start, I want to ask you about your most well-known work as Miss Canadiana. Was that your first performance? 

CT: It wasn’t really my first performance, but it was my first kind of major piece and it’s kind of how I became known. I have done performance before that. But this one somehow really caught the imagination of the people that saw it. 

AC: Can you tell us about the conception of the piece?

CT: Yeah. It was a strange, strange piece – it was almost like, I didn’t make it. It made me, you know? Somehow it just came to me, descended itself to me. It used me as a vehicle for bringing something important into the world that had to be there, you know? It came to me in a moment of, to me, crisis. I was walking through this really white town [in North Bay] and people were staring at me. I felt very much like an outsider, someone who didn’t belong. And it wasn’t like that was an unusual situation for me. I find myself in this kind of situation a lot, but at that moment, it was just like, this moment of the irony of this multi-culti-nation. [Giggles] It just made me smile, like all of a sudden, this image of myself as [a hometown queen], or the embodiment of that dream just came into my head, and it just delighted me, you know? [Laughs]

Image courtesy of the artist
Image courtesy of the artist

AC: When you were creating it, was it a pleasant process? 

CT: It was a weird process! I was like “What is this?” because it just wouldn’t leave me. It was an idea that came to me, and it was, you know, this funny delightful thing that came into my head at that moment that made me feel all of a sudden not, um, self-conscious anymore – it was just kind of like funny. It was like having a joke – “Ooho, those people over there,” you know, looking at them and suddenly seeing them naked. That’s how it felt. So I just thought, okay, that’s that, get on with the rest of my life. But no, that image and that idea just grabbed a hold of me and would not let me go. And so, it took years before I actually performed as Miss Canadiana and I think the reason why is because I just kept thinking that it was silly. Like: “Why are you still thinking about it?” But it just wouldn’t let me go, so I thought, “Okay. Alright, alright. I’ll just do it.” I remember the first time [when I performed Miss Canadiana] – I didn’t even have a proper gown or anything. I just had a red skirt and a red top and I went and got myself a ribbon, and some stick-on leathers. I just kind of made this homemade sash. I didn’t even have a tiara. I had one of those funny little Canada hats with the maple leaves on it. I think it was 2001, Ottawa, Canada Day. [There was] this huge crowd at Parliament Hill, and I was walking there with this outfit on. And I was thinking, “Oh my god, everyone is just gonna think I’m a crazy woman.” I could hear just whispers – people were like “Oh! There’s Miss Canada.” [Laughs] And I felt really kind of self-conscious at first, and then I realized they couldn’t even see me. Like, they are not seeing me, they’re seeing somebody else. They’re seeing her. That’s when I realized the power of this thing. ‘Cos I could just sit back and relax, do whatever [laughs] in my mind, you know what I mean? And, she’s performing. They’re seeing her. And they’re interacting with her and, you know, there’s something really empowering about that. [Giggles]

AC: And so, when you first did it, were you part of some arts festival? 

CT: No.

AC: You just…?

CT: Ya, exactly.

AC: You just walked down the street?

CT: Ya, I just walked down on the street! [Laughs]

AC: And did you have some friends helping you?

CT: Ya, I had some friends shooting it. I had one friend sort of walking in front of me, making way. [Laughs] My entourage. And then I had another friend behind shooting what was going on.

AC: You were talking about that image you had before you started doing it, that image being stuck in your head, and you are embodying this person when you perform Miss Canadiana. When you were embodying this person, how did you see the world differently? 

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