Artist Jibz Cameron, as Dynasty Handbag, takes green-screen adventures into the real world at the New Museum
2:06 pm May. 22, 2012
After the lights went down in the New Museum’s basement theater on Friday, someone in the audience whispered loudly: “Press play.”
“Ladies and gentleman, welcome to Eternal Quadrangle! And here’s your host,” a voice-over instructs as a film began.
The host, a mustachioed owl with the accent of Pepé le Pew, was just one of the many personas Jibz Cameron plays in her film/performance/green-screen spectacle, Eternal Quadrangle, which premiered at the New Museum on Friday. Quadrangle presents a dating-game-like show where Cameron's primary alter-ego, Dynasty Handbag, must choose among a host of cartoonish bachelors to win a spot in her “vast cosmic emptiness”: an ambitious Floridian golfer; a cerebral cortex; a cosmically wounded stray dog; and “ubiquity, miasma, and uncertainly of death,” a.k.a. the Grim Reaper. All are played by Cameron.
“Welcome to the show. Oh, Oh my goodness, here she comes now!” the owl announces as music plays and Cameron dances and shimmies onscreen, backed by a rainbow light show reminiscent of a little girl’s Lite-Brite creation and wearing a splatter-paint bathing suit over low-slung, blue-and-white patterned pants, her hips exposed. Her hair is mussed and matted by her ears, and she's got bright pink lipstick around a wide grin.
Cameron pushes almost everything to the brink of the absurd, yet the dating game still holds together, and it's funny.
“Bachelor number two…if you were to order eggs, what kind of eggs would you order?” Dynasty asks.
“I’d probably order them scrambled ... tee-hee-hee” the cortex responds with an added shrill cackle.
“And how would you order your steak?”
“I … like … my … steak … like I like my EGGS! Like I like my information, like I like my history, like I like my life, like I like … scrambled, scrambled, scrambled, fried chicken, steak, scrambled scrambled scrambled …” The answer descends into a cacophony of nonsensical noise while the cortex encircles Dynasty’s head like an out of control Ferris wheel.
When not on stage, Cameron dresses conservatively and wears little or no makeup. Her face, which moves so much in performance that her skin appears lined and craggy, is actually rather smooth and taut. Her energetic speaking voice, high-pitched and nasal, suggests there’s a bit of her that never stops performing.
She loves police procedurals, she told me when we spoke on Saturday. She recently had a dream that a naked Sharon Stone tried to molest her in a boot closet.
When she can’t quite find her words, she darts her tongue in and out of her mouth like a goofy salamander. She was hesitant to discuss her work, a hesitancy that is actually also a part of her practice as an artist.
Cameron lives in Brooklyn and has been molding and reworking Dynasty Handbag for the past 12 years. She grew up in northern California and lived for a time in San Francisco.
“I was doing plays and I was in a band that was very perform-ey; mostly I just jumped around on stage and freaked out," she said.
Cameron enrolled in art school, studying drawing, but couldn’t quite see herself fitting into the gallery scene, and so she concentrated on her performances. She is currently an adjunct professor of Performance and Theater studies at Tisch School of the Arts and an associate member of the Wooster Group, with whom she's set to perform alongside the Royal Shakespeare Company in London. It’s the first time she’ll share the spotlight with other people.
“It’s extremely difficult," she said. "It has nothing to do with what I do as a performer. I’m really humbled. I have to leave all my tricks at the door.”
Eternal Quadrangle, Cameron explained, is her attempt to wrestle with the idea of labels and compartments. The concept developed while she was grieving her mother’s death.
“I kept thinking there [was a] way that I needed to deal with my grief. And then I started realizing what I was going through was really compartmentalized,” she said. “The golfer guy, he represents what I want to be sometimes but I really can’t. It’s very male. The doggie was my reverting to self-pity and guilt and I’m just doomed and I’m going to be sad forever. The brain is just figuring it all out and the [Grim Reaper] is just being fatalistic, like, who cares anyway?”
For all the zaniness, these ideas are transparent in the film. At one point the cortex sobs, reaching decibels only dogs can hear: “She was everything to me. My life. She took care of me. But I didn’t appreciate her. And I strayed. I was irresponsible, took her for granted!”
The golfer chimes in, “Uhhh, excuse me, it’s clear that what you need are directions and goals and lists and check boxes. Pick me! Duh!”
Handbag asks, “Why are these my only choices? Aren’t there more ways to be in the universe that aren’t represented on this show?”
She ends up rejecting all her suitors. “They all have value in them but there is not just one way,” she says.
Once the film had finished, Cameron emerged in the flesh, decked out as Dynasty Handbag, spastically waving a flashlight on her face and beginning the “post-performance performance” as the museum called the Q&A and "awards show." Cameron said she finds traditional Q&As boring so she put her dramatic spin on this one, relying on her instincts and talent for improv to defuse anything serious with jokes or relentless silliness.
“Why are you so picky with romance?” someone asked. “I’m concerned you won’t find love.”
Dynasty replied by making fart noises, then saying: “For me, I absolutely love cooking with onions and eating onions but they are really hard to cook with.”
“If I were a bachelor,” another audience member asked, “who would I be?”
“Well … Jonathan Matthews, I happen to know you’re married to my childhood best friend and that you got her pregnant twice so you can just forget about it, it’s over for you!” Dynasty responded. “No really, for you, I would say, the Romans did not eat huge meals.” The gentleman was indeed Jonathan Matthews, adding a lovely bit of real-world bleed-through between Cameron and Handbag.
Cameron was at her best when she was improvising. She quickly abandoned the Q&A, dancing around and singing a little ditty in her best Jamaican accent called “It’s Serious.” She sang a series of jagged lyrics over a stereotypical reggae beat. The song sounded like an undulating, atonal mess of moans and shrieks. Later, she explained to the audience that the world is grappling with serious issues, while showing off a wedgie.
Following the Q&A, she put on an impromptu Awards Ceremony and called her staff onto the stage, ad-libbing their acceptance speeches for them while they moved their mouths and playfully gesticulated. It was something like the meeting of an improv comedy routine and a performance piece, but really it was neither; her work is more interesting than that.
For what it's worth, she minds the "artist" label more than the comedy one.
“I feel I could definitely be labeled a comic,” Cameron told me, “but then I’d have to be in that world and that would be horrible .... People always need to qualify you as something. I have no desire to be really good at anything except performing.”
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