In some ways, it makes narrative sense to turn the movie “Titanic” into a farce about climate change. Instead of an iceberg – which, of course, has melted – the ship goes down because it hits a mountain of underwater garbage.
In another way, “Titanic Depression,” a new multimedia show, could only have come from the silly brain of Dynasty Handbag, the queer vaudevillian with punk heritage and questionable taste in unitards.
The 1997 film was certainly a blockbuster, but Dynasty Handbag’s vision is perhaps even more epic than James Cameron’s. Usually dressed in frilly underwear, with a recalcitrant therapist on speed-text, she is a bawdy version of Rose (Kate Winslet’s character in the film). Leonardo DiCaprio’s love interest, Jack, is played by an octopus, who sneaks aboard the ship disguised as a fanciful hat. Billy Zane’s mean snob is replaced by a dildo in a black loafer. A camel and a microscopic tardigrade make cameos. Mark Zuckerberg is here. The whole thing is a metaphor about the apparent futility of fighting industrial capitalism and impending environmental doom, but it’s also: a hilarious romp! A sexcapade, with consent forms! A singularity, with a pause for meditation – about death! And Dynasty Handbag, artist Jibz Cameron’s alter ego, inhabits all parts.
Cameron, 48, has worked on various venues in San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles as Dynasty Handbag for more than 20 years, building a fan base at cultural institutions like the Brooklyn Academy of Music as well as underground freak shows.
“Jibz is able to tackle all sorts of issues — whether it’s body dysmorphia or childhood trauma or climate change — with the most hysterical absurdity and in ways you’d never expect,” said Ed Patuto, director of audience engagement at the Los Angeles Broad. . Angeles, who programmed and commissioned her work. “She’s a great performer, in the sense that you never see her rehearsals — it looks completely spontaneous.”
“Weirdo Night,” her popular long-running monthly variety show in Los Angeles, which she summed up as a “live ‘Muppet Show’ meets demented queer ‘Star Search’,” has become a Mecca for the surreal. “The ‘Weirdo Night’ community is a freak church and Dynasty Handbag is the weird priest,” said Sarah Sherman, the breakout star of “Saturday Night Live,” who has performed there. (The series was the subject of a well-received 2021 Sundance documentary.)
Commissioned in 2017 by Brooklyn cultural venue Pioneer Works and premiering Saturdays and Sundays, “Titanic Depression” is Cameron’s most ambitious and multidisciplinary project to date; it involves animation, video, soundscapes, song, history and dance. It comes on the heels of her Guggenheim Fellowship, much for an artist who refers to her crew as “dirtbag queers.”
As her vision of “Titanic” grew, “it got more and more money and more attention,” Cameron said with an avant-garde tone of amazement. “And then I kept feeling like it had to get bigger and bigger.”
“What keeps it fresh for me is knowing that I can just make something for myself if I want to do it,” she added during a break from rehearsals near her Los Angeles home last week, at a studio where she also takes punk aerobics. “I absolutely trust that it is what it wants to be.”
Her instincts are recognized everywhere: she’ll have fine art this fall at the Hammer Museum’s “Made in LA” biennial; a comedy album, on artist Seth Bogart’s Wacky Wacko label, is also coming out.
But even among performance artists – not exactly a conformist bunch – Cameron’s alchemy of comedy, art, music, theater and fashion stands out in actually living up to his insanity.
“Jibz is a force of nature,” said Jack Black, the actor and musician, adding that he and his wife, Tanya Haden, were “completely blown away” when they first saw Dynasty Handbag. “We laughed uncontrollably,” he wrote in an email. “It felt like a hallucinogenic experience.”
With a sharp jawline, a crooked wig, and features that seem disdainful, Cameron plays Dynasty as an alternate universe star whose aesthetic is “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” crossed with an Aaron Spelling petty crime drama from the 1980s (the latter time is she was partial to ‘Hart to Hart’), “but covered in goo and a lesbian,” she said.
One such inspiration, Paul Reubens – Pee-wee Herman himself – was impressed with her character work. “To some extent she seems a little indefinable,” he said. “You have to see it; you can’t explain it very well. And that in itself seems an incredible thing to have for yourself.
The show, originally developed with artist and technologist Sue-C, and presented as part of the New York Live Arts festival Planet Justice, is performed with a video backdrop; our heroine is live on stage and everyone else is animated, usually from Cameron’s own drawings, and sometimes featuring her face.
At a recent rehearsal in Brooklyn, Cameron and a team of her collaborators — including her co-writer Amanda Verwey and the visual director, Mariah Garnett, Cameron’s romantic partner — worked on a scene. À la Rose and Jack, Dynasty drags the octopus through gilded state chambers – generated in part by Dall-E, the statue AI, because, Cameron explained, doing so makes them visibly unbalanced, much like Dynasty itself. In the bowels of the ship, they find a throbbing dance party. (Cue techno beats, not fiddle.) Cameron choreographed a meandering duet with her cephalopod lover.
Much of the hour-long show is so crazy, until it comes to what David Everitt Howe, the Pioneer Works curator who commissioned the project, called “the bonkers death sequence.” A literal meditation, it underscores how consumer greed led to the tragedy of the past, and to the massive problems we are in now.
“It was such a tonal shift,” he said. “It’s dark. I remember laughing awkwardly, but I think it’s also powerful. It makes the folly stronger.”
Known as Jibz since childhood, Jibra’ila Cameron grew up scruffy and poor in Northern California, with glimpses of creative freedom. A performing arts summer camp run by Wavy Gravy, the hippie clown and friend of her parents, “completely saved my life as a kid,” she said.
However, her home life was fleeting and she left home when she was about 15, rummaging through the Bay Area. Although she did not finish high school, she was accepted at the San Francisco Art Institute based on some Edward Gorey style comics she drew. There she was introduced to performance art and started making videos and joining bands. “I’d just kind of freak out onstage, play the keyboard,” she said. (One of the groups was an all-female post-punk act called Dynasty; when it broke up, she kept the name and switched to Handbag – “I always thought the word handbag was really funny.’)
Later, hoping to become an actor, she studied at a theater conservatory. Already the epitome of Dynasty Handbag, which debuted at Ladyfest in San Francisco in 2002, her look remains remarkably the same: a misguided take on femininity, a studied failure of aesthetics. “She’s wearing tights, but they’re under a bathing suit,” Everitt Howe noted. “It’s all layered wrong.”
Her quixotic clarity has influenced a younger generation of artists, such as Sherman. “Jibz gave me the best advice ever – after seeing me perform with all my props and costumes and gadgets and gizmos, she said, ‘Don’t WORK so hard, you’re funny! You’re ENOUGH!’” wrote Sherman.”I really took that to heart.”
Cameron is not related to “Titanic” director James Cameron, but he’s on the show, along with industrialists like Benjamin Guggenheim, who “made his living in the mining and smelting industries,” says Dynasty Handbag, interrupting her monologue about him with fart and bomb sounds. The disembodied voice of Guggenheim, who actually died aboard the Titanic, replies, “How dare you, I gave you a Guggenheim in 2022 and without me you wouldn’t be making this ridiculous show!”
Cameron was still working on the end of ‘Titanic Depression’ last week and conjured a moment out of a discarded plastic straw, a Lou Reed song and a dress made from waste.
“I feel like what I’m trying to evoke with this is making something out of nothing — this little hope, survivability,” she told her team. “People make music wherever they are, whatever socio-economic class they are. I get to come out in my showstopper outfit – that’s the showbiz part I really like. And then it gets weird.”