Dynasty Handbag

New York-based performance artist Dynasty Handbag is the “solo music/video/voiceover/comitragic performance vehicle created and executed by Jibz Cameron,” according to her web site. She visited Austin recently to perform a benefit evening for the local queer DIY performance space CampCamp, and also offered a one-night show at the Vortex Theatre in East Austin. Word-of-mouth primed me for her performance—Dynasty Handbag got raves at the “WOW and Now” cabaret staged at Joe’s Pub during the Performance Studies International Conference at New York University in November 2007.

I can see why. In the small café that serves as a casual lobby off the Vortex’s theatre, Dynasty set up a tiny platform stage under a few even tinier lights and proceeded to seduce the audience with her casual, quirky charm. In a talk after the short show, she positioned herself within overlapping music and performance practices, describing her work with various bands as well as her training in theatre at ACT in San Francisco.

The multiplicity of styles and talents shines in her work. She performed an interactive conversation with her own recorded voice, played from a laptop perched beside an amp just off the small stage, selecting numbers from a playlist on the screen, assisted only by a friend who reached out to adjust the volume during each piece. Dynasty reminded me all at once of a singer, a stand-up comic, a performance artist, and a dancer, as her mobile face and flexible body seemed to register each nuance of emotion that crossed through her.

Physically, Dynasty Handbag performed like a hybrid of Charlie Chaplin and Gumby. Her “costumes” were outrageous arrays of clothing layered like non-sequiturs—a leotard over sweat pants, a cut off t-shirt worn over a long-sleeve shirt. She seemed dressed for mobility, if not for speed; the queer (meaning “odd”) look of her outfits enabled the herky-jerky movement of her arms and legs, as thoughts and questions and answers hurtled across her body in spastic, but supremely controlled, finally dancerly style.

In many ways, Dynasty mostly plays reaction shots, responding physically to her taped voice as it prompts her movement through each piece. But what for a less talented, less confident performer would look like mugging, in Dynasty’s rendition seemed like a symphony of considered, meaningful, even moving response. For instance, I’ve never noticed the complex of emotions available in a raised eyebrow. Dynasty lets us see differently things we think we’ve seen before.

The evening’s highlight was her interaction with a series of discarded plastic and paper bags that littered the small platform. As each bag pestered her to be noticed, Dynasty approached them warily, with resignation, and let herself be commanded by their needs and desires. Her face and her body registered the humiliations of succumbing to instructions delivered by inanimate objects, yet her generosity with her attention became strangely heartwarming.

Far from cynical, her irony seemed shy rather than coy, hopeful rather than debased. As she pet one of the rumbled plastic bags, pleasuring it with the nearly sexual abandon it demanded, her face moved into and out of confused expressions of embarrassment and willingness, as her body just went with the flow. As each bag called to her in turn, Dynasty acknowledged the publicness of her interactions with these objects; she knows we’re watching, and goes through her motions with a wink and a nod to how ridiculous and yet necessary her exchanges seem to be. When the last bag—an upright, rather imperious brown paper one with handles—called her attention, she sighed, “I’m tired of talking to bags.” The line resonated as loudly and deeply (if much more comically) as Willie Loman setting down his sales cases and telling his wife he’s tired of traveling.

In another number, Dynasty sat in a chair, playing an artist deciding the content of her next piece. The number was a tour-de-force of affectionate self-satire, as the stream-of-conscious monologue spooled off the laptop while she sat responding with her face and body, pen poised over an open notebook turned to a blank page (this after she borrowed the pen from someone in the audience).

Dynasty’s talent, perhaps, lies in how fresh her reactions seem, how persuasive she is in convincing us that she’s never heard these thoughts before (and neither have we). At the same time, she crafts a knowing, intimate connection between herself and her spectators, bringing us into this wry, slightly askew world where your own voice gets literalized (auralized?) outside your head, and you judge each choice of action, and respond to what you hear yourself telling yourself. It’s the super-ego come to life in a very public place, jousting with the body-as-id, as the ego just tries to hold it together and proceed, knowing that its contradictory, ambivalent, and finally deeply humane actions are under gentle (if pre-disposed to be generous) scrutiny.

Dynasty Handbag’s appearance might have been mediated through apparatus of her laptop and that amp, but the intimacy she creates carries a lovely current of liveness. We hear along with her the outrageous demands of things, the cacophony of others’ judgments and needs, the absurdity of trying to negotiate questions and comments that press at us from everywhere and nowhere.

In the process, she predisposes us to identify with her disidentifications, with her cautious acquiescence and delicious resistance to the nameless forces that be, which sound an awful lot like, well, Dynasty Handbag. Far from solipsistic, the performance externalizes a conversation we can recognize and to which we can relate: the ambivalences and doubts that prompt our hopeful, finally graceful actions, and the generosity with which we all go about believing in the possibilities of our interconnected lives.

The Feminist Spectator

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