Jibz Cameron is the real-life name of the New York-based performance phenomenon, Dynasty Handbag. Jibz has been performing for close to a decade, and has been called “a dislocating mess, in a good way” (Time Out New York), and a “crackpot genius” (Village Voice). In this exclusive interview conducted in 2012 she shares personal stories about building a career, depression, addiction, getting out of her own head, feeling great, and a moment of spontaneous performance.
Tell me about a time in your life when you felt like everything was working.
This is kinda strange, because it’s not related to my current work, but I remember when I was living in San Francisco and I think I was performing in a band. I was also working in a restaurant, and I was in a play, and I remember for the first time having this feeling like, this is all I need, I’m really happy. I had no money. The play made no money, but I felt like it was enough. I was satisfied. I was living in a house with two close girlfriends. Indra and Bianca, who are both musicians, and they were both in bands, doing their own thing. But it wasn’t so much about the work. I can’t even remember what play I was in.
I was mentally at peace. Even now, when I have an incredible job with the Wooster Group*, and a grant for a film, and some other really great stuff, my mind feels crazy a lot of the time. Success for me is actually just achieving peace of mind.
I think I had a boyfriend at that time, but I can’t really remember what was going on with that. The feeling that I am having about the memory is about lots of good female friends that would get up and do shit every day. Busy, active artists and musicians.
What does it feel like to have peace of mind?
For me it’s like an absence of thinking about what’s next. Like not comparing myself to anyone else, feeling as present as I can be, I guess. I just remember that I didn’t feel depressed at that time, and that is a big deal!
What made that feeling possible?
I was able to enjoy what I had accomplished instead of just having a full plate of stuff.
None of the things I was doing were attached to any desire to “get anywhere”, further my career or impress anyone. And that is a huge difference in my life, because nobody gives a shit in SF. There is no one to impress. Here in New York it’s like who is gonna see me, what is it gonna get me, and blah blah blah.
The living space I think actually played a big role in it. I was finally living in a house that I liked. It was a big Victorian. It wasn’t filthy like some places I had lived. I enjoy cleaning a lot, so it was really nice, and I was the only one who had a heater in my house, and it’s cold as fuck there. It’s drafty and horrible. I really was just into living with these two girlfriends of mine.
What other experiences have you had like that one? How did you make them happen?
Well, I think another time when I think I was happy-ish was probably about five years ago when I was working on a film project with my friend, and we did it for no money, and it was just really fun. There was no pressure on it at all. I was working in a restaurant again. I was single, but maybe just starting to date my current girlfriend. I think I felt really independent, and I guess what the story is telling me is that I have peace of mind when I am not thinking about what others are thinking about me. I guess when I am just able to be creative without any expectation, and also working with other people is important. I work alone a lot and that makes me a little bit weird.
Tell me about when you were at your worst.
My worst time in general was when I was having a psychological alcoholic breakdown. That was about seven years ago, because I got sober seven years ago in September. The summer before that I was a fucking hot mess. I lost all of my ability to take care of myself. I had a relationship that was falling apart. I was on anti-depressants and drinking, which is really bad, and made me a lunatic. I was suicidal. It sounds very dramatic, and I think it really was. It felt like it was all caving in, like I am meeting my maker. But I think to have a life change it has to get really bad, for most people. It’s like why would you want to have that dramatic a life change unless you really had to.
It was bad, but it needed to happen.
So that was the bottom, and then what?
I got very scared about some of my behaviour, and I started being honest with some people about what was really going on with me. I looked for advice from people close to me, and then I spent like a year trying to repair the damage to myself. Well, that’s not totally true, because I’m still trying to repair it, but I sort of did a start-over. I went back to learning how to live my life without acting out as much as I could.
How have you managed that situation?
I had to totally change my patterns of behaviour.
For example, one thing I never did before was ask for help from anyone. Like if I was having a hard time in my head, I would never reach out and say I am feeling nuts. I started listening to people who had gone through similar experiences. I felt desperate and was willing to do whatever worked for other people, and some of it worked for me. Things started to open up, and when I put new behaviours in place I could make the change happen.
A lot of basic shit. Like, don’t talk to that person, don’t go to that place, go to bed, feed yourself. I had a lot of trouble planning my days out, and I needed help just to get through the day.
When you take away “acting out” behaviour through relationships, alcohol or drugs, you are just left with your own insanity. It’s impossible to manage by yourself. If I could, I would, but I can’t.
Any other situations where you have been in a turnaround mode?
I am kind of in one right now. Which is funny because my mom died recently. She committed suicide last year, and I really used a lot of the tools that I used when I first stopped drinking. I felt like completely thrown off balance. Really dislodged, like floating around. Very sad, and so all of last year I was kind of numbed out and not in touch with how I was feeling. It was just a lot.
I really tried to talk about it, to get over stuff, to not isolate, and to not feel sorry for myself. That was really hard.
Oh, and one thing I did! I didn’t want to work on my own work because it was too scary to do. So I thought I want to be in other people’s work and get out of my own head and put that energy out there, and that’s what happened. I got two jobs in other people’s plays.
I mean my mom had taken so much of my mental space for so long before she died. It was like, I am so sick of this, and I wanted this to be a relief, but it’s sad. If I am stuck in grief and let this run my life I am going to be in the same place forever.
I feel like I am coming out of it now because I can think of my mom without thinking of all of the gory details. But I really think that for me, if I didn’t work at it and keep showing up for my own life I wouldn’t be able to get through it. Maybe I am delusional. Maybe I’m not through it at all. I could get hit by a freak-out wave. But that’s OK too.
You have taken your career through several levels of achievement. Looking back, what have the different stages been?
The first part is like acceptance of what I want to do, which is perform.
And then a lot of experimentation in that field.
Some education as well. Not a lot, but a little.
Starting with my solo stuff and just being able to start really small, that was important.
Willingness to embarrass myself. That was a big thing for me, writing what I write and then just letting go, not thinking about it. Don’t get critical.
Learning how to finish things despite feeling so uncomfortable and horrible. I feel like the writing process is awful sometimes. But I do know now that it’s just part of the thing, and I am pretty good at just plowing through it, but that took a couple of years to learn how to cope with it.
Acceptance of where I am. I can look back on my career and I could say I could have done this or that better, like I look back on grants I didn’t get, and I could just be all, “motherfucker!” But I wasn’t ready for it. I might have just fucked it away.
What do you do to make sure you keep going?
I don’t stop working. Ever. I never have a break.
One thing I did in the past is to try to say yes to a lot of shit that I didn’t want to do, but I needed the experience. Now I can say no to things, and can ask for more money.
When I moved to New York I had to start at the beginning. I did a lot of stuff for free and a lot of things in some very dark places! I never thought about it in that way, but also, I came from a place where I had experience being in bands playing in shit holes, so I was used to it.
If there is one story that defines the experience of Jibz, what is it?
Oh god I don’t know!
Oh, I can think of one, I think so….
I had to do a show in this really crusty building in Baltimore for this queer arts festival thing. It was really really hot, and with no air conditioning. It was a dirty place filled with weird art freaks. Everything was sprinkled with Burning Man a bit there, but also it was an enthusiastic and awesome crowd. I was getting treated really well, but the accommodations left a lot to be desired.
So I was backstage in the storage room before I performed, and I was dressed, and I didn’t want to go out of the dressing room to go pee. For my performance it’s important that I remain hidden before I reveal, like a bride, like a beautiful bride. Anticipation is 85% of performance.
So, getting back to the story, I had to pee, and there were also a bunch of other arty performance dirt bags in the room with me. So I took a plastic beer cup, and I went behind a big amplifier and I peed in the cup.
And then I threw it out the window.
I was terribly embarrassed about what I was doing, but then when I got on stage I told everyone what I did, so it was actually the best part of the show, the part of peeing in the cup, my exposure of my discomfort with my surroundings, and the ability to overcome.
My childhood was like that. Shitting in my pants, wetting the bed. Things not being quite right. Cars didn’t work, everything was duct taped together, but it makes for really good material.
*Note – Jibz Cameron completed her work with the Wooster Group in 2012.
All drawings ©2013 Joan Reilly