What are the benefits of indie television production for women, queers, and trans people of color? How is the slow speed of collaborative work actually an advantage?
In episode 3 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews television producer and professor Aymar Jean Christian about his television platform Open TV; independent web series by queers, women, and trans people people of color; how his scholarship has informed his television production; and what it means to imagine otherwise.
Guest: Aymar Jean Christian
Aymar Jean Christian is an assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University and the founder of Open Television, a platform for television by queer, transgender and cisgender women or artists of color.
Since premiering in March 2015, Open Television has released three pilots and two series, and has received critical acclaim by the Tribeca Film Festival and Independent Film Project’s Gotham Awards.
Open Television expands the art of television storytelling, increases television’s responsibility to queer communities outside of Hollywood, and models best practices in creating and distributing artistic stories by communities historically marginalized in the development process.
Aymar is also working on a book called Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television, which explores web series as a space of innovation independent of legacy television development.
We chatted about
- The birth of Open Television (02:00)
- Why small-scale video production is best for community accountability (07:00)
- Diverse representation versus authentic representation, and how to marry the two (12:00)
- What we can learn from Slow Television (20:00)
- The pleasures and difficulty of collaboration (34:00)
- Imagining otherwise (00:00)
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The goals of Open TV
I want my platform to reflect as many diverse experiences as possible.
Reasons to not scale a production company
The fact that it’s independently produced and independently distributed through digital networks is significant. Open TV is definitely about small-scale video production…I would love to make all my artists rich, but I know that when you reach [a large] scale, it becomes difficult to remain accountable to community and also to function ethically.
Prior attempts at diverse media representation
We’ve seen historically that television’s investments in programming do not produce diversity. Even when people of color or queer people are on the screen, they are made acceptable to the masses in all these ways that really inhibit our vision of what people are like in America.
The metaphor of slow television
People have made the analogy between fast food and corporate television, and I’m seeing that analogy play out in my own life. I’m making slow television—it’s small-scale, it’s creating these intimate connections, small crews, and building those connections, building rapport among the teams, and then it’s getting the thing made. It’s all on people’s times, and it’s a lot of people’s passion, even though I’m paying people, so it takes time. And I think that’s great.
The great thing about Open TV is that it’s an artist-driven project, such that we can only go as fast as every artist involved can go.
I want a television system that embraces difference, that embraces multiplicity and indeterminacy and local experiences. I want platforms that make it their mission to be accountable to communities and to grow community, and not just to grow money and create commercial value, but also create cultural value.
More from Aymar Jean Christian
- Open Television
- Open Television’s Vimeo channel
- Aymar’s blog Televisual
- Aymar on Facebook
- Aymar on Twitter
Projects and people discussed
- Lisa Henderson, queer feminist communication studies scholar
- E. Patrick Johnson, performance artist/scholar (Check out his Imagine Otherwise interview here)
- Sam Bailey’s You’re So Talented TV series
- Awkward Black Girl TV series
- Black & Sexy TV
- Tello Films
- I Am Other
- Slow Food Movement
- The Guild TV series
- Henry Jenkin’s book Spreadable Media
- Lisa Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues
- Rashida KhanBey’s Women Untamed
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
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Cathy Hannabach (00:03):
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach (00:23):
Welcome to episode three of the Imagine Otherwise podcast. Today our guest is a Aymar Jean Christian, who’s an assistant professor of Communication at Northwestern University. He’s also the founder of Open TV, which is a platform for television by queer, transgender and cisgender women or artists of color. Since premiering in March 2015, Open TV beta has released three pilots and two series. And received critical acclaim by the Tribeca Film Festival as well as the Independent Film Projects, Gotham Awards. Open TV is a fantastically exciting platform, invested in helping us imagine otherwise. As it expands the art of television storytelling, increases television’s responsibility to queer communities outside of Hollywood, and models best practices in creating and distributing artistic stories by communities who have been historically marginalized in the development process. Aymar is also working on a book called Open TV: Innovation Beyond Networks, which explores web series as a space of innovation independent of television legacy development. Today Aymar will be talking with us about Open TV, independent web series by queers, women of color and trans people as well as what it means to imagine otherwise in the media. So welcome Aymar. Thank for being here.
Aymar Jean (01:44):
Thanks you for having me, Cathy.
Cathy Hannabach (01:45):
Let’s just jump right in. I’d love to hear more about Open TV and its recent launch in beta. So what’s going on with that project?
Aymar Jean (01:53):
Yes. Open TV started less than a year ago. Actually it’s still less than a year old, I can’t believe it. But I started this project knowing that I wanted to continue studying web series and learning a lot from studying the web series market for my dissertation and soon to be book on the market. But realizing that even as much as I love web series and the incredible diversity of production representation and distribution strategies independent producers employed, that there was something the market couldn’t produce. One was I think a really sustained focus and intersectional identities, also how those intersectional identities relate to one another, so not [inaudible 00:02:38] different kinds of identities but actually having them all on one platform. The other one was art and free expression, creative expression that isn’t meant to be sold to any large corporation, but instead done to connect with community and express one’s true identity.
Aymar Jean (02:55):
In 2014, I was searching for ways to explore these unanswered questions and I came upon Felisa Henderson, a method of research creation, which is how it’s referred to in Canada here known more commonly as arts based research. And there’s this idea that by making stuff, by actually creating, one can critically interrogate and understand social phenomenon. And I had done a little bit of this before in my dissertation and in the book there is a case study of a web series I co-produced with my partner Derek McPhatter. And we made it in Philly, we got to edited and shown in a Web Series Festival. So I knew that by making stuff you could understand things more intimately, but with my new faculty resources, I had decided that I could do it in a more robust way and a little bit more methodically.
Aymar Jean (03:49):
Excuse me, in December 2014, I shot the first pilot for Open TV and at that time it was called Wide Open, and it was supposed to be a series of pilots that blew wide open, our understanding of what television development was, what the pilot was and the function of those things. The idea was to just make pilots on a small scale, put them online and see where they go, drop these seeds and hope they grow, and give them some water on social media and develop them. And then in January, actually technically in December, she emailed me, but I got back to her in January because I was filming the pilot. Sam Bailey, a local theater artist in Chicago, emailed me wanting to meet and write about her show, You’re So Talented. And sending me the trailer. I saw the trailer, it was beautiful.
Aymar Jean (04:39):
But I told her that I wasn’t really writing about web series anymore. She was referring to televisual of my blog that I wrote throughout graduate school and now as a faculty member I do not have time to really keep up. So I said, “I can’t write about your show, but let’s meet and see if there’s other ways I can help you.” And it turns out she was looking to get the show edited and needed some funds to motivate her editors who are working on Mainstream Productions. And I said, “I have this platform, I guess I technically could release a full series.” Though I hadn’t thought that I would actually get a full series that was within the demographic categories I was looking for and was artistic in the way that I wanted for the platform. Boom and behold, she sent me the rough cuts of the show and within 30 seconds, it was something I fell in love with.
Aymar Jean (05:26):
I just totally bought into her vision completely. Excuse me. You’re So Talented, I think is a beautifully shot show, there’s original music from a local artist, but more importantly, it’s a really sincere expression of her experience. Sam Bailey is a beautiful, intelligent black woman with natural hair who is complicated, and the series is complicated like she is and reflects the kind of world she lives in. So I picked up the show and by March, we premiered it online, we got a lot of really good reception and the rest is history. Now, Open TV has released, as you said, three pilots, two series, both of the series still ongoing, both of the pilots still developing. And looking at my developments, we have about 18 projects in the pipeline, nine pilots, nine series that will be released hopefully in 2016 or 2017 and so forth.
Cathy Hannabach (06:29):
Wow. That is fantastic-
Aymar Jean (06:31):
I was really-
Cathy Hannabach (06:33):
… Go ahead.
Aymar Jean (06:34):
Yeah. I was really shocked at the response and the incredible demand for something like this.
Cathy Hannabach (06:39):
Yeah, it seems there’s definitely a lot of interest both on the part of viewers or watchers, those of us who want to watch interesting media like this that can represent us or people… Even sometimes people not like us that we still want to see represented. Right? But also on the side of media makers who are longing for a platform that lets them distribute and produce the work that they know is really powerful and important, but that often doesn’t find its way into mainstream media making.
Aymar Jean (07:11):
Yeah, absolutely. And I would say the demand is probably more on the maker side than the audience side right now with Open TV and I’m releasing a development important a couple of weeks and we can talk about that just sort of updating the public on our state, what, how, where we’re at and where we’re going. But we have around 20,000 views on Vimeo for all our programs across all programming, which isn’t bad. I’m very happy with that number. It’s definitely not going viral, we’re spreading as Henry Jenkins might say, online like many other things on YouTube. But that’s okay. I think actually in the project, I want to interrogate how we use data online and how we value that kind of data.
Aymar Jean (07:51):
But on the maker side, the artists are incredibly eager to get on a platform, I think with noncommercial that unlike YouTube doesn’t have a million other things suggested for you to watch when you’re watching their video, but also they want to be in community with other artists who share their values, their aesthetics and their identities. And that I think is the missing part that only a couple other web series entrepreneurs have really gotten.
Aymar Jean (08:20):
Issa Rae, Black and Sexy TV, Dennis Dortch and Numa Perrier, Tello Films, these are a couple of examples of platforms that have tried to get producers of color, get queer producers together and shown that actually by coming together we’re stronger. And for me, I’ve been working with almost exclusively Chicago artists. And so people will see an artist they know release a show and it gets them excited, it gets them inspired to tell their own story through video. And that they’re seeing people who are queer and people who are trans and gender nonconforming, which we never see on television. I think that really inspires them and they want to be a part of it. So I’ve created an opposite problem for me where now actually it’s just meeting management essentially like trying to make sure that I’m meeting with everybody and being as open as possible and moving everything through the development pipeline while also not releasing too much because everyone who’s working for me is part time, and I can’t overburden anyone, I don’t want to exploit labor.
Cathy Hannabach (09:21):
Sure. Well, again, it’s that kind of living the politics that we espouse, right? So the building, letting the theoretical and political and ethical commitments that we have, that are guiding the forms of representation that you’re producing. Also having those things structure the infrastructure of the production process. Right? And that’s always a challenge, but it’s certainly a good one.
Aymar Jean (09:47):
Yeah, it’s a constant. It’s a process and for me it’s good, it’s an intellectual process, it’s a critical process. But I’m also working with real people with whom I’m in community with. So there’s always this anxiety of, “I’m I doing it right?”
Cathy Hannabach (10:02):
Why web series, is it just because that’s where TV seems to be going these days? Or is there something special about that platform that marginalized communities have found particularly productive or that you find particularly productive?
Aymar Jean (10:14):
Yeah, it is something that I find particularly productive and I’m ,even as I’ve been studying this since 2009, increasingly an advocate for this forum. When I say web series, I mostly mean independent web series. And for me, the fact that it’s independently produced and independently distributed through digital networks, it’s significant. So Open TV is definitely about small scale video production. I don’t think I ever want to get to the point where I’m releasing 30 minute to one hour episodes, 10 to 20 episodes seasons and spending millions of dollars on these things. I would love to make all my artists rich, but I know that once you reach that scale, it becomes very difficult to be accountable to the community and also to function ethnically I think. So I’m very much an advocate of small scale video production and I’m finding that Open TV for me is about developing the art of short form or small scale television. And there’s many histories to this other and there’s many untold or underwritten histories of small scale community television.
Aymar Jean (11:26):
But for me, I think that we can spend $10,000 or less and create a 2 to 10 minute pilot. If it’s written intelligently, we can… and that means to scale, we can pay most of the people involved in the production, we can shoot for a small amount of time, I can hand it off to student editors or new editors so bringing new people into the production process, training people into how to make television. And because of that, I can spread my money across a broader array of artists. I can actually develop a more diverse pool of television producers such that I am approaching representation not from the standpoint of, “Oh, I need to make this one series authentic.” Right? But rather, I want my platform to reflect as many diverse experiences as possible so that we can get at the incredible complexity of American social life.
Aymar Jean (12:25):
I think this reorients our debates about representation away from trying to hold large institutions accountable to every single representation, but rather saying, “Why don’t we work to finance and release as many projects as possible over time? As ethically as possible such that television is ever expanding, ever diversifying and reflecting our lives.” I think that smaller scale production can be in some ways more ethical and certainly more representative of America. We’ve just seen historically that television’s large investments and programming do not produce diversity. Even when people of color or queer people are on the screen, they are made acceptable to the masses in all these ways. That really inhibit our visions of what people are like in America.
Cathy Hannabach (13:22):
It seems like there’s some really significant analogies or parallels between that structure in television production and probably media production more broadly and analogies in politics or activist organizations, right? So we see over and over again, these kind of grassroots activist organizations that start out with… embedded within actual communities, they come out of actual communities in real life, right? That often have an online component, but they’re rooted in real physical material bodies in the world and how they interact. And then when you try to build them to scale, when you try to scale them up, get more people involved, work on a broader geographical scale, so maybe go from neighborhood to statewide to national to transnational, you run into these kinds of ethical and political quandaries, right? When you try to scale away what works really well in a small group grassroots level, when you try to get it bigger and bigger it sometimes doesn’t work as well. So it’s an interesting parallel between the activist project and the media project.
Aymar Jean (14:31):
Yeah, absolutely. And I’m really glad you said that. You’re giving me more literatures that I need to dive into the histories of organizing and the challenges that unions are having now that they’re quite large, right? But they’re finding that actually, even in their bigness, they can’t compete with these multinational corporations that have this incredible scale. And so a lot of more recent developments in organizing are about workers banding together in their cities or in smaller groups and trying to organize in a more local level to get demands met. And there’s been some success with that though of course, there’s still immense challenges. So absolutely, I think that there are definitely parallels in activist movements both in terms of union organizing, also I think of advocacy organizations.
Aymar Jean (15:20):
In particular, I’ve been interested in how the Human Rights Campaign is going to advance now that gay marriage isn’t an issue. I think that’s another organization that because of its bigness, sought big donors in order to maintain its size and those big donors where people of tremendous privilege with whom marriage was the core issue. And I was living in cities and interacting with queer people of color, gender nonconforming people of color, transgender individuals. And the big agenda was completely divorced from anything that they cared about and they realized. And I think me seeing that disconnect in my own communities, let me know that there is value, but value in being small and being able to regularly meet with and engage with the people for whom you are advocating.
Cathy Hannabach (16:11):
Absolutely. So that leads me to something that… two directions that I’d love for you to talk about how you see Open TV working, which is, the first one is how do you actually nitty-gritty on the ground work with artists? How does the production process work? How do you find people? How involved with you are in the different stages of development, of casting, filming, post-production, editing stuff, marketing? Obviously you do a heavy part of the marketing but the actual making of the thing, how does that work? And then maybe this dovetails into to another question about how you see that coming together or abraiding together of art and activism here? And how you bring your academic perspective also into that mix.
Aymar Jean (17:00):
Absolutely. You basically asked me, “How does Open TV work?”
Cathy Hannabach (17:04):
Exactly. Tell us.
Aymar Jean (17:06):
Which is, it works so far and I am… my hands are in all stages of the process at this point from pre-production, production, marketing, exhibition locally and online, I’m guiding the whole process. So when I started and I realized that I was doing a platform, I quickly freaked out. I decided I was releasing, You’re So Talented and realized that after You’re So Talented was done releasing, I would need something to release after it. So I basically contacted most of, if not all, of the queer trans and cis women and artists of color that I had met in Chicago since I’d been here in 2012, and asked them if they were interested in producing video, if they had a story. And if they did, I would ask them to send me a pitch, a script, a treatment and we would meet and see how we could get this done and how we could move it through the development process.
Aymar Jean (18:09):
I was fortunate that when I got to Northwestern, I had a tremendous amount of course release and I was also trying to figure out where my research was going. So I actually ended up going to a lot of performance art, I went to a lot of gallery shows and museums, panels and talkbacks and I tried to just expose myself to as much of the culture that was around me. And it turns out that that process was me basically building the first development slate for Open TV. By the time You’re So Talented was released, I think I had met with artists or talked with artists such that I had about two dozen projects that I could develop that was an idea that could go somewhere.
Aymar Jean (18:48):
And as anyone who’s worked with artists knows, sometimes an artist has an idea, but they’re not at the place emotionally, spiritually, professionally, financially to actually get it done. So some of those projects I met with the artists and they said, “It’s going to be a year or two right before I can actually get to this.” And some were like, “I’m ready right now.” And so once we have a script plan of treatment, it’s really about, do we have the resources and the team to get it done in a timely fashion? So I have some research funds from Northwestern to receive these projects. Only, I believe with the exception of Futurwomen, I invested my research funds directly in pilots. Series are just more complicated and they take more resources and I didn’t want to spend half of my research money creating one series.
Aymar Jean (19:41):
If anyone came to me with a series project, it was more a question of, “Can we crowd fund for this? Are there grants we can apply for this? Is this a situation where we need to find a private donor?’ It was about meeting with that artist and brainstorming looks me and now some graduate students as well what are our financing options. For projects that were ready and I had the money to do it, it was about setting the production date, getting the team together. Who is going to photograph this series? Who’s going to collect the sound? Who’s going to edit it? Making sure we all meet and we’re all on the same page about what the vision is and then setting a date to shoot it and making sure we get it edited on the back end. And so it’s been a tremendously collaborative project.
Aymar Jean (20:24):
It’s really an ever expanding network of creative people and technical crew to get these projects done. On the first end, it would take around six months from conception or first meeting to editing and it being ready for release. That pipeline is mostly still going, I’m about on a six to nine month development cycle, but now that we’ve launched and people see that what we’re announced starting to get submissions and people actually pitching me things that are already completed or new artists with new ideas. And so I think it’s going to get longer. When I started this project, I thought that I would be able to beat the development process on television and get things made faster and more efficiently, but I think actually because we’re a small operation and we’re working with artists who have complex lives, right? It’s not going to be faster.
Aymar Jean (21:27):
I think actually development is still going to take six months to a year from conception to release it in some cases longer than that for some more ambitious projects, which I can talk about later. But I think that’s okay. Actually, my next literature that I’m dipping into is going to be literature that’s about eco sustainability, growing things locally, slow food. I think that there’s an interesting and I mean people have made the analogy between fast food and corporate television, right? And I think I’m seeing that analogy play out in my own life. Where actually I’m making slow television. It’s small scale, creating these really intimate connections, these small crews and building those connections, building rapport amongst the teams, and then getting the thing made. And it’s all on people’s time and it’s a lot of people’s passion, even though I’m paying people. So it takes time. And actually I think that’s great. I think I want people to wait right for a project from an artist in their community and be excited about it even though it’s only five minutes long. And I think that’s seems like where we’re headed now.
Cathy Hannabach (22:34):
I love that metaphor of slow television. I think that’s a fantastic way to think about that.
Aymar Jean (22:39):
Yeah. Because I think with the internet people get it in their minds that things move quickly. And actually I thought that too when I started studying web series and it was only engaging with that community over years that I realized that it takes a long time for people to make that stuff and then it takes a long time for people to find out about it and then it takes a long time for them to have meetings with the people who can support the series further.
Aymar Jean (23:07):
Awkward Black Girl came out in 2011, 2010, she got a development deal pretty quickly, but then that fell through and she wavered for a little bit of time, she released the second season, I Am Other and then she released that and nothing happened. Then HBO came along, right? And then it was a year in HBO development, and then now she’s made the pilot, now she got to shoot the series. So she started that five years ago with this point, probably thinking that it’s going to pop off, which it did, right? Almost instantly hundreds of thousands of people are watching it, but it’s six years later that she’s finally reaching her goal, which was to get that show developed on network television.
Aymar Jean (23:48):
Yeah, the internet is slow, production is slow, anything that’s worth anything is slow. So I think I’m pushing that even farther because I’m actually producing a lot less than a lot of web series producers make because I want to do it ethically and I want to do it artistically. So I think we should be encouraging a culture of supporting artists over time and not looking for the next best thing that’s going to be hot, that’s going to be valuable to corporations.
Cathy Hannabach (24:14):
Yeah. It’s interesting too because of course that’s the academic research model as well, right? We value in academia an idea of slow research or a slow methodology particularly because of the ethical and political issues involved, right? So you can’t just come up with an idea off the top of your head, jot down a quick blog post, interview a couple people, throw in a couple key snazzy quotes, create a clickbait headline and throw something up there as academic research. Right? Those articles are perfectly entertaining and interesting and can often be really smart even, right? But they’re distinct from academic research, which is based in this kind of slow model that you’re thinking of. So I’m wondering too, if part of what you’re drawing on from your academic training and as a scholar, are those kinds of ethical commitments to sustained in-depth inquiry and critique taking time? Particularly because there are histories that need to be researched, there are contexts that need to be understood that you can’t do a quick Google search on.
Aymar Jean (25:22):
I think so. And I think maybe even going through graduate school and writing 400 blog posts and then going back to those blog posts and seeing how… my thought in the moment was so limited by my perspective in that moment and my limited knowledge at that time, I think. And writing a book is that process right? Where you go back to the things that you’ve written and you realize how much you’ve learned over time and how much by just reading more and experiencing more and also watching your simple develop right in the world, you come to a deeper understanding of what that is.
Aymar Jean (25:59):
I absolutely know the perils of rushing. Right? I mean I think it’s great to get snap ideas out there and it gets us talking, and by talking we learn as well. So that’s great. But I definitely don’t want to rush anything with Open TV and I want to make sure I stick to my original plan of releasing one at most two new things a month. Because I want to make sure I’m taking the time to understand what’s happening on the production side, what’s happening on the reception side, both online but then also in Chicago. So I think the process of good research absolutely mirrors the process of developing something in the world ethically.
Aymar Jean (26:42):
I think there is a challenge with the current university where you do have a very aggressive tenure track model where I actually do need to Bluetooth. Right? Like I do need to start writing now about Open TV even as I’m still trying to understand it. Right? I’m always learning something new about what we’re doing. So that’s been a bit of a challenge and something that I think I just have to grapple with. I mean I am writing up my first case study of our first pilot and I designed that pilot specifically to make sure I collected enough data to have something meaningful to say about it. Even as I know that two years from now, I’m going to probably have a completely different perspective on what that pilot was and did. But I guess that’s another article. So that’s the beauty of having a position where you’re constantly researching.
Cathy Hannabach (27:31):
You mentioned your book, first of all, tell us what that’s about and then how closely tied is it to the Open TV Project?
Aymar Jean (27:41):
It’s becoming more closely tied than I originally imagined. And it wasn’t originally called Open TV, it was originally called off-the-line. And I had this idea that I was studying production off the production line. In Hollywood, the production line divides the above and below the line talent and above the line is the creative labor, and below the line is the technical crew, it’s more gaffers, grips all these people who do the making and the people in the top who do the creating and I thought that the people I was studying, they were working on both sides of the line. But it turns out that was more of a niche argument for the dissertation. And as I started to think about, “What am I really trying to say? What is the social phenomenon that I’m describing?” I really honed in on the development process on television, particularly the pilot process and upfront financing. And as I went back into my interviews, I realized that people were talking about the inability to pitch television networks, their shows, get them made and get them seen.
Aymar Jean (28:46):
Television network executives receive thousands of pitches for shows every year. And as I thought about that number, thousands of pitches, that’s probably a more representative sample, right? Of what you actually see online. That’s the country that people are always wanting to see on television, never quite getting. They’ll hear those thousands of pitches, they’ll make two dozen or so pilots, half of those will get picked up to series and half to a third of those will actually be good enough to get a second season. So you have this really aggressive win win process that’s really based on them trying to get $1 to $10 million to make the pilot and then making those good enough to sell to advertisers and get advertisers excited to buy time on advertising slots on television.
Aymar Jean (29:35):
And this process, when you look at it, when you read trade press stories, this is the source of anxiety, the crisis of television in the digital age that they have these systems that were developed in a mass media era when they were the only distribution channels. So they could be so aggressive in the ways in which they curated their programs. And now everybody’s making programs, right? So the entire process has been completely upended. And what happens when you’re outside of that process is innovation. And that’s the argument of the book, right? That when you can make stories and release them on your own, you can produce them in a really diverse amount of ways, in ways that actually serve the interests of the people making the show, so whether that be actors getting together to make a show that showcase all their talents or whether it be an individual producer who has an idea for a show for a demographic that TV doesn’t care about. And making that show and then delivering it directly to those fans so those fans can support the show and keep it going.
Aymar Jean (30:35):
The pear dogmatic case study there is Felicia Day with the Guild, one of the most important case studies in the book. And she was an actress who like many actors cannot get cast consistently. So she had a lot of free time. She ended up playing a lot of video games and realizing that she was participating in a community and in a culture that wasn’t represented on television. So she wrote a show for that community. She made it, and that community picked it up and gave her money to keep the show going. And Microsoft and Sprint saw that community supporting that show and picked it up. And that show ran for six seasons online through Microsoft network and Sprint and allowed Felicia Day to argue for giving producers creative control in the development process such that they can reach fans on a sincere level instead of having this thing where you’re vetting the show through these network executives in Hollywood, who are rich white men almost primarily. And getting them to sell it to advertisers who want a specific type of show that will appeal to their brand. Right?
Aymar Jean (31:40):
And all these things actually dilute the expression of the artist and get fans to call out the authenticity of the representations within. So the book argues for the power of independent production and network distribution to create innovations in television development and broadly for those two things to innovate in all of these industries and institutions that have not been accountable to communities for so long. So that’s the argument of the book. And that led me to believe that I could, through research, actually create my own intervention that pushes those innovations farther. Right? That gets it to a broader array of communities, creating more sincere and autistic stories. And then releasing it online in one city as well. Right?
Aymar Jean (32:28):
It was important to me that unlike so many web series producers who borrow this scale obsession with television, right? I’m going to release my show online and get millions of people to see it and that’s what’s going to make me a celebrity and help to television develop my show to say, “Actually, maybe I don’t want millions of people, maybe I want to be accountable to Chicago first. Release shows here first, collect reactions from the people here.” For me, that’s research data, but also a way to make sure that we’re constantly being accountable to what people think about and how they’re reading our shows and then releasing it online. And if national media publications, bigger blogs, other kinds of advocates want to pick up our stuff and distribute it and get it seen farther, that’s great. If they don’t, I think we’re still creating value and innovations in television development.
Cathy Hannabach (33:18):
That’s fantastic. It also seems like for both political and ethical as well as just kind of pragmatic reasons. Collaboration is really at the heart of your production model, both the production model of open TV, but also the one that you’re calling for and advocating for in the book itself. So one of the things that I like talking with cultural producers on this podcast with is the kind of pleasures as well as difficulties of collaboration. For those of us who have come up in our lives through activist networks, through academic networks, through artistic networks, and particularly those of us who sit at the intersections of all of those. We know that community is both what sustains us, what enables us to do anything that is the source of any kind of inspiration or pleasure that we have. But it’s also complicated, it’s also complex, it’s also challenging and frustrating in some kinds of great ways that may not feel so great in the moment. Right?
Cathy Hannabach (34:21):
I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about collaboration and both the pleasures of it and the difficulties of it either through how you see that play out through your work in Open TV or in other kinds of artistic or activist or academic networks you’re part of.
Aymar Jean (34:36):
Absolutely. Collaboration of course is key for making anything, for doing any kind of project. And for the most part so far the collaborations in Open TV have been by and large, overwhelmingly pleasurable. Our biggest challenge with Open TV in collaboration is really making sure we manage everybody’s time and we don’t over ask of people’s capacity, but the great thing about Open TV I hope is that it’s an artist driven projects such that we can only go as fast as every artist involved can go. So the frustration is, sometimes things take a long time. And sometimes I have artists hitting me up saying, “Hey, I haven’t heard from you in two weeks. I sent you that email.” And I have to say, “I’m so sorry, I’m in post-production on this series and we’re releasing it in Chicago in a week and I have to organize this event and I will get back to you as soon as I can.” That’s really my biggest ethical challenge, trying to stay accountable to people consistently as I try to stay accountable to other people consistently.
Aymar Jean (35:50):
But everything else, I mean has really been fantastic. I think talking about Nupita Obama, the one I wrote and directed it might be useful here because it was a pilot that I explicitly designed to be as collaborative as possible in the production and in the exhibition process. So I wrote this script for three specific artists that I knew in Chicago who had I believe the talents to make it happen. I wrote a 10 page script about these three gender nonconforming artists of color who are caught in a love triangle and have to live together in a very forced way as comedy should be, I think Camp Comedy especially. And so they have to live together. And I wanted them over the course of this day to perform in a queer way and in a number of ways.
Aymar Jean (36:42):
I wrote one role for Erik Wallace, who is a vogue and hip hop performer. She vogues beautifully but also is a music artist and is releasing an EP hopefully any day now. And I wrote a role for her so that she would actually vogue in the pilot. And that was something that I didn’t choreograph when we turned on the camera, I was like, “Go.” And we got it in two takes. She was miraculous. I wrote another role for Kiam Marcelo Junio, a performance artists here that I’d seen perform in galleries and in bars, but also I knew was a Yogi. And I’d taken one of their yoga classes and I wrote a role where they would have a scene where they would guide someone through a yoga class and that would inspire Erik to create a new art form called Voga which is obviously the art form and the title appropriation overload as Erik said in` an interview that I did with her.
Aymar Jean (37:43):
And then actually in approaching Kiam with that project, Kiam suggested for the third role, signing Yomi, who is a drag queen I’d seen in Chicago perform. And originally that third role was just… I’ve written it for cis man that I knew and it was a non role, I was really focused on Kiam and Erik and that interaction, but once Kiam suggested Saya to me, it really opened up this whole world of possibilities. So I wrote the role for Saya. I rewrote the role as Saya to do it. She was totally game, very excited. And it turned out that she added all this other production value to the pilot. Both in being herself, she just gave all the shade that I couldn’t write the script through looks and gestures. All the performers brought their own clothes, but Saya being a drag queen had the most elaborate outfits obviously. So if you watch the episode, there’s just tremendous joy in seeing her change outfits every scene into something new.
Aymar Jean (38:44):
Some of those outfits actually were improvised on set because Kiam, like many queer artists write is multidisciplinary because they have to strategize different ways to survive because the institutions exclude them. So they’re also a fashion designer. So they had all these fabrics there. Some of those fabrics made it into the set in different ways, if you see fabric draped in the set, it’s Kiam fabrics. But there’s one scene where Saya creates this impromptu turbine that’s really gorgeous and drapes a necklace over it and it’s just gorgeous and it’s only in a couple of shots, but I think it really adds to the pleasures of the pilot. And then she brought her drag persona. Right? So the last scene.
Aymar Jean (39:22):
In the last scene, they create this makeshift to Vogue performance. Erik choreographed it, Kiam added the yoga moves also the backdrop to the scene as Kiam’s backdrop. And then Saya comes in at the last second in full drag and turns it. And watching people watch the pilot in Chicago, that’s the part that people go crazy for it. Right? And it’s something I completely didn’t plan for. It was all based on just allowing artists to express themselves in the production process.
Aymar Jean (39:55):
I mean I could go on and on and on. The music, all the music in the episode was from Erik’s EP. The blast track is the single on that EP and she released it on the day we released the pilot. I can go on and on. It was just so… It really exceeded my expectations and got me to greater depths because I theorized collaboration in the book on the production process. But I wasn’t really able to get in on all these sets and series were for the most part writer, director, star focus like Felicia Day, is the creative force behind it. So even as it was collaborative, it was a lot of her in the production process, where now working with queer color artists really showed me that actually queer performance is itself a production value. Right?
Aymar Jean (40:39):
And working with these artists who’ve been excluded from institutions actually it allows you to greatly exceed the production value that you can plan for in just the script process. And then on the exhibition side, we screened Nupita in Chicago in three separate locations, a bar and artists on creative space and a private home in each and each of the premiers I had one of those artists perform and I paid them to perform. And I had them perform in a neighborhood where they either work consistently or live. So they got to be around their own community and that showed the pilot to their community first before the internet side. So it allowed me to make these connections with those venues for one. Right.? So thinking about collaboration in the exhibition process and then thinking about showing a pilot to Chicago artists and having those artists be inspired and say, “I want to collaborate in future projects.”
Aymar Jean (41:39):
Collaboration is definitely a key variable in this study. And I think over time I’m just going to get more and more examples of how working with these diverse range of artists really expands our notions of what kinds of collaborations we can have in television production and exhibition.
Cathy Hannabach (41:53):
That’s awesome. I love the way that you put a queer performances as itself a production value. That’s fantastic. I will highlight that in the show notes.
Aymar Jean (42:03):
Yeah, absolutely. And that’s a key argument in the first journal article, the Nupita Obama case study. I think I’m actually calling it queer performance as production value, borrowing from me Patrick Johnson’s notion of queer theory. So taking… The silence is a queer theory around race and class knowledges and injecting that as its own value. Right? That brings specificity to the immensity that is queerness.
Cathy Hannabach (42:31):
Awesome. So for our final question, which is my favorite question that I love asking guests, which is really at the heart of what this podcast is about and at the heart of what all of you fabulous people are producing. So this podcast is obviously called Imagining Otherwise. And one of the things we talk with guests is their vision of a better world, whatever that means to you, that kind of world that you’re working towards when you create your art, when you publish your books, when you teach your classes, when you create Open TV pilots, all that kind of stuff. And there’s a quote by Leslie Feinberg from Stone Butch Blues that sums it up nicely. And Feinberg wrote, “Imagine a world worth living in, imagine a world worth fighting for.” And that kind of insistence that imagining is a key part of social change and social justice. So given that context, what’s the world you’re fighting for? What’s the world that you want? And how do you see your work in media production, in academy, in racial and sexual justice struggles? How do you see that contributing to that vision of the world?
Aymar Jean (43:40):
Wow, I love that question. I have so much imagination. I have so many dreams for both the research process and for television as well. I want a television system that embraces difference, that embraces multiplicity and indeterminacy and local experiences. I want platforms that make it their mission to be accountable to communities and to grow community and not just to grow money and create financial value, but also cultural value. I think that in television we had this idea that only so many identities can be represented. Right? Or only this kind of person can lead a show, right? Can anchor a series. And I want to say that that’s just an historical artifact, that’s a remnant of various kinds of political, economic and social circumstances around which television was created.
Aymar Jean (44:44):
That in fact, we can look towards the art world where artists are consistently given creative control or we can look towards forgotten histories of radio or public access or a community in public television to suggest that actually we should have a culture that values communities and artists first and not how they’re valued in financial markets, how their value from other people who can profit from their work. And I think by shifting our focus to artists and communities, we’ll actually get better stories, we’ll get more interesting stories, we’ll employ a greater diversity of people and they’ll actually maybe even be happier doing it right, because they’re doing it for better reasons. Right? And they have more agency in the process.
Aymar Jean (45:33):
I have a very expensive view of television that knowing the histories of community and artists based in queer television for probably not come into fruition, but all of these little… all of these movements, all of these organizations that have existed throughout time do the work of getting us to think critically about what we’re seeing around us. And I think that itself is valuable. And even if it’s limited, even if it only lasts for a few years or a decade that that does the work of getting us to equality, right? To thinking of ourselves as equal, to seeing each other as we want to be seen. I think that’s incredibly important. I think that’s why people complain about representations because they want to be seen as they are. And I just don’t think it’s possible.
Aymar Jean (46:19):
But in the current system, even as we have Empire and Orange Is The New Black and Transparent, we still see right that there’s certain people who aren’t the stars of those shows, there are certain people who are casted aside in those narratives, and even then, there’s only certain kinds of people who can get cast on those shows, who can write for them, et cetera.
Aymar Jean (46:38):
I also have a vision for research too. I think that in the university, we need to start imagining with these artists and communities. We can’t only write for ourselves. And if we have the resources, right? This is always the big question, do you have the resources to actually know these projects? But if you have the resources, you should be directing your research not only towards creating greater knowledge and understanding of social phenomenon, but also helping the people who are also trying to do that outside of the academy. This is one of the reasons why I love working with artists because artists teach me so much.
Aymar Jean (47:13):
Every time I meet with an artist, they tell me about a different experience. They enlightened me about the way in which they think about their process, how that is relevant to big social problems. So for example, in our most recent pilot that’s premiering this month, I worked with an artist named Rashida KhanBey, who is from South shore on the South side of Chicago. And her practice is teaching erotic dance to women as self-care and self-empowerment. So that was a new thing for me and immediately, right? Erotic dancers self-empowerment. But she told me about her practice, right? And the women that she works with and how many of them come to her at a crossroads in their life. They’ve lost their job and they’re depressed or they’re struggling in their marriage to keep it active sexually or their marriage is ending, right? And they’re trying to figure out what it means to be independent or they’ve just had a miscarriage or whatever.
Aymar Jean (48:15):
All the things that people and women deal with in their everyday lives and how for her getting them into their bodies and then getting them connected to their own sexuality through their bodies is a self healing process? Rossi likes to say that we carry trauma in our bodies, right? Not just in our minds. And that was something that was completely new to me. And then she taught me, so how do we model that in a television story, right? How do we tell a narrative through visuals and music that expresses that sentiment and gets people to understand that they carry trauma through their bodies. And that’s what she did. And we did it for under $3,000, we paid everyone involved. We created a 20 minute short film with an original score.
Aymar Jean (49:00):
Everyone involved was a person of color, most of them feminine spectrum women artists of color both queer and straight. And it’s just a beautiful piece that I think will help her business, right? And help her continually understand and help other people understand this one specific social phenomenon. And with Open TV, every artist I meet, right? Teaches me a whole different thing and illuminates different worlds and meanings and understandings for me. So I think that it’s something researchers should strive for, right? And we should build it into our methods of supporting other people who are doing the work of educating and also creating new forms of knowledge in their lives and in their practices.
Cathy Hannabach (49:48):
That’s a fantastic vision. And I love that. Imagination and creating that vision isn’t just something that happens in the future. It’s not just a future looking thing, but it’s something that you enact now, that you’re literally enacting through Open TV and through these other collaborative projects.
Aymar Jean (50:06):
Yes, absolutely. The process is the knowledge, right? You’ve got to do it to understand it, and you’ve got to keep doing it to further understand it.
Cathy Hannabach (50:16):
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being on the show. Before you go, where can we find you online and where can we find and watch Open TV or also for this information in the show notes.
Aymar Jean (50:28):
Awesome. Yes, Open TV is on weareopen.tv, that is our main website, that will connect you to pretty much anything. We’re on Facebook .com/weareopen.tv, Instagram weareopentv, Twitter weareopentv. The only one that’s not weareopentv is Vimeo where vimeo.com/opentv. My personal handles are prof A.J Christian on Twitter and Instagram. And on Facebook you can search for me Aymar Jean Christian or facebook.com/ajchristian. And do friend me on Facebook because that’s the platform I’m most active on. It’s also a great way to reach me and find out about our Open TV events. And we do use the event feature on Facebook for all of our local events.
Cathy Hannabach (51:19):
Awesome. Well, thank you so much for being on the show. This was really exciting.
Aymar Jean (51:23):
Thank you so much. It was great to have this conversation. I’m so inspired. Now, I’m going to go write my journal article.
Cathy Hannabach (51:30):
Awesome. Okay. Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Editing for this episode was done by Julie Lenard. Be sure to check out our website at imagineotherwise.com to listen to full episodes, read show notes, and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.