‘Queer Art of Scale:’ Aymar Jean Christian on web television, intersectionality

Dr. Aymar Jean Christian, assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University and founder of Open TV, poses for a portrait. Courtesy Lenny Gilmore

Tufts’ Film and Media Studies Program, the Department of Drama and Dance and the Boston Cinema/Media Seminar will host a lecture by Aymar Jean Christian called “The Queer Art of Scale: Producing Indie Pilots for Web TV” this evening. Christian is an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University, as well as the founder and head of development at Open TV (OTV), an online platform dedicated to streaming intersectional programming.

“We think about television as a medium that’s just for writers, primarily, but as television has expanded, it has become more interdisciplinary,” Christian said in an interview with the Daily. “We’re really only beginning to see how important other art forms are to the distribution of television.”

Tasha Oren, associate professor of drama and dance, invited Christian as part of a speaker series she started last year in an ongoing effort to bring more visibility to the oft-overlooked area of television scholarship. Oren hopes that thanks to the speaker series, more people will learn to appreciate television as a growing art form and viable area of scholarship, especially since film often dominates the field.

Christian’s area of study focuses on smaller-scale television production primarily designed for the web.

“I look at how digital technology and independent production shape and change creative industries,” he said. “My focus is on television.” 

At Northwestern, Christian teaches both undergraduate and graduate classes on television and the TV industry, including “Power In Entertainment,” “Intersectionality & New Media” and a course that focuses on television in the cable and internet eras.

In addition to his work as a researcher and scholar at Northwestern, Christian founded the Chicago-based streaming platform OTV in 2015, creating a space to provide visibility to stories that are generally left on the margins of popular entertainment — especially stories that negotiate multiple identities at once.

“I started the project asking the question, ‘How does queer television develop?,’” Christian said. “I was looking at scholarship that associated queerness with intersectionality — the idea that identifying as queer would have to interrogate multiple subject positions from the margins of race, gender, sexuality, class, religion, disability … Now I have specified my question to ‘How does intersectional TV develop?’ because I’ve found that using the word ‘queer,’ folks associate queerness really with LGBTQ and the other identities.” 

Christian explained that the question is an important one because society must acknowledge that there has never been a television network or channel that consistently and intentionally developed artists with multiple identities.

“The networks we have are single-identity networks — they’re black networks, Latino networks, women’s networks, gay networks — but in fact, identity is complex,” he said. “So many people have multiple identities. And so it’s an important question to ask because we don’t actually know how a network or how a distributor would develop intersectionally. So it’s something we have to practice to learn and understand. Algorithms are designed to separate and sort different kinds of users from each other so that we can be targeted, and one of the things intersectionality can do is bring communities together.”

To that end, OTV focuses exclusively on local artists rather than spreading to a broader community of creators. 

“I wanted to see what value developing locally in a global digital context might arise,” Christian said. “I had a hunch that you would get a lot more efficiency on the small scale, with a local focus, than trying to go national without millions of dollars in investments. Being locally focused, we can recommend all kinds of people for artists to meet to help their projects get done, and it really is very much a community effort.”

Instead of forcing storytellers into a contractually binding agreement, Christian and his team at OTV provide resources to producers, writers and directors so they can get their project off the ground and move on to bigger providers if they desire. Christian explained that this guidance is a crucial part of his role at OTV.

“I really am more of an indie development executive … My relationship with artists is that I’m the person who’s interested in showcasing your series, so I’m going to help you as best I can, as best as my team can, make the series so that I have it to release. But it’s very important that the artists actually produce the shows themselves … They keep their intellectual property, so they own the show, they can sell the show wherever, they can show it wherever after we premiere it.”

Christian stressed that he tries to act as a resource for the artists who work with OTV, empowering them financially or providing a team as they try to grow their projects. OTV also provides marketing consultation for artists who are looking to publicize their works. Christian asserts that this low-stakes agreement — in which the artists keep their intellectual property — actually leads to much more efficient and effective storytelling.  

“As a scholar, my question is would a looser, more artist-friendly contract actually be more engaging, better indie TV? There are other short-form distributors that are corporate, that make web series from bigger budgets than us, but the sacrifice you make for getting that bigger budget is typically all of your [intellectual property] — your story, basically.”

“One of the things that I hypothesized is that if I was an artist, and I had a passion project that really was very much connected to me, like my realest, truest story, would I sell that to a new corporation?” Christian said. “You know, these corporations aren’t HBO or ABC, they’re younger — with the understanding that yes, they might make it, but they might sit on it. Or if they do make it, this company might go out of business, and my story goes down with them. I really do think that one of the reasons why our programming stands out in the indie TV marketplace is the fact that we don’t have as much money as any of the other players because we really are just helping artists get where they need to go … I think we are releasing the best indie TV in the country. Not the best diverse indie TV, not the best queer or indie TV for people of color, but I think it’s just the best, period. Because we have the most diversity, and we also have the most honest storytelling.”

Christian also stressed the need for these diverse artists in Hollywood because they are better-equipped to write or produce diverse stories. The event tonight will focus on his experience with queer TV and experimental pilots.

“I’m looking at queer-identifying producers telling their own stories, and trying to figure out what are the ways in which their relationship to that community informs how they produce that work, and then can we see that giving us potentially more sincere — [that’s] the word I use, some people use the word authentic — stories.”

Christian’s lecture will be held at the Center for Humanities at Tufts at 48 Professors Row from 6–8 p.m. tonight.