AYMAR JEAN CHRISTIAN: The Value of Representation: Toward a Critique of Networked Television Performance

International Journal of Communication 11(2017), 1552–1574                         1932–8036/20170005



The Value of Representation:
Toward a Critique of Networked Television Performance



Northwestern University, USA


By changing the relations of production and exhibition, networked Internet (digital, peer-to-peer) distribution offers ways to experiment with representations different from legacy (linear, one-to-many) network distribution. To advance a theory of value in representation, I founded the platform Open TVbeta to develop queer, intersectional television in Chicago and online. I present a framework for assessing representational value through case studies of producing and exhibiting three local, queer, artist-driven pilots in Chicago. I argue that small-scale development processes restructure the politics of representation in television and art, allowing us to see value and innovation where it has historically been hidden in performances of cultures, organizations, and technologies of exhibition.


Keywords: television, new media, media industries, distribution, race, gender, sexuality, performance



Television is expanding through networked distribution. In 2016 corporate channels released a record number of scripted series, more than 455, not counting the many independent scripted, talk, and reality programs on open-upload platforms such as YouTube (Ryan, 2016). Yet “peak TV” brings new concerns and challenges. In the network era, representations were relatively circumscribed because the number of distributors (networks) and programs were small. Today America is better represented on television than ever before, yet representation behind the screens continues to lag, even among new Web TV distributors such as Netflix.


Production inequalities persist, despite a record number of productions. This raises the question of how series are developed (Christian, forthcoming). Development involves the selection, licensing, and scheduling of new series, historically through pilots. It is how series are valued, through the distributor ’s investment in producing and marketing cultural representations. Across platforms, the development process for scripted series, although shifting, remains opaque. Netflix only hints at its processes for incorporating our data into its original programming plans, whereas Amazon, which allows members to rate pilots, provides no public statement of the value of fans ’ contributions. Development histories for broadcast and cable series are revealed intermittently through the trade press, but the question of who gets meetings, access, and support in development, and why, is rarely known.


The growth and continued opacity of corporate networked development raise questions of how noncorporate television develops and what value emerges from representations across broadcast, cable, and networked distribution. Television development is undertheorized in media studies generally and is virtually absent from digital media studies, even though it structures what representations distributors produce. Todd Gitlin ’s Inside Prime Time (1983) provides a rare comprehensive view of the process in corporate contexts, and a small literature on cable (Banet-Weiser, Chris, & Freitas, 2007; Meehan & Byars, 2000) and community television (Boyle, 1997; Dornfeld, 1998; Heitner, 2013; Wald, 2015) provides insight into non-broadcast TV development practices before and during the “multichannel transition” that bridges the network and networked eras (Christian, forthcoming; Lotz, 2014).


To advance theories of networked representation, I founded the platform Open TVbeta to develop queer, intersectional television in Chicago and online. Through the method of quare networked development, I argue that small-scale development processes restructure the politics of representation in television and art, allowing us to see value where it has historically been hidden in performances of cultures, organizations, and technologies of exhibition. In assessing value, I read Bourdieu ’s (2011) forms of capital, and television as a field, through the lens of critical media industry studies, grounded by the question of how organizations profit from cultural representation and how cultural and social relations are embedded in the economic practice of making legacy and networked television and art (Jenkins, Ford, & Green, 2013; Keeling, 2007). I also argue that “research creation” (Chapman & Sawchuk, 2012) and “participatory action research” (Nelson, 2013; L. Smith et al., 2010; Van de Ven, 2007) as methodologies could develop the data to deepen our understanding of value in production, exhibition, and, ultimately, representation in networked culture. Open TVbeta marshals the experimentation necessary to produce artworks and exhibit them to communities to rescale story production centering artists and communities.


Open TV borrows legacy television ’s methods for organizing development, but adapts them for the flexibility of networked distribution and scale of independent production. The platform distributes indie pilots, original series (or first run, those premiering on our platform), and syndicated series (or second run, those we republish) by queer, transgender, ciswomen, and artists of color. I aim to focus on valuing artists and their communities: Artists are not given notes beyond those necessary to complete projects at a small scale; artists retain intellectual property; distribution agreements are nonexclusive; and financing strategies are shaped by artist and project. As a project in beta, Open TV applies Gina Neff and David Stark ’s (2004) notion of “permanently beta,” to reflect “a fluid organizational form resulting from the process of negotiation among users, employees, and organizations over the design of goods and services” (p. 175), with the understanding that queer representation involves failure, adaptation, and negotiation (Halberstam, 2011; Muñoz, 2009).


Open TV launched in March 2015 with an original, Chicago-based indie series, You ’re So Talented, starring, written, and created by Sam Bailey, a theater artist and Black ciswoman. The second season premiered in February 2016 through a grant administered by Chicago Filmmakers; it has been recognized by the Tribeca Film Festival and Gotham Awards. Season 1 was funded by a crowdfunding campaign, and its trailer released before Open TV existed, whereas for Season 2, I informed Sam of the grant, for which Open TV served as proof of her securing online exhibition in her application. The next year that same grant funded a series directed by Sam from poet Fatimah Asghar, Brown Girls. One can see evidence of the entire development process in a trailer showcasing the first cycle (Figure 1 video), which started with You ’re So Talented, and previewing the second, which started with Brown Girls two years later.

Figure 1. Open TV (beta) trailer (02:59). https://vimeo.com/198624799


This article focuses on Open TV Presents, a series of pilots about artists exploring alternative relationships. It launched in July 2015 with Nupita Obama Creates Vogua, which I wrote and directed in collaboration with three Chicago-based gender nonconforming artists of color, with executive production by scholar E. Patrick Johnson. In fall 2015 we released two subsequent pilots: artist and Transparent coproducer Zackary Drucker ’s Southern for Pussy, and Let Go and Let God by Rashida KhanBey, who teaches sensual dance to feminine-spectrum students in Chicago. I performed production positions on all three pilots: writer-director on Nupita Obama Creates Vogua, producer on Southern for Pussy, and executive producer on Let Go and Let God (on which I also served as a production assistant). On Vogua and Southern, I also helped with craft services, cooking for the Vogua crew and ordering dinner for the crew of Southern.


A Critique of Networked Television Performance Across Culture, Organization, Technology


By changing the relations of production and exhibition, Internet, or “networked” (digital, peer-to-peer), distribution offers ways to experiment with representations that are different from legacy “network” (linear, one-to-many) distribution. Here I am applying theories of networked self and publics developed by danah boyd (2007) and Zizi Papacharissi (2013) to the realm of entertainment. Networked distribution is fraught. Companies such as Netflix and YouTube have inherited from legacy media a focus on scale, amassing data from large user bases valuable to advertisers and shareholders, thus creating new oligopolies (Cunningham & Silver, 2013). Corporate Web networks ’ coupling of big data exhibition with blockbuster and franchise production obscures the value of cultural representation in television development (Elberse, 2013). Research from S. Smith, Choueti, and Pieper (2016) at the University of Southern California strongly suggests that streaming corporate channels are rarely better than legacy media at delivering equal representation behind or in front the camera for women and minorities. Digital distribution alone cannot produce public benefits in creative industries (McChesney, 2013). Instead, scholars must confront this issue of scale directly, looking to contemporary independent production and legacies of local and community television, video, and social practice art to critique value in smaller productions, communities, and local networks.


I locate legacy and corporate Web TV networks ’ representational dilemma in their performance in technology, that is, their focus on increasing distribution ’s scale, and their organizational performance, that is, the series development process (Christian, 2014). Most corporate programs are developed as follows: Network executives solicit pitches from writers represented by New York– and Hollywood-based agents and managers, film a pilot episode, order a season from a small number of pitches, and sell advertising slots to brands or collect subscriptions. The process of investing millions in few series, coupled with the pressure to maintain stable profits, makes executives reluctant to deviate from norms (Bielby & Bielby, 1994; Gitlin, 1983). Drawing from narrowly defined sources for production also limits the sincerity and specificity of representations. Subscriber-supported networks such as HBO and Netflix offer greater creative expression for producers, but retain intellectual property ownership or limit themselves to highly credentialed producers who tend to reflect the cultural affiliations of those in power (F. D. Henderson, 2011). These dynamics, and resulting inequalities and inefficiencies, manifest across the corporate media sectors awkwardly transitioning to the networked economy (Anthropy, 2012; Klinger, 2006; Shaw, 2015; Sinnreich, 2013; Tryon, 2009; Vaidhyanathan, 2003). Even the American art world, whose market differs because of its small pool of funders, finds it challenging to develop and sustain revenue, audiences, and pools of producers diverse in identity and practice (Dávila, 2012; DiMaggio, 2006). Art institutions underpay performance and video artists, resigning them to positions as underpaid adjuncts, lecturers at pricey art schools, and entrepreneurial free agents increasingly without institutional support (Relyea, 2013).


In this study, I quare the pilot and development process to explore forms of value based in queer of color social relations and shaped by local and digital art markets. Producing and releasing pilots created by and in collaboration with queer of color artists illuminates underrecognized forms of production and exhibition value, directing scholars to alternative theories of representation. As Roderick Ferguson (2004) argues, “Queer of color critique approaches culture as one site that compels identifications with and antagonisms to the normative ideals promoted by state and capital” (p. 3). Queer of color artists and their peers, fans, and communities all grapple with normative culture and culture industries in their lives, work, and digital practices. “Quaring,” as theorized by E. Patrick Johnson (2001), retains queer theory ’s critique of stable notions of identity, its “inclusivity and playful spirit,” while it “jettisons its homogenizing tendencies” to “locate racialized and classed knowledges” (p. 3).


Quare networked development focuses production and exhibition on (a) cultural specificity and artistic sincerity while retaining queer theory ’s embrace of disidentification from heteronormativity through performance and gesture, (b) television as a national forum, and (c) the productive capacities of failure (Halberstam, 2011; Keeling, 2014; Lopez, 2014; Muñoz, 2009; Rodríguez, 2014). It offers a way to see value in television representation through an empirical understanding of sincerity in production and exhibition, foregrounding the perspectives of creators and their relationship to community (Jackson, 2005) as opposed to corporations ’ focus on branded authenticity (Banet-Weiser, 2012). This is not to endorse what Lisa Henderson (2013) calls “the queer/nonqueer opposition in the politics of cultural production” (p. 102), but rather to suggest that arts-based research can relay corporate television distributors ’ increasing desire to queer representation for attention and profit (Joyrich, 2014; Keeling, 2007). “Queer relay,” according to Lisa Henderson (2013), involves “an ongoing process of cultural passing off, catching, and passing on” marking “cultural-economic difference . . . the idea that practice matters in nondominant cultural production” (p. 103). While media studies have primarily explored the cultural production of queer representation—focusing on individual films, filmmakers, producers, and series—I shift critique to cultural distribution to probe the “politics of possibility” of a queer development process (Gibson-Graham, 1996).


I explore the method of quare networked development as a way to test the value of representations as it performs across production and exhibition contexts. Here I am building on Jon McKenzie ’s (2001) theory of the value of performance in late capitalism: the efficacy of cultural performance (representation in art, film, television), the efficiency of organizational performance (Open TV ’s ability to guide production and development), and the effectiveness of technological performance (distribution and exhibition online, in social media and locally). The method is robust, though the findings are merely suggestive at this stage. It combines scholarly critique and public performance through grounded theory, autoethnography, participant observation, participatory action research, and research creation. The sites from which I build grounded theory are three sites of production; pre- and postproduction meetings; exhibits of the work in Chicago, including screenings, talkbacks, dance, and music; and the online releases of the pilots. I employed participant observation of all, performing multiple roles, albeit precariously: executive producer, director, writer, editor, producer, production assistant, cook, host, and development executive, bounded by my role as a researcher. To understand these sites, I interviewed the artists who created the series (for Nupita Obama, the three artists I collaborated with); surveyed and interviewed the people who watched them in Chicago; and tracked online engagement and the process of releasing the pilots online and in Chicago. From a grounded theory perspective, I employ a constructivist or, arguably, postmodern perspective, as defined by Kathy Charmaz (2008), to “attend to the conditions and relations of research, considering them part of the knowledge gained from the investigation” (p. 160). However, I challenge a tenet of grounded theory by directing the research question to a problem, as opposed to having the problem arise organically (Charmaz, 2008). I justify this violation for the reasons explicated above: There is a broad and deep literature spotlight on the problem of representation, particularly queer and intersectional, and a consistent call for deeper critique despite a lack of new methods.


Thus I propose adding participatory action research—work done through collaboration with communities and organizations—and research creation (arts-based research) to the methodological toolkit of cultural studies to direct grounded theory. In the literature of action research, lessons from practicing scholars include being led by participants, allowing methods to be iterative, and underscoring the importance of interdisciplinary training for scholars (Cranshaw, Rowe, & Hudson, 2015; Gustavsen, 2008; Olszanowski, 2011). Robin Nelson (2013) identifies in participatory action research three modes of knowing that I demonstrate in this article:


“Know how” is defined as the experimental, haptic, and embodied knowledge closely linked to the doing of activities. “Know what” is the tacit knowledge made explicit; knowing what works, being able to describe the methods and understanding impacts. “Know that” is the outsider, distanced knowledge coming from, for example, conceptual frameworks or spectator studies. (p. 28)


Here the episodes are data, evidence of representational value from quare production—know how, know what, and know that—and available for critique. For this reason, they are embedded in this article. By tracking production and exhibition qualitatively and quantitatively (through production contexts, narratives, financing, commissions, awards, views, shares, comments, attendance), I argue that we could advance new epistemologies of how TV develops. Because this mix of methods is new and the study ongoing, all findings are preliminary, but suggest that the process of development and results of exhibition radically reshape how we see TV development, forming a critique of scale. In production, quare video and performance artists bring value to television by introducing sincere, creative ideas at a small scale and through multiple roles, integrating unique forms of cultural performance into productions. In exhibition, I argue that independent quare pilots revalue TV exhibition as pedagogical and historically situated, particularly showing the value of artists ’ embodied and live performance locally. Quare networked exhibition has clear qualitative value, but quantitative value on corporate platforms is more complex. Quare representation, thus, both critiques and creates value in networked development. Quare value, as capital and data, is both critical and productive, rendering it central to our understanding of television and art as markets and as objects of inquiry.


Quare Production Value


The Efficacy and Efficiency of Cultural and Organizational Performance


Quare video and performance artists bring value to television by introducing sincere, creative ideas at scale and through multiple roles, integrating unique forms of cultural performance into productions. Developing work with artists historically excluded from the television development process critiques contemporary corporate practices of increasing investments in pre-existing intellectual property (D. Johnson, 2013), postcultural work that limits creativity among producers with nonnormative identities (Aslinger, 2009; Ng, 2013; Warner, 2015), and the widening divide between above- and below-the-line labor in Hollywood (Mayer, 2011). People with intersectional identities overwhelmingly do not get a chance to be the creators, show runners, and executive producers of their work in corporate contexts (Hunt & Ramón, 2015). Both because and in spite of this, they are skilled purveyors of underrepresented performances across artistic disciplines as a strategy for survival. Quare production value shifts the focus of television criticism away from technical production value (lighting, sound, costume and set design, etc.), which major studios can achieve with multimillion-dollar investments, to cultural production value, where the specific identities and agency of creators are what matter and what corporations find harder to develop.


The development process for Open TV starts with an artist and their idea, a way of applying to networked development historical precedents of artist-driven innovation and of testing narrative sincerity. Unlike in legacy television, I help develop every pitch I receive, even if only to refer the creator to funding sources and to offer suggestions or referrals for production. For Nupita Obama, the artist and writer was myself, but I soon incorporated others (Figure 2 video). I devised the idea of vogua, combining voguing and yoga, inspired both by my own physical fitness practices for surviving Chicago ’s winters and by the artists in my community who practiced these forms, including Kiam Marcelo Junio, a performance artist and yogi; Erik Lamar Wallace, a hip-hop artist and vogue dancer; and Saya Naomi, a drag queen. I wrote the pilot with the clear direction that they would contribute their art and writing. Collectively, the three of them created an image of vogua. We met for two rehearsals in which they workshopped vogua together and read through the script, adjusting lines to feel natural as they went .

Figure 2. Nupita Obama Creates Vogua (2015;12:10). https://vimeo.com/134807299


Each change to the script showed a performer ’s identity as an artist or participant in queer communities, reflecting sincerity as relational. Kiam added “making love, marking art” to the first lines for Erik ’s character, to suggest collaboration and polyamory more strongly; they also both changed the yoga chant I ’d written to one that more specifically reflected the theme of peace and adjusted the lines they say in the yoga class scene to reflect what they actually say as yoga instructors. Erik changed a line where the character proposes vogua as yoga set to “Black queer music” (my language) to “cunt beats,” the term used in ball culture to describe performances of “ultimate femininity” (Bailey, 2011), and a line referring to Gia “dancing” to “Gia can shake her ass,” closer to quare vernacular. As former member of a house, Erik changed my line, “I ’m not going to try to one-up Willie Ninja” (a famous voguer who choreographed for Madonna), to “You can ’t just adopt a legendary house name. You have to be inducted,” a way to make the line more specific and informative. After the line, “How about Knowles?,” when the three troubleshoot Nupita ’s house name that would become “Obama,” Erik added, “That [Knowles] is a legendary house name,” which is something house members might say in joking about Beyoncé Knowles-Carter.


Open TV ’s next two pilots came to me as sincere stories from queer and trans feminine-spectrum artists. Artists ’ sincerity proved invaluable in creating new and engaging narratives. In 2014, while Zackary was in town filming a pilot for an all-transwoman talk show, The Skew, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, she pitched a short pilot based on a real conversation with her mother, Penny Sori, about her vagina. Months later I was in Los Angeles producing Southern for Pussy (Figure 3 video), a pilot where Zackary says “transness is incidental,” in Penny ’s house with a nearly all-woman crew and a number of artistic collaborators supplying original artwork. Our third pilot, Let Go and Let God (Figure 4 video), came from dance instructor from Chicago ’s South Shore neighborhood, Rashida KhanBey, a queer Black ciswoman I found on Instagram and approached after seeing that her latest Web-distributed dance film, Sex Is A God Thing, had amassed considerable attention. Rashida pitched a sequel to that film that would explore the relationship between sensuality and spirituality by representing Black women dancing comfortably in their bodies; yet as the months progressed, she shifted her pitch to representing depression, brought on by the termination of a pregnancy.


Although each production context and process differed, each set reflected local, small-scale, and artist-centered activity, advancing quare performance as production value. As in many independent Web series, producers performed multiple roles to achieve the desired story, image, and sound (Christian, 2014). Creativity and improvisation, a feature of all filmed production, were as integral as narratives rooted in experiences of race, gender, and sexuality (Bechky, 2006; Bechky & Okhuysen, 2011). I intentionally worked with artists who, in part because of systemic exclusion from stable employment in art and TV markets, have acquired multiple talents and skills. Nupita Obama best exemplifies this. All performers dressed themselves for three costume changes. Saya Naomi did her makeup and Erik ’s. Erik and Kiam did the choreography for their solo performances (Erik voguing, Kiam ’s yoga) and the final scene. The set design consisted of one pair of sheets, a rug, and a print from my house (a piece from undocuqueer artist Favianna Rodriguez), but mostly of Kiam ’s art and objects from their home, the sole location for filming. Great improvisatory moments arose from collaborating with multiskilled queer of color artists. For the final scene, we needed a backdrop because at night film lights reflected off the windows against which I originally wanted to shoot; Kiam had a photo backdrop from their photography practice and fabric from their fashion design practice. One of our extras, Ms. Mister Junior, a feminine-spectrum burlesque artist who had taught Kiam how to sew, draped the backdrop, supplying a new set within 30 minutes, all while the three leads were preparing their makeup and costumes for the final scene. The three-song soundtrack came from Erik ’s label and queer hip-hop EP, Faggot. Erik released the first single, the climatic track in the pilot, on the day of the pilot ’s release. In fact, each artist ’s contribution saved time filming (and by extension, money in production and postproduction); we did not go over schedule, a consistent problem in indie production. Most importantly, all these contributions enhanced the visual look and feel, making it vibrant and true to the lives of gender nonconforming artists of color.

Figure 3. Southern for Pussy (2015; 04:43). https://vimeo.com/143933380

Figure 4. Let Go and Let God (2015; 22:55). https://vimeo.com/146666127



Quare Exhibition Value


The Effectiveness of Technological Performance


The value of cultural performance lies in its efficacy of relating narratives of difference and the value of organizational performance in terms of its efficiency (McKenzie, 2001). The prior section suggests that artist-driven quare networked production contributes meaningful insight to both of these propositions, efficaciously narrating difference and efficiently guiding production. McKenzie evaluates technological performance in terms of its effectiveness—does it reach an organization ’s or a producer ’s stated aims? In Open TV my aim is to experiment with series development to approach a theory of representational value in networked television. I argue that off-platform exhibition of networked television demonstrates the value of quare performance to organizations at all levels of scale, from artist-run spaces with no programming budgets to institutions with large endowments. Online exhibition, primarily on Facebook, demonstrates some value in qualitative reception data, where quare performance inspires vernacular contributions as users respond emotionally and critically (Papacharissi, 2013, 2014); I find support for Papacharissi ’s (2009) assertion of Facebook as a “glass house,” (p. 215) where users “possess the tools for taste differentiation and performance” (p. 213) such that “the looseness of behavioral norms obliges users to construct their own” (p. 215). Yet Facebook ’s algorithm makes the process of reaching audiences challenging and opaque, and institutional norms are taking hold. My project interrogates the value of the quantitative data that social media platforms give individual, independent, and community-based art and television distributors, even as it suggests possible uses for this data in understanding spreadability and the politics of algorithms (Jenkins et al., 2013).


Legacy TV networks and art distributors struggle to effectively deliver products and satisfy customers on digital platforms. On the one hand, both are still able to make money because financiers—advertisers for TV and collectors for the art world—have been skeptical of digital offerings and locked into legacy sales traditions (Lotz, 2007). On the other hand, artists and their fans are exploring new digital offerings and performances that both industries are struggling to value. For television, younger fans are shifting away from linear television and increasingly subscribing directly to producers, including YouTubers and some indie series such as Broad City and High Maintenance, and new networks—besides Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, these include digital independent networks such as Black & Sexy TV and tello Films, and independent subscription or on-demand series such as queer soaps Eastsiders and Venice. Meanwhile, galleries and art dealers find artists who are exploring social production practices and digitally based work difficult to incorporate into legacy funding structures. The vast majority of art-world funding is analog, based on the distribution of three-dimensional objects.


Art and television distributors are not fully exploring the possibilities afforded by digital technologies to work in community and develop new artists and narratives. Museums and galleries primarily engage with digital artists who can create objects they can install and sell, such as the immersive environments Ryan Trecartin crafts alongside his videos, or who can attract fans to institutional spaces and create buzz at relatively low cost, such as Kalup Linzy ’s touring as characters in his video art dramas (Nyong ’o, 2010). Television distributors have brought to the Web their historical interest in mass scale (Christian, forthcoming), despite the efficiencies afforded by the digital targeting of smaller, niche audiences in a multichannel environment (Gray, 1995; Smith-Shomade, 2008; Turow, 2008, 2012). Existing indie Web series and indie TV participants are more effective in connecting offline and online exhibition on a small scale, but are outresourced in the market and unsupported by the state. The inequalities ensuing from key market players lagging behind their producers and consumers engender struggles over representation, as consumers can find sincerer narratives from independent producers and their friends on social media (Christian, 2015).


Quare exhibition marshals underrepresented cultural performance to develop diverse community and to critique how legacy distributors value reception across online and offline spaces. Open TV functions as a platform for organizing local (Chicago) and online exhibition; within these sites are a diverse of array of contexts. I explicitly and publicly use the term platform to both cite and critique its contrasting use by large networked distributors such as YouTube. As Tarleton Gillespie (2010) argues, “the discourse of the ‘platform ’ works against us developing such precision, offering as it does a comforting sense of technical neutrality and progressive openness” (p. 360). As an independent platform operating largely outside of the corporate online market, Open TV cannot lay claim to technical neutrality—we can use corporate platforms only as effectively as they allow. As a platform operating in the specific geographic location of Chicago, our claims to progressive openness are open to direct critique from the communities we represent. By collecting and sharing networked data (social media analytics, primarily, for both the platform and individual artists) in addition to local data (surveys, interviews, public conversations, participant observations), Open TV uses grounded theory to specify the politics of platforms compared with both legacy and Web TV distributors, whose scale-oriented strategies diminish the value of artistic diversity and local community, and legacy art distributors, whose exhibition practices are not consistently networked or community based.


Every Open TV pilot and series screens in Chicago before it goes online. Screening locations are determined by asking artists about their perceived audience (identity, neighborhood) and space preferences (based on career objectives, past experiences, connections), negotiated with other factors including time, budget, and space availability. We screened Nupita Obama in eight instances, including three premieres, Southern for Pussy in four, and Let Go and Let God in two. Nupita Obama is Open TV ’s most sustained experiment in neighborhood-specific exhibition. We screened in three spaces throughout July 2015, with each star headlining (Figures 5–7). Venues included Wangs, a bar in Lakeview where Erik Wallace had performed and hosted parties; Canvas, an artist-run space near Saya Naomi ’s home in Logan Square; and 1618W17, a private loft in Pilsen with a large stage known among queer artists in the neighborhood where Kiam Junio had performed. At these premieres we screened the episode and provided food, and each artist performed: Erik performed three songs from her EP, two featured in the pilot; Saya Naomi put on her makeup in front of the audience and performed a lip sync of Nicki Minaj ’s “Shanghai”; Kiam Junio workshopped a video narrative and a performance, “I Deserve,” crowdsourced on social media and later posted to Vimeo. In-person exhibition provided artists a chance to showcase their talents, disciplines, and new work to their respective communities and to enjoy a form of recognition modest in scale (by legacy distribution standards), but deep in cultural resonance and appreciation. As Saya said in a promo interview:



Being able to be on the mic and have your tunes played, that ’s already catching the feeling. And when people are there for you to support you and love you, it made me really emotional! I was getting really choked up at the end . . . I don ’t get that kind of support from Chicago people! No! It wasn ’t until I walked into the doors with that family that I started feeling that . . . Seeing all the love that was given it was, like, you know what? This is real. This is real. This is respect.


Here, Saya cites the importance of live exhibition for Web series because performers see fans ’ excitement embodied. According to postscreening interviews at the three premieres, most of these fans are friends of the performers, members of Chicago ’s queer community, though most found out through Facebook, indicating the role of networked promotion in local contexts.


Attendees represented a diverse cross-section of Chicagoans. We surveyed 25 of 75 attendees across three premieres, with pluralities identified as Black, ciswoman, and queer living on the North Side. Among this community, many of them artists, the episodes ’ themes of queer kinship and romance across the gender binary, polyamory, and the pleasure of quare performance stood out most prominently, particularly given their lack of representation on legacy TV. One artist who came to the Pilsen premiere responded in terms expressive of others ’ responses:


The complex relationship, the polyamorous thing, living, being a queer artist, and carrying and presenting something that is someone else ’s as your own, and then working as a community and then, presenting something completely different, like you know, when they finalized the, like, yoga performance, that was all of their souls put into one, so joining all these souls together can make, like, a real good milkshake, you know, it would bring all the boys to the yard, and the girls, and the queers, and everyone in between.


Similarly, a number of interviews highlighted both surprise and pleasure at seeing three gender nonconforming artists come together romantically and artistically. One attendee said, “It felt like the performances were very sincere, and cohesively it felt very professionally made, and like all the actors knew what they needed to bring to it to give the story life, because it gave me life.” Here we see respondents use subcultural vernacular in response to subcultural narratives; the term to give life originated among Black femme communities as a response to performances deeply felt. Still, not all responses reflected an appreciation for the production ’s nonconformity and attempts at realism. Another attendee in Pilsen took issue with the pilot ’s technical production—lighting in particular, but also key sound design moments—saying that it “looked a little cheap in the production.” Nevertheless, critiques of technical production were few; attendees instead focused their critiques on what they wanted to see more of. When asked what they ’d like to see in future episodes, none cited higher technical production values, instead commenting on wanting deeper character development (the most common response), more camp, sex, and performance in the form of dance, but also interpersonal shade and looks. I believe these responses suggest that the pilot performed as pilots should: creating an appetite to see more quare performance.

Figure 5. #NupitaObama Creates Vogua Premiere, Lakeview (01:17). https://vimeo.com/133452075

Figure 6. #NupitaObama Creates Vogua Premiere, Wicker Park (01:37).


The premieres for Southern for Pussy and Let Go and Let God were markedly different and demonstrated the depth of cultural discourse possible in intimate screenings for specific local communities. Let Go and Let God premiered in November 2015 alongside our three scripted pilots (You ’re So Talented, Nupita Obama, Southern for Pussy) at the nonprofit Woman Made Gallery as a featured event for Chicago Artists Month, sponsored by the city of Chicago. Responses to that premiere focused primarily on the diversity of people and themes, including narrative (genres, form) and gender diversity. In March 2016, we hosted a separate screening for Let Go and Let God integrating performance: Rashida conducted a free erotic dance class at Dance Center Chicago in Lincoln Square, coupled with a screening of the film and discussion led by playwright and activist Kristiana Rae Colon. There, our postscreening discussion among five Black feminine-spectrum attendees focused on how dance and spirituality offer ways to cope and heal from personal, social, political, and economic trauma. Rashida used the screening to open up about her experience with depression and how her dance practice is her “preventative care.” Each participant saw something different in the pilot: One focused on the theme of unchanging daily routine and two on the cleansing power of water (one because she thinks of and goes to Lake Michigan and one because she thinks of God when in need of restoration). Held for an audience of 25 people in the Uptown office of TransTech Social Enterprises, a social service agency for trans people, Southern for Pussy ’s premiere included screenings of two earlier works of video art that normally circulate in galleries and museums, Lost Lake (2010) and She Gone Rogue (2012), and a postscreening Q&A via Skype. The discussion centered around contemporary tensions concerning contemporary trans visibility, Zackary ’s work as an artist, and the importance of remembering older generations of transwomen and ciswomen.

Figure 7. #NupitaObama Creates Vogua Premiere, Pilsen (01:12). https://vimeo.com/134753960


Online, reception of the pilots varied in viewership size and performance. As of February 2017, Nupita Obama has had 1,113 plays on Vimeo, most occurring within the first month of its release, and Let Go and Let God has had 1,120 plays. Southern for Pussy has had 24,200 plays. Each play count represents a substantially larger number than those who attended premieres, and the load counts for each video (a measure of impressions the video received) were at least twice the play counts. This suggests that networked distribution does increase audience size for local television. Aiding our online releases were methods for connecting fans through technological performance, including dedicated hashtags and tags of artists, and cultural performance, including interviews with artists, photographs of premieres and production, and, for Nupita Obama, GIFs of shady moments in the episode.


For each pilot, the identities and performances of the artists heavily influenced how users reacted to performances and pilots ’ spreadability (Jenkins et al., 2013). For instance, Let Go and Let God ’s biggest traffic drivers were Rashida ’s Facebook page and an ad we took out for it that was our most engaged post, as it found popularity among Black women: the episode reached 5,200 people and received 249 clicks and 232 reactions (comments, likes, shares). In addition, Zackary Drucker has a considerable fan base as an artist and television personality. When she shared the pilot in October 2015, it received 324 likes, 23 comments—most exclamations of love—and 11 shares on her page alone. Yet the biggest traffic driver was its coverage in a Buzzfeed article covering an exhibit, Bring Your Own Body, on contemporary transgender art at New York ’s Cooper Gallery, where it debuted. Writer Meredith Talusan not only embedded the episode but also made GIFs. The publicity resulted in 32,544 loads of the video and 3,225 plays in one week. What this shows is how real-world, art-world, and identity-based exhibits can influence online reception. Indeed, we release digital documentation of premieres to further engage our communities, who like the photos they are tagged in and can share the experience with friends who missed it.


Digital distribution gives organizations access to a raft of quantitative data on their audiences, including demographics, views, clicks, engagement counts and rates, and fan insights. Yet there is an inscrutability and variability to these data that limit their utility for smaller organizations. For one, our Facebook data are less specific than our offline data; this is in part because we ask for more specificity offline: for example, I include transgender, gender nonconforming, masculine-spectrum, and feminine-spectrum identifications in a question about gender to reflect the gender diversity in our community, whereas on Facebook, roughly 10% of our audience ’s gender is unaccounted for, likely because a percentage of our audience is nonbinary. Moreover, features are variable: Facebook switched event RSVPs from “maybe” to “interested” in the first week of November as we were promoting our first event at Woman Made, and added “love” and a host of other reactions to posts in early 2016. What these terms and their use mean are not immediately clear. The most meaningful data from social media in the pilot cycle came from qualitative reactions. Comments and shares of our Nupita Obama teaser of Erik voguing—37 shares, 12 comments, and 47 likes on our page ’s post—clearly showed how quare performance online begets vernacular affiliation. As in postscreening interviews, fans reacted with Black queer parlance, including “thank you to all the children,” “you better work,” “yaaas,” and “YASSSS” (E. P. Johnson, 1995).


Releasing indie work on corporate social media networks reveals the limits of their technological effectiveness for small producers and distributors. Size is power on social network sites; as boyd, Levy, and Marwick (2014) have suggested, algorithmic discrimination is “networked,” in that one ’s position in the network and the breadth of one ’s connections matter. With just 1,093 likes on Facebook as of February 2017—but many more friends among the artists—our network position, as with many local organizations, is precarious. Moreover, it is clear that Facebook ’s algorithm is opaque and discriminatory, as has been argued by activists (Creedon, 2014). We were able to successfully take out ads on Let Go and Let God, but Southern for Pussy was deemed pornographic because of its name. Moreover, Facebook competes with Vimeo and other video platforms, so it privileges video uploaded to its platform. We uploaded the Nupita Obama teaser directly to Facebook, and it spread widely and quickly, generating more than 2,000 views in its first weeks of release. When we uploaded a full trailer to Vimeo, we received less than 10% of the viewership, most likely because Facebook videos play automatically, whereas others require a click. Still, the porousness of Web distribution provides unexpected opportunity. In one instance, a Facebook-based channel, Black Gay Television, uploaded the entirety of Nupita Obama directly to Facebook without permission, generating more than 300 views by March 2016 and 1,710 views by February 2017.


The Value of Representation in Networked Television


Findings from the first cycle of pilots suggest the possible viability of the method of quare networked development for understanding the value of representation. A comparative analysis will provide a better indication. The project will enter a second development cycle planned from January through July 2017. The scale of exhibition will shift to denser online networks and centralized exhibition in Chicago. In online contexts, reception will grow from connections generated in the first cycle. In local exhibition contexts, the platform will shift from neighborhood-specific exhibition to centralized exhibition at downtown cultural centers. In production, I will not serve as producer for most of the next cycle of pilots, and the platform will release more scripted series reflecting more identities across race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. The method is emergent, based on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions. Unlike in traditional social scientific experiments, Open TV exists within community, so the variables (production and exhibition contexts) are interdependent. We can critique value quantitatively (time, views, money) and qualitatively (space, expression and performance, sincerity, identification) for developing artists, organizations, and technologies in constant relation to each other. This study suffers from the same precariousness to which all people are subjected, its parameters and findings limited by the subjectivities of individual artists and researcher. 


However, Quare networked development offers a way to understand how Web distribution affects the fields of television and art as sites of value creation and discursive power. Stuart Hall (1997) theorized representation as discourse, systems of meaning making shaped by power. Following Foucault, Hall reads power as shaped by knowledge and as productive or dispersed (networked). To understand value in representation, we might see television as a field like art, as theorized by Bourdieu (2011), where artists “take positions” to create value from forms of capital—social, cultural, economic, or symbolic. Bourdieu (1996) saw television as an impoverished field because, in part, its “goal is the largest audience possible” (p. 10) and because of its “control of the instruments of production” (p. 13). Most of all, Bourdieu took issue with television ’s power of representation, the immense symbolic capital it carries because of its ability to blur the contradiction between the work of cultural production and its distribution.



Television and art today are increasingly networked and dispersed. Representations of identity have value in these fields, yet scholarly understanding of them remains mediated through organizations with the most symbolic capital, which shape discourse (knowledge and power) through increasing scale of production. Yet we know from Hall (1996) that identity is always in process as discourses shift and agents with different levels of capital in the field produce through and against power: “We should think, instead, of identity as ‘production, ’ which is never complete, always in process, and always constituted within, not outside, representation. . . . they are subject to the continuous ‘play ’ of history, culture, and power” (pp. 210, 213). Quare networked development, then, suggests ways we can trace the complex positions taken within the fields of television and art by attending to communities marginalized within it, those with the least capital, as they work to create value. To use Black queer parlance, the method “reads” corporate development ’s attempts at representing queerness, as quare theory “reads” queer theory. It gives scholars an empirical perspective on the work, and thus the value, of representation.





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Aymar Jean Christian: aymar.jean@northwestern.edu

Date submitted: 2016–04–11

Copyright © 2017 (Aymar Jean Christian). Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at http://ijoc.org.