Aymar Jean Christian produced his first Web pilot, Nupita Obama Creates Vogua, in December 2014. The series explored a tumultuous love triangle between Curtis (musician Erik Wallace), Reyes (performance artist Kiam Marcelo Junio), and Gia (drag queen Saya Naomi), and featured original music, art, fashion, and choreography from its three stars. It was the series that launched Christian's inclusive online television platform, Open TV. Since then he has produced ten projects created by and starring queer people, people of color, and women from a variety of artistic disciplines, and is in the beginning stages of dozens more.
"The beauty in television to me is its ability to tell an infinite number of stories in really an infinite number of ways, and appeal to communities that might not get feature films made about them," Christian says.
At this year's Chicago Humanities Festival, on a panel called "Slow, Artistic, Indie TV," Christian and three creators of original series for Open TV—Ricardo Gamboa, Shea Couleé, and Nic Kay—will discuss the importance of independent television and the long process of producing each project.
Gamboa's Brujos follows a group of witches who are also gay, Latino PhD candidates; Couleé's Lipstick City is a musical look at Chicago's drag community; and The Bronx Cunt Tour follows Kay across the country as they (the pronoun Kay prefers) present their performance art—not exactly the kinds of stories that populate prime time. But Christian thinks they should. "We get so focused on the ratings of big shows and how much money they make and how long they last that we've lost our connection to each other, which is what television is supposed to do," he says.
Christian, 32, remembers first watching television when cable was exploding, and niche-driven networks were beginning to emerge. His gateways were MTV and Nickelodeon, and from there watching and analyzing television—specifically indie and Web-based series—became a constant in his life. While studying for a PhD in cinema studies at University of Pennsylvania he founded Televisual, a blog reviewing webseries. But it wasn't until he moved to Chicago in 2012 to teach communications at Northwestern University that he first thought about creating work instead of analyzing it. "I was inspired by Chicago and the cultural life here," Christian says. "I think that being here and being around artists of various identities and skill sets reminded me that there's this place for art in television." And so after some fund-raising and behind-the-scenes contributions from the series' stars, he produced Nupita Obama Creates Vogua.
The media landscape today is similar to when he was growing up, he says, a time when "diversity was hip": in the mid-90s a record-breaking 18 black sitcoms were on the lineups of five different networks. But even in the case of series praised for their diversity, such as Orange Is the New Black, a majority of the writers are white. Open TV was started in part to let people from unique communities tell their own stories instead of leaving them in the hands of outsiders.
The lack of variety in writers' rooms—the industry standard is 71 percent male and 86 percent white—not only narrows opportunities for women, people of color, and queer people but also diminishes the quality of the programming, Christian says. While he was working on Nupita Obama Creates Vogua, he let the stars alter their dialogue and contribute snippets of their own life experiences with great success. The result was a more sincere tone to the dialogue and story. The artists involved with the project had other talents besides acting, such as costume and set design, that helped raise the overall production value above that of a typical amateur webseries.
In 2017 Open TV will launch at least six more original projects, both online and at events around the city. Christian hopes other underrepresented artists will be inspired to use the medium of independent Web-based television to share their experiences with larger audiences.
"What I'm trying to do with Open TV is provide a space for people to come and see some quality work and give those creators the recognition to get them to the next level," Christian says. "I want to show that in television today we're no longer just thinking about comedies, dramas, and reality TV, we're beginning to think about artistic expression across a number of disciplines and people." v