Filmmaker John Greyson and trans media artist Chase Joynt go very public this month with Murder in Passing
, the first-ever serial narrative project for commuters. New episodes will appear daily on Toronto’s subway platform screens and online. Foregrounding issues of trans and transit, Joynt calls it a “bewildering conspiracy involving bikes, cars, opera, gender and corporate greenwashing.”
Brian Bantugan: How did Murder in Passing come to be?
John Greyson: I teach film at York University, and Chase did an independent study with me concerning transgender cinema two years ago. We wrote Chase into our SSHRC grant as a researcher/collaborator, an obvious choice given his expertise. He's been the crucial collaborator on Murder in Passing
, the one who really shaped the project in fundamental ways, not just by playing our main character, but through our entire creative and conceptual process.
Chase Joynt: I knew of John’s work long before our stars aligned in grad school. Both as a student and as an artist, I am drawn to opportunities and people that endeavour to push theoretical and artistic work well beyond the confines of traditional form. John is a master at rescripting and reworking content to make new meaning, and as such I jumped at the opportunity to collaborate on Murder in Passing
Chase Joynt's face is front and centre in the poster. How does it feel making a transman become more and more a mainstream figure?
JG: The poster, and the whole project, are knowingly trafficking in genre conventions -- in this case, the murder mystery -- images that have incredible aura and that transit passengers are very much tuned into (maybe particularly TTC riders who read Ruth Rendell). So, his six-foot-tall face around the city is going to be an incredibly powerful icon -- in terms of gender, desire, identity -- that will intervene in ways both conscious and subconscious.
CJ: Since the day I started transitioning, I’ve been looking for a way to make it to six feet! Trans as an identity, concept and politic exists on various levels throughout Murder in Passing
, and the elusive, ever-changing and nuanced ways in which trans plays out on bodies, cities and desires is a crucial thread of the project as a whole. Do I expect that people will get that from the poster? No. Do I think that someone will draw a black-marker mustache on my face somewhere along the way? Yes! And for that I will say “thank you.”
In what ways do your politics resonate?
JG: We share a lot artistically and politically. We both come from video art, and we're both very committed to being makers, activists and thinkers equally, testing theory with practice and vice versa. It's a very rich collaboration/conversation, especially when we disagree.
CJ: John lives a hybrid career of artist/thinker that I would argue embodies the social critique of his practice. Beyond a specific politic, he consciously conflates the boundaries between art and academia in really productive and provocative ways. Because we resonate and align with each other so broadly, it makes our points of fracture/departure that much more interesting.
What did you enjoy the most during creation?
JG: We're still in the middle of it. All the social media aspect is still to be created -- all the Twitter, Facebook and YouTube narrative extensions of the story, which Chase is co-coordinating.
CJ: As we prepare to launch on Jan 7, the transmedia aspects of the project have yet to be integrated or tested in real time. We have a lot to learn as we launch Murder in Passing
into the public and are invested in the ways in which it will shift and change over time. One of the most compelling capacities of transmedia storytelling is the manner in which the narrative gets taken up, rescripted and refashioned by the public. We ultimately won’t know about the breadth and scope of this experience until it ends.
In what ways is Murder in Passing a breakthrough?
JG: It's the biggest sustained narrative public-screen project anywhere in the world. No one has done 40 episodes over two months on public screens before, anywhere. In terms of content, it's joining existing conversations about transgender and transit issues and hopefully contributing in original ways through its form and content. The operatic "fugues" make it quite distinct as well!
CJ: It is a rare occasion to be able to say, “A project like this has never been done before.” Beyond form, John has managed to script a project that is widely accessible yet remarkably intricate.
What does Murder in Passing hope to achieve?
JG: It's an intervention that will hopefully appeal to a broad public, reaching people through the transit screens and getting them involved in a conversation about these issues.
CJ: As a creative team, we are invested in asking big questions that will inevitably provoke a myriad of exciting and complicated answers. How will Toronto commuters react to a project of this scope and scale? What does it mean to be confronting issues of trans and transit on such a mainstream stage? And how much is it going to cost my mom to get one of those subway posters for her living room?
There are very familiar faces in the clips. Who are the queer performers involved?
JG: I mostly wrote the roles for singers and actors who I've worked with before: Alexander Chapman from Lilies; Ramzi Ayash and Erin Bardua, in the forthcoming Jericho; Stephen Chen, from Fig Trees. Arsinée Khanjian is a long-time friend -- we've always wanted to work together. Nina Arsenault is an acquaintance, so we created the chemist character together. I've known Guillermo Verdechia and Moynan King through the theatre scene, and more recently, through U of T's Centre for the Study of Drama.
Did you encounter any problems shooting?
JG: Our superb co-producer Anneli secured all our locations. The problems were the usual ones all indie productions face: not enough money, et cetera. But she made it all work. Despite some initial hiccups, the TTC staff really went the extra mile to help us get our shots, both in a subway car and on the Ossington platform.
In what ways is Murder in Passing a benchmark in your careers?
JG: The sheer terror/delight of trying to tell a story well in 40 30-second increments -- what a fantastic treat. Or is it a nightmare?
CJ: While studying theatre at UCLA, I moved from being on stage/screen to being predominantly behind it/them. For me, that shift was motivated by a desire to tell different kinds of stories, and I thought that directing/writing was the only way to accomplish that never-ending task. The opportunity provided by John and Murder in Passing
to be onscreen while telling a different kind of story was groundbreaking. Also, as a trans person, I am inspired by the chance to foreground issues of gender and performance in such a mainstream and genre-bending way.
What's your greatest achievement in doing this project?
JG: I'll let you know on March 1.
CJ: I think Murder in Passing
marks a shift in the landscape of public Toronto art, one that I hope can springboard other projects by other brilliant minds, as this city is full of creators and consumers that are craving artistic content currently yet to be seen.
Murder in Passing launches Jan 7 on TTC screens and online with new 30-second episodes daily till March 1. murderinpassing.com