John Greyson is an award-winning filmmaker whose titles include Fig Trees, Urinal, Zero Patience, Lilies, Proteus and Uncut. He teaches at York University in film. Chase Joynt is a writer/ performer/ filmmaker whose titles include Everyday to Stay, Akin and I’m Yours. Chase is also decorated with awards, and is currently working towards a PhD alongside John. I recently interviewed the pair on their fascinating project, Murder in Passing.
Murder in Passing is a trans-media, trans-gender, murder mystery produced for distribution via public trans-port. It breaks new ground in many ways, not least because it was produced in forty-two thirty-second episodes for a very special screen – Toronto’s public transit television monitors. The monitors are owned and operated by Pattison One-stop, who donated the screen time to the project. The series is also path breaking because of its engagement with this trio of ‘trans’ politics and spaces (trans-media, trans-gender, and trans-it). As John and Chase suggest in the discussion that follows, a string of explicitly spatial themes regarding the urban, mobility, and transport are taken up centrally in relation to transgender, making Murder in Passing a fascinating work for those interested in broad questions of the city and spatiality, as well as those working more specifically on public art, media geographies, and questions of sexuality, gender and space. Luckily for our readership, this part-silent, part-operatic and very queer murder mystery is available online as well as on the subway platforms of North America’s fourth largest city.
John Greyson explains that the project came about when he was approached by Sharon Switzer; a Toronto artist and founder/curator of the Art4Commuters project. A4C is responsible for introducing public art in 2007 to the Pattison Onestop television screens in the subway system. Switzer recently explained in an interview with a Toronto newspaper how, “these kinds of screens are taking over our landscapes… if we don’t stop and think about what kind of cultural content is on them, it’s just going to be all this corporate branding.” Murder in Passing is the first sustained serial narrative to appear on the screens, and in fact, as Greyson pointed out in our conversation, it may well be the “longest sustained serial narrative for public screens anytime anywhere!”
Deborah Cowen: To what extent were the specificities of the form of the series parameters given by the distribution media, and how much are creative decisions?
John Greyson: Context absolutely dictated form. I’m used to thinking in terms of colour feature-length theatrical — whereas this was silent, black and white 30 second episodes for screens on a crowded chaotic subway platform. Equally, context implicated form — because the screens are public, and the viewer’s experience of them is often fragmented (we catch the first 2 seconds or last 5 seconds, out of the corner of our eye, out of context). So from the start we adhered to the Toronto Transit Commission’s guidelines regarding nudity, swearing, etc… Sharon we appointed our shepherd, steering our 42 episodes safely through the many gates and fields of scrutiny and approval. For instance, our homophobic cop character used to say ‘fag’ a lot — and it was clear in context he was a bigot — but we changed the word fag to ponce and other archaic terms, because we didn’t want to attract out-of-context complaints.
Chase Joynt: I think for many experimental media-makers, context always dictates/implicates form. Any art making that endeavors to shatter normative and/or pre-scripted forms of exhibition inherently breaks new ground in some capacity. John has always been trafficking and trend-setting in this manner. When people started to make documentaries about AIDS for example, what did John do? He made a musical.
DC: How involved was the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC)?
JG: They objected most to our original title — Murder in Transit — feeling it suggested that murders actually happen on Toronto’s public transit — so Sharon came up with Murder in Passing — and I’ve grown to like it better.
CJ: On a personal note, the title Murder in Passing became particularly relevant as the press images emerged for the project. As a passing trans man, my face on the poster doesn’t necessarily ring any transgressive alarms, but with one click- the façade of public gender conformity breaks down. How often do we see large-scale public images of trans people in Toronto that aren’t attached to health and/or public service campaigns? Alexander Chapman’s character Detective Epicene resists similar categorization. The press describes him as a “woman in drag”, “trans woman”, or “character dressed as a lady,” which indicate only some of the various ways in which passing is taken up and/or interpreted by the public in the context of Murder in Passing.
DC: Trans is being taken up in the series in so many variable ways – in terms of sex and sexuality, in terms of space and mobility, in terms of the corporation…. Can you talk about the different usages, meanings, spaces, and acts of trans?
JG: So much to say! Murder in Passing was a wonderful sandbox to take apart and put back together a host of themes, topics and questions — all revolving around the tripartite pun of transgender, transit, and transmedia.
CJ: My instinct is to respond, “What he said!”… in part to further the Greyson agenda of breaking open possibilities before locking them down into new containers, and in part to ask the question back to the audience and readership. Trans in its very definition begs this conversation to be bigger and broader than it is.
DC: There is an explicit play with trans in terms of gender and sex on the one hand, and trans in terms of physical mobilities (‘trans-port’, and ‘transit’- public, planetary) on the other. How are these meanings of trans as social and spatial mobilities linked or entangled?
JG: One of the nicest things of the form we chose was that it was open, not prescriptive — we definitely point at connections and correspondences, but actively invite the viewer to participate in connecting the dots.
CJ: The connection between trans(gender) and trans(it) continues to intrigue me. ‘Mobility’ broadly conceived begs questions of access and rights and privilege. How do we imagine these rights and privileges to map onto bodies? Transgender bodies are transitory, theorized as always moving in space between one point and another. What does it mean to question the transitory nature of the (transitioning) body when the points of departure keep shifting, and the ‘settling ground’ of the destination remains to be seen?
DC: ‘Passing’ is typically a means by which (racialized and gendered) people access (racialized and gendered) spaces that would otherwise be closed to them. It is typically a means to access space, yet in Murder in Passing, it is also the name of the city. In what ways can ‘P/passing’ be a place?
JG: It points back to public space — the politics and challenges and interpolations of public space for trans people, for commuters, for cyclists — in some ways, for Jan/Feb, Passing BC is actually a town located uniquely on the subway platforms of Toronto.
CJ: It also begs the question of ‘what’ is passing. Depending on the lens through which you experience the project, you might foreground gender, or transit, or city, in relation to your own interests and/or inquests. What is ‘passing’ continues to shift and change depending on the opinions and/or experiences of the viewer.
DC: Are the politics of ‘passing’ the politics of the city?
JG: Passing is active, subversive — and by no means only urban — and has evolved in public discourses from a paranoid obsession on those ‘hiding in plain sight’ (which stresses an elemental identity that is trying to evade a punitive fixed society) to the act of passing itself, which insists that societies must become as fluid as their subjects —
DC: Most of the scenes in the series take place in spaces of mobility – under freeway overpasses, on bicycles, on the public transit system. The series is sometimes even set on the same subway platforms where Murder in Passing airs. Perhaps with the ironic exception of the spin studio where mobility is made stationary, the series highlights spaces of movement and circulation. How do questions of capital circulation fit here? What does all this focus on trans-it tell us about contemporary urban life?
JG: The overt plot concerns an SUV murdering a cyclist (subtle, huh?) — and more, a conspiracy between a desperate mayor, a desperate SUV manufacturer and a chemistry professor, trying to unleash a ‘fugue’ state (in the manner of Gramsci’s hegemony) on a passive population, all for votes and profits –
CJ: The moments where the overt plot meets the subversive side-story might be the foundation upon which many artistic collaborations and careers are built. And let’s not forget that the only SWEAT present in the project happens in that stationary studio…
DC: The series (or, rather for the half of the series that airs ‘in transit’) is silent. Was the decision to work in silent form intended to evoke the time and genres of film before the ‘talkies’?
JG: All content on the subway screens is silent — but our choice to embrace a period feel both from silent films and also noir was our response to that — plus the ASL hand signals — which was emphasized in our plot by much focus on the voice in terms of gender issues.
CJ: Questions of how gender reads without spoken language intrigue me. The inclusion of ASL as another intricate series of language coding speaks to those nuances. How do we know what we know about gender? And what do we use as markers and/or signifiers of that knowledge and/or to inform those assumptions?
DC: There is a whole secondary part to the series – operatic segments – that air only online. Why the supplement?
JG: The ‘fugues’ open up a set of larger metaphors concerning gender and the voice — e.g. the title character of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Eurydice is basically a history of the gendered voice in opera — Orfeo was written for a castrato, later performed by a lyric tenor, later performed as a trouser role by contraltos, and finally, most recently, sung again by counter tenors (male soproanos) like the COC’s recent production — and then Jayne County becomes the punk counterpoint of all this. The fugues were also of course a space for exploring much content regarding both transgender and transit issues.
CJ: Interesting to note however, that even in the operatic segments, all characters within “the plot” are still “without audible voice”, the operatic elements are performed as a track to which the images are ultimately placed and/or juxtaposed.
DC: Given the significant difference in both the form and content of the silent and operatic segments, how did you decide what material to place where? Or, how did you understand the relationship between the forms?
JG: The detective story proper (silent) had to follow the rules of the genre — clues revealed through the detectives investigation of various characters — whereas the fugue sequences could be very random and fragmented (and much more adventurous) in terms of their content.
CJ: I think critics might argue that the fugue sequences are quintessential John Greyson. As a result, I think the silent episodes gain more meaning and insight when experienced in relation to their audible counterparts.
DC: The operatic segments are a dramatic juxtaposition to the silent segments – so much so that it can disorient the viewer, depending upon the context of viewing. Why the juxtaposition of the two different forms?
JG: It’s very purposeful — again helps point to silence and particularly the voice as vehicle for knowledge, information — and gender.
CJ: Even as an experimental filmmaker, I often find myself disoriented by silence. We live in a popular culture that is inundated with/by sound and image in sync. The lack of sound in the silent episodes draws attention to the visual signifiers. Or perhaps it might not, which is an equally interesting avenue of inquiry and investigation.
DC: Would you perhaps speculate that the mixing of form, the means of distribution, cinematic techniques, etc might themselves be forms of trans-representation (trans-media?), where we might think about trans as a series of motions or mobilities that also change what they cross? Or is this what we might call a ‘neo-realism’? What do you mean by that term?
JG: Definitely not neo-realism, which is more social justice agenda wedded to conventions of naturalism. Ours is definitely a transmedia (working across platforms) project — from commuter screens to the website, to twitter clues and daily clues published in the Metro paper — that embodies a social justice agenda — but mobilizes camp humour and music and genre play as our tools, instead of naturalism.
CJ: Realism and naturalism are constructs similar to any other. To perform “real/natural” is no more authentic than performing “unreal/unnatural.” Transmedia, transgression, and transmutation offer access points that are missing from the majority of other forms, and as such afford artistic intervention(s) that make way for so many other representative possibilities.
DC: Gramsci and his Prison Notebooks make a slew of appearances in the series. Gramsci?
JG: Why do we participate in our own oppression? (Why do we vote for Rob Ford?) Gramsci’s answer — hegemony — can be usefully explained using the metaphor of the fugue stage – -willful, functional amnesia.