Archiving Queer Temporality in New Orleans with Vicki Mayer – M.E. Luka

Earlier this autumn, M.E. Luka and Vicki Mayer met virtually to talk about one of Vicki’s research projects in-the-making. The discussion focuses on theorizing the queering of diasporic experiences related to the narrative of New Orleans and Louisiana, two sites connecting directly to Acadian history (the latter theme also taken up in the work of François Gaudet in this issue). These American sites are vibrant, multicultural, creative and contradictory, but also some of the poorest in the US. They connect to a very current but somewhat fraught economic driver: the media industry. The idea that many types of personal relationships are possible there and that colourful, complex expressions of identity, place and creativity bubble up or are otherwise generated comes through. Not in a superficial, touristy kind of way but as a way of life, deeply embedded over time and through many kinds of economies, battles, settlements, sediments.

Vicki Mayer: What I’m working on right now is a project on the political economy of runaway film economies. Most people don’t know that Louisiana surpassed every region in the United States for the production of major Hollywood films last year. That means more films and television productions were shot in Louisiana than in California or New York or all of Canada or Ireland, which are the subsequent runners-up. This boom in the film economy has to do with a tax policy in the state that basically siphons out of the general tax fund, to support Hollywood film production. I could go into that and that could be my project – but actually, my project is more about why people don’t seem to care about it. People are angry at Wall Street, they’re angry at government, but they never seem to be that angry at Hollywood, even in the face of this public policy that’s ripe for critique.

My questions are: what are the cultural reasons why people can’t get beyond Hollywood’s shiny aura – what’s preventing that? I think in the case of Louisiana, this has a lot to do with peoples’ feelings about New Orleans, and this isn’t just a post-Katrina effect, although it’s accelerated since the storm. But there are definitely associations that people have with being in this city that make it too precious to talk about anything as crass as money coming in and out for Hollywood production.

What’s preventing us from talking about the political economy of film has something to do with this love affair people have with New Orleans.

M.E. Luka: You’re exploring these questions in interesting ways. There’s a lot of industrial knowledge around tax credits and how they draw people in and out of communities for production. But even though you’re using a political economy approach – you’re turning it on its side a little bit, aren’t you?

VM: Yes. This builds out of my other projects where I look at large-scale political economic transformations with media industries and then I look at the socio-cultural impacts or affects that people have towards those transformations. I always expected there would be a large public debate about this policy. We are one of the poorest states in the country; we compete for 49th or 50th in terms of poverty in the United States. People are regularly suspect of any government policy here, particularly one that would take money out of the hands of poor people, and put it in the hands of large corporations. But that discussion doesn’t seem to be happening.

Take this proposition seriously: People are willing to suspend their criticality toward film policy because they think [shows like] Treme are so wonderful.

VM: My approach has been largely ethnographic, somewhat archival, because my ethnography has been tapping into places and objects that don’t usually get associated with film economies. I’m looking less at studios, and more at bars and public places in everyday life. There, I’m looking for traces of these impacts: on the one hand, the impacts that the film economy’s having, and also people’s ambivalent feelings towards those impacts.

MEL: Right. So you’re talking to people on the street, to take a measure of what their reaction and thinking is?

VM: It’s funny, because I did a very traditional reception study of Treme, tapping into a trajectory of feminist audience studies that dates back to the mid-1980s, with Ien Ang, Janice Radway, Ann Gray, and Ellen Seiter, scholars like these who wanted to take seriously how people – in their case, female audiences – worked through very mainstream ideological texts. So I started my study of Treme that way, and of course I ended up talking to all my friends. Because the milieu of people who love Treme happens to be my habitus – largely white, highly-educated, middle-class or upper middle-class folk who adore this show. And I hear them talking about it as an alibi for the film economy. And that’s led me to some really interesting conundrums, that may not make it into the book I’m writing, but I certainly want to explore. What is it that people feel kinship with, in this city? David Simon [the creator of Treme] certainly taps into it, he doesn’t quite get it, but there’s definitely something there: how do we archive feelings towards the place?

I started tapping into these deep feelings about “this time in New Orleans…”. These anecdotal encounters that people were having in the city were precious, because they were positively queer.

VM: How do I render those queer encounters without commodifying them? Reducing them? Subjecting them to some highfalutin, high theory analysis that may not actually fit. It’s something that I’m grappling with now.

MEL: In thinking about how you are taking something from reception studies, with a feminist approach, and thinking about how to approach that, you would almost create your own encounters, which the show does itself, right? But it also creates absence of encounter, because it doesn’t grapple with the economic framework within which it’s operating.

VM: I’m kind of going deeper and deeper. I started out with this basic question. I think that’s part of the beauty of it. You start out with these basic sociological questions, and then you start drilling deeper. I frequently start drilling into issues of subjectivity. What is it about us that fuels attachment or distance from a place that is represented through media? In this case, I set up interviews. I started out not interviewing my friends – I started with just a basic snowball survey. Put up flyers in coffee houses. I approached people at different events; it was a really formal, social scientific study. I probably talked to about 40 people in the end, at length, for this project. The more I started going back to people to member check, to say “wait a minute, do you feel that?,” I started getting into a realm that was a little bit distant from media. Media taps into these feelings of place, but it never quite captures it. It’s always a flattening of real experience. Those real experiences are at a deeper level. Not psycho-analytic necessarily, but something in the deep psyche of people.

I’ve been using this idea of diaspora, because I’ve been thinking about this kind of queer temporality that’s felt around the city – this is the city of anticipation, where you don’t ever quite know what is going to happen.

VM: People who theorize queer temporalities talk about these moments that don’t quite fit. Can those be looked at paradigmatically? Can those be archived?

MEL: I’m interested that you have the notion of a diaspora that is situated in the very space that created it: that’s the experience that people have of New Orleans, living there. And in relation to that – this question of how the place can be archived, and what is the relationship between the mediated representation of the place, or the potential experiences of the places, and how this too can be archived… When you say archive, what are you thinking?

VM: Any ethnographic project consists of an archival practice. We’re going into places, and we’re collecting lots and lots of texts. And we’re organizing them. Part of the anthropological experience writ large has been to go into situations and collect materials, whether they’re visual or textualized as interviews, or pamphlets you pick up off the ground. Everything is archived within the project. When I sit down with a field project, I have boxes and boxes, with folders and folders, that I’m archiving. I’m archiving my argument while I’m building it. My argument is built on my experience of this place, or that field.

Sometimes there are these orphan folders. Nagging at me. How do they fit? This particular project – I haven’t been able to catalogue it. It really speaks to: How would I go about collecting a series of sensations, really?

VM: As a feminist, I have to think critically, not just about the knowledge that we generate, but how that knowledge is made. How subjectivities affect not just what we find, but how we construct the questions and the methods to address those questions. I’m teaching a class right now on memory and the archive. It’s been good for me, because I’ve been able to roll these things around in my head: queer phenomenology and all that.

MEL: That’s a very productive area when you think about it – in terms of how to express something in other-than-text.

Some artists collect material over the years, and use them organically; it’s interesting to listen to you consider how unresolved this work is for now – and how it might come back to what your focus has been or might be.

VM: Yes, that’s it. There’s this wonderful collection by Charles Merewether through MIT Press on the archive [http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/archive]. Almost everyone cited is an artist. It’s been great. I’ve been getting to know the work of some folks I’d never heard of. Renée Green, Ilya Kabakov, all these great artists.

MEL: So where are you going to go from here with this?

VM: I don’t know. I’m hoping that the NMP audience will write me, and tell me, “I get it”; or tell me I’m full of shit. That would be an interesting conversation to have. People can get angry and contact me with critiques. Does it make sense? What do you think? I’ve made some pretty bold statements in my time, and I think it could provoke a dialogue.

I’m cherishing the idea that I may never publish on this. Sometimes the projects that go nowhere represent the kind of intellectual liberation we all need as academics.

VM: I’m grateful that you asked me about encounters because that’s caused me to think about this project again, and to play with it in a way I like, in my head.

Vicki Mayer is Professor of Communication at Tulane University, in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the author of Below the Line: Producers and Production Studies in the New Television Economy. Her previous book was Producing Dreams, Consuming Youth: Mexican Americans and Mass Media (2009). She is co-editor of the anthology Production Studies II (forthcoming), co-author in The Times-Picayune in a Changing Media World: The Transformation of an American Newspaper (2014), and co-editor of Production Studies: Cultural Studies of Media Industries (2009), as well as editor of The International Encyclopedia of Media Studies: Media Production (2013). Mayer is the editor of the journal Television and New Media. Mayer is Director of the MediaNOLA website: a portal for community-based histories of cultural production in New Orleans.

M.E. Luka is a creative consultant, scholar and media producer-director with two decades of leadership experience in the culture sector and cultural industries, including broadcast and digital media, non-profit management, and culture sector business development. She is a published business and academic specialist in creative and strategic policy, planning and practice, and an award-winning arts documentary producer-director for television and digital media as founder of CBC ArtSpots, incorporating culture-based non-linear storytelling, social media management and visual culture in her approaches. A post-doctoral fellow at the Ted Rogers School of Management, part-time faculty member at Mount Saint Vincent University, and part-time Director of External Relations for Strategic Arts Management, she has a proven passion for research, teaching and creative community interventions. Contact: http://moreartculturemediaplease.com @meluka01

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