Get to Know a Researcher - Chase Joynt

Chase Joynt

Assistant Professor Chase Joynt joined the Department of Gender Studies in July. His research sits at the intersection of cinema and media studies, gender and feminist studies, documentary film production, trans studies and queer theory. Joynt is also a moving image artist and writer. He talks to Stephanie Harrington about his award-winning short film, Framing Agnes.

You write in your bio that people often ask, "Are you a film person invested in gender theory or a gender studies person who also makes films?" But your work also expands beyond film into creative writing and visual arts. In 2016, for example, you published a collaborative memoir, called You Only Live Twice, which The Globe and Mail listed among its top 100 books. This year, you collaborated on a photo installation at the Art Gallery of Burlington called “hema-lu-mi-nes-cence,” at which your film Framing Agnes also screened. How do you approach your research interests and ultimately decide which medium to pursue?

In the early stages of any project, I consider what method might encourage the most creative and expansive outcomes; for example, text on a page allows for an intricate citational practice that is hard to produce on screen, whereas moving-image welcomes sound design and opportunities for collective witnessing. Borrowing from the legacies of Marshall McLuhan – perhaps most well known for arguing that the medium is the message – I believe that the medium is the method. I understand my art practice as an opportunity to engage audiences differently, often outside the bounds and structural limitations of the academy. 

Tell us how you first came across the story of Agnes, the central character in Framing Agnes, which premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. What did you find that made you think this should be made into a film?

In 2013-2014, I received a Mellon Fellowship for Arts Practice and Scholarship at the University of Chicago to work with sociologist Kristen Schilt. Together, we taught a class called “Tell Me the Truth: The Politics of Narrative Construction,” which combined sociological and documentary film theory and methods to interrogate the construction of “expert” knowledge across disciplines. The case study of Agnes is widely regarded as the first sociological case study of a transgender person. As part of our research, Kristen and I gained access to the private archive of one of the doctors who was working with Agnes at UCLA in the late 1950s. After multiple visits, we happened upon eight other case files of gender non-conforming people that never made it into published research alongside Agnes. The film was an opportunity for us to ask: What if they had? What could we have learned about the makings of sex and gender in the mid-century had we had access to the lives, struggles, and triumphs of these people? Film opened up an exploratory, speculative, and visual economy previously foreclosed by traditional forms of academic research. 

What will your forthcoming scholarly book, Conceptualizing Agnes: Exemplary Cases and the Disciplines of Gender, co-authored with University of Chicago sociologist Kristen Schilt, examine beyond the film about Agnes and other cases of gender nonconforming people in the 1950s?

Where Framing Agnes quite literally turns the lens of the camera toward various research subjects, Conceptualizing Agnes flips the gaze back onto the doctors and structural research apparatus that constructed Agnes as the locus classicus of transgender existence in sociology. Kristen and I have collaborated on many projects now, and we playfully summarize our dynamic as “chicken two ways” – we share innumerable curiosities and intellectual investments in gender and sexuality but gravitate toward different media to explore our investments. Kristen has always worked within academic sociology, though we joke that our collaboration has ruined her for the traditional social sciences because she is now working on several creative projects beyond our film. For us, Framing Agnes and Conceptualizing Agnes both show the possibilities of cross-disciplinary collaboration, and what might be possible when we collectively put pressure on the boundaries of our respective disciplines.

How do you view the relationship between your scholarly and artistic practices? Do they feed each other, or are they separate practices that occasionally intersect?

I understand my scholarly and artistic practices to be much like music tracks mixed in a sound studio. While perhaps isolated in moments, they are designed and executed to be played in tandem. To push the metaphor further, I understand that part of my job is to amplify and/or accelerate certain claims based on environments of reception. For example, how much does an audience at Tribeca need (or want!) to know about niche sociological history? Or in what ways must I make explicit the theoretical underpinnings of my work in order to remain legible – or gain traction – in the academy? Depending on context and audience, my approach to discussing each element of the work will vary.

What would you like to focus on next for your research?

At present, I am expanding the 19-minute version of Framing Agnes into a feature film with support from Telefilm Canada’s Talent to Watch program, and I am co-directing a feature-length documentary about jazz musician Billy Tipton. Alongside my film work, I am completing a book manuscript that explores my family’s relation to Marshall McLuhan to think through constitutive relationships between media, violence, masculinity, and kinship.