As part of his dissertation, Gregory developed an interactive multimedia installation, “Still Life with a Suitcase.” Through material objects, the installation chronicles his interviews with forty-five Russian migrants. Gregory received his PhD (2019) in Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.
Non-traditional content: multimedia installation as part of PhD research.
Non-traditional mentors/collaborators: interactive exhibitions in multiple cities engaging diaspora communities and the larger public.
Could you describe your dissertation topic to us? In what ways was your dissertation non-traditional/innovative in your field?
Over the course of the last century, discourses about Russian migration reflected the political anxieties of their day. Several million émigrés fleeing the Russian Revolution of 1917 “sat on suitcases,” anticipating a quick return to their homeland. When that no longer proved possible, it was argued that “all of Russia from before the war found itself outside the border.” During the Cold War, it was argued that Soviet migrants formed communities “in spite of themselves,” and following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as Russians pursued opportunities abroad, they became “economic migrants,” or worse, in response to shortages of goods in Russia, the “sausage emigration.” It appeared that scholars were keen to assign Russian migrants new categories of belonging, or evaluate how they adapted to their newfound contexts, but few asked how migrants themselves experienced transnational migration, and what discursive strategies they used to identify with a transnational community abroad. As a Russian migrant born in the Soviet Union and raised in Canada, I often did not see my experience reflected in academic texts that I was reading. When I began my PhD research in anthropology, I set as my goal to understand how discourses on transnational migration could be investigated in comparative perspective, between multiple sites, rooted in historical context, and across diverse media. I wrote my dissertation as an experimental text, combining four authorial voices: autobiographical (self-reflexive), autoethnographic, (self-referential), empirical (academic), and multimedia (as an interactive audio-visual installation). These voices were intended to reflect how migrants themselves experience migration, neither “sitting on suitcases,” nor forming “communities in spite of themselves,” but as persons who use their material and imaginative resources to construct identity in places, whether these places exist in physical space, virtual space, or in the space of memories and the imagination. As part of my PhD research, I also developed an interactive multimedia installation, “Still Life with a Suitcase.” The installation chronicles my interviews with forty-five Russian migrants between Moscow, Paris, Berlin, and New York, and tells their stories through objects. The installation is interactive, because the audience determines how its narrative unfolds. It also answers to research conclusions in demonstrating that material objects, migrant journeys, and digital worlds are connected through diverse, often haphazard, and always personal associations.
As you conceived to follow this path, what was the reaction of the key actors in your university (such as your supervisor, committee, department, other)? Did you receive any resistance?
Owing to the nature of my proposed research as travel between multiple sites, and because of the way ethnographic research is usually carried out through immersive fieldwork, I had tremendous independence in how I developed, analyzed, and wrote up my research findings. My supervisor and my committee members encouraged me to set realistic goals about my timeline, and their range of expertise allowed me to push the boundaries of my written work. They also supported my multimedia work, but mostly from a methodological point of view. There was limited infrastructure to allow students to develop ethnographic film or multimedia projects in my department. The support that did exist was under quite authoritarian auspices, and discouraged sharing, learning, or interacting with other scholars, which was antithetical to the goals set out in my project. The main support for the installation came in the form of an opportunity to become a Public Scholar at The University of British Columbia. I proposed to develop a multimedia installation that would invite research participants, members of the Russian community abroad, and the general public to experience the installation as a shared digital archive of migration. I planned to exhibit the installation in every city where I carried out research. So far, I exhibited the work in France, in Germany, and at a conference in Cuba, and I am currently planning a fourth exhibition in Canada.
How do you think your non-traditional dissertation helped you develop professional competencies and prepared you for academic/non-academic career prospects?
This is a difficult question to answer for someone in the midst of negotiating precarious employment prospects. It is also a challenge, because in some ways, I can say that a broad, interdisciplinary research perspective actually hurt my chances at an academic career, because it took me away from honing very precise skills required in my discipline. However, I believe I carried out a research project reflective of my fieldwork experiences, research findings, and my personality, and this is not something that I would wish to change. I have always been somewhat of an autodidact, or a bricoleur. I like the hands-on approach that filmmaking allows, and I also enjoyed that my research would produce a material product that could be broadly exhibited and shared. I also had a goal to carry out ethical research with participants. Naïvely, career prospects did not enter my mind at the time. However, looking at it in hindsight, I realize that an experimental writing approach allowed me to submit what I consider to be the best piece of writing I have done to date. I also recognize that in developing a multimedia installation, I started to develop new filmmaking and digital media skills. I made several feature-length films prior to beginning my doctoral program, but my multimedia project radically changed my approach to filmmaking. I started to learn video-mapping and computer programming languages, and became much more involved in contemporary art. I am currently developing my PhD research into an immersive new media work, which would combine experimental media, ethnographic practice and emergent digital technologies.
Did you face any challenges regarding the evaluation of your dissertation (such as from the external examiner)?
I had a tremendously positive doctoral defence. I brought the installation from Berlin to Vancouver, and set it up to display alongside my doctoral presentation. My examiners had an opportunity to interact with the installation, and I incorporated several vignettes from the installation into my talk. This type of defence required bureaucratic approval, but because the project had received support from Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, I was cleared to present the audiovisual component provided my focus was the written research. My main challenge is that my dissertation is currently archived as two digital documents: as a written work comprising a text with illustrations, and as “supplementary materials,” comprising videos forming part of the installation. When exhibited in a physical space, the installation provides viewers with a representation of migration through a haptic, embodied experience: audience members trigger video- mapped vignettes by placing clay objects inside a suitcase. The dissertation text references these video vignettes, hyperlinked to a web-based video platform. Nevertheless, reading the dissertation and watching the videos is a disjunctive experience, albeit one familiar to scholars publishing texts on visual culture, and filmmakers who contextualize their films through their writing. I am currently developing a project that would contribute to an existing digital publishing infrastructure, incorporating videos, soundscapes, and images into academic texts.
What would you have done differently if you could do it all over again? What advice do you have for doctoral students who would like to produce a non-traditional dissertation?
I feel lucky, because I sought and found both intellectual and institutional support for my project. I also have an extensive background in filmmaking and anthropology, so it was easier to justify my research to grantees and academic mentors. However, realistically, while some of my peers started new families or invested their incomes, I am now seven years older, and just as financially unstable as when I started my PhD. This is not to say that non-traditional dissertations are necessarily a “sacrifice.” However, such projects take a tremendous amount of time and effort, and they are an emotional investment, as much as a financial and an intellectual one. More optimistically, I hope that we are at an early phase of recognizing that non-traditional dissertations may make research more relevant, equitable and connected to people outside academia, and that scholars hoping to conduct such research are on their way to securing sustainable and sustained institutional support to make their imagined projects a reality.BACK TO BROADENING THE DISSERTATION