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Concordia student explores themes of migration and home with 3D-printed Irish charms

PhD candidate Molly-Claire Gillett’s research-creation work bridges traditional academic studies with speculative design
January 28, 2020
Molly-Claire Gillett: “The process of research-creation taught me new questions that I hadn't considered at the outset of the project.”
Molly-Claire Gillett: “The process of research-creation taught me new questions that I hadn't considered at the outset of the project.”

When migrants leave their homes in search of a better life, they can’t always bring along many belongings. But what lasting impression do they carry with them of the objects left behind?  

It’s a question that Molly-Claire Gillett, candidate in Concordia’s Individualized PhD Program, wanted to answer. By teaching herself to 3D print Irish home charms, she is expanding her understanding of the relationship between migration and material culture.

Research on emigration from Ireland tends to be imagined without objects

How does this specific image (top left) relate to your research at Concordia?

Molly-Claire Gillett: It’s a photograph of a research-creation project that I undertook as part of my PhD coursework with Rhona Richman Kenneally in the Department of Design and Computation Arts and the School of Irish Studies.

“Home Charms” is a 3D-printed set of charms, or rosary beads. It’s a speculative design created as a way of thinking through the themes of immigration, home and homelessness present in a short story by the Irish-American author Maeve Brennan.

What is the hoped-for result of your project?

MCG: The project was originally an exploration of the role of material culture in immigration, especially in relation to Irish immigration to the United States.

Research on emigration from Ireland tends to focus on how music and story travel with people. It tends to be imagined without objects, without a consideration of material culture, because it was often necessitated by extreme poverty (most famously by the mid-19th-century famine times).

Through this project, I wanted to think about what it might mean to remember one's home space, to be shaped and guided by the material culture of one's home even in its absence. The project started out as part of my coursework, but I ended up presenting it at two conferences, one in Wyoming and one in Galway, Ireland.

Thanks to the feedback I received at these events, the project grew and shifted in focus, becoming an exploration of performativity and the non-human in the domestic space. This resulted in a publication for the journal Text and Performance Quarterly.

What impact could you see it having on people’s lives?

MCG: Though the project began as an effort to understand Brennan's story more deeply through speculative design, I found that it expanded to encompass broader themes of migration and materiality.

I think it contributes to a more nuanced understanding of the relationships between human and non-human actants in the domestic space. It’s also about what this might mean in a context of migration, when this space is left or lost.

I presented with fellow Concordians Shaney Herrmann and Ali Kenefick on a research-creation panel entitled "The Disappearing House: inventing, recording, remembering the 'Irish Home,’" in June 2019 at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Attendees said that the projects sparked memories and gave them a language to speak about how the loss of home spaces had impacted them or their family members.

What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?

MCG: The process of actually modelling and printing the charms was a challenge, as I had never used any of the software or equipment before. However, the frustration I felt and the compromises that I had to make fed back into the project.

They gave me an opportunity to think about why and how certain forms were challenging to make, and how this might shed light on problems central to Brennan's story: what does it meant to be “at home”? How do we carry “home” with us?

This was particularly evident in modelling the St. Brigid's cross, which was a total failure. I chose to keep it that way, and in my writing about the project reflected on the differences between the contexts of making — how sometimes it is not the object that's important, but its connection to the context of creation: a space, a community and a cycle of creation and decay.

I found that the process of research-creation taught me new questions that I hadn't considered at the outset of the project. The materials and technologies that I was working with shaped both the physical and conceptual form of the end product.

What first inspired you to study this subject?

MCG: My PhD thesis research focuses on late-19th and early-20th century Irish lace, which was for the most part a cottage industry, conducted by women in rural homes.

As such, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the domestic space, its architecture and material culture. But I wouldn't have explored these themes through speculative design if not for a prompt in one of my courses.

I'm really glad I did, because research-creation as a method has since become a part of my PhD thesis project. 3D printing was of interest to me as a medium because it seemed to me the very antithesis of a craft like lace — having to watch a machine create something, with no ability to go in and manipulate the process with my hands.

What advice would you give interested students to get involved in this line of research?

MCG: My advice would be to experiment! Concordia is brimming with free and accessible resources for experimentation, and you don't have to be a tech genius to try them out. I certainly am not.

It is thanks to the Technology Sandbox in Webster Library, their helpful and patient staff and the free use of their 3D printer that Home Charms exists.

What do you like best about being at Concordia?

MCG: I enjoy the spirit of possibility in the air here at Concordia. Home Charms felt like a pretty “out there” project at first, especially to someone like me, coming from a more traditional scholarly background and never having engaged with research-creation as a method.

I felt encouraged and supported in my experimentation, by both my faculty advisors and colleagues, and I continue to be inspired by the innovative and out-of-the-box thinking I see all around me.

Are there any partners, agencies or other funding/support attached to your research?

MCG: Home Charms came into being thanks to Rhona Richman Kenneally, for whose class it was originally produced, and the Technology Sandbox.

Attendees at the American Conference for Irish Studies - Western Region in Jackson Hole, Wyoming (October 2018) and the Third Galway Conference of Irish Studies at National University of Ireland, Galway (June 2019), provided valuable feedback on the project, along with the two anonymous reviewers for my article in Text and Performance Quarterly.

Find out more about Concordia’s Department of Design and Computation Arts and the School of Irish Studies.


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