May 8, 2020

PhD student explores discrimination of sex workers through stop-motion collage

The medium is the message in Alison Grittner’s SSHRC Storytellers entry
Alison Grittner
Alison Grittner, PhD candidate in the Faculty of Social Work

Alison Grittner’s stop-motion collage video, Co-Creating Spatial Justice with Canadian Sex Workers, tells a captivating narrative of social justice. Through magazine clippings, photographs, glue and paint, Grittner details how the marginalization of sex workers is rooted in the built environment.

Grittner’s compelling submission earned her a top 25 spot in the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Storytellers competition. She is one of two finalists from UCalgary. 

  • Read about the work of fellow Storytellers finalist Sydney Siedel 

For her PhD in the Faculty of Social Work, Grittner plans to demonstrate the discrimination experienced by those forced to live and work in spaces that aren’t designed with them in mind — and how powerful it can be when a marginalized person gets to create their own world.

“No one has looked at sex work from the position that sex workers have the knowledge and critical consciousness to design their workplaces,” says Grittner. “Asking marginalized groups to use their imaginations is in itself an act of resistance. We always want to understand their experience, but we don’t engage with their imaginations, or the better world that they themselves can envision and would like to create.” This process is called participatory design.

This research is the culmination of Grittner’s career thus far ­— she has a master’s degree in architecture and a background in fine arts. Grittner deliberately chose stop-motion collage for her video, wanting to align her medium with the social justice message that underpins her work, and also allude to the project ahead.

“I’ll be using mixed-media collage in my research for the participatory design,” she says. “It’s an arts-based method that is accessible for individuals who don’t have an arts background, and collage is universal because you don’t have to be concerned with creating perfect images — you’re appropriating and reusing to create something new.”

Up next for Grittner are candidacy exams, and then she will begin her research under the supervision of Dr. Christine Walsh, PhD, professor and associate dean (research) in the Faculty of Social Work. Her creative, free-form approach to her Storytellers submission is a reflection of how she approaches her research.

“Just try — you never know what might happen,” she says. “That comes with doing any kind of research outside the box, especially if you’re working in interdisciplinary spaces — try and see what happens! It doesn’t have to be a perfect and precise. There is beauty in the mess and creation.”

How the Storytellers Competition works

Through submissions of up to three minutes or 300 words, the SSHRC’s Storytellers Competition challenges post-secondary students to describe their SSHRC-funded project and to demonstrate how their research has an impact on our lives and communities. Each of the contest finalists receives a cash prize of $3,000 and the opportunity to compete in the Storytellers Showcase, where they must learn to effectively communicate their research in front of a live audience. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been postponed to the 2021 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, which will take place from May 29 to June 4, 2021, at the University of Alberta. The Final Five winners chosen at that event will be featured at SSHRC’s Impact Awards ceremony, to be held in fall 2021.