Rachel is completing her Ph.D. at Simon Fraser University’s School of Interactive Arts & Technology with a focus on digital anthropology, art, documentary film, virtual reality and sensory-experimental ethnography. She strives to convey culture using interactive, visual, digital and sensory-based mediums (read more in a recent interview). Rachel earned her Master’s degree in Social Anthropology from The London School of Economics in 2010. The following year, she completed a postgraduate degree in Visual Anthropology at The Australian National University as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. After completing material culture training at the American Museum of Natural History and Smithsonian Institution, Rachel is now focusing on experimental methods of representing culture via the modification of material objects, art, digitalia and virtual reality. She has produced several film projects, including a documentary she directed about the intersection of Appalachian music and punk (“DIY”) culture and, most recently, Sneakerhead (2016, 6 min.) which is currently being exhibited in the Museum of Vancouver. For her thesis research, she is exploring the potential of virtual reality as a new medium in the field of cultural anthropology.

Thesis Summary:

Virtual Reality (VR) As an Ethnographic Medium

As an interactive experience, virtual reality documentaries transcend certain limitations of linear film as a way to convey the sensorial nature of fieldwork, conversations and emotional experiences. As a new tool for anthropologists, VR represents great potential as a way to share fieldwork experiences with the public and as a teaching tool in the academy. Importantly, this medium represents an attempt to transcend the barriers of the “self versus other” through the creation of shared empathy through interactive content. This new technology raises significant questions, concerns and opportunities within the fields of visual and sensory anthropology. As an interactive medium, it transforms the experience of documentary film from one that is passive to one that is active. From a fieldwork perspective, it renegotiates traditional filming techniques. As a PhD student and documentary filmmaker, my thesis centers on the implications and benefits of incorporating this medium into my own visual ethnographic practice. My work to date has focused on the ways in which my original thesis agenda — to film a full-length linear documentary — is now being translated to a virtual reality documentary based on my unique access to VR technologies at SIAT.