Tuesday 9 September 2014

Phone to Photoshop: Mobile workarounds in young people’s visual self-presentation strategies

Dr Marion Walton, Anja Venter, Prof Johannes Cronje and I co-authored an article for the Design Development and Research Conference 2014; "Phone to Photoshop: Mobile workarounds in young people’s visual self-presentation strategies". I gave the related presentation, today.

For background, the Cape Town Design Capital 2014 initiative provides an important platform for showcasing the wide range of design projects that support social, cultural and economic development in our city. Marion's mobile phone research, her Creative Code project, Anja's research into new design students' software use and mine into Visual Arts learners' e-portfolio choices and contexts, all contribute in small ways to the digital enfranchisement of young Capetonians.

However, with Professor Cronje we share the concern that a systemic approach is lacking that might support a more representative group of young South Africans (especially from working class backgrounds) in becoming involved with creative industries. Twenty years into a democratic South Africa, learners facing income and class barriers are seldom able to access tertiary education opportunities that could support them with securing careers in design, film and other creative industries. Access to such occupations requires a combination of economic, social and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1984:2010) that mostly limits participation to young people from middle and upper class backgrounds, reproducing their privilege and guaranteeing future opportunities (Burawoy and Von Holdt, 2012).

Our paper frames this highly unequal context and introduces an emergent gatekeeper to students' access to creative fields; the increasing use of digital portfolios for professional self-presentation in visually creative fields. Given the local context of unequal access to digital technologies, this has become a new hurdle to tertiary studies at elite institutions (for example, the University of Cape Town's Michaelis School of Fine Arts requires prospective students to submit a digitised portfolio on CD). Not having an online portfolio of high-quality can also be an obstacle to securing freelance employment.

Our paper's two case studies were drawn from my long-term Critical Action Research (Carr and Kemmis, 1986:2003) project exploring the use of digital media for young people studying Visual Art in two quite different high schools in Cape Town. In the first site, twelve volunteer students at a specialised co-ed state school (six males and six females) attended extra classes to develop digital skills and to construct electronic learning portfolios (e-portfolios). In the second site, seventeen male students enrolled at a private boys’ school were required to create e-portfolios as a compulsory component of the Visual Arts syllabus.

My PhD explores the digital self-presentation and portfolio organisation choices of 29 learners and how contextual enablers and constraints were manifested in their e-portfolio significations. Our paper explores the latter in connection with mobile phone use. Although these are the most accessible form of digital media in a South African context, their use in e-portfolio production necessitated extensive resourcefulness for mobile-centric, government school students. We explore how mobile technologies are implicated in digital self-presentation and in the creation of e-portfolios, which involve both specific forms of cultural capital and specialised infrastructure. Similarly, digital portfolio creation requires infrastructure which exceeds the capacities of most South African schools.

The barriers and opportunities presented by digital networking for two young Visual Arts students are described: they attended very different secondary schools and had dissimilar home environments which necessitated contrasting workarounds. In overcoming these obstacles, the two learners developed very different professional self-presentation strategies and portfolio showcases. The visual strategies they adopted as they negotiated an unequal education system in two different parts of Cape Town are described.

Their experiences suggest that educators should be open to accommodating the mobile practices and genres that young people already use as they help them assume and challenge ‘disciplined’ identities in the visual culture.

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