13 Oct #NewPerspective | Anja Venter: The Intersection of Culture and Technology
Scottish Leader, a whisky brand known for their singular richness, recently introduced a new look and reformulated recipe. Inspired by their tagline ‘A New Perspective’ we’re spotlighting five local creatives who embody this notion in their way of working; people who are re-inventing, re-looking and re-interpreting the everyday to question convention.
Unsatisfied that her dual interests in science and art were always perceived as binary, Anja Venter has channelled her fascination with culture and technology into a career path all her own. With a grounding in illustration and design after studying Visual Communication at Stellenbosch, Anja’s restless and curious nature led her in the direction of UCT, where she completed her Masters with a focus on video game cultures in marginal settings. Currently she’s working towards a PhD, her research entirely funded by Microsoft, at the centre in Information and Communications Technologies for Development (ICT4D). We spoke to Anja about her inspiring journey so far – which is only just beginning – and how she envisions technologies for creativity being used to democratise design.
Fascinated with art, culture, design and technology, you’ve evaded a singular job title in favour of remixing the avenues available to you to forge your own path. Tell us more about your journey so far…
I grew up in Bellville, an art kid who was obsessed with punk. My brother drums for Fokofpolisiekar and that whole scene was a really big part of my upbringing. It instilled that rattle-the-cage, DIY and collaboration ethos in me. I drew comics, and really found my flow as an illustrator. My mom is a professor of Computer Science, so I have this affinity for maths, science and technology that came from her influence. It annoyed me that my dual interests in science and art were always perceived as binary. Particularly so when I had to go study, and I had to make a call about going into one or the other.
I studied Visual Communication at Stellenbosch. After which I had a brief stint in London working for minimum wage, and then worked in broadcast advertising in Joburg. I have this inate restlessness – so I was always looking for the next step. Which in my mind, was ideally something that would allow me to explore the confluence of art and technology.
My mom referred me to this guy called Gary Marsden, who was doing incredible research in human-computer-interaction and mobile technology in Cape Town. It’s through Gary that I came to study at UCT, first doing my Masters, and now my PhD at the ICT4D center that he established. At the same time, I’ve produced art for shows, drawn comics, made stuff for bands, started hanging out with local game devs, and generally followed every shiny thing that sparkled in my peripheral view.
Gary passed away at the end of 2013 from a sudden heart attack, aged 43. I’ve since tried my best to do his legacy justice. I’ve been very lucky that my research in ad-hoc creativity and mobile technology is pretty fresh right now, so I’ve received funding that has allowed me to travel quite extensively, talking about it. Earlier this year I got to study under some incredible designers in Denmark for two months. That trip also got me into the game design scene over there. Myself and some friends won joint-first at the Shayla Virtual Reality game jam in Copenhagen for our game “S.A.D Cat”. We were invited to show the game in Sweden at the Karlshamn Creative Coast Festival. We also got to mingle at the Unite Europe summit in Amsterdam, where cocktails had ridiculous names like “Windows 10”. And I won a sweet Oculus DK 2.
In August I hung out with artists in Vancouver, at the International Symposium of Electronic Art. In September I spent a week with South Africa’s game renegades in Joburg at the annual A MAZE. Festival. Soon I’ll be heading to the states to attend the Association of Internet Researchers’ yearly shindig. After which we’ll go on a mini tour down to Florida with some of our band friends (who are also regular clients) from Philadelphia.
When completing your Masters degree in Media studies, you focussed on video game cultures in marginal settings. What sparked this particular interest?
When we were studying undergrad in Stellenbosch, I helped a friend over a few afternoons with teaching graphic design to a group of kids from Kayamandi. At the time what made a big impression on me was how incredibly mobile savvy these kids were. They knew so much more than me, they had these hacks for doing stuff, and mobile games carried the most social capital. I remember thinking it was this brilliantly ubiquitous medium with so much potential. I wanted to design games for kids like those, who were being exploited by the mobile content providers of the early and mid 2000s. Back then, I had this idea for a choose your own adventure comic game for mobile. Plus at the time, the financial boom around mobile technologies was spurning hundreds of start ups around the city – it was the golden age of Mxit, and mobile seemed like the next frontier for creative technologies.
When I finally got around to doing my masters, Gary referred me to his main collaborator from Media Studies, Prof Marion Walton. I came to her with all these ideas, and she told me something along the lines of, “you can’t design for a context you can’t understand” – which seemed very Yoda-like to me at the time.
So over the next two years, I had a baptism by fire. My first fieldwork experience had me conducting a field study for a University of Washington project in Delft and at the central library: Interviewing young adults about digital media. I met the most incredible young gamers who had this totally different social experience of game worlds than those I saw online or IRL.
When I put together my Masters thesis proposal, I called up some older friends from Ocean View and looked at how their kids related games back to their communities. I spent a bunch of months in Ocean View hanging out and playing games with pre-teen kids there. It was really interesting to see how gender and race starts playing out in young kids imaginaries through western-centric media. Narratives of gangsters in GTA are, for example, informing how these kids view gangs in their area – it provides a vocabulary and a platform for discussion.
Games are embedded in most communities – but very few people other than white men actually make video games in South Africa. As a matter of fact, very few people of colour participate in any of the creative industries broadly. And that’s the kind of problem space I wanted to systemically explore with my PhD.
I have this personal affirmation “came for the money, stayed for the community” – a lyric by Johnny Foreigner which I put on a mural outside the Dog’s Bollocks in town. In many ways my involvement in games research and mobile tech development came from a desire to up my pay bracket. But after all these years, money is definitely not the motivation anymore.
You’re currently working towards a Microsoft-sponsored PhD that looks at the ways creative tools on mobile devices can assist in making visual design capabilities more accessible. Why is the democratisation of design so important?
I can answer this on three levels. From a statistical vantage point I can cry “representation!” At the moment the visual design industries are depressingly non-representative. Even at school only 1% of students can take visual arts until matric. Most of the art-offering school are based in the geographic centers of privilege. Which, because of Apartheid, is racially stratified. And that’s not a problem to many people – as a matter of fact, I always laugh when I think of this comment in an audit of the creative industry in South Africa, where a statistician points out that the lacking diversity of employment in the creative sector (which is 91% white owned) is not indicative of a problem, because “most of these businesses do not qualify for BEE”. In other words, creative industries don’t make enough money to warrant a big hooha about diversity. The proverbial pie isn’t big enough to fight about. What this means is that the designed spaces (and things) of the city, are made as envisioned by a very privileged, eurocentric, middle class.
Secondly, if I relate this back to popular ideology, I think this attitude demonstrates a larger problem: the perception that all value of experience is related to financial wealth. Cultural wealth is something South Africans tend to overlook. We have this wonderful diversity of experiences, but in popular media representations, and practically all design industries – you still have the same voices dominating the visual landscapes. I think movements like Rhodes Must Fall, and the “Perceiving Freedom” debacle really started grappling with these issues, and how alienating that can be for many people who occupy and move through these spaces.
And thirdly, on a very pragmatic level I think that the democratisation of design is incredibly important for the economy. It’s something that has been on the global agenda for the past few years. Creative careers foster a functional middle class, encourage local trade and innovation, promote tourism, are resilient against recessions and offer platforms for self-expression.
What has your research into this topic in townships in and around Cape Town brought to light?
Saying “in and around townships” is a bit misleading – I might work with many people who come from ‘townships’ (a blanket term which I think is a bit problematic – but that’s a whole other story), but my focus was more on people who don’t have all the material and epistemological comforts of middle class. The research is about how people deal with inequality from an affordances perspective: A youngster from Gugulethu might not have access to art at school, or any creative mentors, or know anyone in the creative industry, or have uncapped wifi on his macbook pro, or use Adobe, or surf Behance. He might have an Android device, with ten different image editing apps, a folio paper, a whatsapp group and an idea. This kid will start a fashion brand, or run a selfie decoration micro-enterprise, using his phone for purposes never intended by the makers of the tech. People hustle hard, and they use what they have to make what they can. Mobile phones play an incredibly important role in learning, networking and creative practice when other resources are scarce. But the existing options for participation are still quite problematic: Universities are expensive to attend, are only accessible if you can speak English well enough and favour european design canons as the centres of design knowledge; apps negate intellectual property, have fixed aesthetics and aren’t fully functional for legitimate design practice; and access to online spaces are either curated (through initiatives such as internet.org) or incredibly constrained because of data costs.
What myself and my colleagues are trying to do is feed these existing ad hoc practices and usage ecologies, back into the technology design side. We try to challenge this from-the-west-to-the-rest model of technology appropriation, and make things that hack local resources.
These findings inform your thesis project “Hacking Design”, for which you’re looking towards building a mobile exclusive, open-source design tool for young South Africans interested in the creative industries. Where are you in this process?
It’s rude to ask a PhD student how far their thesis is – didn’t you know? Just kidding, I’m busy grappling through the thesis writing part. I did a lot of paper prototyping and we developed a first iteration of the app which was a complete disaster. But as soon as I’m done with the thesis and can negotiate IP, I’m hoping to continue development. Ideally, with the way that the adoption of smartphones is going right now, the sweet spot for release would be about two or three years from now.
My contribution, for now, is more of an approach to designing creative tech, than the actual development – which needs a whole team of people on board to realise. People who know a lot more about technical systems than I do, people who are able to build visualisation systems from scratch. I’ve had many incredible developers offer to help me, but we can’t really take it much further until I’m done with my part of the deal with Microsoft.
What challenges have you encountered along the way?
A lot of red tape in finding my fieldsites. Funding issues. Many ethical quandaries in how to present the work and keep my participants anonymous. And most devastatingly, going through mourning while attempting to keep on track with the work. A few months ago I had a complete break down, saw a therapist and started rock climbing to keep my mental health in check.
Also, writing a PhD thesis is no joke. I’ve had panic attacks and imposter syndrome throughout the whole ordeal. I also frequently miss studio life. Just being able to draw and make pictures for a living seems really appealing when you get to page 88 of a word document, and it’s literally just the beginning.
Your practise is centred on using existing tools and skills in new ways. If we’re able to harness mobile technology in the manner you’ve envisioned, how do you see this impacting resource-poor communities and, ultimately, the creative industry as a whole?
At the end of the day it’s all about how things are made. Most of the tools that people use to create, design and disseminate their creations comes from contexts of extreme privilege. So when people use those very tools without the fast processors and the unlimited internet access, they’re at an automatic disadvantage. I imagine technologies that can scaffold participation between existing communities, while granting creatives access to mainstream opportunities. I think this might bring to light fresh new aesthetics and creative cultures that don’t conform to existing tastes or industry structures. In short, I imagine a kind of visual arts explosion. Like Berlin in the 90s – which is now also the biggest tech hub in Europe.
What else needs to happen in the creative industry to make it more all-inclusive? Tell us about some of the workshops you’re involved with.
One of my biggest lessons has been that mentorship and knowledge sharing is fundamental to any creative career. You get these guys who don’t know anyone working in the creative industries, and they need to learn by doing and failing. And because people with limited means don’t have that leisure time to figure things out, they’re way more likely to give up on their creative endeavours, despite immense talent. So for me, I think knowledge communities are key.
But, you also don’t want to impose ways of doing and being to an emerging class of young creatives – essentially re-colonizing creative talent. So I’ve been thinking around jamming as a collaborative making and learning exercise. It allows for mentorship and knowledge sharing, but also for new ideas to organically emerge without being prescriptive. The format comes from a long tradition of musical jamming which was reappropriated by the game dev community – you throw a bunch of people in a room, and everyone learns from everyone, by making something together. I’ve used this methodology in workshops to generate ideas for my mobile app. I’ve also been involved in a game jam workshop for A MAZE, and want to finetune the method for future creative projects.
What is the most rewarding aspect of forging a creative career that is totally unique and essentially, tailored to you?
That I get to do something different every day. And although I’m figuring it out as I go along, which can be nerve-wracking, the road forward is wide open.
What do you hope to have achieved once you complete your thesis project?
I hope that my thesis, and the papers I’ve written for conferences and journals will encourage more collaboration across the arts-science divide in Cape Town, and inspire young scholars to take this work further.
I hope to have brought to light the stories of tremendously talented young creatives in the city, whose struggles are often overlooked.
What’s on your horizon after that?
I’m partnering with the incredible engineer and innovator, Regina Kgatle, on a project called 67games. Regina has spearheaded a project called Educade where she’s built educational games and run them on arcade machines built from e-waste and recycled materials. We’re planning on crowd-sourcing 67 educational games globally, in partnership with educators and game developers, and getting these games out to under resourced schools and public access venues across the country for Mandela day next year. We’re also planning on hosting a number of long form game jams to establish local game making chapters in low-resource communities, so the centre of production of these games will be South African in the future.
I’m also looking at opportunities to teach in some kind of capacity.
But most importantly, I’m looking forward to hang around my home studio, smooch my boyfriend, cuddle my cats, and draw for dayssss.