Digital Asia 2021

Digital Asia 2021

Exploring the East Asia region through different lenses and creative mediums to develop new initiatives, synergies and collaborative partnerships.

The recently-launched Digital Asia Exhibition is a student-led online exhibition showcasing a culmination of work created by students in the School of East Asian Studies (SEAS) at the University of Sheffield. The work on display explores and presents a variety of themes including history, language, and culture of the East Asian region through different lenses and creative mediums such as academic posters, photography, manga, and more. This exhibition is part of a wider project led by the Head of Department Professor Kate Taylor-Jones and Dr Jennifer Coates, which explores possible initiatives, synergies, and future collaborative partnerships between the department and South Yorkshire’s thriving digital sector.

Through a series of online roundtable events, hosted by the Sheffield Digital Festival in May 2021, in coordination with Simon Cookson of Northern Value Creators, the department was able to identify future initiatives with both existing and new external partners. These discussions also increased SEAS’ understanding of Sheffield’s current digital ecosystem, as well as the diverse and ambitious work of the many businesses and agencies that exist within it. As a result of such roundtable events, the department now has several initiatives moving forward, and are in a position to further develop working partnerships with a number of digital/tech businesses, networks and organisations. These include —but are not limited to— Zoo Digital (a globalisation service offering translation for TV/film content), Barnsley Digital Media Centre, Sheffield Digital (an association for Sheffield’s digital industries), Unfolding Innovation (a consultancy specialising in digital policy and strategy), and the National Railway Museum.

In addition to this, SEAS has prioritised the following aims for this project:

  1. Identifying methods to further support student employability (by establishing new work placements and internships),
  2. Developing staff and student engagement with digital tools and,
  3. Increasing the digital, ‘business-facing’ presence of SEAS on both a local and international scale.

The final stage of the externally-funded project was to curate an online exhibition space to showcase the work of students in SEAS. The exhibition provided a way to pursue the goals mentioned above, in addition to exploring new ways to share the work, research and expertise of our academic cohort (including partners in East Asia), via innovative digital methods such as the Kunstmatrix online exhibition platform. This was of particular importance, given that East Asia is now a leader in digital media technologies.

The work on display consists of work completed for university modules, as well as personal projects. It demonstrates how the expansive work of SEAS’ student cohorts covers a number of different creative, digital and technological mediums. Thus, the exhibition allowed students to showcase and share their passion for East Asia whilst also celebrating the cultural complexities of the East Asian region.

Exhibition organisation and management

The exhibition itself was organised and created by students of SEAS, who were grouped into 5 different teams. Each team was tasked with their own specialized roles and responsibilities, which equipped students with a variety of skills necessary to enter the digital creative industry.

  • Exhibition Planning
    Responsible for engaging with students to collect exhibition materials, and considering the style and curation of the online exhibition ‘rooms’. This role provided students with opportunities to learn about exhibition curation
  • Exhibition Publicity
    Students created logos and images used to represent the exhibition in different advertising mediums including posters, hashtags, gifs.
  • Exhibition Social Media
    Working alongside the publicity team, this team created strong, persuasive promotional materials in English, Mandarin, Korean and Japanese to be used in a social media campaign on global and East Asian social media platforms.
  • Exhibition Impact Assessment
    Responsible devising questionnaires to track audience engagement and opinion, a particularly important experience for individuals wanting to pursue careers in the creative or cultural industries as funding is only awarded if it is evident that there is an engaged audience in attendance.
  • Exhibition Academic Reporting
    students produced an academic style report detailing the ‘journey’ of the exhibition regarding the background of the project, the preparation process, the team, and the impact.

Each role involved in the preparation for the online exhibition provided students with a chance to explore different career options for the future, through offering experience in these particular fields and into event managing and planning as a whole. At the same time, this experience further consolidated the transferable skills acquired by SEAS students throughout their degrees.

Making use of skills gained through undergraduate study

SEAS students acquire a variety of skills and knowledge over the course of their degree but are often left struggling to communicate their abilities to potential employers. Additionally, students in SEAS who undertake language degrees such as Japanese or Korean, gravitate towards careers such as English teaching, assuming it is the inevitable or easiest option to take. However, projects like digital East Asia not only assist students in developing their professionalism outside of their degrees, they also help students to realise the range of possibilities available to them as a graduate.

Furthermore, the ease of graduates undertaking a career that gravitates away from their SEAS studies is currently something left unchallenged. Despite the rapid speed of globalisation and the ability to connect worldwide, many in the West, and the UK for that matter, continue to carry only ideas and premeditated images of East Asia. Students who choose to study in SEAS,  , are brave enough to venture into a new world, learning a language completely different to their own or studying the culture and history of a place they learnt nothing about in school. However, when graduation day looms, the pressure to become employed often overtakes the desire to once become involved in an academic area with the potential to rapidly develop in the future. Digital East Asia is one of the methods that can be used to show students how East Asia remains important outside of university and build the bridge between academia and real life.

In addition, whilst SEAS students develop a wide range of complex skills over the course of their degree, laying out that skillset in interviews and cover letters can be difficult without experience outside of academic assessments. Digital East Asia allowed students to test out their capabilities through the range of tasks offered in the project. Often SEAS students gain outstanding communication skills through studying a different culture and completing a year abroad. Being able to liaise with potential stakeholders in the digital East Asia project offers students an opportunity to not only test their communication skills in a professional setting, but also learn about the complications, level of preparation and hard work that come with undertaking a project.

Funding for projects such as digital East Asia is essential for providing students with knowledge of potential opportunities and prospects available outside of university and giving them the space where they can value their degree and realise their own potential.

Overcoming challenges

Throughout the whole exhibition period, each of the teams worked on individual projects and thus encountered unique issues in each role. Before its publication, one of the major problems encountered by the Exhibition Planning Team was collecting different pieces from students to show in the digital gallery space. With the academic year already over, many students were relishing time away from their university emails and proved harder than expected to get in contact with in order to talk about, and share, their work. By reaching out through the departments Korean, Japanese, and East Asian Studies Societies, as well as correspondence to different student cohorts through staff members, the team was able to collate an impressive and varied array of creative work from the current SEAS student community. By dividing time between collating materials and setting up the digital gallery space – a task with its own unique set of issues when it came to canvas colours and wall spacing- the team was able to make a comprehensive and well structured gallery space which highlighted the importance of each piece both individually, and as part of a larger understanding of the gallery and East Asia at large.

Perhaps the most notable problem for The Exhibition Impact team was designing a questionnaire that would allow for a comprehensive overview of visitors opinions and suggestions, whilst simultaneously not being so long that it became off putting for people to complete. Prioritising opinions around the range of work and its curation was a primary concern, as building on responses to these fields would help improve the exhibition continuously as more and more visitors came. In the end, the questionnaire found a balance by providing a short series of mandatory responses with plenty of opportunity for respondents to elaborate on their thoughts and feelings. The feedback form was a success and a significant majority of responses showed that visitors loved the exhibition and praised the work for its quality, and variety.

The Social Media and Publicity teams worked closely alongside each other, creating and disseminating promotional materials for the exhibition over a variety of platforms. Speaking to members of the publicity and social media teams, the same few issues frequently arose. As noted by one member of the team;  “Releasing content in four different languages [Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and English] is never going to be easy! We couldn’t just make the same promotional material but with different characters, we often had to reformat the whole thing for each language so it would read properly”. There were also problems with the platforms as well. When interviewing a member of the social media team, they lamented the importance of algorithms in sharing the work: “Everyone took responsibility for a different social media platform, I managed the Twitter page, but I know Instagram often has the same issues- if you’re sharing content and it doesn’t have the popular hashtags or popular music, it’s never going to do as well as other content. It wasn’t just about making the graphics look good, we had to make sure we were sharing them with the right people and captions so they would get seen across these platforms”.

However, by working around these algorithms and establishing a regular posting schedule, the teams were able to share the exhibition far and wide. The social media team agreed that consistency is key, and making sure to post regularly is what helps build an audience. In particular, the dedicated Instagram account demonstrates the impact of a sustained social media presence. The platforms have allowed the team to engage with a large and diverse audience, who are growing more interested in the exhibition itself. Social media and publicity have created some amazing content to help raise awareness of the exhibition, with some posts even gaining some minor fame with over 1000 views.

The final group, the Academic Reporting team, found their task quite daunting at first. How to condense all of the information from the other teams into one article, whilst making sure all of it was relevant took an admirable amount of planning and forethought. Ultimately, through interviews with other teams and visitors to the exhibition, as well as a great understanding of the exhibition’s aims at large, this very report brought together a comprehensive overview of the exhibition’s success and significance to the SEAS department.

The Future

As for the future, SEAS hopes to further develop its digital presence and utilise Sheffield’s digital networks, with the aim of developing the relationship between the local landscape and the East Asian region.