Six Months at Sampad

Matthew Rolfe takes us on a whistle-stop tour documenting six months as cultural intern at Sampad. Starting with hello…

A New Beginning

Hello. I’m Matt. I’m 24 and from Nottingham. I graduated from the University of Birmingham in Ancient History & Archaeology in July 2012. I like football, music, long walks on the beach, black Labradors, hot chocolate by an open fire and singing in the shower. Also, I’m the new Cultural Intern for sampad South Asian Arts. Now that the formalities are out of the way I shall be leading you through the next six months of what it is indeed like to be a cultural intern at a leading arts organisation in the West Midlands.

After a week of initial training and crash-course lessons with my other fellow interns on particular aspects of what to expect when working within the arts (complete with free board and lodgings, might I add), I was ready to dive head first into the big bad world of work and into an industry often difficult to get a footing in. After having a cup of tea, being shown the office, the building, the meeting rooms, meeting the staff, having another cup of tea, sorting out my computer and desk, filling in health and safety forms, and setting up my emails, I finally had time for another cup of tea. And work. Despite the large open-plan office in which sampad is based, the atmosphere is as friendly as Oliver Reed is to a pint of Guinness. Snacks are plentiful, tea is in abundance and the general ambience is relaxed and welcoming. A great first impression. And did I mention tea?

Since joining the team at sampad, the aspect that I’ve been most involved with is the “My Route” project. My Route, for me (note the coming pun), begins with a 10 minute cycle commute into the idyllic rural surrounds of Cannon Hill Park, where I am at the very revered art-house mac building. Whilst this is still in its infancy, and hotly and pragmatically evolving (and at the unrelenting mercy of funding), it has been a never ending corner of turns, for me mostly in my “cultural education”.

One of the best parts of my role is being able to go out and see the community in which we are working. It really gives you perspective being away from the formalised office suite and a sense of purpose for the project. I took a trip into the Sparkhill area of Birmingham to meet one of the free agents that is key to the My Route project, Tas. We cycled round the local area (we like to look after the environment) and visited a number of local businesses as public centres to gauge what were the major aims within the project.

Back in the office, I helped out with the redesigning of a couple of documents, including the board member recruitment pack. It went down very well (thanks for asking), with the rest of the team very pleased with my handy work, and it has since been delivered to the appropriate outlets for us to recruit new members.

Thus far I have managed to settle in comfortably, mostly thanks to the relaxed and fantastic team here at sampad, and am looking forward to the rest of my time here. I’ll keep you posted.

“Goodbye Archives, Hello Culture”

Just as soon as I had thought I’d escaped the all-consuming, relentless clutches that was continued hours of being studious in the library, I was thrust back into the “house of books” head-first at the Birmingham Central Library Archives.

A number of days I spent there trawling through books and papers and directories like a man possessed, trying to beat the clock; the Friday deadline for archive closure until September 2013 ever nearing.

That was until I received a phone call midday Thursday reassigning me to join the “Hello Culture” conference. I hot-footed it over to the Custard Factory where I spent the rest of the day, and the following, submerging myself in all manner of business surrounding culture, heritage and 21st century technological developments. The conference mainly focused on where technology comes into play in all this “arts stuff”, and was about getting the whole cultural outfit to finally get with the programme of embracing digital.

The result was a user-friendly neutral ground for the “arts folk” and the “tech geeks” to finally meet, discuss ideas and grow symbiotically and positively towards a digital future. Our grey, big-eared, trunked friend in the room need not be avoided here.

It was a refreshing change from the expected circular arrangement of “where are we going to get our money from…blah, blah, blah the government…!”, and actually offered a very uplifting experience and left many, I found, with a renewed sense of hope and optimism. No more so did I see this than after a workshop on crowd funding by Sarah Gee. Stunning. I’d never heard of this seemingly techy and viral concept, but I am now certainly a disciple of its power. Best of all though, the conference was a networking hotbed.

Conversation followed like Dionysian wine (the irony being that there was not actually that much wine on offer; which in itself was ironic (cultural insider gag)), and it was great to see the professional grown-up equivalent of the two reluctant polarised sides of the school hall finally coming together for the dance.

Overall, a very enlightening and inspiring experience.

3D cake and a Wiki Wizard

Once again to the university for my monthly instalment of cake. And technology. This time do.cake offered a look into the latest in soon-to-be revolutionary 3D-printing technology. I was taking a strong interest in this as I have been given the task to find something for the My Route project that could use 3D-printing. I’m excited to see where this technology will be in the near and distant future as it really does have enormous revolutionary potential. Sadly, however, this was the last do.cake of the year and I’ll have to wait until 2013 until I can fill my face with cake and technology.

Later in the week we met with a chap by the name of Andy. Aside from sporting a frankly magnificent beard that Merlin himself would want to adorn his chin, he was also a “wizard” with that old student essay writing aid and worldwide knowledge-bank, Wikipedia. His encyclopaedic knowledge of the, well, online encyclopaedia, provided us with much fascination and also with the insider know-how of how to go about constructing data using the power of people. This is a win-win situation for us as it allows the leg-work to be done by others, freeing our time for other aspects of the project, but at the same time this empowers people to connect with and learn about their area, history and local heritage.

Overall, pieces are starting to come together and it is an exciting time to be involved on the groundwork of such an exciting project. Go sampad!

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

That’s right, this week was the office Christmas party. Instead of an over-cooked bird with a disappointing array of boiled greenery and clumpy mash potato (something we would have the pleasure of looking forward to with our own families very soon) we went for an alternative fixture and headed for a curry in the Balti Triangle. The result? A tasty success. This was coupled with the always hilarious/dubious timely tradition of “Secret Santa”. It was safe to say everyone was as pleased as you can be for a fiver.

There was also included around this time actual work. I took a jolly walk over to the house of Tas, the free agent we’re working with on the My Route project. We spent the best part of the day drafting the My Route taxi tour route, figuring out the logistics of the proposed route and potential activities and getting to grips with understanding the new mapping system that we are now using, OpenStreetMap. Tea and biscuits eased the pain.

The rest of my time has mainly continued with this task at the forefront, interspersed with the fortnightly team meeting and the writing of a cross innovation article that sampad has worked on with Birmingham City University who are leading on a Europe-wide cross collaborative project. (Ladies and gentleman, for your reading pleasure: http://www.cross-innovation.eu/practice/sampad/).

Christmas Time, Taxi Tours and Whine

Always my favourite time of year. Especially in an office. Why? Simple: cake. There was more cake and treats than usual on offer this week. There was even a cheeky Christmas tune or two creeping in from the mac team next to us. And jumpers. Gloriously unashamed Christmas jumpers. The festive kind often found in a severely under-choreographed Cliff Richard video. I am too guilty of sporting such attire, but hell, it’s Christmas! Soon into the week, one by one the staff started retiring home for the year for Christmas and so, inevitably, everyone was trying to wrap-up any last minute tasks that couldn’t be passed over into the New Year.

These past weeks were mainly focused on finishing the first draft route of the My Route project. Necessity and practicality met dream and aspiration in the battle of compromise and tough decision. Once the entrails were mopped up and our sore head-scratching fingers bandaged we were left with the final product, albeit an untidy first draft. Akin to the unveiling of Frankenstein’s monster*, we finally whipped off the cloth and bore our goods, naked and unashamed. (*it must be noted there was no controversial unorthodox Victorian laboratory experiments involved.) The reception was a welcomed one, and the proposed route was met with enthusiasm as we as a team finally started to see some physical synthesis; this multi-coloured highlighted collage saw the first physical visualisation for the layout of our My Route project, and the beginning of my small legacy to sampad (that is if the Mayan’s aren’t right…although if you’re reading this, then they weren’t).

I would disclose more about the route, but it’s top secret in this planning stage. So there!

Until then, I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and I shall be reporting back in the New Year.

Thus far it’s been a pleasure. Here’s to 2013…

Return of the mac

No sooner had I put a mince pie down and wiped my turkey-bloated face, it was 2013. And I was back at the office. Business as usual. Still with the sounds of Auld Lang Syne ringing in my ears and my nose running like an Olympic sprinter, I was back off on my cultural journey. I began back half way through a week in which people are either absent through annual leave or through seasonal ailments, so it was fair to say that it was a gentle reintegration from my festive hangover.

Since returning to sampad in the New Year, it’s been all go. My first week back I was out on a recce visiting a few places on Stratford Road and the surrounding area, looking at possible venue sites and themes for the forthcoming project. This is the best part of the job I find as you get to see things on the ground level, and it’s always good to go and surround yourself in the area as it puts what you’re doing in focus. I’ve also started working in areas that I hadn’t been previously. For instance I have been working on the artists in schools programme and got to see first-hand how a training workshop was delivered. I also have since redesigned our audience questionnaires and mailing list postcards and am currently working on a database system to be able to help analyse these results; this is something I want to leave as a solid structure for future use – see it as my parting gift. I have also researched and helped deliver our very first e-book – “Inspired by Tagore” (now available on the kindle store), which will hopefully set a precedent for any future literature projects we may do.

However, in typical arts-career style, all our hard work has been undone within a single meeting. The big, bad HLF (Heritage Lottery Fund for those not with the arts-lingo) have constructively dismantled our My Route project, asking us to rethink and rebuild aspects of it. This has ultimately had a knock-on effect for the route I helped design. Oh well, chin up, back to the drawing board…

Aside from this minor setback there is still plenty more to come as I enter the last bend into the home straight of my time at sampad. I’ll soon be visiting the Wolverhampton Art Gallery to hopefully start a collaborative project, as part of our My Route project, which will hopefully see the beginning of a 3D scanning project involving the gallery and the University of Birmingham. I’ve been given this task as a solo project, at least in the early stages, and so I’m keen to make the most of it!

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