Convergence 2016

Q&A: Convergence director Glenn Max

By | Published on Sunday 6 March 2016

Glenn Max

Convergence has become a standout event in London’s cultural calendar in the last few years, bringing the capital’s art, media, music and technology communities together with an impressive mix of concerts, talks and shows. And this year the festival’s programme – organisers like to think of it more as a “cultural conversation” – is the biggest yet.
ThisWeek London is presenting a special TW:Guide To Convergence this year, as we interview several of the performers and curators involved in the 2016 edition. But to get things going we spoke to the man behind it all, festival director Glenn Max.

TW: Let’s start at the start – when did Convergence begin and what were you trying to achieve?
GM: Convergence’s origins lay very much with the Ether festival which took place at the Southbank Centre from 2002 to 2011, and which I oversaw for nine years. It was an attempt to experiment with the social architecture of a very staid institution for which the electronic and dance community had no reason to visit. It was equally a challenge to the electronic music community to try doing something performance-based, which is what concert halls require. In 2011, when Southbank cancelled the festival, I thought the time was right to revisit the idea in the context of East London.

People seem willing to travel to Berlin or Barcelona for a festival celebrating innovations across the digital arts, so why shouldn’t London, with the most fantastic audiences in the world, host its own event that could match those others? So, with the support of Village Underground and Arts Council England, we launched a six day event in 2013 which was crowned with a Barbican concert by Fuck Buttons, Mount Kimble and Fennesz. It was a success, so we thought we’d try a second year – and that was even better. The message was becoming clear, the response from public and press was pretty overwhelming, and so it continues.

TW: It feels like things have been ramped up a little this year. Is that the case?
GM: It was always the ambition for Convergence to cover the wide-array of projects you see this year, though we’re very much subject to who is available and a variety of other factors.

The major addition this year is our visual arts programme, which includes the Cyland exhibition Village Underground; Ryan Wolfe’s piece on the Great Eastern Wall Gallery; Colour Choir’s installation at Kachette on Old Street, and the Comfortably Spun installation at the Red Gallery.

In terms of live shows, the Gil Scott-Heron tribute – ‘Pieces Of A Man’ – at The Roundhouse on Sunday 13 Mar is a big step forward for Convergence, as it’s the first time we’ve produced our own multi-artist event in this context.

TW: You are also growing geographically. What new venues are you working with? How did you choose who to partner with?
GM: We matched venues with the artists based on the demand for tickets. Scala seemed right for Colin Stetson, Omar Souleyman makes sense at Koko, and seeing Anna von Hausswolff perform with her band at St John on Bethnal Green Church should be a real treat.

TW: Who does the programming? What’s the artistic policy?
GM: There are a number of people who have a hand in the programming, and I oversee that process. In terms of artistic policy, we find ourselves constantly going back to the word ‘innovation’. We actively look for eccentricities, and collaborative and groundbreaking work. We like big personalities like The Gaslamp Killler, Dan Deacon and Steve Stapleton of Nurse With Wound.

TW: You mentioned the Gil Scott-Heron tribute, which is an original commission. How did that come about?
GM: That project came about partly through having produced Gil’s concerts twice in my life, and partly from the feeling I had – and many had – around the time of his death that his 2010 album ‘I’m New Here’ felt like the start of a new era for Gil.

With that new era being cut short, and Gil’s relevance looming large on a political front and a musical front, I felt some sort of original celebration would have some resonance. And when I spoke to Dave Okumu from The Invisible about curating the project, we both became convinced that this was something that just had to happen!

TW: Why did you decide to include the daytime programme of talks and debates?
GM: We often think of Convergence as a ‘cultural conversation’ and never call it a festival. This is the third year we’ve held Convergence Sessions. These talks and workshops will take place at the Ace Hotel and are designed to underscore various ideas and activities happening in and at the crossroads of art and technology. Mary-Anne Hobbs’ talks with Dan Deacon and The Gaslamp Killer are surely highlights, but there are others that will inform and delight.

TW: How do you decide which topics to explore in these daytime sessions?
GM: We work collaboratively. There’s an array of canvassing across various partners, friends, and curators in the area of art and technology. There’s never a shortage of topics and issues, so it’s more a matter of creating a shape out of all the ideas that come our way. CMU, Seeper, PRS For Music Foundation, Pointblank, Light Surgeons, onedotzero, Spotify and Mixcloud are all strong partners – we let them lead on the subject matter and then we shape and coordinate to help them achieve their events.

TW: What have been the biggest ups and downs of organising Convergence to date?
GM: The downs are numerous. It’s like getting kicked and punched on the playground all day, everyday. The ups I don’t have time to think about. It’s completely insane that we live in a country where support around the arts is so hard-fought, and the cooperation around the music industry is frequently scarce, and the capriciousness of artists can bring a well-laid plan to a crashing halt. We fight on. London needs this kind of event. Everyone knows it. But getting it locked in as a regular, annual feature and finding the funding for its continued existence is an epic challenge. We’ve been blessed with the support of Arts Council England but beyond that, it’s a slog.

TW: What are you especially looking forward to this year?
GM: Colin Stetson is one of the all-time greatest musical phenomena we’ve heard in the last ten years. Omar Souleyman with Clap! Clap! and Simbiosi should be one of the best parties we could imagine; Factory Floor’s return is long overdue. Ah! Kosmos makes her London debut on 10 and 11 Mar, and is one of several incredible female artists in our line-up which includes Kara-lis Coverdale, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Karen Gwyer, Myriam Bleu and Anna von Hausswolff.

TW: And beyond this year’s programme, what are your long term ambitions for the festival?
GM: More commissions, more collaborations and more mind-blowing A/V projects, working across platforms, art-forms and life forms.