Interviewing Southbank's Contemporary Music Programmer Bengi Ünsal

Co-Written by Nikhil Kanukuntla

Photo credit: Cesare De Giglio for Southbank Centre

Bengi Ünsal was appointed Head of Southbank's Contemporary Music Programming in March 2016 after working for around 20 years in everything from managing to programming to booking within Turkey and the UK. Now, she curates all the contemporary music coming in and out of Southbank, even organising the London music monolith that is Meltdown Festival and launching the institution's first ever club night, Concrete Lates - an energetic monthly electronic event teeming with dance music modernity and experimentation.

As a senior music programmer in the country’s largest culture organisation, you have considerable influence on the arts and culture scene of the entire UK. Do you feel this sense of responsibility in your day-to-day role and does it factor into your decision making?

That was heavy [laughs]. But you are right. I try to look it at from a smaller circle first. The first responsibility is that I do my job well and correctly. And if I do it well, then it means the implications or the influence that it will have will be good as well. I think, yes, I do feel that responsibility. But, to be honest, I don’t have too many programming dates at Southbank Centre I wish I had more [in which case] the responsibility and influence would be even bigger. When I’m programming for all the venues here [Royal Festival Hall, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room], I try to be as diverse as possible and reach as [many] audiences as I can, as well as come up with inspirational programming for other people internationally.

‘Concrete Lates’ is famous for its commitment towards experimental acts and underrepresented female talent. What kind of effect are you hoping to achieve from it?

When we first started Concrete Lates, it was just an idea that came out of the venue. After we refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall, I noticed that the foyer was a 1,000 capacity standing venue. We didn’t have any standing venues until then. We had the Royal Festival Hall ballroom, but we use that mostly for public parties, not this kind of event . When I saw the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer for the first time, I said ‘yes, we can definitely have electronic music acts here’. All the other venues are seated, so it gives us an opportunity to reach another kind of audience. Venues are closing in central London, and there are lots of ongoing problems with venues’ opening hours and licenses all over the city. So I thought, now that we have the venue, it would give us the opportunity to give different artists a platform and have that as part of our ethos. We wanted to give the underrepresented the opportunity as much as we could. It may not stay that way; it may become slightly more mainstream , but it’s always going to be a 1,000 standing capacity venue, and we will always try to keep the ticket prices at an affordable level.

What’s been your favourite performance at Concrete Lates so far?

Hard to decide. I think it has to be Janus Rasmussen, one half of Kiasmos, with BAFTA-winning Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds. He rocked.

Meltdown Festival is notable in its collaboration with artists directing the event. How do you go about choosing who you want to work with? Also, is there anyone, in particular, you would want to work with in the future?

I don’t know if I can name names [laughs]. I’m actually trying to secure the next one right now for 2019. We make a list of artists that we want to work with, and each year we go over it. For instance, the first one I did when I started at Southbank was with M.I.A.. I wanted it to be diverse, I wanted it to be young and different from previous years. I thought that M.I.A. would be the perfect choice to do that because of where she stands as an artist. She’s a huge collaborator. She’s done fashion, she’s very good at digital, she’s very good across the arts. She’s amazing and such an inspirational character. I had so much fun working with her. After M.I.A., I wanted to go somewhere else. It was The Cure’s 40th anniversary. Robert Smith has been such an influential character for a lot of artists. I was happy that he wanted to do it, and it was actually the most successful Meltdown on record in terms of ticket sales. Next year, we will probably go somewhere else [with it] if you know what I mean; it’s not going to be the same thing. I think that’s what's good about Meltdown: there’s something different every year. It gives us a chance to look at an artist’s world from his or her point of view and their influences. And in terms of who I would like to work with? Björk or PJ Harvey. They’ve both said no so...[laughs]. Maybe it’s not the right time yet.

There’s been a trend recently in musicians launching their own festivals in an attempt to rejuvenate or materialise something they see as lacking in festival scenes. Recent examples have included Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Chance the Rapper. Why do you think musicians are becoming more interested in curating?

I don’t know, we have to ask them that question. I think everything is revolving around the artist nowadays: everybody wants to connect with the artist. The artist is the brand. At Southbank Centre we’ve been doing it for 25 years. I would actually advise the artist not to do it themselves; organising a festival is not very easy - someone can do it for you! [laughs] That’s my take on it, but it’s interesting, I think it’s not so much about them but their world. The way we do Meltdown might be attractive to them. As artists, it gives them the chance to collaborate, the chance to work with their favourite artists, who they’ve been inspired by.

You’ve now worked at the Southbank Centre for two and a half years after a number of years in Istanbul. What do you think we can learn from each other in regards to our respective arts scene?

I think in Istanbul where I was working we were in a culture that didn’t have arts and culture money, we didn’t have government support. We had to build everything ourselves and we had to know how to make an event profitable and we had to learn how to reach and suit an audience. We also had to learn what being a real, emerging artist means. It was basically making something out of nothing. That’s what we had in the city. Then again, Istanbul is actually very culturally active and it’s a very multi-art city as well. If you look at the number of concerts happening there it’s quite successful. What I learnt working there is [how to] do everything myself, from budgets to finances, programming, marketing and funding. You learn a lot when you work in that environment. You’re looking to the West from an Eastern point of view and I think that it’s a completely different perspective. Personally, I think [that perspective] is what I bring to the Southbank Centre. In terms of what London could bring there.

I wanted to ask, you began working at the Southbank Centre not long before Brexit, do you think that’s changed things in not only how arts and culture are viewed and performed, but the way it’s delivered at Southbank Centre?

It’s already quite hard bringing international artists to the UK, with visa issues and other costs. To be honest, no-one knows what’s going to happen. But we are committed to presenting and supporting the best international talent, and we’ll work with our partners and colleagues across the creative industries to make this happen.

You’re a DJ yourself, have you ever been tempted to perform again as DearHead?

Every day I’m tempted [laughs]. It has been quite a lot of time since I’ve been working here and it has been very full on. I listen to a lot of music now but it’s a lot of different genres [...] DearHead was actually a duo so it would never be DearHead again now that I’m by myself. It was a deep house/vocal house sort of DJ act. I’m more eclectic now I think. I do want to DJ but I don’t know if I can find the time to prepare for it. There are lots of great DJs at the moment anyway!

What’s the future for music programming at the Southbank Centre?

We want it to be as diverse and as balanced as possible. We have a lot of emerging artists now, supported by our Friday Tonic series - free gigs every Friday after work. I want to see an artist play at 6pm on a Friday on that stage before going on to play at the Purcell Room and progressing to Queen Elizabeth Hall and the Royal Festival Hall; to exceed the limits that we have here. And I want us to be part of that artistic journey. I’d like to see more mini-Meltdown events or Meltdown-like events, maybe more artist-in-residence projects and events based around the artist. Basically, exalting the things that we do more, especially our residencies. Generally just do more!

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