Realigning with our original vision through socio-cultural investigations and discussions.
By Daniel Thomas (aka Dan Lo), Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Observatory
Hello and welcome to The Observatory’s new article series.
After more than seven years of writing texts for each and every one of our events, we’ve taken the decision to change strategy and try something different. You’re now reading the first installment of what will be a monthly feature article, discussing what we hope will be a diverse and absorbing collection of subjects, ideas and insights.
Future articles will pursue a journalistic approach and perspective to engage with topics we believe our network will be interested in. The aim is to be as broad as possible, and to involve detailed analyses of a wide range of issues we believe are important and worth discussing. Our society, culture and economy; ideas about music; our history, and anything else we consider reflective of our identity and vision as a club will all be up for discussion.
While we may also refer to our events and include interviews and analyses of the DJs and artists that have played or will play at The Observatory, this series will not simply be a review of our monthly program: it will be an exploration of our world, in a way that reflects and articulates what The Observatory is, what we want it to be, and who the people behind it are.
We’ll start by explaining what brought us to this point.
| Conceptual Background
When The Observatory first opened on the corner of Tôn Thất Tùng and Lê Lai in Q1 in October 2013, HCMC was quite different, and so was the club.
The first space was meant to be “a multifunctional cultural centre”. We had an art gallery, intended to be open all day as a café, and had plans to host a wide range of different cultural projects, including exhibitions and performances. We also wanted to be a reference point for people seeking insights and information on other spaces and individuals active in the contemporary culture of the city (which is part of the inspiration for The Observatory’s name), and to be a focal point on HCMC’s cultural map. As it turned out, what we quickly ended up focusing most on – and doing best – were our parties.
However, while our initial ambition of being both a conduit and node of multidisciplinary contemporary culture in HCMC may have been slightly sidelined by our focus on the musical side of the operation, the desire to be more engaged in diverse aspects of contemporary culture has been latent in the backdrop since the beginning. As such, we view this new communication medium as a chance to finally engage on an intellectual level with the types of issues and concepts that we originally wanted The Observatory to be instigating and facilitating.
The Observatory was the idea of Dan Bi Mong (aka Hibiya Line), who had moved to Vietnam from Switzerland with the aim of creating a place where people could experience art and music in a way that wasn’t yet available in the country. Dan and I met around the end of 2012, when Dan was still planning The Observatory’s launch, and in the meantime throwing his notorious weekly Optimist Club parties. Although we definitely bonded quickly off our shared love for diverse types of music, partying and street rum, in hindsight it was probably our shared academic background in the social sciences that placed us on the same page when it came to understanding our city, and the possibilities for the club as the years went on.
While it’s taken a while to get to this point, this new chapter for The Observatory feels like a necessary and natural evolution. Dan and I both have backgrounds in studying and writing on issues ranging from politics to culture, economics and society. While I’ve been working as an editor and writer for a long time in parallel to my work with The Observatory, Dan has not, but will be making his return to the field in this series as Co-Editor-in-Chief with me. We will also periodically be inviting other writers who are engaged in our fields of interest to feature articles in this series.
| Agents of Change
When The Observatory first opened, there weren’t really any venues in the country dedicated to consistently playing the types of eclectic dance music we were providing. So, we were beginning with something of a blank slate when it came to establishing an identity – not just for the club, but for how we wanted people to perceive the music they heard there.
As The Observatory’s writer, I tried my best to provide highly descriptive texts for each event we were hosting. This involved listening to the mixes and productions of DJs that had been booked, and trying to create a glimpse of their sound and the atmosphere I imagined them bringing using words, which were also translated into Vietnamese.
Going back through some of the first texts reveals a blend of fresh excitement and what could perhaps be described as wide-eyed passion bordering on effusiveness. However, over the years, I like to think that the texts evolved according to my own expanding comprehension of what could be experienced at the club from an atmospheric and sonic standpoint, and my understanding of what our guests could and would expect when they got there. That approach would continue for seven years, essentially uninterrupted.
Beyond the aforementioned desire to re-engage with the intellectual pursuits The Observatory was originally intended to address, there are a number of other reasons for our new choice of communication medium:
The first is the COVID-19 crisis.
Compared to much of the rest of the world – large parts of which have spent most of the last year in lockdown – Vietnam has handled the pandemic well.
However, the country has achieved this at the expense of essentially closed borders, with entry permission restricted to Vietnamese citizens, residents and foreign experts, all with a mandatory 14-day quarantine. So, although we’ve been fortunate enough to remain open for much of the last 11 months, it’s been impossible to bring in any artists from abroad, as we had been doing regularly since we opened. As our access to international artists has been severed, we’ve had no choice but to make do with holding events featuring exclusively local lineups.
This change in circumstances has pushed us to seek out and work with many more local artists than we had previously. Doing so has opened our eyes to just how much talent there is in Vietnam, in a way and to a degree that we were simply not aware of before.
Vietnam now has a very strong and vibrant contingent of DJs playing a very wide and eclectic selection of music at a high level. Border closures have allowed these artists to carve a more prominent place for themselves on our and other clubs and parties’ lineups. Peak-hour sets in front of packed rooms – which were often monopolized by international guests – have been made more available to local DJs, who have taken the opportunity to really shine and show that they are capable of creating dance floor experiences at just as high a standard as highly-paid international headliners.
Also, the absence of short-term visitors to our city and the club has been a double-edged sword. On the downside, it has meant that we have been deprived of the constant stream of energy and inspiration that people from outside the country would bring to us, and from hearing new and exciting sounds played by artists from different scenes and persuasions.
However, the lack of inward flows of people means our events are often more intimate. Transience is very much the antithesis of community, and the border situation has compelled many of our guests to get to know each other and us at a deeper level.
Well, that’s what I’ve been told anyway. I left Vietnam in early 2019, and had planned to move back some time in 2020. As that became impossible, I’ve had to write each event text from far away, often for very similar lineups every month. This became progressively harder to do in any kind of exciting or original way – after a while, there’s only so much you can write about a DJ, let alone a DJ you’ve never heard before, often with a minimal online presence. So there’s the first reason for the move away from event texts.
The second reason is related to COVID-19, but also separate; it probably would have sparked a change at some point anyway, pandemic or not. This reason is also slightly more theoretical, but also functional.
Social media-based event promotion is essentially an advertising exercise that attempts to sell a product, and as with all advertisements, they are a largely unilateral intrusion into individuals’ consciousness for the purposes of changing it in some way, usually for profit. We want to move away from this form of one-way, unbalanced communication that principally serves the business model of immensely powerful social media companies, and in its place create something that is more discursive, independent and centred around a direct line of communication between us and the people interested in The Observatory.
While we have of course benefited from and used advertising to bring people to our events in the past, we feel that now is the time to reduce our reliance on it. We believe that we’ve reached a point where people in HCMC know about the club and what it offers, and we therefore don’t need to constantly bombard them with ads for each event. For those who don’t, we hope that they can find out about us in other ways.
Finally, as most of the world and many of our friends outside Vietnam are currently not able to attend parties, we’ve become conscious of how us posting links to events on social media every day might seem like an exercise in irrelevance. It is also monotonous, and we are not willing to indulge in the fantasy that anyone is really reading or cares about the text that is written for each event anymore. We want the content we produce to be relevant to people who can visit the club, as well as to those who cannot.
| The Future
Following from these ideas, we’ve decided to use our communication resources to develop content that people might actually want to consume.
The people behind The Observatory consider it something more than just a place to party (even though that is a very important part of it) and we want to be able to articulate what that may be. We do not expect everyone who has visited or plans to visit the club to want to read these articles, but for the ones who do, we hope it will be an experience that provides you with some kind of value, and allows us to build a stronger connection and community.
Below is a breakdown of our communication protocol going into the future:
- Each month, we’ll make one post to The Observatory’s social media pages (Facebook, Instagram) and stories that includes one unique design for our monthly program, info on the dates and lineups for each event, and a link to our website where we will publish the monthly article.
- On the day of each event, we’ll post a reminder to our social media stories with the lineup and timetable for the event. Other information on the music featured will also be posted on the stories.
- We will no longer be creating Facebook event pages for our events
This approach has been designed to reduce repetitive and irrelevant promotional noise from flooding social media feeds, and to focus on quality instead of quantity.
Ultimately, our goal is to use this opportunity to express and articulate ideas, experiences and views we believe are important within a range of different contexts and perspectives. This is in order to finally realize the primary mission of The Observatory, which is to provide something that is culturally richer, deeper and more diverse than simply partying. In the process, we hope to build a stronger and deeper network of people who value The Observatory, what it does and where it’s going.
This first article has been a presentation of our new approach and can be considered “Episode 0” in the series. Episode 1 will be more focused on a specific subject and will be released next month. As always, we thank everyone that has been a part of The Observatory, whether you have been visiting us since the beginning, just dropped by for a night, or following what we do from afar. We hope you’ll enjoy this next chapter and continue to play a role in what makes our club special to us.