Cultural Currency is Worth More Than Money
Updated: Apr 28, 2021
Jon Vu-Yen Nguyen is an active force in Trondheim’s cultural milieu. He was the festival manager of Bakkefestivalen and now actively works as Head of Communication for both Pstereo and Byscenen. He was the project manager for Underbakke, which was one of the first online festivals in response to the pandemic in Trondheim. Nguyen graciously met up with The List to discuss how the pandemic has affected festivals, as well as the whole cultural sector in Trondheim, and what it means for the future of the city.
The List: How has the festival sphere changed since the pandemic hit?
Nguyen: ‘Change’ is an understatement. Everything disappeared. It went from gathering people, one of the best parts of society, to damage control and isolation. That’s the worst part, people being isolated. For someone who makes a living out of gathering people to see people sitting alone trying to survive, and meanwhile we are just doing damage control, that’s one hell of a shift. That’s not a change; it rips your heart out. All that experience, the people who are the best in their speciality in the culture sector, all that is fading away because people have to find other work to pay their bills. This also means more work for the people left to do the jobs that are still available. Everyone is losing economically. It isn’t sustainable in the long run.
The List: How did the online festival Underbakke develop as an idea?
Nguyen: I was temporarily laid off in March and I had a lot of free time. I had this fear, like in a disaster movie when everything is falling all around but the protagonist just has to keep moving forward. So, I decided to do something! People started doing online concerts and I thought that was fun. I talked to a friend who does audiovisual work who was interested and already thinking about it. I talked to Ida Vie, the owner of Tyven, and she said yes immediately because she had to temporarily close down. So, suddenly we were three people trying to figure it all out really fast. We borrowed equipment. I used my festival experience to write applications for funding. All of these music artists had to stay in Trondheim instead of touring, it was a good opportunity for all of us. Lockdown was announced March 12th and our first concert was March 26th. We became this technical producer unit, bands would come in and do their thing.
The List: How was the festival received?
Nguyen: We didn’t earn any money on this. The whole point of the project was to fill the days with something meaningful that could bring in some income to those involved: the stage, the bands, freelancers. We had close to ten freelancers working a total of nineteen gigs. There were no tickets, it was supposed to be easy to watch and people could pay through Vipps, which a lot of people did. But I would never do it again. I would never volunteer to participate to normalise these kinds of events. It isn’t a concert, it is a live music video, it is controlled. There is no spontaneity, the best parts are those moments you can’t control. It happened because it was at the start of something scary and it was good, it was inspiring for all of us. It helped people without income for several months.
The List: If someone did want to run a festival or event during the pandemic, what are your recommendations? How do you make it sustainable?
Nguyen: You should use the specialties of the medium to do something different. Stream a stripped down concert from a hot weather balloon. You have to use the medium to do something unique, not to replace a different kind of experience. There are different types of surprise elements you can use. Tease the press. Be inventive, and innovative. Make people curious and show off later. In general, for stuff in culture, it is challenging to make it sustainable. To make something like that profitable, I would work hard on your identity as a storyteller, as the people behind the event - who is it for? We made up a target audience person for Bakkefestivalen, we chose an androgynous name, Kim. What is Kim interested in? Nothing is harder to follow than something that you clearly see as not having an identity. Find your audience.
The List: How do you think the pandemic will change Trondheim’s cultural landscape?
Nguyen: We are losing people and institutions. The longer it lasts, the scarier it is for people who work in art and culture. We don’t want people to stay home and be afraid of meeting other people, especially in Norway where it is easy to be safe in your own home away from the unknown. If I’m going to be optimistic, I think people will want to go out and experience culture even more after this. I hope there will be discussions afterwards that we can’t continue living like this. It has to be easier to get grants, to make art accessible for people. Culture has to be more important. There isn’t enough money. Cultural currency is worth more than money, but I fear that people in positions of power will not do anything differently.
The List: What do you hope the people in Trondheim will do once the pandemic is over?
Nguyen: I hope people will take advantage of everything the local culture has to offer. Broaden your mind, spend more time socialising at your local bar, theatre, club, stage, galleries, restaurants. Appreciate the richness around you. Participate more, be more curious and challenge yourself more. Because what we're seeing right now, and behind the scenes too - all the amazing cultural institutions we have right now might actually disappear - or worst case, are already gone.