First things first: what or where is Obonjan? Well, our resident geographer here at VICE happily informed us that, Obonjan (O-BON-YAN) is a 1.5 kilometer island just off the Dalmatian coast, penned in by dusty shores and coated with bristling pine and olive trees. It looks paradise grew on a rock. Despite having previous history with human contact, it's been uninhabited for the past 10 years — but that's about to change.
When the news broke a few months back that the organizers of Croatian megafestival Unknown had "bought an island" many people's thoughts probably went straight to one place. That place was probably, if you're anything like us, a really comfortable rock planted in a really blue part of the sea, that'd become a bacchanalian paradise, a hedonistic desert island that would play host to round the year parties. Only, with that promise, you can also hear the negative headlines. What you've got, effectively, is the collected stories of Brits abroad: water pollution, noise pollution, fish bowls, bad coke and empty bags of chips .
Refreshingly, when THUMP met with Dan Blackledge—one of the island's new adoptive parents—it became immediately clear that in this case the plan stretches way further than 2-4-1 shooters and kebab vans. In the slightly less idyllic environs of a freshly-rained upon Hackney we sat down to discuss the next steps for Obonjan and it's first summer.
Hi Dan, firstly congratulations. It must be pretty exciting to say you've got your own island.
Thanks! I think "having your own island" is probably a wish a lot of people had as a kid, but it's not something you imagine could be possible. Then I was taken to the island and just thought, "this is one of the coolest places I've ever seen." The guys who took us there had a view to do something else, but as soon as I saw it I had this concept in my mind of an all-encompassing island. They'd wanted to chop it up into different parties each weekend, but I wanted to create something that would exist all through the summer.
So this shouldn't be thought of as a party island?
When we first launched we didn't want to put out the full creative program because we didn't want people to think it's a festival—it's not. It's more about considered performances in a beautiful location, one-off performances.
On the Wednesday you might have a live act followed by a late night DJ set from somebody else, then on the Thursday there might be a live act and no late DJ set that night, but one the night after. So it's a nice, balanced program, it's not completely full on the entire time like a festival would be—5 stages, and after parties and such. There are elements of that, there's a late night rum bar, a small house and techno club in the forest, but there's a lot more variation in the program, people can have a big night, but they can also have a chilled one.
With that in mind, can people stay for longer than they would a festival?
People can stay for as long as they like, a few nights or a few weeks. We're encouraging people to book for at least a week so they can take in the full experience, hear some music, some talks, take advantage of the wellness aspects.
We've brought lots of people in to work with us, for example the Well Garden have worked with us on a lot of the wellness stuff, pulling in yoga teachers and helping us with meditations. Our background is in music so we are doing a lot of the booking, but we're also working with artists to make sure they are as involved in curation as possible.
Sure, but being cynical, there must still be the threat that a pristine piece of land is going to be damaged by the project?
Well, it's not a deserted island that's never been touched by man. It's got this great history and already had the infrastructure. From an environmental standpoint, I don't want to be hacking up and island. But the trees that are there are down to human intervention. The island had previously been used by the Scout Organization, it was called the Island of Youth, so there was an infrastructure already on there; a swimming pool, bungalows, a big restaurant. There's also the amphitheater which is perfect for music, and was built by the Scouts in the 1970s.
We also realised recently that the only reason the island is covered in pine trees is because the forestry commission planted them in the 1950s just after World War II. Because they are there by design and not accident, there are already paths and openings carved out between the trees.
What's your long-term plan for sustaining that environment?
We want it to have a positive effect socially, economically, and environmentally which is why we've gotten people on board to help us to that. Obviously coming from a festival and club background I've not got a lot of experience with sustainability, so instead we've enlisted the help of people who do know what they're talking about. We've got some of the original creators of the Eden project involved. Brian Spooner, who is part of Eden Lab, is on board as our strategic development manager. Basically we've said, this is the plan and he's working out how we can make sure it's having a positive impact. We're doing biodiversity studies at the moment, so that we can actually collect data on what effect the island is having over five years, then ten years and so on.
When you are gifted an opportunity like this—we've got the island for 44 years—you want to hand something back that has had a positive effect. The only way to do that is to make it sustainable.
Considering your background in festivals, it's almost surprising there is such investment in wellness and yoga.
We'd like to think of ourselves as an addition to the Croatian festival scene. I think after people go to a festival they feel pretty knackered, so this gives them the opportunity to come to island for four days afterwards before going back to England, so they're not just shaking in Split airport. We think it will enhance the festival scene as well as offering an alternative to it.
Do you think it's possible the island could restore some of the ideals places like Ibiza have lost? Perhaps communing with the beauty of the place rather than just getting fucked.
Exactly, it's being in the place and taking it in. Looking at pictures is one thing—you can get an idea of it—but it's nothing that compares to seeing it. Whenever people first visit the island they are absolutely stunned.
If Croatia's status as "the new Ibiza"—a tag that has most definitely been attached to it across the past few years—is going to mean anything, then we need to learn some lessons from the first time around. While our rose-tinted version of the white isle might be one of a Balearic paradise, the fact is, the effects of tourism have created a lot of damage both socially, culturally, and environmentally—as you'd reasonably expect from a tourist destination born from the impromptu dreams of disc-jockeys. While aspects of Obonjan might come off slightly more white lotus than white isle, the team behind it have had the foresight to see invest in the environment as much as the lineups. With that behind them, hopefully the island will be a destination people want to visit for a long time to come.