15 Jul 2018 | Alex Head - Adata Island, Bulgaria

Evaluation: ADATA AiR Residency, Plovdiv European Capital of Culture 2019 (ECOC 2019)

To contextualise my time in Plovdiv in 2018 I will refer to a statement I made after my first impressions in 2015 having occupied the Adata and set up a studio with my assistant William Head:

Alex Head Ryanair of the Art World - on: www.wasteland-twinning.net

Ryanair will typically pioneer flight connections in low cost areas before more expensive franchises move in to formalise the market. In this sense the 'pioneering' aspect of occupying Adata is never far from my attitude towards the projects life and documentation. Is this about provocation or response? If we are participating in the former how would/could our presence and it's documentation - indeed this piece of writing - be employed or used by others to create affect for the island? How could this project be used to create an image of avant guard artistic intervention with the accompanying socio-cultural capital in tow? What is at stake here for the city? In response to the idea of Adata becoming a space of "Unlimited Creativity" we arrive at our destination 4 years early. However if we recognise the previous event of the city being awarded the ECOC in 1999, we're 15 years too late.

A brief update. Herewith follow a series of statements collected and anonymised from different players in the overall life and labour of the city of Plovdiv on a wide variety of subjects in the last year. What can be done with this tiny cross section of opinions? Where does the privileged outsider enter into the scene and in what capacities?

The activist: ‘Millions of Bulgarian Lev have been embezzled at the expense of all of the flagship projects within the original bid for the European Capital…’

The curator: ‘Everyone has these big ideas nowadays, challenging the government’s cultural department, challenging their programme, i’m just trying to do my thing, at my scale and make it as prevalent and relevant as possible.’

The wildlife conservationist: ‘Bulgaria is currently violating the European treaty of wildlife preservation by not declaring the Adata island and many others as nature reserves.’

The taxi driver: They are the same people in power now as they were during Socialism,… all the real power remains in the hands of a small group of men…’

The cultural worker: ‘The Adata is just a metaphor, a metaphor for the cultural condition of Bulgaria more widely at the present time.’

During the 8 week residency this year (2018), I was frequently asked a set of questions by other residents who had recently arrived in Plovdiv, often for the first time. In order to illustrate the way I perceive the position of an artist or researcher under the employ of ECOC 2019 I would then try to figuratively draw a naive diagram of power. When I later referred back to the work of Change Media (featured below) I realised how necessary such diagrammatic thinking can be in attempting to carve out a position. 

As stated above I arrived in Plovdiv for the first time in 2015 having prepared an extended 5 week excursion onto the Adata island funded by the DAAD. (God only knows what the DAAD thought they were funding, as there was and remains to this day not a single structure in the island within which to do a residency. Needless to say that was the point. I am glad to report that no current plan exists to develop the island in July 2018, either.)

My first stay gave me a kind of strategic advantage in relationship to the other residents and my guest team on sub_?x?? radio this year. The fruits of which I have repeatedly attempted to share on WTN and other platforms.

This evaluation then is aimed at those still working on the Adata residency until November 2018 and the ECOC 2019 itself.

From where I am standing the ECOC 2019 in Plovdiv represents a huge challenge. The task of somehow bridging the cultural and socio-political spaces of 24+ international artists (with their own attendant value systems and those of the contemporary art world), with a small city such as Plovdiv is in it’s own way heroic. It necessarily comes with a whole raft of contradictions, miscommunications and complex mixes of expectations.

Outside the tiny bubble of our residencies life goes on; artists and researchers engage in harmful short term projects with the ghettoised Roma (themselves a highly complex amalgam of Turkish, Roma and other ethnic distinctions), gentrification sweeps through Kapana district while aspects of the Bulgarian press edit the news from outside the country to create specific narratives and keep people disengaged. One researcher cited an example where the two areas mentioned directly above were deliberately confused in the translation of an article from German to Bulgarian. Here the ghetto became the hipster village and vice versa. 

Again this is not to negate the work of ECOC 2019 or the many great artists and researchers I have met over the past years within the Plovdiv arena. But it is always the people themselves, in their own dialect that present the most striking, if sometimes biased images of how social life unfolds.

One could say that an absence of ready translators creates further distance between residents and their socio-political environment where recourse to other Slavic or Cyrillic based languages is not possible.*

For the ideas outlined here and many others to do with the invasiveness of photography and image creation my work since 2013 has followed the line of audio capture and radio broadcast. As I have largely taken over the steering of the WTN project producing a radio series is the logical outcome of the long term research into the Adata island. Audio has been employed by multiple ‘explorers’ or researchers on WTN in the past and will surely be made use of in the future due to it’s specific qualities as an instrument of social and aesthetic exploration.

For the official Adata residency, i.e ADATA AiR, I have had the pleasure of producing and delivering 7 radio shows working with 5 invited guests and members of the ADATA AiR residency outside of my own team.

sub_?x?? ADATA AiR series can be heard in full here: http://alexhead.com/selected-works/adata-air/

More widely I want to try and redress some of the questions posed in 2015 around agency and the instrumentalisation of artists in power structures often much larger in scale than their own interests and a realistic comprehension of a given situation.

So, power, how can it be negated and if so where. And should one even begin to address power as an outsider? 

In this section I am drawing upon the What Privilege? Cards by Change Media, recently completed from the earlier Typology of Harm cards that I encountered in Melbourne at Footscray Art Centre in 2013. I would like to thank Change Media for giving us permission to site and include their work in this evaluation.

The What Privilege? cards are a cutting, enjoyably radical set of roles and behaviours attributed to the various players or types recognised by Change Media and their network or partners working within community or social art praxis.

My privileges as an educated, white British male are clear. But Change Media also want to draw attention to more the subtle areas and consequences of privilege:

A opening line from their website states:

It’s easy to see other people’s privilege, but if we are creating change together, we need to discover how many oppressive social rules we internalise to participate in our democratic culture.

Here are more of the cards. Can you spot familiarities with regards to your own situation?:




The What Privilege? cards are organised into gangs, here are more words from Change Media about how they organised this huge set:

We identified ten gangs that exhibit a particular style of power from dominating 'leaders' to 'enforcers' to 'helpers' maintaining the status quo.

The 10 Gangs helped us clarify individual behaviours, but they are not prescriptive, as privilege and power are opportunistic, competitive and highly adaptable.

Like bullying in our societies, these violent behaviours are interconnected, and can super-charge an individuals power. Competitors can use the gangs to recognize roles that might serve their agenda, especially useful when forming lobby groups.

I have deliberately chosen some of the cards that fit my profile the most, but I would also be interested to know if any of these roles feel familiar to practitioners during the ECOC 2019 and elsewhere. Some of these roles clearly occupy positions within my own diagram, above. The full set is available to view, have and hold, here: https://whatprivilege.net/cards/

This has been quite a journey. From the abandoned ice factory in 2013 Berlin where Stefka helped me to interview migrants from Bulgaria (likely with Roma backgrounds though I didn’t realise it at the time), all the way to Stolipinovo, 2018, in Plovdiv where such typically cheap labour is recruited.

But what is to be done? What not? At this point in time I cannot see how the initiatives that work in Stolipinovo, which is Bulgaria and Europe’s largest and poorest and least represented district, are aided by the ECOC 2019. To help explain the scenario somewhat documentary work from Andreas Kunz and Studio West can be witnessed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLYc07GQB4I

Partially due to a lack of organisation but mostly because of the implicit tourism of creating culture for ECOC in 2019, while the funding year lasts, engaging in the Stolipinovo environment only as the opportunity arrises seems somehow bogus given the resources available and the time and energy required.

On Adata I have met snakes, moles, otters, tortoise, eagles, woodpeckers, any number of other birds, thousands of butterflies and fireflies, dogs, cats, frogs and humans. If I was looking for space I discovered that it is by definition complex. No Eldorado exists, the ground we walk on is mud. 

At certain points in ones practice, one must either look the other way or face the realities of what art can and cannot achieve. My initial question on Adata was about the conditions of knowledge production. What was necessary to create new knowledge? In this sense I have learnt a great deal. To realise meaningful social praxis with a legacy planned from the very beginning is a truly wonderful goal. It may take a person greater than myself to achieve it in this context.

It no longer seems necessary to inhabit the Adata as a working environment for myself, after all the river has lead me downstream.   

I sincerely hope the ideas laid out here may be of some use to practitioners in the field during Plovdiv 2019. 

Finally I would like to thank Emil Mirazchiev, Stefka Staneva, Genika Bacheva, Andreas Kunz, Zornitsa Stoilova, Vanya Grozdanova, Sybella Perry, Markus Stein, Gabriel Birch, Anna Kostreva, Nathan Gray, Martin Zaicek, Sophie Innmann, Stephan Wäldele, Change Media, Frederick Sugden and the 199 Radio posse in London. Thanks also to Nabil Sami without whom non of the artwork for sub_?x?? radio would be possible.

* To this end I would like to offer anyone interested a series of interviews conducted by myself and Zornitsa Stoilova in the streets of Plovdiv around the theme of ‘neighbourliness’ in autumn 2017. For reasons of resources neither I nor WTN are in a position to make use of these interviews (which unfold in Bulgarian and English thanks to Zornitsa) at this time.

Contact us at the usual WTN email address if you can use this research!

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