A talk inspired by the Adata Island and the research done there last year by Alex Head
Alex Head was born in London, 1983, and currently works in the UK and Germany. He is an artist interested in creating non-hierarchical networks of artists, researchers and citizens. His practice facilitates meetings between artists and non-artists within the communities and micro-communities that populate the artist’s working environment. His work often involves people, discussion and the translation of bodies of research into public events and broadcast radio.
Last year Alex Head came to Plovdiv, investigating Adata, while preparing an artistic project reflecting its current status of existence. Here is an interview with him, as a kind of feedback of that experience.
Plovdiv 2019: Alex, last year summer /2015/ you have spent five weeks – as described by you – investigating, inhabiting and documenting the island wasteland Adata in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Please, share with us how this all started, and also, is it planned to continue somehow?
Alex Head: As part of my research for my Masters in Spatial Strategies at Weißensee Kunsthochschule, Berlin my visit to Bulgaria followed an invitation from the Foundation Plovdiv 2019, the committee established to apply for the European Capital of Culture, 2019.
As co-director of the Wasteland Twinning Network (WTN) I received an official invitation to participate in the bid for the Bulgarian City of Plovdiv to be awarded the title of European Capital of Culture, 2019. Wasteland Twinning Network hijacks the concept of ‘City Twinning’ and applies it to urban Wastelands in order to generate a network for parallel research and action.
I have every intention of continuing my work in Plovdiv over the next 18 months.
Plovdiv 2019: Did you have a programmed action plan when you first entered the island or you developed your project day by day along with your stay on Adata?
Alex Head: In planning and preparing for my time in Plovdiv I took the act of inhabitation as a means to explore different concepts in a non intellectual manner. However upon arriving it soon became clear that I would have to act out a kind of performative research, which is to say permanent adaption both mentally and physically. My assistant and photographer William Head accompanied me in the early stages. While Will was around we lived on the formally abandoned river island of Adata for approximately one week being, sure to stay within the parameters of the island under the legal control of the local state Municipality.
From this point onward I approached the island as a studio environment, making regular visits there while in the city to develop the following work. In addition a series of journal entries, photographs, drawings and sound recordings have been produced around my experiences on the river island of Adata.
Plovdiv 2019: Would you describe yourself as an artist dedicated in his work to projects focusing on social issues, or how would you prefer to be recognized?
Alex Head: I work with different bodies of knowledge, with researchers as well as artists and non-artists, so you could say that I see my work as paying homage to a set of politically engaged artists from Britain (and elsewhere) from the 1970’s until today. People like Stephen Willats. But ‘socially engaged practice’ has also come a long way since then too. In the end my work really becomes an expression of the ideas and observations of those with whom I work. In the past two years I have been focusing on labour, money and different forms of political agency. I love gambling (as art).
Plovdiv 2019: You said that you have experienced a dual attitude, while being on the island – one close to nature, and the other – of an urban guy who enjoys the night lights with a cocktail in hand. Do you foresee this combination as a proper and achievable for the island’s future?
Alex Head: During my time in the city I found numerous voices, claims and counter arguments as to the exact conditions that have led to the situation the Adata Island is now in: an essentially abandoned, untamed and sprawling urban forest.
To my knowledge the island has never been formally domesticated in total as a formal public park, but rather contained during the Soviet period by a peripheral concrete wall with the idea of public usage in mind. Bathers have been known to use the island over its recent (50 year) history though again, there are conflicting opinions as to how official this usage was and indeed whether bathers frequented the island at all. In this sense I think Adata is being caught again in a moment of flux and interest. Historically I felt the site to be a sleeping giant, an experience that was only made richer by the layered cultural bing pong of Plovdiv. Yes so this did give me a privileged position. Adata is a wonderfully welcoming place. I never felt the need to identify as either guest or visitor there.
The duality of man/nature is a binary construction for me, I was just trying to illustrate the historical layering of the overall city. I was rather prosaically faithful to the island while I was off of it… But to me it raises a broader question for the city as a whole; can Plovdiv survive the short term attentions of cultural tourists and make this whole process into something achievable for the long term?
Plovdiv 2019: And what is your brightest memory from Adata?
Alex Head: Oh man too many! It could be meeting the turtle or seeing the snakes and otters or any number of other encounters. Also just being alone (so far as one can be with a gps telephone in the pocket). I think that was the most isolated I have ever been and I was surprised to find it so congenial.
Because I was an outsider, because I can’t speak the cyrillic languages, my greatest anxiety was not knowing who was going to be there on Adata. Who had seen me, what I would do in a confrontation.
Plovdiv 2019: How will you define in brief the presence of the island in the city – as caught by you?
Alex Head: In my journal I wrote that “Like a broken tooth from the former city, still aching, still sore, the Adata has been discarded, thrown out into the Maritsa river…” and this is still how I feel about it now. But what these assertions need are new ways of qualifying them within the context of the city, and Bulgaria’s complex history. You could say that while most people who even think about Adata don’t perceive it as physically closed, it represents a space that is closed legally.
Plovdiv 2019: After having seen the island and experiencing a close contact with it, have somehow your idea about what could be done there changed, especially concerning the ECoC context? Is there something that culture could contribute as a means for transformation related to Adata?
Alex Head: I’m not sure if the original idea of transforming the Adata into a temporary eco-residency has been altered by my presence there. I wonder if Emil (Mirazchiev) sees it differently in so far as I understand him to be one of the founders of this idea. It would be interesting to know how it could survive our/the ECoC’s attention and remain ‘dynamic’.
In this sense, however, I would argue that the island has already begun many processes of transformation, only within us and (potentially) within a wider, international public. The excitement and imaginative transformation underway around the Adata but also around and within Plovdiv is a double edged blade.
In Berlin we are living with the daily decay of political agency and debate within the arts, rents spiralling out of control, privatised landscapes becoming enclosed left, right and centre. The ‘goose the laid the golden egg’ – which in your case could also be a metaphor for the Adata, has been sacrificed to the promised external investment.
Therefore whatever ‘transformations’ we become excited by would also benefit, in my opinion, from a textured and informed debate. Plovdiv ain’t Berlin and why on earth should it be?
Plovdiv 2019: What do you work on now?
Alex Head: I am currently working on a book called Here Comes Trouble. Its about art, magic and madness as forms of deviancy. But deviancy can only exist in relation to its opposite the social norm. So there are endless transitions historically between what is socially and legally acceptable or not. These transitional zones are key to me and to my work. Trouble… is being published by the Centre for Art and Urbanistics (ZK/U) in Berlin later this year. Aside from that I have some new radio works coming out on a couple of channels and my eyes are aways on the horizon.
The book Here Comes Trouble, which Alex mentions here has already been published and distributed in Berlin. The good news, confirmed recently, is that the book will be published in Bulgaria as well, by Janet 45 publishing house.
This week, on 27 August, the artistic piece Off the Record, whose author is Alex H
Illustration: Dredging device made from material found on site, Alex Head, 2012
You can see illustrations part of the Journal created by Alex Head during his stay on the island HERE.