A city with as much history as Edinburgh is entitled to hold a few secrets; it is still a surprise, however, to come across a place that has stood for 300 years, but that not one, but two Edinburgh cabbies never knew existed. Craigcrook Castle, which in its heyday counted Walter Scott, Charles Dickens, Hans Christian Andersen, George Eliot and Alfred Tennyson amongst its visitors, now lies empty; an adjoining 20th-century annexe, however, discreetly houses the archive of Richard Demarco. Him, the cabbies do know – the Italo-Scottish artist has been a constant presence in Scotland’s creative scene since he saw his first ever Edinburgh International Performance, aged 16. He hasn’t missed the festival event since.
The Demarco European Art Foundation’s Craigcrook space houses thousands of items; three full-time archivists and several art student assistants are at work, cataloguing and organising the stuff of a life-long career: every piece of work and correspondence that has come into Demarco’s possession. Boxes fill one half of the cafeteria-sized room; more boxes, lined up neatly in order by year in the other half. Posters, paintings, photographs and books fill several smaller adjoining rooms – and still, Demarco is uncovering and adding more. In his characteristic meandering, irrepressible style, the artist – 82 years old in July – gives a tour of the space and its contents, never lacking for a detail to offer about a piece, whether a brand new artwork on Italian emigration in the euro crisis, photographs from protests around the 2005 Gleneagles G8 summit, or a sketch of the Canongate drawn by Demarco himself as an art student a half-century ago. An audience with Demarco is to be enveloped by memory; his collaborator, friend and companion, German artist-philosopher, Joseph Beuys, features often.
He worries for the future of the castle proper, which has been unoccupied for several years, and has previously sought financial support to bring it back into use. Whether Craigcrook is given new life or not, it will, regardless, join the list of artistic institutions in Scotland’s capital that, whether today’s patrons recognise it or not, owe their status in whole or part to Demarco – the Traverse Theatre, the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fruitmarket Gallery, and the Demarco Art Gallery. Summerhall, a 19thcentury building in south Edinburgh that until recently hosted the University of Edinburgh’s veterinary school, will also soon be added to that list. Acquired by private investors, part of the building will be turned into the Demarco Archive Trust’s new home.
In keeping with the internationalism that has defined his career, the ambition is for the archive – already part digitised by the University of Dundee – to form the basis of a pan- European research tool for art students across the continent. “Why didn’t I enjoy myself by opening a gallery and selling art? Because that has never been my intention,” Demarco says.
“Why did I open the Traverse? What was the intention of the Traverse? Because I could see that the world was changing in the 50s and the 60s, and the Festival came and it left Edinburgh without any visible sign that it had ever been for the remaining 49 weeks of the year. The Traverse was founded on the basis that it would create the international spirit of creativity that the Festival represented.” Despite his excoriating dismissals of the very concepts of career, money or status, Demarco is nonetheless still keen to engage with the political sphere. The message he wants to bring to Holyrood through his Festival of Politics appearances is that politicians shouldn’t just try to get closer to the electorate by appearing ‘normal’ – they should also strive to be creative.
Any person with power who doesn’t in some way cultivate a sense of creativity is “dangerous”.
With Scottish political debate dominated by the independence referendum that will take place in 2014, Demarco also has an interest in how Scotland’s identity politics could unfold over the next two years of campaigning. The son of immigrants from the southern Italian village of Barga – a place recalled in several artworks and books on display in the archive – his own memory again holds a warning about the consequences of too narrow a conception of Scottishness. “Being an Italo-Scot in 1930 was OK, but you were defined as a shopkeeper – a seller of ice cream and fish and chips, in the main,” Demarco remembers. Italian businesses could be found at the heart of most Scottish communities, “in Auchtermuchty or Inverness or Stornoway,” where “people came in to drink decent coffee, and feel they had entered into an Aladdin’s cave” of foreign produce.
Rather than realising that “this was like a gift to Scotland,” however, Italians remained at a sufficient social distance from the communities they were part of that when the Second World War began, such fear overtook neighbourliness.
“We didn’t understand Italy enough. We didn’t understand what it meant to be Scottish, so we regarded all these innocent people – grandfathers, fathers, uncles, young men, some as young as 16 – as a threat. But they weren’t a threat.” That included Demarco and his family, who were amongst the thousands of Italians and Italo-Britons interned. There’s a connection to be made, he suggests, between the insensitivity of Churchill’s calls to “collar” the UK’s Italians, and the deaths of over 800 people, mainly Italian internees being transported to Canada, when the Arandora Star was sunk by a German U-boat in 1940. “If we’d understood who these Italians were, many of them British citizens born and bred, we wouldn’t have done that to them. We would have understood that they were welcome.” Demarco contrasts that dereliction of compassion with the spirit of the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947, co-organised by the Austrian Rudolf Bing, which saw the Vienna Symphony Orchestra performing the music of the great German composers just two years after the end of the war.
Demarco is no stranger to political acts of compassion; he famously had his funding cut by the Scottish Arts Council for supporting Beuys’ hunger strike on behalf of gangland murderer Jimmy Boyle. Boyle’s story encapsulates Demarco’s view of creativity as something akin to a human right, with a power to improve lives. Boyle had been placed, along with six other violent offenders, in a liberal experimental ‘special unit’ within Barlinne prison; on day release, he happened across a photo exhibition from Beuys’ I Like America and America Likes Me, in which the artist had locked himself in a cage with a coyote for a week, protecting himself with a felt cover. It inspired him to take up writing and sculpture, which he later pursued after his release. “I say now that if we can prove that these guys are creative, potentially artists, then we will have proved that art is a great force that can change society for the better.” When in 1980 Boyle was threatened with removal to a traditional prison with no chance for such a creative outlet, Beuys – who had begun corresponding with Boyle – began a hunger strike. “With the help of Joseph Beuys, I questioned our penal system, what we do with that vast number of people – ever-growing, everburdening – who are in prison, because it costs us a lot of money. Do we have a means of bringing them back into society, now that we no longer have a death penalty so we can just get rid of them, and how do you make them creative?” Demarco says the fact that Boyle and other former special unit inmates continued their craft after release proves the initiative worked.
“Their lives, and the quality of life of the people guarding them was changed through the language of art.” Demarco later worked with other prison inmates in the USA, including some on death row at the infamous San Quentin State Prison in California. “They formed a theatre company, and I was fascinated; they performed the play Waiting for Godot and everyone in that prison knew the meaning of that play. Maybe people outside of prison can’t understand it, but they understood it.”