There is just one moment of stillness in Marco Federici's superb new film Rico: The Richard Demarco Story
. It is a lingering shot of Rico
taken on one of Demarco's boat trips in the 1970s, one of his Edinburgh Arts journeys. It shows a typically effervescent Demarco, arms aloft, clearly overjoyed to be leading a band of fellow-minded artists to new places and settings. The rest of the time, Demarco is in motion; scuttling down dimly lit corridors, striding through galleries, traversing remote moorlands and exploring unusual art spaces.
The product of over a decade's work, this film provides a coherent summation of Demarco's ongoing artistic project. The fate of Demarco's massive artistic archive is at its core, with footage and photos from that archive used throughout. The narrative is driven by snatches of conversation with various interlocutors, with actor Brian Cox the main dialogist. The relative absence of static, deadening talking heads gives the film momentum, reflecting the urgent entrepreneurial energy of the protagonist. Demarco and Cox 'go back a long way' and their discussion brings out how Demarco's early experiences among Edinburgh's Italian community shaped his worldview. He was deeply affected by the anti-Italian feeling at the start of WWII.
Demarco has always felt like an outsider. It has made him inherently sympathetic to marginal people and artists. Further, the divisive nationalism of the 1930s and 1940s formed in Demarco a disgust for such thinking. Art gave him a tool for promoting a very different perspective, focussing on the fundamental commonalities between people across borders. Demarco is keen to resist the very idea of a separate and distinct 'Scottish art'. Though towards its Western, Celtic margins, he sees art in Scotland deeply embedded in European art. The arts in Scotland tend to be, Demarco believes, somewhat parochial in character and insufficiently outward-looking. It is a deeply European vision that lies at the heart of this film. In short, Demarco embodies great breadth of experience, chronologically and geographically.
The artist as explorer
The film portrays Demarco's life as a constant journey, driven by a craving to discover and share great art, especially that on the boundaries of acceptability. The 'marginal' figures he championed, such as Joseph Beuys, are now acclaimed and considered ahead of their time.
At all times the film whirls, with water as something of a metaphor for the flow of ideas, art and people which have been Demarco's life. The opening shots are of Portobello Beach, where Demarco spent much of his childhood. Demarco is later filmed finishing a watercolour of the Crinan Canal, a key connecting point in Scotland. The painting was part of a project to 'bring the spirit of the Venice Biennale to Edinburgh'. Demarco's life has been about making these connections. There is a sense of him being on an unending artistic voyage, with Demarco the old captain of the ship recounting tales of great adventures and warning of hidden dangers lurking in the deep.
The moving penultimate scene takes place at the Venice Biennale in 2019, where Demarco and his team exhibited selections from his archive. Demarco, his voice cracking with emotion, leads a group in a shaky but deeply affecting rendition of Auld Lang Syne
. The 'old times' being commemorated are Demarco's hope for a Europe brought together by culture. There is an elegiac quality to the film; a sense of a dream under threat from various forces, political and commercial. In particular, rising nationalism typified by Brexit, which deeply saddened Demarco. Nationalist populism is also prominent in many of the countries collaborated in, notably Hungary and Poland.
As well as providing a metaphor, water also poses a perpetual physical threat to his archive, a large portion of which is currently housed at Summerhall in Edinburgh. In one of the most moving parts of the film, Demarco assesses the damage done by a 'disaster' of a flood at Summerhall in 2019. Thousands of photos and video tapes were damaged, many beyond repair. It makes him fearful about the long-term survival of his archive. The pain of seeing part of his life's work destroyed comes through the screen: 'what would happen if I weren't here... who's going to bother!?' he asks, somewhat rhetorically, in anguish. At times like this, Demarco feels that 'a life's work' is 'in danger'.
The whole aim of the film is to explore this by promoting interest in the archive, attracting funding and building a team of sufficient size and ability to continue the project. The film will hopefully play a significant role in doing so. The film has made the 'Official Selection' at the Toronto and Munich Film Festivals. Talks are, according to Federici, 'ongoing', with various broadcasters and streaming companies to get the film to a wide audience.
The Festival fluke
This idea of an intertwined European culture is what lies behind Demarco's celebration of the Edinburgh Festival, which he considers 'the world's greatest festival of the arts'. Its original 'vision' sought to 'overcome the darkness and bring light to a (divided) post-war world'. Demarco was, as a 17-year old, involved in the very first festival – and every subsequent one. A unique record. Demarco was to become one of the key figures in the Edinburgh Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe.
When Demarco was given the job of running the festival in 1967, it cost seven million pounds to fund it. This money didn't come from within Scotland (public or private sectors) but from ministries of culture across Europe. The theme, again, of the Edinburgh Festival as a European cultural event, not just Scotland's.
In recent decades he has become alienated from the Festival and what he sees as the arts establishment. Demarco sees the contemporary Fringe as a pale 'commodified' imitation of a true arts festival, dominated by stand-up comedy and run by those with 'no historical memory'. He quotes with wry amusement the idea, expressed in 1947, that the Festival should not be 'a commercial enterprise'. Art 'should not be aligned with tourism and market forces'. In short, because of the nakedly commercial character of the contemporary Fringe, Edinburgh is in danger of squandering the position in the world of art it somewhat flukily achieved.
Despite his concerns about the contemporary Festival, he retains a deep and enduring love for Edinburgh. A lovely section of the film sees him exploring Dean Gardens and the beautiful stretch of the Water of Leith near St Bernard's Well. There are continuities with Demarco's zestful exploration of Dean Village and Cramond in the 1970 film Walkabout Edinburgh.
Demarco seems to come alive when water is near. In Dean Gardens, he talks of Edinburgh as itself a work of art; beautiful enough to inspire any artist or writer. Despite this, Demarco believes, the city's culture remained dormant from the Enlightenment, until 'the pure miracle' of the Festival provided the city a great opportunity for a cultural reawakening. Edinburgh cultural institutions were not initially sympathetic. Edinburgh was, at the time, a 'stuffy place of lawyers and bankers' and dominated by its private schools.
Scotland would be 'intolerable' in cultural terms, suggests Demarco, 'if it wasn't for the miracle of the Edinburgh Festival'. Before the Festival arrived, 'Edinburgh was not a nodal point in world culture'. Again, Demarco emphasises the importance of outsiders. Key figures in the development of the Traverse Theatre and the Fringe, such as his friend Jim Haynes, were not from Edinburgh. The Fringe was generally run by outsiders, not by Scots: 'the Traverse was not created by Scotland'.
Edinburgh was, as a 'universal space', a place to achieve cultural connection. Though on the fringe of Europe (and containing some of the great wildernesses of Europe), Scotland was uniquely placed. Art was about bringing people together and promoting cultural dialogues. Art as a unifying force but not in some cuddly, comfortable way. Most of the art he has championed has been 'difficult'. It's not art which provides simple answers but provokes a questioning and explorative frame of mind.
The largest prison in the world
Federici's film wisely eschews a comprehensive approach, realising it would be folly to try and capture all the artistic endeavours Demarco has been involved in. Foregrounded in the film are Demarco's deep connections with avant-garde artists in Eastern Europe. Time and again, Demarco talks of the pain of Europe's division during the 20th century, of 120 million Europeans trapped behind the Iron Curtain. There was a 'huge scar across the continent', exemplified by the then divided Germany. Those behind the Iron Curtain were, as Demarco puts it, in 'the largest prison in the world'.
Demarco relates that very few in the art world were prepared to try and connect to those in the East. He himself took around 60 trips to Eastern Europe in that period, making connections with many artists marginalised by the official state cultural institutions. His collaborations with Tadeusz Kantor (Poland) and Paul Neagu (Romania) are prominent in his film.
Demarco's conception of art is all about creating bonds and connections between countries and also within them – again the idea of cultural flow. This inclusive conception is exemplified by the Craigmillar Festival, set up in one of the areas of greatest social and economic deprivation in the UK. Art must not be, emphasises Demarco, for a social elite only. Art should be at the margins and beyond the mainstream.
This attitude has, famously, led to him clashing with the arts and political establishment. The most notable example, covered in some detail in the film, being Demarco's and Joseph Beuys' involvement with Jimmy Boyle and others at the Special Unit at Barlinnie Prison. Demarco's sense of being an outsider was accentuated by this controversy – but also the sense that he enjoys being on the edge.
A bloody archive
The film makes great use of images and footage from Demarco's archive. The grainy footage of Beuys and Demarco on Rannoch Moor in the 1970s is one of the most evocative parts of the film. Demarco constantly emphasises that while he may have been the directing voice of the archive, the archive is not primarily about him – it's about all the artists he has worked with and brought to the fore.
We could draw a contrast with Muriel Spark's vast archive, the creation of which was primarily motivated by her desire to get 'the facts' of her life straight. It was her archive and no-one else's. Though it's also a valuable cultural resource, it's of a totally different character to Demarco's. Demarco may have orchestrated it but it is fundamentally 'a record of collaboration', a 'unique manifestation' or, to use the German term regularly employed by Demarco, a gesamtkunstwerk
– a total work of art. Indeed, he even rejects the very idea of an archive: 'my archive is not an archive but a homage to the Edinburgh Festival and a tribute to those I've worked with – many no longer with us'. He wanted it to 'question to its very depth the idea of an archive'. He does not want it to be a dead collection of yellowing documents, photos and drawings. It must be living and breathing. 'I've not spent the whole of my life creating a bloody archive – a collection of boxes.'
Art is long, life is short
What really concerns Demarco is the amount that still needs to be done with his archive project: 'I've hardly begun – I'm still in the foothills'. Though plans exist for a building to house the archive in Granton, 'the ground has yet to be broken', it will take at least five years. He admits he cannot, in his 92nd year, have a five-year plan. The project 'desperately needs help', especially as he becomes aware of the 'the terrifying difference between being 80 and 90'; losing physical strength and finding his memory less reliable.
It's a cliché to talk of Demarco's undimmed spirit as it often means his insight and farsightedness is overlooked. In short, his ability to see inherent genius in work generally misunderstood. That he has inspired Federici to make such a fine film is evidence of his continuing ability to spur on others. It accords with Demarco's desire for all that he is involved in to be a work of art, as does the recently published volume of essays, Demarco 2020
, edited by Arthur Watson.
It was fitting that the premiere took place in the Cameo, Demarco's 'favourite cinema in the whole world'. Here, as a young man, he was 'educated' about the medium of film through classics such as Fantasia
and Bergman's The Seventh Seal
. Demarco regretted that the film medium was not properly understood and 'should be taken more seriously'. For Demarco, 'a film is just as important as a picture or sculpture'. Hence, he wanted this film to be a piece of art itself – something it clearly achieves. Indeed, for many of those in attendance, it was their first time in a cinema for 18 months or more. The immersive character of the experience gave the audience the chance to really absorb the film rather than merely view it.
Several days later, the images of the film have stayed with me – and the questions it poses. This accords with Demraco's conception that a piece of art is a success if it means we are 'always asking questions'.
Though the film ends with uncertainty, Demarco holds that 'that which contains darkness also contains the prospect of light'. The Edinburgh Festival was created in a time of general scarcity and political turmoil. Because of this, Demarco retains a faith that art will endure through uncertain times.
Further information about the Demarco Archive is available at www.demarcoarchive.com
Quotations come from Rico, and from Marco Federici's and Richard Demarco's comments in the Q&A session after the screening (16 September 2021), and from a discussion with Richard Demarco and Tamara Alferoff, at Summerhall on 29 July 2020.
Charlie Ellis is a researcher and EFL teacher, based in Edinburgh