I have dabbled in the arts all my life: danced ballet from toddler to teen; took up the cello around the time my Hogwarts letter got lost in the mail; studio art was always my favorite elective in grade school. Still, these various pursuits hovered around the hobby level for me, never quite progressing into a life’s passion. Regrettably, they have dropped away like other pastimes: relic slippers and cello case collect dust, glazed-clay projects molder on a shelf in my childhood home.
But I didn’t wander (totally) aimlessly through college. I followed a passion for language through an undergraduate degree in Russian, and found a burgeoning one in archival science. With a work study-turned-career path in archives, not to mention the first half of an MLS degree, I have a pretty clear notion at least of where I want to go in the near future.
It is thus that in my life, until this summer, art and archives have been like two separate groups of friends, ones from disparate phases of life which you find difficult to imagine sitting down together for drinks. (And when this does happen – speaking from experience – it really can be a bit like worlds colliding, at first.) However, I am pleased to say that I’ve found the awkwardness of a compartmentalized life collapsing on itself absent from the past two weeks of abounding art- and archive-related phenomena. In fact, I have relished the union of the two in my consciousness.
An archivist might metaphorically think of her dealings with records as a kind of communication: the record speaks to me; I learn about its history, and the history of the time whence it has come; records are messengers, reminding us of humble beginnings and forgotten details. But for two actors to perform the records – this takes the history lesson to a whole new level.
Demarco’s gallery at Summerhall. The soil on the floor featured in the performance.
I hadn’t heard of Richard Demarco until about a week ago, when most of our group attended a special performance involving his collections at Summerhall in Edinburgh. Demarco’s Travels was not merely an art gallery exhibiting pieces from the archive of a prolific artist. It was a space embodying the spirit of the Richard Demarco Gallery, which in its 26-year life doubled as a performance venue during the Fringe. Performers Louise and Jodean, alongside narrator Noel Witts, of PALM presented a selection from Demarco’s archives in the most brilliantly authentic manner: they took the audience on a journey which transcended time or space with a live, physical interpretation of his records.
My experience with archives before this summer has been relatively limited – working in climate-controlled spaces, methodically processing records, ensuring certain standards are realized in order to protect the records of the federal government. I have learned that different care is required with photographs than with textual records, and different still with sound recordings; not all records are created equal. At the Fringe, at Demarco’s archives, I have now seen that art, and performance in particular, require a different care to sustain life. Sure, with a dry place to rest and a modicum of attention paid, Demarco’s collection will probably survive. Perhaps it will find a more permanent home, its future will become a surer thing, and the inquiring generations to come will have them to explore. But where it concerns the wider picture, the provenance of each drawing, each poster, each note in Demarco’s own hand – these become invaluably enhanced when viewed through the lens of performance art.
After a brief introduction by Noel about Richard Demarco and his history, he led us upstairs to where the “show” would begin. We were met by Jodean and Louise, two ladies skilled in dramatic speech and vision, and who led us on a most peculiar journey through several selections from the archive. Our group of about 10 people moved with them as they moved through the space of the stairwell, the gallery and a hallway. They spoke to us of destinations and uncertainty, of people and places; I began to feel like a part of the show as the performers navigated the space in close quarters with our group, and often seemed to address us directly, as though we were all on the “stage” together. It was super trippy, and I absolutely loved it.
My abandoned hobbies notwithstanding, I try to experience art whenever I can: in my pocket, headphones snaking out and up to my ears; college theater now and then; a poem a day keeps the dullness at bay. And now, having been mesmerized by an archive come to life through performance, I feel a better sense of that need records have for something beyond the folder, the box, the stacks where they reside indefinitely – the need to be found, examined, used; rejuvenated, re-purposed; displayed, enjoyed, shared. I spent an hour with Richard Demarco’s archives, and left with a strong desire to forge part of that surety, to make sure the performance didn’t end on 10 August when Louise, Jodean and Noel headed home from their Fringe run, that their successors will take up new gems in the collections and enact them for new audiences. That hour did more for me than any traditional gallery or reading room has ever done, and I’ve come out of it wanting to do the same for my own work in the future.