Testimony by Lynn MacRitchie for catalogue of “Artists for Democracy: the Archive of Cecilia Vicuna”, 2014

Question 1
What is your memory of the Arts Festival for Democracy in Chile, I mean of the whole experience at the Royal College of Art in London in October l974?

The festival transformed the main hall at the Royal College of Art in London into a dynamic hub of artistic and political debate, a remarkable achievement, the memory of which remains vivid with me even today. This was epitomised by the “favela” we created on the hall stage - a melange of structures made by many different artists, each one unique but together becoming a celebration of the shanty towns the Chilean poor built of necessity but also with such energy and ingenuity that they became symbols of radicalism and creativity. This collaborative environment was combined with a more formal exhibition of works lent by a huge range of artists, from David Hockney to Roberto Matta, among many others, and an ambitious programme of discussions, film shows and performances by artists, dancers and musicians. Artists at all levels of experience and from all parts of the world came together to create something which, in its direct combination of art and politics, was always intended to be much more than a conventional exhibition.

A sense of necessity drove the whole event. The coup in Chile had been an affront to everything that we as artists represented and the gesture of holding a festival to celebrate democracy even as it had been most brutally repressed seemed an appropriate way to fight back. The organisation of the event was itself very democratic - meetings were open to all, and if you wanted to join in, you could. Suggestions for artworks or other contributions to the programme were discussed and, if no one objected, the artists concerned were left to get on with their work. This led to an atmosphere of great creativity, but also ensured that those who took the most responsibility for the realisation of their ideas tended to have the best outcomes. There was no funding, so it was up to each artist to get their work made as best they could: the most committed found a way. The festival thus became an extraordinary presentation of diverse art works, from the most sophisticated to the most idiosyncratic, which in the process also evolved into a model of democratic art production and genuine political debate.

Question 2
Please describe your participation, as artist or co-organizer, or both.

I ran away to London from Scotland in September 1974. I already knew David Medalla and John Dugger, who had each presented work in the Participation Art Event I had organised as a student at Edinburgh College of Art in December 1973. Shortly after arriving in London, I visited David and was immediately included in the organisation of the festival, which revolved around regular meetings at Guy Brett's flat. These gatherings were packed with artists and activists of all kinds - David seemed to know every artist in London or indeed the world and had invited them all to take part! It was a lively and disparate band, including many refugees from Chile, such as Cecilia Vicuna. It was the first time I had been exposed to political discussion of such passion and sophistication. Perhaps surprisingly, despite the tragic events which had brought all these people together, the atmosphere of the meetings was positive and creative. It was not an environment in which to say no, and I found myself agreeing to be in charge of videotaping the festival, despite my entire experience of video making at that time consisting of a few hours playing with the Edinburgh College of Art Portapak video camera. I took on the challenge, however, and videotaped the whole event, using equipment borrowed from the Royal College of Art. I also organised equipment and showings for those artists who contributed video works to the exhibition.

This became a wonderful way to get to know some of the most original and pioneering artists of the day, and also to learn how to use video, which at that time was still a very new medium. I then spent several months editing the tapes, working in the Environmental Media department of the Royal College of Art, with great assistance from the technician there, despite the fact that I was not a college student! The tapes of the festival were shown at The Video Show at the Serpentine Gallery in May 1975.

I also participated as an individual artist, making a rope bridge which formed part of the favela environment we created together on the stage of the main hall. I constructed the bridge in the hallway of the flat I shared, with rope bought from Arthur Beale, the ships chandler in Covent Garden, paid for with my dole money. I found participating as an artist and organiser of the festival tremendously exciting - it opened up a whole new world to me, and I threw myself in to everything it had to offer.

Question 3
What meaning do you to attribute to this event, both then, in the context of the cultural response in Europe to the military coup in Chile on September 11, 1973, and now, 40 years on?

Some aspects of the festival, so innovative at the time, have now become regular features of the contemporary art environment, but it should be remembered that the festival pioneered many of them. Internationalism, for example, is now accepted, almost expected, in the art world, but for us the presence of so many Latin American artists then in London was the result of their having been driven from their homes - in Mexico, Brazil and of course Chile - by dictatorships. David Medalla was from the Philippines, his political awareness honed by the excesses of the Marcos regime. At that time, art world internationalism was not a life style choice but a matter of life and death.

Also, the radical art work we made was both intended to be, and recognised as, a challenge to the stifling conformism of the British art establishment. Performance art, collaborative work, new technologies such as video - all offered strategies seized on by artists seeking alternative means of producing work not yet co-opted by the art market or the arts funding system. Avoiding such co-option was our aim, and bringing such deliberately provocative work to the Royal College of Art, the engine of art world success, as part of an event whose raison d’etre was also profoundly and openly political, felt both appropriate and satisfying.

The festival was a spectacular launch for Artists for Democracy, and the organisation continued to make exhibitions engaged with political causes both at home and in the developing world over the subsequent few years. It is interesting to see younger artists excavating this history now, with revivals of performance and participatory work in particular, but none of this activity has the sense of engagement or necessity that made the feeling of “the Chile show”, as we called it, so special. Perhaps the fact that artists had been amongst those deliberately targeted by the Pinochet regime made their defence a matter of urgency for us in a way that does not seem to have been echoed by responses to the Iraq war, for example. In a sense, creativity itself came under deliberate attack in Chile and, with Artists for Democracy, creativity fought back.

For me, the festival became the art school I had always wanted to attend, where the “students” - all the participants, whether contributing artists, performers or attendees at the many and varied events - used creativity as a means of challenging the horrors that the world confronts us with. And, in an atmosphere where the place and role of art in society became a topic of constant discussion and debate, we tested how art could be used as a force for good. Simplistic though this might seem now, especially when stated so plainly, the issues we struggled with during the festival remain so fundamental, addressing them continues to be essential for those who attempt to be both creative and questioning of the world. As such, forty years on, as a practicing artist I find myself still energised by the lessons learned during that remarkable autumn in London, and proud to have been part of a unique but still resonant event.

Lynn MacRitchie, London, November 2013

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