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The Participation Art Event 1973: Provocation or Prophecy?

By Neil Cooper, 17.04.2024
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Photograph ©️John Dugger Archive courtesy England & Co

When Lynn MacRitchie gave a public lecture at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) in February this year titled ‘The Participation Art Event 1973: Provocation or Prophecy?’ it shed light on one of Scotland’s lesser-known avant-garde art happenings that might finally have found its time. Instigated by MacRitchie while a student at ECA more than half a century ago, ‘The Participation Art Event’ (PAE) explored the idea of art being a collective action rather than an individual, studio-bound pursuit.

Over five days in December 1973, PAE took over ECA’s Sculpture Court, where a series of participatory actions took place. At the centre of this were David Medalla (1942-2020) and John Dugger (1948-2023). Medalla was a Filipino artist and activist who in 1964 co-founded the kinetic art based Signals London gallery, and was one of those behind hippie/counterculture collective the Exploding Galaxy.

It was through the latter that Medalla met Dugger, an American artist who landed on the scene in 1967. The pair collaborated on anti Vietnam War performances and audience participation based events, including the ‘People’s Participation Pavilion’, a red painted, open-sided structure based on a south-Asian longhouse, which they presented at Documenta 5 in Kassel in 1972.

Photograph ©️John Dugger Archive courtesy England & Co

It was reading about the ‘People’s Participation Pavilion’ in Art and Artists magazine that led MacRitchie and her fellow Student Representative Council (SRC) members to invite Dugger and Medalla to take part in The Three Day Event, a precursor to the PAE designed to explore the relationship between art and society.

“We just wanted to do something interesting,” MacRitchie says today. “We wanted to open the place up a bit and get a bit of air in, so as well as inviting a wide range of Scottish intellectuals, I seized the moment and invited all the people I’d been reading about. To my amazement, they all came.”

MacRitchie was already steeped in alternative ways of working by the time she arrived in Edinburgh. In Glasgow, friends included writers Tom McGrath and Alan Spence. With them and others, MacRitchie instigated happenings, including ‘Ceremony - Words in the Trees’, which saw them hang words on trees in George Square Gardens in Edinburgh and Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow.  A fictionalised version of the event appears in Spence’s novel, The Magic Flute (1990).

MacRitchie also took succour from Strategy: Get Arts (1970), the exhibition of 35 Dusseldorf based artists brought to ECA by Edinburgh arts impresario Richard Demarco as part of Edinburgh international Festival. Work by Joseph Beuys in particular left its mark.

Once MacRitchie became SRC president, “I was very interested in building on what we had done at the ‘Three Day Event’, so I went full speed ahead and organised the Participation Art Event, bringing back David and John to actually make artwork in the college. It was really important to me we did that.”

PAE itself saw Medalla present ‘A Stitch in Time’, in which visitors sewed en masse either side of a long sheet of cotton.  Medalla also brought his first iteration prior to a London show the following year of ‘Porcelain Wedding’. This saw participants cake a naked couple in clay, effectively transforming them into statues while becoming ‘witnesses’ at their wedding. Dugger presented the self-explanatory ‘People Weave a House’, which he had instigated in London the year before.

Reactions from ECA’s student body was mixed. 

Photograph ©️John Dugger Archive courtesy England & Co

“Most people at the college just got on with getting their degree,” MacRitchie remembers. “They might have taken part in the event and enjoyed it for half an hour, or it might have been something they really engaged with. This was the case particularly with people from the sculpture department. They got very involved with it. They were great. It was their world in a way, because it was material, and it was something that you did with people.” 

The guardians of ECA’s more regimented academic institution, on the other hand, weren’t impressed.

“They didn’t like it,” MacRitchie remembers. “It was horrible. They just laid into me, asking what the hell I thought I was doing, and how dare I disrupt the college like this. It was never meant to be a confrontation with the authorities, but they saw it as a total challenge to the college structure.”

MacRitchie left Edinburgh for London, where she became involved in Artists for Democracy, founded by Medalla and others in response to the 1973 military coup in Chile. MacRitchie became part of the Tolmers Square Poster Collective, and later worked with the likes of Rose English and Sally Potter in various actions and performances. 

Photograph ©️John Dugger Archive courtesy England & Co

After focusing on writing for various newspapers and periodicals, including Performance Magazine and the Financial Times newspaper, for which she wrote about contemporary art for fifteen years (1991-2006), MacRitchie returned to making art in the mid 1990s. ‘The Participation Art Event’ remains central to her thinking.

“When you work like that you do it collaboratively, but your experience of it is as an individual,” she says. “You experience it with others, because you're making it together, but how you feel about that is quite complex and quite profound. I mean, PAE changed my life completely, but other people went off to their life drawing classes, so it did not transform the college overnight.”

Half a century on, collective art practices are commonplace, while audiences want to be more than mere spectators. Which was PAE, then, provocation or prophecy?

“I think it was both,” says MacRitchie. “Within the institution, it was seen as a huge provocation, and for some people, what they saw was the provocation rather than the art. Coming back to PAE fifty years later, the things we were exploring and experimenting with have now become kind of the norm in the art world, which one could not have predicted at all. So at the time, PAE was a provocative event, but in terms of the changes that have worked their way through the art world since then, it was prophecy.”