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Tag Archives: Dada

Dada Meme Infects the World

At the beginning of the twentieth century for the first time in history there was enough young people not just to fight a world war and to start to create subcultures. With the Dadaists there was still too few of any of them to bother with classifications. The history of eccentrics leads people to retrospectively classify them in subcultures, those strange attractors in the chaos of society.

100-Jahre-Dada-Lead

Greil Marcus in his book, Lipstick Traces tries to trace Dada and punk back to the Anabaptists. Others trace them back to Cynics of Ancient Greece. Was Diogenes was a hippy or a punk?

Instead of wondering about future histories or museums, instead of trying to trace an illegitimate ancestry for Dada or punk, look at the attraction. What was the reason for their existence? Why do people around the world identify with them?

Dada and punk gave expression to a status frustration of talented and intelligent youth who had no influence in the direction of art, culture or the world. Dada was the first of many cultural guerrilla resistance forces. Operating in occupied territory, these movements attack and retreat, sometimes melting away into the general population. Their tactics change to take advantage of the local terrain and exploit weakness in psychosocial defences. For such movements survival is the same as success and both Dada and punk did so much more than just survive. They spread rapidly. Perhaps this was because the conditions were right but more likely there were already people who were doing that kind of thing looking for a larger movement to identify with.

The thing about Dada was that it was an art movement not just for the professional, trained artist, but for anyone. Many of those involved in Dada did not continue to be artists because they were medical students who became doctors, students who became teachers. Is it any surprise that Dada didn’t survive long with such an incoherent group of proto- punks, hippies and new agers.

The Cabaret Voltaire and the Dada Gallery in Zurich ended like so many artist run initiatives to come after them. Wednesday 9th April 1919 was the date for the final grand soirée in Zurich. By then Dada had already spread around the world. The debate as to where punk started, USA or England, mirrors the debate about the origins of Dada. The meme of Dada was transported in person by members of the Zurich crowd but it was also spread by mail. The impact of the postal service on Dada and subsequent similar movements cannot be ignored.

In 1917 Richard Huelsenbeck spreads the meme to Berlin where Club Dada was formed. In 1918 Dada spread to Max Ernst and Johannes Baargeld in Cologne via Hans Arp. Marcel Janco took Dada back to Rumania were Contimporanul is formed. In 1918 Kurt Schwitter’s applied to join Club Dada in Berlin but is rejected so he creates his own Merz movement, or magazine, or both.

Dada was already in New York with Francis Picabia acting as the link between the Dadaists in New York and Zurich. He was already doing his own thing, publishing a zine in Spain before he ever heard of Dada. Dada continued to spread in Barcelona with Picabia to a mix of French, English, Italian and Russian.

Tristan Tzara takes Dada to Paris.

In Russia (Krutchony, Terentieff, Zdanevich) Perevoz was DaDa. Ma is the Hungarian version 1918-22 (Lojos Kassak, Sandor Barta). It was Mécano in Holland with Theo Van Doesburg.

There is the big Dada/Surrealism split in Paris in October to December of 1919. But to the east new Dada like groups are still announcing themselves. Tank in Zagreb 1922, The Green Donkey Group in Hungary, 1927 (Odon Palasowki). In Japan it was Mavo.

Dada eventually arrived in Melbourne in 1952 with Barry Humphries, Clifton Pugh and Germaine Greer where it was known as Wobboism. It was so old by then that neo-Dada movements had already started in Japan and the US.

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2016: Dada, Punk, Parties

Last Friday night I was at the Blender Xmas Show; it is a longstanding tradition, a blended mix of exhibition, party and open studios. Maybe not for much longer for there is talk about Blender closing, nobody knows anything definite. Has the whole area around the Melbourne market has been rezoned? Research is required but after the Sky Vodka mixers, basically ethanol was mixed with filtered and deionised water marketed in cobalt blue bottles that might have been fashionable in the 1990s and standing around in the warehouse for a couple of hours research is the last thing on my mind.

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What is on my mind is wrapping this blog up for the year and other anniversaries. It is a century after the summer of 1916 when Dada bloomed in Switzerland but who cares, it is history. To commemorate this centennial I wrote some posts about Dada this year; posts about the various historic forces that had aligned to bring the original Dadaists together in Zurich and the small celebrations for the centennial amongst poets in a bar in Clifton Hill.

I re-read my post about the success and failure of Dada after Joe Corre, the son of Malcolm McLaren and Vivian Westwood burnt his Sex Pistols memorabilia. Remember that Dada could not be properly understood until after punk. Ending up in the hands of rich collectors or in museums is not the problem, it is not an indication of success or failure, nor a cause of ossification. Thinking that the success and failure of a movement is dependent on the location of holy relics is as nostalgic as a collector’s desire. Corre was forgetting his father’s three word manifesto: “cash from chaos.”

I am also think what I will do next year with this blog? My first WordPress blog post, Faster Pussycat, was on February 16 in 2008, so early next year in February it will be the tenth anniversary since the start of this blog. This year was a time for big round number milestones for this blog: 1000th posts and 500,000th views. I celebrated my 1000th blog post with a psychogeographical walk. It was not a tour, it was like this blog, a psychogeographical walk, with no plan and no destination. People did give me a presents and bought me drinks, thank you.

I have written some diverse blog this year from a gallery crawl around Chelsea in NYC, to graffiti piecing in Burnside on the far west of Melbourne, to the VR experience of Sean Gladwell’s studio. But the most unusual experience was watching the forgery trial in the Supreme Court.

If you are reading this blog for the first time or for the thousandth time, thank you for reading in 2016.

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Dada’s Success and Failure

I didn’t expect to see a painting by the Spanish Dadaist, Francis Picabia at the Art Gallery of Ontario but there it was; not from his Dada days but from the 1940s, complete with a couple of palm trees. It is like finding out that a punk band, like The Mekons have become a country/folk music group, which they have.

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Jonathan Jones, The Guardian regular art critic, amongst others, can’t understand this scenario and complains that “a tiny but brilliantly subversive protest movement has become the common currency of big-money, mass-audience art – Dada’s founders would feel sick.

No indication that Picabia was feeling sick, more like a holiday in the sun.

Of course, Mr Jones Dada has become mainstream. Wasn’t that always the intention of the Dada revolutionary council of Berlin? Wasn’t that the point of disseminating the information about Dada to the world? Why the publications, the lecture tours, the exhibitions, the records if it wasn’t to get the idea out there.

Every revolution that is completed becomes the establishment; every successful revolt permanently change the system. That is the process of history. It is not a betrayal of the American War of Independence, or other revolts and revolutions, to have its relics in a museum. But if you had the right sneer in your voice you could make it sound like it.

Would you, Mr Jones, argue that Dada was a success if they were being thrown out or sold in flea markets?

It is illogical to suggest that current ownership of Dada art and relics, or anything else, implies anything about its success or failure in anything other than being owned. The collections of museums, galleries and libraries are not a proof of the objects collected success or failure.

Does every utopian movement have to continue in an eternal purity of process in the same way that the church doesn’t in order not to be “trivialised or misappropriated”?

Should we rather not be celebrating the triumph of these nihilistic bolsheviks who made the contemporary art world? Where is the big Dada parade, with the figure of death in the lead and the oompah band bring up the end? A world where art is free to be anything. A world where in primary schools and kindergartens around the world children are taught the Dada art techniques like collage. Are little children’s art “trivial” enough for you, Mr Jones?

Sure we have all moved on and what was yesterday’s rebellion has now become a museum piece, we no longer wear monocles and ransom note typography is old fashioned.

Sure the Dadaist desire to destroy culture has been converted to a desire to make art that is as boring as life but nobody stole Dada. There are no unauthorised users of an open system, you can’t misappropriate nonsense, you can’t misappropriate nothing.

Sure, Dada failed to end the war, and it has been the same imperialist war on and off for the last century, but who hasn’t failed to do that?

Meanwhile, a century later, the current rebellion against culture is, of course, not Dada. The current rebellion is hardly recognised, invisible, underground and unthinkable.


Dada 1916

A hundred years ago April 18, 1916 was the first time that Hugo Ball used the word ‘Dada’ in his diary.

“Tzara keeps on worrying about the periodical. My proposal to call it ‘Dada’ is accepted. We could take turns at editing, and a general editorial staff could assign one member the job of election and layout for each issue. Dada is ‘yes, yes’ in Rumanian, ‘rocking horse’ and ‘hobbyhorse’ in French. For Germans it is a sign of foolish naïveté, joy in procreation, and preoccupation with the baby carriage.” (Flight Out of Time, University of California Press, 1996, p.63)

100-Jahre-Dada-Lead

There is a stupid debate as to exactly who, when, how and where this now quasi-religious word was first uttered. Ball’s diary entry makes no mention of any occult random selection of a word from a dictionary. There is a clear reference to the influenced by the arrival of the four young Romanians, the pretentious teenage poet, Tristan Tzara, the artist Marcel Janco, his brother, and another Romanian, all saying “da da” who arrived earlier that years at the Cabaret Voltaire.

The war had started two years earlier so why did it take until 1916 for the word Dada to be used?

In May 1915 Hugo Ball had left Germany for neutral Switzerland, he had been an idealistic German patriot before he saw the horror war for himself. (For more about Hugo Ball see my earlier post Dada Against WWI.) In Zurich the pacifist journalist and shorthand prodigy, Ferdinand Hardekopf introduced Ball to Hans Richter. The future avant-garde film maker, Richter had already been discharged from the German Army after being seriously wounded at Vilnius in 1914. Germany occupied Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania from 1915 until 1918 but for Richter the war was over.

The following year, on 2 February 1916, in Zurich Ball and his future wife, Emmy Hennings established the Cabaret Voltaire. The Cabaret Voltaire that would morph into Dada as more young men avoiding the war joined in.

It was a critical mass, a youth culture idea that would spread around the world. Dada spread from city to city, like a youth culture, inspired by the stories of the others activities and outrages. From Zurich to New York to Berlin to Cologne to Paris and on. It spread like a viral idea, a meme. In 1923 Tokyo Dada was ‘Mavo’.

Dada finally reached Melbourne in 1958-59; Australia was so conservative that the long delay meant this was at the same time that there was a neo-Dada revival in New York and Tokyo. In Melbourne the tiny band of Dadaists held in exhibition in 1958 which featured art by Clifton Pugh (under a psdonym), Germaine Greer and Barry Humphries. They called it “Wobboism”, allegedly after a Mr. Wobbo a local rubbish collector.

But back to 1916 why were there three Romanians saying ‘da da’ in Zurich?

Romania had been neutral at the start of the war arguing that its treaty obligations to Austria-Hungry were only if it were attacked and as it had started the war there was no obligation. Eventually in August 1916 in a desperate dream to get support for its territorial claims over Transylvania Romania joined the war on the Allied side. Romania’s army was crushed by Central Powers. In a war full of stupid decisions superlatives are insufficient to describe Romania’s involvement. The young Romanian draft dodgers at the Cabaret Voltaire had carefully avoided becoming patriotic dead heroes.


Dada Centennial 1916-2016

“Where is the monument to the folk who took a stand against the war rather than those who capitulated to its madness?” Robert Nelson asked in The Age on Remembrance Day, 11 November, 2015

Dear Robert Nelson, the monument exists but it is not in the architecture of state power, the column, the triumphant arch or faux tomb of imperial power dominating territory. It is a single word “Dada”.

Dada, a little word that means everything and nothing. A word like a Buddhist mantra capable of destroying all illusions by using it as a substitute for all other words. Instead of patriotism, dada; instead of reason, dada.

Not that the word works like magic but the question that Dada posed still remains as potent as ever. What is art and culture doing other than making various governments look like a humane and decent society, masking and distracting from the genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes? If this is how much of an improvement the best of art and culture can do then why continue with it?

This is not a joke, this is a serious point.

Dada Zurich

Mark outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

One hundred years ago on the 5th of February 1916 in Zurich three “oriental gentlemen,” as Hugo Ball described them in his diary arrived at the newly formed Cabaret Voltaire. The Cabaret Voltaire was a music and poetry night that Hugo Ball was running at the Holländische Meierei tavern in Zurich. Hugo Ball had had left Germany for neutral Switzerland, he had been an idealistic German patriot before he saw the horror war for himself.

The “oriental gentlemen” were certainly from the east as they were Romanian. They were the architecture student and artist, Marcel Janco, his brother George and a 19 year old poet who was calling himself, Tristan Tzara.

The reason why they were there was because Romania had ended its neutrality in 1916 and joined the war on the Allied side. It was one of the stupidest decisions of the war; outstanding even considering the extraordinary stiff competition of stupid decisions made in World War One. The Romanian army was obliterated.

The three young men kept on saying “da da”, “yes yes” in Romanian. The word “Dada” was invented later that year, around 11 April 1916, the first Dada periodical appeared over a year later in July 1917. There is a long standing debate about who invented this word but it has to be remembered that they were all very drunk at the time (or using other drugs, yes, I’m looking at you Herr Huelsenbeck and your cocaine).

Historical debates about dates aside, on Friday night in Clifton Hill DADA lives! 1916-2016 celebrated a century of Dada. Over a hundred people packed into the narrow space of the shopfront bar with its tiny stage at the back with of poetry and performance. Sjaak de Jong was the MC for the evening. Most of the performances were of original material but Santo Cazzati did read a historic Tristan Tzara Dada manifesto and perform a recognisably accurate version of Raoul Haussmann’s poem, phonème bbbb.

People try to laugh Dada off but that is just a desperate tactic to hold onto the certainties of dictatorships. Attempts have been made to quarantine Dada in art galleries and libraries around the world but it keeps on breaking out with nihilistic force. For it is nothing, it is ridiculous and is better than any god/country/insert reason here that you can dream up as nobody has ever killed or died for it.


I am not Schwitters either.

“Up the stairs he went, and once more rang Grosz’s bell. Grosz, enraged by the continual jangling, opened the door, but before he could say a word, Schwitters said “I am not Schwitters either.” (Hans Richter, Dada, art and anti-art Abrams, 1964, New York, p.145)

I am not Schwitters either so I don’t know who is Schwitters. To understand a person from only one perspective is like looking at a silhouette, there are only two diamentions. The more views, the more contradictions and a three or four dimensional character starts to take shape

Hans Richter account of Kurt Schwitters “a first class businessman, a born shop keeper” (p.149) is markedly different from that of  E.L.T Mesens, of a man travelling third class with a very small suitcase that contained nothing but a spare celluloid collar for his thick flannel shirt and bunch of his Merz publications. Kurt Schwitters is best known for his Dada collages but he should also be remembered for his great modern poetry.

Schwitters cover trial

Three Stories: Kurt Schwitters by Kurt Schwitters, Jasia Reichardt (Editor) (Tate Publishing, 2011, London) is a small 32 page hardcover book with three stories and a poem by Schwitters. There is also an introduction by the editor Jasia Reichardt and an essay about Schwitters by Mesens.

The only images in the book are a couple of small marginal illustrations that accompany “The Flat and Round Painter”. This fairy tale is an absurd allegory about why all paintings are now flat. It was written around 1941 when Schwitter’s was interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man.

“The Idiot” was originally written in Norwegian and was translated by Schwitters into English. The setting feels very Norwegian although there are no definite references to any particular location.

“The Landlady” 1945 is a short sketch of an “intelligent” landlady who would make Basil Fawlty appear reasonable.

For me the best part is his “The London Symphony” written in 1942. The realism and urbanism of this poem is truly radical as all the lines came readymade, composed from the hand painted advertising signs that Schwitters saw on the streets of London.

“Tribute to Schwitters” by E.L.T. Mesens was commissioned for ARTnews in 1958 and has been unavailable since then. There is also Ernst Schwitters reply to Mesens is a previously unpublished response by the artist’s son Ernst Schwitters and a response from Mesens. Mesens raises issue Mondrian’s attitude towards Dada and this is part of the dispute with Schwitters’s son.

Another point of difference of opinion is over the quality of Schwitter’s treatment in the English internment camp on the Isle of Man. Mesens claims that he enjoyed it but the artist’s son, Ernst Schwitters, who was in the interment camp with his father, disagrees. Although a Belgium citizen Mesens was involved and informed by the English especially Roland Penrose with whom he ran the London Gallery.


Dada Against WWI

Hugo Ball wrote in his diary: 1915 New Year.

“On the balcony belonging to Marinetti’s translator we demonstrate in our own way against the war. We shout ‘Down with war!’ into the silent night of big-city balconies and telegraph wires. Some passers-by stop. A few lighted windows are opened. ‘Here’s to the New Year!’ someone shouts. The merciless Moloch Berlin raises its concrete head.” (Flight Out of Time, a Dada Diary by Hugo Ball, edited by John Elderfield)

Hugo Ball

Hugo Ball

What was the twenty-eight year old, writer and dramaturg Hugo Ball doing protesting the war on New Year’s Eve in Berlin? It might not be surprising to people now, as Hugo Ball went on to be one of the founders of the anti-war anti-art movement, Dada. However, only a few months earlier in 1914 Ball had been an enthusiastic supporter of the war. He had volunteered three time for war service but had been refused on medical grounds. What had turned an idealistic patriot into an anti-war protester?

In late August 1914, shortly after the Germans had taken the Liége forts Ball was still an enthusiastic civilian who had boarding a German troop train as it crossed into Belgium. He was taken off the train and arrested by the German military as a spy in Liége but released when the authorities realised that he was only an idealist.

It certainly wasn’t an uninformed change of mind as Hugo Ball appears to have been a bit of an early battle field tourists. He wasn’t arrested as a spy again, perhaps had some kind of press credentials from the Berlin paper Zeit im Bild.

There are many reasons and influences that might explain Hugo Ball’s reversal of opinion on the ‘Great War’. Was it in September seeing soldiers graves in Dieuze, the headquarters for the German 6th Army? Finding a copy of Rabelias in the rubble Fort Manonvillers, one of the permanent fortifications of the “Verdun Fortified Region”? Or, reading lots of philosophy, the first couple of pages of his diary are full of notes on who is reading? Or, was it the influence of his girlfriend, Emmy Hennings?

If there needed to be a single cause for Ball’s reversal of opinion then it was the death of his friend, Hans Leybold who was, with Ball, the co-publisher of the journal, Revolution. The last issue of Revolution appeared in September 1914, after that Leybold was drafted into the German army and was killed shortly after in Belgium. For Leybold the war was all over by Christmas.

John Elderfield speculates that it was Leybold’s military decorations that Ball dumped into Lake Zurich on 20th of October, 1915. However, the list of medals that Ball gives, “the Black Order of the German Eagle, the Medal of Bravery, the Cross of Merit First, Second and Third Class” appear to be more imaginary rather than actual. The Order of the Black Eagle was the highest order of chivalry in the Kingdom of Prussia and, although Prussia did have a Military Merit Cross, there was no “Medal of Bravery”.

On 26/6/1915 Ball wrote: “The war is based on a crass error. Men have been mistaken for machines. Machines, not men, should be decimated. At some future date when only the machines march, things will be better. Then everyone will be right to rejoice when they demolish each other.”

(See my post: Dada and the start of WWI)


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