Tag Archives: Dadaism

I was a Dada tourist

It was sunny in Zurich in 2007 and I was sitting on the balcony of the Hotel Limmitblick looking out on the Limmit River. Belowe me is the Dadabar. I am in Room 12, the Marcel Janco (1895-1984) room. There is a photo and short biography of him in the room and an enlarged image from his painting of the Cabaret Voltaire above the bed.All the room are named after Dadaists. The Hotel Limmitblick is a new, upmarket boutique hotel. On the TV in my room there is the hotels own Dada channel with two dogs resolving their contradictions in the streets of Zürich and a lot of nonsense with Tristan Tzara references. The DVD of this is on sale in the lobby. Aside from the video and the room names there is nothing really Dada about the hotel or bar.

As a fan of the Dadaists I was keen to see where the historic anti-art movement started in Zurich during WWI. 1 Spiegelgasse was the location of the famous Cabaret Voltaire where Hugo Ball, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp and the other Dadaists meet and performed.

On arrival at the train station I’d asked at the tourist office for directions to the Cabaret Voltaire. The tourist office had to look it up on the computer and then returned the address for the office and not the historic location at 1 Spiegelgasse. I already knew the address. I want to know where to find it amongst the maze of streets in the old city.

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

The same white walled building still stands in the old part of the city with a small plaque commemorating the historic events on the side. It has changed since the days of the Dadaists when there was only a bar, a piano, a small stage and rows of wooden benches along the walls. (Richard Huelsenbeck Memoirs of a Dada Drummer, 1991, p.9) The landlord Herr Ephraim, a retired Dutch sailor must have also had his own rooms in the building.

There is a new Cabaret Voltaire, in the same location as the original. It has only been open for a couple of years. At the new Cabaret Voltaire, there is a bar, a small stage with a piano, and 2 shelves of books on Dada. There is a Dada gift shop and a space for art installations in the basement; when I visited it was full of telephones. I have a drink and look around for a t-shirt or a poster but there are none of these obvious souvenirs that you find in art gallery gift shops. All I buy is another SubRosa CD of Dada poetry. (See my blog post: DADA on CD). In the window of the Cabaret Voltaire there is a sign in English: “Foreigners, please don’t leave us alone with the Swiss!”

Front window of the new Cabaret Voltaire

The place is sort of lame, a few reproduction photos of the old Dadaists, and a bust of Voltaire on a pedestal, odd bits and pieces of contemporary anti-art artwork but it is just getting started. In the main room there is a lecture going on in to a small group of people. Maybe it picks up more in the evening. But what do I expect a polished art gallery and museum? Face the facts; Dada in Switzerland was pathetic affair, Herr Ephraim threatened to shut down the cabaret because they weren’t bringing in enough of an audience.

Inside the new Cabaret Voltaire.

A few houses up the hill on Spiegelgasse another plaque commemorating the house that Lenin briefly lived during WW1. There are more tourists looking at Lenin’s small residence rather than the Cabaret Voltaire. Lenin was so close to the Cabaret Voltaire that he could not have ignored it as he passed the corner of the street. Not that Hugo Ball records Lenin amongst the people visiting the Cabaret but the more politically minded Huelsenbeck claimed to have encountered Lenin in Switzerland. The Swiss police ignored Lenin but not the Dadaists.

I wonder if the Swiss have finally understood Dada. Dada, even though it was born in Zurich, was never a local thing. It was invented foreigners, a disparate bunch of hippies (Hugo Ball), punks (Richard Hulsenbeck), new agers (Hans Arp), goths, and other, perhaps, yet unclassified freaks. And 91 years later the Swiss are still don’t understand what those crazy foreigners did. At the Kunsthall Zürich, there is almost nothing of Dada: one Arp sculpture, one Marcel Janco work, two Picabias and a couple of works by Meret Oppenheims.

I look in my wallet and there on the Swiss 50F note is a Dada artist, Sophie Tauber-Arp (1889-1943). Sophie Tauber-Arp was the only local in all the Zürich Dadaists. Incidentally, the architect Le Corbusier is on the Swiss 10F note.

Catherine and I walk around the city and along the lakeshore eating brotwusrt. Catherine feeds the swans bits of the hard bread roll where once a hungry Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings had envied the well fed swans. Emmy collapsed in the street from hunger and exhaustion a few days after they arrived. The Swiss are still largely ignoring Dada. The contractions of being a Dada tourist in Zurich pleasantly boggle my mind.

Feeding a swan in Zurich


DADA on CD

It is hard to understand the totality of Dada, or most other art movements, simply by looking at a few paintings and other objects that survive as relics in museums or repeatedly illustrated in art history books. Maybe, if we had video of some of Leonardo da Vinci’s performances on his double-necked lute we might think of art, or Jimmie Page, differently. Dada was a total art movement, poetry, visual arts, performance, because as they wanted to totally transform Europe’s war crazed culture. Of the Dada performances on a few photographs and some audio recording survive. Kurt Schwitters would occasionally release 78-rpm records with his Merz magazine (a pioneering feature that has continued with magazines releasing CDs). These audio recording and others have now been compiled and re-released on various CDs and these recordings add a new depth to our understanding of Dada as well as few laughs and truly beautiful moments.

Dada > Antidada > Merz (Sub Rosa, edited by Marc Dachy) has recordings by Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann. Hausmann’s imaginary interview with the Lettristes is like an extreme part of The Goon Show and is very funny even to people who know nothing of the Dadaists. However, this is mostly a CD of hardcore Dada poetry for the fans.

Futurism & Dada Reviewed (Sub Rosa, 1988, edited and produced by James Neiss) is more of a sampler. It includes recordings by Richard Huelsenbeck and Schwitters. There is also a beautiful performance of Marcel Duchamp’s “Erratum Musicale” (curiously listed as “La Mariee Mise a Nu…Meme”) by Mats Persson and Kristine Scholz. Trio Exvoco recreates Tzara, Janco and Huelsenbeck’s simultaneous poem “L’Amiral cherche une maison a louer”.

Schwitters’s sound poem “Die Sonata in Urlauten”, recorded on the 5th of May in 1932, is featured on both CDs (it is listed as ‘ursonate’ on ‘Dada > Antidada > Merz’) and is an outstanding piece of nonsense. It was composed around the sounds of letters that Schwitters recited with precision and a beautiful voice.

Futurism & Dada Reviewed also has a sample of recordings from the period, as well as the Dadaists, there are recordings of the Futurists using Luigi Russolo’s noise machines. Russolo’s mechanical proto-synthesizers were able to produce a great variety of rumbles, howls and other noises. And, there is more, Guillaume Apollinaire reciting poetry, Wyndham Lewis, the British Vorticist almost rapping and Jean Cocteau playing in his jazz band for two tracks. This amusing CD ends with the sound of a record needle on an old 78.

Lipstick Traces (Rough Trade, 1993, edited by Greil Marcus) is the soundtrack to Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the 20th Century (1989) by Greil Marcus. The CD was released separately to the book and contains a very wide variety of tracks from Dadaists, punks, Guy Debord and other Situationalists. It also includes the remarkable recording of Marie Osmond (yes, the one from The Osmonds) reciting Schwitters’s sound poem ‘Karawane’ that has to be heard to be believed. It is essential listening for the book and aurally demonstrates Greil Marcus argument that there are trace influences between the Dadaists and the punks, particularly in the use of glosslalia-like speech and other non-lexical vocables.

There is no evidence that the sounds of Schwitters and Hausmann directly influence the nonsense sounds of Spike Milligan but it sounds like it. More directly, Brian Eno samples Schwitters in a track on Before and after Science (EG Records, 1977), appropriately titled ‘Kurt’s Rejoinder’. Indirectly Dada has influenced so much of contemporary music from Merzbau to Cabaret Voltaire.


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