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Tag Archives: anarchy

Dada & Anarchy

Dada has long been associated with anarchy but how accurate is this association? There are many types of anarchists from the syndicalist to the anarcho-criminals. Anarchy is better able than most political movements to reinvent itself and it has done this numerous times already, from the bomb-throwing anarchists of the 1890s to the cyber anarchists of today. What kind of anarchists were the Dadaists? The short answer is anarcho-nihilists – here is a slightly longer answer.

Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst both read Max Stirner The Ego and His Own when they were young. When asked later in life what philosopher was of special significance to his work Duchamp cited Stirner’s The Ego and His Own. In 1899 a French translation of Stirner’s book was published and this is probably the translation read by the young Duchamp.

Duchamp was born in 1887, a time of anarchist bombing in Paris, something that would have had an impact on a young boy in provincial France. Woodcock describes the period of 1884-1914 as a fertile and productive period in anarchist development with the establishment of communes, schools and publications. There was also the violent anarcho-criminal tradition in France with the Marius Jacob gang operating between 1900-05, who robbed the unproductive, and the far more violent Bonnot gang in 1913. The Bonnot gang were non-smoking, tea totalling, vegetarians who read Max Stirner and loved of fast cars, women and guns.

Max Stirner (1806 -1856) was one of the young Hegelians, who developed an anarcho-nihilist philosophy in his book The Ego and His Own (1845). Stirner was one of the “The Free”, a circle of radical Berlin intellectuals. Stirner’s philosophy explains not only why the terms, anarchy and nihilism are often linked with Dada but rarely explored. Marx and Engles in the German Ideology attack Stirner’s philosophy because it places the “I” before the “we”. For the Marxists the material situation that determines meaning, for Stirner it is the individual that determines meaning, and for this belief Marx and Engles compare Stirner to the great beast of the apocalypse (quoting REV 17 in a religious frenzy to exorcise his philosophy).

Stirner’s philosophy explains the psychological basis for the Duchamp art: the questioning, attacking, proposing, joking, suggesting, tongue in cheek Duchamp’s art. There are many points of comparison both Duchamp and Stirner were restless individuals; their total rebellion against all ideals, ironically interpreting history by references (Stirner to Biblical texts and poems by Goethe and Schiller, just as Duchamp’s art is full of allusions to Da Vinci, Courbet and others). Another aspect is their use of pseudonyms, due to their own sense of alienated identity (Stirner aka Johann Casper Schmit. Max Stirner could translated as Max the Highbrow or Ironbrow or Max Headroom).

Max Ernst and Hugo Ball had studied philosophy at university and so it is likely that both had read Nietzsche. Francis Picabia (1879 -1953) claimed that he had met Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) but it is unlikely to be true and if it was it can’t have been a very meaningful connection given Picabia’s age and Nietzsche’s advanced syphilitic condition.

Richard Huelsenbeck expresses Dadaist existential nihilism. “The dadaists were interested in two main facts: shock and movement. They felt that man was in the hands of irrational creative forces. He was hopelessly wedged in between an involuntary birth and an involuntary death.” (Huelsenbeck, Memoirs of a Dadaist Drummer, New York, 1974, p.160)

The most surprising and practical connection between the Dadaists and anarchist is that Man Ray studied art at the Ferrrer School in New York City. The Ferrrer School was established run by the anarchists, Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldberg after Berkman’s release from prison for the attempted assassination of industrialist H.C. Frick. The school was named after the Spanish anarchist, Francisco Ferrer. Berkman taught and lectured at the Ferrer School but didn’t actually teach Man Ray. Man Ray didn’t care about the politics he was attending because of its quality and cost (free).

Not all the Dadaists were anarchists for their whole lives; Tristan Tzara became a Communist.

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Street Anarchy

“Anarchy is chaos. Chaos is the principle of continual creation. And Chaos never died.” Hakim Bey, 1987

Various artists, Hosier Lane

The streets are chaotic image of the mass of humans and a few other animals that manage to survive in such a hostile environment. The idea of a well-ordered tidy street is the image of a dystopic totalitarian state; disguising them as a garden city or behind historic facades only hides the fact. There are always back alleys, service lanes, the backs of signs; and as the philosopher, Max Stirner points out kids love getting behind things and seeing their backsides. The street is a media that the authorities cannot censor; it can never be controlled completely, stickers, dead drops and all kinds of uncontrolled communication (see my posts on Political Graffiti and Graffiti in WWII).

Graffiti gives courage to those who agree with the opinions that they are not alone while demonstrating to the authorities that their view is not universally accepted. Graffiti is about non-violent propaganda by deed, as much as, it is propaganda images and propaganda is so much more effective with cool images. As Sydney street artist Jumbo said: “sometimes the message is just in the action.” (“Vandals or Vanguards?” at RMIT 26/9/11) Graffiti, like the punk bands, says if they can do that then what can I do?

Maybe I should write an addendum about graffiti to Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces (Penguin,1989). Marcus brilliantly traces an element of anarchy from medieval Anabaptists through the Dadaists, the Situationalists and on to the punks. But do we really need the repetition of Situationalist slogans almost half a century after they were first written on the streets of Paris? Do we even need another slogan or a manifesto or Hakim Bey’s invocations to poetic terrorism to spell out what is written on the wall? Do we need to spell it out blockbuster style or is it enough to bring beauty to an abandoned place?

Situationalist slogan stenciled in Melbourne, 2010

“Culture and the state – one should not deceive oneself over this – are antagonists: the ‘cultural state’ is merely a modern idea. The one lives off the other, the one thrives at the expense of the other.” Nietzche, Twilight of the Idols

From the deliberate actions of culture-jammers and slogan writers, to the basic anti-police and anti-authoritarian attitude of all graffiti writers, graffiti is political. And graffiti is political because it is repressed, because the government attempts to control chaos. For if you act like someone is your enemy then they will become your enemy.

There is a lot of hostility to graffiti because it is chaos (I choose to embrace the chaos). I catch the train and there is a wanted poster for some guy for doing a tag. There is a flier in my letterbox from a politician boasting about how they cleaned up a small patch of graffiti and replaced it with clunky but colourful painting by school children. The approval of a politician makes the illegal legitimate. It is hard to write about Melbourne’s street art and graffiti without talking about the influence of the law; what is a legal piece and what is not, the council’s rules and where they are ignored, overlooked or unenforceable. For an opposing view on “Graffiti and Anarchy” read Tom McLaughlin’s blog. In response to Tom teenage boys drawing phalli are part of the anarchy and chaos of human life and I would only criticize the culture where this is the best that teenage boys can graffiti.

There are plenty of self-aware anarchists doing street art and graffiti in Melbourne but flying the flag for anarchy is rarely a very useful activity. Walking through Melbourne I was handed a flier in the street by veteran anarchist, Dr. Joseph Toscano calling for a new people’s bank. It was a very old school demonstration out the front of a corporate headquarters that had ripped off some small time investors. Toscano talking with a megaphone to small a group of people, other people were handing out leaflets. It made the evening news that night.

I’ve said enough for now – I welcome your thoughts on anarchy and graffiti.


Poetic Terrorism

From Arthur Rimbaud to Samima Malik poetry has aspired to terrorism. Samima Malik is the ‘the lyrical terrorist’, convicted of “possessing records likely to be useful to terrorists” in the UK in 2007. Visual artists from the Berlin Dadaists to George Bolster’s, Art Terrorist exhibition at House Gallery, (London, 2001) have attempted psychological warfare.

Hakim Bey, the theoretician of poetic terrorism writes in T.A.Z – the temporary autonomous zone, ontological anarchy, poetic terrorism, (Automedia, 1991): “The audience reaction or aesthetic-shock produced by Poetic-Terrorism ought to be at least as strong as the emotion of terror – powerful disgust, sexual arousal, superstitious awe, sudden intuitive breakthrough, dada-esque angst”.

Along with what could be dismissed as mere art there has been direct action by poetic terrorists. In 1986 the Australian Cultural Terrorists kidnapping Picasso’s Weeping Woman from the NGV and issued demands to the Minister of Police and the Arts, Race Matthews. How To Make Trouble And Influence People (Political Hooligan Publications, Sydney, 1996) is a wonderful little publication documenting “Australian pranks, hoaxes and political mischief making” in a random order. It reproduces many fly-posters, altered billboards and leaflets created by these pranksters.

Poetic terrorism is isometric cultural warfare. The culture jammers, nihilists and associated Dadaists are attempting to blow up mass consumer culture. Poetic terrorists are similar to militant terrorists in many ways both feel isolated and ignored. Except, unlike the militants, poetic terrorists do not have an exaggerated belief in the effectiveness of violence. Instead, poetic terrorists have an exaggerated belief in the effectiveness of art and poetry. “Like charging a regiment of tanks with a defective slingshot.” Wm. Burroughs writes about John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi photomontages. Burroughs, himself advocated the use of tape recorders and cutups as a weapon of psychological warfare in The Invisible Generation (1966).

Taoist Jihad is a group of poetic terrorists, musicians and culture jammers. I met members of the group when I was involved with Clan Analogue in the late 1990s. I liked their choice of samples from Bollywood and Hollywood. And I enjoyed their crazy political actions as they always included a sense of fun and danger. I witnessed their black magic action against President Soharto in 1998. The burning an official photograph went very badly as the cardboard smoldered and the black candles kept on going out in the wind but it worked.

I remained in touch with some members of Taoist Jihad. Others have vanished completely. DJ Phatwah maintains that “many of the group went into hiding late in 2001” the truth is that they just denied membership, cut communications and got full-time jobs. The members of Taoist Jihad didn’t intend to become musicians or artists, nor have they become full time artists, their work was the late adolescent creative out bursts of university students. My role has been to facilitate communications from the group and help organize their upcoming exhibition at Brunswick Arts.


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