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Tag Archives: Cabaret Voltaire

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.

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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 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. Below 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


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