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Tag Archives: Hugo Ball

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.


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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