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Tag Archives: Zurich

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 and the start of WWI

On the September 15, 1914 the avant-garde film maker, Hans Richter was inducted into the German army. Two friends, Ferdinand Hardekopf, journalist, writer and shorthand prodigy and Albert Ehrenstein, a poet gave him a farewell party and they promised to meet in Zurich, in two years, if they were still alive. Was the reason for the Zurich meeting was that Hardekopf, a pacifist was around planning to go there? In Zurich Hardekopf was close to Hugo Ball.

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

A few months later Richter was seriously wounded at Vilna, Lithuania. One of his brothers was killed and another wounded that same year. After recovering from his wounds and being discharged from the army Richter did travel, as promised, to Zurich where he met with two friends. They introduced him to the artists Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Marcel Janco and Richard Huelsenbeck.

It is worth remembering that many of the future Dadaists were initial supporting the war and that a lot can change in a few years of war and the lives of young men and women. The theoretician of Dada, Hugo Ball was so enthusiastic that at the start of the war he boarded a troop train for Belgium. He got as far as Leige where he was arrested as a spy but released when the authorities realised that he was only an idealist. However, in Berlin, the Herzfeld brothers were anti-war and already publishing the left wing journal, Neu Jugend.

During WWI a small group of young pacifist artists gathering in Zurich to escape the war and created art that changed the art history. Dada was an anarchic anti-art movement that formed and spread to like minded individuals around the world, setting the ground work for the contemporary art. For as the last century has shown the world has not learnt the stupid futility of war anymore than they have learnt the stupid futility of Dada. In the words of Ferdinand Hardekopf: “Dada is dead. And you?”

Yesterday Australia committed troops to fight in the Middle East, yet again, as if the last three or four times improved the situation.

On my Black Mark Facebook I am reporting on the activities of the Dadaists a hundred years ago, on the day of their centenary.


Dada Didn’t Happen

Dada was nothing. Dada didn’t happen. Dada never really happened – it was a non-event. Marcel Duchamp’s original Bicycle Wheel was left behind in Paris when he moved to the US and his “Fountain”, the most famous of the Dada anti-art, was never exhibited – it was hidden behind a screen. The Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich closed due to small audience numbers. So much of Dada was abandoned, thrown away, lost, the original artwork replaced with replicas created for museums decades after the event.

Outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Black Mark outside the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich

Of course, this is just outrageous; Dada is there in the art history books. There are all those magazines, books and autobiographies that the Dadaists wrote. There is even a plaque on the side of 1 Spiegelgasse in Zurich commemorating the location of the Cabaret Voltaire. There are relics of Dada art works lodged in museums around the world. So what I am writing cannot be true.

I am not accusing the Dadaists, art historians, curators and collectors of a conspiracy inventing Dada (although the existence of Julian Torma is debatable). What I am saying is that Dada was not ‘a happening thing’, not in the way that Warhol’s Factory was happening in late 1960s New York. Dada was only happened for a very small number of people, just as the Situationist International was only happened for a very small number of people, whereas WWI and the 1968 riots in Paris happened for a very large number of people. Art history has over emphasised both the Dada and the Situationist International due to their subsequent influence.

The non-existence of Dada suggests an error theory of history, that history is not what people think is history, or that there are different levels reality in the ontology of history. Much of history is based on what people say and write: the continent of Australia being declared part of the British Empire was done with some words and a performance involving a flag and some hats. The actual occupation of Australia was evidence of the British fidelity to the spoken words. Like Australia, Dada exists because what people said and wrote (as well as, a performance with extravagant costumes).

That much of history is something done with words means that we should consider the British philosopher J. L. Austin’s seminal paper “How to do Things with Words”. Austin notes that you have to be the right person to say these things like declaring the existence of a new country, a marriage or war. Were the Dadaists were the right people to declare the existence of a new art movement? They were university students, teenagers, refugees, artists, lumpen literati and free thinkers. What they said was nonsense but that was the point in saying it.

The activities of Dada were an anti-history. If history had lead Europe into a war then history could not be progressive or optimistic. Dada was the anti-history opposed to the official history was the Great War. One of the causes of the war was people believing in the declaration war as something more than words. And the Dadaists wanted to attack the idea that words could do things but making their new word do everything. The Dadaists were a limited company for the exploitation of a limited vocabulary. The Dadaists used the declaration of things as a way to attack logic, history and the war.

The classic claim is that word Dada was chosen at random. Exactly when this miraculous discovery happened and who it happened to be there is a matter of claim and counter-claim in the biographies of various Dadaists. “Dada” was the equivalent of writing “Jedi” under religion on your census form. Does this mean that Dada was just a parody? The demands of the Dadaist revolutionary council, Berlin group, certainly read like a parody of conventional politics. Or does the point where parody expands to include the whole of life, when there is no off-stage acknowledgement of the comedy, when the exception becomes the rule – does this transform parody into something else – an open rebellion?

Dada only really happened for about a couple of people, in the way that small bands and small artist-run-spaces happen (or don’t happen). Dada in Zurich was just a bunch of young refugees having fun in a bar and setting up a small upstairs art gallery that folded just as quickly as the cabaret. There was another group of anti-war artists in Zurich at the same time as Dada who regarded the Dadaists as silly; Richard Huelsenbeck was a member of both groups. If Dada didn’t happen I still find it very likeable.


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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