ZORA BURDEN: For those who aren’t familiar with Dada and its history, will you give a brief explanation of the group’s formation and talk about some of the core members?
Cabaret Voltaire: As the birthday of Dada is the opening of Cabaret Voltaire on the 5th of February 1916, we can say that the core members of Dada were Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings. They started Cabaret Voltaire with Hans / Jean Arp who was there the same day already hanging up paintings in the Cabaret Voltaire. Probably Sophie Taeuber was there, as she was in a love relationship with Jean Arp. The same night Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco dropped by and joined immediately. A week later on the 11th of February, after Hugo Ball had sent out letters to friends in Germany asking them to join, Richard Huelsenbeck came to Cabaret Voltaire and started playing the “negro drums”. These seven personalities can be considered the key members of Dada at the beginning.
Richard Huelsenbeck brought Dada to Berlin in 1918 . where he got to know George Grosz, Raoul Hausmann, Hannah Höch, Johannes Baader, John Heartfield and others. Tristan Tzara brought Dada to Paris in 1920, where he met Andre Breton and Francis Picabia. Picabia played an important role in making Dada international. With Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray, Dada Baroness and Arthur Cravan were the main members of Dada in New York. In Hanover was Kurt Schwitters and in Cologne were Max Ernst and Johannes Baargeld. There were about 165 Dadaists, of which 21 were the core artists that formed Dada, the global art movement.
ZB: Can you summarize a few of Dada’s most important messages within its manifestos?
CV: If you go through the manifestos chronologically, there is quite an interesting development. The very first declaration or explanation is by Richard Huelsenbeck. In Spring 1916, he says that they found Dada, they have Dada, they are Dada, and that Dada means nothing! Then on the 14th of July 1916, Hugo Ball says that Dada is a word to be used to change the world. He asks: How to achieve eternal bliss? And answers: By saying Dada. Also: How do you become famous? By saying Dada. So you can use the word “Dada” almost like a magic word—a spell to change the world, to achieve eternal bliss, and to become famous.
In this same manifesto, Hugo Ball also says that we need to say the word “with noble gesture and delicate propriety, ‘til craziness, ‘til unconsciousness.” So he also provides a certain attitude—maybe the attitude of a Dandy—one who follows the consequence of a thought and the logic of “spiritual facts.”
Tristan Tzara in 1918, in his first Dada Manifesto, also uses Dada as a word and as a weapon to fight against everything and to “occupy” everything. With Tzara, Dada becomes a real tool that interferes wherever it can. In other manifestos Dadaists mainly describe what Dada is and how it is against other art movements.
Dada is here to change you, says the Johannes Baader manifesto, “Who is Dadaist?” He says that a Dadaist is a human who loves life in all its possible varieties. Baader, as Oberdada, wants humans who can create a new mankind imbued with this spirit. A similar notion can also be found in the “Manifest Proletkunst,” where Kurt Schwitters, Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp and others say that art is the spiritual function that will free humans from the chaos and tragedy of life. They seek “mature” human beings--that is what art is for. So Dada is a tool for creation; it “loosens up” structures to make a place for art to happen, as Walter Serner said in his Manifesto “Letzte Lockerung.” Kurt Schwitters agrees.
ZB: For those who may not know, why was Cabaret Voltaire chosen as the location for the first Dada performances? What is the history of the Cabaret Voltaire café/venue?
CV: Simply because the landlord let them do their Cabaret there. The building was built in the 14th century. Until the 1970s, it was still the same restaurant (“Meierei”) where Dada originated in 1916.
ZB: How and when did Cabaret Voltaire reopen? Will you talk about the protests to save it and have it declared a historical landmark?
CV: In 2002, the whole building was squatted by artists to remind the people of Zurich (and Switzerland) that we have a cultural heritage here that was in danger of being used merely as a pharmacy or soap shop or luxury flats. The artistic squatting was successful—a committee of over 2000 artists and cultural workers formed, whose goal was to save the “Dada House.” At one point Swatch stepped in and offered financial assistance in September 2004, Cabaret Voltaire reopened. It’s still a fight to keep Cabaret Voltaire open as a Dada space; right-wing groups continue to protest its existence.
ZB: What were some of the most notorious and subversive performances held at Cabaret Voltaire?
CV: Since 2004, the very first performance in Cabaret Voltaire was a concert by a Swiss band called “Kunst,” as far as I remember. There were a couple of opening events in 2004, speeches, also exhibitions, and a video by Nobuyoshi Araki. On the preview opening, the mayor gave a speech out of the window with a cardboard megaphone, and a Swiss Schlager band played.
It was more “actions” than performances that created scandal in Zurich. The first one was a T-Shirt we started selling with an image of Brigitte Mohnhaupt, a former RAF terrorist. We sold it next to a Che Guevara T-Shirt, asking if all terrorists would be fashion icons soon—and sure enough, Osama Bin Laden T-Shirts appeared! The local right-wing politicians said we were supporting terrorism and wanted to shut down Cabaret Voltaire.
Later we did a Street Art workshop. The local liberal party protested, saying we were supporting vandalism—again making a call to shut down the place. Then we did a “casting call” for men to join sex workshops for women where people learn how to discover their orgasmic potential. In this case, the city itself said we weren’t allowed to do this, because they don’t support pornography.
ZB: Do you think the Dadaists were the first real “revolutionary” group in the 20th century? How do you feel Dada encouraged personal liberation and freedom of expression?
CV: Dada was beyond any political or ideological movement. Even today, the term Dada is often misused to describe crazy or stupid things. Dada has always had a rebellious potential (which is quickly embraced by adolescents). But in the end, Dada is an attitude that questions everything. This is still not totally understood, but it is an attitude that leads to the future and to art. As previously mentioned, Dada is here to loosen things up and make a place for art. It’s not politics, or religion, or media, or science, or educational rules, but ART that defines our world! Maybe Dada wants to revisit the time when the world was defined by poetry and stories. Or more simply: Dada wants you to be a dandy, trickster and joker… so you will be the best human possible, every day!
ZB: How did the first Dada International Fair in Germany come about, and what was the motivation behind it?
CV: It was organized by the Dadaists in Berlin and took place in the gallery of Dr. Otto Burchard from June 30th until August 25th, 1920. According to the program there were 174 works showed by Raoul Hausmann, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Francis Picabia, Hans Arp, Wieland Herzfelde, Max Schlichter, Max Ernst, Alois Erbach, Rudolf Schlichter, Hans Citroen, John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Johannes Baader, Georg Kobbe and some others. Wieland Herzfelde wrote an excellent introduction text.
ZB: Because Dada is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, will you talk about the many ways Dada has influenced society over the last century?
CV: Dada was the very first postmodern art movement. As we are still living in a postmodern society today, one can say that Dada influenced the Western half of the world; the second half is yet to come to Dada. In 1923 when Kurt Schwitters went with Theo van Doesburg and Nelly van Doesburg on a Dada campaign in Holland, Dada was something the “dumb audience” (as Schwitters put it) adopted very quickly. With joy, people shouted Dada and used Dada as in a carnival where they can be a bit crazy and let themselves go.
Certain art movements refer to Dada: Surrealism, Lettrism, Situationism, Beat Generation, Fluxus, Happening, Punk, Performance art and creative activists. One can say that Lady Gaga is Dada and Pussy Riot is Dada. Here you can see the whole range of Dada influencing society today.
ZB: What are some of the events planned for Dada100 internationally? What are some of the events Cabaret Voltaire will be hosting? What other celebrations in Zurich will occur over this year?
CV: Cabaret Voltaire celebrated 165 Celebration Days. We did this every morning until the 18th of July and we did it every night at 20:00 from the 5th of February until the 15th of May. Our main event during the celebration was «Obsession Dada», an exhibition about Harald Szeemann’s work on Dada. With Una Szeemann we researched this in the Getty Research Center in L.A. We did a performance series on a copper stage designed by Una Szeemann, with international contemporary artists from all over the world. The idea was to reload Cabaret Voltaire with contemporary energy and therefore transform and bring it to the future.
We also curated the exhibition “Genesis Dada” in the Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck, where we showed the very first exhibitions by the Dadaists in Zurich: the paintings and drawings that were hung in Cabaret Voltaire and in Galerie Dada in 1916 and 1917. We showed how Dada was generated.
And we co-curated the exhibition “Kurt Schwitters: Merz” with an architecture design by Zaha Hadid in Galerie Gmurzynska on Paradeplatz in Zurich, which is more or less exactly where Galerie Dada was in 1917.
ZB: If a person can’t attend an event, what are some creative ways to celebrate Dada?
CV: Chant a Sound Poem in a public place. Chant it like a Catholic priest. Like Hugo Ball did on the 23rd of June 1916. Go to a shop and try on all the clothes in the shop and then not buy anything—like Urmuz (not a Dadaist but a Symbolist), did some years before Dada. Walk down a street with restaurants, open the door of each restaurant and shout “Viva Dada” and close the door again—like August Giacometti and Hans Arp did in 1918 in Zurich. Or make a Dadaist poem:
How to Make a Dadaist Poem
“To make a Dadaist poem: Take a newspaper. Take a pair of scissors. Choose an article as long as you are planning to make your poem. Cut out the article. Then cut out each of the words that make up this article and put them in a bag. Shake it gently. Then take out the scraps one after the other in the order in which they left the bag. Copy conscientiously. The poem will be like you. And here are you a writer, infinitely original and endowed with a sensibility that is charming though beyond the understanding of the vulgar.” Tristan Tzara
ZB: What do you feel are some of the most important works of Dada art or anti-art, literature, film, etc. a person should know about?
CV: Marcel Duchamp’s fountain, Kurt Schwitters’ whole body of work, Francis Picabia’s machine drawings and diagrams, Hugo Ball’s “Flight out of Time,” Hannah Höch’s collages, Sophie Taeuber Arp’s entire body of work, Dada Baroness, herself as an artwork. The life of Arthur Cravan, the early works of Max Ernst, the Dada magazines, and the 391 magazines by Picabia.
ZB: How do you feel Surrealism and Dada differ? What about in regards to the Theater of the Absurd?
CV: Surrealists are copycats of Dada without its humor. They’re too political, and are hidden behind pseudo-psychological topics. On the other hand, Arturo Schwarz would say that Dada is about nothing—it is total nihilism, whereas Surrealism is about Revolution and Women.
ZB: Why did the Dada movement end when it did?
CV: Because Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton were in a fight, but also because it was time to end it.
ZB: How would you best describe Dada in a single word?
CV: Dada is about being all these contradictions at the same time and going in between them as well. In this sense, Dada is pivotal.
ZB: It seems that people are familiar with the men of Dada, but not the women who were involved. Will you mention some of them, and the types of work they produced?
CV: There were about 50 women involved in Dada. Last year a book appeared on this topic, and we made a conference in Cabaret Voltaire. Among the most important Dada women are Sophie Taeuber Arp, Hannah Höch, Emmy Hennings, Dada Baroness, Celine Arnauld, Suzanne Perrottet, Suzanne Duchamp, Beatrice Wood, Katherine Dreier, etc. Not all women involved were artists or dancers, they were also collectors and supporters.
ZB: Dada was a revolt against the rigid, creatively-stifling societal norms of the wealthy; a rebellion against the dogmas of religion and the horrors of war. Do you see Dada as being even more relevant today in the U.S.?
CV: Yes, of course—not just the U.S. but the whole Western and Western-dominated world. In 1913, Hugo Ball wrote: “The world and society in 1913 looked like this: life is completely confined and shackled. A kind of economic fatalism prevails; each individual, whether he resists or not, is assigned a specific role and with it, his interests and his character.” A hundred years later, is this not still true? And Hugo Ball goes on to ask: "Is there anywhere a force that is strong enough and above all vital enough to put an end to this state of affairs?"
This force was maybe Dada. And on the same page he ends with: "What is necessary is a league of all men who want to escape from the mechanical world, who seek a way of life opposed to mere utility. Orgiastic devotion to the opposite of everything that is serviceable and useful."
The problem is that today, even doing nothing has become part of the utilitarian world—we call it downshifting. We organize our free time like our work time—we fill up every free second with yoga and kabbalah, etc. In Asia, people do competitions about doing nothing. We are so practical and utilitarian that we don’t even know how to do nothing. We only have work and free time, but nothing in between.
ZB: Do you see Dada as having been a form of therapeutic catharsis for its participants, because of the violence and oppression they lived with at the time?
CV: One could see it in that way, yes. Maybe we would have to focus more on an artistic and psychological catharsis than a therapeutic one. Especially in Zurich, Switzerland (the spa of the world), the therapeutic factor was (and still is) very high. A lot of the Dadaists said things about Switzerland, like Hugo Ball: Switzerland is a birdcage surrounded by roaring lions. Jean Arp said: We sing, paint, make collages, compose poetry and dance, searching for an elementary art and a new order that can heal human beings from the folly of the era, and create a balance between heaven and hell.
Also, Kurt Schwitters sees Dada as a remedy against the sickness of the time… of a time that has no style. That’s why Dada was a danger for the time, because it would change it and make it less sick.
So, like Arturo Schwarz says about Surrealism, one can say about Dada: They tried to transform themselves to transform the world. Or as Hugo Ball would say: “Self-assertion suggests the art of self-metamorphosis. Magic is the last refuge of individual self-assertion.”
ZB: Who is currently involved in running Cabaret Voltaire and what are their functions at the venue?
CV: Cabaret Voltaire is an association. The president of the association is Juergen Haeulser, a former chairman of Interbrand, and the vice-president is Jean-Pierre Hoby, the former cultural director of the city. They are supported by a board. I, Adrian Christopher Notz, am director and curator of Cabaret Voltaire. Leandro Davies is the business manager, Nora Hauswirth is in charge of communications and also does curatorial works, and Laura Sabel is curatorial assistant with a main focus on the historical dimension. Vincent Clifford and Timothy Wickert run the bar and Judith Peters runs the shop.
ZB: Who are some of its current artists?
CV: Current artists are the ones we had in the 165 Celebration Days – Obsession Dada jubilee project:
Una Szeemann, Lu Cafausu, Giovanni Morbin, Stefano Benini, Kerim Seiler, Dario Bonucelli, Pastor Leumund, Aldo Mozzini & Oppy de Bernardo, Garrett Nelson, Domenico Bilari, James Stephen Wright, Thomas Hirschhorn, Marcel Janco), Carlos Amorales, Michele Robecci, Gianni Motti, Shana Lutker, Nedko Solakov, Ermanno Cristini, Pilar Albarracin, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Rafael Abdala & Jessica Goes, Bazon Brock, Carl Michael von Hauswolff & Leif Elggren, Carsten Höller, Edvard Graham Lewis, Dorit Chrysler, Carsten Nicolai, Michael Esposito, Ken Montgomery & Luna Montgomery, Scott Konzelmann, Dave Phillips, Tara Bhattacharya, Marja-Leena Sillanpäa, Thierry Charollais, Klara Lewis, Achim Mohne, John Duncan, Francisco Meirino, Rick Reed, Lary Seven, Jonathan Meese and many others.
ZB: Will you mention some of the extensions of the venue, like the Dada store? What would a person find within the store?
CV: In the store one can find mainly books on contemporary art and Dada. You can also find some design and art editions, some T-shirts and the Dada Absinthe.
ZB: For those who feel that Dada was nonsensical, and who are dismissive of this movement, can you explain the importance of Dada and its intentional contradictions?
CV: Contradictions in Dada are here to show that the whole world—at least the world of human beings—is full of contradictions and absurdities. In this sense, the nonsense of Dada is just showing the non-sense of our society. Our society today is even more nonsensical than it was 100 years ago!
ZB: Will you name some films or documentaries on Dada that have truly captured the essence of the group?
CV: None. Most just got caught in the funny, absurd part of Dada. Except the films by Dadaists, like “Entre-act” by Rene Clair.
ZB: What earlier movements do you think were similar to Dada?
CV: In visual art and a bit in poetry Dada took over ideas from Futurism, Russian Cubo-futurism, expressionism and cubism.
ZB: Will you talk about how Alfred Jarry’s works and concepts contributed to the creation of Dada?
CV: Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi was read in Cabaret Voltaire, before they actually found the name Dada.
ZB: In current society who or what do you feel embodies the Ubu Roi?
CV: Of course, one could say Donald Trump–even the name somehow sounds similar… At least he is as obscene as Ubu. Maybe it is more Recep Erdoğan. He is also quite obscene and even has the power to kill people. Putin has the power, but is not as obscene.
ZB: How important was Pataphysics to the Dadaists?
CV: Dadaists practice Pataphysics, even if they don’t mention it too much.
ZB: What are some important aspects of Dada’s history that you learned about while working with Cabaret Voltaire? Is there any of its history that has been unknown or suppressed that you’d like to mention?
CV: Well, I only started learning about Dada’s history when I began working in Cabaret Voltaire. All the history of Dada has important aspects. Right now, with the 165 Holidays project, I got to know a lot about the 165 Dadaists in person, which is very interesting. I would say that this year my main discovery concerned the importance of women in Dada… the female logic that one can find in Dada. Like Nadja Tolokonnikowa, Trudeau and Obama, I guess I can say I am a feminist. If you look at how Kurdish female fighters are trained and fight male Isis members, feminism, just like Dada makes a lot more sense!