A 21st Century


‘What if you lived in a world so misguided,
flawed and terrible that it could create the
unthinkable slaughter of the Somme?’

John Higgs
The name “Dada” supposedly came about as a parody of a child’s first sound. The use of meaningless words like this was common during the birth of the Dada movement just over one hundred years ago. Performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, 1916, included ‘sound poetry’ formed entirely from abstract noises. For the artists on stage their verses of complete nonsense made perfect sense as a reaction to a society that had brought about the mass mechanised slaughter of WWI. A war during which men were killed in the millions, sometimes gassed by their own artillery, or even shot by their own generals. In the words of writer John Higgs: ‘Such a bankrupt society deserved meaningless poetry.’1

As war consumed much of Europe, one small back room of a bar in Switzerland provided a much needed safe haven that embraced creative experimentation. At raucous soirees hosted by co-founder Hugo Ball and his partner Emmy Hennings, exiled artists from across the continent dressed in bizarre costumes, recited poems in three languages at once and beat sinister sounds on drums.

During this turbulent period, a different kind of visual art was appearing in the form of spontaneous collages made from magazine cuttings and newspaper clippings, arranged as if made purely by chance. Dada was a rebel, and these artists wanted to start a revolution. A manifesto written by co-founder, Tristan Tzara, playfully summed up the contradictions and deliberate inconsistencies in one word: ‘LIFE’.2

Across the Atlantic in New York, as the first trees blossomed during the spring of 1917, Marcel Duchamp travelled to a shop on Fifth Avenue and purchased a standard porcelain Bedfordshire urinal. Returning to his studio on the Upper West Side, he turned the object upside down, signed it using the alias R. Mutt, and submitted it to an exhibition hosted by the Society of Independent Artists (of which he was also a member of the board).3

Entitled ‘The Fountain’, Duchamp’s surprise statement unleashed a question only ever more relevant today: What is art? With a generous dose of irony, he subverted not just our understanding of what a widely used object could represent, but also popular critical opinion. Could art be an idea as well as an artefact? The Cabaret Voltaire had certainly proved it could also be satirical performance.

During the post-war period that followed, Dadaism slowly lost its edge as it morphed into Surrealism. But later the same century, the same anarchic spirit which had originally brought Dada into the world resurfaced, first during the 1960s with the work of the Situationists and a parody religion known as Discordianism, and again during the 1970s in the form of Punk rock. In 1977, a British band called the Sex Pistols went on tour launching an attack on the crown and social conformity.4 (They too, like Duchamp, were forced to perform under an alias.) Such are the similarities shared with Dada, that in his book Lipstick Traces, the critic Greil Marcus traces a line from Johnny Rotten’s verses of ‘God save the Queen’ all the way back to the Voltaire recitals of Dada’s founder, Hugo Ball.5

The night the BBC invited the Sex Pistols onto the popular dinner-time television show ‘Top of the Pops’ to perform their hit single ‘Pretty Vacant’ perhaps marked the moment when even Punk was ‘absorbed into the establishment’. The art critic Jonathan Jones suggests that it was during
this phase, that we saw the first signs ‘dada was turning from subversive menace to mainstream con’.6

During the 1980s spoof rockers appeared in the the form of Bad News and Spinal Tap, and by the 1990s even the art of performance parody was to become a victim of its own success – perhaps exemplified no better than the night Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty (from a band called the KLF) burned a million pounds of their own money in a disused boathouse on the remote Scottish Isle of Jura, effectively protesting against their own capitalist success.

Throughout this last quarter of the 20th century, reactionary voices of objection also resurfaced within the Anti-Modernity and Green Movements. Environmentalists tied themselves to trees blocking the bulldozer’s progress, whilst consumers in the capitalist mainstream looked on in bewilderment, not really getting it. Their means of protest was not necessarily deliberately ironic, but there was certainly a paradox to be found within the wider spectacle – these were after all the first children of those born into the ‘free-world’, voluntarily spending their time locked in chains.

Culture Jamming’ became popular in the early 2000s, when artists such as D*Face or Ron English would take the cultural images forced upon us by modern advertising, and screw with them. By targeting the logos of some of the world’s most successful brands, they would then subvert them to their own ends. The idea was to ‘turn the expressions of the capitalist system against itself.’ The aim, as John Higgs explains, ‘was to try and break their spell.’7

Such a theory begins to explain (but does not excuse) the burning of luxury cars in Hamburg in 2017. But now that capitalism is well documented to be increasingly working solely for the 1%, this is effectively our century’s equivalent of the same moral corruptness that once emanated from late 19th-century imperial forces. To quote John Higgs: ‘Dada was anti-art. It was negation, a creation that saw itself as a destruction.’8 Could this form of art now include turning over cars as well as porcelain urinals? Perhaps then, the spirit behind Dada, is still very much alive today.

In the words of Greil Marcus: ‘Dada was a protest against its time; it was also the bird on the rhinoceros’ back, peeping and chirping, but along for the ride.’9 If Dada’s song relies not just on the type of bird, but also on the character of the rhinoceros that it follows, then in today’s fractured media landscape, where a whole range of agendas and counter-agendas are being promoted, Dada continues to sing through an ever-increasing multitude of disguises.

Now that clean energy, open minds and more relaxed attitudes to sex, race, religion, are the new emerging trends and attitudes of this world, there is no shortage of new reactionary protagonists out there. Could it be that even the art of Dada has been flipped, and finally broken onto the political stage?

On 9 February 2017, Scott Morrison, a politician of conservative ideology, took a lump of coal into the Australian parliament and told us, the world, not to be afraid of it. Whilst waving it around the room he claimed it to be an essential part of ‘our sustainable and more certain energy future’. Was this any less a clever subversive performance than any Dadaist act at the Cabaret Voltaire one century earlier?

Forms of ‘counter-culture jamming’ like this have now inevitably entered the political mainstream. In Scott Morrison’s case, as a conservative bird singing from the back of an increasingly antiquated energy source, he’s using similar subversive techniques to undermine what he fears to be the next prevalent system – renewables.

Perhaps then, if we were able to zoom out far enough in history, we would be able to see Dadaism as a form of art, which now appears to be be employed and counter-employed by multiple opposing factions, sometimes entirely for their own gain. Today this includes conservative politicians like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, with their innumerable ‘false truths’, tweeting nonsensical words like ‘covfefee’ in the middle of the night. And more recently Jair Bolsonaro, who during a televised address on 23 August 2019, professed to feeling ‘profound love and respect’ for the Amazon, as devastating fires continued to rage in the background.10

These men are using similar mechanisms of parody and subversion, in an attempt to actively confuse and control the wider narrative. Whilst the original Dada performances of one century ago were protests against the world’s ills with good intention, these newer reactionary voices can be seen almost trying to ‘culture jam’ the entire system, so that it can then be subverted and exploited to their own autocratic ends. Galvanising the votes of the very people they mock within the fog created by their own disinformation campaigns.

The writer Len Bracken points out that last century, Dada correctly predicted the coming of Nazism, World War II, and the Holocaust.11 Meanwhile, whilst it is already clear to some who the most morally bankrupt in today’s society are, only by the middle of this century might we be able to see who wins this latest exchange of performance sabotage. If those lacking a moral compass continue to win this duel of wits, then who, when their climatic destruction is more apparent, will hold them to account? The potential genocides of this century won’t necessarily be caused by world war, but they might well still be the result of decisions being made by the morally or politically bankrupt right now.

The painter and sculptor Hans Arp once observed: ‘Before there was Dada, Dada was there.’12 For humanity as a whole, then perhaps Dada works best as a reality check or alarm bell for its time. In much the same way that dogs are used in sci-fi movies to detect anything from zombies to vampires to terminators. Dadaism tends to sit up, rear its head and begins to bark loudly at points in human history when something isn’t quite right with the commonly accepted ways of the world. In an era where factions from all sides of the cultural and political spectrum are tapping into this form of artistic energy, performing, parodying and tweeting on the world’s stage, then now is perhaps the time when we need to wake up most urgently, and listen to those loud bells ringing.
Illustration — The Alarm Bell

Next ︎
Chapter 7 —
3 Letters... War

Credits & Notes

1 / 7 – 9 / 12
John Higgs
The KLF:  Chaos,
magic and the band who burned a million pounds
Weidenfeld & Nicolson

Tristan Tzara
Dada Manifesto (1918)

Wikipedia Page
‘Fountain (Duchamp)’ wikipedia.org

Cory Grow
‘Sex Pistols Break Down Never Mind the Bollocks Track by Track’
Rolling Stone

5 – 6
Jonathan Jones
‘A century of Dada: from anti-war artists to mainstream con artists’
The Guardian
(05 May 2016)

‘President Bolsonaro’s Brazil Fires Address’, Amazon Watch Statement
(23 Aug 2019)

Len Bracken’s Confused Criticism of Greil Marcus


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