The Dada Centennial Commemorates the History and Endurance of Experimental Art


February 10, 2016
Flagpole Magazine
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The Dada Centennial Commemorates the History and Endurance of Experimental Art
By Jessica Smith

Emerging in opposition to the horrors of World War I, Dada was an international anti-war, anti-bourgeois, anti-art movement of artists and poets who largely rejected logic, rationality and the status quo to embrace chaos, nonsense and intuition. The romanticized birthplace of Dada is storied to be Cabaret Voltaire, a nightclub founded by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings in Zurich, Switzerland in February 1916 as a nucleus for avant-garde artistic, literary and political activity. Though Cabaret Voltaire was only operated for less than a year, frequent soirees of radically experimental performances of spoken word, dance and live music—often as absurd and destructive as the war existing outside the doors—served as a precursor for Dadaists who continued to reject traditional aesthetics, instead finding artwork as the medium for expressing social and political dissonance.

In celebration of the centennial year of Dada and the ongoing spirit of experimental art, Ideas for Creative Exploration (ICE)—an interdisciplinary initiative for advanced research in the arts at UGA—collaborated with Jed Rasula, Helen S. Lanier Distinguished Professor and head of the department of English, to curate a three-week series of performances themed on the past, present and future. The series uses Rasula’s recently published art history book Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century as a resource to connect Dada’s historical milestone to Athens’ own position as a center for experimental art.

“I was deeply affected by Jed’s book, where he follows the lives of the Dada participants and provides a broad context for their activities, really letting their personalities and ideas come through,” says Mark Callahan, artistic director of ICE. “The book allows the reader to see how so much contemporary culture proceeds from the conditions that Dada responded to a century ago; in many ways we are still reinventing and catching up to the core innovations and creative disruptions of Dada.”

Flicker Theatre & Bar will be transformed into Cabaret Voltaire 1916 on Thursday, Feb. 11 beginning at 8 p.m. with a presentation by Rasula and a performance by Italian composer and musicologist Luciano Chessa. Rasula became interested in bringing Chessa to Athens after seeing him perform a program of Italian Futurist sound poetry last year at the Guggenheim. Many of the participants at Cabaret Voltaire were aware of Italian Futurists and became heavily influenced by their sound poetry, making Chessa a relevant component to the night’s discourse. David Saltz, executive director of ICE and head of the UGA Theatre and Film Studies Department, will direct students in reenacting a series of Dada performances based on archival research, such as Erik Satie’s “Trois Morceaux en Forme de Poire,” a piano piece for four hands played by Crystal Wu and Emma Lin. The evening will be rounded out with costumes, set design and other surprises directly inspired by those legendary nights of yore.

On Thursday, Feb. 18 at 8 p.m., the historic Morton Theatre will host a rare performance by the famed cosmic jazz group Sun Ra Arkestra, currently under the direction of 91-year-old Marshall Allen, who joined the Arkestra in 1958 and led the reed section for more than four decades. Following Sun Ra’s 1993 ascension—space is the place, presumably—the group continued to play his classic big-band compositions alongside Allen’s own arrangements deeply rooted in the spirit of his mentor. Organized by Heather McIntosh, ICE Honorary Fellow and curator of ICE’s AUX event and publishing series devoted to experimental art, the evening will open with the Flicker Orchestra performing live soundtracks to silent films from the Dada era.

“Jazz emerged as word and musical style more or less simultaneously with Dada. And in Europe the two were often confused. Dadaists actually would drop in the word ‘jazz’ in posters advertising their events—not that they knew anything at all about jazz… few did,” says Rasula. “Jazz history has its own internal varieties of Dada, whether it’s Charles Mingus’ tunes like ‘All the Things You Could Be By Now if Sigmund Freud’s Wife Was Your Mother.’ Also, the development of scat singing in jazz has affinities with Dada sound poetry, although the musicians are unlikely to have known about [Dada]. However, Mamie Smith and Her Jazz Hounds released a tune in 1923 called ‘That Dada Strain,’ so who knows? The fanciful spirit of Sun Ra’s personality, lifestyle and cosmology make the Arkestra a perfect way to celebrate the centenary of Dada in Athens.”

The Centennial Celebration concludes with a return to Flicker on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 8 p.m. featuring new works by visiting artist Bruce Andrews and live music from Mind Brains. A recently retired professor of political science at Fordham University, Andrews is a New York-based poet and performance artist known as one of the founders of the influential avant-garde “language poetry” movement of the early ‘70s. Student contributions include short plays by members of professor John Bray’s playwriting group; an improvisation set by music doctoral student Scott Eggert on a Pythagorean Lambdoma Harmonic Keyboard and local mainstay Killick on a VO-96 fretless acoustic guitar; and electronic compositions by music doctoral students Cody Brookshire and Hanna Lisa Stefansson.

“Traces of Dada are everywhere, and in performance it’s often detectable through a somewhat anarchic sense of humor like you get in Monty Python. For the original Dadaists, humor was a weapon, as well as a part of being human,” says Rasula. “But Dada introduced other influential things, like the use of chance, the accommodation of any medium to noise or disruption and, above all, an iconoclastic wariness of official institutions, especially art institutions. Hence Dada’s reputation as ‘anti-art.’”