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Zurich's anti-art movement: ninety-four years after its manic inception, let's take a look back at Zurich's own anti-war, anti-class and anti-art movement, which celebrated anarchy and pandemonium: Dadaism.


"In French it means hobbyhorse. In German it means good-bye ... In Romanian: Yes, indeed, you are right ... definitely, right. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance." And with that declaration--read from the Dada manifesto at the first public Dada event on July 14, 1916 Hugo Ball launched one of the most influential and important (anti-) art movements of all time, Dada.

In 1916, Zurich was the gathering place for refugees from war-torn Europe, a place where people came to find peace and stability. It was also a relatively permissive environment with a history of accepting the revolutionary ideas of Europe's disillusioned intellectuals--including Vladimir Lenin, who in 1916 was preparing for his own revolution. Therefore, it's no surprise that artists, political activists, intellectuals and regular citizens weary of the fighting and death in their native lands swarmed to the city to gather in bars and cafes. In these venues, they planned new revolutions (political and otherwise) and discussed "future society" until all hours of the night.

Among these refugees were Hugo Bail, his soon-to-be wife Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, the Janco brothers (Marcel, George and Jules), Arthur Segal, Jean Arp and Richard Huelsen-beck--the future founders of Dada and its home, the Cabaret Voltaire. Many of the group's original members were Romanian Jews escaping the ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies rapidly taking shape in Romania, while others were Germans escaping WWI. They were united by their conviction that the horrors around them--the death and destruction--were rooted in outdated bourgeois values that still governed Europe, and that this societal order, with its inequalities and brutality, needed to be destroyed so that another, more humane one, could be created.

Revolutionary beginnings

It was with this desire that Hugo Ball went to a bar in Zurich's old town--the Hollandische Meierei--to ask its owner, Ephraim Jan, for the use of the back room for a new project: a cabaret with singing, theatrics, music, visual art exhibitions, and all sorts of other performances that would challenge bourgeois sensibilities. It was called the Cabaret Voltaire after the French philosopher who once had also challenged the status quo with his enlightened ideals, it opened for the first time on February 5, 1916.

This first event was little different from the cabarets or soirees that Ball had organised before in Berlin. Most artists involved came from an expressionist or futurist background, while the music was relatively tame and mainstream in those modern art circles. But with time, the performances became more and more daring, pushing the limits of respectability to the ultimate climax on July 14, 1916, when the first essentially Dada show took place.

This evening featured manifesto readings from Ball, Huelsenbeck, Tzara and Arp. Tzara also read from his famous play, The First Celestial Adventure of Mr. Antipyrine (a headache medicine) where he warns against making Dada an ideology, and looking at everything with scepticism and doubt. Ball appeared onstage in what is now considered an iconic costume of a robot-like bishop called the Bishop of Dada (pictured left), while Emmy danced inside a tube wearing a sinister mask.

A stage for political commentary

Most of the artists--specifically Ball, Tzara, the Janco brothers and Huelsenbeck--were well read in contemporary political theory, and sympathised with anarchic ideals advocating stateless egalitarian societies. Ball was a great admirer of the Russian anarchy theorist Mikhail Bakunin, who had also spent time in Zurich in the 1870s.

Influenced by Bakunin's ideas, Ball and his friends started to apply his theories by rejecting authority, institutional power and the state, which Ball considered "to be Dada in political disguise", to their new mode of art creation. They also claimed that the movement's name was conceived anarchically. The legend goes that the name was adopted when they randomly stuck a knife into a dictionary and hit the noun Dada, or hobbyhorse in French.

Interestingly, the word also means "yeah, yeah" in Romanian, or sarcastically used as "yeah, right", an obvious slap in the face to the tradition of "isms" epitomising theory, order and reason in the early 20th century. Once Dada became an international phenomenon--with adherents in all major world cities--artists started debating the origin of the name, claiming it as their own finding.

In the introduction to the first and only issue of the publication called Cabaret Voltaire, where the idea of Dada first appeared formally at the end of May 1916, Ball wrote a humorous account of the process of launching the cabaret: "When I founded the Cabaret Voltaire, I was of the opinion that there ought to be a few young people in Switzerland who not only laid stress, as I did, on enjoying their independence, but also wished to proclaim it. I went to Mr. Ephraim [Jan], the owner of the 'Meierei' restaurant and said, 'Please, Mr. Ephraim, let me have your hall. I want to make a cabaret.' Mr. Ephraim agreed. So 1 went to some friends of mine and asked them, 'Please, let me have a picture, a drawing, an engraving. I want to have an exhibition to go with my cabaret.' And I went to the friendly press of Zurich and said, 'Write a few notes. It shall be an international cabaret. We want to do some beautiful things.' And they gave me pictures, and they wrote the notes ... It is to exemplify the activities and the interests of the cabaret, whose whole endeavour is directed at reminding the world--across the war and various fatherlands--of those few independent spirits that live for other ideals."


Unfortunately, the cabaret closed soon afterwards in June 1916, but Dada was only just beginning. The Dadaists, despite brewing internal conflicts, rented a room for one night at the Waag Hall (Guild House), where they held the historic July 14 Dada Soiree. This event officially launched Dada, and included Ball's first version of the manifesto (or anti-manifesto), Tzara reading his own manifesto, Huelsenbeck reading his phonetic poem, more wild performances, absurdist literary readings, avantgardist works of art and general chaos. Every gesture and every move was calculated for the most impact and to shock the audience, thus ensuring the group's aim of destruction and negation of acceptability, aesthetic and reason. If art until then had been based on aesthetic, then Dada was anti-art, and these performances were hideous and disturbing, like the war around them.


After the closing of the Cabaret Voltaire--because Mr. Ephraim Jan could no longer take the madness--the artists associated with Dada moved on, first hosting regular exhibitions in Galerie Dada at Bahnhofstrasse 19, before leaving to take their ideas to other cities where they established local Dada branches. Those that didn't remain Dadaists went on to create great work in other movements, particularly Surrealism. However, Hugo Ball, who actually separated himself from Dada in early 1920, turned to Christianity and retired to Ticino until his death. Tzara went on to establish the Dada school of thought and became its main promoter and leader.


Since its closing in 1916, the building housing the Cabaret Voltaire on Spiegelgasse 1 has gone through many transformations. In 1989, the space was a Teen 'n' Twenty disco, where only a plaque with the word "Dadaismus" on the building commemorated the cultural revolution's origins.

But in 2002, while the building's owner was considering turning it into offices, a group of self-funded artists, including conceptual artist Mark Divo, squatted in the building and started a series of Dada performances and festivals to raise awareness of the building's history and importance. The excitement these events generated was noticed by Swatch CEO Nicolas Hayek who--along with the Zurich City Social-Democratic Party and architecture magazine Hochparterre--petitioned the city government to open an arts centre dedicated to Dada at the location.

"The most important thing in this crazy world is to give power to imagination and positive provocation--that always generates forward movement," Hayek said of the project. He went on to pledge SFr 1.5 million in funding over a five-year period, on the condition that he could sell Swatch special edition Dada watches in the centre's shop. And thus, in 2004, Cabaret Voltaire, funded by the city of Zurich as well as private contributors, opened its doors as an official arts and cultural centre.

The building, having become an institution commemorating Dada, features exhibitions, a historical archive housed on the lower floor, a museum shop selling books and objets d'art (including the Dada Swatch), and a cafe. The famous cabaret itself can be found at the back of the building. Events and performances, which tackle contemporary social issues, are staged there.


According to the Cabaret Voltaire, it welcomes "scientists, school children, art lovers, exhausted shoppers, business people, tourists, socialites and localites alike".

The owners believe that the re-opened cabaret's location in the original Cabaret Voltaire creates "an emotionally intense, tourist memorial to the historical Dadaism. At the same time, and foremost though, Cabaret Voltaire is a live cultural centre, where bridges between Dada and the social and cultural movements of today are built."

Hypothetically speaking ...

What would the fanatically anti-establishment Dadaists have thought about Cabaret Voltaire becoming an institution dedicated to what they believed could not be institutionalised? Perhaps this letter from original co-founder Hugo Ball to Tristan Tzara after Bali's break with Dadaism sheds some light:

"I have another system now. I want to do it differently ... I declare hereby that Expressionism, Dadaism and other 'isms' are the worst type of bourgeoisie. All are bourgeoisie, all bourgeoisie. Evil, evil, evil."

Upcoming performances

What is art, Hugo Ball

April 20- June 6

Cabaret Voltaire at Spiegelgasse 1

The Slovenian artist group IRWIN looks at the exhibition "What is art, Hugo Ball" through Hugo Bali's book, The Byzantine Christianity and Dada lit by a Byzantine Orthodox Gnosticism. ba
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Author:Stefan, Olga
Publication:Swiss News
Date:May 1, 2010
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