Asst. Opinions Editor
It’s hard to talk about the positive things in the last lockdown without feeling insensitive about the lost lives, or the worsening livelihood of a big part of the population. Still, I am plagued with dichotomies and will exercise my nihilistic optimism to promote self-reflection, even in times where it feels pointless to do so.
On Sept. 15 of 2020, HBO Max released the “American Utopia” special. A compilation of a few performances of the Broadway special David Byrne created in 2019, which is still running. The performance features the song “I Zimbra” with lyrics by one of the founders of the Dada movement in Switzerland, Hugo Ball. I had heard of the Dada movement before, but this time because of the times we were (are) going through, it resonated differently with me.
The song starts with some guitars, a heavy bass joins, some bongo drums and when the lyrics start, they almost feel like a tribal chant. After watching this special a few times, I researched more about the movement because, again, things had stopped making sense. A political landscape, then filled with vaccine and pandemic deniers and a rising level of deaths per day. Big corporations only grew while living conditions for the average American plummeted. Ethnic enclaves around the state became some of the most affected areas because of the spread of misinformation. Language has failed us, once again.
The first Dada movement in Switzerland 1916, was in the middle of World War I, by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings at Cabaret Voltaire, a bar that is still open in Zurich. In a small, floor level pub, people got together to drink absinthe and eat sausages; Ball and Hennings performed their first Dada intervention. Ball, wrapped in a big cardboard looking outfit as a bishop proclaiming gibberish, according to “Gaga for Dada: The Original Art Rebels,”an independent 2016 film, “Romanian poet Tristan Tzara cast Māori spells, Swedish artist Sophie Taueber improvised a dance wearing a cardboard mask as a dozen balalaika players turned up.” This was the artists’ response to a collapsing continent inflated with nationalist rhetoric and death. Since words had failed and wreaked havoc, dismantling them could be a way of making sense of times that didn’t.
The trajectory of Cabaret Voltaire wasn’t long at all, it used to be a place where people gathered to eat and drink, not watch nonsensical poetry slams. It closed within five months of service, but this did not discourage its founders. In July of 1916, Ball made several speeches on the “Dada Manifesto,” parodying the grand manifestos from that time. This was a group-founded movement, meaning some of these poets and artists returned to their home countries to spread the word about it, one of them being German poet Richard Hülsenbeck.
In Germany, dealing with severe hardships due to the war, the Dada movement took a jab at politics. They went as far as hanging on the ceiling of club data. In Berlin, they promoted a dummy dressed up in a German military uniform wearing a pig mask. Hannah Hoch gave birth to a new form of art, also criticizing politics, with her collage “Cut with the Kitchen Knife”. The movement made a big splash in other cities like Paris, New York and Cologne.
Since then, Dadaism has taken over multiple media platforms and inspired future generations, from William Burroughs to David Bowie. The question remains relevant even after a century of its founding days: How can we make sense of a world that doesn’t? Marching to a possible self-inflicted extinction because of Global warming, the ever-growing wealth disparity, people still dying of hunger because of civil wars like the one happening in Somalia currently. How do we put these events in our back pockets to get on with our normal lives?
There is a level of compartmentalizing that we do every day, to get out of bed and get on with our daily duties without spiraling. Like the Dada movement, I don’t know how to make sense of existence in a seemingly inconsequential society, where some people get away with so much at the expense of others’ livelihoods. Because of it, I turn to them for inspiration, as I know some of their circumstances were worse than the current ones.