I met Dada by chance — which is, come to think of it, very Dada.
It was during a trip to New Orleans: I was strolling through the Modern Art Museum’s gift shop when I ran into a small pocket-book called The Post-Human Dada Guide. A strange piece of work organized as a dictionary but structured as a roadmap for living what is called a “Dada life.” An impractical guide, the back-cover stated, for “it is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life.”
Andrei Codresçu — the author — lived in the New Orleans; I thought of this as I carried his book in my back-pocket through dive bars, burlesque venues, and blues nightclubs. Hurricane Katrina had ravaged the city only two years before my visit, yet the catastrophe did not quell the carnivalesque atmosphere. On the contrary, it served as a balm.
Zurich — the birthplace of Dada — was a magnet of dissidents escaping the ravage of the First World War. Neutrality had turned the city into a hub of intellectual fervor; each week luminaries arrived from every corner of Europe and mingled in the streets and cafés protected by the Alps. One of the most famous of these characters was Lenin, who lived right across the street of mythic Cabaret Voltaire, where Dada was born.
But unlike this quiet neighbor (who, incidentally, was planning a world revolution), Dada was full of noise. Those nights of mayhem and chaos at the Cabaret Voltaire are the closest Zurich had to the debauchery of the Beats in San Francisco or of the Punks, in Berlin. The Dadaist would get on stage dressed in ridiculous clothes and monstrous masks shouting meaningless noises (brrrrrrrddd!! Daddadada!!!) to a crowd that would then explode in uproarious laughter, or walk away in disgust.
Beyond the mountains, the first industrialized war in history was tearing Europe apart. It was the self-proclaimed duty of the folks at Cabaret Voltaire to embody the nonsense. To punch with meaninglessness. To shock.
Hugo Ball was the founder of Cabaret Voltaire, but it was Tristan Tzara who outlived him as a self-proclaimed Dadaist and who later became the poster boy for the movement. It was through Codrescu — who is Rumanian and Jewish — that I learned that Tzara, along with Marcel Janco, formed part of the Jewish Rumanian’s posse of Cabaret Voltaire.
Coming from Bucharest — referred to as the “Paris of Eastern Europe” at the time — these Jews brought to the über-calm streets of Zurich a penchant for the absurd that had long been a tradition in Jewish life. What was later called Dadaism — the artistic avant-garde that is still gaining followers — actually grew out of from the social critique of Yiddish Theater and the Talmudic belief in God as manifesting itself multiple combinations.
Driven by a mystic and nihilist calling, the Dadaists turned chance into their god. Cut-ups from newspapers turned into collages, which symbolized man’s surrender to chaos and destruction, a critique of the war machinery, and a reaction to lives turned into statistics.
After Cabaret Voltaire broke off, it unleashed unprecedented creative energy. Many movements — like the surrealists — would claim Dada’s mantras in the years to come, emerging from its bosom like overtly theoretical sons.
But the truth is that there was no ruling dogma behind Dada, not even something as unpredictable as the unconscious. To be Dada is to be against Dada. It is to surrender to the mayhem. And also not.
What does this mean, now? The movements’ concern for lack of meaning in a violent, mass-mediated world seems naive when compared with our post-truth world. Every day we consume videos of polar bears floating on patches of ice, images of the Great Coral Reef utterly destroyed, or videos of the catastrophe of Aleppo as seen from a drone.
The world is going to hell, but we can’t stop browsing it. We’ve gone beyond a concern for a TV-centered society to a thing called “the Internet” which feels like a labyrinthine metaphor for a mind that cannot make sense of the whole.
Our newsfeed has become the most complicated dada poem, ever. But there’s a problem: in Dada, the collage was not meant to be a source of information or a mirror of factual reality but a social critique. Not only has the collage been normalized, but it’s the gas of public opinion.
The most Dadaist stance in an age of collage would be to provide narratives that make sense of the fractured world around us. Not to fracture it more.
On, the other hand, dadadada.