It is the morning of June 16, a rainy, grey Bloomsday, the day that commemorates Irish writer James Joyce’s epic modernist masterpiece, Ulysses. On a quiet, cobbled backstreet in Zurich, stands Cabaret Voltaire. A yellow-painted unadorned building, this is the birthplace of Dada where in 1916 Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Sophie Taueber Arp and Emmy Jennings, launched the very first Dada happening.
Inside, a small group of regular Cabaret Voltaire attendees are huddled around a small coffee table warming their hands around mugs of coffee, discussing the morning’s Joyce recital. Presiding over this little gathering is a 39 year-old Swiss gent, dressed in a uniform of black suit and tie. Since 2004 Adrian Notz has been the guardian of this temple of Dada, the high-priest officiating its ceremonies and the keeper of the Dada flame. Notz is reviving the avant-garde in the heart of old Zurich, shaking up the buttoned-up old financial ‘black heart’ of Europe. For twelve years he has undertaken the challenge ‘to provoke, perturb, bewilder, tease, tickle to death, confuse’, as Hennings and Ball once intended.
Shrouded in myths, rumours and folklore that over time developed into clichés, the movement was very much misunderstood, perhaps from its outset. Yet, while the Dada movement had all but evaporated across Europe by 1924, it made a huge and lasting impact on modern and contemporary art, from its Surrealist offspring, and the Arte Povera movement, to Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Combines’ of the 1950s and ‘60s, and Marina Abramovic, Damien Hirst, Marcel Dzama, and even rocker (and sometime artist) Marilyn Manson today.
Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, Cabaret Voltaire launched “Obsession Dada: 165 celebration days”, a daily Offizium of morning liturgies and 100 evening performances dedicated to Dadaists —and those who influenced, or were influenced by Dada — from Kurt Schwitters, Jean Cocteau, Marcel Duchamp, Apollinaire and Antonin Artaud. The programme runs through the duration of Manifesta, with a parallel programme of additional performances organized by the biennale and spontaneous weekly happenings. Poems are recited, manifestos read, performances erupted, and anarchy occasionally unleashed (like the Gelitin foodfight in June), in the same place where the seminal group of Dada writers, poets, performers and artists once gathered to stage performances that provoked and resisted against the atrocities and horrors of the war, and the world around them. By the time the 165 days are over, the Cabaret Voltaire will have seen performances by collective Lu Cafausu, Oppy De Bernardo & Aldo Mozzini, Gelitin, Thomas Hirschhorn, Carlos Amorales, and Pilar Albarracín.
Although ‘Dada has become banal and overused’, as Notz remarks, the Dada revolution is not yet over. I caught up with Notz at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich where he talked about heralding in a new future for Dada. Welcome to Dadá Eros!
Tell me about Dada. Is it a movement, a style, or a feeling?
It’s an attitude, one which I can also see in you. In German we have these words, haltung and stil. All we can do is have noble gesture and delicate propriety in the midst of all this craziness around us. It’s the attitude of the self-styled dandy, like Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron. It’s a self-definition and a self-creation. I could say you are a dandy. Hugo Ball once said that a dandy is someone who follows the consequence of a thought and the logic of spiritual facts.
Just this morning I read Kurt Schwitters’ definition of Dada. He said Dada is eternal, because it is aimed at the future. ‘Dada is abstract Non-Art’, therefore it is eternal because it is abstract — sublimely abstract — because it overcomes us and we can’t explain it.
How do you see your role? Are you the high-priest of Dada? And who is Dada today?
No, I’m more like the housekeeper of Dada.
I would say someone like German artist Jonathan Meese is Dada, although he doesn’t see himself that way. He sees Dada as anti-art and so he fights for art, for the dictatorship of art. Also, Thomas Hirschhorn is Dada. In contemporary visual arts it is people who fight for a bigger concept of art than just art works themselves.
Sometimes I like to say that Lady Gaga is Dada but I’m not too sure about that, but I would still like to give her a blessing. Marilyn Manson (who received a ritual Dada blessing) is Dada and David Bowie was Dada. People who break rules but still make good art.
Why did you embark on this road to Dada?
It was an immaculate conception. I was born into Dada without knowing what was going to happen. I just started here, twelve years ago, without really knowing anything about Dada. I was very naïve — a virgin in that sense —with a sober mind and full of hope. Basically I learned by doing.
I was like a young boy being passed around. And it was quite nice to be naïve. I could do extensive research, which is why I went to Moineşti in Romania for example, the Dada birthplace of Tristan Tzara. I could meet interesting people, like Arturo Schwarz in Milano. He gave me the telephone number of an anarchist in Milano, and told me how he was tortured as a young man in Egypt and they tore out all his toenails. He also told me how he slapped Tristan Tzara in the face because he was a Stalinist, and said he had dinner with Fidel Castro in Cuba. Then I met Marc Dachy in Paris — a huge fat Dada specialist — and I joined his last dinner where he stopped drinking alcohol… but everything else was foie gras. Dada was a good passe-partout, a good way to meet people for Cabaret Voltaire.
What were you initially hoping to contribute to Cabaret Voltaire?
My strategy was to work with contemporary artists and together find out more about Dada. For example, with Carlos Amorales I did some research to find out more about Hans Arp. The two of us went travelling around Europe to different archives and then tried to develop a work out of this research. It was very boring because Arp was a boring artist.
You’re still working with many artists today?
Yes, since I took over as director in 2012 I changed the focus a lot to the historical, because before that we didn’t really engage much with Dada history. So, I did projects with contemporary artists like the Chapman brothers, who did an exhibition here, as well as Carlos Amorales, Lia Perjovschi. There were a lot of Eastern European and Romanian artists like Dan Perjovschi, Mircea Cantor and Cirprian Muresan, and so on.
It was great to be able to get to know these artists and do research with them, but I noticed that Cabaret Voltaire was not based enough in the city of Zurich, so that’s why I changed it in 2012 to focus a little more on the historical and also open it up more locally to schools and polytechnics etc. And with that I created a certain platform. We collaborate with schools so it wasn’t just a debate about Dada, but also a debate about contemporary, social and scientific issues.
I would like to go back to this idea of working with contemporary artists and developing projects. We’re celebrating 165 celebration days and we invite one or two artists a week: Thomas Hirschhorn was here; Fischli and Weiss had a DJ battle with Dan Graham; and Gianni Motti did a telepathic performance.
All these projects and performances are contingent upon the existence of the physical space of Cabaret Voltaire. But the Cabaret Voltaire building is for sale, right?
That’s right, but we only want to sell it as an artwork. The building itself belongs to Swiss Life and the city pays the rent. We will actually be selling a building, as an artwork, which is quite nice I think. The goal is to be able to use the whole building. Sometimes when I stand out here I think it would be nice to have all the buildings and do exhibitions. That’s my vision.
You had mentioned to me in an earlier chat that Dada has become a parody of itself. That she has become ‘a slut that’s been f*%ked up the arse too many times.’
Yes. She is everywhere, passed along from person to person. Dada has become banal, especially now with the jubilee. I thought it would be fantastic to have Dada chocolate or colouring books. It would be much better than what Zurich is trying to do now, this sanitized cultural programme inspired by Dada. This is their attempt to try to be a bit ‘weird’ and ‘crazy’.
Dada was supposed to be rebellious and provocative. It was rebelling against the times, against the horrors of war. Is there room for provocation anymore?
It is more difficult to provoke people today.
But, I wouldn’t say Dada was just rebellious. To be rebellious or anarchic today is also old fashioned. You can’t really do it anymore; you won’t be taken seriously. I don’t think it’s so much about provocation as it is about infiltration and seduction…and affirmation. If you want to change something today – incite a revolution – you have to do it in a way that nobody notices. You have to infiltrate systems, work together with the enemy to defeat your enemy.
In our last conversation you mentioned that you’d had a revelation, that we are now entering the era of Dadá Eros. Can you elaborate on the difference between Dada and Dadá Eros?
I would have to say it is the difference between Dada Porn and Dadá Eros. Porn and Eros are just words to describe the difference between Dada and Dadá. The difference between Dada and Dadá was pointed out by Kurt Schwitters. If I translate Schwitters in the context of porn and Eros, it sounds like this: One can say that porn (Dada) is the style of our time, which is no style. Our time is called porn, we are living in an age of porn and overexposure. We experience in our age nothing but porn. Nothing is so characteristic for our time and culture, as porn.
Eros is the acknowledgement of this lack of style. Eros is a movement with the goal of healing the times by making a diagnosis…Actually, Dadá Eros doesn’t just make a diagnosis, it also offers vision. We can use the terms Dadá and Eros to open up the vast field of the in-between and fill it with vision and attitude. It offers a vision and utopia like a Gesamtkunstwerk.
One of the most important notions in Eros is that of longing or yearning (Sehnsucht in German). Only in yearning can we get in-between to open up our imagination today. How exactly this will happen I don’t yet know. It is a thought that I need to follow with consequence. I will try to mark the era of Dadá Eros by making a Gesamtkunstwerk out of Cabaret Voltaire. This will happen on the 101st birthday of Dada. Until then I need to follow my obsession and this idea, and elaborate it in text and diagrams.
Only with Eros are we really alive. The problem today is that we are more like half dead. We are too dead to live and too alive to die as Byung Chul Han, the German-Korean philosopher, once said.
How do you plan on heralding in and marking the era of Dadá Eros?
I start heralding in the era of Dadá Eros with this interview here.
Dada est mort, vive Dadá!
To embrace Eros, the subconscious – with all its desires and repressed sexuality – needs to be unshackled from the control of the conscious mind.
To embrace Eros you go in-between the conscious and subconscious and open up something third! At least with Dadá Eros that is the case. What you described is more on the side of the super serious surrealists.
What is your ultimate goal with Dadá?
I’m trying to create a new religion with Dadá. A non-religion religion. And we want to destroy Isis with Dadá.
If we manage to create Dadá as this kind of attitude, we basically take away the resources of Isis. We don’t have to go and fight directly…The success of Isis is probably due to the fact that the Western world doesn’t have any higher values anymore. Isis recruit everywhere, even in the West. We must fill a void and create new values, which are attractive to disoriented and disenchanted youth. If you create better values, you can destroy Isis through that.
Of course, we can create some Dadá actions and throw cats on Isis — there are lots of videos of Isis fighters stroking cats – and distract them. We can use drones and drop down millions of cats. Instead of beheading reporters they start cuddling cats. That would be the fun part of fighting Isis with Dadá.