Last fall I was invited back to MoMA for another unique opportunity to work with the Department of Education’s Teen Programs. Initially, I was shocked—after doing an In the Making class in the summer of 2014 and being part of the incredible Cross Museum Collective the following year, I figured I had reached the apex of my involvement here. But of course MoMA, in all its mystifying generosity, had something else to offer: a position on the Digital Advisory Board. I knew little about what I would be doing, but the chance to be part of MoMA Teens again was something I couldn’t resist. I eagerly accepted. Arriving at the first meeting, I was delighted to see the familiar faces of my friends from the past two years, and together we all jumped down the rabbit hole.
We learned we’d be taking over all of MoMA Teens’ social media pages, posting content to Tumblr, Instagram, and Facebook to our heart’s content. It was exciting and new, being able to work on such a large platform and essentially represent the “Artistic Teen of the Modern Age,” and I was ecstatic. Yet, as the weeks carried on, there was something more hinted at by our MoMA leaders Calder and Ali, something that, as far as the history of the Digital Advisory Board went, hadn’t been done before. And then, we met Samantha Friedman, an assistant curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints, who introduced us to Dadaglobe.
Dadaglobe, in the simplest terms, was manqué: something that could have been, but never was. A scattered relic lost essentially forever in time, Dadaglobe was a failed attempt in 1921 to bring together the movement of Dada, an operation that was already global and disjointed, into a published anthology. The aim, however, was not to formalize and sanction Dada into concrete terms, but to coalesce and embody, to provide a glimpse of an explosive campaign at its peak. Its mastermind and architect was Tristan Tzara, a well-known poet and a co-founder of Dada. Through a series of solicitation letters, he garnered the attention of artists from 10 countries, instructing them to carry out four different requests: 1) “send a clear photo of your head (not body), which you can alter freely, although it should retain clarity” 2) send “2 or 3 photos of your works,” 3) send “3 or 4 black-and-white drawings. . . . one drawing can be colorful, but containing no more than 2 to 3 colors,” and 4) if not sending a drawing, then “design a book page with or without text.”
The responses were nothing short of extraordinary. Drawings, collages, and photographs poured in, all ranging from straightforward executions of the instructions to complete defiance (it was Dada, after all). Samantha told us of one self-portrait sent by Dutch artist Theo van Doesburg (in the guise of his alter ego I.K. Bonset), who instead of sending a distinct photograph of his face, sent an image of the back of his head, with an adorning halo of text reading Je suis contre tout et tous—”I am against everything and everyone.” It was utterly and entirely Dada, and I completely fell in love. Learning of Dadaglobe for the first time, discovering this trove of works belonging to a movement I was already thoroughly enamored with, made me feel like a kid in a candy store with an empty stomach and an endless budget. Putting all my childlike glee aside, I knew that we weren’t given a presentation of Dadaglobe simply because it was a neat piece of lost art history; our new roles as Digital Advisory Board members would finally be set in motion.
As MoMA prepared to open its exhibition Dadaglobe Reconstructed on June 12, which reunites over 100 works made for the publication, we discovered that those of us on the Digital Advisory Board would be working together to construct our own homage to Dadaglobe. Following Tzara’s original instructions, we were asked to create works of art in the unbridled spirit of Dada to be published in conjunction with the exhibition. It was exciting news, no doubt, but presented a challenge. How could we adapt and recreate something that was born and functioned to reject the specific principles of a society torn apart by war, under circumstances that no longer existed today? How could we faithfully translate the temperament of Dada to reflect the 21st century? There were no clear answers, but we approached it the only way we could: head on.
We began with layouts for book pages. Naturally, there were no rules to what or how we could make, only to create how we saw fit. I have to admit I struggled at first; my mind was saturated with ideas and images, but materializing them with the clever subtleties that seemed to come naturally to the Dadaists was something I thought I wasn’t capable of. Looking back, I can say it never really mattered anyways. I wanted to introduce the tangible social elements of living in 2016, and bring attention to them through mockery and jest. For one collage, I decided to take a picture of Donald Trump with his wife, cover her with a picture of Hillary Clinton to pose them as a rather stylish couple, and replace their lower halves with poised, feminine legs. My motivation was not so much to demean or emasculate either presidential candidate, but really because the idea made me laugh. I tend to think that laughter is the best way to cope with the absurd current events of our time.
Self-portraits were next. There was lots of inspiration to draw from concerning the actual submissions for Dadaglobe: van Doesburg and the unapologetically defiant back of his head, artists like Johannes Theodor Baargeld and Max Ernst who pasted their own faces onto and next to other cut-out images, or Francis Picabia, who, for one part of his submission, simply signed his name on a piece of paper. I decided to keep my face unobscured, however. Under normal circumstances, the concept of my face being mass printed would have horrified me, but I saw the call for self-portraits as something more than a vehicle for identification. I wanted to recontextualize myself in a space where I could see myself objectively, as a collection of lines and arrangements of color rather than a person onto which judgements and prejudice could be cast.
We then moved onto original drawings, for which we limited ourselves to traditional dip pens and black ink. There was something kind of wholly organic about creating the drawings, composing scenes only through stretching black lines and blocks of ink. I think all of us approached the drawings with a sense of assured confidence and lack of restraint; we simply let our hands speak for us. The works we made during that period we all distinctly different, yet distinctly ours.
The only thing left was to create images of artworks, and here we were truly inspired by how playful the Dadaglobe artists were. The goal, it seemed, was not to capture an artwork accurately with a camera, but to explore how the photographic process and reproduction could manipulate how drawings, collages, or random objects were perceived. For example, one piece I especially enjoyed was a submission by Man Ray, who photographed a random and essentially meaningless concrete and wood structure in an empty lot, and called it La plus belle sculpture d’Amérique—the most beautiful sculpture in America. Using collage for this witty, almost mischievous purpose was a delight. Unlike our layouts for book pages, there wasn’t a particular or single message to convey, therefore we felt a kind of feeling of triumph in creating new works of art out of arbitrary images and fabricating meaning out of “nothing.”
But of course, it had to end. We had made dozens of Dada-esque works, consumed probably several pantry’s worth of snacks, and managed to bring what seemed like an impossible task into an awesome reality. It was hard, but incredibly rewarding work that allowed us to genuinely experience and partake in a small sliver of the art world. Dadaglobe Reconstructed is now open to the public, and for the first time the world will get to see Dada as the Dadaists sought to represent it.
I want to end on a quote expressed by Hugo Ball, a founding member of Dada: “For us, art is not an end in itself, but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” As the Digital Advisory Board, our objective was not to merely recreate Dadaglobe art for contemporary times, but to utilize the blunt, untainted lens of Dada to perceive those times—and perhaps even criticize them. For it seems as long as the Earth continues to turn, the timeless doctrine of Dada will always endure, illuminating our lives.
Dadaglobe Reconstructed is on view now through September 18, 2016. More info HERE. Special thanks to Jo-Anne Naarendorp and all of the 2016 Digital Advisory Board members: Jocelyn Aldaz, Ashley Aviles, Kevin Cruz, Cara Hernandez, Anatola Pabst, Oksana Pligina, and Yvonne Zagzag. Extra special thanks to Eva Kozanecka, Ali Santana, and Samantha Friedman. Follow @momateens on Instagram for more teen-created content.