One night in February 1916, a small Zurich nightclub called Cabaret Voltaire played host to an unusual fusion of theater, poetry, and art exhibition. “On the stage,” recalled French artist Jean Arp, “there are several weird and peculiar figures. Total pandemonium…Our replies signs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos….”1
Though the skits, pranks, and performances were seemingly inane, they were rooted in sentiments of a most serious nature. “Our Cabaret is a gesture,” Swiss poet and performer Hugo Ball later reflected, “Every word that is spoken and sung here says at least this one thing: that this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect.”2
The spirit of performance, play, and collaboration remained central to Dada, even as the movement spread outward from Cabaret Voltaire to other nations and continents. Dadaists believed that the value of art lay not in the work produced, but in the act of making and collaborating with others to create new visions of the world.
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A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.
A category of artistic practice having a particular form, content, or technique.
An object—often utilitarian, manufactured, or naturally occurring—that was not originally designed for an artistic purpose, but has been repurposed in an artistic context.
An artistic and literary movement formed in response to the disasters of World War I (1914–18) and to an emerging modern media and machine culture. Dada artists sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic, favoring strategies of chance, spontaneity, and irreverence. Dada artists experimented with a range of mediums, from collage and photomontage to everyday objects and performance, exploding typical concepts of how art should be made and viewed and what materials could be used. An international movement born in neutral Zurich and New York, Dada rapidly spread to Berlin, Cologne, Hannover, Paris, and beyond.
What’s in a Name?
The Dadaists chose the name of their nightclub carefully. Cabaret Voltaire was named for the French 17th-century philosopher Voltaire, who questioned the accepted values of his day. This resonated with the disillusioned Dadaists, whose cynicism was ignited by the devastating events of World War I.
AUDIO: An evening of historical Dada poetry at MoMA with LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Bob Holman, and Pierre Joris
Questions & Activities
Collaboratively Write a Poem
Dada artists created work from everything from found objects and pictures to the items pulled from their pockets. These were combined with words to create something called a “poem object.”
Choose a partner and pull items from your pockets, wallets, or bags. Arrange the objects on a sheet of paper. Taking turns, write a word or make a noise that comes to mind as you assemble your creation. Your poem needn’t make sense, nor does it need to have a clear connection to the objects you chose. Record your poem on the same sheet of paper.
Research an Artist Collaboration
Collaboration between creative partners was a central element of Dada, but is not unique to that artistic movement. Throughout history, many artists have worked with like-minded individuals, and many artists have formed collectives. Find and research an artist collaboration or collective from the past or present (examples include El Lissitzky and Kurt Schwitters; Pablo Picasso and George Braque; General Idea; Guerrilla Girls; Critical Art Ensemble; and IRWIN). Write a 500-word essay about a project by artistic partners or a collective, describing how their ideas and contributions shaped the project.