It was by this point – February 1916 – that they had found a name for their art: Dada. Picked at random from a French dictionary, it was meant not to have any significance, to be a hook from which the art of the Voltairistes could be hung; it was originally just picked as a stage surname for the Cabaret’s new chanteuse. In the decades of wrangling that have followed, no-one has ever decided what ‘Dada’ really means.
As far as the small sliver of the public really interested in Dada were concerned, Tzara came closest to a straight answer when he wrote, "Dada, ne signifie rien."
At the time of the Cabaret Voltaire, the clockwork slaughter of the Western Front was playing itself out less than 200 miles away; the casualties were already in their millions; in June of that year, 250,000 men would be killed in the first day of the Somme. The spiritual exhaustion of the great imperial countries of the West in the fin de siecle had carried on and swelled; the collective unconscious of the West was filled with apocalypse, self-loathing, the arrogance of the impotent, the death-drive that comes from spending too long in the mire, the wish to end it all when there’s not much left to end. The storm of extermination of the First World War can be seen as the first collective suicide attempt by Western society (something repeated in the Second World War, the period 1969-1976, the period of the Thatcher-Reagan MAD-toting axis); this, the "signifying nothing" of Macbeth, was reflected terribly in the work of the Dadaists, no matter how they may have denied it: in the suicide of the dilettante-poet Jacques Vaché; the extermination of beauty in Picabia’s Portrait of Cézanne, a stuffed monkey crucified on a board reading NATURES MORTES; in the systematic destruction of all the hallowed concepts of Western society (love, poetry, beauty, philosophy, reason, faith, authority, duty, goodness); in the terrifying spleen that Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes poured on the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois patriots who started the war -
TO THE PUBLIC:
Before going down among you to pull out your decaying teeth, your running ears, your tongues full of sores,
Before breaking your putrid bones,
Before opening your cholera-infested belly and taking out for use as fertiliser your too-fatted liver, your ignoble spleen and your diabetic kidneys,
Before tearing out your ugly sexual organ, incontinent and slimy,
Before extinguishing your appetite for beauty, ecstasy, sugar, philosophy, mathematical and poetic metaphysical pepper and cucumbers,
Before disinfecting you with vitriol, cleansing you and shellacking you with passion,
Before all that,
We shall take a big antiseptic bath,
And we warn you:
We are murderers.
– in the dissolution of language itself as a communicative tool in the nonsense and simultaneous poetry. Caught in the midst of a century’s horror, they took the only way our they could: using culture to annihilate itself.
But, nonetheless, it was still culture. The creations of the Cabaret Voltaire – Arp’s abstract paintings and woodcuts, Janco’s pseudo-Futurist paintings – were recognisable as art. Tzara went on to help found the Littérature group with André Breton and Phillipe Soupault in Paris, a group dedicated to advancing the modernist project in literature.
But this was not the limit of Dada. In the Cabaret Voltaire, without a sympathetic audience, all attention being taken by the war, they could not find a proper outlet. After the dispersal of its members, several groups formed: leaving aside the more cerebral New York group, the two groups that created what Dada is best known for emerged in Paris, under the instigation of Tzara, and Berlin, under the control of Huelsenbeck.
Huelsenbeck was a weirdo, an outsider, in the Cabaret Voltaire. He was a failed medical student, not an artist; his only real connection to the art world was that he was friends with Hugo Ball. His act was "Negro dancing", making bad monkey noises and dancing in blackface on stage; even after he was told by a merchant seaman who had come to the Cabaret that "They don’t do that sort of shit in Africa", he continued with it. He was the most vociferous of the Voltaire Dadaists, an ugly, recaltricant, less-than-artistic figure. When he founded the Berlin Dada group, he hit out at those who supposedly treated Dada as "a pretext for the ambition of a few literary men" – namely Tzara, Hugo Ball and others of the Cabaret Voltaire group (whose signatures he then used on the ‘Collective Dada Manifesto’ these remarks came from). When, in his ‘Lecture On Dada’ Tzara was claiming that "Dada covers things with an artificial gentleness, a snow of butterflies released from the head of a prestidigitator", Huelsenbeck was writing, in the first German Dada manifesto, that Dada would be a conduit for "the thousandfold problems of the day, the art that is visibly shattered by the explosions of last week, which is forever trying to collect its limbs after yesterday’s crash." The violence of German Dada – in the explosive haranguing of its manifestoes, in the crudity and power of its photomontages, the assaultive nonsense of its magazines, in the absurdity of Max Ernst’s work (a wooden dummy with an axe chained to it and a notice reading ‘Please Destroy Me’) – was indicative of its approach to the transmission between artist and audience, and the very nature of it: it wasn’t art, it was a moment of assault. German Dada, under Huelsenbeck, did not make art, it went into the street, and "found an adversary".
The German Dadaists’ performances bear comparison with the methodology of Throbbing Gristle: the determined aesthetic of violence and ugliness; the sense in which it is the moment of performance – whether it is reading a manifesto or showing an Dada-work – that is the most important part ("Emphasis was laid on the movement, the struggle"); the commitment to truth: Berlin Dada was bent on awakening the "hunger for reality", on presenting artists who "every hour snatch their tattered bodies out of the frenzied cataracts of life" – Genesis P-Orridge called TG’s music "journalistic" and said they were "objective war zone correspondents using thee aural language of everyday life to define our subject." It is only natural that there are resemblances between Dada and TG – Genesis saw COUM Transmissions and TG in the long line of avant-garde art from the Dadaists through the Surrealists.
But this isn’t the whole story.
In May 1968, a phrase appeared dotted around the walls of Paris: WE WILL NOT STOP UNTIL THE LAST CAPITALIST IS HUNG WITH THE GUTS OF THE LAST BUREAUCRAT. It also appeared in the communiqués of the Occupation Committee of the Autonomous and Popular Sorbonne to the Soviet and Chinese Communist parties. The Occupation Committee was composed of members of the Situationist International, the Enragés, and a number of other radical groups. The universities and most of the Latin Quarter of Paris was occupied by students, successfully holding off the police with cobblestones, molotovs and improvised barricades. There was a wildcat general strike in progress across France, ten million workers downing tools and hundreds of factories occupied.
In 1922, at the first Berlin Dada exhibit, there was a dummy hanging from the ceiling: dressed in a military uniform with the head of a pig, strung from a noose, a sign around its neck reading: 'HANGED BY THE REVOLUTION.'
May ‘68 was not the sole making of the Situationists; but their critique was the inspiration for the Enragés, and perfectly captured the mood of disillusionment and discontent among the youth of France. Like the Berlin Dadaists, the rioters did not have the sense of a revolutionary vanguard, but of being part of a spreading moment of liberation. "Everyone can be a Dadaist", Huelsenbeck wrote in 1920; the creation of a moment in which every person is an artist, in which reality, real life is breached and in which, in each moment, the person constructs it for themselves, was the goal of the Situationists; when the slogan BE REASONABLE – DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE was being daubed on Paris walls, when the Sorbonne Occupation Committee told the Soviet and Chinese governments to "Shake in your shoes, bureaucrats", they were speaking with the same tongue as ‘What is Dadaism and what does it want in Germany?’, in which the Berlin Dadaists demanded "The introduction of progressive unemployment in through comprehensive mechanization of every field of activity… The immediate expropriation of property (socialization) and the communal feeding of all… Introduction of the simultaneist poem as a Communist state prayer", etc., etc.; when, in the 1949 Dada manifesto – some twenty-five years after Dada faded from the public consciousness – Huelsenbeck claimed he had, all his life, "fought for…the establishment of a new world of values in opposition to the old chaos and disintegration", he was pre-empting the vision of L’Internationale Lettriste by some 6 years: a method of finding a way out of the pseudo-world of the spectacle; and if ever Huelsenbeck’s idea of creating "literature with a gun in hand" was brought to life, it was in May ’68.
The SI had consciously posited themselves as inheritors of the Dadaists: they marked 1917, Year Zero of Berlin Dada, as the end of ‘art’ as something apart, the preserve of an elite, and a justification for the inequities and suffering of the world in which we live. And if any substantial thread runs between the two movements, it is noise: the SI adopted the Dadaists’ process of disruption in their ‘artistic’ works – Guy Debord’s Hurlements En Favre De Sade, which had contextless voiceovers accompanying nothing other than black and white screens; the détournement of official media, turning the presence of power (the manifestations of the spectacle) in real life against it, as in Raoul Hausmann and Hannah Hoch’s photomontages; the violence of the rhetoric in their magazine (they once had an entire page reading ‘M. GEORGES LAPAUD IS A CUNT’); the principle of turning art away from metaphysical exclusivity to real life. The disorientating clouds of noise – media cut-ups, violent intimidation, incomprehensible sound - floated also around Throbbing Gristle. Nowadays, they float around the bands who inherited from TG.
In a segment from No Fun Fest, Dominic Fernow, aka Prurient, and the head of noise label Hospital Records, performs with nothing more than an oscillator, microphone and loudspeaker. At first the speaker emits nothing but a high-pitched whine; bare-chested, his hair lank and dirty, eyes set and cold, he bends over the oscillator, forcing out a tone that seems set to burst your eardrum; he builds up feedback and oscillator tone, gouging a shape out of pure fuzz; as the noise builds, he seems to be almost devil-possessed, thrashing the mic against the amp, flailing and stomping; when he starts singing, you’re not surprised that he sounds terrifyingly inhuman. It’s not even a case of not wanting to meet him in a dark alley: you expect if you met him he’d kill you with pincers rather than shiv you. You’re watching a man tell you to get the fuck away and not to fuck with him.