A Dada revival has been brewing right under our noses
“Our cabaret ‘Cabaret Voltaire’ is a gesture… 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.”
Hugo Ball, 1916
Cabaret Voltaire — founded by the German poet Hugo Ball and his compatriots in 1916 — closed down in the summer of the same year. But the wild parties, African chants and incoherent poems performed there had already sown the seeds of Dada.
Dada was a decidedly anti-art movement born out of a negative reaction to the horrors of World War I. Artists and poets like Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara began questioning everything about a bourgeois society that could allow such a war to happen, including its established standards in art. The Dadaist artworks that resulted were nonsensical, provocative and often used readymade objects, like the toilet that Marcel Duchamp renamed Fountain. The name Dada itself had no intended meaning, and was coined with the same irrationality and nihilism that has come to characterize the movement.
This type of artistic anarchy took root again in the 1950s and 1960s as Neo-Dada, among artists who emphasized found objects and performance. Inspired by Dadaist pioneers like Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters, neo-Dadaists embraced absurdity, rejected conventional humor and sought to overturn notions of what can or cannot be art.
Internet culture is perhaps the strongest manifestation of modern-day Dadaism. Tumblr, the blogging platform with a largely millennial user-base, is almost exclusively devoted to irreverent jokes and absurd discussions. The most popular jokes on Tumblr threads carry an underlying senselessness symptomatic of the post-World War I era. A nihilistic orca here (“waiting for the nothingness to swallow me forever”), a “Mitt Romney sucks pass it on” post there. The millennial sentiment in Tumblr threads is starting to sound more and more like Hugo Ball’s: “this humiliating age has not succeeded in winning our respect.”
“Shitposting” is another Internet practice that smacks of ironic humor and Dadaistic tendencies. Much like Tumblr threads, shitposters flood discussion forums with low-quality, unfunny posts till they’re rendered worthless. By derailing discourse and confusing the public, shitposting follows Dadaism’s original tenets: it breaks the internet’s utilitarian purpose and turns it back on itself.
Dadaism has also seeped into today’s pop culture, evidenced by the rising popularity of Adult Swim, Cartoon Network’s nighttime programming that consistently features weird television like Rick & Morty and the Eric Andre Show. Pickle Rick references and Eric Andre’s set-destroying show openings prove that avid consumers of this type of content are attracted to the existential, the seemingly meaningless. Neo Yokio is another TV testament to Dadaism that leaves viewers baffled but entertained. The episodes have zero continuity, with multiple plot points introduced and left unaddressed. Teen sensation Jaden Smith plays the main character Kaz Kaan, whose dialogues are eerily similar to the actor’s bizarre, title-case tweets.
What does the Dada aesthetic look like in present-day terms? I recently stumbled upon a stop motion animated short film called “Hi Stranger.” A clay-like, gender-ambiguous blob of a reclining figure whispers reassuringly into the screen while making fixed eye contact, “Hi, stranger. It’s been a while. I’ve missed you. It’s okay, you can look at my butt. I feel like I can really be vulnerable around you.” If Dada was a talking creature, this would be it.
Fed up with the constraints of the material world, in 2015 UCLA MFA candidates Julieta Gil and Theo Triantafyllidis created a virtual replica of their university’s New Wight Gallery, calling it the New New Wight gallery. “New New Wight was envisioned as a space that challenges conventional forms of art,” the two curators explain. “Chaos is a big part of it. One of our intentions was to give this exhibition the wildness of the internet — at least the internet as our generation perceives it.” And sure enough, the artwork in this online-only exhibition looks like a Tumblr forum on visual steroids. The portal greets you with a manifesto of sorts:
“The gallery is naked
The physics are broken
The viewer is high
The white walls are expanding
Echoing white screams
Your vision is interrupted
The earth is shaking
The ventilation system caused a snowstorm
Your banana is gone
Text your emojis
And dig your way out of here
Don’t forget to feed the dogs”
In the spirit of the New New Wight Gallery, it would be apt to call the present-day resurgence of this artistic movement not Dada or Neo-Dada, but Neo-Neo-Dada.
And what are memes but a post-physical expression of the chaos surrounding us? We created a visual language that is just as nonsense as the world we are dissatisfied with. The “LUSH Bath Bomb” parody series — where people film themselves dropping insoluble objects like watermelons, laptops and emojis into a tub as though they were bath products — comes closest to the underlying theme of Duchamp’s Fountain. Without context the individual images make no sense, but the creators have somehow managed to elevate meaningless, everyday objects to symbolic expression.
Obsessed with the otherness of computers and digital residue, James Bridle has been spending years cataloguing an aesthetic that blends the online with the offline: the New Aesthetic. Hugo Ball may have announced the arrival of Dada with a manifesto; Bridle did it with a Tumblr blog. “We’ve got frustrated with the NASA extropianism space-future, the failure of jetpacks, and we need to see the technologies we actually have with a new wonder. Consider this a mood-board for unknown products,” he declares. His microblog serves as an archive for New Aesthetics, capturing curious visuals like Streetview photography, low-resolution 3D renderings and glitch imagery.
An offshoot of the New Aesthetic breeding in countercultural pockets of the internet is “vaporwave”, considered both a music genre and aesthetic. Like Dada, vaporwave is a collective visceral response to the zeitgeist. According to Esquire, “vaporwave arose in reaction to huge economic and social forces that are still very much a part of our lives: globalization, runaway consumerism, and manufactured nostalgia chief among them.” It often manifests visually as a strange juxtaposition of sculptural busts and retro computer fonts with Japanese song titles and Arizona Iced Tea.
Why is this happening now? The rise of Dada can be originally attributed to post-war chaos and disillusionment in the early 20th century. To find the source of our own chaos, we don’t need to look too far. This decade has been difficult, to say the least: frustration with a slow economic recovery since the Great Recession; resentment towards the top 1% who got away with causing it; psychological distress from ongoing unjustified wars; fears of AI taking our jobs, fears of immigrants taking our land; fears of women taking men’s places; dreading a wave of nationalism sweeping across North America and Europe; debates about human-caused climate change and election victories fueled by disinformation.
I could go on. If this doesn’t make you want to go on a Dadaistic rampage, I don’t know what will. It probably sounds like a bunch of Nihilistic nonsense, but the deeper I probe, the more I’m convinced that the decade of “Neo-Neo-Dada” is already in full swing.