Highlights from the “Dada World Fair” in San Francisco, 1-13 November 2016

Text and photos: Nikolai Sadik-Ogli 18.11.2016

The Dada Divas trap the audience in red twine while singing operatically
during the intermission of “Dada’s Tangled Roots” at the Weinstein Gallery.


With these appropriately terminal words, Peter Maravellis, the events programmer at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, announced the beginning of the “World Dada Fair,” a two-week-long centennial celebration of the cultural movement that was founded by an international group of artists at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, Switzerland as a reaction against the horrors of World War I. Even though San Francisco and Zurich are sister cities, and the Swiss Consulate runs the cultural center Swissnex where several of the events were held, San Francisco may at first seem to be an unexpected location for such an extensive celebration. However, the City actually has a long history of cultural connections to Dada, and it has celebrated the movement before as memorialized in the poem by Jack Spicer that was recited at the Fair’s opening night, “Poem for Dada Day at The Place, 1 April 1958.” During the heyday of the Beat Generation, The Place had been a central bohemian spot in the City’s North Beach neighborhood, where City Lights is also located. Further in this spirit, Mr. Maravellis revealed that during an interview with the German-born Beat poet, Ruth Weiss, she lamented the “Beat” appellation because she preferred to think of her and her colleagues’ activities as neo-Dada. Similarly, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who founded City Lights in 1953, wrote a letter documenting the story that he had heard about the origin and meaning of the word Dada from some of the original participants when studied art in Paris in the 1940s. The letter was auctioned off during the Fair and will be displayed at the Weinstein Gallery.

Further connections were expressed in “The Pataphysics of Dada” exhibition at the Canessa Gallery. Featuring art inspired by Alfred Jarry’s pseudoscientific concept, the centerpiece of the display was the “Pataphysical Slot Machine” where visitors could sit in front of an array of wooden doors and ask a question from Père Ubu, who provided cryptic answers at the press of a button that echoed through loudspeakers and scrolled across an electronic display while simultaneously being printed out on small slips of paper. After receiving these answers, viewers could open one of the compartments to meditate on an abstract shadowbox tableau with its own soundtrack. The Slot Machine was constructed by artists who originated in the Merry Pranksters and The Grateful Dead. The Canessa also hosted an opening party for the exhibition and two versions of the variety show “PataDadaHaHa,” featuring music, recitations, and shadow-puppetry.

Later connections were documented in the two exhibitions on display at the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library. “Dadamatic Mail Art: From Irene Dogmatic’s Collection” was assembled from the collection of the Bay Area visual and performance artist who participated in the 1970s phenomenon of mail art with a variety of international collaborators. “The Most Dada Thing: Neo-Dada in San Francisco” documented the artists collectively known as the Bay Area Dadaists (BAD). They published cut-and-paste zines with titles like West Bay Dadaist and Dadazine and also arranged Inter Dada ’84, an earlier event held at different venues throughout the City on multiple days. Both exhibitions will remain on display through the end of the year.

These connections were further illuminated in the panel discussion, “Bastard Children of Dada: Happenings, Fluxus, Mail Art, Punk, and Beyond.” While grounded in an international appreciation of the many movements that owe a debt to Dada and its socio-political challenges to the status quo and consensus reality (examples that were cited included Situationism, Butoh, and possibly even the Occupy movement), most of the panelists, like V. Vale of Research Publications, were local and talked about their own experiences here. Emily Hage presented on “Dada Zines of 1970s San Francisco,” and John Law reminisced about his experiences as a founding member of the Billboard Liberation Front, Burning Man, and the now-defunct Cacophony Society, the latter of which was further remembered in the intense, participatory event, “DADA to CACA and BEYOND.”

The cumulative effect of such local, historical manifestations of Dada aesthetics was expressed by Jed Rasula, author of the new history Destruction Was My Beatrice. Lamenting his inevitable return to Georgia, he had come to consider San Francisco as a place where people do this kind of thing all the time – and one audience member immediately confirmed the sentiment to be true.


Complementing these historical influences, a number of events showcased new works that demonstrated the continued importance and vitality of the Dada spirit. Many of the “Thirteen Dada Manifestos” were written specifically for the opening event. They were preceded by a musical overture played on xylophone, drum, and gong by musicians dressed in black masks, robes, and tall chef’s hats that recalled Hugo Ball’s cardboard bishop’s outfit. The “Opening Night Benediction” was delivered by Guillermo Gomez-Pena in an impassioned multi-lingual “robo-Baroque” speech that included examples of “glitch poetry” that was made up of isolated phonemes and syllables delivered in a terse, choked style that recalled the sound of a skipping CD and were abruptly terminated by humorous, self-deprecating exclamations such as “enough” or “too long.” Another reader conducted an interview on his cellphone, asking a series of bizarre questions that received equally Dadaesque answers.

The “Zurich Dada Night/Cabaret Voltaire Tribute” evening at Swissnex featured Dada-inspired performances that also opened the “Dada Remix” exhibition of new art based mostly on the imagery of original Dada works. Frederick Young and Linus Lancaster hosted a “Dada at Sea” installation at the Sea Scouts Base in Maritime Park that served as a center for poetry readings. It included a Wilhelm Reich orgone cannon pointed continuously at the sky above San Francisco to ensure nice weather for the duration of the Fair. At the decommissioning ceremony, the artists raised a Mexican flag and blasted a small cannon to signify the annexation of California as a Mexican protectorate under Emperor Norton, a nineteenth-century San Francisco eccentric. The Fair’s final event was another variety program by “The Dada Divas,” pictured above, celebrating the work of the original female Dadaists.

Père Ubu and his likeness at the Canessa Gallery.As reflected by the subject matter of these last two events, the campaign and election of Donald Trump as President of the United States hung over the Fair like a dark cloud that was constantly alluded to by many of the presenters. It was also common to hear Trump compared to Alfred Jarry’s monstrous creation, Père Ubu. Accordingly, two separate events were devoted to watching live broadcasts of the election results. “Dada Haus: A DeElection Night Soirée” had been cleverly announced as one of a handful of secret events held at undisclosed locations that required obtaining special tickets from City Lights by using distinct, coded requests. Simultaneously, the “Second International Dada Fair” opened an exhibition of Dada-inspired works by students from the California College of the Arts (the “First International Dada Fair” had been held in Berlin in 1920).


At Swissnex, Prof. Adrian Sudhalter presented an overview of her work on “The Dada Globe Project,” a reconstruction of Tristan Tzara’s unrealized plan to publish an encyclopedic volume of Dada art, photography, writing, and design by a vast array of international artists in 1921. Her work required matching the numbers on Tzara’s manuscript plans for the book with the same numbers written on the rectos of artworks from his collection now held in numerous public and private collections. The result, Dadaglobe Reconstructed, was published earlier this year in a two-tiered edition that separated the academic introduction from the reconstructed text and was accompanied by an exhibition that toured from the Kunsthaus Zürich to the New York MOMA where it recently closed in September.

The extensive lecture series at the San Francisco Art Institute, “Destruction Was Our Beatrice: Dada and the Unmasking of the 20th Century,” took its title from Prof. Rasula’s book. Adrian Notz described the many events and exhibitions – along with the historical and sociocultural intentions behind their curation – that had been held in Zurich throughout this centennial year. In “Dada’s Women: Zurich, Berlin, Paris and New York,” Prof. Maria Mäkelä outlined the work of Hannah Höch, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Sophie Tauebe r. Prof. Sudhalter’s “Lighting the Censor’s Stove: Censorship, Border Controls, and Dada Encryption” highlighted the importance of self-censorship and careful discretion that was necessary for the Dada artists to exercise while conducting correspondence across international borders during politically tense times. Based on this and other circumstantial evidence, she postulated a fascinating hypothesis about the possible impact that this oppressive situation could have had on the failure of the Dadaglobe project after Francis Picabia’s inexplicably abrupt departure from the movement during a time that Tzara was getting reams of outlandish correspondence from all over the world. The presentations concluded with “Dada and the Unmasking of the 20th Century: A Roundtable” discussion about Dada’s political implications.

The “Neo-Dada Collage Exhibition” on display at the San Francisco Collage Museum was opened by John J. Heartfield’s remarkable presentation about his grandfather, the “John Heartfield Tribute,” also known as the “John Heartfield AIZ Presentation” after the magazine that had featured many of Heartfield’s aesthetically magnificent and politically-charged anti-Nazis photomontages. Heartfield imparted fascinating, first-hand knowledge about this sadly neglected artist and his extremely difficult life. Heartfield has dedicated his life to preserving the legacy of his grandfather, and he maintains a website exhibiting much of the work alongside other contemporary political art, plans to travel to Germany soon to negotiate the fate of the archives that remain there, and is writing a musical.

Deutschland Dada (1969), a German documentary constructed as an alphabetic countdown of key Dada characters and subjects that featured important interviews and recitations by Hans Richter, Raoul Hausmann, and Richard Huelsenbeck was the highlight of the “Cine-Dada” program at the San Francisco Art Institute. It was followed by eight original Dada movies, including Entr’acte (1924) by René Clair and Francis Picabia, Le Retour la Raison (1923) and Emak Bakia (1926) by Man Ray, and Richter’s Vormittagsspuk (1927).

The Goethe Institute hosted a series of excellent lectures along with a small exhibition of enlarged reproductions of the covers of historic Dada magazines, such as 391 and The Blind Man. During “A Panorama of Berlin Dada,” Mel Gordon, author of Dada Performance, presented a thorough overview of “Dada Berlin: A History of Performance, 1918-1920;” the presentation introduced this author to the amazing work of the magnificent Valeska Geert. An evening dedicated to “Anti-Dada Dada: Kurt Schwitters and Merz” included recitations from the Ursonate by Florian Kaplick and a talk by Jerome Rothenberg, who helped translate the definitive collection of Schwitters’ writings in English, PPPPPP.

“Dada’s Tangled Roots” at the Weinstein Gallery featured a series of readings of selections by earlier authors that the Dadaists appreciated, including Stéphane Mallarmé’s A Roll of the Dice (1897), Raymond Roussel’s Impressions of Africa (1910), and The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention (1910) by Paul Scheerbart. Another event at the Mechanics’ Institute Library celebrated the recent publication by City Lights of Alan Bernheimer’s translation of Philippe Soupault’s memoir, Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism (1963). The “Dada Bordello” variety-program at the Odd Fellows Hall included a lengthy and intense recitation by four readers – two using somewhat distorted megaphones – of Julius Evola’s “La Parole Obscure du Paysage Intérieur” from 1921.

Needless to say, the above remains only a glimpse of a few of the many events that constituted this remarkable and multi-faceted Dada World Fair. Moreover, it should be emphasized that it could not have occurred at a better time to provide a powerful illustration of the many reasons that the non-contrarian and difficult spirit of Dada is very much needed again, NOW.

Linus Lancaster emerges from the Bay during
the decommissioning of “Dada at Sea” in Maritime Park.

“Bastard Children of Dada: Fluxus, Happenings, Fluxus, Mail Art, Punk, and beyond.” http://sfpl.org/index.php?pg=1024730701.
“Dadamatic Mail Art.” http://sfpl.org/index.php?pg=1025014401.
Gordon, Mel. Dada Performance. New York: PAJ Publications, 2001.
Held, John. The Bay Area Dadaists. San Francisco: Stamp Art Gallery, c. 1984.
_________. “Before Punk and Zines: Bay Area Dada.” http://stendhalgallery.com/?p=3504.
Jarry, Alfred. The Ubu Plays (Ubu Rex; Ubu Cuckolded; Ubu Enchained). Translated by Cyril Connelly. New York: Grove Press, 1994.
Lloyd, Ginny. Inter Dada 84: True Dada Confessions. Jupiter: TropiChaCha Press, 2014.
Mallarmé, Stéphane. A Roll of the Dice. Translated by Jeff Clark. Seattle: Wave Books, 2015.
“The Most Dada Thing: Neo-Dada in San Francisco.” http://sfpl.org/index.php?pg=1024730802.
Rasula, Jed. Destruction Was My Beatrice: Dada and the Unmaking of the Twentieth Century. New York: Basic Books, 2015.
Roussel, Raymond. Impressions of Africa. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Champagne: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.
Scheerbart, Paul. The Perpetual Motion Machine: The Story of an Invention. Cambridge: Wakefield Press, 2011.
Schwitters. Kurt. PPPPPP: Poems Performances Pieces Proses Plays Poetics. Translated by Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris. Exact Change, 2004.
Soupault, Philippe. Lost Profiles: Memoirs of Cubism, Dada, and Surrealism. Translated by Alan Bernheimer. San Francisco: City Lights Publishers, 2016.
Spicer, Jack. “A Poem For Dada Day At The Place April 1, 1958.” https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/51263https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/detail/51263.
Tzara, Tristan and Kunsthaus Zürich. Dadaglobe Reconstructed. Zürich: Scheidegger and Spiess, 2016.




Famous Political Art. Official John Heartfield Exhibition. Integrity. Courage. Genius.


The original Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich is still functioning and fully recognizes its Dada heritage, having been a key venue for many of the centennial celebrations this year (http://www.cabaretvoltaire.ch/en/). In San Francisco, DaDa Bar, which closed at its original location on Second Street, plans to reopen at 65 Post Street, while Bar Fluxus (http://www.barfluxus.com/) is scheduled to open soon at 451 Bush Street.