Should creatives be more dada? What we can learn from a movement that defied societal structures
Inspired by the Tate’s current retrospective on dadaist Sophie Taeuber-Arp, we speak to two practitioners inspired by the movement on how it translates into their practices today.
It’s Nice That is partnering with the Tate Modern for its Sophie Taeuber-Arp exhibition this summer (from 15 July – 17 October 2021), you can book tickets directly here.
The practitioners who founded dada have made it purposefully difficult to describe. A movement started in Zurich in 1916 as a reaction to the harsh displays of the First World War, in the broadest sense dadaists fought with creativity to defy societal structures. Often, this was by portraying pure nonsense. Dadaists rejected any kind of logic encouraged by capitalism, and any medium – from dance to publishing, sculpture, poetry and collage – was welcomed. It’s name, too, is an example of the movement’s avoidance of describing itself. Translations of the term range from “hobby horse” in French, to “be seeing you sometime” and “get off my back” in German alone. Dada has so many different meanings, it can also mean nothing at all.
The breadth of dada presents multiple forms of art, yet in an approach that was anti-art in itself. As Hugo Ball, who is largely credited as the movement’s founder, described: “For us, art is not an end in itself… but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticisms of the times we live in.” Rather than create artworks to distract viewers from the chaos the war had ignited across Europe, artists from Zurich, Hanover, Paris, Cologne and later New York, chose to utilise absurdist creativity and satire to display exactly what was wrong with the world. This bold creative rejection can be seen in Tristan Tzara’s piece encouraging people to create their own dada poems (by cutting up the words in a newspaper article and shaking them together in a bag), to the pioneering photomontages of Hannah Höch and, famously, a repurposed urinal in Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain from 1917.
Most of us are first introduced to dada in art education. Mixed in as students begin to learn about the frameworks of movements like cubism and surrealism during the 20th century, dada is presented as the rebellious sibling. On reflection it’s fitting that it’s taught to budding creatives when they are teenagers; dada presents not only the idea that art can be a political act, but simply that society doesn’t need to be confined to the ideals enforced – ideal for teenage angst. And while the movement’s vastness makes it difficult to pinpoint as an aesthetic influence on contemporary art, dadaism is a foundation for creatives to then find their own route in this industry. Take the importance of the movement in Sophie Tauber-Arp’s career, as displayed in her retrospective currently on show at the Tate Modern. As a graduate, the artist was encapsulated by the vibrance of dada’s physical home within the artistic nightclub Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, encouraging her to move from drawing and textiles to create marionettes, costumes and stage designs.
There are many elements individuals naturally take from dada as they move through education, but at a time of such political unrest, a rising right wing force, looming climate collapse and widening division, might it help to lean a little more on the wisdoms of this movement to bring us together through collective creativity?
“Nonsense, silliness and light discourse are not necessarily shallow”Lucie Khahoutian
A creative directly influenced by the ideals of dada is the Armenian artist Lucie Khahoutian, who initially found the movement appealing for its self mockery and derision “especially in the art field which is lacking it a lot,” she tells It’s Nice That. First discovering the movement at a young age as her father was an art critic, it is also dada’s tendency to have a “playful take on creation and presentation that I find very inspiring,” she says.
This early introduction has informed Lucie’s practice in multiple ways. Predominantly the artist works across photography, textiles, collage and installations, while utilising photomontage methods to “build encounters between Western contemporary visual culture and strong traditional Armenian references”. While creating her pieces it is the mentality of “not taking yourself too seriously” that Lucie holds closest from dada, allowing her to put “art at the service of both greater messages and silly ones”. For example: “Using art to discuss the state of the world and engaging with social changes, while keeping in mind that even though art and activism can easily be linked they should not be exclusively tied, and art is also an escaping door from reality.”
Across her artworks, which discuss wide ranging topics such as cultural heritage, caucasian identity and memory, the influence of dada encourages Lucie to remember that “Nonsense, silliness and light discourse are not necessarily shallow; they can point out life’s absurdities and allow the viewer to rest from it a bit.” Dually, working with this temperament can create avenues into the art world for those outside of its discourse, as dadaists tended to use “very clear languages and instinctive tools which allowed art to step out the closed doors of galleries and become more accessible,” the artist points out.
A key example of this is the dada-inspired group of artists Lucie is a key member of, The Live Wild Collective. Founded in 2014 by seven artists (Charlotte Fos, Anna Hahoutoff, Marguerite Horay, Lila Khosrovian, Camille Lévêque, Ina Lounguine and Lucie), the group embrace elements of dadaism as well as Soviet propaganda, folk art and post-internet aesthetics. In its initial creation these aforementioned characteristics of dada drove Live Wild’s ideology, specifically in the group’s approach to authorship and artist representation. “It is a fuel to experiment and embrace occasional failure to grow and develop a stronger practice,” as Lucie describes.
“We were totally absorbed with post-punk music and the many subcultures around it”Experimental Jetset
Similarly influenced by the ideals of dada is the independent graphic design studio, Experimental Jetset. Founded when designers Danny van den Dungen, Erwin Brinkers and Marieke Stolk graduated from the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in 1997, the group’s fondness for dada actually began in their younger years. “Basically,” the group explain, “our interest in early modernist movements (not only in dada, but also in de stijl, bauhaus, constructivism, futurism, etc.) is fully grounded in our post-punk teenage years.”
Growing up in the 1980s “we were totally absorbed with post-punk music and the many subcultures around it” say the group, realising that “most of our favourite bands seemed to be referring to modernist and avant-garde movements.” Across zines, interviews and record sleeves, elements of dada were regularly appearing. Punk sleeves by Jamie Reid and Gee Vaucher presented links to the collages by dadaist Raoul Hausmann, and bands like Siouxsie and The Banshees, Laibach and Discharge featured collages by John Heartfield on their record sleeves, as well as the Sheffield band Cabaret Voltaire literally naming themselves after the movement’s birthplace in Zurich. “In other words, post-punk was often contextualised (by music journalists, by sleeve designers, by the musicians themselves, etc.) within the framework of dada.”
“Dadaists (and other early-modernists) would have absolutely HATED the word ‘creatives’”Experimental Jetset
Within a creative context, the trio were more formally introduced to dada through Greil Marcus’ book, Lipstick Traces, “which hit us like a comet” in revealing the full timeline of movements from dada to post-punk. In turn when heading into design education, Marieke, Danny and Erwin each felt “the word ‘dada’ had a magic glow”. Growing then both as individual and collective creatives, it was the movement’s desire “to break down the walls between art and the everyday – the aim to turn society into a piece of art,” which appealed to the studio’s practice. “In other words, the idea that art shouldn’t be isolated in some of separate, rarified sphere – but that it should run wild in the streets,” the studio describe.
Reflecting today, Experimental Jetset note that dadaism influences the studio’s practice through “One word – collage”. Although, this is not in such a linear creative approach as Lucie, “but more as a mentality, or an attitude, or a concept,” they tell It’s Nice That. “We like the notion of the collage as a violent clash between conflicting ideologies – or at least, as a problematic synthesis of opposing languages.”
An early example of this is the Modernism banner, created by the group in 1998, which aims to synthesise two clashing ideologies – “the nihilism of black metal, the more utopian beliefs of modernism.” Then, in 2003, the studio’s famed Zang! Tumb Tumb print presents Danny, Erwin and Marieke attempting to “somehow reconcile the violence of futurism with the pacifism of fluxus”, while another, The Beauty of Speed from 2005, brings together the first sentence of the 1848 communist manifesto with the first sentence of the 1909 futurist manifesto. Although just singular examples, this constant combination of ideals presented via graphic design, displays how Experimental Jetset “often try to synthesise, for better or worse, various opposing languages, ideologies, movements, systems.”
In both Lucie and Experimental Jetset’s practices, it is the broad ideology of dada that both keep in mind when planting the seed of an idea. While outlining how the studio have adopted the idea of “collage” in its visual communication, Experimental Jetset remain hesitant in terms of looking to dada as any kind of “creative strategy”. Dadaist’s purposeful approach in making the movement so broad in execution and ideas makes it, of course, difficult to define, but also means it can be an uneasy practice to adopt today. “We really dislike this whole idea of turning dada into a ‘visual approach’,” the group explain. “Not that we think that dada is too ‘sacred’ to touch – far from that. The dadaists themselves were no purists either. People like Kurt Schwitters and Theo van Doesburg were (among other things) practicing graphic designers – so we certainly think dada and graphic design are closely related.”
Yet relating back to the studio’s earlier point that dada is inspiring in its want to marry art with the everyday, Experimental Jetset also point out that “dadaists (and other early-modernists) would have absolutely HATED the word ‘creatives’ – as this word suggests that there is somehow a sort of separate ‘creative’ class, like some sort of distinguished caste or rank. After all, the word ‘creatives’ automatically presupposes that there is also such a thing as ‘non-creatives’,” they explain. Therefore, while considering the ideals of dada while creating, Experimental Jetset advise keeping in mind that: “For the early-modernists, ALL workers should be seen as artists… a point of view that tears down the borders between manual labour and intellectual labour, between the specialist and the amateur, between arts and crafts, between low culture and high culture, between poetry and technology, between word and image, between time and space, between theory and practice, and ultimately between subject and object.”
In Lucie’s case however, it is more the dadaists adoption of satirical humour to display society’s structures she takes inspiration from. To any creatives wanting to expand the meaning of their works it is a sense of “not overthinking things,” that the artist encourages, as well as taking more personal steps to be “economically self-reliant, learning to say no and thinking outside of the box in terms of representation and creation,” she says. “There are a lot of changes that need to happen in the art industry and the dada philosophy can really help in the current global context. A door closes,” Lucie concludes, “use the window.”
Sophie Taeuber-Arp at the Tate Modern runs until 17 October 2021. To pre-book tickets head here.
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.