‘What if you lived in a world so misguided, flawed and terrible that it could create the unthinkable slaughter of the Somme?’

John Higgs
The name “Dada” supposedly came about in parody of a child’s first sound. Talking in meaningless words of gibberish like this, was common during the birth of the Dada movement just over one hundred years ago. Performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, 1916, included ‘sound poetry’ formed entirely from abstract noises. For the artists on stage their verses of complete nonsense made perfect sense as a reaction to a society which had brought about the mass mechanised slaughter of WWI. A war during which men were killed in the millions, sometimes gassed by their own artillery, or even shot by their own generals. In the writer, John Higgs’ own words, ‘Such a bankrupt society deserved meaningless poetry.’1

Dada’ism tends to sit up and rear its head in history as a reality check or alarm bell of its time. Like other reactionary movements such as Punk, Discordianism, or even the Situationists, it parodies and mocks whatever system prevails. In much the same way that dogs are used in sci-fi movies to detect anything from zombies to vampires or terminators. Dadaism often perks its ears and begins to bark loudly at points in human history, when something isn’t quite right with the commonly accepted ways of the world.

Since these simple sound poetry performances a century ago, Dadaism has increasingly taken on more sophisticated new guises. ‘Culture Jamming’ became popular in the early 2000’s, when artists such as D*Face or Ron English would take the cultural images forced upon us by modern advertising, and screw with them. By often targeting the logos of some of the world’s most successful brands, they would then subvert them to their own ends. The idea was to ‘turn the expressions of the capitalist system against itself.’ The aim, effectively as the writer John Higgs explains… ‘was to try and break their spell.’2

Such a theory begins to explain (but does not excuse) the burning of luxury cars in Hamburg two summers ago, now that Capitalism is well documented to be increasingly working solely for the 1%. This is effectively our century’s equivalent of the same moral corruptness which once emanated from late nineteenth century imperial forces. To quote John Higgs: “Dada was anti-art. It was negation, a creation that saw itself as a destruction.”3

Today, it is much less clear who the true Dadaists are. In the words of Greil Marcus: “Dada was a protest against its time; but it was also the bird on the rhinoceros’ back, peeping and chirping, but along for the ride.”4 If Dada’s song relies not just on the type of bird, but also the character of the rhinoceros which it is following. In today’s fractured media landscape, where a whole plethora of agendas and counter agendas are being promoted, Dada’s song can come out in an ever increasing multitude of disguises. In some ways, Dada has morphed to become the anti-modernity movement itself.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, Environmentalists tied themselves to trees blocking the bulldozer’s progress whilst consumers within the capitalist mainstream looked on in bewilderment, not really getting it. Only a quarter century later, now that clean energy, open-minds and more relaxed attitudes to sex, race, religion, are the new emerging attitudes and trends of this world, then there is currently no shortage of reactionary Dada protagonists out there.

On the 9th of February, 2017, Scott Morrison, an Australian politician of conservative ideology, brought a lump of coal into Australian parliament and told us, the world, not to be afraid of it. Whilst waving it around the room he declared it to be an essential part of “our sustainable and more certain energy future”. This was no less a clever Dada performance than any performance from the Cabaret Voltaire a century earlier.

Forms of ‘counter culture jamming’ like this have now inevitably entered the political mainstream. In Scott Morrison’s case, as a Conservative bird singing from the back of an increasingly antiquated energy source, he’s using the same Dada techniques to subvert what he feared to be the next prevalent system - Renewables.

Dadaism is less a movement than it is a reactionary force. Which therefore now appears to be be employed by multiple opposing factions entirely for their own gain. Today, this includes Conservative politicians like Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, with their innumerable ‘false truths’, tweeting nonsensical words like ‘Cvoffe’ in the middle of the night. And more recently Jair Bolsonaro, who during a televised address on Friday, August 23, 2019, professed to feeling “profound love and respect”5 for the Amazon, as devastating fires continued to rage in the background.

These men are using similar mechanisms of parody and subversion, in an attempt to actively confuse and control the narrative. Whilst some Dada performances are protests to the world’s ills with good intention. These newer reactionary voices can be seen almost trying to ‘culture jam’ the entire system, so that it can then be subverted and exploited to their own autocratic ends.

Whilst it is clear to some already, who the most morally bankrupt in today’s society are. Only by the middle of this century might we be able to see who wins this exchange of performance sabotage. If those lacking a moral compass continue to win this duel of wits, then who, when their climactic destruction is more apparent, will hold them to account? The potential genocides of this century won’t necessarily be caused by world war, but they might well still be the result of decisions being made by the morally or politically bankrupt right now.

The Dutch painter and sculpture Hans Arp once observed: “Before there was Dada, Dada was there".5 For humanity as a whole, then perhaps Dada works best as an alarm bell of its time, or even nature's early zombie warning system. In an era where factions from all sides of the political and cultural spectrum have become Dadaists, performing and tweeting on the world's stage. Then now is perhaps the time when we need to wake up most urgently, and listen to those loud bells ringing.
Illustration — The Alarm Bell

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Chapter 7 —
3 Letters... War

Credits & Notes:
1 – 4 / 6
John Higgs – The KLF
Chaos, magic, and the band who burned a million pounds. (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Amazon Watch Statement President Bolsonaro’s Brazil Fires Address
(Fri 23 Aug 2019)

The Sustainers — 21st Century Pioneers
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