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Performance art and Dadaism – Cabaret Voltaire

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Performance art is believed to be rooted in the radical Futurist and Dadaist soirees of early 20th century Europe. Others situate its beginnings in connection with the questioning of modernist visions in the 1960s and 1970s marked by political protest and the socio-cultural demands of the student, feminist, pacifist, black, hippie, gay, etc. movements.

Performance art is a form of expression that originated as an alternative artistic manifestation. The discipline emerged in 1916 alongside Dadaism, under the sign of conceptual art. This movement was led by Tristan Tzara, one of the pioneers of Dadaism. Western aesthetic theorists pinned the origins of performance art to the early 20th century, with Constructivism, Futurism, and Dadaism. Dadaism was an important source of inspiration because of its poetic actions, which deviated from conventionalisms. Futurist artists, particularly some members of Russian Futurism, could also be identified as part of the process of initiating performance art.

Recalling that the word derives from the Latin “pro forma” or “per forma” to indicate an event that is accomplished through a form, Giovanni Lista points out that the term was first used in its modern version by the Italian Futurists, in 1914, during an “evening-event” organized in Naples. RoseLee Goldberg applies the term performance to the work of futurists such as the leader of futurism, the Italian poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, who admired variety theater having no masters or dogmas but its own traditions with a mixture of cinema and acrobatics, song and dance. Futurist performance was the natural and logical result of an activist conception of art that claimed a poetics of the ephemeral and a distance from the art market. Futurist performance inaugurated what has today become an artistic expression in its own right.

Italian Futurism was reinterpreted in the Russian context as a general weapon against the old order, both the Tsarist regime and the emerging Impressionism and Cubism. In this context, the blossoming of performance in Russia was favored with artists like Vladimir Mayakovsky, David Burliuk who, for his actions, painted his face (1910-1920), Nikolai Foregger, Vsevolod Meyerhold, members of the group of the Blue Blouse, Alexandre Rodtchenko and his wife Varvara Stepanova.

From 1916, the artists Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Hans Richter among others were at the origin of the first performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich. The Dada phenomenon spread to the United States where artists like Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven performed her daily life defying any precise or convenient definition.

During the 1920s, the development of performance art in Germany was largely the result of the avant-garde work of Oskar Schlemmer within the Bauhaus school in Weimar. The direction of the Bauhaus theater was entrusted to him after the departure of Lothar Schreyer and it was on the fourth day of Bauhaus Week, August 17, 1923, that several members of the theater workshop, which had been the subject of a deep redesign, gave the Cabinet of Figures. Through this piece, Schlemmer began to express his refusal to accept the limits of the categories of art. The theme of Man and Machine figured just as prominently in Bauhaus analyzes of art and technology as it did in Russian Constructivists or Italian Futurists some time earlier.

Cabaret Voltaire

Cabaret Voltaire by Marcel Slodki (Original poster of the first edition of Cabaret Voltaire by Marcel Slodki (1916))

The Cabaret Voltaire was created in Zurich (Switzerland) by the couple of Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings for artistic and political purposes. It was a place for exploring new trends. Located on the top floor of a theater they made fun of in their shows, the cabaret featured avant-garde and experimental works. The Dadaist movement was supposedly founded in this ten square meter place. In addition, the Surrealists, whose movement descends directly from Dadaism, met there. During its brief existence—a mere six months in the late summer of 1916—the cabaret featured the reading of the Dadaist Manifesto and early Dadaist actions such as performances and presentations of hybrid poetry, plastic art, music and repetitive actions. Some of its founders, such as Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco, Tristan Tzara, Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Jean Arp, took part in provocative and scandalous performances which were the basis for the founding of the anarchist movement called Dada. Dadaism was born with the intention of destroying any established system or standard in the art world. It is an anti-art, anti-literary and anti-poetry movement, which questioned the existence of art, literature and poetry. Not only was it a way of creating, but also of living: he created a whole new ideology. He was against the concept of classical (immutable) beauty, the universality of principles, the laws of logic, the immobility of thought and against everything that is universal. He advocated change, spontaneity, immediacy, contradiction, randomness, the defense of chaos against order and imperfection against perfection, in short, ideas similar to those of performance art. The Dadaists represented provocation, anti-art protest and scandal through often satirical and ironic means of expression. The absurd, the absence of values ​​and the chaos were the engine of their actions breaking with the traditional artistic form.

(Includes texts from Wikipedia translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu)

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