It’s the 100th anniversary of Dada, an art practice that finds meaning in meaninglessness — and though it is an old movement, it’s bizarrely relevant with each passing day of national news.
San Francisco is four days into the San Francisco Dada World Fair, a two-week celebration of Dada with poetry, performance art, music, scholarly talks, and gatherings. If the first four days are any barometer, it is a real-life celebration of expecting the unexpected.
The inaugural night on Nov. 1 presented new and old interpretations of Dada at City Lights Bookstore. A mirror was broken, and to the beat of a drum performance, artist Guillermo Gomez Peña performed glitch poetry while the artist Balitrónica, in a black spandex sentai suit and mariachi hat, towered in an arched doorway holding a sign that read “AGAINST DEPORTATION AND EVICTION.”
New satirist favorite, writer Jon Longhi, informed us the internet — with its love of willful disinformation and e-mail spam (“made to outwit artificial machines”) — is the epitome of Dada. Old favorite Andrei Codrescu silenced the room by asking why San Francisco is still victim of compulsive optimism. Andrew Joron elicited random numbers from the audience, dialed them, and put the caller on speakerphone, asking who will win the election, to which the random caller said, “Death.” Poet Daphne Gottlieb asked us: “Are you ready for the wrench?”
Earlier, by the water at Maritime Park, artist duo Frederick Young and Linus Lancaster, officiators of Dada@Sea, offered gifts to Poseidon, pointing small horse sculptures covered in beef at the water and firing away.
City Lights event director Peter Maravelis is the head organizer of the Dada World Fair. “Dada is a disruption of consensus reality, of capitalist reality, which basically says things are a certain way, and to be a good consumer,” he explained to me. “Whereas Dada really brings up the specter of citizenry.”
Dada was born of politics. Dadaists were immigrants and refugees running from fascism in World War I. It was the first war of the industrialized age, and as such the first modern shock of its kind. Along the trenches, ghostly green clouds of chlorine were creeping in, invading the foxholes, swelling and blocking soldiers’ lungs, causing suffocation. The returning soldiers wore new, fully practical prosthetic limbs, giving Dadaists the impression of the rise of half-mechanical men. So in Berlin, Paris, New York and Zurich, propaganda evenings took place in cabarets aiming to captivate youth in a movement of exuberant absurdity.
Maravelis thinks Dada is relevant to us now not only because of this year’s lion-share of absurdity, but because of the state of San Francisco as a lost (though potentially salvageable) place of counterculture. He is troubled by San Francisco’s descent towards “an insect colony built around creating widgets.” The Dada World Fair developed organically through Maravelis’ friendship with Codrescu (author of The Posthuman Dada Guide) to include political and artistic events on land and sea.
Dada@Sea artists Frederick Young and Linus Lancaster take politics head on, ditto the mass eviction of artists and working class people from the city, and in circuitous whimsy they have christened the predicament “Vichy San Francisco.” They’ve applied to the Swiss Consulate for artistic asylum (Martin Schwartz at the Swiss Consulate said, “Artistic asylum is not a legal concept, to my knowledge”). They have acquired a barge — that was swamped, lost in a storm, towed by the city, and finally reborn — around which Dada@Sea takes place (tours available by dory).
At the Sea Scout base by the Maritime Museum, Lancaster, a navy vet, says the two met as activists; they’re interested in the way performance art can mobilize where activism can grow stale. Invoking the rise of the political right, Young says, “The political and social shifts to the right are as dire as any point in history. The critique of the moment is very important.”
At noon on election day, Nov. 8, the duo plans to declare a state of emergency, and standing on Swiss soil from a jar donated by the Swiss consulate, they will hold a kind of civic artistic theater of disobedience. I won’t say any more; you will be remiss not to be there.
What else can you expect at a Dada World Fair? If you make your way to a panel, be warned that there are several interventions planned. Maravelis says, “The interventions should also be intervened upon when the time comes so even those interventions will be intervened. And so it may be that nobody will be able to speak at any of these lectures. I have no idea what’s going to happen.”
On night three of the fair, I visited a pataphysics event at Canessa gallery. Upon arrival, a pataphysicist in a lilac coat told me there was absinthe inside. They were serving absinthe because they discovered that Alfred Jarry, founder of pataphysics, used to ride a bicycle in San Francisco whilst drinking it. I’m learning not to believe anything a Dadaist tells me, so instead I asked what, exactly, is pataphysics. “Pataphysics is to metaphysics as metaphysics is to physics.” I stared, thinking, for a long time, then headed inside for a drink. A woman wore a hat of felted eyeballs. There were capricious sculptures and mass spontaneous eruptions of fake laughter: Ha! Ha! Ha! Another pataphysicist told me pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions.
In the most touchingly beautiful act of the evening, the youngest pataphysicist, a girl of fourteen, blew on a didgeridoo, while another pataphysicist wore a large fish mask. The fish head with huge pearlescent eyes turned this way and that, playing, we were told, an invisible bell from a bicycle built for two.
These events required some alcohol to make sense, so I headed to Vesuvio, where Andrei Codrescu sat alone at a small table with a drink and a book. Later I saw him at a reading at City Lights, where Jack Foley performed Jerome Rothenberg’s “That Dada Strain,” accompanied by a bassist. It was nonsensical, humorous, and hypnotic. I caught the stanza, “the arctic bones strung out on Saint Germain.” I caught, “a message from the grim computer ‘ye are hamburgers.’”
I floated out of the bookstore to the bus stop, and nearby on a sidewalk table I spotted art historian Adrian Sudhalter, who gave a talk on day two, having a drink. Somehow I felt better about being in this nascent world before the election where none know what will happen.
If you’re looking for a splash of absurdity, some relief, or some voices of unreasonable reason, I recommend you make your way to this celebration. Here are some events worth looking forward to:
Tuesday, Nov. 8
On Election Day at noon, make your way to the Dada@Sea special Election Day presentation. (Sea Scout Base, Maritime Park, San Francisco; Free.) At 8pm, make sure not to miss Dada Haus: a DeElection Night Soiree, where I am told there will be a walking, talking, breathing voting booth. (Location disclosed by invitation, available at the front counter of City Lights. $15-50 sliding scale.)
Thursday, Nov. 10
Meet at City Lights at 8pm for a Dada Séance through the streets of North Beach. Featuring a Dada toy instrument marching band. Costumes encouraged. (City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Avenue; Free.)
Saturday, Nov. 12
Attend Dada Bordello, a “kind of mini-Dada Ball following in the footsteps of Cabaret Voltaire” with performances starting at 8pm by Conspiracy of Beards, Poetics of Narrative, Luciano Chessa, and Jack Foley, among others. (Odd Fellows Hall, 26 7th Street, San Francisco; Free, but tickets required and available at City Lights.)
Sunday, Nov. 13
At noon, Dada@Sea will bid farewell to the Bay and embark toward the Golden Gate in what’s sure to be a luminous conclusion. (Sea Scout Base, Maritime Park, San Francisco; Free.) At 7:30pm, make sure not to miss the closing event of the Dada World Fair: Dada Divas is a musical and theatrical performance that “re-imagines the stories and creative works of important female artists and performers who were among the originators of the Dada movement.” (Swissnex, Pier 17, San Francisco; $10-$15; Tickets at Swissnex.)
The Dada World Fair runs through Nov. 13 with events happening daily at various locations around San Francisco. For a full schedule visit dadaworldfair.net.