The room is around 2,000 square feet, it’s filled with roughly 60,000 books and about 100 people stand in the center. The scene is a curated mirroring of Cabaret Voltaire in 1916, the first Dada art show put on by Hugo Ball.
One hundred years and the invention of air conditioning are all that separate the two shows, the people and the confusion have managed to stay the same.
The room is dark, and there’s a woman wearing a striped leotard performing aerial acrobatics above the heads of two 50-year-old men DJ-ing a version of “Me and Bobby McGee” in paper-mache helmets. Heroin Bob is sipping ginger-ale and my Econ professor is doing tequila shots.
It’s 2016 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and every surviving SLC Punk has gathered to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of an art movement centered on disorder and disdain. While everyone here missed the peak of the European movement most of them lived the remnants of its philosophy: Art that aims to reflect life cannot be clean, pretty, or legible. The room is populated by generations of violent anti-cultures and bitter dissidents. This is a celebration of misfits.
Standing in the middle of the chaos feels like a film Wes Anderson wrote and Quentin Tarantino directed: a delightful fury. The second performer walks to the center of the room as the women stays dangling from the rafters. He announces himself as CARL THE ECCENTRIC MUSICIAN as he wraps a cloak around his velvet suit and sits at the mutilated grand piano he’s brought with him. Two measures into Carl’s performance you see his eccentricity is not in his appearance, but in his passionate and talentless piano playing. He slaps the keys and yodels, he lets out a scream before he finishes on a chord from hell. Everyone in the room continues sipping their wine, they’re maybe unimpressed: He stayed seated and clothed–could have been more interesting.
Three 70-year-old men in tie-dyed leotards get up next. They dart back and forth across the stage, casting shadows on some psychedelic youtube video playing behind them. They yell “splat” every couple of seconds and without warning collapse to the floor in silence.
Most people clap when their performance is over, some are wrapped up in their own sideshow performances: Screaming, painting, and shoplifting.
Another woman stands to offer her performance and the room falls silent, it feels for a second almost reverent. She begins to shake violently as the sound of shouting plays on the stereo.
This is a Dada art show; none of this is on purpose but exactly what Hugo Ball meant to happen.
Dadaism is also known as the anti-art movement, it’s beginnings stem from the horrors of war, as it seeks to comment on the nonsense of violence. It’s a rebellion art, aiming to expose the seemingly ubiquitous agreement that all art must posses some sort of beauty.
The woman moves her whole body in clicking intensity as the shouting gets louder and louder. She is dressed like a ballerina, moving like an epileptic tinker toy. The air in the room becomes thick as her dance intensifies: She’s writhing on the floor like someone possessed by their demons, her music is evolving from screams into the tune of old gospel hymns. We watch as this ballerina is killed by her melody. She’s reduced to a puddle, the music reduced to a tune. All ends and she walks away, the room goes back to buzzing.
This is Dada: Unattractive, nonsensical, reasonless. Dada has no investment in attractive art, these artists are not chained to any standard of creation. Hugo Ball wanted to betray the standard of craft, he wanted art to abandon the predisposition of perfection and to embrace the thrill of doing something just to do it.
I’m standing near the back of the room watching quietly when a parade of suited men wearing the heads of animals comes dancing by. They weave through the crowd with a bounce in their unison step, once they get to the stage they form a line and stand in silence. The room moves to it’s tiptoes, anxious to see what happens next. Seconds pass. Nothing happens. Seconds pass. Nothing happens. The room is ready to burst with anticipation after minute of silence. The performers have our attention but they just stay standing still. A minute thirty the room is on that edge of fascination and distraction.
The only fact true in all of dada: It has no meaning.
They performers stand at the front of the room for twenty minutes. It ends with them removing their heads and walking nonchalantly into the crowd. If art is supposed to convey something, express something, be something, then dada is certainly the anti-art. What I did not know before entering this bookstore tonight was that there is a need for anti-art. I thought art in general could satisfy any expressive need, but as I watched strangers do strange, ugly, directionless things I realized that art possesses unwritten rules. Rules of beauty, of depth, of meaning. Whereas emotion, human beings and the world we live in, do not follow a set of rules. Life does not maintain a law of beauty, of depth, of meaning. Life is, at times, chaos. Life is, at times, best explained with screaming ballerinas and old men in leotards.
The crowd here is older, averaging in their fifties probably. They’re friends who’ve known each other long enough to no longer be embarrassed by things. They’re people with histories, with long stories and silly tattoos. As they laugh and peer into the nonsense it becomes clear these are messy people, interesting people, interested people.
The room is filled with about one hundred people celebrating a one-hundred-year-old anti-art movement that has remained on the fringe of the art world since its creation. It’s a strange thing to celebrate, it’s even stranger to be celebrating it in Salt Lake City, Utah, 5,000 miles from Switzerland where Hugo Ball first created it. It’s a strange thing to celebrate with the middle-aged punks from down the street, and with my professors, and with my boss, and with my indifferent musical-theater-disney-loving roommate. It’s a strange night here at the bookstore, dark and loud and a little tipsy. But, I believe, if Hugo Ball came wandering into this party he would think it an appropriate way to celebrate. I think he would recognize the spirit of dada marching past him, I think Hugo Ball would see his art in ours. I think Dada proved it’s immortality, proved itself forever true and necessary in the tumbling fumbling mess of human life.
That eternal doctrine of Dada: “To respect all individuals in their folly of the moment: Whether it be serious, fearful, timid, ardent, vigorous, determined, enthusiastic.” Hugo Ball’s Dada is the same and completely changed one hundred years later: “Freedom: a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies: Life.”
The art of a quiet bookstore taken over by acrobats and mormons and rehabilitated punks and anarcho-electro-hippies and lonely college students: A bookstore taken over by Dadaists.