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Conversation  |  Director of Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich

Adrian Notz

In Conversation with
Diana d'Arenberg
Zurich, 19 August 2016

Adrian Notz. Photo: Ayse Yavas.

Adrian Notz. Photo: Ayse Yavas.

It's the morning of 16 June, a rainy grey Bloomsday, the day that commemorates Irish writer James Joyce's epic modernist masterpiece, Ulysses. On a quiet cobbled backstreet in Zurich sits Cabaret Voltaire. A yellow-painted unadorned building, this is birthplace of Dada where Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Hugo Ball, Hans Arp, Sophie Taueber-Arp and Emmy Hennings launched the very first Dada happening in 1916.

Inside, a small group of regular Cabaret Voltaire attendees are huddled around a small coffee table warming their hands around mugs of coffee, discussing the morning's Joyce recital. Presiding over this little gathering is a 39-year-old Swiss gent, dressed in a uniform of black suit and tie. Since 2004, Adrian Notz has been the guardian of this temple of Dada, the high-priest officiating its ceremonies and the keeper of the Dada flame. Notz is reviving the avant-garde in the heart of old Zurich, shaking up the buttoned-up old financial 'black heart' of Europe. He is ready to take on the challenge 'to provoke, perturb, bewilder, tease, tickle to death, confuse', as Hennings and Ball once declared Dada should do.


Enveloped in myths, rumours and folklore that over time developed into clichés, the movement was very much misunderstood, perhaps from its outset. Yet, while the Dada movement had all but evaporated across Europe by 1924, it made a huge and lasting impact on the art scene at the time and has continued to influence artists throughout history: from the Arte Povera movement and Robert Rauschenberg's 'Combines' of the 1950s and 1960s, to Marina Abramović, Damien Hirst, Marcel Dzama, and even rocker Marilyn Manson.

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Cabaret Voltaire in 2016, the establishment launched 'Obsession Dada: 165 celebration days', a daily Offizium, a liturgy of Modernism to each Dadaist from Kurt Schwitters, Jean Cocteau and Apollinaire. The programme runs through Manifesta 11 (11 June–18 September 2016), with a parallel programme of additional performances and weekly spontaneous happenings. Poems are recited, manifestos and performances erupted in the same place where the seminal group of Dada writers, poets, performers and artists once gathered to stage performances that provoked and resisted against the atrocities and horrors of the war and the world around them. By the time the 165 days are over, the Cabaret Voltaire will have seen performances by collective Lu Cafausu, Oppy De Bernardo & Aldo Mozzini, Gelitin, Thomas Hirschhorn, Carlos Amorales and Pilar Albarracín.

Although the term Dada has become banal and overused, as Notz remarks, the Dada revolution is not yet over. I caught up with Notz at Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich where he talked about heralding in a new future for Dada. Welcome to Dadá Eros.

Tell me about Dada. Is it a movement, a style, or a feeling?

ANIt's an attitude ... which I can also see in you. In German we have this word, haltung, and stil. All we can have are noble gesture and delicate propriety in the midst of all this craziness. It's the attitude of the dandy. People like Oscar Wilde and Lord Byron who styled themselves as dandies by writing about dandies. It's a self-definition and self-creation. I could say you are a dandy. Hugo Ball says a dandy is someone who follows the consequence of a thought and the logic of spiritual facts.

How do you see your role? Are you the high priest of Dada? And who is Dada today?

ANNo, I'm more like the housekeeper of Dada. I would say someone like German artist Jonathan Meese is Dada, although he doesn't see himself that way. He sees Dada as anti-art and fights for art, for the dictatorship of art. Also, Thomas Hirschhorn is Dada. In contemporary visual arts—it's people who fight for a bigger concept of art than just artworks. Sometimes I like to say that Lady Gaga is Dada, but I'm not too sure about that, but I would still like to give her a blessing. Marilyn Manson (who received a blessing) is Dada and David Bowie was Dada. People who break rules but still do good art.

Why did you embark on this road to Dada?

ANIt was an immaculate conception. I was born into Dada without knowing what was going to happen. I just started here without really knowing anything about Dada, 12 years ago. So, I was very naïve, a virgin in that sense, a sober mind and full of hope. So basically I learned by doing. It was quite nice to be naïve—young boys are handed around easily (in a church).

I'm not sure I can print this.

AN[Laughs] No, it was nice. I could do extensive research, and that's why I went to Moineşti for example, the Dada birthplace of Tristan Tzara. Or meet Arturo Schwarz in Milano who told me three things: he gave me the telephone number of an anarchist in Milano; he told me how he was tortured as a young man in Egypt and they tore out all his toenails. And he told me how he slapped Tristan Tzara in the face because he was a Stalinist. And he also said he had dinner with Fidel Castro in Cuba. Then I went and met Marc Dachy in Paris—a huge fat Dada specialist—and I had his last dinner where he stopped drinking alcohol but everything was foie gras. Ja, Dada was a good passé partout tout, a good way to meet people for Cabaret Voltaire.

What were you initially hoping to contribute to Cabaret Voltaire?

ANMy strategy was to work with contemporary artists and together with them to find out more about Dada. For example, with Carlos Amorales I did some research to find out more about Hans Arp. The two of us went travelling around Europe to different archives and then tried to develop a work out of this research. It was very boring because Arp was a boring artist.

But you're still working with many artists?

ANYes, since I took over as director in 2012, I changed the focus a lot to the historical, because before that we didn't really engage much with Dada history. So I did projects with contemporary artists like the Chapman brothers, who did an exhibition here, as well as Carlos Amorales and Lia Perjovschi. There were a lot of Eastern European and Romanian artists like Dan Perjovschi, Mircea Cantor and Ciprian Muresan, and so on.

It was great to be able to get to know these artists and do research with them, but I noticed that Cabaret Voltaire was not based enough in the city of Zurich, so that's why I changed it in 2012 to focus a little more on the historical, which opened it up more locally to schools and polytechnics et cetera. And with that I created a certain platform. We collaborate with schools so it wasn't just a debate about Dada, but also a debate about contemporary, social and scientific issues.

I would like to go back to this idea of working with contemporary artists and developing projects. We're celebrating 165 days and we invite one or two artists a week: Thomas Hirschhorn was here, Fischli and Weiss had a DJ battle with Dan Graham, and Gianni Motti did a telepathic performance. I think now we are at the point where we can start working with contemporary artists again.

This is all contingent on the existence of the physical space of Cabaret Voltaire. But the Cabaret Voltaire is for sale, right?

ANThat's right. But we only want to sell it as an artwork. The building itself belongs to Swiss Life and the city pays the rent. There will be a debate again in parliament in autumn. But right now, the city has managed to exchange the building for another building. So the building will belong to the city if parliament says yes. In that sense, we will actually be selling a building that belongs to the city as an artwork. Which is quite nice, I think. And we can even tell the city that we'll buy it off them for a much lower price than what Swiss Life offered. The goal is to be able to use the whole building. Sometimes when I stand out here, I think it would be nice to have all the buildings and do exhibitions. That's my vision.

You had mentioned to me in an earlier chat that Dada has become a parody of itself. That she has become 'a slut that's been f*%ked up the arse too many times.'

ANYes. She is everywhere now, passed along from person to person. But there's Dada, and there's Dadá. The first, the English or German way, is like a Russian (or Romanian) rape—Da! Da! Da! Da! But the French rape is Dadá.

Dada has become banal, especially now with the jubilee. I said it would be fantastic to have Dada chocolate or colouring books. It would be much better than what Zurich is trying to do now, this sanitised cultural programme inspired by Dada. This is their attempt to try to be a bit 'weird' and 'crazy'.

The best would be if Zurich really identifies with Dada like Paris does with the Eiffel Tower, because nobody would really take Zurich seriously anymore

Dada was supposed to be rebellious and provocative. It was rebelling against the times, against the horrors of war. Is there room for provocation anymore?

ANIt is more difficult to provoke people today.

But I wouldn't say Dada was just rebellious. To be rebellious or anarchic today is also old-fashioned. You can't really do it anymore. You won't be taken seriously. I don't think it's so much about provocation as it is about infiltration and seduction. And affirmation. If you want to change something today, make a revolution, you have to do it in a way that nobody notices, and you infiltrate systems, work together with the enemy to defeat your enemy.

In our last conversation you mentioned that you'd had a revelation, that we are now entering the era of Dadá Eros. Can you elaborate on the difference between Dada and Dadá Eros? And how do you plan on heralding in and marking the era of Dadá Eros?

ANWe would have to say it is the difference between Dada Porn and Dadá Eros.

Porn and Eros are just words to describe the difference between Dada and Dadá. The difference between Dáda and Dadá was pointed out by Kurt Schwitters. So, if I translate Schwitters in the context of porn and Eros, it sounds like this: One can say, that porn (Dada) is the style of our time, that is it has no style. Our time is called porn, we are living in an age of porn and overexposure. We experience in our age nothing but porn. Nothing is so characteristic for our time and culture as porn.

Eros is the acknowledgement to the lack of style. Eros is the movement with the goal to heal the time by making a diagnosis...Well it doesn't quite work in a direct comparison, because Dadá Eros is more than just Dada. Dadá Eros doesn't just make a diagnosis, it actually offers vision. We can use the terms Dadá and Eros to open up the vast field of the in-between and fill it with vision and attitude. It offers a vision and utopia like a Gesamtkunstwerk.

One of the most important notions in Eros is the longing or yearning (in German: Sehnsucht). Only in yearning can we get in-between to open up our imagination today. How exactly this will happen I don't yet know; it is a thought that I need to follow with consequence. I would try to mark the era of Dadá Eros by making a Gesamtkunstwerk out of Cabaret Voltaire. This will happen on the 101st birthday of Dada. Until then I need to follow my obsession, or on this idea and elaborate it in text and diagrams.

I start heralding Dadá Eros with this interview here.

How can Eros shake off the shadow of Thanatos (death), given it is inextricably bound to it? Must it (can it) shake it off?

ANEros can't shake of the shadow of Thanatos, but Eros can go beyond Thanatos. Eros, c'est la vie. Which means that only with Eros we are really alive. The problem today is that we are more like half dead. We are too dead to live and too alive to die (this is again from Byung-Chul Han, the German-Korean philosopher). Thanks to Eros we can face Thanatos, fight with it, against it and even, go beyond it.

So yes, Dadà Eros is facing Thanatos. In fact, just this morning I read Kurt Schwitters definition of Dadà. He says Dadà is eternal, because, like Jonathan Meese also says, it is aimed to the Future.

Consequently, Dadá Eros will overcome death. Dada est mort, vive Dadá! Although Schwitters says, 'Dada is abstract Non-Art', therefore it is eternal because it is abstract. Like Eros is abstract, sublimely abstract, because it overcomes us and we can't explain it. After all, Eros is the oldest enigma of mankind.

I was thinking about Apollonian and Dionysian aspects as a necessity in the creation of art (as described by Nietzsche), not just Eros. Does this play a role in the new Dadá?

ANI would say that Apollonian and Dionysian aspects are old Dada, as Hugo Ball studied Nietzsche a lot. These are kind of old categories and too binary in thinking. One could say that Eros goes in between the two, constantly in the pivot of both and being both at the same time. Eros is both.

To embrace Eros, the subconscious—with all its desires and repressed sexuality—need to be unshackled from the control of the conscious mind.

ANTo embrace Eros you go in between the conscious and subconscious and open up something third! At least with Dada Eros that is the case. What you described is more on the side of the super serious Surrealists.

What is your ultimate goal with Dadá?

ANI'm trying to create a new religion with Dadá. A non-religion religion.

And we want to destroy ISIS with Dadá.

If we manage to create Dadá as this kind of attitude, we basically take away the resources of ISIS. We don't have to go and fight directly ... The success of ISIS is probably due to the fact that the Western world doesn't have any higher values anymore. We must fill a void and create new values, which are attractive to disoriented and disenchanted youngsters. If you create better values, you can destroy ISIS through that.

Of course, we can create some Dadá actions and throw cats on ISIS— there are lots of videos of Isis fighters stroking cats—and distract them. We can use drones and drop down millions of cats. Instead of beheading reporters, they start cuddling cats. That's the fun part of fighting ISIS with Dadá. —[O]

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