On October 6, 1916, a group of European artists met at a salon in Zurich and, rather unwittingly, changed the face of popular culture forever. It was at the Cabaret Voltaire that Hugo Ball, Tristan Tzar, and Hans Richter, among others, would meet in order to discuss, among other things, how art could react to the ongoing horrors of the First World War. This was the birth of a movement called Dada.
Dada, and Dadaism, was an attempt to break free of the shackles of tradition, a means of exploring the role that art, and the artist, played in a society that was undergoing a seismic shift. Following on from the anti-art of Marcel Duchamp and his readymades, the techniques that that Dadaists embraced—from the cut-up to the sound poem—became foundational elements of the avant-garde in the 20th century and beyond.
By nature, an absurdist, anarchistic approach to creativity in the face of unceasing unpleasantness, it shouldn't be surprising that the Dadaists went on to influence the alternative comedy scene of the mid 1980s. One comedian influenced by Ball and his cohorts was Alexei Sayle. The surrealist, actor, former pop-star, and novelist has been quietly making Radio Dada—an hour-long exploration of the movement, its place in art history, and its long-lasting legacy. Dadaist in form as well as in content, it's a disorientating, dislocating listen: Voices are layered, cut-up, collaged. Which is part of why it's so great.
I recently caught up with Sayle to talk about just why the Dadaist ideas are so important to society today.
VICE: Our readers are mainly young people who don't really have the time to listen to hour-long documentaries. So for their sake, could you briefly situate Dadaism in the context of early-20th-century art history?
Alexei Sayle: You have to go back before Dada to make sense of it. Fine art was an institution that was struggling with technological change, just as print media is now. The camera had changed everything. The camera led to Impressionism, which wasn't based on "reality" but the painter's version of reality. Then there was Post-Impressionism, then Abstractionism. A range of possibilities about what art was were opened up, and then culminated in Duchamp saying, "Whatever I say is art is art." Dadaism also has to be seen as a response to the insanity of the First World War. You've got this massive slaughter going on, and people were looking for ways to express their feelings, expressing anger. So it grew out of all that.
WWI meant we had to reframe human thought and reframe our understanding of societal relations and basically re-map the world. And while the two might not be directly linked, is there a connection between what Dadaism was doing with the visual arts and conceptual art, and what Modernist literature was doing with literature?
I mean, I just presented a documentary—I wouldn't hold myself up as a great expert. But yeah, I think clearly there is a link between Joyce or whatever and Dadaism. There's a similar breaking down of the kind of formal barriers and formal notions of plot and narrative.
Nihilism was an important part of Dada as an idea. Is nihilism an incredibly important concept when you consider any kind of avant-garde movement?
If you're gonna have art or comedy or music that is chaotic, then it will have a tendency to be nihilistic. Punk or the Goons or Dada or alternative comedy would include an element of that, yes, because it's also about a kind of rejection of everything. Saying nothing is sacred—that is nihilistic.
To move away briefly from Dadaism itself, how did that pervasive nihilism impact on alternative comedy? Was there a sense of everything being shit, and comedy was a means of examining that?
That was certainly part of the appeal of the time. There were obviously implied areas where we weren't being nihilistic: It was inherently anti-racist and anti-sexist. In that sense, we weren't being nihilistic. But in terms of the performance style and the material, yeah, I guess there was an inherent critique of nearly everything.
It seems to me that Dada underpins a lot of what followed in the 20th century in art and beyond. Is that a fair assessment? Was it a real driving force for artistic change?
It certainly drove—you could argue pretty convincingly—everything along that came later.
And again, this idea that pops up of Dada situating itself as anti-tradition, anti-figurative art, anti-received wisdom of what art should be. What happens then when the anti-traditional becomes an accepted part of the narrative and general art history?
If you wanna be successful in art, you have to appeal to, essentially, collectors, curators, and critics. All of whom are not Anti-Establishment figures. It becomes very problematic and very contradictory. And one of the reasons why I wanted to take some of those ideas, but use them in popular entertainment, was because you're free of that kind of patronage, really; you just make people laugh and they give you money, and that's it—there's no intermediary who is a critic or a collector. That's why I was drawn to that. One of the groups that the documentary didn't cover were the Situationists in France. They understood that capitalism has a way of taking ideas and neutering them. In art, that process is always inevitably going to happen, and that's one of its inherent problems. Being anti-traditional and stuff is very difficult to see through, I think.
To be an artist in the 21st century, whatever medium you're exploring, whether it's figurative or conceptual, you have to play this new game—you have to learn to play in the art world. Is that something that you feel will be damaging to art in the long run?
Yeah, absolutely. It's a fundamental flaw in art. And I think it is, in a sense, what confines it to being a minor interest. By that, I mean it's not central to culture, really.
Toward the end of the documentary, the focus is on Dadaism and surrealism as a means of disrupting traditional narratives, art narratives, historical narratives, and disrupting mainstream culture. Do you think in the 21st-century things seem to be more homogenized and sanitized than ever before—that we need that disruption?
It would be nice. But it's not going to come from the art world. Society, particularly capitalism, finds a way very quickly to neuter anything that challenges it. There is a particularly epochal moment at the moment, which you've got in Britain, which is Corbyn. And that's not just to do with Britain, but to do with those voices outside the very narrow spectrum which is usually allowed, you know, to be able to get hold of a major party. And I think that's very exciting—a very exciting moment. What art plays in that I don't really know.
There's also a bit where Grayson Perry talks about the shock value of art and the nature of shock and why art is no longer shocking. Given the nature of the reality of what we see in the media, can art still shock us in an age where everything is viewable and recorded and presented to us as visual entertainment?
It's difficult, but I think it could. It is undoubtedly a different world than what Dada grew up in. Theoretically it can, but at the moment, no one is particularly taking up the mantle. I mean, certainly in some ways the last pop music trend that I think did have the power to shock was hip-hop.
Maybe shock is what artists should strive for in terms of visual art and comedy and literature. It's not something that a lot of people seem to be interested in taking on, but that is the role of the artist: to strive to do that.
Follow Josh Baines on Twitter.