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The voices in the radio: SJ Fowler’s Electric Dada

Posted 20 May 2013 by | Comments Off


Sarah Lester explores the inspiration behind poet SJ Fowler’s new commission Electric Dada.

Why can’t a tree be called Pluplusch, and Pluplubasch when it has been raining?
1916 Dada Manifesto, Hugo Ball

Zurich seems like an unlikely city to spawn a revolutionary, “anti-art”, art movement, but in the midst of a war-ravaged Europe, the seeds were planted. On 5th February 1916 Spiegelgasse 1 – better known as Cabaret Voltaire – opened its doors for the first ever Dada event.

Founder Hugo Ball – best remembered for reciting abstract poetry whilst dressed as an obelisk – had penned an embittered and menacing anti-war poem especially for the occasion. Reviving elements of the danse macabre tradition, Ball’s text, Totentanz 1916 (Dance of Death 1916), channelled one of Dada’s main preoccupations: expiry.

Ball’s creation didn’t just serve to remind the living of their mortality through dancing corpses. It comprised a satirical rendering of a popular marching song, So Leben Wir (This is How We Live), with its original meaning reversed to become a grimly topical soldier’s chorus So sterben wir (This is How We Die).  When Emmy Hennings (Cabaret Voltaire co-founder and Ball’s future wife) performed Totentanz at the second night of Cabaret Voltaire the unnerved, but mesmerised, audience were left unsure how to respond. They couldn’t tell whether it was appropriate to applaud or not. What exactly is the correct protocol for performances that macabrely highlight the current extent of mass human destruction?

Dada wasn’t just anti-war, it was anti-art, a vehement protest against the cultural conformity and bourgeois ideology that Dadaists believed had caused World War One. Anarchists, revolutionaries, artists and pacifists who had made neutral Switzerland their temporary home, reviled the political and cultural norms of the time. For them, the bloodshed of World War One didn’t just mark a futile loss of human life, it confirmed other forms of expiry – the failure of the entire project of Western philosophy, the death of the human “spirit”, and the inadequacy of language, which had been abused for politically corrupt ends and defiled by jingoism.

The voices I hear in the radio do not hear me
SJ Fowler, 2013

As the centenary of Cabaret Voltaire looms ever closer, poet SJ Fowler has been adopting Dadaist methodologies as a way of questioning our own preconceived notions. Drawing on Dada’s own sense of terror and menace, Fowler’s “Electric Dada” asks the audience to consider what it might actually mean to make contact with the dead. Or, rather, what it might mean for the dead to contact us. Far from hearing the comforting voices of our dearly departed, Fowler conjures up a profoundly more painful and unsettling affair. “Death has a language”, he sinisterly declares onstage, then, without waiting for an invitation, continues: “I will give you that sound.”

As Dadaists superceded formal language to engage with subjects that could not be understood outside of the abstract or the absurd, Fowler’s own sound poetry urges the listener to make their own connections between word, sound and meaning.   Transcending a language concerning death that is overfamiliar to us, Fowler’s ritual-esque vocalisations evoke magical incantations and otherworldly seances in words from a language of his own invention.  Fragmentary phrases, fields of invented words can bypass the author’s own associations and trigger new ones in the listener – it’s a Dadaist technique that was deployed in an attempt to overcome the subjective (bourgeois) ego.

If art appeals to civilised sensibilities and genteel good manners, Dada is the opposite. Dada – anti-art – was intended to offend. The performance experiments at Cabaret Voltaire (and beyond) did not lend themselves to polite rounds of applause, rather they stood for a rigorous critique of prevalent systems. Even so, when Fowler outlines the specific details of an artist’s exemplary suicide case for the benefit of all those in the audience who have refrained from committing suicide “for fear of making a mess” there’s no riot exactly, but there’s more than a ripple of nervous laughter. Like the audience of Henning’s performance of Totentanz, we’re not quite sure how to react.


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