Interview: Adrian Notz, director of Cabaret Voltaire, on Dada

24_Adrian Notz by Fabian Frinzel_highres

Adrian Notz, Director of Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich © Cabaret Voltaire

There are layers and layers of myth surrounding the dadaist movement, it might even be better to describe the founders of Dada as a network of like minded iconoclasts, that later spread the Dada attitude and philosophy to several other places, where they morphed in to new dadaisms. Dada, and its anti-art and anti-establishment attitude, spread to Berlin, Hannover, Cologne, Paris, Barcelona, even Japan, and, not least important, New York.

But the birthplace of Dada was Cabaret Voltaire on Spiegelgasse 1, in Zürich, where a lot of people from the whole of Europe had searched refuge from the Great War. The original founders of  Dada were Hugo Ball (1886–1927), Emmy Hennings (1885–1948), Hans Arp (1887–1966), Tristan Tzara (1896–1963) och Marcel Janco (1895–1984). Among the first persons to join the founding five were Richard Huelsenbeck (1892–1974) and Sophie Taeuber (1889–1943).

Cabaret Volaire, Spiegelgasse 1, Zürich © Cabaret Voltaire

The five founders were held their first legendary soaré at Cabaret Voltaire 5th of February 1916. Dada is 100 years old and the centennial is celebrated all over the world. Many large institutions have Dada exhibitions on display. Several great books have been published on the subject. A lot of the attention is focused on the birthplace, Cabaret Voltaire. We had the opportunity to ask Adrian Notz a few questions, the director of Cabaret Voltaire.

When Dada is described, it’s always an emphasis on seeing the movement as a protest against the Great War. Dada is also described as an anti-movement and its orientation as rather destructive. But beyond that, what is the essence of the historical Dadaism?

The essence of the historical movement is that they found the word ”dada” to describe a zeitgeist and propose and attitude. Dada was not directly against the Great War, it was much more against a way of thinking, a definition of world that lead to this world war. Dada was against the prevailing economic fatalism, that gave all people a certain role and character. Dada tried to free mankind and looked for a league of people who would orgiastically oppose to everything useful and necessary.

Could you tell us a little bit about your background? How and why did you become especially interested in Dada and what did you do before you began working at Cabaret Voltaire?

Before I worked at Cabaret Voltaire I studied theory of art and design at the University of Arts in Zürich. I became especially interested in Dada when I began working at Cabaret Voltaire. Learning by doing, so to say. That was in 2004, twelve years ago.

Dada was born 100 years ago at Cabaret Voltaire, so it must be a really special year for Cabaret Voltaire and Zürich, you have probably prepared yourselves years in advance for the centennial, but could you first describe what’s going on at Cabaret Voltaire a regular year? Please describe the place, it’s atmosphere, activities and visitors.

Since the beginning in 2004 there has never been something like a regular year in Cabaret Voltaire. We were constantly fighting to survive, always working close to the abyss, becoming masters of the panic zone. In this sense we have been practicing the jubilee since 12 years, we managed to explore our obsessions and use them as a energy to keep working with noble gesture and delicate propriety until craziness, until unconsciousness.


I guess, if you come to Cabaret Voltaire, it looks like a bar, where people get drunk in the nights, then it is also an event space, with a lot of different events and happenings, so we have a very mixed audience, from all parts of the city and of the world. This is quite untypical for Zürich, because there a lot of people prefer to move in certain milieus and scenes. Of course we also have a lot of weirdos coming, Dada fans, a lot of different artists with very different approaches. Everyday is different.

And there are also ordinary tourists coming to Cabaret Voltaire like pilgrims. And journalists, who ask all the same questions about what Dada is, how it was in 1916, what the space looked like, etc etc. We have a very small budget, i.e. non for communication, but even, if we would do nothing, we could not just sit here because the place itself is an attraction. Doing nothing then, is still a lot of work. We also have a shop and an exhibition space. It is a very small place, and therefor very dense with different ideas and atmospheres. Maybe the only genuinely metropolitan place in Zürich.

And what is going on at Cabaret Voltaire during the centennial? I know there are several exhibitions in Zürich and I suppose that you are involved in several projects, maybe internationally as well.

During the centennial Cabaret Voltaire is the eye of the storm. Everybody who wants to have the true Dada 100 experience goes through here. With our program we have also been the backbone or spine of the celebrations. We have held an event every night and we are still holding an event every 06:30, a celebration of each and every one of the 165 dadaists. We are only involved in a few selected projects. Like the exhibition ”Kurt Schwitters: Merz” with an architecture design by late Zaha Hadid at Galerie Gmurzynska, the place today in Zürich where Galerie Dada was in 1916.


Or the exhibition ”Genesis Dada” in the Arp Museum Bahnhof Rolandseck where we show the first exhibitions of the Dadaist, the artoworks that were shown in Cabaret Voltaire and in Galerie Dada. We explain the genesis of Dada. In the second half of the year we are invited to several lectures and festivals in Serbia, Romania, Brazil, Spain, Italy, San Francisco and New Zealand. So this will be very different from what we have done before. Right now Manifesta 11 is using Cabaret Voltaire as their ”Guild House Voltaire” with weekly performance nights. After Manifesta we will start changing Cabaret Voltaire into a work of total art.

I’m by no means an expert on contemporary art, but my impression is that the art world since long has absorbed Dadaism, that it is now part of the DNA of art. How do you perceive the legacy of Dadaism?

Not of the whole contemporary art world. Some artists are not so aware of what they are doing or are pretending to be artists, so they can sell well. I see the legacy of Dada in those artists, who also refer to it and use Dada as a reference point. One can make like a bridge with the art of the 60s and 70s, Happening, Fluxus and even conceptual art, that relates to Dada. Today a couple of the most successful artists refer to Dada, such as Paul Mc Carthy, Marina Abramovic, Damien Hirst, Thomas Hirschhorn, Erwin Wurm and Jonathan Meese.

If you were allowed to choose three Dadaist works of art, to hang or display at your home, which ones would you choose and why?

I guess it would be one of Francis Picabias machine drawings, maybe even just the cover of one of the issues of Picabias 391 magazine. They are great!


Hugo Ball at Cabaret Voltaire in costume by Marcel Janco © Cabaret Voltaire

You have written several texts about Dadaism, among them 165 Dadaistinnen. Could you mention a few dadaistinnen that you think are particularly interesting and why?

I find Sophie Teauber Arp, Emmy Hennings, Hannah Höch and Dada Baroness to be the most interesting artists amongst the Dada women. Sophie Taeuber has a great body of work and work in a lot of different disciplines. Emmy Hennings was the star of Cabaret Voltaire, she managed to keep the audience under control. And she was the one that made the Dadaists aware of that they should take one or two pictures of themselves, like Hugo Ball in the Cubist costume. Hannah Höch made fantastic and super critical collages, and Dada Baroness said: ”I am art.”

And finally, are there any books or exhibition catalogs on Dada that you would like recommend?

I would recommend Dadaglobe reconstructed, Genesis Dada, She Dada and an almost classic: Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus.

Note to reader: In the above mentioned book by music critic Greil Marcus, he establishes links between Dada and punk.

Ola Wihlke

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