Olivia Arigho Stiles, Technology and Avant Garde Protest

‘Freedom: Dada Dada Dada, a roaring of tense colours, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies’

 Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918

 

It is well noted that new technologies often coincide with upsurges in ‘anti-political’ as well as anti-authoritarian activity. The use of  BBM in the 2011 London riots and Twitter in the Arab Spring and Brazil protests, for example, has attracted considerable interest from sociologists and commentators examining how social media and technologies shape people’s resistances to the world around them. Technologies come into use outside of, and in addition to, conventional political channels. Not unsurprisingly, then, technology has also shared a symbiotic relationship with avant-garde protest. In particular, Dada and the 1960s London underground press in which Dada’s influence can be discerned, offer a dynamic historical example of how technology forms an integral part of the avant-garde protest ethic.

Dadaism emerged around 1916 in Zurich, and rapidly spread across Europe in the wake of the First World War. Arising against the extreme dislocation, mechanisation, and bellicose destruction wrought by the war, Dada offered a radical rejection of artistic and political conventions. It utilised new artistic techniques, visual performance and provocative writing to offer an anti-rational vision of revolutionary social change. The poet and self-appointed Dada spokesperson, Tristan Tzara wrote ‘The beginnings of Dada were not the beginnings of art, but of disgust[1]‘, while another Dadaist declared ‘Dada is irony, Dada is politics, Dada will kick you in the behind’[2]. Dada thus presented a seemingly incomprehensible and incoherent vision of art, culture and society.

In many ways Dada enjoyed a paradoxical relationship with technology. Emerging out of this fierce rejection of the industrialisation and mechanisation of the First World War, Dada sought to find meaning in a world rendered incoherent through the brutal technocracy of mass warfare. Yet simultaneously, Dadaists pioneered innovative technologies such as collage, photomontage and new types of photography, which had a formative influence on the way society experienced and perceived political ideas. It was in the mid 1980s’ contexts of debates around modernism and postmodernism that Andreas Huyssen deplored critical theorists’ tendency to ossify the avant-garde ‘into an elite enterprise beyond politics and beyond everyday life[3]‘. Richard Sheppard has since argued that although Dada never contributed to political theory or practical social reform projects, it nonetheless posed serious political questions in an attempt to resolve a perceived crisis of modernity.

The influence of Dada and the way it interacted with technology is also broadly evident in the 1960s counter-culture and the range of magazines and newspapers it produced. The social upheaval and cultural revolt of the ‘sixties’, or roughly the years around 1963 to 1974 led to a flourishing ‘underground’ press (here used synonymously with the word alternative), firstly in America and subsequently in Europe. The way in which the underground press sought to understand and process these socio-cultural changes should be seen as a continuation of the aesthetic tradition of Dadaism, to which the adaptation of new technologies was integral. In Britain, the underground press was largely concentrated in London, and within that, the Notting Hill environs. An era which witnessed sweeping social change, the ‘sixties’ remains one of the most culturally resonant periods in recent Western history. The sixties saw an upsurge in prosperity which was enjoyed by the masses; where previous working-class generations had endured the privations of the Depression of the 1930s, followed by the trauma of the Second World War, the adolescents of the sixties were accustomed to prosperity, steady employment and the welfare state. Average earnings increased by 110% between 1951 and 1964[4]. At the same time, the spectre of the Bomb and consequent world annihilation created a culture of disillusionment with authority and propagated a sense of life’s transience and nihilism. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) emerged in 1957 as Britain’s first mass protest movement which fused moral and political concerns. Global shifts in social norms and attitudes occurred alongside dramatic liberation struggles by women, black, lesbian and gay men and women, while a changing public consciousness in the relationship between the individual and society was emerging.

The counter-culture emerged, chaotic and inchoate, out of this context of upheaval. Established in 1966, International Times (IT) was the first periodical in London to emerge with an explicit link to the counter-culture, followed by Oz in 1967,  The Black Dwarf in 1968, and Friends in 1969 (subsequently Frendz). From the outset, this alternative press, as with Dada which preceded it, was defined by its symbiotic relationship with technological innovation. Offset litho printing which was much cheaper than traditional typesetting allowed designers the freedom to experiment with innovative design, using metallic foils and fluorescent inks to layer image over text. In the same way as the Dadaists used new media such as collages to transcend the artistic conventions of Europe’s elite, the rapid print output of the underground press acted to democratise the underground’s message and echo its eclecticism. Mary Ann Caws highlights how the French Dadaist and subsequent Surrealist, Louis Aragon considered collage a ‘lower-class rebellion’ against bourgeois sensibilities, and a garish manifestation of bad taste[5]. Collage and photomontage was thus routinely used by Dadaists, and bears much resemblance to the visual style cultivated by the underground press, especially Oz, as reflected in Hannah Höch’s 1919 photomontage ‘Cut with the kitchen knife through the last Weimar beer-belly cultural epoch in Germany’ and its similarity to the front cover of Frendz in 1971.

Both the advent of Dada and the alternative press were facilitated by technological innovations that were a distinct product of their own respective eras. Dadaist Christian Schad’s pioneering photographic experiments were known as ‘Schadographs’, and involved laying objects on light-sensitive photographic paper, creating camera-less photographs. Thus much of the eclecticism of Dada was expressed in the disorder and spontaneity invoked through this new-found use of collage and photomontage. The use of montage is carried through the alternative press, although it took the form of ‘verbal montage’. This term is useful in referring to the underground press’s practice of publishing eclectic assortment of extracts from books and pamphlets derived from external sources. These would typically encompass extracts on R.D Laing to lectures from the Psychedelic Convention in 1968 for example.

Alongside this, both the underground press and Dada responded to social change through explorations of colour and imagery. For Dada, the use of bright colours and images was a more metaphysical response to the destruction and the rampant industrialisation fuelled by the First World War. ‘Vigour and thirst, emotion in response to the formation which is neither to be seen nor to be explained: poetry … A will to the word: a being on its feet, an image, a construction unique, fervent, of a deep colour, intensity, communion with life’[6], reveals how Tzara conceived of colour in poetry within Dada. The staccato word ordering exhibited here underpin the fragmentation and destruction wrought by the war, attacking structure, order and more than anything, meaning itself.

For the underground press, the arresting swirls of psychedelic colour on its pages were part of a reaction to the cultural banality and joylessness of the post-war Britain urban environment, and constituted an attack on its staleness and stagnation. IT famously wanted to lobby for a twenty-four hour Tube service in London, in order to encourage non-stop nightlife scene in the city at a time when licensing laws were strict. IT’s famed launch party in 1966 at the Roundhouse, in Chalk Farm encapsulated this tide of irreverent and free-thinking protest which aimed to transform the way in which the notions of fun and leisure were practiced.

Robert Hewison argues that there exists an essential paradox within the alternative press for ‘the logic of the underground was ultimately opposed to the materialism which had created the opportunity for it to flourish[7]‘. This links to theories of the avant-garde which have stressed the ambiguity between positions of marginality and accomodationism. Moreover, Dominic Sandbrook is particularly acerbic in characterising the alternative press as a product of an ‘incestuous and self-absorbed social scene’[8]; of self-indulgent middle-class bohemians who appropriated the language of revolution with no deep-seated intent to enact it. This may be in some way accurate, if only in the narrow social basis of the alternative press, (most being middle-class and university educated) but the sincerity of youthful underground press in its attempts to grapple with alienation in an age of advanced capitalism and a technocratic society is readily discernible in its pages. The theme that unites all of the newspapers in the underground press in a direct and logical continuation from Dada, is a desire to conceive of change through subversion, through the forging of an alternative, oppositional culture which would shape a wider political and social reality. As culture became young people’s primary method of imaginative resistance to capitalism and the main point of social disconnect[9], the alternative press constructed a ‘politics of irreverence’, which, as with Dada, was culturally conceived and practiced, and rejected distillation into pre-existing political channels. In many ways this sprang naturally from the prevailing consciousness of subjective social identity, expressed in the slogan ‘the personal is the political’.

Although the view that Dada was nihilistic and meaningless has come to be revised in recent years[10], Dada never deviated from its aim to shock society and draw attention to its most repressive tendencies, offending society’s sensibilities using whatever means and media necessary; much of the poetry produced by Dada poets such as Tristan Tzara engaged with innovative lyrical (de)constructions. Walter Benjamin affirms that ‘Dadaist demonstrations did indeed constitute a very violent diversion in that they placed the work of art at the centre of a scandal. That work had above all to meet one requirement: it must provoke public irritation.’[11] Sheppard offers a more nuanced vision of Dada when he characterises it as ‘jubilantly and ironically Anarchist’, offering a praxis for the reconciliation of its material and its cultural implications:

At their most characteristic, the politics of Dada are … concerned with releasing the irrational powers in human nature and changing our way of experiencing, seeing, and thinking about reality. For Dada it was pointless to socialize property and create revolutionary institutions without first destroying people’s fear of their own irrational powers – the root of their urge to acquire property, dominate their fellows, and settle within fixed and apparently stable patterns. Thus the real political force of Dada lies not in any abstract ideas, but in its uncompromising experimentalism within a modernity that is felt not only to have come off its hinges but to have lost those hinges while its ideologues pretended that everything was still in its proper place.[12]

The parallels between Dadaism and the ideals of the underground press in the sixties are thus highly overt, for in envisaging a very different way to overturn society or at least to shock it into re-evaluation, the chaos and innovation of Dada are mirrored in the developments in the sixties alternative press. And as with the 1960s counter-culture and the New Left, Dada interacted closely with the concurrent political movements convulsing post-First World War Europe. In Germany, Dadaists Richard Huelsenbeck and J.T Baargeld along with many others became Communists for example and the German Dadaists adopted an explicitly Communist programme.[13] The underground’s escapist individualism broadly channelled the Dada belief in the power of the individual to change their own reality. For Dadaists, in the post First World War context, this arose out of a profound disillusionment with the collective organs of, and belonging to, the nation state – the army, the monarchy, the government, as well as political parties and trade unions – which had all failed to prevent and had even endorsed the bellicose inter-imperial warfare and destruction.

In the Dada Manifesto 1918, Tzara writes:

Love thy neighbour” is a hypocrisy. “Know thyself” is utopian but more acceptable, for it embraces wickedness. No pity. After the carnage we still retain the hope of a purified mankind. I speak only of myself since I do not wish to convince, I have no right to drag others into my river, I oblige no one to follow me and everybody practices his art in his own way…[14]

Here, Tzara emphasises the primacy of the individual in the pursuit of truth, and the futility in attempting to impart this truth onto others and to ‘drag’ them unwillingly to self-realisation. Enlightenment, in whatever form, can thus only emerge from the self. Tzara’s idea that ‘after all everyone dances to his own personal boomboom[15]‘ has many echoes in the ‘Do your own thing’ mantra which permeated the alternative press, and the underground in the sixties.

Thus technology opened up new outlets for the subversion of Dada, and the alternative press to be self-realised. Both Dada and the alternative press were facilitated by specific technological innovations which enabled both movements to develop photomontage, ‘verbal montage’ and collage, both in a practical and in an abstract, thematic way. Yet Dadaism’s influence is most noticeable in the alternative press’s pursuit of the ‘politics of irreverence’, or the politics of artistic, avant-garde subversion. By subverting the existing modes of disseminating information and by presenting an inherent challenge to the established order, the alternative press by its existence, represented its own victory. Yet this Dadaistic influence was not consciously realised, although it is critically apparent, and few actual references to Dada are evident in the written content of the underground press. A crucial bone of contention within historical writing on the underground press is whether the press possessed a political significance or whether its impact was confined to a distinctly cultural sphere. Such a dichotomy permeates the historical discourse surrounding the counter-culture in London. Yet the underground press should be viewed not as a distinct product of neo anarchist or Romantic tendencies, (although it was undoubtedly influenced by both of these) but as a cultural construct which aimed to overturn the political parameters where it found them, doing so squarely within the intellectual and aesthetic framework of Dadaism. Benjamin wrote of Dada’s ambition, that ‘any radically new pioneering generation of demands will go too far.’[16] Both Dada and the underground press ultimately succeeded in refining new ways of imagining social transformation, conceiving of revolt in a way that was not simply ‘cultural’ or ‘political’, but represented a new form of avant-garde protest within the wider counter-culture.  Their success rested to a large degree on the technologies they imaginatively adapted.

 

Olivia Arigho-Stiles is a 3rd-year History student at Somerville College, Oxford, and an associate editor of the OLR.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Tristan Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918 http://www.mariabuszek.com/kcai/DadaSurrealism/DadaSurrReadings/TzaraD1.pdf.

[2] William Rubin, Dada, Surrealism, and Their Heritage (New York, 1968).

[3] Andreas Huyssen in Richard Sheppard, Modernism – Dada- Postmodernism, (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 2000) pp. 304.

[4] Elizabeth Nelson The British Counter-culture 1966-73 A Study of the Underground Press (London, 1988) pp.40.

[5] Mary Ann Caws, The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism, (Princeton, 1970) p.38.

[6] Tristan Tzara, “Note sur la poesie,” Sept manifestes Dada, in Mary Ann Caws, The Poetry of Dada and Surrealism (Princeton, 1970) pp.95.

[7] Robert Hewison Too Much, Art and society in the sixties 1960-1975 (London, 1986). foreword.

[8] Sandbrook, White Heat, pp.499.

[9] Stuart Hall, in Hewison Too Much, pp.16

[10] Theresa Papanikolas Anarchism and the Advent of Paris Dada: Art and Criticism 1914-1924 (London, 2010) p.10.

[11] ibid, pp.31.

[12] Sheppard Modernism – Dada – Postmodernism

[13] Robert Motherwell The Dada Painters and Poets, An Anthology, 2nd edn, (London, 1981) pp.41.

[14] Tzara, Dada Manifesto 1918.

[15] ibid.

[16] Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction pp.31.

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