Dressed in an absurd costume, a photograph of Hugo Ball exists of him standing on stage at the short lived Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, a cramped club where his nonsensical poem Karawane (expressly written to convey no meaning at all) is about to be read. Ball was not a random curiosity who stumbled on stage but a leader of an anti-art movement, standing in front of like-minded Dadaists like Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco and Emmy Henning, who opened the Cabaret Voltaire with Ball.
In 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire in the Spiegelgasse in Zürich became a hotbed for Dada theorizing and performances. Dada was a movement for those who had been disillusioned with the art world, with some “seeking to destroy art as a concept.” Its approach, at times, was as bewildering as its origins. “My proposal to call it Dada is accepted…” Ball wrote in his diary, “[it] is ‘yes yes’ in [Romanian], ‘rocking horse’ and ‘hobby horse’ in French.” This definition of the name, by Ball, seems purposefully meaningless, however Richard Huelsenbeck, the German poet and writer, associated the name with the first words of a child and proclaimed that Dada “stood for everything and nothing.” Zürich became a safe haven for Dadaist whose home countries were plagued by the devastation of the First World War. Here, in the smoky nightclub venue, artists and performance provocateurs gathered night in and night out who had done away with praise for the pre-war art world and “as a group they were united in [their] hatred for the professionalization of art…” Art was meant to change lives and Dadaists who were less inclined to bog themselves down with just visual art, sought an ideas-driven movement that valued literature as much as painting or sculpting.
The Dadaist Marcel Janco painted one of the wildest nights at the Cabaret Voltaire. Salvaged in the reprint of a postcard, a cubist rendition of a crowd of onlookers sitting at tables pressed up closely to the stage watching and pointing at the huddle of men, with a pianist under the word Dada and a woman and man in the middle of an embrace. Ball wrote in his diaries “Everyone has been seized by an indefinable intoxication. The small cabaret is about to come apart at the seams and is going to be a playground for crazy emotions.” The intoxicating emotions died quickly, with the closure of the nightclub months later. Dadaists moved to different places, and Ball converted to catholicism. The Cabaret Voltaire, “like an intense fire, the light…was bright but brief.” (Alastair Sooke, BBC)
Written by June Diaz