Dada: ‘an artistic and literary movement formed in response to the disasters of World War I and to an emerging modern media and machine culture. Dada artists sought to expose accepted and often repressive conventions of order and logic, favouring strategies of chance, spontaneity, and authenticity.’
Psychic automatism, occult symbolism and manic media – the term ‘dada’ is a colloquial French term for a hobbyhorse, and also echoes the first words of a child. It’s the renewal of this childsplay that takes aim at the absurdity underlying the sobriety of conventional society.
An artistic ‘anti-art’ movement that refused to be limited by logic and labels, the form over function of its approach was to challenge the social norms that had done nothing to prevent violence and bloodshed: the First World War claimed the lives of eight million military personnel and an estimated equal number of civilians.
This unprecedented loss of human life sprang from technological advances in weaponry, communications, and transportation systems. Ironically all industrial innovations intended to improve human life. For the disillusioned of the Dada movement, the war confirmed the degradation of social structures: corrupt and nationalist politics, repressive social values, myopic pursuits, and unquestioning conformity of culture and thought.
In the years before World War I, Europe was already losing its grip on rational-reality. Einstein’s universe was the latest science-fiction, Freud’s theories placed reason in the abyss of the unconscious and communism threatened to turn capitalism upside down; with the proletariat on top. The imitating arts were also coming unhinged and unglued. Schoenberg’s music was atonal, Mal-larmé’s poems scrambled syntax and scattered words, and Picasso’s Cubism annihilated anatomy.
Dada’s honest ideals emerged from the activities of a boutique boyband of artists in Zurich, eventually spreading like a pandemic into a loose set of strategies and philosophies adopted by an international network of creatives: aiming to dream up new forms of visual art, performance, and poetry alongside alternative visions of life. The artists affiliated with Dada did not share a common style or approach so much as the wish, as expressed by French artist Jean Hans Arp:
“to question the hoaxes of reason and to discover unreasoned order.”
In true French fashion, after trying his hand at Impressionism and Cubism, Marcel Duchamp rejected all painting because it was made for the eye of the painter, and not the mentalist of the mind. Duchamp traced the roots of Dada’s farcical spirit back to the Greek satirical playwright Aristophanes.
Also known as ‘the Father of Comedy’ and the ‘Prince of Ancient Comedy’, Aristophanes’ powers of ridicule were both feared and acknowledged by his influential contemporaries. Aristophanes’ name signifies ‘the perfect one that appears’, from the greek ‘Aριστος’ (Aristos – perfect) and the ‘Φάνης’ (Phanes – the one who appears and shines).
A more immediate source of inspiration was the Absurdist French playwright Alfred Jarry, whose 1895 King Ubu introduced the concept of Pataphysics – the science of imaginary solutions; a movement that sought to free the living imagination from the dead dogma of empirical paradigms. Parodying the scientific method, Duchamp made voluminous notes, diagrams and studies for some of his most enigmatic work, drawing like a mechanical engineer that was ‘outside all pictorial convention’.
Many Dadaists mocked the dehumanisation of industrialisation with these elaborate pseudodiagrams (chockablock with gears, pulleys, dials, wheels, levers, pistons and clockworks) that appeared to explain nothing. And the typographer’s symbol of a pointing hand frequently appeared as iconic.
It was around 1923 when out of the depths of Dada, Surrealism started to surface. Whereas Dada artists tended to use collages, photomontages, assemblage or ready-made objects to illustrate the insanity of our ‘rational’ and ‘civilised’ norms, Surrealism tended to paint illogical scenes or strange creatures using everyday objects; illuminating the surreal of our every day real.
When in 1924 André Breton published the Manifesto of Surrealism he explained this movement through the concept of pure psychic automatism: the idea of an uninhibited creative psyche. He later reconceptualised this along the lines of a religious creed, as a ‘psychic mechanism or state of mind that can stand as a solution for the problems of life’.
The first famous attempts at rationalising the irrational, came from Freud who in his Interpretation of Dreams explained the relation between the unconscious, dreams and psyche. For Freud, dream was a way to uncover the unconscious, because our thoughts are not rationally conceived while dreaming. Our unconscious part is therefore freely expressed in disguises and symbols that are difficult to translate into words, but can be rendered in figurative representations.
Both a concept and a technique, psychic automatism was the explanation for the ability to express thought unfettered by contemporary social concerns. It was assumed that thoughts run freely in the unconscious sphere of the mind, and Surrealists aimed at expressing these as they are.
Breton had a background in medicine, leading to his choice placement of psychic and mechanism. Before he announced it in the field of art, the technique was used in psychiatric research and parapsychological studies. While the term automatism is specifically associated with twentieth-century artists, and particularly Surrealism, plenty of earlier artists such as Alexander Cozens used elements of chance to create works, while others reportedly tapped into visionary or trance states.
Chance A Dance With Trance
Although psychic automatism is primarily linked to Surrealism and its engagement of dreams and hypnosis in releasing thought from its rational restrictions, previous and later eras have also seen its applications – identifying its inherent presence within the nature of the human condition. William Blake credited forces other than his mind for the creation of his illustrations, and the method of ‘action painting’ by Jackson Pollock (dripping paint over the canvas) emphasises the locus of control being on the process, and not the result.
Before the Second World War, many Surrealists moved to the US, where they influenced the local culture. American Surrealism, or Magical Realism as it is also called, emphasised social problems through representations of reality that were enigmatically surreal.
More than just a parody within a parody, or an artistic or literary movement – in begging us to reconsider the roots of our realities, Surrealism continues to play a pivotal role in the development of ideas, politics and philosophies. Addressing timeless themes of identity, otherness, freedom, morality, mortality, and love.