Q & A with Bruce Barber
February 3, 2016

NSCAD Professor Bruce Barber in some of his Dada guises as the host of Monday night's Dada Soirees.

Q. Tell me about Cabaret Voltaire – Atlantique.

A. This all came about because the space that the former Brussels Restaurant was renting became available. Ann-Barbara (Graff, Vice President Academic and Research) and Mireille Bourgeois (Research Coordinator) were intrigued by something I had said in a meeting about honoring the centenary of Dada, one of the most important art movements of the 20th century.

From there, it went from “What a great idea” and into action very quickly. A week later, Melanie Colosimo and Kate Walchuk got in on the act, and a call for proposals went out.

Q. What’s going on in the space?

A. Cabaret Voltaire opened on February 5th 100 years ago in Zurich, Switzerland. The initiators were exiles from the First World War, then raging in its second year and involving all of Europe.

Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings along with Tristan Tzara, Richard Huelsenbeck, Jean Arp  and others set up Cabaret Voltaire, starting the movement we know as Dada. They held regular events, soirees. It was like a music hall with performances, poetry readings, dance, lectures, declamations … So that’s became the model for our own Cabaret Voltaire  Atlantique.

Q. What are the Dada soirees?

A. Throughout the semester, we’ll be holding Dada soirees on Mondays after the opening receptions at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, so from about 6:30 to 8 o’clock or so. Usually I start with a performance and/or a video and there’s always opportunity for participation from the audience.

Q. What else?

A. Sherry Lynn Jollimore is Cabaret Voltaire Atlantique’s artist in residence. She designed my Hugo Ball costume and may do another. We have a series of artist talks titled At the Water Cooler, and we’ll bring in international artists and arts professionals via Skype. There will also be performances by artists including Ray Fenwick and Daniel Barrow.

Q. Why is Dada worth remarking on 100 years later?

The artists involved with Dada demanded that art take a role in everyday life. And at this time, everyday life was tumultuous. The First World War was being fought by volunteers and conscripts—in other words, unwilling participants. And there was a new terrifying weapon: gas. Soldiers were being gassed on the battlefield, including my own grandfather …

So Dada grew out of disaffection and the trauma of the First World War. Many Dadaists believed that the reason and logic of a bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology through artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality.

It wasn’t just visual art that was being made. It was poetry, theatre, dance, printed matter, poster art, performance art, photo montage. They experimented and innovated.

It was an international art movement, one of the first. It began in Zurich, but other centres were Berlin, Hanover, Koln, Paris and New York.

Dada has had an extraordinary influence. Its legacy is the beat movement, punk, rock, pop art and underground poetry and artist-run centres. David Bowie, for example, used the cut-up technique in writing some of his lyrics. Without Dada, there’s no Last Art College, the Printed Matter (“Why are we saving all these artist publication + Other Galleries stuffs?”) exhibition at Dal, Connexion at Saint Mary’s … one of Dada’s main tenets is to be of their time and that’s the context in which we’re working now.  

Q. There are all kinds of theories about how Dada came to be the name for the movement. (One being that Tristan Tzara closed his eyes and stuck a knife in a dictionary, landing on “Dada,” which is French for hobbyhorse. Another being that it comes from the Romanians, who said “da da” frequently, meaning “yes, yes.”) What does Dada mean to you?

A. Dada means everything and nothing. It means what you want to make it mean.

Q. Are you a Dadaist?

A. If you are thinking critical thoughts on your life and times then Dada can offer you a way through. Dada says, perhaps we are all potential Dadaists! Step up and make a contribution.

Bruce Barber as Hugo Ball at the opening night for Cabaret Voltaire - Atlantique.


Read in public by Hugo Ball at a Dada soirée, Zurich, July 14, 1916:

Dada is a new tendency in art. One can tell this from the fact that until now nobody knew anything about it, and tomorrow everyone in Zurich will be talking about it. Dada comes from the dictionary. It is terribly simple. In French it means "hobby horse". In German it means "good-bye", "Get off my back", "Be seeing you sometime". In Romanian: "Yes, indeed, you are right, that's it. But of course, yes, definitely, right". And so forth.