Chris Joseph, November 2003

In this essay I will briefly describing the movement known as Dada before examining its key features how they can be seen in contemporary new media practices. I will suggest that these features have become important elements in digital art and net culture, and that the examination of digital practices in relation to Dada may usefully illuminate both.


Dada is best understood not as a single entity but as a collection of strands of literature and art that occurred in Zurich, and later Paris and Berlin, from approximately 1916 to 1924. It was born in the Cabaret Voltaire, an anarchic mix of poetry, music and performance that founded in Zurich in 1916 by the German writer and musician Hugo Ball and his partner Emmy Hennings. The Cabaret quickly attracted a variety of artists to participate in the increasingly outrageous performances. The First World War had caused a number of artists to emigrate/escape to neutral Switzerland, and the meeting of these writers, painters, sculptors and musicians caused in a feverish burst of experimental practices that crossed traditional boundaries of form and content, and protested the tools of western enlightenment - rationality and the belief in technological progress - that had resulted in such the global catastrophe of war.

The exact origin of the name Dada is disputed (the best known story involves choosing a word at random from a dictionary – dada meaning 'hobbyhorse' in french), but it was first used as the title to a magazine published as a print extension of the Cabaret's performances. For Hans Richter, a German painter who joined the Cabaret Voltaire in late 1916 and quickly became a part of the inner circle, "Dada had no unified formal characteristics", but was characterized by a "destruction of all artistic forms . . . a raging anti, anti, anti"[1]. It is often defined by a particular esprit de corps: it "was not a school of artists, but an alarm signal against declining values"[2]. However Richter does identify a number of genres and techniques peculiar to Dada which I will examine in relation to new media.

1. Simultaneous Poetry

The simultaneous or 'tonal' poem[3], as defined by Hugo Ball, was

"A contrapuntal recitative in which three or more voices speak, sing, whistle, etc., simultaneously in such a way that the resulting combinations account for the total effect of the work, elegiac, funny or bizarre."[4]

An offshoot of the simultaneous poem was the "phonetic" or "abstract" poem, which used only non-semantic sound, as in Hugo Ball's gadji beri bimba gandridi laula lonni cadori or Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate. Phonetic poetry owed much to the work of the Expressionistic poets August Stramm, who was killed during WWI, and the ideas developed by the Russian Futurists[5]: Richter admits that "Like all newborn movements we were convinced that the world began anew in us; but in fact we had swallowed Futurism – bones, feathers and all. It is true that in the process of digestion all sorts of bones and feathers had been regurgitated."[6]

These tradition of experimental poetry were later developed in lettrisme[7] and sound poetries[8]. In new media we can find works such as Jim Andrews' Nio[9] that feature exactly the 'contrapuntal recitative' that Ball described; regurgitate Hugo Ball's classic phonetic poem Karawane and turns it into a perpetual simultaneous poem.[10] More generally, simultaneity presented as coincident streams of audio/text/image has become a key technique in new media art.

2. Manifestos

Richter admits that the "aggressive, polemical" manifesto owes a great debt to Futurism, particularly in terms of experimentation with typography and layouts, but he distinguishes between the programmatic style of Futurist manifestos, and Dada's resolutely anti-programmatic stance.[11] Dadaists embraced contradiction and paradox as a method to shock, confuse and resist, and they were not concerned to make their proclamations internally or externally coherent.

Many new media manifestos continue this tradition in a direct translation from print to screen[12]. Others incorporate dada techniques such as chance,[13] or incorporate elements of audio, image and interactivity[14] in an attempt to extend the life of what was commonly seen as an exhausted format, the self-proclamatory manifesto.

3. Abstract Painting

Abstraction was not the invention of Dada, but Richter claims it as a Dada revolution: " everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in its customary place, the screw-holes wrenched out of shape. . . . the total negation of everything that had existed before"[15].

In new media, abstract painting - understood broadly as the abandonment of any reference to visible reality - has become just another option in the digital artists repertoire. However design software does favour the creation of abstract work: it is can be much more difficult to create a convincing digital simulacrum of reality than it is to create a reality than could only exist digitally.

4. Collage / Photomontage (Hausmann)

Dadaists used collage – assemblages of everyday materials like cardboard, wire, train tickets, and newspaper fragments, and photomontage ("cut up photographs, stuck... together in provocative ways") in order "to confront a crazy world with its own image"[16].

These processes have been incorporated into the practices of new media creation; they have also been expanded by the use of time, in everything from simple slideshow transitions to interactive videomontage.[17]

5. Chance

The Dadaists used chance freely to restore the "primeval magic power" of art.[18] Tristan Tzara created poetry by cutting out the words of newspapers, shuffling them in a bag and writing them down in the order they were pulled out; Hans Arp found that discarded scraps of paper falling on the floor could make unconscious patterns more interesting than those the artist would consciously design. For Richter, "this dissolution was the ultimate in everything that Dada represented, philosophically and morally… chance, not as an extension of the scope of art, but as a principle of dissolution and anarchy. In art, anti-art."[19]

In later years artists in a number of fields – including William Burroughs, John Cage and Gustav Metzger – developed the use of chance within their own work, but digital languages have taken this element and codified it. It is now possible to program random functions in to manipulate any element in unpredictable ways - and although this may not be 'truly' random[20], the effect has been to open up the use of chance in art to levels the Dadaists could not have imagined.

6. Cabaret

The Cabaret Voltaire eventually gave way to a more extensive variety of exhibitions - a combination of lectures, readings, ballets and paintings – that represent Hugo Ball's development of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art[21]. This notion was originally conceived by Wagner in his essay The Art-work of the Future, where he argued that the future lay in a synthesis and unification of music, song, dance, poetry, visual arts and stagecraft, so that "the spectator transplants himself upon the stage, by means of all his visual and aural faculties"[22].

The transgressional nature of the Dada cabaret became a particularly potent and unwelcome mirror to the absurdity of the war, and found its way into many later movements such as Situationism, Absurdism and Performance Art, as well as the rather forced controversies of contemporary British modern art.

Taken collectively, new media art, and the web more generally, could be seen as a huge multimedia cabaret. All the Dadaist techniques of (shock) performance and audience-baiting have found a natural home in the millions of websites that represent a 24/7 digital performance for a worldwide audience. The unification of elements found in Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk is a basic tenet of new media creation: text, image and sound share a single digital form as zeros and ones, theoretically offering unlimited possibilities for transformation and synthesis.

7. Audience

The Dadaists wanted to shock audiences out of their collective complacency, but in their hands the audience became more than a passive receiver. Verbal insults and violence – commonplace in the early Dada performances - marked a turn back towards participatory audiences that has continued unabated to the present day, most obviously with 'reality' TV, but more pervasively in new media with developments in user interaction, DIY publishing and networks. Online multiplayer games are a good example of a contemporary participatory audience: a mostly invisible 'performance' by the programmers and hardware to creates an environment which is actively created by the audience in competition or cooperation with one another.

8. Collaboration

We must never forget that Dada was a group of people closely knit together, a bund, whose purposes were identical, and who had banded together their talents and energies to wage an excruciating war against society as a whole. That is why we find constant references, in the members' own writings, to Dada as a collective being.[23]

The spontaneous and open collaboration that resulted from the common physical experience of these geographically-dislocated artists was a crucial ingedient of Dada's success. Their close proximity exposed one another to a huge variety of working methods and ideas.

The internet allows collaboration beyond physical locality, and has the convenient ability to store and reference previous contributions (as used to great effect in open-source programming). However most online projects with multiple authors – for example wikis, corporate or scientific projects, and community websites - have particular pre-defined themes, and consequently there may be fewer of the unexpected developments that the Dadaists achieved through active experimentation and play. Participation, even in cross-media artistic collaboration, is time-delayed, and so may also lack the physical presence of multiple authors that helped the Dadaists create unexpected synergies in their work.


Whilst the Dada experiments in form and technique were largely absorbed by subsequent artistic movements, the possibilities that were suggested by the Dadaists have been greatly extended in new media. Interactivity, collaborative networks, self-publishing and the increasing ease of worldwide distribution have helped reverse traditional producer-consumer roles; the internet may help to change audiences into more self-conscious participant-creators.

The anti-establishment esprit de corps and the sense of play that loosely bound the Dadaists can be seen in the work of a number of artists using new media.[24] However any politically-motivated technological Dadaism must overcome the fact that its relevance and success depends on individual access to (primarily, the cost of) specific hardwares and the internet.

Though there are exceptions, 'old' media channels still offer a better chance of reaching the public consciousness: and these channels still prefer offline manifestations. Flash mobs are an interesting recent development that use the internet in a purely communicative fashion to create pseudo-spontaneous offline Dadaist performance, with 'Smart' mobs (politically motivated flash mobs) representing the political agenda of the Dada cabaret.

Yet perhaps new media dadaists should be given credit for slipping under the (old) media radar, thereby offering the potential of critical distance from the traditional channels of production and distribution that are part of the status quo. It is here we find hackers – or better, hactivists[25] - whose rage against the misuse of the digital machine is noticably similar to the Dadaists response to the technological madness of WWI[26]. The public view of hacking – unmotivated, anarchic, criminal – is a fair approximation of the initial response to Dada. There is even a nostalgic dada virus, "dada 1356", which simply appends "da,da..." to infected files[27], but specific political (anti-establishment) motivations are better illustrated by the work of hackers to overcome government content filters, or to protest specific issues.[28]

All the key modes of Dada discussed above can be found in new media art, and they have another simple yet important common element. Transformed by the digital revolution, Dada has become data: and so it could be that the most successful new Dada practitioners are those who understand data at its most basic level, the programmers.


[1] Hans Richter (1965), Dada Art and Anti-Art, trans. David Britt (New York: Oxford University Press, World of Art Series), p.9, 35
[2] Hugo Ball, Flight Out Of Time
[3] see for example UbuWeb
[4] Hans Richter (op. cit.). pp.29-30
[5] For more see
[6] Hans Richter (op. cit.), pp.33
[10] Karawanefliege ( part of 391-33: Die Fliegen )
[11] Hans Richter (op. cit.), pp.33-35
[12] e.g. Neumerz manifesto (2001), Franko Busic’s Dada Is Alive (1998), and Natalie Bookchin and Alexei Shulgin's Introduction to (1994-1999).
[13] e.g. Videodynamism Manifesto by Videodynamism manifesto by Marinetti et al. (2002)
[14] e.g. Eden Manifesto (2003)
[15] Hans Richter (op. cit.), p.48
[16] Hans Richter (op. cit.), p.114
[17] E.g. babel’s Patinage
[18] Hans Richter (op. cit.), p. 59
[19] Hans Richter (op. cit.), p. 48
[20] Normally computers actually produce pseudo-random numbers, an ultimately predictable pattern, as they are based on algorithms that have no influence from the outside environment. For examples of the use of random functions in new media see Lewis LaCook’s site and Animalamina.
[21] based on ideas that he had discussed with the painter Wassily Kandinsky and composer Arnold Schoenberg in Munich before the war.
[22] For more see Multimedia From Wagner to Virtual Reality. The German Dadaist Kurt Schwitters took the idea of a total work of art one step further, using the name MERZ to describe all his artistic activities, and eventually even himself. This fetishization of the artist as art – to use a modern term, branding – became an increasingly common feature throughout the twentieth century.
[23] Michel Sanouillet (1979), "Dada: A Definition," in Stephen Foster and Rudolf E. Kuenzli (eds), Dada Spectrum: The Dialectics of Revolt (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press), p.23.
[24] and Jodi are two well known examples of anti-establishment software artists. uses the term 'Mada' (Multimedia-dADA) to define its own practice, specifically referencing original Dadaist pieces in its collaborative and cross-media experiments.
[25] see for a good definition of this term and hacktivist manifesto
[26] "The wonderful device meant to enrich life has become a weapon which dehumanizes people. To the government and large businesses, people are no more than disk space, and the government doesn't use computers to arrange aid for the poor, but to control nuclear death weapons." - Dr. Crash, Phrack magazine
[28] Such as the 998 hacking of the New York Times website by a group supporting imprisoned hacker Kevin Mitnick, or the Portuguese Kaotik Team who altered pages on Indonesian government websites to include messages calling for autonomy for East Timor.