Maria Stavrinaki, Dada Presentism (image courtesy of Stanford University Press)

Dada Presentism: An Essay on Art and History is an exposé of the conflict between conscious and unconscious forces. The slim book contains a short but dense text that sketches out Dada’s preoccupation with the present, during a period when Europe was being buffeted between regrets for the nasty past and appeals to a revolutionary utopian future. Both these sentiments are problematized here through the Dada insistence on the “continuous now.” As the author Maria Stavrinaki, Associate Professor of Art History and Theory at the Pantheon-Sorbonne University, says: “Dadaist presentism revolted against any commemorative appropriation of a flawlessly coherent history.”

Photo of the First International Dada Fair (image courtesy of Stanford University Press)

Still, Stavrinaki presents a rather lucid reflection on Dada history and the role of art within it via the Berlin-based Dadaists’ acute historical consciousness and their early modern experience of time. Mostly she explores Dada temporalities through the photographs of the Berlin Dada movement, including the famous one of the First International Dada Fair that was organized by George Grosz, John Heartfield, and Raoul Hausmann. The fair would become the most well-known of all the Berlin Dada’s exploits, featuring almost 200 works by artists including Francis Picabia, Hans Arp, Max Ernst, and Rudolf Schlichter, as well as Grosz, Hausmann, and Hannah Höch. Indeed, one of the best images in the book is Höch’s incredibly dense collage “Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic” (1919), which is now at the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. In this work, Höch presents the viewer with a rush of intermingled visual fragments that exceeds any attempt at a clear understanding. This form of visual noise and presentational excess offers up the possibility of multiple interpreations that may be in conflict with each other. Thus the interpretative act seems to have no end but always a present. Insofar as the deliberate obtuseness of “the present” is the whole point of the book, I was delighted to have uncovered some germane connective material here applicable to our present, our own now.

Hannah Höch, “Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Beer-Belly of the Weimar Republic” (1919), collage, 90 x 144 cm (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Midway through the book, my mind turned to divinational gazing within and beyond Dada, and the ways Dada’s use of chance might reorient our thoughts about viewing art. Divinational gazing is an ocular technique based on surpassing visual expectations that takes the unclear seriously as a conduit to worthwhile “more-than” probabilities. As documented by historians, ethnographers, and cultural anthropologists, non-sequential magical gazing is a global and persistent aspect of human cultures, and I found it pivotal to Stavrinaki’s presentation of German Dada. The “Dada gaze” sees and asserts synchronicities: visual events that seem connected but are not causally related. As she explains, to the Dadaists, heroic appropriation of the present bore the ontological weight of an assertion, even as their art, such as Höch’s collage, promises multiple fluid alternative conceptions of both the past and the future. “Dadaists wanted to achieve self-possession in the here and now,” Stavrinaki explains.

Artistic situations of Dada gazing, such as with Höch, offer a different view on genealogy and a different idea of the relationship between forebears and posterity, progenitors, and descendants. This is consistent with Dadaist belief that, as Stavrinaki says, “art will always be born only from the chaos of time” by gazing at an excess of possibilities in the now. That is what she means by Dada presentism. For Hausmann, a founding member of the Berlin group, a Dadaist recognizes no past or future, but is instead living pseudo-mechanically within a repetitive “be here now” present that overwhelms. Stavrinaki explains that the role of the Dada artist “was to forge practices that would reveal the profound ambiguity of the present. This is why such contradictory tactics as eclecticism and primitivism, parody and utopia, were all used in Dadaism as equally appropriate responses. For these artists the future was not to come; it had already arrived.”

Raoul Hausmann, “Mechanischer Kopf (Der Geist unserer Zeit)” (c. 1920) (image via Wikimedia Commons)

The author takes that proposition seriously, which is why this book is so much more than an elegy to a lost era of rebelliousness. She mind-blowingly explains that in Dada, simultaneity operated not only synchronistically (absorbing the multiple contradictory qualities of modernity) but also diachronistically (engaging modern phenomena as it changes over time), which is such a psychedelic perception.

In that sense, Dada conveys an uncomfortable truth: that even a putatively modern, secular, and rationalist culture needs some form of chance-based divination, as is evident in the risk-taking that is essential to market-based neoliberal hegemony (in spite of the obviously disastrous effects upon labor, ecology, and society). Stavrinaki’s idea of a constantly present Dada encapsulates this disjointedness and its beneficial and sometimes pernicious potencies.

Supposedly, modernity settled the question of divinatory reliance on the fortuitous largely by avoiding it. But Dada, in which chance plays a central role, contentiously (according to the author) and continually disagrees. As Stavrinaki explains, “the Dadaists’ decision to seize the present came out of their rejection of both the historical past and a meliorist future whose exact symmetry was confirmed in the parallel ways they instrumentalized the present.” So by being always present, Dada obliquely renders gazing as a relevant technique for art today. This gaze is what remains vibrant to us from Dada’s past. By taking the Dada gaze into the eternal now seriously, Stavrinaki suggests how once-disavowed divination sprouts up again as productively nonsensical, absurd, and even as a veiled revolutionary threat to society. Dada deals with contingency, chance, and uncertainty, and that, for her, validates a contemporary presentism unhinged from Dada’s swank and festive past. In our secular rationalist cultures, chance tends to be publicly acknowledged only as random noise. Chance is supposedly only rendered meaningful through observation of the properties of complex systems (such as information processing) that incorporate the aleatory or unpredictable as one of their functional parameters.

Stavrinaki’s gaze into the all-over deep now is shot through with contingency capable of interpreting chance as meaningful and apparent — something usually done only at the level of abstract sets of data when submitted to the indifferent machinations of algorithms. Given the uplifting imaginative power of deft divination within her meta-historical interpretation of the Dada intelligencia, our presentism (like theirs) is always defended as inscrutably circuitous. Ripe with possibilities.

Dada Presentism: An Essay on Art and History is now available from Stanford University Press.

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into...