Wangechi Mutu in Nairobi preparing for Performa 17 (photo by Andrew Dru Mungai, courtesy the artist)

When Dadaism began, it was primarily a response to World War I, to depressing nationalism and audacious capitalism. Defying the falsely perceived rationality of those in power, Dada artists used deliberate, playful absurdity in their work as a kind of of radical resistance against the bourgeois, the warmongers, the political right. It takes a good deal of solipsistic logic to convince oneself that hubris and classism and war are reasonable, and Dadaists sought to dismantle it. Through wild, seemingly capricious abstraction, they became purveyors of a particularly calculated criticism.

Dadaism is the “historical anchor” of the Performa 17 Biennial, which runs from November 1-19 at 32 venues around the city. This year’s historical anchor is inspired by Pierre Restany’s 1961 exhibition, 40° au-dessus de Dada (40 Degrees above Dada), which sought to re-examine Dada not as a purely nihilistic movement, but one that was deeply poetic and — true to its form — adaptable to shifting times. Over a century after its origins, the commissioned works at Performa 17 will explore the movement again, this time in the midst of a dismal dystopia as erratic and ludicrous as Dadaism itself. (Yoko Ono, a Fluxus Dadaist in her own right, will be honored at the opening night gala, along with Performa board member Wendy Fisher.)

Tracey Rose, “Die Wit Man,” (2015), Single channel HD projection, stereo surround sound 42’ 40” (photograph by Sven Laurent)

This year also marks the launch of the Performa Commissioning Council, which will provide consistent support for commissioned artists. Commissions this year include work by Yto Barrada, Wangechi Mutu, Tracey Rose, Kemang Wa Lehulere, Julie Mehretu and Jason Moran, William Kentridge, Zanele Muholi, Kelly Nipper, and Jimmy Robert. Seven artists represent Africa (Ethiopia, Kenya, and South Africa), a result of the 18 months Performa commissioners spent in Dakar, Nairobi, and Johannesburg, establishing a dialogue between the continent and the West.

Kemang Wa Lehulere, “Red Winter in Gugulethu” (2016), suitcases, wood, rubber fittings, steel, ceramic dogs, wool,
dimensions variable, (© Kemang Wa Lehulere, Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg)

The upcoming schedule seems like a dreamy continuation and expansion of that conversation: Muholi has created an information station for visitors to learn about LGBTQI rights in South Africa; Rose’s “The Good Ship Jesus vs The Black Star Line Hitching a Ride with Die Alibama,” is an abstract performance utilizing the profound magic and art movements of the so-called “third world.” Wa Lehulere  will create sculptural instruments that recall children’s games, accompanied by a sound piece inspired by Cosmic Africa, a documentary about Thebe Medupe, the astrophysicist who traveled over the continent to espouse the wisdom of the spheres. Barrada, along with educator Lisa Nett, will lead a tree identification walk, focusing on the contentious and complicated relationship between human and landscape.

Zanele Muholi, “Thembeka I, New York Upstate” (2015) (© Zanele Muholi. Courtesy Stevenson, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yancey Richardson, New York)

It’s engaging, interactive work, rife with both whimsy and depth, and that’s fitting: Performa 17 will focus less on Dadaism’s spirit of abnegation than its activism — its ability to create cathartic relief via work that confronts complex histories, vulnerable communities, and the role of the artist in providing context and support for it all.

The Performa 17 Biennial takes place from November 1-19 at various venues throughout New York City. For a list of venues, click here, and for a list of events by date, click here. Tickets are available here.

Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer in Miami, FL. She has contributed work to BOMB, Los Angeles Review of Books' Avidly channel, Hazlitt, VICE, and The Miami Rail.