Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Hugo Ball, Dada and Lao American poetics?

"The war is founded on a glaring mistake, men have been confused with machines." 
-Hugo Ball, commenting upon World War I and the invasion of Belgium.

 The work of Hugo Ball is connected with the Dada movement, which was outlined significantly in the Dada Manifesto of 1916. Nearly 100 years later, there are still many possibilities within Dada as well as Fluxus, which is particularly interested in the concept of Intermedia.

The Lao American writer Saymoukda Vongsay, I and the Lao American painter Mali Kouanchao have in particular worked frequently with Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, as have many other Lao American projects of the 2000s. Dick Higgins of the Fluxus movement considered Intermedia as "the tendency of the most interesting and best in the new art to cross the boundaries of recognized media or even to fuse the boundaries of art with media that had not previously been considered for art forms, including computers." How much of this would have been possible without the groundwork laid out by Hugo Ball and the Dadaists?


One description considered Dada "the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of antiart to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism." 

Hugo Ball was the inspiration for the classic Talking Heads song I Zimbra with his poem "Gadji beri bimba." He is also well known for the poem "Karawane," which explored the potential of an irrational, chaotic language to yet still create an artistic experience, an almost primal or futuristic language that evokes even as it has no direct or deliberate meaning.

At one point, discussing Dada, Ball said "For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in."

Many examples of Lao American poetics and art can definitely be seen as an effort to explore the questions asked by Ball and the others, although it remains unclear at the moment how much of this was by conscious choice and how much emerged from the subconscious influence (if any) of the Dadaists or those who rejected the Dada approach. I suppose the Dada response would be "Does it matter?"

As a young artist in the Rudolf Steiner school in Ann Arbor, I recall first hearing the mention of Dada and something of a brief explanation of it. The name of the movement would come up repeatedly throughout my formative years although it often felt like the majority of the artists I was meeting considered it a dead end.

Among the Lao Americans, I don't know if Dada is explained well by mainstream teachers, let alone encouraged. The bigger trend seems to be to find a way to understand one's artistic position in relation to hip-hop these days. But this is not necessarily a conflict with Dada or Fluxus principles, such as they are.

Naturally, I think there can be some intriguing intersections when one considers Dada's relationship to protest and rejection of the 'rationality' and 'logic' that led to global conflicts and oppression.


In the Dada manifesto, Ball points out "A line of poetry is a chance to get rid of all the filth that clings to this accursed language, as if put there by stockbrokers' hands, hands worn smooth by coins."

This is in line with the work I'd been doing within BARROW and On The Other Side Of The Eye, as we explore the possibilities of a new Lao American vernacular.

Ball concluded the manifesto with "Each thing has its word, but the word has become a thing by itself. Why shouldn't I find it? Why can't a tree be called Pluplusch, and Pluplubasch when it has been raining? The word, the word, the word outside your domain, your stuffiness, this laughable impotence, your stupendous smugness, outside all the parrotry of your self-evident limitedness. The word, gentlemen, is a public concern of the first importance."

Bearing this in mind with Wittengenstein's aphorism "The limits of my language are the limits of my world," I would say this search for meaning, for exploration are at the heart of BARROW and it would be hard not to read it as an intermedia text with roots in speculative poetry, Laoglish, and the Dada and Fluxus movements. It is all of these things, some of these things, none of these things.

I would hope readers don't always encounter BARROW reading it as a documentation of an artful moment but see the book and its different aspects as the art itself. There's a fine difference to note here.

It will remain a challenge for arts educators working with Lao American students because there is a tendency to push towards mainstream art or else, when encountering Lao art to encourage Lao traditional art, not recognizing the inherent trend within Lao art to encourage individual expression even within formal images. Lao aesthetics are not concerned with 'the uniform,' by and large. There are patterns and themes, but diversity has almost always been encouraged as part of the core of the Lao aesthetic experience.


Because so many of our artists are also involved in community building, there are, perhaps rightfully so, concerns about what would happen if a more overtly dadaist influence emerged while building a community.

Certainly, one cannot help but worry what a set of by-laws that are also an homage to "Karawane" might produce, but then again, given what's happened to date in our Lao American community leaders' efforts to make pseudo-white cogs that perpetuate ineffective and ethically dubious systems of governance, commerce and expression, I can't help but think: It can't be worse than many of the systems we have today.

But what do you think?

No comments: