“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
George Orwell 1984
“A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.”
In 1916 Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings launched Café Voltaire and the Dada movement in Zurich in protest to the madness of World War I. Hennings and a number of unrecognized women carried on performing radical visual/sound/text works for decades afterwards. Between 1922 and 1932 Kurt Schwitters constructed and performed the unprecedented sound poem Ursonate using German phonemes in a sonata structure, at the same time he was building the Merzbau in his Hanover home. During the 1950s Merce Cunningham and John Cage redefined what constituted music and dance and profoundly influenced the emerging generation of choreographers, visual artists, composers and filmmakers that formed the experimental laboratory Judson Church Dance Theater in early 1960s New York. Many of the participating artists went on to become the leading innovators of the last half of the twentieth century. At the same time Fluxus artist/theorist Dick Higgins coined the term intermedia (structural elements from two or more media blended into one to form a new medium) to describe this kind of work.
Despite what many may think in this amnesiac time of reordered, mediated and inverted realities, history matters, knowledge matters, creativity matters. And yes, aesthetics matter. In this century’s age of repetition, appropriation, spectacle and decadence, it has become easy to forget just how radical and inventive the groundbreaking, cross-disciplinary, time-based arts of the early and middle twentieth century were, and how they have shaped and influenced what has followed. What is even more astonishing is how fresh, how relevant and surprisingly contemporary those intermedia works merging visual, sonic, kinetic and textual elements, remain today.
In this cultural moment of instant consumption and regurgitation, of imitation and erasure, maintaining the veracity and authenticity, meaning and spirit of an artist’s work, especially when an artist is deceased, matters more than ever. However it also raises challenging questions about differences between reproduction, homage, interpretation and appropriation. For some works formal issues are paramount, while for others it is a matter of spirit, intent and character. Thus serious issues have arisen about not only the legacy and preservation of works, but the modes and forms of re-presentation. This is of particular concern to those performing artists of the later half of the century who are still living, and must consider how to deal with their own legacies. It is also a matter to be thoughtfully considered by contemporary artists who seek to draw from those histories.
Over one week three very different performances confronted these issues in different ways, to a varying degree of success. In the first performance – Al Di Là, An Evening of Sound Works by Simone Forti, the artist succeeded in resurrecting her own works from the 1960s in a mini-retrospective, not only honoring her own history but doing so in a manner true to where she is now in the present moment. A week later Jacqueline Bobak paid homage to three of the unsung women of the Dada era by giving them voice in her opera Dada Divas. Rather than restaging ephemeral works, she used the artists personae to reveal how their struggles and concerns remain eerily prescient today. Finally there was the staging of the misnamed Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate, a contemporary confection directed by Zoe Aja Moore, as part of the L.A Philharmonics Weimar Variations series. Although a pleasurable entertainment on its own, it bore little resemblance if any to Kurt Schwitters original work. Even the program notes misrepresented Schwitters intent and structure.
Not only was Simone Forti one of the seminal innovators at Judson Church Dance Theater, but her work was solidly anchored in and inspired by the ideas and forms of her history-making avant-garde predecessors. In the vibrant cross-pollinating downtown New York art world of the 1960s and 70s where poets, musicians, dancers, Fluxus, Conceptual and Minimalist artists interacted and collaborated, Forti forged her own unique intermedia language merging improvised movement, spoken text, and sound into a single body, whether it be a solo or group work. No embellishments. Just the body, the voice, and sometimes some found materials or objects engaged in an experiential process. Half a century later Forti performed her early works with new younger players in the same spirit of discovery and invention giving them new life in the present moment.
White-haired and less agile at eighty-four, Forti nevertheless performed a full-length evening with singers Julia Holter and Jessika Kenney, musicians Corey Fogel and Tashi Wada (son of Fluxus musician Yoshi Wada) making it appear as easy as a stroll in the park. Over the years she has taught her techniques to numerous students, but to bring meaning to simplicity, requires an inner balance and harmony, complete presentness in the moment and in each gesture and interaction, as if it were newly discovered.
Forti is first and foremost a choreographer, thus in Al Di Là, she did not simply attempt to replicate early works, but orchestrated and arranged them from a contemporary perspective. Having bridged the distance between her own past and present, Forti established the groundwork for survival for what is an essentially ephemeral art form. Taking into consideration the process-based, improvisational, open-ended aspects of her oeuvre, her scores function as sets of instructions that leave room for variances in performance. However they are governed by an aesthetic philosophy and attitude, and specific structural concepts that must be fully comprehended and practiced in order for the works to be interpreted and performed by others in the future without losing their “authenticity” or character. For example they might be arranged in a different order, or combined with other movement pieces.
Al Di Là began with a video of cats playing in the outdoors, a reminder of Forti’s decades long involvement with nature and the movement and behavior of animals. What followed were eight short sound works each one exploratory in its use of materials. Forti blows into a U-shaped tub, short notes almost like birdcalls. It is very minimal, spatial. She puts the ends mouth to ear, tries both ends. The silent spaces between sounds make you pay attention, pauses filled with anticipation. Fogel shakes a metal sheet hanging from a dowel. He punches it, slaps it on the ground, steps on it, rolls out strips of gold metallic paper, shaking out a duet of vibrating percussive pitches between the two materials. Forti joins the paper’s tinselly emanations with her tube whistle. The interaction is playful and utterly unpretentious.
In Fire on the Mountain and Lullaby to an Ant, two pieces Forti refers to as “Hippie Gospel Songs” from 1969-70, the two singers first offer up simple melodic tunes with lovely harmonies. The second song evolves into an extended vocal excursion with animal-like howls and calls, evoking the sounds of the night in the woods. To further enhance the environmental allusions the performers ascend and descend the stairs on either side of the audience singing wowowa, woo wo oh waa. Rapid trilling beckons, followed by lots of vibrato in response, and the long low warning notes of a cat – eeeh yoowww oooo — that ends in a high screech and a yowl.
The hippy gospel songs interfaced with the pieces involving the use of objects, intersections of movement and sound through space, the body and voice in intimate duets, resonant full-bodied silences and stillness. Forti quietly circles in space, walks on all fours, is joined by the others. She twirls Wada standing in a looped rope, sits in a chair watching it unfurl, sings in a thin plaintive voice “Did we fly to earth or will we fly away?” She runs a vacuum cleaner as Fogel beats on a drum boom ba boom ba boom ba. Images of landscapes and grazing animals are projected joined by extended overlapping vocal tones and harmonic vibrations, and the amplified humming of Forti’s vacuum cleaner motor. Despite Forti’s low-key yet distinctive presence, these works do not depend on her persona, but on her spirit of inquiry and trust.
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To leave a legacy you must first speak to the time you are in. That of course does not assure that your work will survive either the vagaries of historical selection, or the politics of recognition and preservation. Especially if you are a woman! If your work does not fit easily into an established category and/or economic value system it can fade into obscurity, while your male counterparts claim the territory of primary innovators. This is just one of the themes of Jacqueline Bobak’s riotous and sometimes fittingly unruly opera Dada Divas as it pays homage to three such women who were pioneers in the Dada movement, two of whom I had never heard of. Bobak, who is both a composer and a scholar, wisely did not attempt to reconstruct their individual works. Instead she channeled their spirit and personal aesthetics in order to articulate their life experiences and creative output. The result was a cacophonous assemblage of sound, text and imagery, drawn from archival and biographical material, as well as the artists’ own writings that illustrated the status and position of women in art and society. Their struggle as women artists to achieve autonomy and recognition from the early 20th century through following decades still resonates today a century later, be it in running for President, composing an opera, conducting an orchestra, directing a major film, or having your art garner million dollar investments.
All of these women were involved with poetry, performance, feminism, and visual art often made with found objects. Although highly regarded by many of their peer artists and writers with whom they shared a similar revulsion for war, scorn for bourgeois values, and a desire to overthrow the past, they were left behind, overlooked by history despite their influential roles and early renown. Bobak, played by Meltem Ege in the role of the Scholar/Narrator, establishes the theme in rhyming verse, naming names and roles —“Individualists, Experimentalists, Nonconformists, idealists, Feminist satirists, artists, Poets, painters and freelancers, Pacifist performers, prancers,…… It’s a shame and insane, That these dames have no name, In the catalog of fame. My campaign: to gain their acclaim!”
The stage was strewn with piles of cardboard boxes referencing composer Bobak’s meticulous archival research, extracting stored away texts, old photos and objects and reconstituting them. The furniture, props and costumes capture the mood of an artist’s atelier, a boudoir, and the cafés and cabarets they habituated where an androgynous Rose Selavy, (Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego in drag — Juris Žvīkovs), plays popular tunes on an old upright piano. The three divas — Emmy Hennings (Bobak), Mina Loy (Micaela Tobin), and Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (Sharon Chohi Kim) —perform in a fast-paced series of short vignettes showcasing their artistic exploits and frustrations with their circumstances. Despite illness, addiction, rejection, loss and poverty they defiantly prevailed, and did so with great panache. The costumes and props function as metaphors for the complexities and contradictions in their roles as women and artists.
Baroness Elsa displayed her exhibitionism clad in a black bra, green sarong adorned with clanging soup cans, and various headdresses including a birdcage. The Scholar read from a letter written by Elsa to Djuna Barnes, that illuminates her extravagant parody of female sexuality as a delectable commodity simultaneously enticing and dangerous.
“I went to the consulate with a large—sugarcoated birthday cake upon my head with 50 flaming candles lit—I felt just so spunky and affluent—! In my ears I wore sugar plumes or matchboxes—I forget which. Also I had put on several stamps as beauty spots on my emerald painted cheeks and my eyelashes were made of guilded porcupine quills—rustling coquettishly—at the consul—with several ropes of dried figs dangling around my neck to give him a suck once and again—to entrance him. I should have liked to wear gaudy colored rubber boots up to my hips with a ballet skirt of genuine goldpaper white lacepaper covering it [to match the cake] but I couldn’t afford that.”
If the Baroness is in turn sassy and sultry in her resistance to convention, a bold seductress and rebellious feminist warrior, Emmy Hennings takes on “masculinity” with cool satirical aplomb attired in tuxedo and tails. She musically challenges Duchamp’s feminine parody Rose Selavy. They alternate No! and Yah! tossing sheet music about and ripping it up, all the while singing art songs in German. She triumphs by attaching the discards to her jacket with clothespins. Mina, on the other hand, is the image of femininity in corseted Victorian undergarments, raging against the “cages” that restrain her gender. These include offenses committed against her body and mind, a struggle with a bustle with a lamp inside it, and extended vocal antics, including bird trills, guttural sounds, deep sighs, melodramatic operatic outbursts, choking and gagging, and a range of vocal utterances. She knocks over boxes, and at one point Emmy and Elsa tie her up in an elaborate web of yarn, trapping her like a fly in a spider web, from which she breaks free.
Very much in the spirit of Dada, the music was collage of Dada babbling, warbling and singing in nonsense language, numerous wordless operatic solo arias, poetic recitations, declamations and manifestos, and recorded sound effects. The operatic passages were not melodic, but heady insistent high octave exhortations mixing resolve with resignation, undertones of complaint with overtones of emotive strain. The recitations/declamations flaunted bawdy humor, alongside Mina’s litany of abuses, and outbursts of indignation. Various vignettes visualized Dada aesthetic stances that demonstrated the women’s rebellious spirit. They also offered critical commentary applicable to conditions in our current culture. When Duchamp dressed all in black carries out a miniature pink toilet (rather than the male urinal) the Baroness challenges the supremacy of the famous man, declaring — “I will redesign the sublime and will sign a shrine.” The women set up a canvas on an easel, stick all sorts of refuse and detritus on it in an assemblage painting that the Baroness auctions off at ridiculously low prices. At the same time they play a collaged tape of radio ads for remedies for the common cold, the merits of toothpaste and cigarettes, and offers of instant money. An adept commentary on our consumer culture, it reminded me of the satirical 1991 media critiques by radio artists — Donald Swearingen’s Salvation at 1 AM and the late Don Joyce’s Advertising Secrets.
At more than ninety minutes long Dada Divas is a work-progress in need of disciplined editing. True to its Dada spirit, structure and subject matter it is open to any numbers of variations of sequencing, deletions, rearrangements and additions, and even diverse performance contexts as the material grows and evolves. After all, the Baroness engaged in street performances and cabarets. Other women of the era may yet emerge, and perhaps even their more recent progeny in the equally male-dominated neo-Dadist Fluxus movement of the 1960s. This integral flexibility of form is central to the success of Bobak’s artistic mission and a key to how it maintains its authenticity and significance in the future.
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If by chance you were unfamiliar with the work and philosophy of Kurt Schwitters and had no idea what the Ursonate was, you would have found this latest production directed by Zoe Aja Moore to have been a delightfully engaging, energetic forty-five minutes of highly entertaining performance. If on the other hand you were cognizant of Schwitters’ concept, structure and intent, you might have been taken aback at the very idea of using both Schwitters’ title and his name. In fact Schwitters would have been appalled at this misrepresentation of his seminal masterpiece. Titling this work Ursonate was misleading and it would have been more appropriate to have subtitled it (inspired by the Ursonate). Out of respect for Kurt Schwitters’ legacy it is important to set the record straight before talking about this latest performance as something in its own right.
In her program notes Moore mistakenly cites the Ursonate as a “Dada sound poem” which it is not. In fact the Dada artists threw Schwitters out of the group because he wore a bowler hat and owned property in Hanover, and thus was considered too bourgeois. Moore describes her production as “an assembly of bodies and voices to celebrate the primal, the intuitive, the absurd. A group incantation for immediacy, destruction and possible euphoria (in dark times). An experiment in indeterminacy (in the spirit of Dada). “ And indeed it was! But the Ursonate is none of those things. There is nothing either intuitive or indeterminate about it. Quite the opposite! Schwitters worked on the performance of the Ursonate over that same ten years (1922 -1932) he was building his constructivist Merzbau installation in his Hanover home. It is a precisely and meticulously structured sonata that is simultaneously a phonetic sound poem and a musical work, linguistically and sonically constructed of German phonemes. Thus it must be performed in German! The fact that Moore’s version was performed in English is admittedly a Dada gesture in its irreverent disregard for either the legacy, or authenticity of the original. Replacing the German with English (and in some renditions English with what resembled Spanish and Italian accents) is a cheeky rejection of the work’s established formal concerns. It embraces the Dada idea of dismantling the past, and disrupting established rules of legitimacy.
In addition to the intonations, accents and rhythms of English, Moore added emotive content to the vocalizations giving different performers individual expressive attitudes, variations in volume, timbre, vocal delivery and even musical style. This was amplified by gestures, postures, poses, stances and dances, costumes and choreography out of which emerged characters and narrative. It began with a solo of very slow, evenly spaced, carefully articulated syllables with long pauses between them, then a fast rhythmic duet accompanied by sharp angular arm movements. The vocalizations included questioning and conversational tones, assertive ones of an argumentative child, repetitive utterances that changed in volume, syllables spit out like a punch. Then belted out like a rock singer. Another woman sang in a high soprano. Someone else tap danced in a black sequin jacket while bee bee bee oka oka were given dramatic emphasis. Another vocal rendition sounded like a nursery rhyme, and a duet took on pop song beats. The ten-person ensemble added playful sing-song recitations, and the rhythms of school cheers and chants, marching songs, and camp songs to the phonetic texts. A mocking tone made me think of rebellious teenagers all banging their spoons on the cafeteria tables. Very Dada indeed! It culminated in a raucous noisy crowd scene sounding like a disruptive schoolyard protest march that ends with something resembling a classroom recitation of one’s ABCs.
The entire performance had a contemporary pop musical, art cabaret flair, with lots of Dada choreographic and costume references, spirited performers and lively visually engaging staging. Unfortunately none of it had anything to do with Schwitters’ conception or score that was merely appropriated and collaged onto it. They might just as well have invented their own phonetic text in tribute to Schwitters’ masterwork.
I am not suggesting that Schwitters’ sound poem should be frozen in time which would in fact deny it its legacy, or that it cannot be translated and performed in a fresh contemporary mode that is true to its character and structure. For a brilliantly innovative example one has only to look at Jack Ox and Kristen Loree’s visual and sonic intermedia performance in which Ox’s projected visualization of the fourth movement of Schwitters’ Ursonate was simultaneously accompanied by Loree’s in-sync vocalization. This inventive translation was presented at the Digital dome theater at the Institute of American Indian Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2015. A video of the third movement of the sonata with Ox’s hand-painted syllabic images mapped to the “z” axis of Loree’s body movements can be viewed on Ox’s website at https://intermediaprojects.org/pages/ProjectInfo2.html
A fifteen minute film ursonate/URSONATE about her visualization concept and process, includes a soundtrack with both Schwitters’ own original recorded performance and Loree’s contemporary interpretation can be viewed at https://intermediaprojects.org/pages/UrFilmVimeo.html Ox’s work demonstrates the real meaning of an artist’s legacy. She has opened up new ways to perceive, experience and understand Schwitters’ work by expanding its form into a different realm while retaining its original concept and intent. Loree, who spent ten years researching and developing her performance, brought fresh new life and meaning to the vocal music. Together, their presentation was not only transformative but intellectually and sensually elevating.
COVER PHOTO BY STEVEN GUNTHER
Al Di Là: An Evening of Sound Works by Simone Forti
REDCAT, Los Angeles. February 1, 2020
Jacqueline Bobak: Dada Divas
REDCAT, Los Angeles. February 8, 2020
Kurt Schwitters’ Ursonate Directed by Zoe Aja Moore
REDCAT in conjunction with the L.A. Philharmonic’s Weimar Variations
February 6, 2020
Additional images, sound and information on Jack Ox’s Ursonate see her website at
For information on Simone Forti’s CD Al Di Là, a full-length collection of recordings from Saltern 2018 see https://simoneforti.bandcamp.com/album/al-di-l