Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cabaret Voltaire May Close

It was a haven for frustrated creative minds in Zurich, a nightclub founded in 1915 by a gentle and strange poet named Hugo Ball and his amour, also a poet, Emmy Hennings.

It was the birthplace of dadaism, which united poets, actors, dancers, visual artists, and musicians looking for some way to respond to World War I and the insanity of the times. Music-hall cabaret commingled with avant-garde aesthetics and radical politics, in a venue that refused to take any of it seriously. A young man by the name of Vlad Lenin sat here writing in a notebook about a big idea he was having, while Tristan Tzara wrote hilarious manifesti and read them through his monocle, Ball put on his weird costumes and read long nonsense poems in an imaginary African language, and where on occasion the audience would attack the performers on stage. It was a raucous and irreverent place reacting to insane events outside. They inspired, and were soon left behind by, the surrealist movement.

The Voltaire aged and began to flake apart. At the beginning of this new century, some artist squatters seized the building to protest its announced closure, and began staging artistic events there that drew thousands of participants over several months. Those folks were evicted, but the popularity impressed some government officials who arranged arts funding to keep the venue open, and for the last few years there have been about 100 events per year at the old Cabaret. It is a tourist draw because of its history, and a current draw for artists of many disciplines.

The spirit of this place has influenced arts venues in America like AS220 in Providence (where I used to live) and ArtShare in Los Angeles. At the former, where I took in a lot of performance art and frequently participated, I was present for some exhilarating Voltaire-ish moments of inspired lunacy, irreverent and seditious hilarity, and sometimes barking mad at the performers on stage. I was present for more than one "riot" where the audience revolted against what was happening and seized the stage. A poet friend of mine staged a "happening" in which the audience participated in a conceptual 10-minute version of Hamlet that ended in a playful melee that sent every table and chair flying around the cafe and spilled out onto Empire Street. These were my salad days, the mid 1990's in Providence. I don't miss all of the art, but I miss the spirit. I've been missing it for a long time.

It started in Zurich, where some have decided you just can't have this sort of behavior. Public arts funding is only good for drawing yuppies downtown and maybe pulling some tourists. Once that has been achieved and the housing market has bounced, people begin to notice what the artists are doing and suddenly feel extremely selective about what constitutes valid art, and that is sometimes true even in Europe.

Thus in Zurich the funding has been challenged by a faction within parliament and once again the Cabaret Voltaire faces the possibility of closure, as soon as this month.

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