What’s Dada? World Fair at City Lights explores the answer

What’s Dada? World Fair at City Lights explores the answer

It started with the simple, perhaps under-asked question: “Wouldn’t it be fun if we did something really crazy?”

So said City Lights events director Peter Maravelis about the origins of the Dada World Fair — a two-week celebration of the avant-garde art movement’s centennial, which started Nov. 1.

Maravelis was talking with Martin Schwartz of the Swiss Consulate about “why Zurich was so important.” He’s referring to the 1916 founding of the nightclub Cabaret Voltaire, which was instrumental to the birth of the Dada movement.

“It was half in jest and half serious,” Maravelis said by phone. “Dada is just such a huge part of our past — it’s tied into Surrealism, and through Surrealism to the Beats, and through the Beats, Fluxus, mail art, punk, and all the dots connect, pretty much everything that is subculture in San Francisco, from the Cacophony Society to Conspiracy of Beards.”

The Dada World Fair features academic talks, art exhibitions and full-on performances, including Dada Haus, for which — on election night — artists will fill every room of a three-story home with art, sound and performance, both inside and outside the world of American politics, “until whenever it ends.”

Under Maravelis’ direction, City Lights has become famous for producing such festivals, with recent weeklong celebrations of pataphysics, Oulipo, Walter Benjamin and Fantomas. But the two weeks of Dada World Fair, with participation from organizations and artists from around the world, is taking things to another level.

The festival website proclaims it might be impossible to fully explain what Dada is. “One has to understand the time that it grew out of to understand it,” Maravelis said. “We have a lot in common right now, in terms of what’s happening in the world. There are literally hundreds of millions of people who are refugees, who are trying to emigrate, who are homeless. The Dadaists who ended up in Zurich at Cafe Voltaire in 1916 were all refugees; they were coming from Romania, they were coming from Germany.”

He said the movement “grew out of not having agency, not having a voice. Their interest initially was to sabotage the gallery and museum scene, to be able to take the power away from the curators, from the critics, from the established arbiters of media and the arts, and bring it back to the artists, bring it back to the citizenry — not the consumers: There’s a big distinction here, because they understood all too well where things were going with capitalism, so their whole thing was to really lambaste the bourgeoisie, and to lambaste capitalism at every turn, and in turn even lambaste themselves. The idea was a relentless questioning; where Surrealism was more covert, undercover, unconscious technique and methodology, Dada was more like throwing a brick through a plate glass window.”

Other highlights include Dada at Sea, an interactive floating installation comprising sculptures, radio transmitters and miniature galleries that will host events throughout Dada World Fair, and Dada Bordello, an evening of carnivalesque burlesque that aims to “tread the fine line between weirdness and epiphany.”


Dada World Fair: through Nov. 13, free-$50, various locations.

This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle.

Collage image by Poly Morphous

Other book events

The quarterly Lone Glen series presents poets Norman Fischer (“Magnolias All At Once”), Kathleen Winter (“Nostalgia for the Criminal Past”) and Greg Mahrer (“A Provisional Map of the Lost Continent”) reading in a garage performance space (8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 3, 3132 Harrison St., Oakland, free).

Wayne Miller (“The City, Our City”) reads from his new poetry collection, “Post-” (7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 Ninth Ave., S.F., free, (415) 742-5833).

The Featherboard Writing Series hosts a chapbook release by Eric Sneathen (“Snail Poems”) and Lindsey Wolkin, with a reading by Trisha Low (“The Compleat Purge”) (6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 5,Aggregate Space, 801 W Grand Ave., Oakland, free).

Small Press Traffic presents Portland’s Kaia Sand (“A Tale of Magicians Who Puffed Up Money that Lost its Puff”) for the latest episode of the series Obsessions (5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, Artists’ Television Access, 992 Valencia St., S.F.)