Video Dada

“It is not advisable, nor was it ever, to lead a Dada life. It is and it was always foolish and self-destructive to lead a Dada life because a Dada life will include by definition pranks, buffoonery, masking, deranged senses, intoxication, sabotage, taboo breaking, playing childish and/or dangerous games, waking up dead gods, and not taking education seriously.”
– Andrei Codrescu, “The Posthuman Dada Guide” (2009)

Tired of bourgeois conformity and colonial war, the Dadaists of the early 20th century liked to play pranks and piss people off. They did this by producing irreverent works of poetry, performance art, music and graphic design. Tristan Tzara, one of the founders of Dada, especially liked the collage technique of cutting up words from newspaper articles and rearranging them to write his poetry. That other champion of Dada, Marcel Duchamp, became famous for framing his series of “readymades” — unexceptional found objects like urinals and bicycle wheels — as art. He then grew jaded in his later years, made a vow of silence and played chess for the rest of his life.

Today, Dada is less a formal artistic movement than a frame of mind. Society is now more variegated and media-conscious. People consume media at their own volition, browsing through a cultural kaleidoscope that emits, sometimes purposefully, people’s unconscious desires. All Dadaist art contains an undercurrent of humor meant to undermine the presumptions, symbols and sense of order that people take for granted.

It is, at once, about everything and nothing. The 300 videos featured in the “Video Dada” exhibit at the University Art Gallery, culled from YouTube and other websites, subscribe to this notion of meaning and non-meaning.

Curated by Martha Gever, associate professor of Studio Art, the compilation of videos ranges from Internet memes to amateur home videos, a frenzy of cultural production subject to the democratic process of user ratings and viewer counts. The exhibit features several flat-screen televisions with varying playlists of videos. It’s unimaginable for anyone to sit down and watch all 300 videos in one visit. The presentation is expansive and overwhelming, but the material is accessible in the sense that the exhibit’s premise is something many of us do compulsively everyday: flipping through countless YouTube videos for momentary thrills and eye candy.

On the gallery walls are art historical quotations about Dadaism, video art and cultural production. Some portend the failure of YouTube and the Internet to establish a democratic venue for artists. Corporate ownership, copyright laws and censorship all threaten the democratic experiment of the Internet. Others are more optimistic, investing faith in the always-evolving, forever-nebulous nature of online media.

What makes these videos particularly Dada are their inception outside of a fine art context, their co-opting of high- and low-brow tastes and their disdain for high-minded pretense. While other artistic movements have floundered — Futurism gone the way of fascism and Surrealism the way of infighting — Dada remains in spirit. The videos are produced for varying purposes and contexts, some for entertainment and others for commerce, but their presentation as a whole serves as a window to a collective unconscious stored indefinitely as so many lines of code.

At each station, one can find television ads like the inexplicably bizarre “Andy Warhol Japanese TDK Ad” and public-access shows like LA artist John Kilduff’s “Let’s Paint TV!,” which features Kilduff running, painting and taking phone calls all at once. “Musical Office,” a 1961 short by the late comedian Ernie Kovacs, is an experimental animation combining a medley of show tunes with dancing stop-motion furniture. It is one of many videos in the exhibit that tracks, rather tenuously, the history of the motion picture. Artist groups like Wreck & Salvage and Paper Rad, who produce video collages from VHS and other found footage, experiment with old cartoons and sitcoms to produce altogether new bits of comedy. In other words, this is a Dadaist collage for the Adult Swim generation.

One of my favorites in the exhibit is Subterranean House’s “Oonce Oonce,” a reproduction of the 1965 Bob Dylan film clip for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” In the original, a young Dylan flips through a stack of cue cards marked with select words and phrases from the song. “Oonce Oonce” irreverently loops a second or two of Dylan’s continuous motion, while Allen Ginsberg stands in the background bopping his head to the “oonce oonce” beat box of the clip. It’s a crude reappropriation of an early example of music video, but the joke, as well as the infinite loop, is an example of the kind of tongue-in-cheek humor that characterized the Dadaists.

Taken together, the videos amount to mean everything and nothing at all, affirming and negating our conceptions of media. Even the quotations on the wall, varied in tone and sentiment, imply a certain level of schizophrenia when it comes to the future of art making. Whether this diversity of content and meaning makes us more democratic at the expense of coherence remains to be seen.

“Video Dada” runs at the UAG until February 6, 2010.