gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori
gadjama gramma berida bimbala glandri galassassa laulitalomini
gadji beri bin blassa glassala laula lonni cadorsu sassala bim
gadjama tuffm i zimzalla binban gligla wowolimai bin beri ban
o katalominai rhinozerossola hopsamen laulitalomini hoooo
gadjama rhinozerossola hopsamen
bluku terullala blaulala loooo
– Excerpt from Gadji beri bimba by Dada Poet Hugo Ball
Berlin, 1918: the poet Richard Huelsenbeck reads the ‘First German Dada Manifesto’ out loud at the I.B. Neumann Gallery. “Dada is a CLUB”, Huelsenbeck states, “which you can join without commitments. In this club every man is chairman and every man can have his say”. This club was to be wild, filled with sound-poets reciting strains of nonsense, deconstructing language in a cacophony of noise.
Outside the club, World War One had ended with an aggressive crescendo, spilling into revolution on the streets. Public fights between warring political factions – Communists and reactionary conservatives – were commonplace and the bang of a gun a regular occurrence. In order to make itself heard above the city, Dada would have to be loud and angry.
For the painters, collagists and poets that made up its growing numbers, Berlin Dada was not only an art form but a survival strategy and a way of life. It was a reaction specific to the state of the city itself. Dada gave its members a means of expression that became a weapon of resistance. Both literally and metaphorically, the sounds of the chanting and the poetry were needed to drown out the sound of guns on the street outside.
This club was avant-gardism in its purest form: art birthed from a state of emergency in a time of desperate need, which drew its inspiration, and its actual substance from what it was actively trying to resist or escape – in this case, the terrifying hopelessness of contemporary society and politics. This was a practice of mimesis, or miming, as a form of resistance.
Fast-forward to Berlin, 1990: free dance parties start to spring up around the city. The Wall had fallen and Berlin was suddenly the emblem of a newly unified Germany. With names like ‘Love Parade’, these parties exemplified a new spirit of reconciliation among the youth, who danced in the reclaimed spaces of the old East of the city. But while the young danced to celebrate the future, they danced equally to forget their recent past. The very real social tensions of the present moment – produced when two cultures that evolved in isolation are flung together – demanded an outlet. This, then, solidified into the party spaces that became organised to form clubs: Techno clubs.
Techno music became Berlin’s art form and its medium of expression; as early dance music pioneer DJ Tanith said, “When the wall fell, there was a crash, and this crash could be heard in the music as well”. The intense sound vented the contradictions of the time, fitting perfectly with the needs of a youth trying to understand their broken city made newly whole.
Neither Dada nor Techno were themselves art forms native to Berlin; they were both taken up second-hand by those living in the city. Dada was originally born in neutral Switzerland, in the nightclubs of Zurich. Techno came from 1980s post-industrial Detroit. Its sound was loud and repetitive, partner of the very textures and reverberations of the crumbled Motor City. Famous for its automobile industry, Detroit was a place where Fordist techniques of mass production had achieved their full realisation. And the music produced was similarly mechanical. Its sound effects, could just as easily be made by the brakes of an underground train, or the pneumatic drill of a construction site, as by a synthesiser. The shadow of the production line looms over Techno, immortalised in the repetitive thud-thud-thud-thud of the 4-4 beat. For those who listened, it was as if the great feats of modernity – the factories, the transport systems, the machines – were being reinvented through this new music.
It was in Berlin that Techno found its new home, its stark sound complementing the manufacturing plants and warehouses left abandoned by the unification process. Still today, clubbers descend into the city’s underground spaces to dance to Techno. They come from all over the world to visit infamous clubbing institutions like Berghain and Tresor and partake in what little remains of that early-nineties spirit.
Obviously much has changed. The clubs are fully commercialised, and filled with weekender tourists and overpriced drinks. The fading afterglow of those past hopes has undoubtedly been repackaged for the city’s present, and Berlin’s booming tourist industry is testament to the 1990 moment’s persistent allure. At the hands of the club owners, history has been aestheticised and made to generate a significant cash flow for the city.
Even so, does the contemporary Techno club maintain a faint echo of the utopian promise of its 1990s incarnation, despite so much disfiguration at the hands of capitalism? Does it, for that matter, contain a memory of those revolutionary efforts of the early twentieth-century Dadaists? Can it – when it has nothing obvious to resist, when there is no revolution and no Wall to destroy?
Separated by nearly a century, what Dada and early Techno have in common, when their historical specificities are put aside, is that they were both artistic responses to dissatisfaction with Berlin, and more generally with the conditions of urban life. They allow for the uneasy tension between man and city – between man and the physical substance of his lived reality – to be expressed in artistic terms. And the resonance of these original avant-gardist strategies can still be felt. That famous challenge of Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), that “petrified social conditions must be made to dance by singing them their own tune”, continues to find meaning in the Techno club today. And this is what gives those clubs their sustained effect; this is what necessitates their presence. For the bare grind of existence in the face of the daily life endures. The city’s traumas are timeless.
These days, clubbers join together to flee reality itself. They come to escape the noise of the city’s transport, of screeching of metal on metal, sirens or an engine roll. They come to escape the crowded streets with their hurried commuters, who treat each other as nothing more than obstacles between them and their destinations. They come to escape the never-ending cycle of work, the whirr and buzz of electricity and computers, and the constant dirge of survival. It is only then, away from all this in those dark Techno basements, that they might begin to breathe freely.
As a form of resistance to the city, however, the Techno club is a peculiar choice; for it pummels with volume and blinds with lights, mounting attacks on the senses at a level of intensity that dwarfs even the busiest construction sites. But the spectre of the Dada club, with its chanting and drumming, gives meaning to the contemporary clubbing experience. For Techno creates an oasis of defiance to the city, within the city itself. It becomes like a hyperbolic theatrical performance of all the menace and violence of metropolitan life.
It is a pyrrhic confrontation between music and clubber; to achieve victory, to achieve escape, the clubber must get closer than ever to that from which he wishes to flee. He/she must assail their senses to levels of such extremity that victory takes on the appearance of defeat. In the willingness of the Techno club’s participants, there is a kernel of authentic, conscious sacrifice. The club provides faith that there is still some space, even deep within the city itself, to feel the pulse of freedom. And so Marx’s challenge becomes revitalised in those subterranean chambers where humans dance to the petrified social conditions they long to escape. In the Techno club, every man is chairman and every man can have his say.