Big Dada: A statistical found object at Cabaret Voltaire

Voltaire - 1

Here’s one even Jordan Ellenberg may not know.  There really is a Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich, right on the same corner as the original one, and while this year Zürich is celebrating the 100th anniversary of Dada, mostly at the Cabaret Voltaire, a few years ago there really was an exhibition with the title Dada x Statistik, and you can read about it on the city’s website.   The exhibition was held, naturally enough, at Cabaret Voltaire, where you can buy the exhibition catalogue (which features a lot of statistical diagrams and not so much Dada, as far as I could tell upon perusing it quickly while waiting for the show to start); but maybe it was at the city statistical agency as well, because the pretext for this exhibition was apparently that Dada and Zürich statistics are roughly the same age, and the two institutions are “a stone’s throw” from one other, according to the website:

Dass Statistik Stadt Zürich und Cabaret Voltaire gemeinsam eine Ausstellung realisiert haben, mag ungewöhnlich sein, überraschend ist es nicht. Beide prägt eine ähnlich lange Geschichte. Statistik Stadt Zürich ist das älteste städtische Statistikamt der Schweiz. Eine fast ebenso lange Geschichte hat der 1916 im Cabaret Voltaire begründete Dadaismus. Die beiden Institutionen liegen räumlich nur einen Steinwurf voneinander entfernt. Was lag also näher, als gemeinsam ein Projekt zu realisieren?

I don’t find this convincing enough to translate.  The catalogue had a slightly more plausible explanation:  the statistical agency and the dadaists have in common a propensity to collect a lot of stuff.   The Cabaret Voltaire’s website is not much more convincing (what does it mean to “bring the ideas of Dada into a connection with the morality and ethics of statistics and to create an instructive and entertaining third term”?).  But it does explain that 2013 was the “International Statistical Year”:

Dada x Statistik ist eine Zeitreise über die letzten 100 Jahre der Stadt Zürich. Mit situativen Interventionen und Exponaten wird das Arbeiten, Wohnen und Leben der Dadaisten um 1916 erfahrbar. Mit statistischen Daten und Prognosen wird zudem bis ins Jahr 2023 geblickt und so indirekt auch Dada in die Zukunft projiziert.

Dada x Statistik bringt die Ideen von Dada mit Moral und Ethik der Statistik in Verbindung und schafft ein lehrreiches wie unterhaltsames Drittes.  Dazu werden alle Räumlichkeiten sogar die Toiletten des Cabaret Voltaire bespielt.

Kuratoren von Dada x Statistik sind Adrian Notz vom Cabaret Voltaire und Statistik Stadt Zürich. Die Ausstellung ist ein partnerschaftliches Projekt, das im Rahmen des Internationalen Jahres der Statistik 2013 durchgeführt wird.

The big surprise, for me, was that the catalogue made no reference whatsoever to Big Data, although the pun is obvious; is it because the expression Big Dada is protected by a copyright since 1997?

The performance had nothing to do with statistics — unless that “instructive and entertaining third term” is now permanently installed at Cabaret Voltaire.   One of the performers, playing the part of André Breton, spoke this sentence twice:

And the wind gave way to mathematical illusions.

If this is a direct quotation, it’s unknown to Google, in English, French, or German, and I would be (moderately) grateful if someone could provide a source.  It turns out that both dada and surrealism were pursued by individuals who had studied mathematics, including  Tristan Tzara and Hans Bellmer; the Larousse Encyclopedia’s entry for dada alludes to the intention of Duchamp and Man Ray to “introduce a cold mathematical humor into life.”  And one recalls that, in the mid 30s, Max Ernst sketched and Man Ray took pictures of the objets mathématiques that they discovered during a visit to what the Centre Pompidou calls the Institut de Raymond Poincaré.

Given the widespread belief that nothing of world-historical importance, other than banking, has happened in Zürich since the First World War, and that the original Cabaret Voltaire was the center of the Zürich avant-garde at the time, I was expecting the present-day Cabaret to be a crass attempt to turn the subversion and anarchy of those pre-revolutionary days into a reliable revenue stream, an exercise in sanitized nostalgia for the TripAdvisor generation.  And perhaps it was, but I was surprised to observe that the standing-room crowd was uniformly hip (with at most one exception).  Maybe it’s because so many of them were American; the performers were from New York and Los Angeles, none of them could pronounce either the French names or the German names correctly, and it didn’t matter.  This naturally raises a paradoxical question.  The Breton character quoted a question Breton posed in 1922:

…among the objects said to belong to modernity, is a top hat more or less modern than a locomotive?

I ask:  is today’s Cabaret Voltaire hip because it attracts a hip crowd, or is the crowd hip because they’re at the Cabaret Voltaire?


4 thoughts on “Big Dada: A statistical found object at Cabaret Voltaire

  1. Pavel Krapivsky

    Quantum mechanics, arguably the greatest scientific achievement, happened (to large extent) in Zürich soon after the WWI: Schrodinger proposed his equation and published 4 groundbreaking papers on `wave mechanics’ when he was a professor at the University of Zürich.


  2. Pingback: Some cold mathematical humor | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris

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