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As the centenary of Cabaret Voltaire looms ever closer, poet SJ Fowler has been adopting Dadaist methodologies as a way of questioning our own preconceived notions. Drawing on Dada’s own sense of terror and menace, Fowler’s “Electric Dada” asks the audience to consider what it might actually mean to make contact with the dead. Or, rather, what it might mean for the dead to contact us. Far from hearing the comforting voices of our dearly departed, Fowler conjures up a profoundly more painful and unsettling affair. “Death has a language”, he sinisterly declares onstage, then, without waiting for an invitation, continues: “I will give you that sound.”
As Dadaists superceded formal language to engage with subjects that could not be understood outside of the abstract or the absurd, Fowler’s own sound poetry urges the listener to make their own connections between word, sound and meaning. Transcending a language concerning death that is overfamiliar to us, Fowler’s ritual-esque vocalisations evoke magical incantations and otherworldly seances in words from a language of his own invention. Fragmentary phrases, fields of invented words can bypass the author’s own associations and trigger new ones in the listener – it’s a Dadaist technique that was deployed in an attempt to overcome the subjective (bourgeois) ego.
If art appeals to civilised sensibilities and genteel good manners, Dada is the opposite. Dada – anti-art – was intended to offend. The performance experiments at Cabaret Voltaire (and beyond) did not lend themselves to polite rounds of applause, rather they stood for a rigorous critique of prevalent systems. Even so, when Fowler outlines the specific details of an artist’s exemplary suicide case for the benefit of all those in the audience who have refrained from committing suicide “for fear of making a mess” there’s no riot exactly, but there’s more than a ripple of nervous laughter. Like the audience of Henning’s performance of Totentanz, we’re not quite sure how to react.