Shit on Toast

The entrance hall of the Victoria & Albert Museum on Friday 25 January 2002 was the venue for a musical and improvisational event organised by the Electronic Music Studio of Goldsmiths College. Its title was ‘MERZ NITE’. The handout for the event informed us that the word ‘MERZ’ was ‘how the dadaist Kurt Schwitters’ described all his work’. The word derives from the tearing of a poster for the Hanover Kommerz und Privat-Bank and was four letters salvaged from a list of that which the Dadaists hated. Does ‘merz’ in German have another meaning? Does it mean ‘shit’ ? I rather think it does.

There was a man walking about on crutches with a torch dangling between his legs, there was a lot of improvisational making of noise with musical instruments, there were several people sitting at a table, cutting up pictures and sticking them together. There was, in the words of the handout, unconstrained spontaneous expression – was there ? Like fuck there was!

It was just another tame, pointless event of the kind around which circulate London’s arterartti. The museum guards, dressed fetchingly in green jackets like oldtime waiters on BR trains, looked on bemusedly and reminded the dadaists and improvisers to smoke outside, please. The bulk of the museum was, of course, roped-off. It was a pleasant enough evening. I met some old friends and made some new ones. The Becks and wine was overpriced, but not outrageously so. I occasionally had the feeling that I had stepped into a timewarp and next day would go to the famous free Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park, or perhaps to a demo against the Vietnam War. But what was it all about ?

Did the organisers really believe that they were ‘bitterly opposed to commercial and institutional compromise’; did they really believe that they were breaking with ‘today’s cravenly -commercial megalomaniac art world’ ? I’m sure that they did. It was hyperironic for this celebration of Dada to be held in a museum, and in the V&A at that. The point that subversive artmovements have been incorporated and institutionalised has been made so often, by Situationists and others, that there is no need for me to labour that point here. Yet it is as if there is a ‘surplus appropriation’ – an appropriation of once subversive movements over and above that which is required by the needs of the Propaganda Apparatus. Almost a pleasure in revelling in the humbling of the opponents of capital, a need to drag the captives of the imperium through the streets in chains yet again. The only sense which I can make of the organisers’ motives is that they had unconsciously accepted the notion that Dada was from the beginning nothing but an art movement, that Schwitter’s actions were all along with material (the bank’s poster) which he believed to be merely aesthetic .

Could the actual Dadaists have been scooped up and timewarped to that event: What would they have done ? Perhaps they would have wrecked the museum, perhaps just raided the booze store and chatted-up women – they were notoriously sexually predatory.

Of course, it’s easy enough to be critical. So or the conservatives and conformers tell us. But an event like this does raise some major questions: Is any subversive art practice at all possible? What would be its presuppositions? What might it do? What might it make ?

Since writing the above, it has been confirmed to me that ‘merz’ does indeed mean ‘shit’. This fact was not mentioned in the handout from the organisers. There seem to me to be 3 possible explanations for this:

1) They were too coy or scared of what the ‘authorities’ might think if the word ‘shit’ figured in the promo for an event at the V & A.

2) They did not know this synonymity. This means that they knew far less of the history of Dada than they should if organising an event using its name. Now you may feel that that one may do homage to Dada without knowing a fact which if one doesn’t speak German and/or hasn’t read fairly detailed histories is opaque. Fair enough ! But it was fairly obvious to me that ‘merz’ would mean ‘shit’ because that’s the kind of wordplay which the Dada sensibility goes for – the kind of thing you chortle at when you’re smashed or stoned and silly and you realise that the name of a bank or whatever has ‘crap’ or ‘wank’ or … in the middle. The fact that the organisers didn’t see this means that they have even less feel for what Dada is about than I suspected, and they are just a bunch of careerist farting pseuds.

3)They did know what it meant and that was the point. We were all invited to a ‘shit night out’.

Well, which do you think is the answer ?
For myself, I hope it is (3), but I fear it is (2).

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