Mike Freedman is a New York writer and film maker. Or is he?
“I was born in New York,” he tells me, “but I have lived here in London for 31 years. My parents brought me over as a child.”
He has an American accent but was brought up here and, as an adult, has lived in London. So what is the reality? What is reality?
Mike Freedman is very serious.
“I love film,” he tells me, “because it is the only art form that is all the other art forms. It IS drama, theatre; it can also be dance, painting, music, rhythm. All artistic expression can be found in films – if they are good – to an extent that is simply not possible in the other media.”
He made an award-winning feature-length documentary titled Critical Mass, the blurb for which says:
With the planet bursting at the seams, the intelligence and physiological traits that make us human are now crucial to mankind’s survival. This intelligent film interweaves a fascinating 1960s rat experiment with a slick snapshot of today’s urban jungle.
He wrote a book titled: The Revolution Will Be Improvised: Critical Conversations On Our Changing World.
So Mike Freedman is very serious, yes?
Well, he has played in various bands and was a founding member of the “invisible acoustic comedy minstrels” known as Chicken Tikka Masala: The Band.
“I recently finished making a comedy web series,” he tells me, “called The Incidentals, which we will be putting out near the end of the year. It’s about a group of musicians who are hired to write music for a sitcom and it’s done as a behind-the-scenes documentary.”
A week today – next Thursday – Mike is organising LonDADA at the Cinema Museum in Elephant & Castle.
“No-one nowadays,” I suggested to him, “knows what Dadaism is, do they?”
“I think that’s the point, isn’t it?” he replied.
“What?” I said. “That it isn’t?”
Mike replied: “I think it was Tristran Tzara who said that there’s nothing more Dada than being anti-Dada. It is the formlessness that appeals to me.”
“So LonDADA is celebrating 100 years of Dada?” I asked.
“Well, June 23rd 1916 was the date that Hugo Ball performed his Karawane at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich for the first time and that was the birth of Dada poetry. The Cabaret Voltaire had existed since February and had had a couple of salons but they hadn’t really had their own work.”
“1916,” I said, “is right in the middle of the First World War.”
“Well,” said Mike, “Dada was, in part, a response to the First World War. The mainstream understanding of it is that the horror of the First World War and that wholesale slaughter and the bourgeois industrial capitalist mindset that had created the conditions that made this sort of madness possible was what they were rebelling against. Class structure, monarchy, commercialism, consumerism, industrialism. Dadaism was really a rejection of what came to be regarded as 20th century civilisation. Except they rebelled early.”
“Urinals,” I said. “That’s all people know about Dadaism.”
“You are referring,” said Mike, “to Marcel Duchamp who was offered the opportunity to submit an artwork, so he went to a plumbing supply store and purchased a urinal and signed it R.Mutt, dated 1917.”
“Why R. Mutt?” I asked.
“That was the name of the plumbing supplier.”
“That would make sense,” I said.
“He submitted it as a fountain,” explained Mike. “It is what is now called ‘found art’, but was called ‘readymade art’ at the time.”
“So,” I said, “reality in 1916/1917 was so shit that people went to the opposite extreme – the surreal?”
“Well,” said Mike, “Surrealism came later. It was effectively what killed-off Dadaism.”
“So what’s the difference between Surrealism and Dadaism?” I asked.
“To my understanding,” said Mike, “the distinction is that Surrealism sought to speak to or to touch the human by dealing with the language of the sub-conscious and the language of dreams. Surrealism deals with a different language that is only bizarre if one is looking at it in terms of waking life. If you look at Dali paintings as expressions of a dream landscape, they’re not strange at all. Surrealism is very much the idea that, in order for art to touch the heart, you have to bypass the conscious mind. Dadaism was several things that Surrealism never was.
“Dada was political from the outset, certainly in Berlin. Dada was born in Zurich at the Cabaret Voltaire. It spread to Berlin and to New York. There were brief flutters of it in other places. It became less political in Zurich and New York. The Berlin gang were very political. New York Dada was more interested in the bizarreness of this deconstructionism philosophy. The French obviously got in on the act when René Clair made Entr’acte with Erik Satie – a very famous Dada film. Also Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera was considered a Dadaist film because it was intentionally nonsensical to what the structure of what film was at that time.
“What interested Dada was shocking the observer in order to create a response that was not anchored in the mind. In that sense, it shares an intention with Surrealism, but it absolutely does not share a visual or artistic language.”
“I see,” I said. “A urinal is not surreal.”
“Absolutely not,” agreed Mike. “The famous example of how to Dada was to just take a newspaper and cut it up and re-order the letters and see what you come to.”
“Like William Burroughs later,” I said.
“Well, about 40 years later,” said Mike. “If you have any inclination towards Punk Rock or the so-called Underground in music and film – the idea of just making things happen for yourself and re-purposing what is around you, of re-interpreting reality by tearing it apart and re-building it – that aesthetic idea has its roots in Dada.
“If you have something that’s a little more Arthouse in that it’s about confounding the intellectual mind by presenting it with imagery or sounds that simply does not speak the language of the everyday life, that is more Surrealism.
“Dada was very strongly anti-Establishment, deconstructionist and anti-itself. Its view was that it couldn’t be anything or it would be no longer the thing that it was meant to be. So you got announcements that DADA IS NOT DADA.”
“Why is it called Dada?” I asked.
“No-one knows for certain. One belief is that they chose the word because ‘Dada’ is the first word of almost any child in any language. I find that a bit spurious.”
“Isn’t ‘Papa’ more common than ‘Dada’?” I asked.
“You are assuming they mean ‘Dad’.” said Mike. “They just meant the sound. The idea was to move art away from established forms and disciplines back to its most protean state where it literally could be anything and rejecting the encroachment of commercial society by intentionally making things that under no circumstances were saleable. Which, of course, is ironic, because now a replica of Marcel Duchamp’s ‘fountain’ is on display in the Tate Modern.
“At that time, getting up on stage, wrapped in cardboard and expounding in a fully-made-up language that was, on purpose, totally nonsensical – and taking it seriously… was… Well, they were very much invested in this idea that what they were doing was important. It was not just Let’s fuck around and see what happens because no-one’s done this before, which is what a lot of people tend to do today.
“What produced Dada in 1916 was a perfect storm of social tension and dissolution and disillusion. There was a beautiful synergy between artistic and political radicalism. Today, we no longer seem to have that visible thread of artistic radicalism.
“So, on June 23rd – European Referendum day – the exact 100th anniversary of Hugo Ball’s first performance of Karawane at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich – we are putting on LonDADA at the Cinema Museum – the closest thing that I can muster to a recreation of a Dadaist salon. We are having live performance, theatre, poetry, music, film, art, clowning, short films, a 1968 documentary about Dada which has never been shown before in the UK and we are screening Hans Richter’s Dada film Ghosts Before Breakfast from 1928 on 35mm.
“When the Nazis came to power, they destroyed a lot of film as ‘degenerate art’ – including all known copies of Ghosts Before Breakfast which had the soundtrack. No-one knows what the soundtrack was. So I got Austrian composer Vinzenz Stergin to compose a brand new score which he will perform live.
“From 1.00pm on the day, a screening room will be open showing a looped programme of short films (about 90 minutes in all) by Helmut Herbst, Australian Dadaist Bob Georgeson, American Francis Thompson and John Smith, the award-winning British video artist and a few others. That loop will run all the way through.
“At 6.30pm, the main event starts and goes on until 11.00pm. In the first half of it, we will mainly have live performance and a screening of Ghosts Before Breakfast with live musical accompaniment. Then there will be a theatrical performance and a screening of Germany-DADA: An Alphabet of German DADAism, which runs for about an hour. Before that, there will be a short video introduction from the director, Helmut Herbst. We will also show a very special animated film by Chris Lincé of Karawane voiced by Brian Blessed – he recorded it specifically for the festival.”
“Good grief!” I said. “I’ll go along just for Brian Blessed’s voice.”
“There are also a few ‘Easter eggs’,” said Mike, “a few surprises we are going to throw in. Tony Green as Sir Gideon Vein and a lot more. And live music.”
“Who is going to go to this?” I asked. “Students of Dada?”
“Basically, we have a 120-capacity and I need to sell it out to break even.”
“So you are a foolish man?”
“Yes. A very foolish man. I am banking on the desire of Londoners to experience an evening of out-of-the-box entertainment.”
“Banking might not be the right word,” I suggested.
“Perhaps ‘praying with white knuckles’ would be better,” agreed Mike. “Praying that the population of London comprises at least 120 people interested in the bizarre and the avant-garde.”