Tag Archives: Marcel Duchamp

A Dada celebration staged by a foolish man + Brian Blessed’s voice & a urinal

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 in Soho - London not New York

Mike Freedman in Soho, London not New York

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.

Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, in 1916

An early Dada event at the Cabaret Voltaire, Zurich, in 1916

“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.”

Marcel Duchamp’s original ‘fountain’ by R.Mutt in 1917

Marcel Duchamp’s original ‘fountain’ by R.Mutt in 1917

“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.

Mike Freedman with Duchamp’s urinal, not taking the piss

Mike Freedman – he is not taking the piss

“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.

Mike Freedman’s definition of himself...

Mike Freedman’s definition of himself in three words…

“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.

Hugo Ball performing at Cabaret Voltaire in 1916

Hugo Ball performs at Cabaret Voltaire, 1916

“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.

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“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.”

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The iconic comic Iceman grasses me up after stealing a duck and remembers TV shows & a tent vibrating at Glastonbury

Yesterday’s blog was a chat with bizarre comedian or performance artist – take your choice – The Iceman. This is the concluding part of that conversation.

The Iceman told me: “My latest development is filming my own wise sayings…”

“That sounds good,” I said.

“… with my duck.” he added.

“Has it surfaced online?” I asked.

“Yes,” said The Iceman. “It’s on YouTube.

I had no knowledge that this duck had been nicked from Southampton

From Southampton hotel to metal tank: sad descent of a duck

“My plastic duck comes from a hotel in Southampton when I think you booked me on a show,” said The Iceman.

“It was probably Prove It with Chris Tarrant?” I asked.

“I sent a letter to the hotel,” continued The Iceman, ignoring me. “I told them I had borrowed their duck.”

“You stole the duck?” I asked.

“I borrowed the duck from a hotel bathroom in Southampton,” admitted The Iceman, “while I was doing a TV show for you.”

“So,” I said, “you’re grassing me up as an accomplice before and after the fact?”

“You’re implicated,” said The Iceman.

“No-one likes a grass,” I told him. “How did you get into performing with ice anyway? I’ve forgotten.”

The Iceman looks through his block of ice in 2011

The Iceman looked through his ice in 2011 and saw what?

My website,” said The Iceman “has got a lot of what you might call ‘stuff’ connected to it. But it’s a bit arbitrary. What was the question?”

“When did you first think to yourself: I know what is going to make me famous and rich. I will melt ice on stage.

There was a long, long pause.

“Was fame and wealth my aim?” The Iceman mused. Eventually he said: “I think it was an attempt to publicly share my own feelings.”

“About…?” I asked.

“About my situation…” said The Iceman. Then he paused. “And my planetary life,” he continued.”

“Which is or was?” I asked.

“That’s why the audience started saying Deep! Deep!” said The Iceman.

“Did you study Marcel Duchamp?” I asked.

“I’ve always been aware of him, but I’m not sure he’s my main influence.”

“Who is?” I asked.

“This is the duck from Southampton,” said The Iceman

“This is the duck from Southampton” –  The Iceman via Skype

“This is the duck from Southampton,” said The Iceman, ignoring my question and holding up a Polaroid photo. “Do you remember that show?”

“Not specifically,” I said. “Describe what you do in your act – for people who have never seen it.”

“It’s not really an act,” said The Iceman. “I do it for real.”

The Iceman tries to melt a block of ice on stage in various increasingly desperate ways.

“Has the act changed over the years?” I asked.

“It’s got more reflective.”

“The ice?” I asked.

“The act,” said The Iceman.

“How?” I asked.

“More thoughtful,” said The Iceman.

“How?” I asked.

“At the Royal Festival Hall,” explained The Iceman, “I sat with the block of ice. Reflecting.

This week The Iceman showed me the ultimate aim of his acts

This week The Iceman showed me the ultimate aim of his acts

“Originally, the act was pretty straightforward: I put the duck under the ice and tried to use lots of different agents to melt the ice. I was the catalyst. Breath, friction, de-icer sprays, salt, money, a blow-torch, hammer, chisel, explosions… and the duck would usually still be not afloat. So, in a way, the whole thing was a study in failure. But then, as Simon Munnery said, we all knew the block of ice was going to melt in the end, so I could not help but be ultimately successful.

“Now, though, it’s… well… slower, really. There’s less emphasis on trying to melt it. I’m just being with the ice while it melts.”

“So basically,” I said, “the act is developing towards a point where you are going to sit by a block of ice and not do anything.”

“Yes,” agreed The Iceman. “At the Royal Festival Hall in 2011, I read the Financial Times while sitting next to the block of ice.”

“And did reading the Financial Times help?” I asked.

“Well, I think people thought I was trying to make a point,” said The Iceman. “The theme of Stewart Lee’s show there was Austerity. On my website, there’s quite a few photos of the block at the Royal Festival Hall and you’ll probably notice, if you’re kind enough to visit, that, in some of them, I’m looking very reflective. Very thoughtful.”

The Iceman with his ice and duck at Royal Festival Hall, 2011

The Iceman reflects with ice & duck at the Festival Hall, 2011

“What were you actually thinking?” I asked.

“That’s difficult to decipher,” said The Iceman. “Thinking about things like the history of the Universe. Have you read that they’ve just spotted some evidence of the original Big Bang?”

“I didn’t really understand it,” I said. “It seemed to say that everything expanded very quickly, faster than the speed of light. That’s what any Big Bang does, isn’t it? Did you understand it?”

“I’ve got a feeling I was there at the beginning,” said The Iceman. “I think we all were.”

“Well,” I said, “bits of us were. And we’ll all be there at the end. The Sun will expand and explode and everything will be stardust. We are stardust.”

“Do you sing?” asked The Iceman.

“No,” I told him.

“You’ve made Malcolm Hardee into more of a star than he was when he was alive,” said The Iceman. “He was a very funny man. I don’t think he ever reckoned me, though he was kind enough to book me.”

“Did he not reckon you?” I asked, surprised.

“Perhaps he did,” said The Iceman. “He did book me once on The Tube with Jools Holland.”

“Did the rock music fans of Newcastle like you?” I asked.

Singer Morrisey: a man who enjoys a good laugh

Singer Morrisey is a man who enjoys a laugh

Morrissey was on the show,” said The Iceman. “He showed a distinct lack of interest.”

“Well, that’s Morrisey,” I said.

“Morr-icy,” mused The Iceman. “He was probably admiring me without realising it. Tell me if you’re bored…The block never stayed up on the platform.”

“When?” I asked, genuinely confused.

“When I did my act,” said The Iceman. “It always collapsed. I always refer to the one at The Tunnel…”

“Malcolm Hardee’s Tunnel club?” I asked.

“Yes,” said The Iceman. “I got stuck in a bus in the Blackwall Tunnel under the River Thames and the block melted so, when I put it on the platform at the club, it was just a bucket of water. So I went home quickly. The audience had a reputation for throwing things at the acts.”

“Your act was very time-sensitive.” I said. “When I booked you on TV recordings, you had to do the act at the appointed time and no later.”

“I was amused by your organisation of the Hackney Empire show,” said The Iceman, “because, on your schedule, it said Ice block arrives at stage door at blah blah time… It made it into an epic event.”

“There was no point being late,” I said, “because your act would have disappeared.”

“Dice-appeared,” said The Iceman thoughtfully. “Only the second half of my Hackney Empire act is on YouTube. But I quite like that, because the ice block is moving around in the audience.”

“You must have played the Glastonbury Festival?” I asked.

“Yes I did,” said The Iceman. “In the Cabaret Tent. I was the only person at Glastonbury to have an electrical source in order to have a fridge for my block of ice.”

“Did the Glastonbury audience appreciate your act?” I asked.

“I think they were a bit stoned. It was an interesting experience. I seem to remember Malcolm Hardee’s tent moving a lot when he was – what’s the phrase? – I suppose ‘bonking’ is the polite word. I have this image in my mind of a tent vibrating near my fridge.”

“What do you do for the rest of your time?” I asked.

“I work very hard and I have a proper job. I want it known that I do a proper job and I am in a long-term relationship and I can hold down a relationship with The Icewoman. People often think I’m disturbed.”

“Do you want me to quote that?” I asked.

The Iceman says he is “frighteningly sane"

The Iceman is keen to emphasise he is “frighteningly sane”

“I’m frighteningly sane,” said The Iceman and then laughed loudly. “I like that… Frighteningly saneI want you to quote that.

“I do do a lot of research on human beings. I work with quite a wide range of human beings, especially teenagers. It’s interesting for me to assess human behaviour. It feeds my work.”

“So,” I asked, “I can say in the blog in print that you do other things? That you’ve got a job.”

“Yes.”

“Even if I don’t know what it is.”

“Yes, I’ve got a job and it’s worth a few bob,” said The Iceman. “I used to say that in the act. After all my efforts trying to melt the block of ice, when people were not really laughing, I used to say Well, at least I’ve got a job! and they would laugh at that and then I’d say It’s worth a few bob!  That’s actually from the act. Do you see it as an act?”

“I see it as a lifestyle choice,” I said.

“Yes,” said The Iceman, “I’ve stayed with it. And, in one way, that’s a curse., because I can’t really develop it much. People tend to think Once you’ve seen the ice block, you’ve seen the ice block. But I think there’s a certain consistency about repeating the process. Though I’ve got bigger gaps these days.”

“Bigger gaps in what?” I asked.

“Between performances,” said The Iceman.

“What number of blocks are you up to now?” I asked.

An iceberg - more hidden below the surface than above

With an iceberg, more is below the surface than is seen above. Thus too with The Iceman? Or is he just having a good laugh?

“I used to be very meticulous in documenting it,” said The Iceman. “And then I think I threw my documentation away.

“So there’s a lot of controversy for art researchers about what number I’m up to.”

“Perhaps you should start again,” I suggested. “Start at 1001 like the carpet cleaner.”

“A new blank sheet,” mused The Iceman.

“Yes,” I said.

“Yes,” said The Iceman. “Start again… N…ice…”

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