“Gadji beri bimba glandridi laula lonni cadori,” begins Hugo Ball’s celebrated 1916 sound poem. It may look like jibberish written down, but read aloud it forms spectacular sounds that go beyond traditional understandings of language and meaning.
Dadaist poetry is one manifestation of a style that influenced artists from Jack Kerouac to Talking Heads. Its legacy proliferated throughout the art world, but despite an emphasis on the printed word and communication, it’s surprisingly rare to find graphic designers who cite the movement as an influence. There is one agency who have taken up the mantle. In 2014 Tom Sharp founded The Beautiful Meme, giving the London design scene a welcome injection of madness.
Sharp spent his student days listening to British rave pastiche act The KLF and reading up on 1970s pseudo-religion ‘discordianism’. But the approach of the Dadaists was a revelation to the outsider writer, and its discovery allowed him to marry the visual and the written word.
Unique to Dada as an artistic movement is its relation to words instead images. As a young writer, it was this that excited Sharp. “The thing I liked about KLF, discordianism and Dada was this thread of challenging meaning, and the idea of the meaningless having meaning.”
In poetry by Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara, nonsense words are combined with empty statements to make poetry that looks and sounds downright bizarre. But out of the murk of jumbled typography and confused statements comes a sense of coherence and a challenge to values. Tristin Tzara’s Unpretentious Proclamation is still shocking today, as a myriad font weights and sizes challenge our notions of good design.
In their branding work for the D&AD Festival 2016, Sharp applied the techniques of Dadaist poetry. “We created so many messages and statements and images about creativity that it became pointless to look for meaning or a definitive point of view. We even—in the spirit of Hugo Ball—did a cut up of all the text from the previous year’s festival campaign and repurposed it, letting chance turn it into a new message.”
Another classic Dada artefact was the manifesto, read out to unsuspecting audiences at events in Berlin, Zurich, and Paris, it was the movement’s way of directly criticising the bourgeoisie. A hundred years on, Tom hands potential new clients their own ‘Trickster Manifesto’ during initial meetings, although true to Dada “not everybody gets it.”
Unlike other avant-garde movements of the 20th century, Dada still exists on the periphery. Why is this? “The thing about Dada is that it’s not very good,” smiles Sharp. “It looks cool, and they had good ideas, but it doesn’t reach out and connect emotionally with people.”
Dada’s more populist cousin, Surrealism, is far more widely known, but there’s a fundamental distinction between the two. “Like Dada, Surrealism was full of unconsciousness and chaos, but the Surrealists turned it into beautiful things.
“With the surrealists there was always a logic to it, for example at lot of it was born out of psychoanalysis. Dada just seemed genuinely mad.” This madness was in part a response to the chaos of the First Word War. As neutral Switzerland became surrounded by a violent storm, Dada was the cathartic response to the inhumanity and pointlessness of the conflict.
As we enter 2017, the geopolitical parallels with the early 20th century are striking; a political lurch to the right, military conflicts and a refugee crisis. But are we seeing the design industry react in a similar way to the Dadists? Not according to Sharp, “I think we had a moment that was close to Dada, and that was LulzSec. Their graphics were very lo-fi. They were just hacking websites left, right and center in a really interesting way. They were as punk and Dada as you can get. But will we see that from a design agency? I don’t think so.”
While it was certainly anti-establishment, Dada wasn’t out to change the world for the better. Likewise, Sharp has little interest in just doing good. “I’m not against doing good, but building a company around that seems quite a boring way to exist. Find a company that does something that goes against its commercial interests—that would be Dada.”
The Beautiful Meme incorporates Dada in both their spirit and aesthetic. They’re an unusual agency in the way they operate, developing copy, type, and visuals together. “Ben and I seek to bring a copywriter’s sense of meaning to design, and apply a typographer’s challenge of form and space to words. We try not to see them as different disciplines.”
This free approach isn’t to everyone’s taste, and in creating the D&AD Festival identity a few feathers were rustled. “We’ve had some very traditional, strict typographers and designers speak to us about it, and ask what we think we’re doing.” One gets the sense Sharp is pleased by such criticism. He runs the company’s Twitter feed, which operates like a Dada machine, combining pop culture images with random quotations—the decontextualizing of both revels in pointlessness and pretence. One imagines the Dadaists would approve.
From it’s 1916 explosion Dada spread to Berlin, New York, Hanover, and Paris. In Amsterdam it morphed into De Stijl, and developed a professionalism that later had a significant influence on graphic design. In Switzerland a more refined taste took over and spawned the International Typographic Style and the Bauhaus—both still revered to this day. Their sober mid-century approach centered around a core set of rules, abandoning the principles of the movement that birthed them.
Across the Atlantic in 1970s New York the Fluxus movement, lead by John Cage and George Maciunas, picked up many of the founding tenets of Dada and reignited some of the movement’s chaotic approach. Soon afterwards artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring began to merge art and design in a way that could not have happened without Dada.
But back in the modern graphic design scene, the influence of Dada remains a rarity. While The Beautiful Meme carry the flame forward with their Trickster Manifesto, poetry and reified typography, in a design culture obsessed with validation, often to a degree of cringeworthy retrospective justification, one feels the design community could benefit from a little bit more chaos, and a little bit less meaning.
Or as Hugo Ball would say:
“Gaga di bling blong gaga blung.”