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The Dada Cyborg: visions of the new human in Weimar Berlin

The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin

by Matthew Biro
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis/ London, 2009
400 pp., illus 50 b/w. Trade, $88.50; paper, $29.50
ISBN: 978-0-8166-3619-8; ISBN: 978-0-8166-3620-4.

Reviewed by Kieran Lyons
University of Wales, Newport


The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin is a thoroughly researched account of one of the essential stops in the network of international Dada — perhaps the first art movement to appear, more or less spontaneously at other points in northern Europe and north America at about the same time. By constraining himself to Berlin, Matthew Biro announces the strategy that reveals the strength of the book — allowing in its focus a subtle, detailed exegesis — while exposing its area of weakness as well. Dada, as we are correctly told, incorporated dispersal and connectivity among its chief strategies; obviously demonstrated in the inter-relationships of its collaborating participants but also in the ‘distracted’ principals of the work they achieved. These are to be seen particularly in the photomontages of Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, around whom the central argument turns. We never examine, however, the implications of these strategies as they were manifested further afield and so, through his own process of selection, Biro ignores the activities of equally important Dada exponents in Switzerland, America and then progressively in Europe when the war came to an end. It is this fertile period when the movement of people and ideas began again that Dada developed into a relational and intriguingly joined-up practice that is ignored in the book. Why in chapter three, for instance, in an analysis of Hausmann’s montage Elasticum do the terms ‘popocabia’ and ‘pipicabia’ — distortions of Francis Picabia’s name — appear without further explanation other than that they were used scatologically? That much we might deduce for ourselves but, less obviously and perhaps more importantly, what was Hausmann’s relationship with Picabia at the time? Was the epithet intended to cause offence? Was Picabia even aware of it? Picabia after all had, or was about to, include Hausmann in his own internationally engaged, frequently scurrilous ‘391’ review in that same year? And again in chapter five Biro includes a fascinating discussion on a form of reverse colonialism in Germany, when the French army sent Senegalese troops to occupy the Rhineland in 1919. This was an action that was calculated to exacerbate racial tensions; to illustrate this, Biro shows Gulbransson’s cartoon of a German girl carried off by a marauding African gorilla in a French military kepi; without problematising its origins in an academic sculpture by Émile Frémiet, made in 1859 but so controversial that it was first shown at the Paris Salon of 1887. Such issues could have been addressed but in doing so they would have necessitated an extension of the remit of Biro’s enquiry to the interconnected world beyond Berlin. Nevertheless Berlin Dada, in his analysis, emerges as relevant to us today, through its methodology and subject matter, as it seemed disturbing and defining to its commentators and audiences at the time. The “gallows humour of a perverse and confused epoch” as stated by the largely sympathetic Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung (Oct 1919).

The argument is set across five chapters of approximately equal length; after an initial survey of the post-war scene, subsequent chapters are devoted to the book’s central protagonists Hannah Höch and Raoul Hausmann, with a more peripheral, yet excellent chapter on ‘The Militarized Cyborg’, which situates the trauma of the post-war conditions in Otto Dix’s painting Forty-five Percent Fit for Work (The War Cripples). More than elsewhere, this chapter confronts the reader with the visible evidence of the war in its shocked and devastated combatants adapting to the prosthetic devices they have been fitted with. These body extensions most readily give rise to the ‘cyborg’ appellation; the conjoined identity of machine parts and bio-organisms that Biro applies to Berlin Dada figuration. However, his definition includes more than the pitiable war wounded or medical science’s often dismaying attempts at addressing their condition. Rather, Biro’s cyborg, encompasses a variety of hybrid conditions linked — after addressing the academic dissatisfactions with the ‘hybrid’ term — to primitivism, feminism, marginalised sexual groups while offsetting all these within the centralised military industrial complex that Berlin Dada uncompromisingly attacked. The final chapter returns to Hannah Höch in an exegesis on gender and the colonialism cited above in an example of extensional thinking that further demonstrates the author’s subtle approach to the ‘cyborg’ conception — before rather surprisingly coming to an end without considering the implications for contemporary artists who might, with some justification, feel that the impulse of the narrative is carried on through their work. All the more so since the theoretical argument runs in a direct line from Georg Simmel’s polemics, through the Frankfurt School, citing Norbert Wiener and finally Donna Haraway’s conceptions of postmodern cyborg identities. The rationale for disallowing contemporary art, presumably, lies with the decision to limit the survey to the metropolitan boundaries of Berlin; if Zurich and New York are to be sidestepped, then so also should practice at this remote cusp of the 20th/ 21st century as well.

Although the author makes clear that his chosen term was never actually used in the Weimar period, uncertainty begins to develop over the ‘cyborg’ interpretation and whether it is, at times, a wishful post hoc reading. Just because, since 1960, we have come to see the cyborg in related things around us, does not mean that the term can be applied with equal ease retrospectively; and as we have seen, Biro extends his term deep into the reaches of Weimar Germany. Additionally, problems with finding an overall theory for such a complex and varied moment in art is that the claim becomes overextended in its broad application — to the point of disappearance. When, for instance, the cyborg re-emerges after pages of contextual Weimar politics we become aware that the concept has floated invisibly over these political definitions that have, by now, become equally germane to the fundamental aspects of Berlin Dada. Dada practice, particularly assemblage and photomontage, has suffered from a rather crude reading in which meaninglessness and anarchic anti-art grandstanding feature prominently. Biro’s contribution is in the nuance that he brings to this hitherto rather starkly interpreted topic. However, the academic telling of what is still a disrespectful, mocking, thoroughly challenging and unconventional process, with ideas that emerge through the visual miss-application of available newsprint and assembled bits and pieces, has to be kept in the foreground while being intellectually rationalised and subsequently academically encoded. Matthew Biro has written, nevertheless, a very good book; binding Berlin Dada into his cyborg master-plan does not always come off, but it does so sufficiently regularly to make it an up to the minute authority to consult, and to recommend to others — whether in the final analysis it conveys the abrasive confrontation of Dada is another matter.

Last Updated 1 February, 2010

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