Literary Scene in Switzerland – Victory for Dada! by Beat Mazenauer

While war raged abroad, on 5 February 1916 Hugo Ball and his girlfriend Emmy Hennings founded the “Cabaret Voltaire” nightclub in Zurich’s Spiegelgasse 1. During the months ahead this venue was to become a magical place for new literature. Nonsense poetry, simultaneous and sound poems pushed to extremes the equally indulgent and desperate protest against the war machine, the public mind-set and aesthetic tradition. “Verses without words”, as Ball later referred to such poetry, which to a certain extent beat unreasonableness by its own means. Tristan Tzara, Hans Arp, Sophie Täuber, Richard Huelsenbeck, Marcel Janco and others joined the group – and thus Dada emerged.

It’s exactly one hundred years ago since the Dadaists in Zurich indulged in their political and poetical provocation. That’s a century to celebrate – and yet how do you celebrate an artistic movement, which opposed the ruling systems with all available means, and was regarded as aesthetic debris? Dada’s city of birth, Zurich, is trying to host a festival with a concerted “100 Years of Dada 2016” that cheerfully involves all the reputable major cultural institutions alongside the “Cabaret Voltaire”. There is something slightly strange when cultural event marketing or city marketing and the tourist board get behind the promotion of the historical Dada movement. They all wish to participate, even radio and TV, which are as good as gold. Celebrating Dada sort of means being obliged to exorcise Dada with Dada.

Let’s be honest: when a horrendous world war waged in 1916 Dada transgressed all forms and guises of taboos and therefore cast itself onto the sidelines. The point was precisely not to participate; hence the public then largely ignored Dada. In 1916/17 anyone who didn’t want to find Dada soirées in Zurich found this easy. In this sense the Dada celebrations falsify the memory. They present to the public what back then largely occurred through the exclusion of the public, and they celebrate Dada with a kind of respectability that completely contradicts Dada. Dadaist infringements of taboos are no longer easy to achieve nowadays; they would also merely be unsettling and cause unpopular cultural-political debates. The radical project “K Foundation” from Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond gives an inkling of what such a campaign might look like – on 23 August 1994, they set fire to one million pounds in cash. Nevertheless, it’s legitimate to recall the historical Dada movement. Even if Dada has long since been part of the cultural canon, the movement demonstrates how unruly art can be. Hugo Ball’s poems still voice resolute nonsense and at the same time – o tempora, o mores – we can long since wrestle aesthetic pleasure from them. If during the process we have the opportunity of getting to know Dada, of absorbing and reflecting on Dada – that’s also good. It’s just that we had better stop exclusively practising Dada because meanwhile that would probably be liable to prosecution.

No matter how ambivalent the celebrations in Zwingli’s Zurich may be (notabene: a few excellent exhibitions are worth a visit), it’s certain that it’s victory for Dada!


Literary Scene in Switzerland – Writers Support Their Publisher

Writers look for a publisher as a service provider to edit and produce their manuscripts and publicize their work. That’s no different in the case of the publishing house “Der gesunde Menschenversand GmbH”. It has specialized in the “spoken word” sector. Of particular note is the series “spoken script” with texts that were written for the stage or radio. Despite its special position within the Swiss literary marketplace and despite writers such as Michael Fehr, Pedro Lenz and many more, it’s certainly a tough business. Established as a publishing house for 10 years, until recently, the publisher, Matthias Burki, was solely in charge – and given the extensive programme, this is only possible on the basis of self-exploitation. So far, so good.

To alleviate this drawback the publishing house’s writers have adopted self-help measures. Together with key personalities from the literary sector, Guy Krneta and Matto Kämpf have set up a “Förderverein für den Verlag Der gesunde Menschenversand” (a “Friends’ Association”) whose role comprises assisting the publishing house “through financial support, provision of services and networking etc.”

On 6 March 2016 at the founding meeting in Bern’s Kornhaus Library almost the entire publishing programme was represented. The private members and patrons of the Friends’ Association were granted a pleasing overview of one series. A similar reading festival is due to be held annually as a members’ meeting. It’s probably not such a regular occurrence for writers to put so much effort into supporting their publisher. What could be the possible motive?



Industrial Espionage – Book Design Book design for the future

Book designer Friedrich Forssman has already provided countless samples of his mastership – among them are Arno Schmidt’s collected works and the historical-critical edition of Walter Benjamin’s works. He has nothing to prove any longer, but he has all the more to say to us. His work entitled Wie ich Bücher gestalte or How I design books gives a short introduction to the art of book design and typography. His main creed is: “Design from the inside to the outside”. The designer selects a suitable script on the basis of text and historical context; he defines page layout and solves all the questions of fine detail to work from here toward the external title and book cover. “‘Consistent design’ means that all the elements relate to each other and to the whole.”

Over 75 pages he lists the essential elements, refers to historic developments and explains his personal basic principles. He pays particular attention to typography where he focuses specifically on the optical typeface of a book page: serif or not? Slightly wider letter spacing and “indented”? “Latin script” or “sans serif”? “Justified” or “unjustified” text? He is guided in these decisions by a typographical equation: “1. Font, 2. Font size, 3. Character spacing and 4. Line spacing.” Forssman analyzes examples of fonts in a decidedly subtle and illuminating way and provides valuable tips for personal use. He always remains open to well-reasoned infringements of the perennial rules of the art of printing.

That’s just old school – you may object. It’s probably true – and then again, not quite. Even Forssman has long since dispensed with analogue “hot type” to design his books and instead does this digitally on the computer. That’s not the point. What’s wrong with designing texts with new media so they are easy to read and look visually appealing? And using subtler measures than always just “arial” and “times regular”? The fact is that digital type products – whether in print form or only in digital format as a web page or e-book – all too often look unattractive, and yet it would be so simple to choose a suitable typeface from the vast catalogue and to use this to devise an appropriate design for numerous pages.

Friedrich Forssman encourages us to take a closer look and his slim volume proves to be a school of observation: text documents become products of graphic mastership that should long since have transferred from the analogue sector to the digital world. As long as texts exist, they always remain bound to typography and typeface – and that certainly applies for electronic documents. (Beat Mazenauer)

Friedrich Forssman: Wie ich Bücher gestalte. Ästhetik des Buches, Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2016.

By Beat Mazenauer

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 25 April 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe ObservatoryLiterally SwissLS News


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