An Interview with H. Michael Sanders by Betsy Keefe

February 15, 2016

In addition to his primary job as professor and department chair of Electronic Media Communications at University of Cincinnati Blue Ash College, H. Michael Sanders is editor of MetaData: The International Journal of Dada Mining. He is also currently curating the upcoming exhibition, Dada Lives! for the UC Blue Ash Art Gallery (April 25-June 3, 2016). This international exhibition is designed to celebrate the centennial of the founding of the Dada movement with works by contemporary artists whom are, in Sanders’ words, “infected with the Dada spirit.”

Image-01-Duchamp Bicycle Wheel

BK: Why have you chosen to take on the project of publishing a contemporary Dada journal and simultaneously curate an international exhibition for the UC Blue Ash Art Gallery at this time?

HMS: Well, it’s the centennial celebration of the founding of the Dada movement in 1916, so my deep interest in Dada as an historical research topic, and the abiding influence exerted on my visual work and writing by Dada artists has suggested little alternative but to pursue this fool-hearty mission to the bitter end. I began several years ago producing what I term ”interpretive reenactments” of Dada works. In 2013, I produced a set of four reimagined versions of Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), as musical instruments. My Duchamp Bicycle Wheel Quartet is designed to function as both percussion and string to perform indeterminate sound compositions guided by the deal of cards from an oversized deck of Bicycle brand playing cards. One of my indeterminate compositions for this ensemble is called “John Cage Rolls Over in His Grave.” I hope to perform some version of this at the opening of Dada Lives! In the college faculty art exhibition last spring, I presented for the first time a piece titled, Unhappy Readymade Redux in which I reimagined Duchamp’s instructions to his sister to suspend a geometry textbook in the elements until it disintegrated. In my version, I photographically documented the slow destruction of the book each day over almost three years. The display included the remnant of the book, a video showing the book dissolving, and a booklet of historical background and my performance rules for conducing the reenactment. These are explicit instances of Dada infections in my artmaking, and there are more subtle and pervasive examples, such as my extended collaboration with Rhonda Pettit to explore ways to generate spontaneous works in both visual and written forms.

Image-02-Unhappy Readymade Redux

BK: How do you explain your interest in Dada thought and art?

HMS: I was apparently making Dada objects before I knew that there was a label for such weirdness. Even though I had no formal art classes between the sixth grade and when I decided to abandon a career in science for photography and film during my junior year in college, I did improbably begin making photographs, collages, and disturbing sculptures in about the seventh grade. However, I did seriously study poetry in high school and college, and began writing poetry in high school. I also listened to an inordinate amount of Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention during high school, as well as Captain Beefheart, to the utter mystification of most of my friends. Although I didn’t know what to call it at the time, these guys were Dadaists to the core. During my freshman year in college, a friend enrolled in an art history course introduced me to the label “Dada” when he looked at some of my peculiar manipulated objects and pronounced them “dadaesque.” I was thrilled to discover that my spontaneous, hermetic preoccupations were something other than simple mental illness. At least I keep convincing myself that. But I was reassured and affirmed in my preoccupations as I began reading about Dada.

BK: So your study of art history helped to focus your thinking about Dada?

HMS: Certainly reading art history was helpful. My parallel study of Taoism also suggested lots of connections between this mode of Eastern through and Dada. There were lots of reverberations of the Shamanistic aspects of Taoism in the 20th century manifestations of the Dada movement. The scholar Ko Won wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on the relationships between Dada and Zen Buddhism, which is derived from Taoism, particularly comparing the work of Japanese Dadaist and Zen poet Takahashi Shinkichi with that of one of my Dada heroes, Tristan Tzara. So, despite holding down a job, raising a family, and essentially being a grown-up, I have unbending, unyielding, and at times dangerous Dada impulses toward the twin towers of destruction and making; toward creating work in a cavalierly spontaneous manner. Thus, I was naturally attracted to Dada. It’s the freeing spontaneity of Dadaistic approaches, practices, chance methods, and found materials that I love. My Dada impulses also provoke me to stick my fingers down the rhetorical throats of various cultural manifestations that I find pernicious. These include advertising, banking, politics, corporate business and any number of other things that are fun and profitable to hate.

BK: The scope of your current project to produce a new Dada print journal and simultaneously a centennial Dada exhibition is large, and no doubt widening. How would you describe how this began and has evolved?

HMS: The idea for the journal MetaDada evolved in an isolated little place in my head toward the end of the first year of my continuing collaboration with poet Rhonda Pettit. It was a spontaneous collaboration in both written and visual formats that we initiated as part of a faculty learning community at the college. At the same time I was developing the new college art gallery with my colleague John Wolfer. The result of this intersection was the Gaps and Overlaps exhibition (March 27-May 1, 2015) for which I edited the catalogue. This editing project sparked the thought about doing a Dada journal that explored both contemporary creative activity and historical Dada scholarship. The 100th anniversary of Dada seemed as good a time as any to initiate such an inane venture, and I wanted to use the journal as a way to share the spirit, spontaneity, and humor of Dada with others. I developed MetaDada as homage to my artistic forbearers and as communion with contemporary artists with outlooks similar to my own. My operating principle is “dada mining,” finding and exploring Dada wherever it is found, since it appears to deeply embedded in our culture at this point. We’re planning on a forty page, full-color, 8 1/2” x 11” format journal filled with layers of poetry, imagery, and commentary. I think of it as a journal of accretions: past and present layers of historical material, short scholarly works, avant-garde poetry, and visual art relating to the Dada spirit. The process also involves annotating or glossing on the content. We apply notations to submissions in a creative and scholarly way to connect to Dada: theory, concept and practice. We may publish material not actually Dada, but “Dada them up” in the “Dadalizer.” Dada mining is finding the Dada lurking out there and shining a light on it to expose the viral infection of culture that it is.

Image-05-DadaLives-Logo

BK: So how did the exhibition, Dada Lives! come about?

HMS: The exhibition evolved from my discussions with UCBA gallery director John Wolfer. To finish our successful gallery season this year we decided to mount a celebration of the Dada centennial, and planned for it to coincide with the anniversary of the May 15, 1916 publication of Cabaret Voltaire, the first Dada publication. MetaDada will serve, in part, as exhibition catalogue but other material not part of the show will be included, and vice versa.

BK: What are the challenges you’ve experienced in this undertaking?

HMS: Well, it’s a lot to do on your own, so I persuaded a colleague, Matt Bennett, who has an interest in art and culture, into becoming associate editor of the journal. We had worked together on curating and preparing the catalogue for an exhibition of the Tao of Photography and found that collaboration very fruitful and productive. He has a great deal of social media experience as well, so I wanted to see if he would leverage that experience to help promote the journal through a blog and related social media tools. So, I’ve christened Matt our “Web Tzara.” I need to clarify that this is not an institutionally supported journal. I am personally financing the startup with the generous support of my long-time collaborator, Howard M. “Burnt” Nortonn as publisher. I’m also relying on the slightly bemused and mostly tolerant support of my wife Nelly. My daughter Chelsea is a professional designer and has agreed to give me the “friends and family” rate to take on the design of the journal, so every little bit helps. However, Matt and I hope to raise some money through a crowd-sourced funding project that is connected to the MetaDada WordPress site, hence the importance of the social media marketing efforts.

BK: So do you anticipate that the journal will continue after the planned anniversary/exhibition catalogue publication?

HMS: Dada is a state of mind, of viewing the world through a web of techniques, or a stylistic way of viewing. I’d thought that the Journal would be a one-off commemorative for the 100th anniversary, but the more I work on it and invest in it, I find it’s developing into a stain that won’t wash out. This project keeps growing heads and arms, and that’s OK – creative and spontaneous – that’s Dada. I follow these eruptions through a Dadaistic worldview: trust in spontaneous choices and opportunities that present themselves. So the journal metastasized into an international exhibition with now over 100 artists seeking to participate. The large number of video works submitted for the exhibition has precipitated the development of a concurrent TV program for UCTV, since we can’t possible show all of the videos in the gallery… one thing just keep twisting into the next.

BK: What have you learned in pursuing this project?

HMS: To be honest, I haven’t learned anything. I’m operating on pure instinct. I have no magazine publishing experience. I’m doing everything intuitively. When I get to the other side, I may perceive that I’ve learned something. People are submitting lots of incredible work to me because they want to be part of this centennial celebration and are moved by the Dada spirit, which moves in mysterious ways. Frankly, I’m worried about some of it. Dada is a state of mind, a way of working, a way of viewing the world. Dada is an infection – and it’s hard to learn from an infection.

Image-06-Dada Graphic

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