For today’s feature we’ve interviewed Matthew Biro, a professor of modern and contemporary art at the University of Michigan. Biro is the author of The Dada Cyborg: Visions of the New Human in Weimar Berlin, which was selected as a finalist for the College Art Association’s Charles Rufus Morey Book Award of 2010.
1: In a nutshell, what is the Dada cyborg?
The Dada cyborg is a motif or image type that I kept identifying in Dada art and, in particular, the work of the Berlin Dada artists. As I investigated Dada cyborgs and, simultaneously, the concept of the cyborg as it was developed in cybernetics and cultural theory after World War II, I came to the conclusion that the cyborg frequently appeared in Berlin Dada art because it could represent a new conception of hybrid or “networked” identity. By analyzing various appearances of the Dada cyborg between 1919 and the early 1930s, my book thus traces an emerging pattern of cultural activity that links Dada art with the rise of mass media as well as the (roughly) contemporaneous cultural theory of Georg Simmel, Walter Benjamin, Siegfried Kracauer, Ernst Jünger, and others. It is a concept of identity that appears across multiple media and shows us the roots of our own media- and conflict-saturated consciousnesses today.
2: The Washington Post recently named the 2006 Dada exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, as one of the best shows of the past decade. It calls the Dada movement “the most radical, irreverent, rule-breaking movement in the history of Western art,” and goes on to describe the movement as radically anti-elitist. Was the movement received differently in Berlin and, if so, how? And how does this recent characterization of Dada speak to your book and its contents?
I was involved in the seminars sponsored by the National Gallery’s Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA) that were part of the preparation for the National Gallery Show, and I think the curators, Leah Dickerman and Laurent Le Bon, did a fantastic job on the exhibition. The Berlin Dadaists were the most radical of the Dada movements in the sense that they were the most political; and their pioneering work in magazines, performance, photomontage, assemblage, and other media is extremely important to our understanding of both conventional and radical media today. The exhibition linked the Dadaists to the mass media, technology, World War I, and everyday life, and these are all important areas that I develop in my book. In addition, the show stressed their use of multiple media, something that I also emphasize.
3: Which was the most challenging chapter for you to write?
Different chapters had different challenges. In Chapter 1, for example, for the sections on Dada performances, happenings, and media hoaxes, I had to read a lot of different sources in order to reconstruct what these ephemeral Dada artworks must have been like. In Chapter 2, on the other hand, the challenge was to develop a technical language that would adequately explain the various ways in which meaning is created through strategies of appropriation and montage. Perhaps the chapter that I found the most exciting to write was the last one; here my challenge was to rethink the Weimar photomontages of Hannah Höch in terms of their cyborgian implications. What I demonstrate here is that part of Höch’s continuing importance to Dada art lies in the radicality of her exploration of networked identity, which she represents as undermining differences between genders, species, and ethnicities.
4: University of Minnesota Press refers to your book as a “prehistory of the posthuman.” Can you expand upon this assessment?
“Posthuman” is a term that arises in both science fiction and cultural theory to describe human beings from a radically social-constructionist point of view. It generally argues that traditional distinctions between genders, ethnicities, and species do not have to be obeyed, and that our identities are as much the product of the cultural scripts that we inherit from our environments as they are the results of our biological minds and bodies. More radical forms of posthuman theory hold that we are completely culturally constructed, a position that I do not agree with. My book is a “prehistory of the posthuman” in that it identifies a moment of cultural activity spanning art, theory, and the mass media in the 1920s in which an earlier — and, I would argue, highly important — concept of socially- and culturally-constructed identity was elaborated. And by examining the discourses, events, material culture, and institutions that influenced the development of the Dada cyborg, we may today perhaps understand some of the many challenges facing the development of both culture and identity in the contemporary moment.
5: What is the strangest form of material culture you came across in your research?
That’s a very hard question to answer because the more you delve into Weimar culture in general the wilder, crazier, and more creative it gets. One thing I found particularly fascinating were the “soldier portraits” that were one of the inspirations for the Berlin Dadaists’ development of photomontage. These were portraits of soldiers in which a headshot was combined with some preexisting readymade image depicting an armored male body and/or a patriotic background. The most famous of these are collages of photographs with chromolithographic backgrounds (forms that the Dadaists describe in their letters and diaries), but, as I did more research, I soon discovered there were other forms as well. For example, there were many composite photographs produced before World War I that combined an ordinary soldier’s portrait with images of political and military leaders. I find these images quite poignant since they are essentially portraits of individuals who are combined with a “one size fits all” patriotic ideal. As such, the seem like metaphors to me for the fitting of the individual with all his specific hopes and desires into the military machine — a machine that destroyed millions of young men in the second decade of the twentieth century.
For more information about The Dada Cyborg, click here.
About the photo (above): Atelier Erdmann, Unknown Soldier (c. 1900). Composite photograph. Gelatin silver print on card stock, 2.5 x 4 inches. Reproduction by Matthew Biro.