dada and definition : what is becomes

by Art Chantry (

back in 1939, after several years of quiet inactivity (if you think of chess as inactivity), the great godhead conceptualist dadaist/anti-artist marcel duchamp, introduced his awesome “rotorelief” series. the art world was (like always) terribly confused, for they’d never before seen ‘art’ remotely like this – even from the great iconoclast marcel duchamp. remember this was the guy who took and old urinal and displayed it as a sculpture. he also took a cheap repro of the mona lisa and drew a moustache on her and call it ‘art’. he titled his greatest masterpiece, “the bride stripped bare by her bachelors, even.” it was built around a mythology so complex conceptually that he later had to produce several more ‘art’ pieces that did little more than try to explain it – and succeed in only confusing things further. even though they were prepared for anything from old marcel, he never failed to confound and inspire his audience. it helps a lot that the audience is the ‘fine art world’ – so very stupid and arrogant and so easy to fuck with their heads. next thing ya know he’d stab a bicycle wheel into a wooden stool and really confuse them, right! and yes, he did!

---AC:the 'lowbrow' art scene is annoying to me as the fine art snobs. it's all about elitists trying to form their own private club(s). fuck 'em all. i'll just do what i do and ignore them, thank you.

duchamp’s ‘rotoreliefs’ were odd indeed. still sniffed at as a “lesser piece by the greatest art thinker of the 20th century”, it still gets viewed and collected (it was made in multiple copies) and discussed. the machine (it was a machine! that in itself was completely new and bizarre) was little more than an electric record player motor on a tall skinny stand that spun 10″ cardboard disks with psycho-swirls on them. they’re set in the device vertically, so you can stand back and stare at them when they spin. it makes you dizzy and causes epileptic seizures and acid flashbacks. sorta. not really.

the art world went crazy for this stuff. the rotoreliefs started a big fad of kinetic sculptures and machine art that continues to this day. the fact that rotoreliefs existed in multiple so that ‘common’ folk could buy them (if you had lotsa free cash) opened up the door for multiples as a standard device of the art biz. marcel duchamp has also been credited with creating “op art” with this machine and even “psychedelic art” , too! (never mind it was made before LSD had actually been synthesized). it’s amazing how many ships he launched with his visionary ideas, right?

well, no. not really. like the british or the soviet union, the ‘fine art world’ always loves to credit the fine art world superstars with inventing everything up to and including toast. the truth is, that marcel duchamp drew his inspiration from the culture that surrounded him. he saw a urinal and called it a ‘fountain.’ he called this stuff “readymades”, because they were ‘ready made artwork.” it became ‘art’ the minute he picked it up and declared it ‘art’ (an idea which also had never really done before). he proposed and practiced the idea that whatever an artist says IS art, becomes art . after all, HE’S the artists (not us).

that opened the door for so many permutations and tangents and good ol’ “isms” in the modern art story that we are still infected with it to this day. so much really bad intolerable crap has been foisted on us as ‘art’ because of duchamp, that he has a hell of bill to pay, ya know? andy warhol would not have had a fine art career if it wasn’t for duchamp. that’s obvious. he’d still be drawing stuff for shoe ads. and all these ‘graphic designers’ wouldn’t get to call themselves ‘artists’, if it wasn’t for marcel and his games. that’s one of the reasons i refuse to call my work “art.”

so, where did marcel duchamp GET his idea for this radical new psycho-swirl rotorelief machine? the image i show you is a strobe disk for an early “victor talking machine company” phonograph (this particular one dates back to 1929). these things were designed by engineers to test the speed of your turntable. if a turntable spins too fast the music sounds like chipmunks. if it spins too slow, it’ll bog you down to sleepwalking state. records are designed to spin at a very precise speed or the illusion of music all goes to hell. i once bought a stereo while visiting japan. when i got it home, i couldn’t figure out why all the music i played on it was ever so slightly slower than the same tunes played on the radio. then, when the stereo fried (smoke came out of it), i discovered that because it was built for the japanese market, it ran on their 90 volt electrical system (as opposed to our 110 volt electrical grid). so it ran just a tad slowwwweerrr….

the way this ‘strobe’ gizmo worked was that you simply placed it on your turntable and turned it on. the carefully spaced bars you see (other strobes had different designs, as well) are calculated to spin at exactly 60 cycles per second. the result is that when the thing spins at the right speed, the bars look like they’re standing still. otherwise, it turns all pscyho/moire pattern. they still make variations of these things today to test your turntable. but, vaudeville stage hypnotists have been using them for decades before the turntables manufacturers did. nobody really knows how far back these ‘strobe’ devices have existed.

it’s an old old idea. it existed loooong before marcel duchamp “invented” it (just like his urinal ‘fountain’). but, since the modern art world will not acknowledge creative sources other the ‘artist’s muse’, duchamp is the ‘creator.’ never mind that virtually ALL his creative ideas were lifted from the popular world around him. did he create the mona lisa? he altered her with some gaffitti and re-presented her as ‘his’ and ‘new’ (and it was). the fine art world can never quite grasp that the artist’s genius didn’t invent that bicycle wheel over and over from scratch each and every time. and we still feel that way today about the concept of ‘authorship’ and ‘copyright’. so silly.

the truth is that none of us have any novel “new” ideas. everything we do and everything we think has been done or thought of before. at this point in the development of our culture, we’ve hit a dead zone

can’t conceive wholly new thoughts. we can only take old thoughts and adapt them into different contexts and juxtapositions. this is what we all do (it’s called ‘appropriation.’) to top it all off we’ve been this way since at least the middle of the last century. the post world war 2 generation and beyond has been intellectually in a decadent phase (root word ‘decay”). we like to call it ‘post modernism.’

duchamp wasn’t the first to make strobe moire, but he was the first to show it to an art audience and call them ‘rotoreliefs’. he shoved it into our faces for us to notice and gave us permission to work with it. out of his amazing daring gesture came several themes and avenues of experimentation and thought that had a hand in the development of this modern world we inhabit. he launched a million ships. just because he didn’t create the idea from scratch doesn’t mean it wasn’t a worthy idea. contrarily, it was a very important idea. he just didn’t think of it first.


AC: the real beauty of art is that it’s definition constantly changes. as a result, art has no real definition. that’s why marcel duchamp was able to do what he did. he was about fucking around with definition….dada was a political movement that incidentally tried to destroy the world through art on the side…dada was like punk – a mother-movement for a bazillion shattered little pieces that were styles and movements on their own. none of them would have happened if dada hadn’t happened. but, they were not dada – any more than goth was punk….futurists also supported fascism. dada would never have gone into any structured political movement. they would have done a johnny rotten and monkeywrenched everything….the association with mussolini’s fascism has forever tainted the futurist movement. too bad. some amazing crap was done by them clowns….

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