MERZ NITE Controversy, Denunciation, Menippean Paeans

Then the bar closed and the lights were doused, and security pushed us out the doors into Cromwell Road and the night and the rain. The "occupation" was only temporary. The establishment sweeps up the mess and forgets we were ever there, our allotted dole of bourgeois permissiveness over (as Home For Dinner pointed out on his way to a restaurant). But, fuck it - as Herbert said to Teddy in 1968 - we gotta do SOMETHING, the privatised air is stifling, there's NO ROOM TO BREATHE ROUND HERE...


In July 1919, Kurt Schwitters published the following statement in "Der Sturm":

"The word MERZ denotes essentially the combination of all conceivable materials for artistic purposes, and technically the principle of equal evaluation of the individual materials. MERZ makes use not only of paint and canvas, brush and palette, but of all materials perceptible to the eye and of all required implements. Moreover, it is unimportant whether or not the material was already formed for some purpose or other. A perambulator wheel, wire-netting, string and cotton-wool are factors having equal rights with paint. The artist creates through the choice, distribution and metamorphosis of the materials.

"The metmorphosis of materials can be produced by their distribution over the picture surface. This can be reinforced by dividing, deforming, overlapping, or painting over. In MERZ, the box top, playing card and newspaper clipping become surfaces; string, brushstroke and pencil stroke become line; wire-netting becomes over-painting or pasted-on greaseproof paper becomes varnish; cotton becomes softness.

"MERZ aims at direct expression by shortening the interval between the intuition and realization of the work of art."

In Britain, FREE IMPROVISATION is the authentic inheritor of Kurt Schwitters' programme: the prime site of UNCOMMODIFIED ARTISTIC USE-VALUE in the Modern Metropolis. From the Termite Club to the China Pig, this is where musicians and listeners worth their salt TUNE THEIR CHOPS & EARS for revolutionary refusenik have-it-now culture."

MERZ NITE got denounced in FREEDOM, the paper published by the anarchist bookshop in Whitechapel. Can anarchists be stalinists? Read this review and ponder (for some reason it was accompanied by that faked photo "Yves Klein Saut Dans Le Vide") ...

The handout for this event told us that "merz" was how 1920s Dadaist Kurt Schwitters "described all his work". The word was derived from his random tearing up of a poster for the Hanover Kommerz und Privat-Bank.
It has no meaning in German but as far as 'Merz Nite' goes, 'shit' would be a good translation. There was a man walking about on crutches with a torch dangling between his leas. There was improvisational noise-making with musical instruments. Several people sat at a table cutting up pictures and sticking them back together again at random. There was, in the words of the handout, unconstrained spontaneous expression.
Was there? Like fuck there was. It was just another tame, pointless event of the kind London's "arteratti" circulate around. The museum guards, fetchingly dressed in green jackets like oldtime waiters on British Rail trains looked on bemusedly and reminded the Dadaists and improvisers to smoke outside, please. ["Everyone in this room is wearing a uniform and don't kid yourself, Nicky" Frank Zappa] The bulk of the museum was roped off (the event was held in the V&A's entrance hall).
It was a pleasant enough evening. I met some old friends and made some new ones. The Becks and wine was overpriced, but not outrageously so. I occasionally had the feeling I'd stepped into a timewarp, and next day would see the Stones playing free in Hyde Park, or maybe go to a demo against the Vietnam War [there nearly was a demo versus Bush's war drive on the following Sunday, Nicky, but CND pulled out ...]. But what was it all about? Did the organisers really believe that they were "bitterly opposed to commercial and institutional compromise"? Did they really believe that they were breaking with "today's cravenly commercial megalomaniac art world"? I'm sure they did.
It was hyperironic that this celebration of Dada was held in a museum, and in the V&A of all places. The point that subversive art movements have been incorporated and institutionalised has been made so often, by Situationists and others, that there's no need to labour it here.
It's as if there is a 'surplus appropriation'- an appropriation of once subversive movements, over and above that which is required by the needs of the Propaganda Apparatus. There seems to be almost pleasure, a reveling in the humbling of the opponents of capital, a need to drag captives of the cultural imperium through the streets in chains, yet again. The only sense I can make of the organisers' motives is that they had unconsciously accepted the notion that Dada was nothing but an art movement from the beginning, and that Schwitters's actions were carried out with material (the bank's poster) which he believed to be merely aesthetic. Could the actual Dadaists have been scooped up and timewarped to the event, what would they have done? Wrecked the museum perhaps, or raided the booze store and chatted up women - they were notorious sexual predators, after all.
Of course it's easy to be critical, so the conservatives and conformers tell us. But an event like this does raise major questions. Is any subversive art practice possible at all? What would its presuppositions be? What might it do? What might it make? Comments and thoughts are invited.
Nicky Ludd, FREEDOM, 9th February 2002

If you'd like to contribute to this debate (and Ludd does make some valid points) write to: Freedom Press, 84b Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX e-mail

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From the other end of the political spectrum, there came a complaint that we'd travestied the politics of Kurt "Herr Bourgeois" Schwitters. The following was sent by Dr. Klaus E. Hinrichsen to the V&A Contemporary Team:

Dear Contemporary Team,
M e r z N i t e
I have been interned with Kurt Schwitters on the Isle of Man 1940/1 for ten months, and as a then young art historian knew him well. In fact, I have written and lectured on Schwitters in Internment for BBC3, the Schwitters Almanach No 8, the 1999 International Schwitters Conference at Ambleside and the 2000 Schwitters Exhibition in Hanover etc. If you or the V&A are interested, I will gladly send you a copy of my talk at Ambleside. I trust the V&A owns and you have read "Kurt Merz Schwitters" by Gwendolen Webster - University of Wales Press 1996.

It is, of course, gratifying, to become celebrated for one's "Hatred of commercialism, private property and financial institutions" but I doubt that Kurt Schwitters would be happy with this honour! He always insisted that "Merz is non-political".

1. Schwitters man a successful commercial design and advertising business in Hanover promoting consumer goods.

2. Schwitters administered his family's four apartment buildings in Hanover and was considered very "bourgeois" by the Berlin Dada.

3. Schwitters counted a Banker, mannufacturer and the owner of a large store in Hanover among his friends, and - as far as I know - nowhere in his writings has attacked capitalism. In fact, in the internment camp on the Isle of Man he was the only artist to demand and get stiff fees for his oldmasterly portraits of fellow-internees which enabled him to pay others to do his share of the housework and to sustain an enviable life style and even save money. He was an exemplary book-keeper as far as money was concerned.

This, of course, in no way diminishes his greatness as a visual artist and his magical literary inventiveness as well as the memory of his performances (rehearsed into the smallest detail although seemingly "improvised").

I enjoyed seeing the projected works (one or two upside down) on the wall of the V&A Dome, and will visit the Print /Drawing room soon.

Kind regards,
Yours sincerley,
(Dr) K. E. Hinrichsen

Herr Schwitters complains: 'But I'm just a bourgeois - how can these Bolshies improvise with my legacy?'


Dr Hinrichsen received the following reply:

Dear Dr Hinrichsen

In my capacity as organiser of MERZ NITE, I have been passed your letter about Kurt Schwitters. It raises questions of endless fascination to anyone interested in the politics of culture.

Of course, no reader of Richter, Elderfield, Dietrich etc can be unaware of Schwitters' private wealth, petit-bourgeois politics and conventional social aspirations. Indeed, the wording on the publicity you mentioned was carefully chosen. Schwitters tore into a poster for a bank and got out `MERZ' - the poster summarised everything the **dadaists** opposed. Willy-nilly, Schwitters was part-and-parcel of a cultural movement which laid its bet with the Weimar Left - when the Nazis took over, he lost everything, successful business, Hanover apartments, Merzbau and all. Although it is very interesting that you spent time interned with Schwitters on the Isle of Man and observed him fleece a few wealthy internees by painting their portraits (work which is not generally accepted as part of Schwitters' importance as an artist), we do not think it gives you a monopoly on interpreting his work. Following Mallarm‚, we believe it is the poetry that means, not the poet. The idea of an art made from bus tickets and old camembert wrappers is profoundly democratic and damaging to Nazi myths of sublimity. The politics of this aesthetic cannot be reduced to the personal opinions of a single artist, even one of its best practitioners.

Unlike the "shocking" artists bought by Charles Saatchi, we believe that the poets and musicians participating in MERZ NITE remain true to the revolutionary aesthetic of Dada. Staging them in the way we did - in a space recently restored to free admission and public access - was a political act. If Schwitters would have felt uncomfortable with such use of his work, we are merely restoring the context and debates which allowed it to have resonance in the first place. Tributes to dead artists have a way of sidelining living artists. We wanted to do the opposite.

Having studied the score and various renditions of Ursonate, I am aware that Schwitters was no improvisor. Your point is therefore formally correct. However, the link between Dada and Free Improvisation I was making is a polemical one, based on hopes for the future of avantgarde music-making rather than the embalmed corpse of the past (if you are interested in following up this argument, may I suggest you look at my book **Art, Class & Cleavage: Quantulumcunque Concerning Materialist Esthetix**, Quartet, 1998).

Having made great pains to make sure that the slides were correctly displayed, I was disturbed that you thought some of them were upside down. Which were they? There were some slides that took a tour inside one collage, providing viewers with different angles. These may have looked wrong to anyone expecting the entire collage. There was one image - a publicity poster held at the V&A PDP - where "DADA" is printed in red upside-down over black lettering. Since it refuses any up/down logic, we deliberately rotated this one over several slides. I expect it was this one that looked "upside down". If not, please do write and describe the images we got wrong (of course, if a design was printed upside down in a catalogue, we could do nothing - I didn't photograph all these works at first hand).

Most of the 2000-plus people attending the evening had never heard of "Merz". Despite our differences, I think we can both be pleased that so many people showed up, whatever opinion they finally arrive at about Schwitters, Dada and politics. Without contraries no progress. Thank you for your interest.
Yours sincerely
Ben Watson
MERZ NITE Organiser

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On the poets' list, Keston Sutherland unleashed some of his alarmingly active prose, questioning the logic of "avantgarde" poets who complained they hadn't been to a proper reading, and rebutting charges of sexism.

Pinballing through the hedgeless MERZ farm I felt pretty much as Stu did, that chaos was a needed remission from poetryreadings and hushes. After all, how often do we get to hear writers sharing their work generously and without hindrance, to an appreciative, limited crowd who can hear every word they say? All the time. Or at least, now and then. The challenge at MERZ night was something else, it was never supposed to be a platform for carefully prepared readings and isolated showcases. You either had to shout and be heard partially, or speak and be drowned-out by the floor covered in mouths. I don't see that this has anything to do with masculinity. Marie smacked her bricks to a shifting audience transfixed by the aural sparks; Stu's dictaphone was audible over the mass drone only if you stuck your head next to it; the point was to rummage through the grand introitus and cruise for the noise you fancied. I would have relished the chance to read out my careful, delicate, petal-fringed and meaning-coated poetry to a bulk of people variously heedless and straining to overhear something else. It seems to me, ironic that the general admission of noise-elements and the chaff of linguistic chance in poetry itself could be sanctioned, while the actual material realization of that admission in a social context is dismissed as bad planning. Why not stick a microphone into your -poems- in the first place, next to the the little meaning-trumpet drowned out by 'aleatory' diction and the fashionable pink-noise of formal delirium? I ENJOYED not being able to hear. And then, I enjoyed catching splinters of verse, hybridized by the intrusions of conversational bullshit and trombone-noise. It's not as if we can't hear these poets in other contexts also; the night didn't stamp out the intelligibility of their work, it just resituated that work in a one-off grand corruption. Turning from this to the side-warehouses full of Doric plastercasts was a new kind of negative relief.

But the most strenuous defence of MERZ NITE came from Stu Calton, fighting back against the apolitical romantiques of Cambridge Poetry with a bruised indignation that caused an older Out To Lunch to feel combative all over again ...

The 3-minute "solo spots" were, in reality, a very slender frame, in effect they simply directed attention to duos / trios / quartets that were breaking out across the hall in any case. I took part in a particularly terse / granular trio with Mick Beck (bassoon, at that point) and Sonic Pleasure (bricks), a quartet with Gail Brand (trombone), Simon Fell (double bass) and a gentleman I don't recognise on a paper horn he'd collaged earlier [we think this was Michael Horowitz on kazoo; Roger Turner has been sent to investigate]. 'Twas a stretchy glissandi-ridden imaginary big-band number instigated by Fell's walking bass and the wobbly lines Gail Brand was drawing. Mick Beck pulled out his peculiar atonal "walking bassoon", stalking around the dismantled intervals he uses for that shit. Also I spend several minutes duelling with a couple of tedious, poker-face conceptual types who were hitting metal things on strings: they preserved the blank, tight-ass non-expressions necessary for that type of sordid activity. What I'm trying to say right here is that those looking for conventional musical "sense", for a denial of 'chaos" in Merz Nite would have done well to alternate their consumption of the massed sound with investigations of the smaller "chamber pieces" developing in the cheap seats on the outskirts of the dome. They were, partly thanks to the smaller forces, undiluted and information-rich. Throughout the nite the musicians acted "spontaneously" - in other words, obeying only their own inferences drawn from musical experience. Assimilating this or that premise from the surrounding events, the performers, of their own volition, translated its conclusions into the language of action - this is as it should be. If the action was tentative or dislocated, it was because no one performer had the volume necessary to indelibly effect the overall shape of the music. It proceeded more like an isolated united front of small organisations, rather than branding the situation with a collective character, this, again (boringly) was primarily a problem of audibility. I would have liked more incision, less soup, but on the other hand I do not think we can get on without disruption, without "chaos". The poets, unamplified, had access only to the thin end of the wedge, drowned in the general broth. Although this didn't stop Ulli Freer or ORL or Gamma (who manages the feat of making his every gesture and word uniformly riveting) from spirited declamation. Poets (or musicians) who aren't up to the task should either shout or reserve themselves for "intimate" candlelit seances with imbeciles who travesty Walter Benjamin. It was not, nor should it have been "sensitive", we were always looking at a "combat situation", like Schwitters, Tzara, Picabia and the rest, we're in for a scrap. Those expecting an art-seance were guaranteed 100% disappointment, just as those proceeding to the Cabaret Voltaire for a gentlemanly exchange of views were guaranteed offended / confused / morally indignant and so forth. Either way, any talk of ensuring a "quality art experience" must surely cause alarm bells to ring: Merz is, after all, an aesthetic of lucid trash and splatter, not a French-polishing demo.

The man couldn't be gagged:

Schwitters: Mad Dog or Nice Bloke? Who cares? Schwitters' "violence", his radicalism cannot be undermined by the "revelation" that he had an "intense private and poetic vision". This is not the issue, his poetic vision and what it implies should be understood by looking at his paintings. Schwitters' collages are FIZZING with negative energies, regardless of Coutts-Smith's evasive mumbling, or any other biographer's predilection for quietistic palour-games. Looking at something like his Merzbild Einunddreissig (I 920), with the murky, solidifying earth colours fringed by shards of creepy flesh-tone, you can feel your palms sweating, this stuff is BURSTING with vitality, it is "drunk with energy". The picture itself is a stadium containing various other more or less articulated events: a greasy-looking scrap of lace doily is encroaching on newspaper text, at the summit of a dense but radiant white triangle hemmed in with a washed-out naval blue. At the bottom left the colour-scheme slips, seems to react with its marginal position on the canvas to produce an awkward clump of ochre massed with an iridescent turquoise which tilts the eye and seems to throw the rest off balance. The brushstrokes are, in places, scrubbed, amazingly blended, elsewhere more conclusive and resolute. There's a tangible, almost physical shock in the geometry, the abstracted arrow in the centre of the canvas takes on a looming, sinister aspect. Everything from the poverty of a flea market or an urban bus stop to the hard edges of modern office blocks, railway bridges, explosions, factory refuse, even military cartography is sitting there simmering, glaring at you! Like all collagists he uses scraps of pre-existent material. The newspaper, blocks of wood, advertisements, lace, cloth, tram tickets, photographs which merge with the paint are not a "private" vision: they are social facts, the debris caused by human life. Schwitters did not confine himself to artefacts that have a "personal" importance, he radically democratised the materials. By placing litter in the same world (and on the same footing) as oil paint, he did violence to illusionistic realism, the artistic doctrine of the bourgeoisie. He showed a materialist's attention to the poetry of social waste, not like a smart-ass Duchampian, but like a revolutionary archivist or Charlie Parker. Also, when Coutts-Smith says Schwitters had "an overwhelming tenderness for everything that exists" what specifically does he mean? Does this overwhelming tenderness stretch to Nazism, for instance? One would assume not. If he's trying to say that Schwitters had an holistic, non-hierarchical, radically democratic idea of value, and of artistic value in particular, then he should say that. The only problem is, if he says THAT, Merz begins to sound slightly more threatening, slightly more militant. It begins to sound slightly less like the charming hobby of a friendly mystic and slightly more like something that might upend a comfortable life. It was THIS Merz that Merz Nite set out to celebrate. Of course, Merz is easily appropriated. This arises precisely from its radical democratisation of materials. However the interpretation celebrated by Merz Nite is informed by the work itself, and doesn't rely on biographical trivia and character assessments to verify its validity.
Peace, One Love etc Stu.

Keston then popped up again:

Watching the MERZ video it's obvious that some of the audience were irritated by not being able to hear everything. But then, haven't you ever been irritated by other kinds of reading, for different reasons perhaps, but just as reasonably? Readings in a room with the door locked, chairs bolted in rows, all faces forward, reverential hush, and a completely audible, longwinded performance of something which seems to leak out of the poet's throat like cold steam let off in oblivious monotone? Some things worked better than others at MERZ night; also, some poets know how to perform their work in a quiet setting and some don't. I just don't think that the difficulty in hearing (as distinguished from overhearing) -everything- that a poet said was on this occasion so disappointing. It was good to see the crowd react, shift positions, become uninterested and go elsewhere, run baffled to the drinks-stand etc. Unlike Ken I had no trouble in meandering through the room, I didn't find that I had to push or wait in gridlock. It was good to see friends and chat with them during the readings, switching attention as it demanded.

Last word from Stu:

This is STILL about Merz Nite, sorry y'all. Without wanting to drag this debate on and on, stammering endlessly like an invert clown, I've still got a couple of points. It was possible to "move among the crowd" and to perform directly to "small clusters of people". ALL the musicians were able to do this, I described the results of these "mini-events" in my first post on the subject. Marie-Angelique, bound to the same spot by her brick setup was surround by a constantly re-grouping "small cluster of people" the composition of which was continually changing. Pat Thomas, Mick Beck, Ian Stonehouse and Mark P were also in this area of the hall performing. I spent most of the time nudging and "excuse-me-ing" my way through the crowd letting off blasts of dictaphone, it was pretty quiet (nowhere near "noise terrorist" volume, and not being wielded with "noise terrorist" intent, incidentally is there such a thing as a "noise socialist"?), but people were still aware of the sound and were contently listening, some amused, some bemused, some possibly a bit pissed off and some little kids of about seven who appeared to be delighted. Intimacy, in this context, wasn't about respectful distances and hushed awe, but was about active questioning, removing the dividing line between the performers and the audience. Marie was questioned in depth several times on her motivation as an artist by audience members, the fact that heckling was common is always an indication that a barrier between the Celebs and the Crowd is under healthy attack by "the mob". It would have still been a hugely exciting event if all the performers had been amplified, but I suspect we would have lost the collective character of the evening, we would have lost the feeling of "occupation" which was achieved by the "chaos" (or even the chaos): pretty soon we would have been back in the gridlock of "performance, applause, performance, applause", people shushing their kids and tip-toeing to the bog looking embarrassed. That would have been a huge defeat, and a lot of lost ground. Peace, Stu


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