Cabaret Voltaire (Zurich)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Cabaret Voltaire was the name of a nightclub in Zürich, Switzerland founded by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings as a cabaret for artistic and political purposes,. It's opening night was on February 5, 1916. Other founding members were Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Tristan Tzara and Jean Arp. Events at the cabaret proved pivotal in the founding of the anarchic art movement known as Dada.



Switzerland was a neutral country during World War I and among the many refugees coming to Zurich were artists from all over Europe. Ball and Hennings made an arrangement with the owner of the Meierei Bar at Spiegelgasse 1 that they could use the back room for events. The press release which accompanied the opening of the nightclub reads:

Cabaret Voltaire. Under this name a group of young artists and writers has been formed whose aim is to create a centre for artistic entertainment. The idea of the cabaret will be that guest artists will come and give musical performances and readings at the daily meetings. The young artists of Zurich, whatever their orientation, are invited to come along with suggestions and contributions of all kinds. -Zurich, February 2 1916

The cabaret featured spoken word, dance and music. The soirees were often raucous events with artists experimenting with new forms of performance, such as sound poetry and simultaneous poetry. Mirroring the maelstrom of World War I raging around it, the art it exhibited was often chaotic and brutal. On at least one occasion, the audience attacked the Cabaret's stage. Though the Cabaret was to be the birthplace of the Dadaist movement, it featured artists from every sector of the avant-garde, including Futurism's Marinetti. The Cabaret exhibited radically experimental artists, many of whom went on to change the face of their artistic disciplines; featured artists included Kandinsky, Paul Klee, de Chirico and Max Ernst.

On July 28, 1916, Ball read out the Dada Manifesto [1]. In June, Ball had also published a journal with the same name. It featured work from artists such as the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and had a cover designed by Arp.

Whilst the Dada movement was just beginning, by 1917 the excitement generated by the Cabaret Voltaire had fizzled out and the artists moved on to other places in Zurich such as the Galerie Dada at Bahnhofstrasse 19, then later Paris and Berlin.

Influence on Dada

The activities at Cabaret Voltaire spawned the cultural movement, Dada, which in turn was a major influence on the surrealist art movement.

Recent Events

In recent years, the building which housed Cabaret Voltaire fell into disrepair, and in the winter of 2001/2002 a group of artists describing themselves as neo-Dadaists, organised by Mark Divo, illegally occupied the cabaret to protest its planned demolition. They declared that it was a signal for a new generation of artists to align themselves with a revival of Dada.

Over a period of three months there were a number of performances, parties, poetry evenings and film nights. Among the participating artists were Ingo Giezendanner, Mikry Drei, Lennie Lee, Leumund Cult, xeno volcano, elektra sturmschnell, Aiana Calugar and Dan Jones. The building was decorated on the outside as well as the inside.

Thousands of people from around Zürich took part in the experiment. On March 2, 2002 police evicted the occupants.

The building has since reopened as a cabaret with an extensive programme of events and exhibitions .


  • Jean Arp describes a night at the cabaret: Total pandemonium. The people around us are shouting, laughing, and gesticulating. Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos…
  • Hugo Ball describes a night at the cabaret: For our next event, Janco made a certain number of extraordinary masks. They evoked Japanese theater and Greek tragedy, yet were resolutely modern. Designed to be seen from a distance, they produced an incredible effect in the relatively small cabaret. We were all there when Janco came in with his masks. And the minute we saw them, we couldn't wait to try them on. When we did, something quite strange happened. Each mask dictated not only what costume should be worn with it, but also certain precise, pathetic gestures, which approached madness. Although we would never have suspected it five minutes earlier, we were soon moving in a bizarre ballet, draped and adorned with incredible objects, trying to outdo each other as we danced around the room.
  • The name was borrowed and reused by the industrial band Cabaret Voltaire (band).

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