REPORT ON THE OCCUPATION OF THE CABARET VOLTAIRE

End of December 2001,one of my friends from Zürich’s punk scene  told me about an empty house he had seen in the Niederdorf, the cities historical centre. He described the object as a five stories high medieval structure, with a strange memorial plaque on its side entrance, which was dedicated to some sort of cabaret. The description of the house matched a very familiar object in Spiegelgasse. I made a reconnaissance through the Niederdorf area & there it was: the birthplace of Dada actually stood abandoned. After a few inquiries, I found that the building was to be renovated & actual conversion plans had already been submitted. All permissions were obtained. A renowned auction house intended to move in after renovation. The owner of the property was the Rentanstalt, a Swiss insurance company. I called up a meeting to discuss technical details & a cultural program for a weekend of some squatting action. I was amazed at how little the future art squatters knew about the importance of the Cabaret Voltaire, & it seemed essential to me to initiate a dada revival by occupying the building.

Cabaret Voltaire squatOn Saturday, the 2nd of February, 2002, we broke down the doors at 1 Spiegelgasse. We had devised a special plan for this action. Squating an object in the historical centre of Zürich had never been done before, & it was a unwritten rule, that you could take whatever building on the outskirts of town, but never would the police allow you to occupy a house in Zürich’s tourist centre. So we decided to dress up: the male activists wore suits & ties, girls were dressed up as catering ladies & served snacks to bewildered passersby accompanied by classical music. We told anyone who would listen that we had inherited the house from a distant aunt,  & were now holding a modest party in celebration of the dear deceased lady. It was not long before the police caught on. Officers came rushing to the spot only to find nothing they could object to. After they had munched the sandwiches the girls had given them, also they congratulated us on our inheritance. Meanwhile we were barricading the building from inside, to make sure that no police could kick us out at short notice.

The very next day I started to spread the rumour that the Cabaret Voltaire was to be converted into a pharmacy. This little lie proved to be very efficient in gaining support from the Zürich’s intellectuals, as the same fate had befallen a few historical landmarks-half of the famous Odeon Café, a place where exiles such as Lenin & Thomas Mann had convened, had been made into a pharmacy years ago. Conveniently the owner of the Cabaret didn’t do anything to counter this fairy tale, as the deal between them & the future tenant from the art world hadn’t been finalized yet & neither of them were interested in any publicity for their project. Very soon the local newspapers took up the story with the pharmacy, & our little happening in the centre of Zürich received a lot of media attention.

All major German columnists mocked Zürich’s ignorant cultural philistines, who were unable to recognize the potential of Dada as a cultural location factor. Under the presence of an ever growing public interest, the activist collective organized regular events, focused on creating Merz-style collages in music, creative speech, open stage, as well as concert & theatre performances on weekends, thus able to collect donations at the door in order to finance the living & travel expenses incurred by participants. We occupied the top floors of the medieval house-the bottom part was open to the public more or less 24 hours a day. While transforming the top part into visual Gesamtkunstwerk, or inhabited sculpture-we opened up 4 different stages within the basement & first floor. Each Saturday evening at midnight Pastor Leumund, a friend & dada activist from Berlin, celebrated his legendary dadamass. We all joined in his parody of a catholic mass, sung songs together, prayed for nothing, & made nonsense our con-sense.

The venue started to get very popular, & the more our audience grew, the more angry our next door neighbours were getting with us. Our neighbours lived in large fancy apartments, & had spent millions in acquiring their property in a safe & gentrified area, & were in no mood to take any disturbances from low life riff raff such as us. In fact they had spent a considerable resources in kicking out the former long term tenant, who was operating a discotheque in the Cabaret. But the noise wound not stop yet, & to their horror the resurrected Cabaret Voltaire triggered a brief Dada boom. There were nightlong Dada features on the radio & daily reports in the Zürich press.  Pressure on the city to preserve this location of international charisma as a cultural institution grew stronger, & the director of the Zürich cultural department, came to the fore, got in contact with the Insurance Company & declared his solidarity with the Cabaret Voltaire activists, assuring them that no pickaxe or shovel would go near the house, until a decision about the future of house was made.

We composed a manifesto & organized a press conference at which we demanded the preservation of the historic Cabaret Voltaire as a living memorial to the Dada movement. At this press conference we appeared for the first time as Fondation pour l’humanite Croesus, a foundation committed to staging annual Dada festival weeks, as well as the squandering of idle resources through the defenestration of capital. To prove our serious intentions of becoming a cultural institution we decide that the best way showing  to the public that we are also capable of handling tax money in the same way as real government institutions was with an allegorical performance. This was to be our  first Capital Defenestration, we threw  1,000 francs in 1-franc coins from the upper windows of the Cabaret Voltaire into the street. We threatened the city that on the day of the eviction, the Croesus Foundation would throw one million Swiss francs out of the window. Every franc we would collect in the cabaret would be thrown back at them!

We enjoyed a beautiful two months in Spiegelgasse, but by the middle of March we knew that we would have to move out by the end of the month – we decided that it would be okay to leave but not before putting up a brave fight. We called up all our activists to form the Croesus militia. We spent a evening crafting cardboard weapons. And on the next day, armed with an arsenal of cardboard halberds, crossbows, cannons & tanks we tried to assault the Zürich city police headquarters. As no one dared to come out of the building we declared that we had won this skirmish. As the victorious Croesus Militia returned home from battle they could hardly believe their eyes: a large crowd had gathered in front of the Cabaret Voltaire. They’d been waiting there for hours for the announced final capital defenestration of one million Swiss francs. By this time the  Croesus Foundation had made a profit of 5000.- sFr, mainly on selling alcohol & drugs, so we decided to throw this amount out of the window-but in order to pacify the high expectations of the masses we also started to chuck personal funds, counterfeit money, used underpants & bucket loads of water  from the windows.

Unfortunately, the Croesus Militia was unable to defend the Cabaret Voltaire against an invading police force on the morning of the 2nd of April, & so, once again, officers were treated to a glass of sparkling wine, before we abandoned the building peacefully. The policemen, who in the meantime apparently became somewhat familiar with the subject, surprised the disinherited artists with enigmatic comments such as “art means change,” while beefy construction workers immediately commenced making mincemeat of our equipment, installations & artworks. Afterward, the displaced Dada population set up camp with an open living room in front of the adjacent bookstore, & were provided with food & drink by other city residents for 48 hours. The great international interest in the subject was a matter of national disgrace for the city of Zürich, & finally a decision was reached to preserve the building as a memorial.

A private sponsor was found behind closed doors, prepared to shell out the monstrous annual rent of 400,000 francs to the Rentenanstalt. We were assured of our involvement. Upon that we developed an action plan for a self-governing Dada cultural centre, but two years later, when the Cabaret Voltaire reopened its doors, we were not invited. Instead the city of Zürich appointed a former manager of a popular disco to be the curator of Cabaret Voltaire. Scholars with university degrees in Dadaism, who were involved in the decision-making, justified our exclusion by claiming that our strategy during the occupation had proven overly retro-Dadaist. Later on the disco owner was ousted from his position by his assistant, & since 2006 the Cabaret Voltaire is occupied by a pub, a souvenir shop, & small gallery. The gallery is run by Adrain Notz who tries diligently to keep up with the international art world by hosting shows by the Chapman Brothers & other fame whores. Obviously the gallery was no match for the global players, & after a few years the city reduced the funding from one million a meagre 400 000.- sFr a year.

The final death blow for the Cabaret Voltaire came in 2016, when the celebration of the centennial of Dada was used by Zürich Tourism to promote the city as an artsy tourist destination. Since 2005,when the Cabaret was officially reopened by the city & the swatch group, it was foreseeable that things would turn out this way. In retrospect one of the projects we proposed that year should have been pursued more seriously was “the society for the fulfilment of dada.” The aim of this society was to literally fill up the Cabaret Voltaire with concrete, & by this creating a fitting allegorical monument showing the world how Zürich deals with its uncomfortable dada past & its living art activists.

M.DIVO

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