Yale School of Art students ‘Dada the Dadaists’ with interactive installation

The TV screen shows hapless cubicle dwellers awkwardly assembled around a conference table for an office birthday party. It could be a scene from a sitcom, except that the characters are not celebrating a coworker, but the 100th anniversary of the Dada movement.

The parody plays on a loop in the “Dada Lounge,” an eye-catching interactive installation incorporated into “Everything is Dada,” an exhibition now on view at the Yale University Art Gallery.

A collaboration between the gallery and graphic-design students at the Yale School of Art, the lounge both pays homage to the Dadaists and reinterprets their work and ideas.

“The students thought a lot about how to Dada the Dadaists,” said Christopher Sleboda, ’03 M.F.A., the gallery’s director of graphic design, who coordinated the lounge project.

The lounge’s black-and-white walls are a collage of bizarre visuals, wordplay, and abstractions tinged with the humor and irreverence that characterized the Dadists’ approach. 

The word “LOVE” running vertically on one wall is composed of the letters that spell “hate.” On the same wall, the stylized “D” in the Disney logo is appropriated into a “Dada” logo.  To the left of the logo, the shapes of German-French artist Jean Arp, which resemble micro-organisms, have infected the Helvetica typeface in a block of text, replacing an “I” here and an “M” there, etc. 

One of Arp’s forms, this one looks like a jellyfish, is recreated on the opposite wall in neon light.

“It reminds me of my childhood when my mother would take me to the sea,” said student Polina Vasilyeva, who created the Arp-inspired neon light and typescript.

A screen features a chaotic jumble that morphs into a photo of Marcel Duchamp. It was created by repeatedly photocopying the photo until the image of the artist disintegrated. 

Duchamp’s readymades — ordinary manufactured objects presented as art — are represented by a banner featuring an image of his iconic “Fountain,” a porcelain urinal. A mock newspaper — one of three distributed in the lounge — depicts contemporary photographs of urinals featured in restrooms from across the globe.

“People have thought of Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ as artwork for many years,” said student Moonsick Gang, who created the banner and the newspaper. “I wanted to show contemporary toilets because I thought it would be weird for people to think about them as artwork. I can imagine that people felt the same way when Duchamp released his work.”

Duchamp references appear in a news crawl that runs along the bottom of the sitcom parody. It displays “tweets” like “@da-champ: culture is the absolute best at its absolute worst” and “@readymade22: think outside the box.”

Another mock newspaper, “DaDa Zoo,” imagines the abstractions created by Dadaists Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters, Suzanne Duchamp, Max Ernst, and Jean Arp as creatures displayed in a zoo. 

“The artists’ work feels animal to me, so I turned it into a zoo,” said student Qiong Li.

The lounge is not just a visual experience. Visitors can listen to examples of Dada and futurist sound poetry on three candlestick-style telephones.  

Sleboda said the installation’s layout was based on photographs of early Dada exhibitions that showed how they utilized every inch of gallery space to express their ideas.

“We were inspired by how they filled the entire wall with what was available to them,” Sleboda said. “We utilized materials and media available to us today and imagine how the Dadaists would have used them. We wanted to create a space that was chaotic but also organized.”

Sleboda and the students worked for several months on the project. The students would propose ideas, which they narrowed down to make the most compelling and bold statements.

“Chris gave us suggestions of things to work on, but he also gave us the freedom to execute our ideas,” Li said. “It motivated us and it made the project more fun.”

Sleboda praised Frauke V. Josenhans, the Horace W. Goldsmith Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art and curator of “Everything is Dada,” for her enthusiasm in integrating graphic design into the exhibition.

“She was so supportive and encouraging,” he said. “This was a great opportunity to engage and educate the public about graphic design.”

The following School of Art students participated in the lounge project: Maziyar Pahlevan, who created the “LOVE” image; Qiong Lee; Allyn Hughes, who created the sitcom parody with Cindy Kim; Polina Vasilyeva; Moonsick Gang; Biba Kosmeri; Alexandra (Sasha) Portis, who did the photocopied Duchamp video; and Laura Foxgrover.

Additionally, Ben Fehrman-Lee designed the typefaces used in the exhibition’s wall text, basing his work on original printed materials and ephemera produced by the first Dadaists.

Everything is Dada” is on view through Sunday, July 3.