Merz And Me

First(?) published on LiveJournal - 30/04/10
The original version of this was posted in January 2002. It probably won't 'teach' you much about Schwitters himself - there are lots of proper websites that will do that a whole lot better! - but I still found it amusing and maybe worth sharing again. So there.


KURT SCHWITTERS... The original renaissance man of dada! Along with Marcel Duchamp, he made rubbish into ART and rubbished the so-called ART establishment at the same time. He called his version of dada "merz", a word which, he claimed, like ART itself, had no meaning. In actual fact, the letters merz were what remained after Kurt tore up a poster reading "Kommerz Und Privat-Bank", to create one of his collages. So much of what is accepted as ART today - the so-called "post-modern", "post-situationist", "conceptual art" malarkey - can be traced back to this wacky teuton and his collection of bus tickets. Particularly relevant to all things Gridloid is his own lipsmacking concept of sound poetry... post-Joyce "Silly Word Absorption" which sometimes did away with language altogether!

Opinion (1946)

Par Avion
Onion opinion
Par Avion
Herbert Read
Naoum Gabo
My dear friend
Par Avion
I am so grad
Par Avion
Aa vee I ou ennenn
I ou enn
ou enn

The above segment is but a tame example! I've found a couple of websites where you can get complete texts and recorded extracts of the merzman himself reciting his stuff - there's also CDs available if you're really keen! There is a very good potted biography by Gwendolen Freundel Webster on the Schwitters bit of www.artchive.com (the most-est recommended place to start if you want to know about ANY artist!) See the links at the foot of the page.

In December 1993, in true "Xenochronic" style, I juxtaposed a recording of Schwitters reciting his magnificent "Ribble Bobble Pimlico" across a rhythm track which had been generated for the Eminent Cellists' "Tundrabilly Music" cassette and which may have also been used for one of Mervyn's "Professor Schloenburger" monologues. I must say, the result was surprisingly funky!

I also remember an electro-acoustic piece by the composer Christopher Fox being broadcast on Radio 3's avant-garde slot "Between The Ears", back in the early '90s, called "3 Constructions After Kurt Schwitters". As I recall, there was a sort of "music concrete" section featuring what sounded like a lot of rustling paper (Someone doing a collage?) and a loopy bit of cut-up based on (I think) Uncle Kurt's own rendition of the "Anna Blume" poem... "Allooo! Dada! Anna! Merz! Allooo! Dada! Anna! Allooo! Dada! Anna! Allooo! Merz! Dada! Anna!" etc.]

Some quotes then:- 

"...[Schwitters had a] kind of infantile innocence which was the mainspring of his persona..."
George Melly

"...one of the oddest people I have ever met..."
Richard Huelsenbeck

"...at the time when I wrote the account of Surrealism I was not aware of the fact that an elderly German refugee, whose work would prove of greater influence in the subsequent years, was then still living in the Lake District. I am referring to Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), whom I regarded as one of the most amiable eccentrics of the early 1920s. Schwitters used discarded bus tickets, newspaper cuttings, rags and other odds and ends, and glued them together to form quite tasteful and amusing bouquets. In refusing to use conventional paint and conventional canvas, his attitude was connected with an extremist movement (dada) that had started in Zurich during the First World War... It was certainly the wish of these artists to become as little children and to cock a snook at the solemnity and pomposity of ART with a capital A..." -  from that big orange paperback by EH Gombrich that we all had to read in art college. 


Ben Watson, Wire magazine columnist, Mervyn Purviss lookalike, writer of one of the most hilarious (or most pretentious, depending on your point of view) books on the subject of Frank Zappa and/or poodles, a man who once volunteered to be a "girl oaf" in a Zappa "Dance Contest" (announcing himself to be Eric Dolphy) - has put together an evening of impromptu interactivity at the V&A, all in the name of merz. Here's his press release, or mission statement, if you will:-

Friday 25th January 2002
6.30 - 10pm

London’s Free Improvisation scene takes over the V&A! Long exiled to upstairs pub rooms and drafty church halls, bitterly opposed to commercial and institutional compromise, London’s indomitable Free Improvisation scene celebrates free museums, direct-access culture and unconstrained, spontaneous expression with a special Friday Late View event - MERZ NITE

What’s MERZ?
MERZ is how dadaist Kurt Schwitters described all his work, regardless of medium. MERZ came from tearing a poster for Hanover’s KOMMERZ UND PRIVAT-BANK - four letters salvaged from a list of everything the dadaists hated: commercialism, private property, financial institutions. MERZ could be a collage, a poem “written” with a rubber stamp, a performance of vocalised “sound” poetry, a junk sculpture that required burrowing through the ceiling to complete, an anti-militarist parade. In today’s cravenly-commercial, megalomaniac art world, only Free Improvisation can rise to MERZ’s libertarian programme.

MERZ NITE promises impromptu sound image dyscrasia, amplified vibrato fretting its tender bits, true diluvium of the disposessed. The anti-transcendent collage principle at 23 supersessions per second.

MERZ NITE comprises a spontaneous mix of recorded elements, with vinyl and CDs brought in by participants, played by MERZ NITE DJ Dallas Boner and live manufacture of collage postcards, to which the public is invited to contribute. Guided, subverted, vetted and sanctioned by agents from the DIY-Esemplasm, the finished postcards will be “exhibited” in the Dome. Please note that all the postcards will be donated to the V&A National Art Library in a box marked MERZ NITE.

The highlight of MERZ NITE is a collective improvisation using sound and word. Veteran and neophyte performers mingle under the Dome to create instant metaphysical vertigo and abandon. Traditional instruments played by musians whose “extended technique” must be witnessed to be believed. Successive pretenders to the role of leader step up and address the multitude. Trombones, drums, grand piano, saxophones, dictaphone, amplified bricks, digital samples, the out-verbiage of poets trained in sound-poet Bob Cobbing’s countless London workshops, “mad” interventions by state-funded eccentrics Out To Lunch, Gamma and Ulli Freer.

PARTICIPANTS INCLUDE: Lol Coxhill (soprano saxophone), Mick Beck (bassoon), Simon Fell (bass), Rhodri Davies (harp), Gail Brand (trombone), Pat Thomas (piano), Sonic Pleasure (flute, amplified bricks), T.H.F. Drenching (dictaphone from Pence Eleven), Jennifer Pike (dance), Esther Leslie (camcorder), Tom Raworth (anti-monophone), Maggie O’Sullivan (post-telephone), Out To Lunch (ansaphone), Adrian Clarke (hypophone), Ulli Freer (poet), Bob Cobbing (mouth from Birdyak), John Plant (polemicist from Diary), Gamma (ambassador from the Martian Embassy), Mark P (vocalist and guitarist from Alternative TV), Dave Ross (drummer from Kenny Process Team and Trike), Ian Stonehouse (computer sound-collage and “boing”), L.T. Gray (designer and collagiste), Chris Cutler (cymbal and electric razor), Caroline Kraabel (saxophone), Dallas Boner (DJ), special guests... and YOU.

Images from the V&A’s MERZ collection will be projected on the upper walls. If you don’t know what Free Improvisation is, then MERZ NITE could be your baptism of fire!

Ben Watson - Curator of MERZ NITE
The event has been supported by the Electronic Music Studio (EMS) at Goldsmiths College.

Friday Late 

View information:
All events will take place in the Main Entrance
6.30 - 8pm * MERZ NITE DJ Dallas Boner and live manufacture of collage postcards
8 - 9pm * Collective improvisation

There will be a bar in the main entrance from 6pm - 9.40pm. Refreshments are available from the RCA bar and the Restaurant (off Gallery 11) from 6pm - 9pm.

Please note that smoking is only allowed in the Pirelli Garden and that drinks may only be consumed in bar areas. For information about special exhibitions and gallery viewing please visit the Information Desk in the Main Entrance.

An evening with Kurt Schwitters? (well, with Ben Watson and some of his mates, anyway..!) Hmmm, sounds like a good excuse for another trip to "dzat Loondin"! Diary pages follow...


Friday 25th January 2002... Absurd! Do we live in such a paranoid world that the bus company is now obliged to ask if you want to take out travel insurance when you purchase your ticket - this for a day trip to London? (Can they insure against boredom? You certainly get to see every crook and nanny of Hampshire and Surrey on this trip!)

The weather is pretty yucky and I've got a bit of a cold coming on, but that will not deter me from my usual leggy-perambulations... Absurd! ...down through (Ribble Bobble) Pimlico to the Tate Britain (where I look at the Tate website to locate the merzworks in their collection - they're mainly at the Tate Modern, which is a bit out of my way today - another time perhaps?), across Lambeth Bridge, past the old GLC building where the once subversive Salvador Dali is now a theme park (I like the giraffe-legged elephant statue though!), under the Millennium construction that, if I ruled the world, would have been a large Oldenberg-soft stuffed lemur called the London Aye-aye, cowering 'neath the huge banner announcing The London International Mime Festival (Run away!!!)

...to the Hayward Gallery to look at the pretty little PAUL KLEEs. Klee seems to want to paint on anything except canvas - wood, cotton, burlap - but the majority of the pieces were on sketch-pad sized bits of paper mounted on cardboard... I liked his simpler geometrical pieces best and I rather expected to see more of his trademark funny little creatures hiding away in the pictures, but I did spot the pointing cat in one of his Bauhaus "perspective" studies...

Across the windswept bridge to the West End, where I completely failed to purchase any of the items on my "CD wants list"... Absurd!

So, I wend my wet and windy way to South Kensington and the Victoria & Albert Museum Of Posh Old Stuff And Memorial Tea Rooms, where it is immediately apparent that tonight's activities will be Absurd! even if their merz credentials are questionable! From the surrounding sound system, strange (and random? Chance?) combinations of musical and not-so-musical sounds are broadcast at us (I've never shared The Wire's enthusiasm for all things Hip and, if you will, Hop - the rap fraternity ceased to have anything interesting to say years ago, as far as I'm concerned... but is it merz?).

A very tall man is photographed throwing a duffel coat into the air, staring at it where it lands, then staring at the empty space from which it fell. He does this for over an hour.

We are all invited to create postcard-sized collages "in the spirit of merz" which are later to end up locked away in a vault, deep beneath the bowels of Victoria & Albert themselves; some of them will form part of the slide show projected onto the dome above us, during the evening's entertainment. Just for the record, my contribution to the merzbox is (I've just decided) called

"At_Empo_Ooo" (Biro and collage on postcard, 2002)

but no one will ever know that ...and that, in itself, is an act of merz! Some of the collages on display are more merz than others... there are the inevitable "satirical" pieces, whereby someone tries too hard to make a social comment and there are the "Pythonesque" cut-out pieces... very few seem able to take that merzstep away from realitythought and just let it flow... Some submissions are more Max Ernst/Surreal than Kurt Schwitters/Dada (too "figurative" or "representative" for this idiom: discuss) ...no marks for guessing who contributed the Ask Jeeves page about Beethoven's Poodle Sonata, though...

A man (on crutches) is pushing what looks like a stone rabbit around the floor - Is that a microphone hanging off him? No! I've just realised it's a maglite! - A bearded gent has a sign safety-pinned to his coat... just the single word "RIND" - The crutches man is now pushing a pair of shoes ("Kurt'z merz Bootz") and a tin box which appears to contain a neatly pressed shirt... The continuing HipHop is interrupted by Zappa-derived snorks, then Ben Watson proclaims "Let the merz commence!" and various people do their musical and poetical things in various locations around the dome, sometimes separately, sometimes all at once. Gail Brand (trombone) interacted with the sounds spewing forth from the sound system to splendid effect - it's a pity the budget couldn't have stretched to providing radio mikes for those who were using just their human voices. The various poets and recitalists were, frankly, wasting their breath! Some inappropriate and amateurish electric guitar dominated the sound-picture whenever present (there's a fine line to be drawn between "extended instrumental technique" and three-chord thrash merchants overstretching themselves)...

Golden Banana nominee, LOL COXHILL played up a storm on his soprano, held together with string and elastic (the sax, not Lol), providing many of the evening's more audible (listenable?) moments, both as a solo performer and in various groupings (again, hats off to Ms Brand for a splendid duet with Lol, over there in the corner in front of the Queen Anne furniture!). Simon Fell(?) did some rather nice things to a double bass and over in another corner, the lady squatting on a rug, surrounded by bits of old bricks and roof tiles, had something to contribute too, interacting as she was with Mick Beck(?) whose approach to that most troublesome instrument, the bassoon, was to take the reeds out and make duck calls with 'em... I don't know whether Chris Cutler played a cymbal with an electric razor as promised...

Remember that album "Miniatures" that Morgan Fisher put together? Well, tonight was, at times, a bit like that in 3D - less considered perhaps, certainly more shambolic - the performers each had three minutes to make their point, not just one. Better care should have been taken to balance the amplified and (dare I say it?) unplugged elements of the event. If this was intended as an evening to introduce Joe Public to the joys of free improvisation, then it suffered because of this.

Did the evening promote any understanding of what merz is/was? Debatable!

Would Herr Schwitters himself have approved of the shambles that ensued? Very probably!

As the evening's proceedings stopped proceeding, I set off on my way to Victoria Coach Station - and still got there an hour early! Absurd! ...I'm getting dada-esque impressions (even) of Victoria Coach Station - the indoor pigeons in the hanging baskets... the enormous bush-baby warning us to beware of thieves... the expensive coffee and the expensive piss afterwards... the quite pretty but flatulent black lady who sat next to me in the waiting hall... and why, despite an earful of freeform mutants, have I got the same couple of Genesis tunes going round my head all the way home? Absurd!

In the March 2002 edition of The Wire (#217), Philip Clark reviewed the merzNite event. Like me, he felt that the event was the victim of its own popularity and that the performers failed to communicate as a result. He also failed to identify the Duffle Coat Man and the Crutches Man, singled out Gail Brand and Lol Coxhill as worthy of mention and was unable to say whether Chris Cutler was there or not... hmmm... has he been reading my diary? A couple of blurry, mighty-long-exposure piccies accompanied the article. There was also an email published in that edition's letters page, from one Jonathon Jones, who praised Mr Watson for his political right-on-ness in other matters, but who thought that merzNite was a huge shambles...


Friday 15th February 2002 ...in fact I did make the journey back to London, when the weather was nicer and, this time, I did take in a trip to the TATE MODERN (taking care to avoid the queues for the Andy Warhol hype-erama). Just for the record, here are the many merzjoys I experienced there...

Firstly, two cases of Schwitters' cute little sculptures from the period 1945-47: 

MOTHER & EGG - A little red stone sat on a bigger white stone sitting on a yellow block sitting on a black block; 

- A red, white and black plaster object sitting on a cloth-covered base;

STONE - A stone (that's been painted in washes of red, blue and grey);

PAINTED STONE - A long narrow stone that's been painted;

THE CLOWN - A particular favourite, this one, being, in effect, a pet rock with a red and blue bobble hat on!

PEG SCULPTURE - A wooden clothes peg sat on a dollop of plaster on a piece of driftwood (all painted in yummy shades of green and muddy red);

WHITE MINIATURE - A rough-hewn plaster "figure", some surfaces of which are picked out in a dirty orange colour, sat on a very presentable black (marble?) base;

UNTITLED (OCHRE) - A red and yellow painted stone thingy;

Hanging on the walls, one encounters: 

RELIEF IN RELIEF (1942-5, oil on wood and canvas) - A framed construction of painted driftwood, collected from the Thames near his Barnes home. During wartime, Kurt couldn't get the glossy magazines he wanted for his collages, so he took to using driftwood instead;

MAGIC (1936-40, collage on paper) - A little postcard-sized collage made from a magazine ad for Heinz;

KOI (1932, drawing on printed paper) - A "readymade", being a selected bit of a make-ready sheet from his local printers;

APHORISM (1923, collage on card) - "A tiny but carefully balanced composition"; 

THE PROPOSAL (1942, collage on paper) - Another favourite, in which a nineteenth century engraving of a family gathering is partly obscured by tasty looking plates of bickies and doughnuts;

...and another display case containing mouth-watering bits of related trivia (Uncle Kurt shares a gallery with Hans and/or Jean Arp, so some of his stuff is in the case too!);

MERZ 24: URSONATE - A first-edition poetry booklet in the form of a pocket musical score;

AN ANNA BLUME c/w URSONATE - An elpee reckerd of Kurt reading these masterpieces of babble in 1932;

GREYHOUND LUST (Der Lustgalgen) - A nicely faded sepia postcard of his 1922 sculpture;

THE MERZ PICTURE (Das Merzbild) - Similar postcard of his 1922 painting of that name;

UNTITLED POEM - Well-yellowed sheet of handwritten nonsense... a veritable holy shroud in foolscap!

- A genuine copy of the April-July 1924 edition of his Dada magazine;

- A pen and ink drawing of his London home (How very conventional! ...Ed)

I did subsequently go to see the house itself, near Barnes Bridge. It would have provided a very good vantage point for the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race!

Finally, in every sense, the floor-standing delight that is THE AUTUMN CROCUS (1926-8, reconstructed 1958) - A large-ish, elegantly sculpted, white-painted, concrete object that was to have been Kurt Schwitters gravestone, but, apparently, the Vicar of Ambleside objected to its presence in his churchyard! Poo bah!

[M'colleague Shelfy once suggested that we go on a 'pilgrimage' to Ambleside someday. But unless they move the whole town down to the West Country, I don't think it'll ever happen!]

In the gallery next door, the Dubcek-bashingly satirical JAN SVANKMJAER animations are proving to very popular with the kiddies on half term... I went to BATHE in the deep, sombre maroons and greys of the MARK ROTHKO series (suitably subdued lighting - or have the bulbs gone?) and the unfeasibly-vivid blue of one of YVES KLEIN's IKB panels. On the way back down the Thames (UP the Thames, twit!...Ed), I browsed a second-hand artbook shop... amongst the yum-yums therein, I spotted a telephone directory-sized tome on Kurt Schwitters which had EVERYTHING - including a price tag of £225!!!

[Update: it should be mentioned that since this was written, the Tate Modern has been rearranged somewhat, so I'm not sure if all of the above Schwitters pieces are still on public display, and if they are, in which gallery?]

This site has lots of words and pictures from the MerzNite event(s):

Pretty good biographical essay:
Audio examples of poems:
The inevitable wiki!
MySpace 'tribute' pages:
http://www.myspace.com/kurtschwitters (doesn't accept friend requests from 'bands'!)

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