100 years after Dada, NSCAD's Art Bar/Cabaret Voltaire turns Halifax upside down

Last year, NSCAD professor Bruce Barber put forth the idea of creating a cabaret to celebrate this year’s 100th anniversary of the formation of the Dada movement — partly conceived as an artistic response to the horrors of World War I — and its Zurich home, the Cabaret Voltaire. Melanie Colosimo, director of NSCAD’s Anna Leonowens Gallery, suggested they “open an art bar where we can do tons of rotating kinds of events, based around the idea of bar culture.” The idea of the Art Bar/ Cabaret Voltaire was born.

Performance-art space spearheaded by NSCAD University's Anna Leonowens Gallery

Dancing at the afterparty for the opening of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia exhibition The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968-1978. (Jordan Blackburn)

From turnover at NSCAD University, to galleries losing their spaces, and even battles with provincial and municipal governments, Halifax's art scene has recently seen its share of turmoil. But one thing artists know is how to confront dark and uncertain times.

You make a painting, post it on Instagram and wait for the 'likes' to show up — it's not as rewarding.- Melanie Colosimo, gallery director, on art in the social media age

Last year, NSCAD professor Bruce Barber put forth the idea of creating a cabaret to celebrate this year's 100th anniversary of the formation of the Dada movement — partly conceived as an artistic response to the horrors of World War I — and its Zurich home, the Cabaret Voltaire.

Melanie Colosimo, director of NSCAD's Anna Leonowens Gallery, suggested they "open an art bar where we can do tons of rotating kinds of events, based around the idea of bar culture." The idea of the Art Bar/ Cabaret Voltaire was born.

The afterparty for the opening of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia exhibition The Last Art College: Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1968-1978. (Jordan Blackburn)

Another thing artists know is how to take advantage of empty spaces. NSCAD plans to move out of its iconic space on Granville Square by 2019, leaving the university with vacant street-level retail spaces such as the former restaurant where the Art Bar now lives. Other members of the arts community have also started to move in, including the Atlantic Film Festival offices and the relocated arts non-profit Khyber Centre for the Arts, whose beloved Khyber Club bar closed in 2006.

Colosimo cites the old Khyber Club as an inspiration for the Art Bar project, along with Toronto artist Dean Baldwin's bar interventions and NSCAD alumni Eleanor King and Stefan Hancherow's 2010 pop-up bar performance piece "The King and I."

"We're not going to be a cafe that has art on the walls, you're going to come in and there's going to be some kind of performance happening, artist talk, or rock show, or karaoke-themed party," Colosimo says.

An inside wall in the Art Bar/Cabaret Voltaire - Atlantique in Halifax. (Art Bar/Cabaret Voltaire - Atlantique)

Since the bar's opening in January, it has hosted Monday night Dada performances with Barber, Wednesday night artist talks, karaoke led by 20th century icon Marcel Duchamp's drag persona Rrose Sélavy, as well as performances by Winnipeg artist Ray Fenwick and Montreal's Daniel Barrow.

For the Anna Leonowens Gallery, the Art Bar project provides an opportunity to break out of being pigeonholed as only a student gallery and to expand the slate of performance-based work as well as community engagement at NSCAD in general.  

"I do see that artists are coming out of the studio and trying to engage more socially, and maybe it's because of the kind of era that we're in right now with social networking, where a lot of our lives are lived through our computers, and they're trying to reach out. You know, you make a painting, you post it on Instagram and you wait for the 'likes' to show up — it's not as rewarding as being out with like-minded individuals."

A presentation inside Halifax's Art Bar/Cabaret Voltaire - Atlantique. (Art Bar/Cabaret Voltaire - Atlantique)

The Art Bar is intended to remain open at least until the planned campus relocation in 2019. For now, there are plenty of more immediate concerns. The schedule for the spring and summer is packed, and includes Newfoundland-based artist Mitch Mitchell, Governor General's Award-winning video artist Mark Lewis, a four-hour "endurance performance" where participants will read the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's Calls to Action recommendations, as well as PowerPoint Karaoke, 3D poetry and more.

"I've been seeing more and more people just come down to hang out and see what's happening…. New projects are forming, it's exciting to watch," Colosimo says.

Full event listings are available on the Art Bar's calendar and Facebook page

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