Dada rock

Has Nada Dada, an infamous, messy, chaotic annual art festival, actually gotten respectable?

Jeff Carver in Mickie Lambert’s room.

Jeff Carver in Mickie Lambert’s room.

Photo By PHOTOS/amy beck

For more information and a map, visit nadadadamotel.weebly.com. (Heads up: there are several websites for past Nada Dada events. Nadadademotel.com will get you to the 2011 site.)

If a person’s tone of voice had a shape, the sound of Rex Norman talking would be the shape of a storybook prince waving a bubble wand off the back of a Harley. With a top hat often fixed atop his shoulder-length gray hair and Mad-Max-meets-Mad-Hatter coattails trailing his springy gait, the graphic designer and costume designer, known among artists as Killbuck, speaks with such glee you can hear him smiling. Even over the phone.

Which is why, after I say, “Gosh, Nada Dada has almost turned into an organized entity,” I’m a little surprised when he abruptly shouts, “No!”

It’s a good-natured tease. But I get it. Although the annual, resolutely anarchist, DIY art show now boasts an artwalk-style map, a website, and a spokesperson (that’d be Killbuck) do not insult its 65-ish chaos-loving artists (or possibly 350 artists, depending on who you talk to) by calling them “organized.” And for God’s sake do not utter icky epithets like “established.” For even though that term might aptly celebrate the six-year-old event’s longevity, it’s too close for comfort to, you know, the “establishment,” that very entity this shindig was invented to contradict. Just call it the exuberant display of absurdity, personality, free-speech and merriment that it is, OK? One that’s never been tethered to grant money or fallen into the clutches of corporate sponsorship, but which has become, well, a Reno institution.

Motel life

Nada Dada began in 2006, when Jeff Johnson circulated a series of long, manifesto-like emails urging artists to unite but not exactly organize.

“The whole point was so I didn’t have to bitch about Artown any more,” says Johnson. He and others opposed that month-long, city-run arts festival for being too controlled and too corporate. Artown imported too much talent, they said, and ignored too many locals.

Artist Chad Sorg recalls, “We would meet for six months before the first show.”

The outcome of those meetings, says Sorg, was the adoption of two defining factors: “The date would always be the third weekend of June. The name stays.”

Or, the way Johnson recalls it, “There are three things that define Nada Dada. It always occurs on the third weekend of June. We’re celebrating Reno’s unlimited potential for absurdity. And arguing about the name.”

Everything else—finding an exhibit space (in most cases a downtown motel room), funding a show, installing the artwork, marketing, throwing receptions—would be handled by individual artists however they saw fit. The tagline became, “Get a room. Make a show.”

During the 2007 event, originally called Dada Motel, artists filled the rooms of the El Cortez, as well as the bar, the roof, and the balconies. Lines of giddy visitors snaked up tightly packed stairways. Among the artists’ offerings were paintings hung above bathtubs, a room decorated as black-light lounge, and impromptu musical performances on the sidewalk.

Over the next five years, the event’s name changed a couple times. It’s now called Nada Dada. The El Cortez went back to letting its full-time residents sleep peacefully and declined to host the event. It now takes place at a handful of motels, Strega Bar, the new Reno Art Works facility and Wildflower Village.

There is still no party line, still no curator, no leader, no funding, and no real organizational force. There is still raging against the machine aplenty.

But, you might have expected one of the usual cyclical cultural forces to have exerted itself upon Nada Dada by now. The age-old phenomenon of underground creative efforts getting accidentally assimilated into the mainstream could have crushed the event’s do-or-die soul. It didn’t. A swift entropic demise could have gone down after too much infighting or too much apathy. It didn’t. Instead, Nada Dada has settled into a comfortable state of libertarian balance.

You know how sometimes a philosophy or a movement goes so far to one extreme it seems to circle around the whole globe and arrive, still kicking, right back at the point it departed from?

An alien at Wildflower Village, during last year’s Nada Dada.

Photo By

So here’s what happens when artists call the shots and no one tells them to play nice. They’d be free to devolve into nihilistic ranting if they wanted to, but generally they don’t. This is where it can get really interesting: most of Nada Dada’s major players live on both sides of the tracks, with one foot in the art establishment and the other foot wherever they want it.

I’m not saying Nada Dada is all bark and no bite. Artist Manbabe, often seen sporting a leather harness, is still making sculptures out of sex toys. And Rich Van Gogh told me last week, 100 percent deadpan, that he intends to hand out drugs in his Nada Dada motel room in an effort to fight the war on drugs. I’m saying that maybe a nice, long stay in a series of trashy rooms on the art-world fringes could have paved the way for pure, petty, self-indulgent alienation, but in many cases it’s actually laid the tracks for some interesting connections, for entire types of interactions we weren’t going to get elsewhere in town.

Unusual suspects

Johnson, long known as a neon artist, plans to show—drum roll please—his recent watercolor paintings, which range from cheekily foreboding to just plain darling. He’s also hoping to have a neighborhood-advisory-board-sponsored public neon sculpture installed by curtain time.

Erik Holland, long known as an environmental activist, will show his mild-mannered paintings of Nevada landscapes. He’s also the self-appointed Mayor of Nada Dada.

Holland says excitedly, “I will have an un-civil liberties room at Strega Bar, featuring mixed-media stuff, like a toilet labeled NDAA with the Constitution and the Magna Carta in it!”

Chad Sorg, long known for running the old Blue Lyon gallery and for holing up in a plexiglass box for days on end so people can watch him make paintings, plans to show realist oil paintings of The International Car Forest of the Last Church, an art installation in Goldfield that involves defunct vehicles sticking vertically up from the ground.

Paris Almond, who makes hats out of LPs and last turned a motel room into an interactive exhibit called, “The Game of Frickin’ Life,” plans to call her room at Wildflower Village, “Art Theraplay.”

“I’m not a therapist,” she says. “I’m offering therapy as art.” Visitors can calm their anxieties by making Froot Loop necklaces, and Almond, who teaches art at Truckee Meadows Community College, says she also plans to offer drop-in drawing instruction.

“I could teach you a lot about drawing in a short amount of time,” she says.

Bernie Beauchamp, who does set construction and backstage lighting for casinos, is also a marionettist. During Nada Dada, he’ll host puppet slams, essentially puppet open-mic performances, in the courtyard of the Townhouse Motel.

Theater director Laurence Yarborough, in between staging scenes from Langford Wilson’s play “Home Free!” will run a “Kids Korner” at Wildflower Village, where children are invited to make artwork.

As for Killbuck, he’ll follow up his 2011 motel room installation, “Alice in Nadaland,” wherein Alice had tattoos and a tequila bottle, with “The Room of Costume” at Wildflower Village, along with collaborators Mary Crawley, Carolyn Runnels, Megan J. Jewett and Geoffrey Nelson.

Killbuck explains, “It’s looking at art as costume, costume as art. It’s looking at how we use costume as a rite of passage. We’re turning the room into the interior of a circus tent.” The installation will involve thematic paintings, photo, and 3-D artwork.

All right, Nada Dada, no more accusations from me about having become organized. I hereby recognize your official lack of officialdom.

And I believe your ever-diplomatic spokesman Killbuck when he says, “It’s not the safe stuff. It might be edgy. We celebrate the seedy lost paradise of the city, and we find that charming.”

But you’re a pillar of the community now. So long live your chaotic, free-speech-defending ways.