Much ado about Nada

Local arts festival Dada Motel is getting a sequel, Nada Motel. Like many sequels, a group of die-hard fans of the original are skeptical about how it’s being done.

Dean Burton, who participated in 2007’s Dada Motel, gears up for Nada Motel this year.

Dean Burton, who participated in 2007’s Dada Motel, gears up for Nada Motel this year.

Photo By Nick Higman

One year ago, a group of local artists took over the sixth floor of the El Cortez Hotel, turning their rooms into makeshift art galleries. It was Dada Motel, and it’d been organized by about a dozen artists who wanted to celebrate absurdity, creativity and art for art’s sake.The organizers prided themselves on the fact that they were not, officially, an organization. There was no board of directors, no nonprofit status, no one to tell them what they could and couldn’t do. And there was no one to market it. If they wanted something done, they had to do it themselves, no excuses. But Dada would give them a place to do it. In a world spinning its wheels with committees, order and politics, they thought chaos might just make sense.

The event was a relative success. The artists filed in, creating alternate realities in the hotel’s vintage old rooms. Tourists, family members, friends and curious passers-by stumbled in behind them. While disorganization ruled the day, a freedom was found where control was, not lost, but loosened.

Something for Nada
A second year was never intended, though talk of it was on nearly every artist’s lips by festival’s end. But how do you plan for something to be an annual event when the spirit of it is based on non-planning and disorganization?

A couple ways. For starters, you change the name. You also find a way to publicize it to a broader audience. At least that’s what some key organizers thought regarding Nada Motel, the spawn of Dada Motel.

This approach set the stage for a philosophical rift among the artists and organizers who participated last year, some of whom are opting out of this year’s event.

In January, Chad Sorg, one of the original Dada Motel organizers and artists and an organizer of Nada Motel, curated a show called Selections from the Dada Motel and took it on the road to Las Vegas. While some thought a curated show was exactly the opposite of what Dada Motel was about, many artists encouraged promoting a Reno art show outside of Reno—especially if they could be in it. The hurt feelings began when some people weren’t allowed in the show while a few Vegas artists who didn’t participate in Dada were. Some artists thought Sorg was exploiting Dada Motel for personal gain.

“The show in Vegas, it’s a lot of misunderstanding,” says Sorg. “I think people assume I was taking it over as the big dictator. Everyone can think that, but that wasn’t the case. It was a way to promote the show out-of-town, that’s all it was, and it did a great job of that. I curated the show myself, and I took all the responsibility for curating the show, the good parts and the bad.”

The Dada—or Nada—show has been invited back to Vegas for a second round. “I’m not sure if I’m going to do it again,” Sorg said last week. “It was really a lot of stress and a lot of heartaches.” However, the next day, he confirmed the show would be called Greetings from Nada Motel and is scheduled to show Jan. 28–March 25 at the Barrick Museum in Vegas.

Then there was the name change. There was a vote, but some people were upset they weren’t invited to take part in it. However, in an organization without an official organization, there are no rules of conduct by which to adhere, only courtesy calls.

“Last year we got flak for using the term ‘Dada’ because it was something that happened 100 years ago,” says Sorg. “'Dada’ means ‘nothing’ anyway—it means ‘nada.’ So at the same time, it is in the same spirit as last year, and it’s different.”

Dianna Callender sets up her room at the El Cortez Hotel for Nada Motel.

Photo By Nick Higman

Neon artist Jeff Johnson, who helped originate the idea of Dada Motel, says he insisted on its name change. Johnson, who equates annual events with a mindless form of religion, said last year that if Dada Motel was allowed to happen again, it would have failed in its mission. “I did it to not make a liar of myself,” he says. “We’re still celebrating Reno’s unlimited potential for absurdity. That’s the only thing that’s important. Art is a vacuum in this town. We flourish in a vacuum caused by people’s indifference.”

But others wanted to keep the name because they didn’t want to confuse the public, or they’d been using it in their promotional materials, or they simply liked it.

“I think there’s a little bit of a divide,” says Tova Ramos, another organizer and artist. “There’re some people still calling it ‘Dada Motel’ even though it’s ‘Nada Motel’ this year—and that’s not just a typo or a slip. There’s a philosophical split between people who want to keep changing it and people who found a lot of success last year and incorporated the name into their publicity and want it to keep going.”

“I don’t really like the name change,” says Dianna Sion Callender, one of the original organizing artists. “In my opinion, it can still be cool and an independent type show, but honestly, I feel the public needs a type of direction. People still have questions. That’s why we have the Tribe site []. Now, you go to the Dada Motel [site] and get to the Nada Motel, and people say, ‘What’s going on here?'”

Expect Nada
Some things are still the same, such as the feeling that no one really knows what’s going to happen. If anything, the disorganization is worse—or would that be better in this instance?—with less communication among the artists. There have not been, for example, the weekly or twice-a-week meetings of last year’s Dada. And, as is often the case with sequels, it doesn’t quite carry the same sense of excitement and suspense among some artists that the original had.

“Compared to last year, the [vibe] is much more laissez faire,” says Ramos. “Last year seemed like the grand experiment. This year, it’s a little more like, ‘Oh, we’re doing it again.'”

Still, others are going even bigger. And seeing the success of Dada Motel, some are thinking of trying to sell their work in their rooms this year—after all, in some cases, more people came to see their art at Dada than at their gallery exhibitions. While selling the art could be seen as a divergence from Dada Motel’s “art for art’s sake” motto, making the event one’s own is also a strong value of the event.

Despite the dissatisfied rumblings among a handful of artists, this year’s event is shaping up to be bigger, with 45 rooms booked compared to last year’s 17. Rather than spreading the festival across downtown like last year, it’s now limited to the El Cortez and the Town House Motor Lodge across the street. Fire spinners, neon art, aerialists and acroyoga are expected in the Town House’s parking lot.

Ramos also has a Cock Fight Club planned for the El Cortez’s Trocadero Room. While it has nothing to do with roosters, she mentions Ernest Hemingway and Nathaniel West as inspirations for the event.

“Those writers really expressed the postwar generation, who just felt that society had lost all meaning,” she says. “Hemingway’s bullfights were a sense of what fighting means in our culture. I think that’s why people do martial arts. I think there’s a nothingness, a ‘nada,’ left by the removal of the warrior spirit.”

She’s invited martial artists from Aikido of Reno, the Tahoe Capoeira fighter dancers, and is also providing pillows and gladiator batons for anyone who wants to get in the fight ring. There will also be a Shake Your Tail Feather Dance Party on Saturday and “music to fight to” every night at these bring-your-own-beer events.

Efforts such as this are a promising hint of what may or may not happen at Nada Motel.

“It still has that freedom, chaotic, whatever-happens-happens thing,” says Sion-Callender. “It’ll be interesting. It definitely will be interesting.