Checking out of the Dada Motel
Old men drink coffee, read the paper and talk baseball with the desk clerk in the lobby of the El Cortez Hotel. Most of them are residents, and all day, they’ve been watching a strange scene coalesce.
Men and women have been carting in odd sculptures of metal brazed to brass instruments; of naked, limbless mannequins; of paintings and photographs. None of it seems to fit a theme. But everyone knows why they’re here. It’s one day before Dada Motel—the “absurdist” art show unfolding largely out of this 1931 hotel on West Second Street for the last three days of June.
These artists have rooms to prepare.
The world doesn’t make hotels like the El Cortez anymore. It’s both run down and charming. Time seems to stand still here in a way that’s neither past nor present.
The narrow hallways are quiet and smell lightly of cigarettes burned and extinguished. The muted lighting takes a yellowish tone, like the pages of an old book. The walls, thick and textured with repeat paintings, must have been white once.
The hallway carpet is black swirls caught in a deep, devilish red. It climbs a curving staircase, up to the sixth floor where a lone saxophone is playing “Summertime,” a fitting choice on this sweltering, breezeless day-before-Dada. It’s Greg Adams, standing shirtless before a window, horn in his mouth, his metal forest of coral reef sculptures surrounding him in his room.
A faded piece of artwork hangs above the bed, the blanket of which shows the telltale signs of cigarette burns. A bug crawls across it. The closet-like bathroom features a backless toilet and a sink with pinwheel faucet knobs.
Other than muffled television shows behind closed doors, Adams’ notes are the only sound on this floor.
His wife, Mary Jo Adams, sits on the bed. They’ll be celebrating their 10th anniversary here at the El Cortez, a three-day vacation of sorts that will likely, no matter how it goes down, prove to be memorable.
“Really, I expect absolutely nothing,” says Greg of the event.
That approach may be the only way to truly enjoy Dada Motel.
Parade of absurdity
Many wonder how the residents will react to this artistic invasion. While El Cortez is a hotel, it’s also home to many people. The general feeling on the day before Dada kicks off is that as long as the artists are respectful, most residents have no problem with it. It helps that most of the artists’ rooms are on the sixth floor, and most of the residents are below.
“These are not 18- or 19-year-olds on acid,” says desk clerk Mike Marsili of the artists. “These people seem very on the ball.”
Mark “17K"—his code name for his time in Vietnam and the only last name he’ll offer—has lived at the El Cortez since March. He sits in a chair by the lobby’s stairway watching the slow parade of artists enter the elevator with their work. He has thick white hair and wears a lime-green shirt. “I’m glad that they’re doing it,” he says. “It brings different ideas into the hotel.” He especially likes the metal sculptures he’s seen cross the lobby floor. “A lot of work has gone into these things. It doesn’t bother me a bit.”
The “anti” notion
Dadaism traces back to World War I as an anti-war movement of existential writers and artists who rejected standard notions of art. Marcel Duchamp, who took a urinal ("Fountain") and called it art, is considered the father of the movement.
Since the 1960s, many think of artistic anti-war movements as colored with protest songs, and blatantly political paintings, dances or novels against the war. Dada is different. Dada realizes that we are all burdened and discouraged in times of war. “Reason” and “logic” led us to war. So it’s an appeal to remember the importance of absurdity, creativity and fun. It’s not about being ignorant or dismissive of political events. Rather, it’s a creative effort not to be beaten down by the even more absurd realities happening in the larger world. Dada Motel is in keeping with that spirit.
At its core, Dada Motel is about community and grassroots (dis)organization. There were a number of hardworking organizers—Jeff Johnson, Esther Triggs, Chad Sorg, Tova Ramos, Dianna Sion-Callender and Ann O’Lear, among others—who helped secure a venue, develop the show’s philosophy and spread the word to artists and the public. It’s unsponsored, uncensored, fully homegrown—an identity search of sorts. ("Will the real Reno artists please stand up?") It’s not taken from a visionary with a little wooden man on a beach in San Francisco or from a month-long arts festival whose biggest draw is its national and international artists.
Its execution, for all of its idealistic aspirations, could be lame. We have three days to find out.
(Dis)orientation, Day 1
The room numbers are disorienting here on the sixth floor. I’m searching for room 613. One wall shows rooms 615, then 614, then 612. Facing it are rooms 616 and 617. Where’s 613? I walk up and down the hallway turning my head right and left. There is no 613.
Some rooms are bigger than others. Some have smaller windows. Some have air conditioners. The nooks and crannies all vary in design. The artists didn’t know what room they had until Dada Motel began, so they’ve all had to improvise.
Many rooms/galleries feel like a cross between a Burning Man theme camp and a dorm room—full of incense, people singing or lounging on the bed, with funky, colorful items hanging from every still fixture.
Some artists simply brought in their art and stuffed it in their rooms.
Others took full advantage of El Cortez’s quirky nature.
Brigette Elaine and Vanya Schoeder, who were inspired by the almost eerily retro environment of the El Cortez, created a crime noir installation. A sculpture of a woman’s torso is face down on the bed. Surrounding her is a salad of avocados, tomatoes, peaches, cabbage and other perishables. Other torso sculptures sit in the room’s chairs around the bed. The dresser drawer is open, filled with dirt and an open tube of red lipstick. A lamp is tilted sideways. The phone is off the hook.
The black light sensory explosion of Dianna Sion-Callender’s room takes installation art in a completely different direction. The room glows a purplish-blue. The walls are fully covered with blown-up photographs of women. One holds a paintball gun that shoots atoms. Another has a bow and arrow in one hand and a turkey decoy in the other. Appendages of white mannequins are strewn on the bed, and neon glowing toys, as well as neon artwork by 16-year-old Jackie Pira, are scattered around the room.
Dean Burton did the seemingly impossible and made his hotel room look like an actual gallery. He covered the bed with a red, king-sized sheet and the dresser with a blue sheet—colors that accentuated his abstract, linear photographs. This gives the room a crisp, spare look. The hotel didn’t allow artists to put holes in the wall, so he’s hung hooks in the space where the ceiling meets the wall, dropped a wire downward, and the photographs hang gracefully and equidistant from each other. He was lucky enough to get a room with a large window, the curtains of which he pulled back to let in a healthy dose of light.
Hotel management has told the artists they can have their rooms open between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. Daytime traffic consists mostly of artists and their friends. The most visitors are expected Saturday.
Disorganized chaos at the Trocadero Room
This night differentiates those who truly give in to absurdity and those who just think “absurd” is a fun concept.
At 8:30 p.m., Stacey’s Spain’s play is expected to begin. It says so right there on the “Dada Motel Show List” handed out in the hotel lobby. But rule No. 1 in Dada-going: Expect nothing. Spain and the actors were here, but now they’re nowhere to be found. Did they change venues? More Dada action is happening on Fourth Street—Controlled Burn is spinning fire there, Asa Gilmore is showing bizarre films on nine stacked televisions outside the Jazz Club, and more artwork and a jazz group are at Studio on 4th. Maybe they went there. They don’t come back tonight.
At 9 p.m., poets Bruce Lindsay, nila northSun and Alonzo Johnson are slated to perform. They’re here, but nothing is happening. It’s a who’s-on-first moment of “I thought you were going on.” “I thought you were going on.” “What’s going on?”
A handful of people wander in and out of this room that once welcomed Hollywood entertainers in the 1940s and now is more often used for Hispanic quinceañeras and wedding receptions.
At 10 p.m., the poets finally take the stage. They deliver their words passionately, emphatically—to few listeners. They’re followed by a rock cover band.
Those still here look at each other with pained expressions. One of them is former Sound and Fury Records co-owner Mac Schopen, who recently moved to Seattle. He hasn’t seen the hotel room galleries, but based on tonight’s show, he isn’t too impressed with the Dada Motel.
“I don’t know about Dada, I just know when stuff sucks,” he says. “If I don’t know going in that disorganization is the idea, all I see is a disorganized art show.”
The “Show List” reminds me of the booklet of events dispersed at Burning Man. The events sound fantastical, carnival-esque—like quite possibly the most fun you’re capable of having. Only to find—if the event happens at all—that you’re an hour late or an hour early, and only three people showed up.
But there I go again, comparing Dada Motel to Burning Man. It’s an unfair but unavoidable comparison. Burning Man and Artown tend to overshadow the real art of Reno. The artists who instigated Dada Motel say it’s indefinable. They say they are not reacting against Artown. But that festival and Burning Man are so entrenched in our arts community, they can’t help but react to it. By searching for something different, they are, at least, defining Dada Motel by what it is not.
The slow reward of confusion, Night 2
Friday night begins with a call from the headlining act, San Francisco singer-songwriter Sonny Smith. His car broke down, and he won’t be making it to the show. It’s not a good start to the evening.
But the scene here tonight is better than on Thursday. The room is full of people who, while they describe the night as “bizarre,” “weird” and “confusing,” nonetheless stick around because, after all, that’s exactly what they were told Dada would be.
Stacey Spain and actors Mary Bennett, Stephanie Richardson and Kristin Moffitt are here again tonight. This time, they stay and perform a scene from a Samuel Beckett play. The seven-minute scene is about three minutes in when the room quiets down enough to hear the actors. Even then, a revolving series of bar-goers from the adjacent El Cortez Lounge keep entering, bringing the lounge’s thumping dance music in with them. The actors seem annoyed, but the play goes on.
Disappointment over Sonny Smith’s absence turns to resourcefulness as a nine-member collective of local musicians go onstage, never having practiced together before. RN&R contributor Brad Bynum screams unintelligibly into the microphone as members of Letters from the Earth, My Flag is on Fire and the Schizopolitans play experimental atmospherics on cello, accordion, synthesizer, keyboard, drums, electric and bass guitar, tambourine and theremin. The music draws some people into a trance and sends others away holding their ears.
They’re followed by My Flag is on Fire, which may be Reno’s best new band. Beautifully tight harmonies of male and female unfold over ethereal lyrics, a bass guitar, accordion and cello. This band is not just “good for Reno,” it’s good period.
It’s nearly midnight, and the room is still crowded. People have a strange, bewildered glow on their faces. Many have realized that despite (or even because of) the confusion, when they opened themselves up to the unexpected, better things were allowed to happen.
The unexpected, Day 3
The halls are busy on the top floors of the El Cortez for Saturday, the final day of Dada Motel. As predicted, most gallery visitors came today. As not predicted, many of them are brand new faces to the artists. Some of them are tourists at nearby casinos. They like art but were mostly attracted to the idea of funky-old-motel-plus-art.
Many artists are saying similar things: This is bigger than they expected. They’re getting more visitors than they expected. They’ve enjoyed the collaboration among the artists here and the independence of the show. They hope to do it all over again.
“My Social Utterances show at Sierra Arts didn’t get as many people as here,” says Candace Nicol, sitting in her room full of giant, nude male digital paintings.
Dean Burton has had a similar experience: “I’ve had gallery openings—I’ve had a lot of those things. That’s not what this is. This is like taking that and notching it up.”
“What I have observed has somewhat exceeded my expectations,” says artist and Dada Motel mayor Erik Holland, wearing his white “Mayor de Esprawlius” top hat. “It’s very Reno. I like the anarchy of it. I’d definitely want to be part of it again.”
Holland and some other artists, having seen the numbers of people drawn here, are more seriously considering the commercial prospects for Dada Motel. Maybe, just maybe, they might be able to sell some of their work next time. Then again, one of Holland’s favorite aspects of this show has been his chance to not be commercial, to “get out of [his] rut.”
Selling work is an understandable and practical desire of working artists. It also raises the question of Dada Motel’s future (and it seems to have one). Will it become more commercial?
There are also those who say it could use more organization, that there were communication problems and “glitches” to be worked out. But would more structure destroy its Dada spirit?
Ann O’Lear, one of the organizing members, says the original idea of Dada Motel was to provide the space, and then it was up to the artists to publicize and organize their individual shows.
“I think personal responsibility is a huge part of this, or else it becomes like anything else,” she says, standing in her room full of charcoal and beeswax Western gunslinger artwork. “I don’t want it to be more rigid and more formalized. I want it to be fun. I think we’ve all been missing fun in our lives.”
As far as the chaos goes, one can applaud it or disregard it and say, “What can you say? It’s Dada. It’s not like we weren’t warned.” But to the average visitor who’s heard about Dada Motel and comes to see a show, naturally, they want it to actually happen.
What can you say? It’s Dada. And it may not be for everyone.
It’s almost a social experiment—a test of comfort levels, of doing what you can and then letting go and realizing you have no control. You might say it’s a life lesson. You either go with it and make it work for you, or leave. Those who embraced that had a blast at Dada Motel. Those who did not walked away with shaking heads.