The origins of Dada in Zurich date to the 1916 founding of a cramped café, the Cabaret Voltaire. Though open a mere six months, the Cabaret—established by Hugo Ball as a gathering spot for free-thinking artists and intellectuals—set the stage for Dada activities. Hans Arp, Marcel Janco, Tristan Tzara, and Richard Huelsenbeck joined Ball and his companion, the singer Emmy Hennings, as the core participants in Cabaret Voltaire's boisterous activities. These artists and writers had left Germany and Romania for neutral Switzerland, where they were able to launch their offensive against the social, political, and cultural institutions that had given rise to the war. They chose abstraction—an emerging modernist style—as their weapon. The Cabaret Voltaire artists understood abstraction as an instinctual expression of inner consciousness (tipping their hats to Vasily Kandinsky). Their turn inward was a turn against the chaos of contemporary life: abstract art was a moral imperative. As Huelsenbeck said, "[A]bstract art signified absolute honesty for us."
Arp, who had spent time in Paris, Munich, and Berlin before coming to Zurich, was familiar with the earliest developments of abstraction in modern art. In Zurich he began experimenting with an abstract grid format—a radical gesture that indicated a movement away from subjective artistic choice and toward a predetermined pattern. Exploring other ways to distance himself from aesthetic decisionmaking, Arp began to investigate the artistic possibilities of chance. Art based on the arbitrariness of chance appealed to the dadaists, who believed that rationalism had failed to prevent the war. Several accounts of Arp's process describe how he tore scraps of paper, dropped them onto a larger sheet of paper lying on the floor, and pasted the fallen pieces wherever they landed. He stated, "The law of chance . . . . can be experienced only in a total surrender to the unconscious." Notwithstanding such principles, the relatively restrained appearance of these collages suggests that the artist did not fully relinquish artistic control.
Along with their interest in abstraction, the Zurich Dadaists were fascinated by "the primitive"—a loosely used umbrella term that embraced everything from non-Western art, to ancient ritual, prelinguistic sounds, children's art, and unconscious states. Such radical models inspired Sophie Taeuber's turned-wood marionettes, created for a performance that satirized the new field of psychology and centered around a trio of marionettes: Freud Analytikus, Dr. Komplex, and the fairy Urlibido, each of whom was constructed from basic geometric shapes. Other Dada performances—first at the Cabaret Voltaire and then at other Zurich locales—also reflected these so-called primitive models: readings of "sound poetry" or "poems without words; "simultaneous poems" read concurrently in different languages; and drums and chanting that mimicked African ritual.
When the Cabaret Voltaire was forced to close its doors owing to Ball's exhaustion, coupled with the owner's demands for more mainstream entertainment, Ball bid farewell to Dada. With his departure, Tristan Tzara became the group's intellectual leader and a self-appointed spokesman committed to turning the activities in Zurich into a larger Dada movement. Under the leadership of the media-savvy Tzara, the group organized performances and exhibitions and issued provocative manifestos. Newspapers reported on rowdy Dada activities, helping to bring Dada to the public and to artists outside Zurich.