How Slovenian is it?

by Michael Benson

LAIBACH USED TO BE A FORCE to reckon with. To begin with, the band–if you can call this ensemble of sophisticated politico-cultural provocateurs simply a “band”–were the only group from the socialist world ever to make it in the West, signing a long-term recording contract with London’s prestigious indie label Mute Records (home to Moby, Nick Cave, Depeche Mode), and they did it entirely on their own terms. “Art and ideology don’t exclude each other,” was one of their earliest slogans, but I prefer another: “All art is subject to political manipulation except that which speaks the language of the same manipulation.”

Laibach was revered by Russian rock musicians during the mid-’80s glasnost period; the Slovenian band’s culture-jamming strategies weren’t necessarily well understood, but they were proof that success in the capitalist world was possible. Like many of the Russian groups, Laibach performed an onstage theater, deploying (unlike the Russians) some of the most militantly provocative twentieth-century visual-ideological tropes; specifically, those of Nazism and Stalinism. They did this without any ideological agenda beyond the sheerest desire to take it to the hypocrisies of state power (essentially, by revealing the hidden mechanisms by which it works); despite the many dark allegations by uncomprehending critics whose hackles had successfully been raised, the band had no racist or nationalist designs. In a short time, Laibach became the cornerstone for a multimedia artistic movement soon named Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian art), or simply NSK.

A self-proclaimed “state without territory,” NSK initially borrowed many of its shock stratagems from Laibach, starting with its name: In the early ’80s, merely using German (which no NSK member actually speaks) was a provocation in a country founded on the mythology of Yugoslav resistance to the Nazi invasion. Laibach is the German name for Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, which was one of the six Yugoslav republics but is now an independent state; the Germanized version of the name was imposed during the Nazi occupation and five hundred years of Hapsburg domination.

For a Communist country, Yugoslavia had relatively lenient cultural policies in the ’80s, and rock ‘n’ roll–that decadent manifestation of capitalist hedonism–wasn’t suppressed. But when Laibach first appeared onstage with a front man dressed in what seemed to be Nazi or italian Fascist regalia (it was, in fact, a Yugoslav army uniform but with the i insignia taken off and replaced by symbols derived from such twentieth-century avant-garde movements as Suprematism–an excellent illustration of Laibach’s working methods from the get-go), it was too much for the state’s ideological apparatus to handle, and they were soon banned from public performance. This didn’t happen, however, until after a remarkable staged appearance on TV Slovenia in 1983, during which the poker-faced, jackboot-wearing group responded to the sarcastic questions of an outraged journalist with a series of cryptic formulations delivered with robotic calm, one of which stated that the band was a kind of ideological early-warning system–essentially, a way to test if the state still had any spine. This was one of the most provocative uses of state television by any group of artists, not just in Eastern Europe. (The state, as it happened, proved not to have the courage of its convictions, and Laibach was soon back onstage.)

The fall of European Communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia had the paradoxical effect of retro-actively making Laibach seem prophetic but also of sapping some of their power. With actual fascism/nationalism of the tank-using, civilian-slaughtering kind rampant in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, suddenly Laibach’s restaging of a kind of stylized totalitarian ritual became less of a comment on the invisible underpinnings (and potential future eruptions) of the state system they were criticizing and more of a redundancy, or worse. But the larger NSK collective, which they had founded, was prospering; most notably, the five-person Irwin group of visual artists (currently well displayed at the Venice Biennale) was steadily climbing to prominence. The theatrical component of NSK, now called the Cosmokinetic Cabinet Noordung, was less consistent than Irwin, but they did succeed in mounting the world’s first theatrical performance in zero gravity. That unlikely event Look place aboard a Russian cosmonaut-training aircraft in December 1999. With NSK going from strength to strength, Laibach faded into studio seclusion for seven years.

It was therefore all the more gratifying a surprise that their reappearance in late July, in their cradle, the heavily industrialized Slovenian mining town of Trbovlje, was a resounding success–no longer for the band’s threats to state power but simply on the level of their formidable onstage skills and “musical” content. The occasion was the unveiling of their new album, WAT (“We Are Time”), and gone were the band’s trademark pair of bare-chested Aryan drummer boys, replaced by two conventionally attractive women in majorette uniforms making exactly the same moves, only now with a decidedly different effect. The band’s dark sense of humor, always apparent to the discerning, was more explicit, not just as usual in the lyrics: The evening started with a pompous taped welcome message in heavily accented English, greeting everyone present and wishing for their enjoyment of the forthcoming “musical program.” (Following which, of course, the sonic onslaught.) At a postconcert party held in their favorite alpine hut atop the nearby mountain of Kum, Laibach founder Dejan Knez observed that in the end, all their famously controversial provocations will fade away, and it’ll be Laibach’s recordings that are remembered. On the evidence of WAT, there will be reason to recollect the later, not just the groundbreaking earlier, industrial production of old Eastern Europe’s most abrasively transcendent noise artists. Unaccountably enough, yet triumphantly, Laibach lives.

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Michael Benson is a Ljubljana-based writer and filmmaker.

 

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