[Shortly before leaving for the Sundance Film Festival in January 1996, Predictions of Fire director Michael Benson and Belgian film programmer and journalist Koen Van Daele – who had originally programmed the film for its premiere screening in September 95 at the Documentary Section of the Film Art Fest in Ljubljana, Slovenia – sat down for an interview. It was the cover story of the Spring 1996 issue of the Belgian arts magazine AS Andere Sinema.]
AS: Right after finishing college in 1984 you got a job at the New York Times?
MB: Yes. The “newspaper of record.” I was basically a glorified copy boy. They called us “news assistants” to shield our fragile egos. Not that they worked overtime to shield our fragile egos. Definitely not! I worked there for about two years and spent approximately half the time as a “News Clerk” — a more prestigious position, subject to more direct professional responsibilities. At the New York Times things were taken extremely seriously. Certainly the position of News Clerk was no joke, especially towards the late afternoon deadline. Things really started to percolate around then. Dealing with that hard core journalistic pressure was very good for me. A certain “grace under pressure” was required. In fact when I first heard about NSK, in 1986, I was sitting at the foreign desk of the New York Times. There was a saying about the influence of the foreign desk — that the US State Department treats the foreign desk of the New York Times as a sovereign state. And that’s not so far from the truth; they’re that influential. By now they share that power with CNN, of course. But they still have a good share of it. For better or worse.
AS: You never heard about Laibach when you were living in Belgrade in the early eighties?
MB: No, not a word. But I wasn’t living there full time. I was going to school in the US. My father was the press and cultural attaché in the American Embassy in Belgrade. I would go there three times a year, and would actually stay in Belgrade for a relatively long time each visit. And I had some good friends there. We lived in the privileged neighborhood of Dedenje, right in the shadow of Tito’s tomb. Our house was on a street that had the Soviet Ambassador’s residence at one end and the North Korean Embassy at the other. This was a time when Laibach was first beginning in Slovenia. I’m sure that it was making news in Belgrade, but I didn’t specifically hear about it. I should say that Belgrade was obsessed with its own post-Tito “glasnost” of creative life: you know, rock-and-roll, theater, a lot of things. So Slovenia was really way out in the outer suburbs. Off the radar screen.
AS: Much later, you also spend a lot of time in Moscow and wrote about the Russian underground rock-culture. You made a one hour rockumentary for MTV on the subject.
MB: I didn’t make it, exactly; I wrote the narration for this documentary. I was collaborating with a team from MTV, not directing it. Steve Lawrence, who was then one of the producers at MTV, heard about me because I was writing for Rolling Stone about Russian rock. I was Rolling Stone’s “man in Moscow.” He called me from New York and sort of interviewed me. I gave him some leads — by the time we spoke I was quite knowledgeable about the scene — and later he invited me to work on the documentary. I did put him on the trail of some of the key figures in Soviet counter-culture, but his team shot the film themselves, on video. And it was a nice piece of work, too, called “Tell Chaikovsky The News.”
AS: Was your focus on the underground music scene in Moscow also motivated by your interest in what you call “the problematic territory where art and politics meet”?
MB: Yes, definitely. Our generation was too young to really participate in the sixties, in that whole wave. Utopia had already crashed, not for the first time in the century. So when I was in high school in the late seventies I felt a deep nostalgia for a time when the arts — particularly music — had some political meaning. OK, in retrospect maybe it was an illusion, but in fact I think it did have some political significance in the late sixties, before it was completely co-opted and commodified by record companies and everything else. Anyway, my weird East-West background provided me with an ideal stage, or expanded horizon, for finding other circumstances where culture was very important in a larger ideological framework or battle. Gorbachev’s USSR, in 1986, was at the very beginning of a situation where underground-culture could surface and make a lot of noise in an unprecedented way. People were in a hurry; it could have been like the ill-fated “Khruschev thaw”, which accompanied incomplete “de-Stalinization.” So the experience of the Soviet Union in the sixties meant that nobody knew how long Gorby’s attempt at social engineering would last. Everybody was trying to grab their opportunity to try to make a statement. It was very exciting. There was nothing like that in my experience within the Western world. And I have to say that I really felt a part of it, in a small way. It was a privilege to write about it, and take photographs of it. It was very dramatic, sometimes involving direct confrontations with the police in what was still a police state.
AS: In the eighties Laibach was one of the only groups from the East European music scene that broke through in the West. What accounted for their success?
MB: They were actually the only group that succeeded in the West — to this day. What accounted for their success? I think that, practically alone among groups from the entire East, they didn’t imitate western models. They borrowed Western strategies, or better: universal avant-garde strategies of shock, which Western groups had also exploited. Take for example the Sex Pistols. They denied the future, attacked the Queen, and earned a place on the BBC blacklist. Laibach, instead of attacking the Queen – which would be irrelevant – attacked their own sacred cows within ex-Yugoslavia, within Slovenia. They deployed the uniformed anti-Christ of a state founded on partisan resistance to fascist occupation — in other words, they incarnated fascism itself. It was a weapon in a fight over cultural freedom. When it comes to their effect outside, Laibach stayed specifically within their own cultural space and therefore achieved a certain more universal impact. Most of the rock-groups in Eastern Europe were much more consciously imitating Western music. They became a poor colour-xerox of Western groups and therefore totally uninteresting to the West. Laibach imitated the strategies, let’s say, of the Sex Pistols, who created a real uproar. I mean, the BBC doesn’t ban very much: it banned the IRA from speaking and it banned the Sex Pistols. Laibach imitated that strategy, but not exterior appearance. That probably accounts for their impact in the West. People saw this was something strikingly original, unusual… not just a pale copy of their own models.
AS: How did you come to the idea of making a film about NSK?
MB: Well, to return to ’86, I was in this sort of hot seat at the foreign desk at the New York Times when a news report came over the wire. It was a story from Yugoslavia about what you might call a “coast-to-coast” scandal. This was when the NSK graphics department, New Collectivism, submitted a particularly problematic poster to a nation-wide competition which took place every year on Tito’s birthday, part of a nation-wide celebration called Youth Day – Dan Mladosti. Part of the celebrations and ceremonies surrounding this hold-over from Tito’s cult of personality was the poster competition; what NSK did was to take a fascist poster — an image by Richard Klein depicting a bare-chested Aryan youth, marching forwards with a torch in his upraised arm. Behind him was a Nazi flag. It was called “The Third Reich.” Well, NSK took this iconography and changed only a few things. They put a white dove of peace in the foreground; they substituted the Nazi flag with a Yugoslav flag, and changed a few other symbols — but it was the same guy really. They then submitted it to this competition and won first prize! It was only when it had been reproduced in newspapers all over the country that someone noticed it’s origins. Now the genius of this action was that it was the state-judges — the ones who had appointed themselves the guardians of what was and was not correct for Yugoslav youth culture — who choose that image. Nobody forced them. You might say that NSK caught them with their pants down — or that NSK was the agent of their taking their pants down, in full view of the nation. Instead of being used to further state goals the tables were effectively turned, and NSK used the state judges to illustrate a very specific and crisp point about the close relationship between Nazi art and any State art — be it Socialist or whatever. And by the way, the theme of the competition was to choose an image “most appropriate to the future aspirations of Yugoslav youth.” So in retrospect this was a particularly grim form of prophecy. Anyway, when this news story arrived at the New York Times foreign desk, the Foreign Editor read it and asked, to nobody in particular: “Is this a cultural story or a political story?” I read it and I thought “my God, these people are really interesting.” Because I immediately understood this was not simply some neo-Nazi behavior. In fact, they had deployed Nazi iconography as a weapon within a larger cultural war. My previous interest in the so-called “soc-art”– which generally had far more overt layers of irony to it than NSK’s provocations — and in various other strategies used to undermine or oppose state power within the arts in the Eastern half of Europe had prepared me to see that this was an absolutely sophisticated avant-garde attack on the system. If you approach NSK from the vantage-point of their being all about manipulation, you see the brilliance of that action. Instead of artists being used by the state, they succeeded in using the state for their art. And that is their originality. It was all there in the foreign editor’s rhetorical question: “is it a political story or a cultural story?” And in fact that is what cuts straight to the bone. What’s the difference, anyway? What is the role of the so-called avant-garde at the end of the century? Godard said that artists are inmates who bang their dishes against the bars of their prison. Instead of destroying the prison, they make a sound which, in the final analysis, reassures the warden. And the noise is then cited as proof of the system’s liberalism. Well, NSK subverted all that within the Yugoslav context. They became state artists, “more state than the state” itself. They made everyone uncomfortable. Ideology suddenly became necessary again, like a hair-shirt; a position pro or contra was required, overnight. In my film I’m trying to point out that this is the so-called “hidden transgression” at the center of the NSK-movement. In the film Slavoj Zizek illustrates another hidden reversal by giving the example of a small American town in the South in the thirties. The beatings of African-Americans at night by the KKK was, of course, officially perfectly illegal but in fact whites who didn’t go along with it and support the “unofficial” war on their fellow citizens were ridiculed and excluded from social acceptance. In fact, they were in danger as well. Zizek’s point is that, within Socialist Slovenia anyway, Laibach brought this type of hidden transgression, this social mechanism into the open for all to see — which is a place not good for “hidden transgressions”, of course. They have to stay in the shadows. In my film I took Zizek’s concept a little further, or I should say I found another application for it, I think. NSK not only is visible pointing out that the power and the ideas of the avant-garde of the early 20th century were taken over by political movements; they themselves can be seen reclaiming the legacy, turning the tables once again by employing the signs and tropes of religious and political totalitarianism as the stuff of their art. We should remember that initially the avant garde collaborated with the state; only later was it usurped and destroyed or broken. The artists-in-chief became one of two people: Hitler or Stalin. The state became a dystopian work of art and that was the end of the utopian avant-garde. But NSK performed their hidden transgression: they made ideology and religion serve their work. The most successful example of this, I would say, was the poster-scandal we already got into. Though there are many others. I can’t think of any other art-action, with the possible exception of Orson Welles’ Martian landings, which created such a nation-wide scandal and hysteria. It was quite an achievement for a bunch of scruffy miner’s kids. At the time I imagined Duchamp and the others sitting up in their graves and applauding.
AS: In your film you don’t seem to criticize the NSK-strategies, you rather situate and explain them within the Slovenian and European context, within the 20th century.
MB: From the beginning I was more interested in NSK’s subject matter, in a way, than in they themselves, with all their behind-the-scenes weaknesses and questionable elements. Anyway, their strategies remain absolutely sophisticated, a prime example of what Mark Dery termed “culture jamming.” He got the term from the band Negativeland, most famous for performing their own incarnation of totalitarianism by adopting the persona of U-2 — thereby getting into a lot of legal trouble a few years ago. The materials of history which NSK work with, and of ideology and art, were most interesting for me. This is the same century when Europe — supposedly the shining example of civilization — disemboweled itself twice, spilling blood everywhere with such orgies of destruction that its a wonder that there isn’t more of an attempt to understand it within the arts. We have Guernica, Beuys’ work, Anselm Kiefer, a handful of others. Ok, a lot of good texts too. Then, of course, Europe stands aside while the Balkans erupt in flames, making racist comments about the historical hell of ethnic grievances which led to the disaster, which no outsider could hope to understand, let alone stop. That’s a very convenient position. So you could say I failed to criticize NSK, but on the other you could say that I used them to illustrate some larger points. Anyway, the film has so many different layers that if I had added yet another one in which I would question some of the weaker aspects of the NSK-movement — which certainly exist — it wouldn’t have fit in the concept and there just wasn’t enough room in the film. It was a full house.
AS: The film opens with a spinning globe, in a newsreel style.
MB: I was trying to clue the viewer into the fact that, as with any film or “news” report, he was watching something consciously created to serve a specific purpose, something designed to manipulate the viewer. I took a cue, you might say, from NSK, which appropriated the signs and signifiers of the state. By the end of the century, newsreel-style symbols overtly raise the question: is this real or not? Which, ironically, doesn’t immediately occur, for example, when you see a CNN “mini-series” style logo before a report on the Gulf War (complete with ominous drums on the sound-track). To take just one example. Whose agenda is being served? What is real news, anyway? One of my favorite images in the film was this incredible shot we found of a blind child with his hand being passed across a topographical map of the Balkans by his teacher. We put that roll of film on an actual editing table in a studio and had an actress — Barbara Novakovic — manipulate that image. And we had a manipulated insert shot, re-photographed on an animation stand. So you might say that it reveals three levels of manipulation: one, the teacher showing the blind child what the Balkans feel like; the second, an actress manipulating the editing table — itself a tool of manipulation — thereby moving the teacher, who is manipulating the child, back and forth, and back and forth. A kind of visual scratching. And then of course, this actress was paid for her work under the budget-sheet of Predictions Of Fire — courtesy of TV Slovenia, a state television station, for the film. If all that can spark a little train of thought among viewers accustomed to suspending disbelief at every turn, then maybe we’ve done something a little bit right.
AS: You call Predictions of Fire a film about Art, Politics and War. I would say it’s also a film about history, about the concept of history.
MB: Yes, well they certainly don’t exclude each other. Absolutely it’s about history, about different ways of looking at history, about history as a consensual hallucination, a kind of virtual reality. One of the more interesting comments I heard on the film came from an American. Steve Gallagher, executive producer, told me that one person asked him, after viewing the tape: “Does this country really exist? Are you sure that Benson didn’t invent this country?” He sincerely thought that we may have created Slovenia for the purposes of the film. Now that would have been a masterful manipulation! Still, when you think about the whole concept of the state, it is a myth held in the mind of millions of people simultaneously. It’s engraved on the communal hard disc, as it were. Why should there be a border, why should there be a separate state-grouping in any particular place? It’s social wiring, hard wiring, the product of tribal myth-making over centuries. That doesn’t necessarily mean its a bad thing. It all depends on the behavior of that state. But those myths are easily manipulated.
AS: One recurring image is that of maps with fluctuating state borders.
MB: One of my favorite extended takes, which reveals a kind of accelerated or condensed chain of signs, is the map of Europe on an artist’s easel with a big slice of European history projected on it, a kind of chaos of shifting borders and national symbols. You could almost say: if war is politics conducted by other means, then politics is art conducted by other means. That would be taking an NSK position. Europe was a large canvas for the ambitions of the great political egos. If you analyze what happened with Stalinist communism and Hitlerian fascism, the state was turned into a so-called gesamtkunstwerk. In the early eighties NSK’s Scipion Nacise Theater issued a statement: “theater is the state”, they said. Ok, possibly it’s a variation on “all the world’s a stage”, but it’s certainly got a specific 20th Century flavor to it. In Nazi-kunst and Stalinist socialist realism the narod, or nation, was comprised of people participating in a giant theater piece; they were the organic materials of a tragic artwork. If you look at a lot of the different archival shots we found, you see the truth of that statement. There’s a horrifying shot with all the babies in some German hospital being gathered together, all lying squirming on a table like so many plucked chickens. Horror! If you study the Third Reich you see that the nation was considered a place where the genetic materiel of Aryanism could be refined. The dross — presumably that which was impure, or “cosmopolitan”, or “Judeo-negroid” — would be cast aside. And what does an artist do? He selects things that are appropriate to his work and rejects other material. A painter refines colors and chooses only the ones that function for his design. It’s very politically incorrect. If you consider a politician, the head of state, as an artist, well especially in the Nazi regime they were specifically selecting some human materials and literally throwing others onto the ash-heap of history. Stalin uprooted entire population, or simply starved millions to death in the Ukraine, for example. They were working with a large canvas, not just of space but of time; we still feel the repercussions today. And we won’t be the last to.
AS: In juxtaposition to the European map you show the map of the Balkans, a map which recently has become very familiar. You talk of the European qualities in Balkan history and the Balkan qualities in European history.
MB: Yes, they are interchangeable. I mean, we should remember that the concept of the nation as an ethnically distinct grouping was a product of Western Europe. The Springtime of Nations was a western import to the Balkans. And my interchangeable maps are no doubt viewable as a response to the absolutely racist and reprehensible global — especially Western — reaction to the Balkan horror. This sort of perception of “the Balkan tribes, locked in thousands of years of conflict” is pure Serbian propaganda and has just enough of a small grain of truth in it so that it is a very useful pretext to those who would wash their hands like Pilate and walk away from the situation — or simply be content with air-dropping some medical supplies to people being massacred in their homes. They needed weapons, not food! Imagine dropping bundles of “meals ready to eat” to the Jews trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto during the uprising! Czeslaw Milosz, in his poem “Child of Europe” — the same poem which gave me the title of the film, by the way — instructed his subject that a tree of falsehood could be grown from a very small grain of truth. In fact, he advises his Child of Europe to do just that. “Treasure the skills acquired in the hour of terror” was another piece of advice heavy with sarcasm. He wrote this just after the Second World War, which he had survived in Warsaw. The thing that’s most horrifying to me about fate of Yugoslavia, a fate so obviously a product of the blatant land-grab by Serbia, is that the people in power in the Western democracies now not only are the best educated people we can ever hope to have in government — they’ve studied history, there’s a higher percentage of doctorates in Government here than anywhere else — they are also old enough to have actually lived through the second world war! These are the people who allegedly swore “never again.” Well, clearly they have absolutely no excuse not to remember the carnage of Europe only 50 years ago. Of course, it only recently comes out that Mitterand, to take only one example, only quit the Vichy regime, where he was a highly decorated functionary, when it became quite clear who would win. These are exactly the people Milosz was writing about in “Child of Europe.” So it makes a certain sense to trot out the word “transgression” again and depict it on those two maps. The whole allegedly “Balkan” blizzard of symbols and ideologies fighting endlessly in Western and Central Europe, which obviously has a shorter memory than the Americans, even.
AS: The West explained the war as a result of an eruption of nationalism. One could say this analyses is correct if one understands nationalism as the expression of a resistance against external domination. This kind of nationalism has of course little in common with deep-rooted European nationalism. It seems to me that here already lies one example of a basic language confusion, cleverly used by Serbian propaganda. Would you agree that there is something like a defensible nationalism?
MB: This is an endless debate, a propaganda war and actual literal war. When Manchevski brought his “Before The Rain” to Sarajevo last November he really had a hard time with the people at the Obala Arts Center who had programmed the film, at the “First Sarajevo Summer Film Festival.” They were very polite about it, but they didn’t let him get away with his portrayal of the Balkans as a place where nationalist passions erupt spontaneously out of the soil, appearing like sweat on the skin of the local primitives. That’s the net effect of the movie. They spoke very quietly about it, but they didn’t accept Manchevski’s tacit interpretation, namely that it wasn’t some conscious force, some political center, which directed and fueled this horror, but a seemingly spontaneous eruption of primitive folkloristic Balkan peasant passions. Naturally the discreet politeness of the view of his peers in Sarajevo — which, by the way, wasn’t volunteered but had to be solicited by him — was devastating to him. He had expected to be greeted in Sarajevo as a kindred spirit, I suppose, but he left with his tail between his legs. And from what I hear the Serbian film titled “Vukovar” which opened this month in New York — to great media interest — also apparently portrays the start of fighting in Eastern Slavonia as an inexplicable volcanic eruption. I have to say that I didn’t see it and I won’t go see it. But it’s very convenient for Serbian propagandists to portray what happened in ex-Yugoslavia as a nationalist blast from the past. “You see”, they say, “we simply can’t live together.” Well, what really happened was a power and land grab by the majority group within the Yugoslav federation. The Serbs, with the Montenegrins as allies, tried to grab as much territory as possible, and they started by stealing the Yugoslav Army, which had been bought and paid for by all the republics across the entire post-war period to safeguard against foreign invasion. That heavy artillery was supposed to defend Yugoslav cities, not destroy them. My point is that even before the war, even before Yugoslavia officially vanished, there was resistance among the other republics to the concept of all animals being equal, with the pigs more equal than the others. Milosevic, it goes without saying, saw Yugoslavia in different terms. And that was the reason for the break-up of Yugoslavia. It was this resistance which was then — especially in the West — portrayed as a spontaneous eruption of nationalism. So it was very convenient for Milosevic to say that he’s the internationalist, protector of the Yugoslav dream, the fading mirage of a federal Yugoslavia. In fact he wanted to change the entire state-structure so the Serbs had effective domination over the economy and everything else. And he wouldn’t take “no” for an answer, and he refused to compromise — even while the other republics presented detailed alternative designs for a looser state structure in an effort to save what was, after all, the most progressive and economically successful of Eastern European countries. So it depends on how you define nationalism. You can say it’s nationalistic — you could also say the Slovenes had to become nationalistic. Their nation was in fact their only alternative. What other human organizational principle have we developed? As Rastko Mocnik says in the film: “We are state-builders, spontaneously”. What else is there? We’ve seen anarchy, and it’s not as romantic as it sounded in the old days. It looks surprisingly like Stalingrad, in fact. So let’s call it responsible nationalism. I think we just have to use our own judgment in deciding what is reprehensible nationalism and what is pragmatic nationalism. In the film I said Slovenia reacted to events in the South with a “pragmatic rebirth of national feeling.” And I believe that’s what it was. I remember visiting Slovenia during some key events in the ex-Yugoslav political struggle of the late-eighties. And I remember the PR-war within Slovenia in which the Demos-coalition was trying to persuade the people of Slovenia to secede. It was no foregone conclusion that Slovenia would declare independence; people are very pragmatic here. In the late 80’s sociological surveys revealed a majority in favor of continuing with Yugoslavia, in fact. They were worried about Slovenia losing her captive Yugoslav market, and so forth — they saw a lot of advantages in staying in Yugoslavia. But one pragmatism inevitably gave way to another as the 80’s wore on, and it became increasingly clear that certain behavior patterns from Belgrade were not going to change. The last straw, in my view, was when Milosevic stole one third of the entire Yugoslav federal budget one fine weekend in 1989. It was obvious by then that Slovenia had to leave.
AS: You started working on the concept of the film in ’89; you started shooting in the fall of ’91. It was released in 95. It’s an understatement saying that in the meantime a lot has happened. Out of this avalanche of images covering the war you choose just a couple, all media-related.
MB: There are only three shots of the actual war. One of them is of an airplane attacking a Slovenian TV-tower. The second one was Croatian camera-man Zeljko Krsticevic’s death-shot, the most horrifying image out of the first part of the war in Croatia. As we know the war consumed a lot of journalists and this was literally a POV documentation of the end of one of them. And the third one was of some direct hits on the main TV Sarajevo transmitter, which is on a hill above the city and which remains in Bosnian government hands. In fact I saw that attack live — it was a live feed from Sarajevo on the first week-end of serious attacks. It was absolutely one of the most powerful images I had ever seen; the image itself was being degraded as the Cetnik rockets hit the tower. It had a kind of millennial dread to it — a TV station broadcasting its own death, from a strangely futuristic tower being blasted to pieces. Well, these three images have a certain unity to them, of course — they show a war on information. It was media which started the war and media which was one key target of the war once it did start. Anyway, these three images are details in a much larger mosaic, but they are also the only details that actually come from the war.
AS: In their 1983 culture-jamming interview on Slovenian TV, Laibach labeled themselves “the first TV-generation.” Besides the element of shock, every media-performance of NSK always seems to contain a serious dose of humor.
MB: Yes, and that has been widely misunderstood or misinterpreted, in my view. Well before Hannah Arendt wrote “The Origins Of Totalitarianism” she reacted negatively, in a personal letter, to certain trivialisations made of — or a mocking of — the power of the Nazis. She thought it was irresponsible to dismiss them or not take them seriously. But she in turn was lectured to — again within private correspondence — by Karl Popper, I believe it was (I may be mistaken). He pointed out that she should not make the cardinal mistake of granting the Nazis the power they had wanted and had worked so hard to project. They were, in fact, a bunch of low criminals and terrorists who successfully had exploited their given socio-economic situation, and who grabbed power — but his point was that to give them the power which they spent so much time crafting and ornamenting was to concede victory to them even in their graves. Or outside of their graves: it grants Leni Riefenstahl victory, for example. And we know she’s still working tirelessly for it! In fact, if you make fun of fascist images now, or at any time after the war, or just toy with the images in an irreverent way, you are considered morally suspect. NSK certainly was and is. The question inevitably arises of: what’s your real motivation? There are intimations of sinister intent, of dark nostalgia. The Nazis are sacred cows, in fact. While I believe that the only correct reaction to them is to take them way down to their level, let’s say. Just because they succeeded in wiping out 6 million Jews and in creating an impressive, scary state iconography with the aid of some compromised artists and architects doesn’t mean that as a Jew one has to continuously take on the role of victim. They don’t have to be granted this demonic power all the time. One of the things I really appreciate about Laibach and NSK is their implicit sense of humor which can be read between the lines in all of their adoptions of quasi-fascistic personae. Take for example Peter Mlakar’s speech in Vienna in the 80’s, in which he declares: “Austrians, you are Germans — but that does not mean that we will not prepare a place for you beside our women.” Or something very close to that. Apart from its allusions to Slovene history, to the domination of Slovenia by Germanic people, here’s a representative of a Slavic tribe — what’s more, one with a large minority still living in Austria — provoking on every level, explicit and implicit — and all of it with a sick dose of humor which I really appreciate. These people have little reverence for sacred cows. Obviously it’s something that you take a little bit differently if it’s Jorg Heider speaking. The context is all.
AS: Peter Mlakar’s speech in Belgrade in March ’89 might shock Western audiences, but was received in Ljubljana with hilarious laughter. Do you think Western audiences will catch that sense of humor?
MB: That’s hard to enforce. A lot of the reason why the Slovenians were laughing so hard is that nobody had to explain to them the sheer shameless chutzpah of showing up in Belgrade, in the late eighties, and starting a speech by addressing their audience, in Serbian, as “Brother Serbs”. This was exactly at the peak of Serbian hysteria about Slovenian aspirations for independence! And by now even Slovene representatives to the federal Government spoke in Slovenian and had interpreters. But you see, I’m explaining it already. The ex-Yugoslav social space is the only place where the hidden meaning of it wouldn’t be hidden; as soon as you get outside, there’s no chance… But I think it will already be a kind of a victory for the film if an audience in Park City, Utah could understand that this is an art-action, something borrowing quotes from both Milosevic and Chamberlain, something with a dialectical flourish to it. That it’s a sheer provocation and subversive comment, not some weird back-handed endorsement of Serbian nationalist ideology. Although I don’t know how far the understanding will go in Sundance, I don’t think the black humor will travel so well. There’s a lot of humor in the film, but the deeper, underlying, black joke behind Laibach appearing in Belgrade and taking it to the Serbs in that way… well, it’s just not going to be clear. I’m going to have to explain it. And if you explain a joke you’re defeated in advance.
AS: What do you think about NSK’s actions in the nineties?
MB: Sometimes I feel like NSK is coasting on their previous conceptual break-throughs. Laibach especially conspicuously failed to respond in a way that I found effective to the carnage in ex-Yugoslavia. They limited themselves to a few ironic or sarcastic statements. Although what, really, can we expect from a bunch of frail sensitive artists? I think that the position of NSK in the 80’s was stronger because of its relevance within a fading order. Now with their declaration of themselves as a state, you could see that as a reaction to this nationalism and so on. But some of their more recent actions I find kind of perplexing and without force, without real power. You can walk around Ljubljana these days and see hundreds of these little teddy-bears with NSK armbands in shop windows. For me it represents the onset of middle-age among IRWIN members who now have kids, and not too much more. Still, I think every art-movement, not to mention every artist creates a lot of stuff that will not survive the ages. They’re lucky if anything survives. And NSK is no exception. And I think that IRWIN has also created a very strong body of work in the 90’s — some absolutely mesmerizing large-size pieces. And the NSK Embassies are singularly impressive. Of all representatives of “Eastern” art, I think that their work is probably the least reliant on having the counter-balance or foil of totalitarian state power to validate it. Because it is more multi-faceted and autonomous of daily politics than people generally give them credit for. I also find it encouraging that they are involved in a new project, a book-project by IRWIN and Eda Cufer, in which they are trying to reassess their own strategies of the 80s and find out if it is still relevant or is it something that should be discarded all together? I was just reading today about how an (immediately suppressed!) internal UN self-analytical study in the late eighties concluded that maybe it was time for an entirely new organization. It basically recommended hara-kiri. Perhaps that’s the conclusion NSK will come to, I don’t know. One reason why I continue to find NSK interesting is they’re absolutely without illusions about ideological systems. What I personally value in the film is that it shows the NSK art movement as the latest incarnation of a world-view which states that art itself should be a separate and equal power to religion and ideology. That’s a Kazimir Malevich sentiment. NSK are portrayed as carrying the Malevich torch, you might say. The fact that there are people who actually do that, who are carrying that torch and who believe in a kind of secular artistic mythology, remains fascinating to me. Another key example of this kind of idea can be found in New York, in a kind of installation piece just next to Soho called the Salon de Fleurus. In fact the Salon is curated by an anonymous former artist who had a great deal of influence on NSK in the early stages of their development, and who remains a close friend of theirs. We clearly need alternative strategies for how to approach our various positions in society, and how to try to affect change. By “we” I mean everyone not happy with the status quo — not just artists. You could say that Malevich was consumed by the revolution, and he was. But his concept, the idea that art could be a separate power, a separate matrix apart from religion and politics, is fascinating to me. That you can serve art the way you could serve, say, an interpretation of Jesus Christ, or the raw interests of the state… that’s an amazing idea. And of course implicit to it is an obvious warning. You could say there’s a lot of danger there also — but then there’s danger everywhere. Fanatical devotion, or simply careerism — those are dangers as well.
AS: What’s next?
MB: First of all I have to promote this film successfully in the next year and sell it. That’s already a full-time job, unfortunately. Speaking of devotion and careerism. Apart from that, I have two different dramatic film ideas and two different book ideas! One book would be for Verso in London, and deal with a lot of the issues raised in Predictions of Fire: with ex-Yugoslav retro-avant-garde art, with film production in general and specifically regarding my film, with Slovenia’s secession, the fall of Yugoslavia, etc. I spend a lot of my time here in the late eighties and took a lot of notes, interviewed people and so on, but I never really used that material. I think it could be a very interesting piece of work: a kind of a journalistic, subjective reaction to this time. The other book would be specifically about NSK, and I’m talking to a publisher in Australia about it. It would be a big, illustrated, coffee-table-type book. When I honestly look at both projects I can’t see not doing them. I’ve been writing for a while now, and one thing that troubles me about shooting film is that it’s so all-consuming that it’s hard to write. Film is notorious for requiring more than a 100% of your energy. Although I love that as well, that’s why I’m a little bit unclear about what I’m going to do next. I would like to write these books but I would also like to make more films. The reaction to Predictions of Fire will no doubt make my way more clear.
Ljubljana, January 9th 1996.
Koen Van Daele