The ‘Easthetics’ of the NSK
This paper describes how the Slovenian art-performance collective the NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) and its associated music group, Laibach, interrogate the representation of Central and Eastern European identity in the context of post-Socialism, and thus operate as a nexus between Eastern Europe and the West. Laibach and NSK praxis is comprised of a multitude of discursive fields: art, politics, history and performance, combining together in a rigorous and often problematic exploration of identity. I will discuss how this is established through a strategy of militant non-alignment with temporal, ideological, geo-political and aesthetic determinants, and how their core aesthetic dynamic, Retrogardism, both originates from, and sustains, Laibach and the NSK’s role as East-West nexus.
Key words: Laibach, NSK, Retrogardism, Slovenia, site-specific, post-Socialist
Dieser Artikel untersucht, wie das slowenische Performancekollektiv NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) und insbesondere die assoziierte Musikgruppe Laibach, die Repräsentation von zentral- und osteuropäischer Identität im Kontext des Post-Sozialismus kritisch hinterfragen, und damit als Nexus zwischen Osteuropa und dem Westen operieren. Ich werde diskutieren, wie dies erreicht wird durch eine Strategie militanter Abweichung von temporalen, ideologischen, geopolitischen und ästhetischen Determinanten (gleichsam in Anlehnung an Titos Politik der Unabhängigkeit vom Stalinismus), und wie die als Retrogarde bekannte NSK-Kernästhetik, welche durch einen Prozess der bricolage (im Sinne von Lévi-Strauss) die Ikonografie der jüngst zurückliegenden politischen Traumata remythologisiert, aus der Rolle von Laibach und NSK als Nexus zwischen Ost und West sowohl resultiert als auch diese unterfüttert.
Schlüsselwörter: Laibach, NSK, Retrogardismus, Slowenien, site-specific, postsozialistisch
The ‘Easthetics’ of the NSKLaibach and the NSK
The three founding groups of the NSK were IRWIN (visual arts), GSSN – Gledališče sester Scipion Nasice (theatre), and Laibach (music).1 According to Alexei Monroe, author of Interrogation Machine, a comprehensive analysis of Laibach and the NSK, ‘the aim of the association was the constitution of a transnational paradigmatic state, in which Laibach represented the ideological, the theatre the religious, and IRWIN the cultural and historical impulse’.2 Other groups also comprise the NSK, such as the design department the NK (New Collectivism), and the Department of Pure and Applied Philosophy. This multi-disciplinary collective functioned as a Gesamtkunstwerk, and images and symbols were cross-pollinated by all groups within the NSK, constituting its output as a whole.
The NSK has undergone three distinct phases: inception (1984–1992), the NSK State-in-Time project (1992–2010), and the State of Emergence (2010–present). Inception includes the creation of the NSK and the formulation of its basic principles. The NSK State-in-Time was the creation of a spectral state, without territory, but complete with its own passports, embassies and citizenship. The State of Emergence is the most recent manifestation, and was marked by the first NSK citizens’ congress and accompanying publication, State of Emergence: A Documentary of the First NSK Citizens’ Congress, in 2011.3 This third phase can be described as a reciprocal response by NSK’s audience to the challenges posed by the NSK. The paradigm of this is the advent of NSK Folk Art, in which artists explore the imagery and dynamic of the NSK with no direct input from the NSK itself. NSK Folk Art is growing, and earning its own exhibition status despite the fact that less than half of its participants are professional artists. In 2012, the upper floor of the Calvert 22 Gallery in London housed the NSK Time for a New State exhibition, whilst the lower floor was dedicated solely to NSK Folk Art. Since then, other Folk Art exhibitions have followed in Germany, France, Slovenia, and Ireland. In this sense, NSK Folk Art is becoming an entity autonomous from the NSK.
Laibach was founded in Trbovlje, Slovenia in 1980, and in 1984 joined with other Yugoslav artists to form the NSK. Championed by Slavoj Žižek, who brought Laibach to academic attention in the West, it remains Slovenia’s most successful and influential cultural export. In their 38-year history they have released 27 studio albums and regularly embark on global tours.4 In August 2015, Laibach became the first ‘Western’ group to play North Korea.5 Despite this success in the field of popular music, Laibach cannot be said to be a conventional music group, and as conceptual art, it can be argued that music is incidental to Laibach. From the outset, Laibach attracted critical attention that focused more on their spectacle and its effects than on their music. Laibach started as a visual arts group known as Laibach Kunst, and music was chosen as the most immediate conduit for their ‘message’. Michael Goddard supports this view when he describes Laibach as ‘a multimedia art collective using rock and pop music as a medium: an arena for investigating the relations between art, ideology, popular culture and totalitarianism’.6
Laibach and the NSK share a history of controversy, initially in Slovenia, and then internationally, as their fame grew. Laibach’s early period was defined by a series of interventions considered offensive to mainstream Yugoslav culture and political bodies. The name ‘Laibach’ itself was a national scandal in Slovenia, first appearing on posters in the group’s home town of Trbovlje in September 1980. By naming themselves after the Nazi occupation term for Ljubljana, the ‘hero city’, Laibach was resurrecting problematic and uncomfortable truths concerning Slovenian Germanisation and the trauma of occupation. This founding act of controversy was further substantiated by an onslaught of ideological and aesthetic provocations. At the Zagreb Bienniale in 1983, for example, the concert was interrupted by the police and Laibach was expelled after projecting images of Marshal Tito montaged with pornography. Laibach’s music at this time was particularly loud, aggressive and discordant; their concerts were described as ‘nightmarish and utterly extreme combinations of alienation, infernal noise, and brutal visual imagery’.7 Their dress was equally incendiary, in a country that had weathered Nazi occupation within living memory: an austere non-specific totalitarian coding suggesting both Italian fascist and Nazi uniforms, yet with signifiers such as the fasces or the swastika replaced with Malevich’s Suprematist Cross. It was, however, their infamous appearance on the political news programme TV Tednik on prime-time Yugoslavian television in 1983 that propelled Laibach into overnight national notoriety. Laibach appeared starkly lit against a background of monochromatic iconography reminiscent of European totalitarian propaganda, delivering prepared responses to scripted questions in a deadpan manner. The presenter, Jure Pengov, ended the interview by denouncing Laibach as enemies of the people.8
In Slovenia, the popular press and veteran Yugoslav partisan groups loudly denounced Laibach. The juxtaposed references to Yugoslavian self-management Socialism, partisan imagery, audio recordings of Tito with Nazi Kunst, and frequent German translation were guaranteed to give offence to veteran partisan groups and the popular sense of Slovenian identity. Further offending partisan sensibilities, Laibach recordings such as ‘Jezero’ from Krst pod Triglavom (1987) and ‘Vojna poema’ from Nova Akropola (1986), are perversions of iconic Yugoslav partisan anthems. ‘Jezero’ is interrupted by drumming and samples from Liszt’s Dante Symphony (1857), while ‘Vojna poema’ is punctuated by discordant horns and atonal noise.
Perhaps less planned, but equally fortuitous in establishing Laibach and the NSK’s scandalous reputation, was the Day of Youth poster affair. Dan Mladosti, or ‘Day of Youth’, was until 1987 an annual Yugoslavian state ritual in the Socialist Realist tradition. The design department of the NSK, the NK (New Collectivism), submitted a poster for the event.9 The scandal broke when it was ‘discovered’ that this poster was an adaptation of a Nazi propaganda poster by Richard Klein, entitled Das Dritte Reich. Allegorie des Heldentums. By re-deploying Nazi Kunst in Communist Yugoslavia, Laibach and the NSK demonstrated uncomfortable and hitherto hidden similarities between the two ostensibly opposed ideologies.
Retrogardism is the core aesthetic system of Laibach and NSK praxis, manifested through bricolage, the artistic practice of montaging found objects. In Retrogardism, the iconography of Nazi Kunst is juxtaposed with those of Socialist Realism, religious imagery, the Russian avant-garde art form Suprematism, icons of Slovenian national identity, and Völkisch sentimentality. Iconography associated with the Grand Utopian Narrative has no exchange value in advanced-capitalism, beyond that of playfully offensive kitsch, and thus offers free-floating signifiers for Laibach and the NSK to re-anchor, or re-mythologise. This re-mythologisation is key to Retrogardism, since it sustains the ideological power of the original symbols and tropes of the Grand Utopian Narrative, but re-codes them within the aesthetics of the Retro-avant-garde spectacle.
Retrogardism cannot be assimilated into hegemonic Western aesthetic systems, and is thus often misrecognised in the West as postmodern, ironic, or even playful. Retrogardism must not however, be confused with the playful pastiche of Western postmodernism. The Retro-avant-garde is not Baudrillard’s notion of playing with the pieces of history. Western post-war art severed itself from utopian narratives, exchanging the totalising utopian drives of the historical avant-garde for a focus on individual freedom and expression. Retrogardism returns to a moment before this separation, and identifies with the historical avant-garde at the moment of its traumatic assimilation into totalitarianism. The central philosophy of Retrogardism is that traumas affecting the present and future can only be addressed by tracing back to their source, be it the unfinished narrative of Communism, the appeal of totalitarianism, or art’s affirmative role in power.
Three specific systems structure the iconography of Laibach and NSK Retrogarde practice. These are: the romantic folkloric, the specifically Slovenian, and the totalitarian. The first category is referred to here by the German term Völkisch, used to denote a romantic folklore bound up with national identity. The Völkisch is predominantly sentimental, and combines nationalism with the idea of people/race. Superficially sentimental Völkisch iconography such as the stag, the sower, the family, and images of rural idylls are treated by Laibach and the NSK as conduits of ideological power in the same manner as more obviously ‘aggressive’ elements, such as the soldier, industrial or war machinery, and flags. A prime example of the Völkisch in Laibach can be found in the video to Opus Dei (1987). Throughout the video Laibach members stride across Alpine scenery in Tyrolean hiking gear, blowing horns and chopping wood. Low dramatic camera angles film Laibach members singing in heroic poses and gazing at the horizon, striding through forests and across mountains, posing before waterfalls, and intercut with footage of stags. Völkisch signifiers are pan-European, in contrast to the second category, that of the specifically Slovenian. Operative in the militant aesthetics of the Laibach/NSK spectacle, they are also commandeered as icons of a partly fictive Slovenia – that is, a representation of a monumental and spectral national identity that Laibach and the NSK construct as a dimension of Retrogarde aesthetics. These referents have limited semantic currency outside Slovenian culture; for example, the kozolec (a Slovenian hayrack), and Ivana Kobilica’s iconic painting Kofetarica [The Coffee Drinker] (1888).
The re-enactment of the totalitarian ritual is the third category of Retrogardism, and is perhaps the most apparent. Laibach was at its most totalitarian in appearance and sound between its founding in 1980 and the release of the recording Kapital in 1992. Performances within this period are typified by black floor-to-ceiling banners with the Laibach logo flanking the stage, uniformed drummers at the fore, and a delivery more akin to a militant political address than a rock concert. Indeed, from 1987, many performances were preceded by a speech from the NSK’s Department of Pure and Applied Philosophy – a feature suggesting political rally rather than a celebration of music. This re-enactment/ritual is maintained in video releases such as Pobeda pod suncem [Victory Under the Sun] (1988), which features recurring footage of members of Laibach addressing the camera at a podium draped in the Laibach banner, making declarative statements such as: ‘Violence is a bare necessity which we obey’, to microphones and recorded cheering. Other key signifiers establish this re-enactment of the totalitarian ritual more specifically, such as the use of a design for the Nazi Kraft durch Freude (KDF) [Strength Through Joy] organisation, which was re-coded for the sleeve of the Sympathy for the Devil EP release in 1988. Laibach’s music is similarly totalitarian in tone. Their audio output until the release of Kapital in 1992 was monolithic and oppressive, designed to cower the individual and overwhelm with its relentless assault. Abrasive fanfares, both discordant and triumphalist, are prevalent, and rhythms are repetitive – often monotonously so. Martial or slow marching rhythms dominated by a heavy drum sound are overlaid with industrial noise. The vocals are often choral, suggesting mass, whilst individual vocal elements are declamatory and emphatic, dealing in mono-statements and absolutes commonly used by oppressive ideologies.
Retrogardism and Eastern Europe
Retrogardism is specific to Eastern Europe. In the 1980s it was termed the ‘new “ism” from the East’ by Slovenian cultural theorist and performance artist Marina Gržinić, who has written extensively on Laibach and the NSK.10 According to Gržinić, only one subject is topical for the East; that of history, particularly the re-appropriation of history.11 In a Continental Europe of fluctuating borders, where national identity is in a state of perpetual crisis, the importance of history and its uses achieves mythic qualities. In this system, history is not an absolute of the past, but is frequently employed as an agency of political expediency in the present. Michael Benson, director of the seminal Laibach/NSK film Predictions of Fire (1996), directly refers to this process of active historicisation when he compares the Retro-avant-garde process to the method used in the former Yugoslavia to trigger the Balkan conflict, whereby, for example, the Serbs exhumed their national hero Prince Lazar, who had been dead since 1389, and toured him around the countryside.12 In Poland, in the Katyn massacre of Polish officers and intelligentsia committed by the Soviet NKVD in 1940, identity papers were removed from the bodies, which were then bulldozed to hamper the retrieval of these identities. However, these identities were retroactively claimed for political purposes by both Axis and Allied forces. It is a retroactive identity politics Timothy Snyder refers to when he claims that the largest victim group in Poland during 1941 was neither the Jews nor the Poles, but Soviet prisoners of war.13 By citing this as a hidden history, Snyder interrogates the composition of historical-political narratives through the categorisation of national and cultural identities. When history is not an absolute but a fluid concept, subject to current political expediency, it provides a liminal position that enables Retrogardism to treat political and art history as Duchampian ready-mades. In the words of the NSK: ‘We comprehend the signs which denote Suprematists, Nazi art, pop art, and Socialist Realism, in the way Cézanne treated his apples in his still lifes’.14
Eastern European Identity
In order to discuss Laibach and the NSK’s exploration of Eastern European identity as text, and their role as nexus between East and West, it is necessary to interrogate notions of an Eastern European cultural identity as defined by the West, and how this system of representation has resulted in an increase in Eastern European aesthetic autonomy following the collapse of Socialism. The East can be seen as the defining binary to the West, one of positive and negative, visible and invisible, presence and absence. ‘The West’ is a political-historical Enlightenment construct, which in the words of Stuart Hall, has come to mean ‘a society that is developed, industrialised, urbanised, capitalist, secular, and modern’.15 This definition must have a corollary opposite by which it is measured, and Eastern Europe serves this function. Hall traces the origins of the East/West binary to the Enlightenment age of exploration and conquest of new worlds, as a result of which Europe began to define itself by creating for itself an ‘other’. Yet it is not simply the creation of an other to the Enlightenment that comprises the ideological field of the Western gaze, but its reductive understanding of Eastern Europe as a totality, wherein superficial similarities between cultures are picked out to create a commodifiable pattern. Eastern Europe is a far more complex collection of cultures than the simplifying label that the Anglo-American West employs would allow.16 As Anda Rottenberg laments of the West, ‘rarely does anyone take the trouble to investigate the origins of the political differences among the former Eastern bloc countries, or to consider not only recent history but also events that took place in the nineteenth century and earlier that determined the specific nature of each country’.17 In both creating its defining other, and in failing to engage with the cultural-historical complexity of the East, the West is using categories that function as power structures to shore up its sense of identity.
The image the West has created of itself as modern, in contrast to the ‘barbaric wilderness’ of the East, acts as a catalyst for the East’s function within Western narratives – as an additional other; an ‘other within’. In this formula, the East becomes the West’s alter-ego, a ‘symbolic dumping ground, a cultural landfill of externalised frustrations’.18 This is supported by Slavoj Žižek’s claim that what fascinated the Western gaze in the early 1990s is the reinvention of democracy immediately following the collapse of Soviet communism. Writing in 1992, Žižek posits that the West, having lost faith in a form of democracy it perceived as having become bureaucratic and reduced to mere show-business, a pastiche of its noble ideals, looked to the East for the lost origins of democracy.19 For Žižek, the East functions for the West not just as the alter-ego but the ego-ideal. Žižek here employs the vocabulary of psychoanalysis in order to explain the way in which the West wishes to see in the East a reflection of itself as idealised, as worthy of love. In NSK founder member Eda Čufer’s words, for the West the ‘former East’ was a glamorous ‘work in progress’.20 However, Laibach finds that post-Socialism has squandered this opportunity: ‘The East collapsed because it blindly believed in the Western Utopian definition of freedom of the individual. The West only survives because it slyly established a system which insists on people’s freedom. That is to say, under democracy, people believe they’re acting according to their own will and desires’.21
Released from the Soviet meta-narrative in the early 1990s, the states of the former Eastern Bloc found themselves in a disconcerting ideological vacuum and an uneasy transitional period. The West looked to the East at this time to reflect itself in an authentic birth of democracy whilst importing global capitalism and Western cultural imperialism. Under these attacks and unable to find a voice in the hegemonic discursive field of Western aesthetics, Eastern European artists and practitioners began to reject the dominant Western discourse in favour of one they could call their own. One of these initiatives was the NSK project East Art Map (1996), aimed at addressing the problem of the absence of a coherent Eastern European aesthetic discourse. Arising out of the Transnacionala project of 1996, where members of the NSK travelled across America meeting with local artists and communities, the resulting book, East Art Map, was an act of self-historicisation, an attempt to contextualise the work of the NSK and Eastern European artists in an art-history for the East. At the Tate Modern NSK symposium of April 2012 in London, the NSK spoke on this project, making the claim that prior to East Art Map there was no Eastern European art discourse, just the ‘local mythologies of Eastern Europe’.22
Laibach/NSK and Eastern European Identity
In living memory, Central and Eastern Europe have experienced the cataclysms of total war and the trauma of two totalitarian political systems. This direct understanding of European traumatic history differs from the perspectives of Britain or America, whose versions of events are largely shaped by the Hollywood film industry.23 This difference in experience provides a set of referents that make Laibach’s and the NSK’s art better understood in Central and Eastern Europe. Yet there are other, less visible factors that generated the conditions for such a unique art-form such as Retrogardism. In a continent where borders are in constant flux, and where military might is limited, culture as a conduit of national identity acquires a mythic status. Emil Niederhauser compares the differing fates of the Slovenes and the Sorbs of Lusatia, in Saxony. Whereas the former eventually achieved nationhood, the latter were arrested at the stage of cultivating a mother tongue, and now cannot be said to have a nation.24 Similarly, Zdenka Badovinac, writing in the Arteast 2000+ exhibition catalogue, notes: ‘In small countries, national culture and art are frequently the very proof of their existence’.25 In Slovenia, the militant importance of culture gave rise to the idea of Ljubljana as the ‘Slovenian Athens’, directly referenced by Laibach in the title of their 1987 album Slovenska Akropola. The NSK explored this notion in their NSK State-in-Time project, described by Aleš Erjavec as the ‘architecture of nothing’, a borderless state founded on artistic principles.26 The NSK State-in-Time project can be said to have its origins in a Slovenian national identity founded on the importance of culture as opposed to military might.
Agnes Horvath, in her Mythology and the Trickster: Interpreting Communism, equates the Eastern European experience with the ‘nulla’. In maths, the nulla is the numberless number, and in Horvath’s analogy, a ‘fluid state of non-being’ where ‘everything can happen without meaning’.27 According to Horvath, caught in a liminal geo-political space between the West and the Orient, and the transitional historical of post-Socialism, Eastern Europe as a fluid state of non-being is able to generate mythologies of national origin and identity without conflicting with any stable and established origin-narrative. This ‘fluid state of non-being’, a form not recognised in the hegemonic Western definitions of itself, becomes a catalyst for Eastern European aesthetic autonomy. In this sense, this position of nulla places the East in a unique position of indirect critique. This position of ‘other’, which artists such as those of Laibach and the NSK have exploited to critique the West and its hidden ideologies, is the core subject-position of Marina Gržinić’s neologism ‘Easthetics’ – an approach to aesthetics that attempts to be independent of the Western aesthetic discourses.28 It is a subjectivity imposed upon Eastern artists, due to their inability to articulate the Eastern European experience in the Western discursive field. Gržinić writes that the NSK ‘proclaims itself to be an abstract social body situated in an intense socio-political space that is simultaneously a phenomenon of both West and East’.29 IRWIN spokespersons have stated: ‘You have to realise that we come from a very different space existing between East and West – within a paradox’.30 This paradox is that of performing the discourse of both Eastern Europe and the West simultaneously: ‘Since we work with the political opposition that exists between the East and the West, it’s clear that we have a double point of view’.31 This artistic policy arises from using the political-aesthetic as Duchampian ready-made text, while refusing to be appended to any political or aesthetic position. This non-alignment is a conceptual space untethered from temporal, ideological, aesthetic, and geopolitical determinants or affiliations.
Regarding the drive towards an Eastern European autonomous aesthetic (Gržinić’s ‘Easthetics’), Laibach and the NSK have proved to be paradigmatic, occupying this position of other to challenge Western dominant cultural givens. For example, Laibach has defined the West as ‘the Western part of Asia’, which is a pointed inversion of the hegemonic view that Eastern Europe is appended to the West.32 However, Laibach utilises the position of other in more specific ways. It is in the guise of the fantasy of the Eastern European exotic other that Laibach ‘makes strange’ the West, by reflecting it back upon itself. To this end, Laibach assumes the persona of the ‘barbaric’ East in the narration accompanying the recording of ‘Now You Will Pay’ (2003) from Podgoršek’s A Film about WAT (2004): ‘Arabs, Negroes, Jews, Turks, Mexicans, Gypsies, Slavs. They are barbarians. Not sophisticated enough to know the difference between enjoyment and pleasure. We must admit that Laibach belongs to them as well. In fact we have always proudly considered ourselves true barbarians coming to the rich west from our secret eastern hide-outs’. In the video for Sympathy for the Devil (1988), Laibach members play the roles of feudal overlords in a Teutonic hunting lodge, wearing furs and feasting beneath mounted stag heads. In the video, they cast themselves not only as the ‘devil’ of the track, but as the barbaric and feudal Eastern European overlords of the West’s imagination. Here Laibach’s performance reflects Western stereotypes of Eastern Europe, as commonly articulated in Western reportage. In 1987, The Guardian listed Laibach’s Riverside performance as ‘morose Slavs’.33 In 1992 the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: ‘Laibach comes from one of the quieter corners of the strife-torn Yugoslavian republics. That may explain an ugly and relentless sense of despair that pervades Laibach’s sound’.34 Although this stereotyping is common shorthand in Anglo-American reporting on Laibach, what is more relevant is that at no point do Laibach do anything to counter these stereotypes, and in their monolithic and deadpan performances can even be said to re-affirm this perception.
Western ignorance, Eastern European stereotyping, and the fascination of the exotic are all part of the spectacle of Laibach’s performance in the West. Laibach operates within a Western representative economy that perceives artists or performance groups from the Eastern Bloc as obsessed with ideology. In the eyes of the West, Laibach’s performances of the 1980s were the nightmare of a monolithic, totalitarian East made flesh. This fulfils a Western fantasy of the totalitarian East, but the incoherence of Laibach’s ideological field caused by the dissonance and repetition of disparate signifiers creates a void at the heart of this spectacle. The more excessive the performance of Laibach’s totalitarian ritual, the more the fantasies and projected desires of the West are magnified and laid bare. Laibach confronts the West with its own fantasies. In this formula, what then is the West’s subject position in relation to Laibach’s gaze? Here Laibach is passive, its critique is indirect; it is the West whose gaze is reflected.
Identity: Militant Slovenism
The use of key Slovenian signifiers of national identity in Laibach and NSK praxis does not contradict their strategy of geo-political non-alignment. The video to Opus Dei (1987) contains Slovenian icons, including the Savica Falls playing in reverse – a reference to Tito’s claim that Yugoslavia would crumble when the Savica Falls flowed backward. Although this iconography is specifically Slovenian, it belongs more to Laibach than to Slovenia. This is due to the fantastical nature of the monumental Retro-avant-garde NSK construct, and the use of these Slovenian symbols as text. The excessive militancy of Laibach and the NSK’s Slovenism is a fiction that prevents any authentic attachment to the real Slovenia. This militancy was necessary, to avoid being marginalised as a producer of ‘quaint’ ethnic art, or as a mere follower of Western forms. Thus, part of Laibach and the NSK’s early controversy was their disruption of the expected method of exporting folk culture. This controversy works both ways. To the rest of Europe and the West, Slovenia seemed to be aggressively exporting a martial and ideologically fraught folk culture, whilst to Slovenians, Laibach’s militant representation of its homeland was an equally problematic misrepresentation. For instance, in the stamping of the Laibach Zahnrad (a hollow cog) and cross onto Božidar Jakac’s painting of a kozolec (a Slovenian hayrack) from the sleeve of the album Rekapitulacija 1980–1984 (1985), the moral authority of national poets and folklorists is para-militarised. A similar device is applied to an image of a Slovene ducal chair in the NSK poster Trieste – Ljubljana – Klagenfurt (1987). Both the kozolec and the chair are key Slovene national symbols, and both have been branded with Laibach’s symbols. In the former, Laibach appropriates the bucolic; in the latter, it appropriates political history, in the service of Laibach’s singularly militant Slovenism.
Despite Laibach’s global success in popular music, and the NSK’s recognition by the international art world, Slovenia’s relationship with its prodigal sons has often been an uneasy one. As Laibach noted in 1991, ‘today they hate us because they still love us!’.35 Part of Slovenia’s reluctance to recognise Laibach was the group’s unapologetic claim to a central place within the Slovenian national space. Monroe suggests the phrase ‘Oblast je pri nas ljudska’ [our authority is the authority of the people] from the recording Država (1982) is Laibach’s declaration of a right to manipulate Slovenian national symbols.36 In September 1990 this claim was restated, when Laibach titled their Trbovlje concert Ten Years of Laibach, Ten Years of Slovenian Independence.37 Although Laibach and the NSK are fundamentally fused to Slovenia’s cultural identity, they problematise this by simultaneously embracing and distancing themselves from Slovenian identification, treating Slovenia and its cultural signifiers as Duchampian ready-mades – a position that alienates many of their fellow Slovenians. For example, samples of Tito’s speeches occur throughout Laibach’s recordings, and the track ‘Panorama’ is attributed jointly to ‘Josip Broz TITO-LAIBACH 1958–1985’. On the one hand, Laibach established itself and a Slavic identity globally on its own terms, but their ‘militant classicism’ is at odds with how Slovenia would like to be perceived on the global stage.38 More recently, however, as Laibach’s image has become less martial and the furore over their initial impact in the 1980s has diminished, Laibach and the NSK have become more acceptable as Slovenian representatives. An indication of this may be the presence of the Slovenian ambassador to the UK at a Laibach performance in 2004, and a brief cameo appearance by Laibach in a mainstream Slovenian beer advertisement in 2009.39 In 1996, the Slovenian foreign minister Zoran Thaler ceremoniously handed Laibach’s NATO album to NATO Secretary-General Willy Claes. These events would have been unthinkable in 1983, when Laibach was banned from using its controversial name for four years by the Yugoslavian authorities.
Laibach and the NSK, and the Site-Specific
This militant Slovenism becomes a structure that underpins all Laibach and NSK praxis. Laibach, an art group from a small and militarily insignificant nation positions itself as the invader and emphasises the militancy of its ideological assault, using terminology suggesting occupation or invasion. This can be seen in a poster from 1983: Die Erste Bombardierung! Laibach über dem Deutschland. The visual vocabulary references European trauma: members of Laibach in a non-specific uniform, arms folded, and wearing Malevich Cross armbands beneath flights of World War II bombers. The 1985 title to the live album The Occupied Europe Tour is equally ambivalent, referring to the historical traumas of Nazism and Socialism, to an occupation/invasion by Laibach/NSK, and to Slovenia’s position as occupied territory through the centuries. Further militancy is evinced in the NSK Garda project of 2000. Soldiers from selected countries posed in front of an NSK banner, often outside art galleries. These took place in various European cities, as well as in Kyoto, where soldiers were replaced with Japanese ‘Salarymen’.40 This military aesthetic is in keeping with NSK’s practice of declaring its performance and exhibition spaces as temporary NSK territory. In October 1993 the Volksbühne building in Berlin was so declared, featuring Laibach concerts, NSK art exhibitions, and lectures by Žižek and members of the NSK. In November 1995, at the NSK Država Sarajevo event, the national theatre in a war-torn Sarajevo was declared NSK state territory for two days, involving two Laibach performances, an exhibition and speeches. In a conflation of art and life that reflects NSK discourse, some of the besieged population used NSK State-in-Time passports to leave Sarajevo. NATO insignia arrived in Sarajevo not with I.F.O.R. (NATO-led multi-national peace-keeping troops), but with Laibach at the end of its NATO tour, just as the Dayton agreement was signed and the Bosnian war ended.
In practicing ideological provocation as a state of being, every Laibach and NSK performance necessarily becomes a dialogue with ideologically charged spaces. For example, the Suprematist Cross, circle and square were employed in a site-specific series for the Transcentrala New York, Moscow, Ljubljana actions of 1991–1997. Suprematism is axiomatic to the Laibach and NSK dynamic, and Suprematist shapes occur throughout the NSK Gesamtkunstwerk. These referents provided the framework for the Transcentrala New York, Moscow, Ljubljana (1991–1997) actions. In the first, Transcentrala New York (1991), Malevich’s Cross was symbolically reclaimed from Western art by the NSK painting it on the roof of a New York skyscraper. I use the term ‘reclaimed’, since it can be argued that the Anglo-American West appropriated Malevich’s Cross as an Ur-icon of Western hegemonic Modern Art discourse. For Laibach and the NSK, the Malevich Cross acquires additional significance. It is the most frequently used Suprematist symbol in the Laibach and NSK aesthetic system, and can be said to replace the swastika in the Laibach spectacle, both in its ubiquity and where it is worn. On one level, it is simply the Laibach logo; on another, it is a symbol redolent of the German military cross of the Second World War. Yet for Laibach and the NSK, its potential meanings are more complex: ‘For us, members of a small nation, the cross simultaneously takes on a different, fateful meaning. Our culture nails us into the centre of the cross, into a crossing point of mad ambitions of the East and West. It is an empty space, geometrically defined but its significance has never been fully clarified. It is in here that we materialise our own ideas.’41 Thus the Malevich Cross as employed by the NSK not only represents art history discourse and a perceived appropriation of the historic avant-garde by the West, but also functions in a more literal sense as a diagram of Slovenia’s and the NSK’s position as nexus. Slovenia conceives itself as a geo-political East/West threshold, whilst the NSK sees itself as being an aesthetic-political point of dialogue between Eastern Europe and the West. In this sense, the painting of a giant Malevich Cross in the symbolic heart of the West becomes a statement of identity – one of affirmation, and of challenge.
In the second in the Transcentrala sequence, Transcentrala Moscow (1992), an enormous black cloth square was rolled out in the middle of Moscow’s Red Square, as part of the NSK Embassy Moscow event. The action was entitled Black Square on Red Square, and was an attempt to restore the Malevich square to Moscow, the heart of the Russian state.
Again ‘restored’, since Suprematism was denounced under Stalin in 1934. At that time, the Soviet avant-garde, hitherto the art of the Revolution, was replaced by Socialist Realism. The spiritual dimension to Suprematism, as espoused by Malevich and the UNOVIS group, is a utopian dynamic that the Retrogarde both restores and deconstructs. This utopianism is, moreover, a ready-made text that can be applied using the Retrogarde method to shed new light on the present. NSK theorist Eda Čufer, who was present at the event, states that initially it was thought that this action made Russian artists uneasy, since it appeared foreign artists were appropriating Russian art.42 In fact, the spiritual-utopian dimension of Suprematism, as expressed in the square, exposed the trauma of a secondary ideology. The restoration of the spiritual-utopian aspect of Suprematism in the symbolic geographic centre of an ostensibly secular ideology revealed a transcendental dimension of modernity, by exposing the quasi-religious ancestor-worship of Lenin’s remains.
The third of the Transcentrala actions, Transcentrala Ljubljana (1997), featured members of the NSK dancing in a circle with women in Slovenian national dress. The Transcentrala New York, Moscow, Ljubljana actions are site-specific performances, whereby the Russian avant-garde art-form Suprematism is evoked in symbolic spaces. The first two take Suprematist Ur-icons to the very heart of historically opposed ideologies, which makes the third a symbolic re-affirmation of Slovenia’s perceived position as geo-political nexus.
Other site-specific NSK performances include those in Graz and Skopje in 2008, where NSK artwork was carried in religious processions. The painting as religious icon is a theme typical of the majority of IRWIN (the NSK’s visual artists) works. Not only does Catholic iconography feature frequently in these paintings, but the use of dark oil paint and gold, the absence of perspective, and the large heavy frames all hark back to orthodox religious icons. The celebrants in both these processions were not NSK members or artists, but genuine priests and functionaries of the church. The picture they carried was IRWIN’s Malevich between Two Wars (1984). The event was charged with the incongruity of the IRWIN painting, which is a meshing of Malevich, traditional portraiture, and Nazi Kunst, being carried in the place of a religious icon in a ritualised religious setting. If the subject matter had been conventional Catholic iconography, the result would not have been so arresting. The incongruity is jarring, drawing attention to, and befitting, the status of icon claimed by IRWIN paintings.
Other site-specific performances have been more directly provocative. The Einkauf [shopping] action of 6 April, 2003 is one such example. Members of Laibach, in the uniforms of Nazi officers, strolled about the City Park shopping mall in the BTC shopping district of Ljubljana. The swastika was replaced by the Laibach armband featuring the Malevich Cross.43 Similarly, in 1988 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nazi annexation of Austria, the NSK delivered a speech from the balcony of Graz University, which had been at one time Nazi headquarters. The NSK addressed the people of Austria in a speech that conflated the Christian cross with the cross of the swastika throughout: ‘Austrians! As Germanic people, you are consecrated to the Christian cross and serve it faithfully; as Germanic people, your love belonged to the swastika’.44 These provocations are of an applied radical ambivalence characteristic of Laibach and NSK praxis. In March 1989 in Belgrade, the centre of Serbian nationalism, before a performance, Laibach played World War II Nazi propaganda footage of the bombing of the city, and Peter Mlakar of the NSK’s Department of Pure and Applied Philosophy gave a speech. Delivered partly in Serbian, the speech called upon the audience to protect the purity and honour of the Serbs and to defend Serbian territory, and was a direct appropriation of a speech by Serbian president Slobodan Milošević. This potentially incendiary text was delivered accompanied by the usual Laibach totalitarian aesthetics of the 1980s. Mlakar would occasionally slip into German throughout the speech, a language that in Yugoslavia, as elsewhere, was historically associated with fascism. Here the rhetoric of Serbian nationalism was being delivered with the connotations of a Nazi rally.
Laibach and the NSK practice an active strategy of non-alignment with temporal, aesthetic, geo-political, and ideological determinants. Retrogardism is a process of temporal non-alignment, being simultaneously a forward movement that returns to the utopianism of the historic avant-garde, and a backward movement to the classicism of Socialist Realism and Nazi Kunst. In failing to be assimilated into any hegemonic aesthetic discourse, Laibach and the NSK establish an aesthetic non-alignment. This non-alignment is also geo-political, inasmuch as Laibach and NSK establish a spectral monumental state, based on a fictive militant Slovenism. As regards ideological non-alignment this is perhaps best expressed by Laibach: ‘In art, morality is nonsense; in practice it is immoral; in people it is a sickness’.45 This non-aligned position is a core component of the group’s interpellative agency. By returning to the problematic tropes and drives of the Grand Utopian Narratives and exposing history as an active ideological agency of the present rather than an absolute of the past, Laibach also challenges individual subject position. The visceral appeal of Laibach’s oppressive-triumphalist audio textures demands both a surrender of critical distance, but also, paradoxically, cerebral engagement, in order to decipher conflicting and enigmatic textual codes. The onus is on the individual to establish a coherent viewpoint in this impossible subject-position. As Žižek has pointed out, Laibach operates as a question, not an answer.46
Laibach and the NSK also challenge the ideologies of Anglo-American and Eastern European cultural identity. As seen above, in 1992 the NSK created the State-in-Time, the ‘First Global State of the Universe’ – a state without borders or territory, but with temporary consulates, passports and citizenship. Hence the NSK passport becomes an artefact of performative identity.47 Other challenges to conventional East-West cultural identities are perhaps more obtuse. For example, Laibach and the NSK’s interrogation of an East-West nexus at times appears to re-affirm Western misconceptions and prejudices about Eastern Europe, whilst at other times makes little or no attempt to be understood by the West. In 1992, the NSK opened the first NSK State-in-Time embassy in Moscow, within the framework of the APT-ART project.48 This was an express attempt to connect with Russian artists within the context of a shared totalitarian past and a post-Socialist future. More significantly however, it was undertaken with little or no involvement of the Western art world, and Western reportage was incidental to the project. Laibach and the NSK’s articulation of an Eastern European aesthetic discourse such as Gržinić’s Easthetics within the hegemony of Western aesthetic discourse certainly celebrates the void between these two discourses (what Eda Čufer has called the ‘Difference’), but it also celebrates the exclusion of the West.49 However, in the hands of Laibach and the NSK, the resulting inability of the West to comprehend their praxis becomes a discursive field in which the failure to converse becomes a constructive and fruitful text, generating an original aesthetic discourse. Thus, in the context of the art of Laibach and the NSK, the failings of both Eastern Europe and the West to communicate may be understood as positive, in that it generates a creative interplay of texts and aesthetic systems.
Retrogardism, despite drawing its energies from history, is not an historical art form, nor is it a study in European history. The open wounds of the European traumatic historical are not addressed by retrospectives, but by returning to, and resurrecting, their problematic utopian drives. Laibach and the NSK have not only demonstrated the importance of ‘Difference’ as the potential for a creative interplay of texts and aesthetic systems, but the value of ambiguity and enigma in relation to subjectivity. Although it can be said that Laibach and the NSK no longer have the same impact as they did in the 1980s, and the shift from Socialism to transitional post-Socialism in Eastern Europe has deprived them of much readymade textual material, their performative praxis still resonates. Laibach Kunst Machine is still very relevant, perhaps even more so now, under the burgeoning and all-assimilating power of contemporary capitalism.
- 1. GSSN (Sestre Scipion Nasice Theatre) was renamed Red Pilot Cosmokinetic Theatre in 1987, and in 1995, Noordung Cosmokinetic Cabinet. IRWIN was initially known as Rrose IRWIN Sélavy, after a pseudonym used by Marcel Duchamp.
- 2. Alexei Monroe, Interrogation Machine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005), 247.
- 3. Alexei Monroe, ed., State of Emergence: A Documentary of the First NSK Citizens’ Congress (Leipzig: Poison Cabinet Press, 2011).
- 4. For the sake of simplicity, the albums counted here are the primary releases. I have not included imports, or that there are three variations of Kapital (1992), for example.
- 5. This event is documented in the film Liberation Day (2015).
- 6. Michael Goddard, “We Are Time: Retro-avant-gardism and Machinic Repetition,” Angelaki 11, no. 1 (2006), 45.
- 7. Alexei Monroe, Interrogation Machine (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005), 180.
- 8. A comparison can be made with the Bill Grundy Sex Pistols TV interview that scandalised Britain in 1976. However, whilst the Sex Pistols transgressed with infantile swearing, Laibach’s provocation was one of militant aesthetics.
- 9. The poster was officially selected for the national Youth Day celebration as a result of a competition, and confirmed by a Belgrade commission. Prior to distribution all over Yugoslavia, an engineer named Nikola Grujić submitted an article to the Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodenje pointing out the similarities between the NK poster and the Nazi one.
- 10. Marina Gržinić, “Total recall – Total Closure,” in East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, ed. IRWIN (London: Afterall, 2006), 328.
- 11. Gržinić, 484.
- 12. Michael Benson, “How Slovenian is it?” Artforum International 42, no. 2 (October 2003), 57.
- 13. Source: lecture given by Timothy Snyder at University College London on the 1st June 2011, entitled: ‘Europe between Hitler and Stalin’.
- 14. NSK, Neue Slowenische Kunst, trans. Marjan Golobič (Los Angeles: AMOK Books, 1991), 125.
- 15. Stuart Hall and Bram Gieben, eds., Formations of Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992), 277.
- 16. Steven Mansbach, Modern Art in Eastern Europe: from the Baltic to the Balkans (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1999), 4.
- 17. Anda Rottenberg, “Between Institution and Tradition: The Artist in Search of Freedom,” in Beyond Belief: Contemporary Art from East Central Europe, ed. Laura Hoptman (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995), 25.
- 18. Christian Moraru, Post-communism, Postmodernism, and the Global Imagination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 63.
- 19. Slavoj Žižek, “Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead,” in Dimensions of Radical Democracy, ed. Chantal Mouffe (London: Verso, 1992), 193.
- 20. Eda Čufer, “Enjoy Me, Abuse Me, I Am Your Artist: Cultural Politics, Their Monuments, Their Ruins,” in East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, ed. IRWIN (London: Afterall, 2006), 362.
- 21. “Excerpts from Interviews given between 1980–1985,” Laibach, accessed August 24, 2017, http://www.laibach.nsk.si/l31.htm.
- 22. I attended this conference, and quote the NSK here directly.
- 23. The battle of Kursk (1943) was the largest armoured battle in history, and despite ending in stalemate, served to turn the strategic initiative in Russia’s favour. It can be argued that the Second World War was lost and won at Kursk, yet it remains relatively unknown in the Anglo-American West, as neither the Germans nor the Russians had a dominant post-war motion picture industry.
- 24. Emil Niederhauser, The Rise of Nationality in Eastern Europe, trans. Bertha Gaster (Gyoma: Corvina books, 1982), 96.
- 25. Zdenka Badovinac, “The Framing of Central Europe,” in Arteast 2000+ Collection: The Art of Eastern Europe in Dialogue with the West, ed. Zdenka Badovinac and Peter Weibel (Bolzano/Vienna: Folio Verlag, 2001), 16.
- 26. Aleš Erjavec, Postmodernism, Postsocialism and Beyond (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008), 178.
- 27. Agnes Horvath, “Mythology and the Trickster: Interpreting Communism,” in Democracy and Myth in Russia and Eastern Europe, eds. Alexander Wöll and Harald Wydra (Abingdon: Routledge, 2008), 27.
- 28. Gržinić, 484.
- 29. Gržinić, 324.
- 30. Sarah Kent, “Irwin,” Timeout, no. 886, August 1987, 39.
- 31. Nicolas Bourriaud, “An Eye on the East: Irwin,” Flash Art, no. 128 (May–June 1989), 110.
- 32. NSK, 49.
- 33. Adam Sweeting, “Listings,” The Guardian, July 24, 1987, 5.
- 34. Michael Snyder, “Laibach,” The San Francisco Chronicle, July 27, 1992, 2.
- 35. NSK, 51.
- 36. Alexei Monroe, “Culture Instead of a State, Culture as a State: Art, Regime and Transcendence in the Works of Laibach and Neue Slowenische Kunst” (PhD diss., University of Kent, 2000), 174.
- 37. This concert was listed in The Wire’s 60 most important rock concerts, since it foreshadowed the demise of Yugoslavia.
- 38. Laibach has employed the term ‘militant classicism’ to describe its music. “Excerpts from Interviews given between 1980–1985” Laibach.
- 39. The advertisement is conventional and sentimental, shot in warm tones, except for the four seconds showing Laibach. That sequence is shadowy and enigmatic, and not explained in the context of the love story around which the rest of the advert revolves.
- 40. A colloquial Japanese term for white-collar workers.
- 41. NSK, 122.
- 42. Eda Čufer, “Enjoy Me,” 372.
- 43. Footage of this can be found in Laibach’s A Film about WAT (2004).
- 44. NSK, 150.
- 45. NSK, 44.
- 46. Slavoj Žižek, “Why are Laibach and the NSK not Fascist?,” in Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, eds. Laura Hoptman and Tomas Pospisyl (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002), 287.
- 47. I consider myself to have dual nationality, in claiming NSK citizenship.
- 48. Between 10 May and 10 June 1992, NSK Embassy Moscow took place in a private apartment at Leninsky Prospekt 12. According to Inke Arns, ‘the central event of the project was a one week program of lectures and public discussions, organised in co-operation with IRWIN and Eda Čufer … The aim of the event was to confront the similar social contexts of the ex-Soviet Union and ex-Yugoslavia’. Inke Arns, Irwin Retroprincip 1983–2003 (Belgrade: Museum of Contemporary Arts, 2004), 58.
- 49. Eda Čufer, “Mind Your Own Business,” Moscow Art Magazine, no. 22 (1998), 39.
Aleš Erjavec. Postmodernism, Postsocialism and Beyond. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2008.
Alexei Monroe, ed. State of Emergence: A Documentary of the First NSK Citizens’ Congress. Leipzig: Poison Cabinet Press, 2011.
Alexei Monroe. Interrogation Machine. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2005.
Arns, Inke. Irwin Retroprincip 1983–2003. Belgrade: Museum of Contemporary Arts, 2004.
Badovinac, Zdenka. “The Framing of Central Europe.” In Arteast 2000+ Collection: The Art of Eastern Europe in Dialogue with the West, edited by Zdenka Badovinac and Peter Weibl, 16–20. Bolzano/Vienna: Folio Verlag, 2001.
Benson, Michael. “How Slovenian is it?” Artforum International 42, no. 2 (October 2003): 57.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. “An Eye on the East: Irwin.” Flash Art, no. 128 (May–June 1989): 110–111.
Christian Moraru, ed. Post-communism, Postmodernism, and the Global Imagination. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.
Čufer, Eda. “Enjoy Me, Abuse Me, I Am Your Artist: Cultural Politics, Their Monuments, Their Ruins.” In East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, edited by IRWIN, 360–375. London: Afterall, 2006.
Čufer, Eda. “Mind Your Own Business.” Moscow Art Magazine, no. 22 (1998): 39–40.
Goddard, Michael. “We Are Time: Retro-avant-gardism and Machinic Repetition.” Angelaki 11, no. 1 (2006): 45–53.
Gržinić, Marina. “Total recall – Total Closure.” In East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, edited by IRWIN, 320–326. London: Afterall, 2006.
Hall, Stuart, and Bram Gieben, eds. Formations of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992.
Horvath, Agnes. “Mythology and the Trickster: Interpreting Communism.” In Democracy and Myth in Russia and Eastern Europe, edited by Alexander Wöll and Harald Wydra, 27–44. Abingdon: Routledge, 2008.
Kent, Sarah. “Irwin.” Timeout, no. 886 (August 1987): 39.
Laibach. “Excerpts from Interviews Given Between 1980–1985.” Accessed August 24, 2017. http://www.laibach.nsk.si/l31.htm.
Laibach. “Laibach (Dallas 1989).” Accessed June 4, 2016. http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLF48D5E2FA8854BD6.
Mansbach, Steven. Modern Art in Eastern Europe: from the Baltic to the Balkans. Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1999.
Monroe, Alexei. “Culture Instead of a State, Culture as a State: Art, Regime and Transcendence in the Works of Laibach and Neue Slowenische Kunst.” PhD diss., University of Kent, 2000.
Niederhauser, Emil. The Rise of Nationality in Eastern Europe. Translated by Bertha Gaster. Gyoma: Corvina Books, 1982.
NSK. Neue Slowenische Kunst. Translated by Marjan Golobič. Los Angeles: AMOK Books, 1991.
Rottenberg, Anda. “Between Institution and Tradition: The Artist in Search of Freedom.” In Beyond Belief: Contemporary Art from East Central Europe, edited by Laura Hoptman, 25–34. Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1995.
Snyder, Michael. “Laibach.” The San Francisco Chronicle, July 27, 1991, 2.
Sweeting, Adam. “Listings.” The Guardian, July 24, 1987.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Eastern Europe’s Republics of Gilead.” In Dimensions of Radical Democracy, edited by Chantal Mouffe, 192–206. London: Verso, 1992.
Žižek, Slavoj. “Why are Laibach and the NSK not Fascists?” In Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1950s, edited by Laura Hoptman and Tomas Pospisyl, 287. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2002.