On 1 June 1980, less than a month after the death of Tito, in the Slovene capital Ljubljana, a small gathering took place in the industrial city of Trbovlje. In the home of a local artist, a group eager to explore the relationship between art and ideology was founded. They called themselves "Laibach" after the German term for Ljubljana, which was used during both Hapsburg rule and Nazi occupation.
Trbovlje lies at the heart of an area known as "The Red Districts" infamous for its heavy industry, severe pollution and political extremism. Laibach would draw on the extremity (and also the concealed beauty) of this harsh environment to become Slovenia's and Yugoslavia's most notorious and successful cultural export.
On the night of 26 September 1980, Laibach's first public act, an overnight "poster action" took place in Trbovlje. The two posters bore the group's traumatic name (which incidentally led to a ban on performances in Ljubljana from 1983 to 1987 ). Additionally, one poster featured a scene of mutilation - an assailant gouging the eyes of his victim with a knife. The second featured a simple black cross on a white background, which was actually derived from a motif by the Russian avant-garde artist Malevich but was reminiscent of the black crosses on Third Reich military vehicles.
The posters were quickly removed and the first Laibach event was cancelled. Had this been the last provocation of the group (as it almost certainly would have been had they carried it out in the USSR or Czechoslovakia), it would have remained an obscure footnote of local history, scarcely remembered even in its own locality. To the contrary, the poster action was merely the calling card of a group that has outlived by a decade the regime it first confronted and to this day continues to provoke and challenge the world.
Laibach was based on the key premise that "all art is subject to political manipulation, except for that which speaks the language of this same manipulation." This perspective emerged from the ideological cacophony that characterized the final years of the self-management system in Yugoslavia.
Laibach grew out of a context in which the spectacularly complex discourses and institutions of self-management pervaded all sections of public and private life. Laibach's response was to incorporate the all-pervasive "noise" of the system into a traumatic multimedia spectacle that completely disoriented the authority. The sounds used by Laibach were disturbing enough. Taking elements from the Futurist, Bruitism and Fluxus movements, and drawing on the work of Kraftwerk and the emerging industrial music scene, Laibach were pioneers of the cut and paste sampling aesthetic. Drums and guitars were augmented by oscillators, gramophones and improvised electronics meant to evoke the cacophonous rhythms of Trbovlje and of mass production as such.
A combination of smoke bombs, screen projections blending porn clips and Partisan films and the wearing of paramilitary fatigues by the group on stage provoked extreme reactions at the early Laibach concerts. This audio-visual assault was intensified by (uncredited) quotations from, amongst others, Tito, Kardelj, Goebbels, Hitler and Stalin and whole-scale appropriations of official (right-wing) texts.
The alternately propagandistic and brutal lyrics complemented alienating and almost impenetrable statements. Laibach's use of German and its equally disturbing posters and graphics offered an easy target for the authorities and conservative social opinion determined to prove that alternative culture was simply a cover for the resurgence of fascism.
Yet when Laibach statements were condemned, its critics were often unknowingly condemning the appropriated words of the ideological architects of the Yugoslav system. Laibach manipulated the reactionary tendency of the Slovene and Yugoslav media and popular opinion to label any new cultural or political development as fascist. In the process they created an extreme frontier of tolerance, diverting repressive energy away from other alternative groups and artists. Effectively, Laibach's use of the sounds, symbols and discourse of the socialist state set a pattern for a subsequent interrogation of numerous political and stylistic regimes in both East and West.
The plural monolith
In 1983, in order to form a wider arts collective, Laibach joined with the fine arts group Irwin (whose initial paintings were reworkings of Laibach motifs) and the Theatre of The Sisters of Scipion Nasice. The outcome: Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), or New Slovene Art, an artists' co-operative, so to speak, which expanded to include architecture, design and philosophy, with each group reinforcing and complementing the aesthetic and political themes of the others.
As NSK's operations grew, Laibach became a constantly shifting mass of ambiguities and pluralities, which, in turn, encompassed a vast range of aesthetic, historical, national and cultural references. From an early stage, Laibach statements critiqued the concept of originality in art. Moreover, their work contains often uncredited references: the Russian, Slovene and Yugoslav avant-garde, totalitarian art, Duchamp, Beuys, Kiefer, Delacroix, Sir Edwin Landseer, Rembrandt, René Magritte, Jackson Pollock, Nam June Paik, John Heartfield, Shakespeare, Adorno, Queen, The Rolling Stones, Penderecki, Kraftwerk, Prešeren, Jože Plečnik, Ivan Grohar, Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, John Cage, Gustav Holst and many others. A list of indirect stylistic references and allusions would be even longer.
To follow Laibach is to be drawn through a whole series of obscure and dramatic spheres. Even small details such as poster titles make concrete historical or artistic references. Laibach concerts are highly choreographed audiovisual examples of the Wagnerian "Gesamtkunstwerk" (complete work of art) concept that deliberately plays on an archetypal and intense information overload. Their concerts have often been preceded by provocative speeches from the NSK "Department of Pure and Applied Philosophy." For example, when the group played Belgrade in 1989, the speech delivered (which incorporated the inflammatory rhetoric of Slobodan Milošević) was intensified by a screening of a 1941 German propaganda film on the bombing of the Serbian capital.
The interrogation machine
So after 20 years, over a dozen albums and hundreds of performances and events later, is Laibach any clearer? Whilst impossible to portray the scope of Laibach's activity in a short space, it is possible to begin to assess some of the impact. Retrospectively, their work illuminates something more substantial than the usual rock 'n' roll mantra of wrecked marriages and smashed hotel rooms.
The effect of the spectacular and disturbing juxtapositions in their work creates dense fields of meaning. In Laibach's terms, they "demask and recapitulate" the political and stylistic regimes associated with the original symbols. The basic procedure can be summarised as a confrontation of regimes with their own normally suppressed codes (the homeopathic principle of treating poison with poison). With each album and project Laibach and NSK have interrogated a series of power structures that fabricate life and politics in both the East and West—totalitarianism, capitalism, Christian monotheism, nationalism and paramilitarism. The politicised rendering of musical genres (and vice-versa) provides a new framework to view and document contemporary realities.
Nonetheless, Laibach's place in Slovenia remains ambiguous. They are too large a presence to ignore and too controversial to be wholly acceptable. Laibach received significant official recognition in 1997 when their concert with the Slovene Philharmonic opened the European Month of Culture in Ljubljana. However, as if to insure themselves against full assimilation into the mainstream, crudely montaged posters showing Laibach in SS uniforms were posted around the city the night before their performance, and their pre-concert speech caused the conservative Archbishop of Ljubljana to walk out of the event.
The scale of Laibach's success and the fact that the group has made many aware of Slovenia for the first time is hard to ignore; yet many resent Laibach (and NSK as a whole) for precisely these reasons. The Slovene language is seen as central to Slovene identity and threats to it often provoke political and popular responses. Spoken by a population of only two million and considered obscure even by the other South Slavs, it is often seen as hopelessly provincial.
For Laibach to have achieved international recognition with albums (Rekapitulacija, Nova Akropola, Krst pod Triglavom) that gave the language equal status with German and English is highly significant. In practice this factor was overshadowed by Laibach's controversial use of German, but it was a strikingly triumphant challenge to the domination of popular English music.
Similarly, Laibach included a whole series of highly specific references to Slovene culture and history, showcasing to a wider international audience luminaries such as architect Jože Plečnik and the myths surrounding the conversion of the pagan Slovenes by the Germans. Laibach and NSK spoke openly of a monumental assertion of (the superiority of) Slovene culture. This cannot be construed in the same manner as the assertiveness of less ambiguous nationalistic artists elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe. Slovene national motifs have found their most spectacular form in Laibach/NSK works, but rather than sitting in isolation, they are intermingled with Germanic, totalitarian, avant-garde and international elements. Elements that are seen by many as antithetical to "Sloveneness."
Laibach's Sloveneness is unacceptable to many, because it presents a holistic version of national identity rather than a partial nationalist version purged of any ambiguities such as domestic collaboration and authoritarianism. If Laibach are nationalist, it is certainly not in any sense recognised by actual Slovene nationalists, who are, as the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek has pointed out, among their fiercest critics.
Nor do the facts bear out the allegation that Laibach was a fifth column for Germanization or neo-Nazism. If it was remarkable for Slovene to be heard abroad in a popular format, it is all the more remarkable that it should have achieved success in Germany and Austria. The Nazis and pan-German nationalists claimed that Slovenes as a whole were basically a Germanic people which should be assimilated by any means necessary. The Slovene minority in Austria's southernmost province of Carinthia remain under assimilationist pressure today.
Laibach presented the spectre of an ultra-volkisch Germanic force and thus achieved much success in Germany and Austria. Yet the Germanic elements complemented rather than replaced the Slovene ones, and audiences were exposed to a culture that many older Germans had been actively involved in trying to eradicate. Moreover, from the time of the first large-scale German tour (entitled Die Erste Bombardierung über Deutschland—The First Bombing Over Germany), Laibach has taken an extremely confrontational approach to the German audience even whilst appearing to act out some of its archetypal fantasies.
Speeches made by the NSK Philosophy Deptartment before Laibach concerts in Germany and Austria carry a theme of the subordination of the Germanic to the Slovene. Laibach turned on its head the nationalist superiority complex in relation to Slovenes by claiming that contemporary Germans were simply an "inferior type of Slovene." Laibach asserted the Slovene by emphasising the links between the cultures, provoking nationalists on both sides and making it impossible for this "New Slovene Art" to be ignored or patronised either in the aesthetic or political spheres.
In concrete terms Laibach's retro-garde spectral Sloveno-Germanism has had specific effects. From 1983 to 1988, the issue of its name generated fierce discussion in Slovenia. Laibach has always rejected the "dissident" label and stressed differences as much as similarities with the social and cultural alternative movements that took place in Slovenia during the 1980s.
Their name was championed by alternative media and theorists and eventually by the official youth organisation. Stacked against them were populist media commentators and Second World War veterans' groups, who repeatedly demanded a change of Laibach's name. The issue became polarised into a wider symbol of inter-generational conflict, and one could argue that the partisan groups lost much of their remaining social legitimacy as a result of the name dispute.
In the wider Yugoslav context, Laibach became a source of fear and fascination, radically transforming (though also conforming to) stereotypical images of Slovenes, often seen by fellow Yugoslavs as both cold, Germanic, inward-looking and provincial. The advent of Laibach and Slovene alternative culture directly challenged the self-proclaimed cultural supremacy of Zagreb and Belgrade. Slovenia, and Laibach as the most extreme Slovene phenomenon, shifted from quaint irrelevance to a force of threat in the Serb and Croatian popular media.
Laibach occupied the space of a demonic Other onto which all negative tendencies and fears could be projected. Within a few years, media that gratefully welcomed Laibach and NSK as "proof" of fascistic tendencies in Slovenia would agitate for and support the truly fascistic nationalist policies of the Serb and Croatian governments and militias. As in every other context Laibach acted as a test of socio-ideological sensitivity and also as a scapegoat. In practice Laibach and NSK are among the least nationalist of (former) Yugoslav artists and have continued active co-operation with cultural endeavours in the other republics, refusing to confine themselves to the Slovene cultural space they helped reshape.
Almost a decade after the collapse into war, the extent to which Laibach predicted and contributed to events remains open to debate. Rather than explicitly predicting war, Laibach diagnosed the continued presence of unprocessed traumas from the Second World War and the persistence of violent social antagonisms under the apparently calm surface of self-management.
It can be said that Laibach forcefully extended the frontiers of public debate and contributed to a sense of Slovene separateness that was incompatible with the authoritarian centralism of Milošević. It should be remembered that at no time did Laibach advocate any direct political position or associate with any party. Laibach argued early on that its actions were intended to have a therapeutic or exorcistic effect through rendering audible (but not creating) otherwise hidden forces affecting reality. The way in which Laibach's extremity was labelled as alien or un-Slovene by its critics directly challenged Slovene exceptionalism. As a phenomenon heavily structured on Slovene motifs, Laibach attempted to demonstrate that negative social and political forces were as intrinsic to Slovenia as anywhere else.
What may differentiate Slovenia is its attempted channelling of such forces. Laibach acted out in spectral form the actual hegemonic paramilitarism taking place elsewhere in Yugoslavia. It is interesting to note the lack of overt (rather than covert) nationalism in Slovenia and it seems possible that at the symbolic level Laibach pre-annexed potential sites of paramilitarist mobilisation in Slovenia. Laibach's extremity may have been such that it deterred rather than inspired potential totalitarian forces.
Other groups, in comparison to Laibach's severity, would have had to be so extreme as to make impossible any mass support. By marking out and occupying such an extreme frontier Laibach may have, to some extent, set the limits on political radicalism in Slovenia. As to the question of Laibach's predictive power, 1994's NATO album pointedly anticipated the expansion of Western influence in the region.
The growth of alternative culture in Slovenia coincided with the return of the concepts of "Central Europe" and "Mitteleuropa." By emphasising Slovenia's links with the Germanic sphere, Laibach were in a sense part of a reorientation of Slovene culture towards Central and Western Europe. In another sense, however, Laibach completely eradicated the stereotypical image of culture from Slovenia and Central Europe (which has, in any case, traditionally been dominated by Czech, Austrian, Polish and Hungarian figures).
Central European culture is still often associated with traditional and even nostalgic forms of culture (literature and classical music) and a pervasive melancholy. The contrast with Laibach and other representatives of the alternative culture produced in the Central Europe of the 1980s could not have been more acute. Laibach achieved success through a militant, defiantly unapologetic style that arguably has done far more to expose Slovenia and the region than the traditional comfortable forms of Central European culture.
Not only did Laibach challenge (largely Western) ideals about a polite and sensitive Central European culture, it consciously manipulated both romantic and negative Western preconceptions about the region, playing as much upon Western fears of a demonic Slav as upon expectations of a docile nostalgic culture.
Above all, their music directly challenged Western assumptions about the backwardness and irrelevance of pop culture in Central and Eastern Europe. When they were tolerated it was often for political as much as aesthetic reasons (as with the Czech dissident band Plastic People of the Universe) and were not seen as a competitor to Western bands. Whilst Laibach have never explicitly referred to Central Europe as a concept and would not wish to limit themselves in this way, their success across the region and beyond has demonstrated the potential of the region to produce dynamic art and popular culture without relinquishing its local specificity.
This worldview may seem pessimistic, but Laibach do not glorify nihilism in the manner of other industrial groups they criticise; rather they attempt to fashion a creative and constructive response to adverse conditions. Yet there is no Laibach cause or movement. The demonic, militaristic and other negative forces present in their work are indeed spectral elements that form part of a persistent attempt at political and cultural exorcism. Laibach's career has been as much an analytical undertaking as much as a creative one. Nevertheless, Laibach has produced some of the most dangerous and dramatic art of the last twenty years.
The uncanny effectiveness of Laibach's works as sono-ideological documents of their time are widely acknowledged, yet their aesthetic value is less widely discussed. Laibach's aesthetic is based heavily on the Duchampian technique of the readymade. This technique expresses and renders audible alienation without precluding a poetic quality.
Laibach have claimed that their incorporation of official political discourse into the group's rhetoric represents a kind of politicised poetry. The same is also true of Laibach's noise-based music. The colossal industrial rhythms of tracks such as Laibach Apologija or the brutal sequences of Rdeči Molk (Red Silence) constitute a type of dystopic sublime within their music. From 1985's Nova Akropola onwards Laibach deployed more classical samples and created a more martial, heroic sound that is easier to relate to traditional musical aesthetics. As a result it is far more politically suspect.
However, the classical samples were as often unsettling and atonal as they were seductive, and they coexisted alongside more experimental noise elements.
The Nazis and present-day extreme right-wing cultural critics share a hatred of modernist complexity, atonality and dissonance in music, all of which are key aspects of Laibach's aesthetic. It is also worth noting that the majority of actual Neo-Nazi music is neither electronic nor classical music, but acoustic folk or "Oi!"-type guitar music. In order for Laibach to achieve their full aesthetic and ideological effects, it was necessary for them to produce a dangerously credible demonstration of music as a totalitarian force; but to take Laibach literally is to make their point for them.
Laibach illustrates the way in which the political and the aesthetic coexist in all music and raise the daunting question of whether politically tainted sounds can be considered "beautiful." Some would argue that Laibach's works are aesthetically as well as politically inadmissible, whilst those in tune with the band's aesthetic would argue that their music is of great significance. What is certain is that the sheer range of styles and the inventiveness of Laibach's "making strange" of whole genres has created some unique sonic hybrids that have disrupted the symbolic and political-economic orders of popular music.
In December 1990, ten years after the first Trbovlje actions, Laibach staged a homecoming concert in an abandoned power station. It was provocatively called "10 Years of Laibach: 10 Years of Slovene Independence." In June 2000, the Trbovlje authorities of Trbovlje announced that Laibach was to receive the annual municipal prize in recognition of their achievements at home and abroad. In turn, Laibach announced a plan to turn Trbovlje into a city called "Retropolis." Trbovlje is unable to deny the force of the Laibach phenomenon and the fact that nothing remains the same once exposed to or processed by Laibach. A new album is expected at the end of the year, and the "Retropolis" motif seems likely to be central. Thus, Trbovlje again provides first warning of the return of the spectre to Europe and beyond.
Alexei Monroe, 18 September 2000
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