Thirty Years of Art, Ideology &
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the founding of Laibach in the mining town of Trbovlje, Slovenia, in what was then part of Yugoslavia. Best known as avant-garde musical provocateurs, Laibach began life as an artist’s collective, whose early multi-media work encompassed painting and printmaking alongside music, video, film, and performance. Taking history, politics, and ideology as Duchampian readymades, the early exhibitions and actions of the group presented visual iconography that drew upon and merged socialist, nationalist, and fascist tropes of representation. With their founding of the larger NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) collective in 1984, Laibach concentrated on music and performance as the main platform for the presentation of their work, which continued to be augmented by Laibach Kunst, or the group’s visual art practice/aesthetic approach. In 1992, and with the break up of Yugoslavia, NSK declared itself a State. A utopian social sculpture with no national or physical boundaries, the NSK State opened temporary consulates in a number of cities and issued passports, some of which were used by NSK citizens to escape war torn Sarajevo in the early 90s.
A number of significant events are taking place this year to mark Laibach’s 30th anniversary. Along with musical performances, three major Laibach Kunst exhibitions are taking place in Slovenia and Croatia. Part retrospective, and comprising of new installations, the exhibitions are re-introducing the work of Laibach as visual artists working across numerous media. We recently spoke to the group about Laibach Kunst, and their continued examination of the intersection between art, politics, and ideology.
Rail: In situations of conflict, or in overtly nationalistic countries, critical discourse is often suspended by a majority of people and replaced by thinking at the level of the state—an over-identification (to use iek’s term) where the state is fully internalized in individual (or in some cases group) consciousness. In the early days Laibach were considered dangerous for manifesting this over-identification and as a result challenging it. Outside of the existence of the NSK State, which is currently being shaped by the collective will of its citizens, do Laibach feel it remains important to challenge this internalization?
Laibach: We generally understand internalization as the long-term process of consolidating and embedding one’s own beliefs, attitudes, and values, when it comes to moral behaviour. This is the process of acceptance of a set of norms established by groups and which are influential to the individual. The process starts with learning what the norms are. The individual then goes through a process of understanding why they are of value or why they make sense, until finally they accept the norm as their own “collective” viewpoint.
In sciences such as biology, internalization is what the (collective) body does to (individual) cells, neurons, receptors, transporters, etc. once they’ve lived out their life cycle or have otherwise been damaged or compromised. It is a process by which a dead or mutated cell is recycled by the body in a way to consume the said cell for its energy (within the body) as the body creates new ones. For Laibach it is important not only to understand and to challenge, but also to constantly practice such an internalization—within our own system of beliefs and functioning as well as towards the “outside” world.
Rail: Laibach have used a mix of often-conflicting images in the past that either confused or provoked strong reactions from the public—from Nazi Kunst, to socialist and nationalist iconography. How do you think that images retain power in a media-driven world that is oversaturated with images?
Laibach: In a world that is oversaturated with images, the system of symbols, logos, and trademarks is the new alphabet of rational identification, description, and the interpretation of content. This is “image writing,” which is close to the function of icons in the Byzantine and Orthodox Christian tradition, and it means a particular depiction of a subject in terms of the content of the image. Nazi Kunst, socialist and nationalist images are extremely iconographical due to their brutal symbolism and pragmatic relation to ideology. But they also retain power due to their superficial perception, which is loaded with the usual prejudices and preconceptions.
Rail: Totalitarianism is condemned in the west as a negative system—often reserved for socialist countries or dictatorships, yet the U.S., for example, is arguably a totalitarian state, where every aspect of politics and culture is subject to the dictatorship of market forces/capital. Can totalitarianism as an idea, or a system, have positive attributes in either art or politics?
Laibach: Of course it can; the greatest historical periods, regimes, and forms of rule were all in principle totalitarian, including American bi-party democracy. In fact, democracy today is in general just a polite term for a highly developed totalitarianism.
Rail: New York recently acknowledged/celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall with numerous events, including a performing arts festival and conference at Columbia University. Since the wall’s collapse, the grand ideas about the potential for politics as a visionary tool to shape societies have all but disappeared. Do you see any hope for the potential renewal of Utopia as an ideal—or have the horizons been well and truly lowered?
Laibach: Since the Berlin wall has disappeared new walls—ideological and very concrete—have been built around the world, some much longer and bigger than the one in Berlin: the wall built between Israel and Palestine (8 m high); the segregation/immigrant wall in Padua, Italy (3 m high); also a segregation wall in the Czech Republic, built to separate the Gypsy population from the rest in the city of Usti nad Labem (4 m high). There is another wall in Slovakia, in the village of Ostrovany. Also, the border wall between the USA and Mexico, walls in Iraq, between India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, etc, etc. There is also a mental wall built between Europe and Turkey, a wall between the EU and the rest of (Eastern) Europe, walls between the English speaking world and the others, etc, etc. So—if it’s only due to the walls—there are plenty of reasons for the renewal of Utopia and utopian ideas. No problem with that!
Rail: Can Nationalism ever be a positive phenomenon, or is it always doomed to accentuate divisions, a sense of exclusivity, or even conflict?
Laibach: Many forms of nationalism exist in history (religious nationalism—“one nation under God”, civic nationalism, ethnocentrism, expansionist nationalism, left-wing nationalism, territorial nationalism, ultra-nationalism, etc., etc.) and some of them can absolutely have a positive role in the development of society, economy, and the formation of the state. Usually nationalism in big countries is dangerous and nationalism in small countries is just a tool for surviving. But that is not necessarily the rule.
Rail: What are Laibach’s thoughts on the nostalgia for socialism that has appeared in parts of the former Yugoslavia (for example Yugo-nostalgia in Slovenia, and Cyber-Yugoslavia—an online “virtual citizenship” effort aimed at reviving the spirit of the old Yugoslavia (possibly inspired by the NSK State)?
Laibach: In many ways socialism was a much better and more humane system than capitalism is, but nostalgia is still just a seductive liar, which works like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense, but the past perfect!
Rail: How do ideology and mythology interact in Slovenia today? Aside from advertising, does propaganda play any role in Slovenia? What are the dominant myths in contemporary Slovenia, and are you interested in engaging them in any way?
Laibach: Propaganda in Slovenia does not play any relevant role; there is too much scepticism and criticism around, and the country is traditionally divided in ideological terms. Nevertheless the dominant unifying myth in contemporary Slovenia is that it is a superior country, close to being “chosen by God” (like many other—if not all—countries), with many skills and talents but with one major mistake—it is too small for big stories and big emotions. Therefore it will always be doomed and frustrated. And this is probably true. At the moment one of the most popular myths here is that Slovenia is (almost) going to win the soccer world cup in South Africa. As far as Laibach is concerned—we love this place and we try to add some value to it. On the other hand the major reason for us to stay here is simply that it is in an excellent geographical position and has a very decent quality of life.
Rail: After a long break, Laibach are again exhibiting Laibach Kunst in museums and galleries, with an exhibition in Poland last year and new exhibitions coming up. How do you feel about the potential of these venues to engage and challenge new audiences? Is there a markedly different response to Laibach in this environment as opposed to the stage or rock venue?
Laibach: We dislike museums and galleries but we also generally dislike rock concerts, festivals, and shows. Laibach started in galleries back in 1980. We left them for live shows because, as we still believe, music and pop culture have far greater potential in “spreading the disease”, or spreading the message, than museums. On the other hand galleries and museums provide an entirely different context, which in fact works well in relation to what we do in other media. They reflect each other perfectly as a kind of self-portrait in a distorted mirror.
Rail: Laibach have embodied the epic, the martial, and the militant. A quieter, more lyrical aspect of Laibach has appeared in past collaborations and on the Volk album in particular. What is your opinion on how emotion or sentimentality function in popular and folk music?
Laibach: All great popular movements are packed with a metaphysical broth of passions and emotions. So too is a person buying ordinary products in a supermarket, who is also in touch with their deepest emotions. The fact is that any emotion, if it is sincere, is involuntary, and therefore in our opinion emotions should have no place in art, unless one actually does business with them.
Rail: In art and in politics, the centers—Germany, U.K., U.S.—usually dominate the peripheries (culturally, economically). Many artists feel the gravitational pull of the centre, either physically or through its influence on their work. Are there advantages to being based outside the centre?
Laibach: According to the cosmological principle, all points in space ought to experience the same physical development, correlated in time in such a way that all points at a certain distance from an observer appear to be at the same stage of development. In that sense, all spatial conditions in the universe must appear to be homogeneous and isotropic to an observer at all times in the future and in the past. This statement implies that there is no centre of the universe, since space is declared to be homogeneous and isotropic.
Rail: Laibach have often been described as the question, and its up to the audience to find their own answers. Is there a role for any partisan viewpoint within the assimilation and reflection of culture and politics that Laibach project, or is it merely one of many often conflicting elements?
Laibach: We wish we had an answer to that, because we are tired of answering this and similar questions. But on the other hand we all get more by looking for the answer and not finding it, than we do from the possible answer itself.
Rail: 2010 marks 30 years since the formation of Laibach in Trbovlje. Can you talk a little about the exhibitions and events that you have lined up to mark the 30th anniversary of Laibach’s existence?
Laibach: Three large gallery presentations are planned for this year to mark the 30th anniversary: in Ljubljana (at the MGLC—International Centre of Graphic Arts); in Trbovlje, the birthplace of Laibach (at the Workers’ Hall and around the whole city), and in Zagreb (at the HDLU—the Croatian Association of Artists). Each of these exhibitions will show different aspects of Laibach’s visual side. The exhibition at the International Centre of Graphic Arts presents a survey of our art in the first decade of its existence, when we played a central role in the art of the 1980s subculture movement in Slovenia and Yugoslavia. This show, curated by Lilijana Stepančič, presents Laibach as a multi-media group combining art, music, and theoretical writings. The exhibition is itself historic, for here paintings, prints, posters, publications, newspaper pages, invitations, record covers, photographs, concert stage sets, videos, and promotional products are assembled and displayed for the first time in 30 years. Also on view are three new installations made especially for this exhibition. In Trbovlje we will return to our very first exhibition in 1980, which was actually forbidden before it was opened. The planned exhibition will symbolically reconstruct the 1980 installation. Along with the exhibition a Symposium on art, politics, and avant-garde movements existing outside the centres is planned. We will also perform several concerts within a whole week of events. Later, in Zagreb, we will present a recapitulation of our art spanning between 1980 and 2010 with another reconstruction—this time of an exhibition from 1983 in Zagreb, which was also forbidden, and closed after three days. A special installation will be created there, related to another highly important event in the history of the group, which also happened in Zagreb and which later led to the banning of the group for a number of years. And again, separate concerts are planned along with this exhibition.
Rail: In closing, Laibach once famously quoted that “Politics is the highest and all-embracing art, and we who create contemporary Slovene art consider ourselves politicians.” In the U.S. and Europe many artists disassociate themselves from political realities, often opting for a sense of “neutrality” or non-alignment, and consider themselves free from ideology. Given the above quote, do you feel that artistic neutrality can be said to exist? Can art ever be above or divorced from politics?
Laibach: Never. Or everything we did and do stand for was wrong.
CONOR MCGRADY is an artist who has exhibited at Saltworks Gallery, Atlanta, Gallery Karas, Zagreb, Croatia, and the 2002 Whitney Biennial, New York. From N. Ireland, he lives and works in New York.Dario Solman
DARIO ŠOLMAN is an artist whose work has been exhibited at the Bronx River Arts Center, Gallery PM, Zagreb, Croatia, and the Queens International 4 at the Queens Museum. From Croatia, he lives and works in New York.