THE STATE AS UTOPIAN GESAMTKUNSTWERK
by Conor McGrady
A Summary of the First NSK Citizens Congress in Berlin
The Slovene arts collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) founded the NSK State in Time in 1992, shortly after the collapse of socialism and the break-up of Yugoslavia in war. It emerged at a time when a radical rethinking of the nation-state was necessary, and yet it did not manifest itself geopolitically, but in the form of a collective artistic endeavor. Prior to the creation of the State in Time, the NSK collective grew out of the social and cultural conditions of Yugoslavia in the 1980s. In the wake of long-time leader Marshall Josip Broz Tito’s death, Slovene youth and underground culture clashed with the Yugoslav authorities, while power struggles and rising nationalism in the other republics began to threaten the federation. NSK founders Laibach faced censorship for their visual and aural reprocessing of art, ideology, and politics. As the ’80s marched towards the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of Yugoslavia, NSK emerged as a multi-faceted entity, with Laibach’s controversial and provocative presence now framed within a broader collective structure encompassing painting, theater, design, and philosophy. NSK’s characteristic embodiment of authoritarianism merged nationalist, socialist, and fascist iconography with the language of the early 20th century avant-gardes. Taking the idea of the state as a Duchampian readymade, NSK virtually seceded from newly independent Slovenia in 1992 to become a state in time and without borders—a utopian social sculpture embodying a symbolic transcendence of the nationalism engulfing the region. Shortly after its founding, the state began to issue passports and open temporary embassies in a number of locations, including Moscow, war-torn Sarajevo, Berlin, Ghent, Glasgow, and Dublin.
Eighteen years after the founding of the state, the first NSK Citizens’ Congress took place in Berlin. From October 21 – 23 2010, delegates, founding members of NSK, and congress organizers met at the Haus Der Kulturen Der Welt, a signature post-war modernist structure located in the heart of the Teirgarten, and a short distance from the Reichstag and new Chancellery building. I attended the congress as a facilitator, chairing presentations by guest speakers and observing the discussions taking place in delegate working groups. The congress consisted of three days of intensive working sessions, augmented with presentations and film screenings open to the public in the evenings. Throughout the proceedings, an exhibition of NSK citizen-generated “Volk Art” was on display on video monitors. These works, which mainly reprocessed NSK’s aesthetic material, were shown alongside a series of citizen designed congress posters. Intensive debate amongst the delegates resulted in a declaration of Findings and a list of Five Innovations to be applied to the NSK state in its current form.
AN OVERVIEW OF THE PROCESS
The 30 delegates in attendance represented a broad spectrum of political, aesthetic, and philosophical opinions. Predominantly from Europe and the U.S. (and also including delegates from Nigeria and New Zealand), they were initially selected through an application process open to all NSK citizens. Ostensibly, their task was to critically examine the formal and conceptual structure of the NSK state as a social sculpture or collective Gesamtkunstwerk, and to envisage potential avenues for its continuation and proliferation. Working in three groups, two days of discussion culminated in a final day-long gathering when delegates elected to meet together to craft a concluding statement. Despite occasional tension, the dynamic remained cordial and comradely, with delegates for the most part taking their role seriously, even if what was expected of them from the outset remained somewhat indeterminate and open-ended.
Early in the proceedings, questions were raised on the role of NSK citizenship, and what it entailed in terms of the projection of values into a virtual, utopian social structure. From the passive consumption of the state through the act of owning an NSK passport as an art object, to actually attempting to travel with it, citizenship is currently exercised across a number of platforms. Recent citizen-led initiatives, including the production of Volk Art, maintenance of archive materials1 and discussions on diplomatic relations, precipitated debate on strategies to further activate citizen involvement. One proposed action was the creation of an NSK Academy. Increasing academic interest in the NSK state was perceived as problematic by some delegates, based on the fear that its incorporation into the dominant art/historical/ideological canons could effectively neutralize its provocative aspects, including its universalist and totalizing aspirations. At the same time, there existed a broad desire to centralize and disseminate theoretical research on the state, and to view academia as a vehicle for the proliferation of ideas that it embodies. This, in turn, posed the question of how aggressively the NSK state should present itself to the world. As a social sculpture embodying utopian ideals, the state also manifests aspects of what was referred to during the congress as the “dark side” of history and politics (totalitarianism, authoritarianism, martial aesthetics, etc.). In this sense, the power of the NSK state project lies not only in its ability to provide a point of identification for those who reject what congress presenter and NSK founding member Eda Čufer referred to as “the cage of national culture,” but to also generate a sense of disquiet.
Discussions on the issue of decentralizing state power remained tentative. While some delegates proposed an actual transfer of the state apparatus (including passport production) from the members of the NSK collective into the hands of the citizenry, the idea seemed to generate a lukewarm response for the most part. Establishing accountability and coordination in such a venture seemed to be as problematic as the thought of severing the umbilical cord tying delegates to the NSK collective. As was to become clear during the discussions proposing innovations to the state, and later reinforced in the congress Findings, a complete transfer of power was not on the agenda. In lieu of this, the discussions tended to center around the need for a more active citizenry, with suggestions that citizens continue to develop a project-based model, organizing events and activities in their own locales or online. The question of maintaining a unity of vision across such citizen-led initiatives was partially addressed in the production of the Five Innovations, one of which called for the establishment of a decision-making process in coordinating such activities. Much discussion was also given over to citizen demography and recruitment. While no concrete resolutions emerged as to how to effectively address a perceived gender imbalance amongst citizens (the majority tend to be male), it was suggested (not without a sense of humor, given the complex iconography of NSK state aesthetics) that state propaganda be more directed towards the recruitment of women.
A full working group session also examined the question of whether the NSK state should or should not consider itself a micronation. Loosely described as “independent nations or states, but which are not recognized by world governments or major international organizations,”2 micronations usually exist as social or political simulations. On this issue delegates were unanimous. It was argued that the NSK state transcends micronations, in that for the most part they limit themselves to outmoded forms of government, mimicking fiefdoms, monarchies, and other feudal structures. As the “first global State of the Universe,” it was suggested that the state relate to micronations in a paternal fashion, rather than build fraternal ties. As a meta-nation or a meta-state, which is by definition all-encompassing, the establishment of unilateral relations with other macro- or micronations would contradict or challenge this status. In highlighting examples of similar social entities, one delegate compared the NSK state to the Catholic Church (again, not without absence of humor) due to its universality, its embodiment of some relations with other states, and its embracement of a higher totalizing force, the Immanent Consistent Spirit.3 Yet as a transcendent totalizing organism, the NSK state also conceptually encompasses and supersedes religion. In concluding the discussion, it was proposed that the state not endorse or formally relate to other states or micronations, but to not prevent citizens from maintaining such relations.
THE NIGERIAN QUESTION
Throughout the congress guest presenters discussed issues pertinent to the social and aesthetic function of the state. Students from Berlin’s Humboldt University’s Anthropology Department questioned if the NSK state could pose a virtual threat to the existing social order. This in itself raises the question of how real the NSK state actually is in terms of politics. The “Nigerian question,” which was addressed in a public panel discussion, posed the conundrum of prospective citizens taking the State in Time more seriously than it takes itself—a peculiar twist on the NSK strategy of overidentification4 in the run up to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The thousands of applications pouring in from Nigeria, in the belief that a passport can provide entry into the European Union, illustrates that under certain social and political conditions an overlap/interpolation of the NSK state with reality works. In Nigeria, the NSK passport is taken seriously as a document guaranteeing access to Europe, so much so that some Nigerians actually claim to have visited the NSK state. Given the desperation faced by many in Nigeria, there is a utopian belief in the sense of hope that the state represents. But, as referenced in the title of NSK’s project in Lagos5 in response to this situation, this belief represents a double consciousness, where the sense of conviction is so strong that the true facts are ignored.
In Nigeria, the unpredicted response to the existence of the NSK state raises another issue. When so much contemporary art is relatively sanitized and safe for consumption, should the potential social impact of art, no matter how unpredictable, be proscribed or limited? Uncontrollable outcomes, of course, do not necessarily imply an abdication of social responsibility. In the case of desperate Nigerians being taken advantage of by unscrupulous passport providers, NSK members took steps to explain that the passports were not valid for travel, and organized the aforementioned event in Lagos in which to reiterate this fact. The detonations set off in any given social context, and the unforeseeable results generated, test the power and potential of an artwork to intervene in or generate its own reality. In this sense, the Nigerian situation underlines the initial desire inherent in the creation of the NSK state, in that “the NSK State in Time is not merely to be understood as an ‘artistic’ project (it is not a simulation) but as a real time project which leaves behind the field which is normally defined as art and which can only be effective as such.”6 The interaction of Nigerian passport-seekers with the NSK state shifted its largely abstract dimension as social sculpture to a concrete and controversial manifestation in reality. If art is to maintain a social function beyond that of luxury plastic or intellectual commodity, an argument can be made for an art that courts uncertainty and retains the potential to be dangerous. In these times art should be radical and provocative, taking risks and challenging assumptions. Perhaps the constitution of a truly radical artistic practice today lies in its ability to intervene socially and to generate unpredictable outcomes.
As an initial step towards generating concrete results from the congress, delegates were charged with proposing five innovations to the state. In response to the question of the state’s relationship to academia, the formation of an NSK Academy or Department for Temporal Research was proposed to provide a central repository for the accumulation and dissemination of research. Virtual and physical gatherings for citizens were called for to coordinate a greater level of citizen involvement. The creation of a new and all-embracing aesthetics aims to expand the visual iconography of the state, appropriating the historical and regional symbolism specific to each citizen’s locale. In this light, the relationship between politics and visual culture in a number of diverse contexts can potentially be sucked into an aesthetic vortex, reprocessed, and redeployed.
Other innovations, some practical, some symbolic, did not make the final list, including a proposal to forma Ministry of Terror, or NSK Guard Force. The delegate who proposed this idea was particularly concerned with maintaining the tension between alienation and attraction that characterizes any relationship to authority. For the most part founded through the use of terror, the modern nation-state embodies a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.”7 It was proposed that an NSK Guard Force continue to interrogate the language and aesthetics of power through serving as an indicator of the repository of violence and authoritarianism that the nation-state continues to maintain in reserve. While the very existence of the NSK state is in itself an interrogation of contemporary social and political reality, perhaps the symbolic and performative language of militant over-identification may yet find avenues for manifestation in future state activities.
DECLARATION OF FINDINGS
During the proceedings, members of NSK suggested that the delegates consider drafting a declaration embodying the historic and symbolic nature of the first NSK Citizen’s Congress. Such a gesture would echo the Moscow Declaration, marking the founding of the NSK State in Time with the opening of the first Embassy in Moscow in 1992. Working as a single group to address this task, the delegates produced a nine-point list of Findings8, which for the most part reaffirm the founding principles of the NSK state and its subsequent trajectory. The document was formally presented at the closing ceremony, which was attended by founding members of NSK. Some of the facilitators, myself included, raised concerns about the document, generating debate and perhaps a subtle air of tension. One commentator suggested that the meta-narrative of NSK was too prevalent in the wording and framing of the Findings, lending the document an air of orthodoxy or conservatism. For the most part the document can be read as conservative in that it restates the historical and conceptual framework of the NSK State in Time without injecting any new or potentially radical ideas. In reaffirming the identification of citizens with NSK, the document borrows from the language utilized by NSK and Laibach since the state’s foundation, prompting another commentator to refer to it as “Laibach-lite.” In this sense, the Findings reflect the tension between the desire for the decentralization of the state on the one hand and the hyper-identification with the symbolic authority of the founding NSK members on the other.
While embracing the language of the absolute, the spirit of utopianism was largely absent. The radical utopian core of the NSK state, drawn from the historical avant-gardes and representing the potential to envisage and aestheticize alternative social frameworks in both abstract and concrete terms, is largely missing. Yet the document also contains a reference to the potential for political action as a manifestation of the state. While a definition of how the political might become manifest is left open-ended, ideas of social transformation (the mainstay of the early 20th century avant-gardes) are not entirely absent. Taken together with the Five Innovations, which provide practical guidelines for moving forward with the proliferation of the state, both documents constitute a mix of conservative devotion and pragmatism, maintaining a tension between ambiguity and action.
Part social experiment and part manifestation of the process of statecraft, the congress ultimately represents a temporary distillation of the elements characterizing an ever-evolving work in progress. In fact, the congress can be viewed as a social sculpture in itself. As an experimental work of art it can be regarded as a lens though which to examine and understand the motivations of NSK citizens, and as such, raises a number of points for further discussion. The absence of a radical re-conceptualization of the direction of the state in all likelihood reflects the power of identification and the complex geometry of belonging felt by the delegates to an imagined community hitherto shaped by the actions of the NSK collective. Perhaps the affirmation of a fanatical (a signifier raised throughout the congress and enshrined in the Findings) identification with this collective imaginary was driven by the fear that decentralization could dilute or remove the orienting framework provided by current NSK signifiers and fixed points of reference. Yet at the same time, the open-ended structure of the project, coupled with the willingness of its founders to encourage its spontaneous and organic growth, actually calls for new initiatives and ideas. In repossessing and reprocessing early 20th century utopian idealism as one of multiple elements within its framework, the state represents a conceptual alternative to the politics of alienation generated by contemporary political systems and modern nation states. Somewhat akin to El Lissitsky’s “Proun” paintings, which “denied a fixed perspective and embodied a strong orderly arrangement of elements,”9 it is within the abstract conceptualization of space engendered by the state that citizens have the ability to collectively recreate or simply create themselves as part of a deterritorialized social organism. At once total and devoid of the control mechanisms of the contemporary social order (what Elias Canetti refers to as the “stings of command”)10 the unlimited spatial dimension of the state encourages a dissolution of boundaries. In their place is a collective flux of ideas, free to move beyond the constricting parameters of the “cage of national culture” referred to earlier.
In the final analysis, would more contention and friction amongst the delegates have ignited sharper debate, resulting in the production of a less benign and more visionary final declaration? Perhaps the unifying ethos of NSK citizenship, taken together with the background presence of NSK members, fuelled the desire to produce something that ultimately echoes the aesthetic and sociological dynamics present in the work of NSK up until this point. Yet perhaps the physical coalescence of forces at the congress remains more important than the documents produced. While it did not result in citizens formally assuming control of the direction of the state, in effect a certain amount of decentralization is already taking place in its wake. In his closing remarks, congress organizer Alexei Monroe raised the principal of work11 in order for the state to continue to survive and proliferate on a virtual and physical level. Post-congress, such work has already begun, with delegates organizing online forums and physical gatherings in Lyon and London. Further events are planned for Leipzig, Warsaw, and New York. In this sense the congress has breathed life into NSK citizens’ sense of initiative. In the final synopsis, can these initiatives ensure that the NSK state will continue to be provocative, radical, and utopian? Only time will tell.
1. See Christian Matzke’s Retrogarde Reading Room http://www.reanimator.8m.com/NSK/readingroom.html
2. For more on micronations, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Micronation
3. Point 8, From the Internal Book of Laws: Constitution of Membership and Basic Duties of NSK Members, reads, “Each membership candidate must believe in the hierarchical principle and existence of the supreme substance (ICS - the immanent, consistent spirit), occupying the uppermost position in the hierarchy of NSK.” Neue Slowenische Kunst (Amok, 1991), 4.
4. A psychoanalytic term attributed to philosopher Slavoj iek, in the context of NSK overidentification is the strategy of interrogating a particular ideology, aesthetic or political viewpoint though adoption of tenets in its exaggerated form, rather than critiquing it directly.
5. See “Towards a Double Consciousness: NSK Passport Project,” http://times.nskstate.com/towards-a-double-consciousness-nsk-passport-project/
6. Inke Arns, “Irwin (NSK) 1983-2002. From Was Ist Kunst via Eastern Modernism to Total Recall,” Art Margins (August 15, 2002).
7. Max Weber, The Theory of Social and Economic Organization 1(Simon & Schuster, 1964), 154.
8. See http://times.nskstate.com/first-results-of-the-nsk-state-citizens-congress/
9. Victor Margolin, The Struggle for Utopia, (University of Chicago Press, 1997), 33.
10. Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power (Penguin, 1973), 351.
11. Laibach: 10 Items of the Covenant, Neue Slowenische Kunst (Amok, 1991), 18.
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.