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Negative Utopia 

Laibach wouldn’t lie (but they might confuse)

Thursday, Nov 18 2004
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Photo by Aleksander Remec

God has one face, the devil infinitely many. Laibach is the return of action on behalf of the idea.

—Laibach

THROUGH THE WAFFLING BUZZ of a long-distance telephone line to Ljubljana, Slovenia, I futilely attempt to reach an understanding with Ivan Novak, founder-member of and spokesman for Laibach. The garbled transmission isn’t the only thing making it difficult; it’s trying to get a handle on the central point of this group — or should I say "nation-state/arts collective/agitprop/techno-metal-disco kings." They don’t make it easy. That must be the point.

Some history: Laibach formed in 1980 in Trbovlje, a revolutionary mining town in Slovenia, shortly after the death of Marshall Tito, Yugoslavia’s leader, who also established principles of nonalignment within the communist world. Laibach, in the wake of the confusion resulting from the power struggles between Stalinist hard-liners and more liberal politicians that eventually fractured Yugoslavia into separate warring republics, appeared on the scene as a totalitarian "organism" with a fervor for authority exceeding even that of the state. They announced themselves through National Socialist and Social Realist propaganda-inspired poster campaigns around Trbovlje and Ljubljana. Slovenes were shocked, reminded of their own wartime past under Nazi and Italian occupation, and the postwar era of rigid communist rule. Laibach made a few attempts at public performance, after which they were denounced as reactionary troublemakers and banned from performing in Slovenia. So they took their show on the road throughout Europe. They were eventually signed by Mute Records in England, which procured international distribution for their albums, and they returned to performance in their home country after an absence of four years, still to much resistance and outrage.

In 1984, Laibach formed the visual-arts collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) with the art group Irwin, the theater wing Scipion Nasice, the graphic-design department NK and a department of applied philosophy. Through NSK, most notably via the theater presentation Baptism Under Triglav, they began addressing the nationalist aspirations surfacing in Yugoslavia. Ultimately, they declared NSK a nation-state and began issuing passports, proclamations and stamps at embassies and consulates in Ljubljana, Berlin and Moscow.

Laibach have released 15 albums and innumerable singles, while also doing extensive theater work in England and Slovenia. They absorb and reject both high and low art; their albums have included reworkings of the Rolling Stones’ "Sympathy for the Devil" and the Beatles’ Let It Be. In recent years they’ve steered their themes away from totalitarianism specifically, toward religion, petrified economic systems, weak-kneed peacekeeping institutions, the pure beauty of technological evolution, and the "negative utopia" of the obsolescence of humanity.

But when Novak speaks of totalitarianism — and when that’s combined with what most audiences are likely to see as fascist imagery — it is a subject that has not dated; it still produces if not anger then a lot of consternation and head-scratching among Laibach’s audience. Surely, though, Laibach is more than just a group of provocateurs.

"We are questioning many things," says Novak. "But one of the things we are questioning is totalitarianism. And fascism — what is that? People might think fascists might not be relevant anymore, but we look at it in a historical form. If you look at Italy even now, fascism is obviously something that has returned, evolved. It’s grown, like a virus — it’s changed forms. As soon as something gets systematized, organized, different forms evolve out of it. That’s why using it is relevant. The most totalitarian thing is our own way of thinking, our own minds."

Ivan Novak (the Slavic equivalent of "John Smith") says the nameless Laibach members work as a collective unit, "according to the principle of industrial production/totalitarianism. We reject individuality as meaningless for the evaluation of our work, which we believe should be examined only on the basis of the laws of which it is made. We do not believe in the originality of authorship either, and we claim that plagiarism does not exist. Why then names?"

Laibach is an organism the names of whose individual -molecules it’s possible to find out, though it hardly seems to -matter. One of the more provocative things this organism has proclaimed is that there is a "triumph of anonymity" in technological advance. A triumph? Is anonymity a necessary part of human evolution?

"In a way, it is," says Novak calmly. "Because one has to be a strong individual to decide to neglect his own narcissistic side. Of course, we all believe in individualism, but at the same time we created a society which is strongly collective. American society is a very collective society, nevertheless it carries the banner of individualism.

"We are all much less individual than we would like to think. In the end, we all follow certain rules of functioning. And in a certain way, ‘individualism’ is a fake, something which belongs to a different century, when romantic poetry expressed that sort of thing. Most any kind of artwork is the result of a collective spirit. Pop songs, they are produced by many people, it is not just one person, usually."

Doesn’t the illusion of "individuality" give people hope?

"Individuality is heavily promoted as a difference," says Novak. "If you’re different, you can say you’re not going to follow the rules. Yet you’re going to follow an ideology — a collective -ideology preaching individuality as the highest utopian goal."

LAIBACH IS PERHAPS most fascinating for its combination of militaristic visual imagery and overpowering electronic and percussive massiveness, with a concurrent ambiguity arising from the devilishly contradictory and semiotically exasperating madness of their lyrics, which often read like Novak’s philosophy. Seemingly, it’s all a joke even as it’s not all a joke; it means nothing and it means everything. And if you don’t like it, you may reject it.

About eight years ago I saw Laibach perform at a club on Hollywood Boulevard. The crowd was a weird mix of goth/gloom misfits, Satanist bikers, prog-rock geeks, professors in tweeds, and jittery new-wave art-schoolers. Weirder still was the onstage spectacle, as the bearded and shirtless singer, in his customary cabalistic satin cowl, flanked by a Luftwaffe of electronic-equipped uniformed bandmates, traded his dire sermons/procla-mations with what looked to be "bad-ass" riff-slashing from a hard-rock-style electric guitarist — who clearly was being used as much for his ironic-iconic look as he was for his savagely skronky ax. The resulting sound was fascinating, too, like a bone-crushing metal band finely ground through a totally brutal hip-hop mix, queasy bass frequencies literally vibrating trousers at the knees.

Infinitely flexible in their static scream, Laibach reserve the right to use everything under the sun to state their case. "Rock guitarists are very anachronistic these days, they belong to a museum," says Novak. "But electric guitar is one of the instruments created in the last century, and in a way it’s an unbeatable instrument in that situation. And we view this as an important part of the stage show."

In live performance, sheer volume and repetition are tools that, like "hard rock" guitarists, are merely a means to an end, and by no means represent the full distance across Laibach’s sound field.

"We would prefer to play quieter sometimes," says Novak, "but we have to admit that volume and repetition create a certain different energy, a certain atmosphere . . . We don’t do it for pleasure. For the audience’s pleasure, yes, but not for our pleasure."

LAIBACH DO NOT BELIEVE in heaven on Earth. Their concept of a futuristic negative utopia can be found in sounds and imagery that offer a thrillingly oppressive, raping doom; in essence they declare the era of peace over, dead. That message has perhaps not so strangely made Laibach generally welcome back in Slovenia — an acceptance they must find heartening. But whom does this organism wish to inspire and influence?

Novak laughs. "Ourselves. We do something because we have to do it."

In the end, Laibach, if it stands for anything at all, stands for something surprisingly unlike nihilism. Laibach appears to say that life is not empty of meaning, after all, but horrifyingly full of meaning.

Says Novak, "I would lie if I would say that we don’t like to be nihilistic sometimes. It’s simply a very tempting form of being. But at the same time, the fact that we are around for 25 years actually proves that we are the opposite of nihilism."

Laibach plays the Knitting Factory on Wednesday, November 24.

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Reach the writer at jpayne@bluefat.com

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