|Photo by Aleksander Remec|
God has one face, the devil infinitely many. Laibach is the
return of action on behalf of the idea.
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
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
“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.