Laibach wouldnÕt lie (but they might confuse)
God has one face,
the devil infinitely many. Laibach is the return of action on behalf of
Photo by Aleksander
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 isnÕt the only thing making it difficult; itÕs trying to get a
handle on the central point of this group Ñ or should I say
"nation-state/arts collective/agitprop/techno-metal-disco kings."
They donÕt 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, YugoslaviaÕs 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 StonesÕ "Sympathy
for the Devil" and the BeatlesÕ Let It Be. In recent years theyÕve 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 Ñ and when thatÕs combined with what most audiences are
likely to see as fascist imagery Ñ it is a subject that has not dated; it
still produces if not anger then a lot of consternation and head-scratching
among LaibachÕs audience. Surely, though, Laibach is more than just a group
questioning many things," says Novak. "But one of the things we
are questioning is totalitarianism. And fascism Ñ 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. ItÕs grown, like a virus Ñ itÕs
changed forms. As soon as something gets systematized, organized, different
forms evolve out of it. ThatÕs 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
Laibach is an organism
the names of whose individual -molecules itÕs 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
"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, ÔindividualismÕ 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."
DoesnÕt the illusion of
"individuality" give people hope?
heavily promoted as a difference,"
says Novak. "If youÕre different, you can say youÕre not going to follow the rules. Yet youÕre
going to follow an ideology Ñ 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 NovakÕs philosophy. Seemingly, itÕs all a joke even as itÕs
not all a joke; it means
nothing and it means everything. And if you donÕt like it, you may reject
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
Ñ 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 itÕs 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 LaibachÕs 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 donÕt do it for pleasure. For the audienceÕs 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 Ñ an acceptance they must find
heartening. But whom does this organism wish to inspire and influence?
"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
Says Novak, "I
would lie if I would say that we donÕt like to be nihilistic sometimes.
ItÕs 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