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Neue Slowenische Kunst: The "State in Time"

Michael Benson, Spring 1996


All art is subject to political manipulation
except that which speaks the language
of the same manipulation.
-- Laibach, 1984

By now it doesn't seem bizarre that independent and visionary artists would emerge from what was once loosely referred to as the East, brandishing manifestoes and slogans and utilizing the repressed symbols of a defeated ideology. We've seen a procession: from Komar and Melamid in the seventies to Kabakov in the eighties and a host of others. In a way, it's no longer even very interesting. The globe has, inevitably, moved onwards -- deep into the revived nationalisms and spilled blood of the New World Order, in fact. These artists used irony to make their point, or extreme indirection; they capitalized on the fascination conjured up by a civilization in slavery. In retrospect, there was an inevitability to it all. The machinery of information-oversaturation, influential in the destruction of bankrupt states, was also the mechanism returning word of Eastern art. If one could say that the Wall was defeated by videocassettes well before it fell to jack-hammers and chisels, then "Eastern" art was already defeated at its apex (the Sotheby's auction-block) and by the fickle glance -- away -- of international interest in yesterday's news.

It was specifically the death of Empire which rendered those in real or perceived opposition to it moot -- at least in the eyes of the West. That this only served as further confirmation of our status as entirely political creatures was somehow less interesting than the perception that we had reached "the end of history" 1. The fact that Francis Fukayama's idiotic proposition was destined to be as ephemeral as a snow-flake's prospects in hell came as no surprise in the Balkans, where the door to the furnace was already being pried open.

Still, all this is only a partial explanation of why, out of all the representatives of the "Eastern" artistic phenomenon, few have approached Slovenia's NSK movement in breadth of presentation or discipline of formal approach -- and few have retained as enduring a relevance within a shifted global paradigm 2. Structured "as a state", NSK's various branches -- music, painting, theater, graphic art, even something loosely referred to as "pure and applied philosophy" (not to mention theory, dealing with themes introduced by the former elements) -- together can be said to make up their own, ultimate artifact. Ten years before the birth of almost twenty new states, NSK (re)presented an embryonic approximation of the phenomenon. They did so with none of Fukayama's millennial optimism. NSK's creepily anonymous artists were involved in the collaborative production of an exceedingly dark vision -- one informed by the ghosts of a European history that had never been properly interred.

To take one way of approaching them, NSK are a Beuysian "social sculpture" 3. No coincidence here; Beuys was their direct predecessor and influence. The comprehensive identifiability of NSK's various objects, statements, visual pieces, artistic gestures and musical compositions is already an indication of the success of their concept. Even without the pervasive NSK logotype (lately visible on embassy plaques outside of buildings in Moscow, Berlin and Sarajevo), it is readily apparent that NSK artifacts all issue from the same governing aesthetic matrix -- products of the NSK sensibility. At the end of a century beginning and ending with Sarajevo, an era which married mass production techniques to mass murder, NSK draw from a well many thought was dry: the one positing that an entire state could become a work of art 4. The fact that they inverted the concept is only in keeping with their position in the historical time-line (it is also indicative of their radical skepticism). Instead of utopia, they produced a free-floating dystopia -- a dystopia in codes. In their dialectical vision of art appropriating political power, they wielded apparent endorsement of the state as a tool in the service of something a little bit more equivocal. That their work comes apparently without irony doesn't mean it should be taken at face value.

If NSK's central aesthetic strategy of the 80's was to locate and trigger the ideological defense mechanisms their spectators/viewers unwittingly carried within themselves, they did so not purely to attract attention -- though, within the noisy sphere of the international art market, this was not an undesirable (or unforgivable) by-product. NSK lives in a neglected corner of Europe. This was an art imbued with a serious purpose, interpretable as a warning. NSK included the defeat of revolutions within their (revolutionary) work, presenting the viewer with an uncompromising formula: "the explanation is the whip, and you bleed." Given the postulate that the two great 20th century totalitarianismís had appropriated the ideas and energies of avant-garde movements which they themselves had destroyed, NSK turned the tables again, appropriating the substance of political and religious power to serve the needs of a secular, autonomous art. A product of internal wiring, like the creation of a thunderstorm in a museum 5, this "hidden transgression" 6 or inversion at the core of the NSK movement is itself crucial to their creation of a "micro-model" 7 of a state structure.

Straddling and encompassing the utopian avant-garde, its defeat and usurpation, totalitarianism, and the seemingly final victory of "western" over "eastern" manipulation strategies, NSK presents a kind of theater piece of the European 20th Century. Their specific emphasis on manipulation -- their coded warnings, disturbing illustrations, and graphic demonstrations of the manipulability of individuals within a wider social context -- gives their work an enduring message (not to say subversive formula). Within fin-de-siecle Yugoslavia particularly, NSK functioned as a premonition. (Their relevance beyond the Balkans goes without saying). At various points in the 80's, the entire Yugoslav social space seemed to be dancing to their deadly serious tune. That which would manipulate had become, however temporarily, the manipulated 8. And if the Balkans then went on to become a confirmation of NSK's darkest premonitions, it can hardly be blamed on them. Those who are responsible have names, and are visible with great regularity on CNN, meeting the highest representatives of the "Western" powers.

How did the phenomenon start? In the beginning was the Word. Laibach's name, German for the Slovenian capital city of Ljubljana, was used during both Nazi rule and for a thousand years of Hapsburg domination. Dusted off and set in type for rock-festival posters within a year of Josip Broz Tito's death, the word alone functioned as the sheerest provocation in Yugoslavia, "a state founded on a mythologized cornerstone of partisan resistance to fascist occupation" 9. It evoked both the much longer span of pre-Yugoslav Slovenian history and an entire counter-mythology. In short, Neue Slowenische Kunst (or "New Slovenian Art" in English) began as a set of theories devised by an upstart rock band with a gift for provocation, a determination to uncover some ugly truths about history -- and absolutely no knowledge of how to play musical instruments 10. Laibach emerged from Yugoslavia in the early 80's to become the only group from the "other" Europe to achieve success in the over-heated Western European (read: British) music scene. Signed to prestigious Mute Records while the ink was barely dry on the order banning them from performance in Slovenia, Laibach became the envy of an entire generation of rock musicians struggling for Western (or any) attention in Yugoslavia, Russia, and Eastern Europe. Their use of German (a language which not one member of NSK can actually speak) as a weapon within a larger cultural war was already an indication of their method 11.

Laibach were different because, practically alone among the above examples, they rejected imitation of Western models in favor of an originality of concept grounded in specific political-cultural circumstances. While they may have imitated the strategies of the punk movement (which itself had lifted tried-and-true 20th century avant-garde shock techniques), they rejected its exterior appearance and its sound. And while they may have borrowed their signature Nazi-kunst drummer-boys from the cover art of a 1978 Joy Division record 12, they set their tin drums down in an entirely new context. Originality, anyway, was an overrated, not to say outmoded concept -- a key premise of all future NSK aesthetics. Where the Sex Pistols dissed the Queen, negated the future, and earned a hard-won place on the BBC's black list, Laibach (and later NSK) singled out -- and fired away at -- their own locally sacrosanct subjects. It was all part of the post-Tito "thaw". As with the Pistols, the resulting scandal triggered a rush (to judgment by some, of freedom for others).

How importantly all this figures in the larger picture of Yugoslavia's emerging dissolution remains subject to debate. What is clear is that, in an ideologically "flat" time, Laibach served as polarizers. A position pro or contra was suddenly absolutely necessary. Within Slovenia's relative liberalism -- itself an anomaly within Yugoslavia's "soft totalitarianism" -- Laibach still begged to be condemned. Even those sometimes questioning their motives felt compelled to defend them on the grounds of freedom of expression 13. Having raised a series of issues, the debate commenced -- and suddenly ideology became important again. In the end, using a few Yugoslav Army uniforms, a squall of feedback, and a barked rendition of a speech by Mussolini, they served as catalyst. NSK's "retro-avant-garde" strategy was born at Ljubljana's "Novi Rock" festival in 1983, in a shower of spattered beer, broken glass and drops of blood from the bottle which impacted on lead "singer" Tomas Hostnik's chin. Although easy to exaggerate, Laibach's first appearance was in fact a significant event -- not just in Slovenian, but also in Yugoslav history. Apart from highlighting the fact that the emperor had vanished (leaving, in this case, his clothes behind), it was the beginning of a process in which historically taboo subjects were unearthed to serve various agendas (a process reaching its most overt form with the exhumation of the bones of Serbian King Lazar, defeated by the Turks five centuries previous, for a macabre grand tour of Serbia in 1989). The fact that NSK's was a specifically artistic premonition of such a process did nothing to lessen its visceral impact. And needless to say, this was all fertile ground for misunderstandings (few of which NSK did anything to discourage; they were a necessary part of the process of mythologization -- this time of the artists themselves).

Five years after the collapse of Yugoslavia, and more then ten years after Laibach's co-founder Tomas Hostnik hanged himself, all this might seem like ancient history. (The instrument of his self-execution, incidentally, may be the only truly indigenous element of the Slovenian countryside: one of the distinctive elongated-ladder hayracks necessary in the foggy atmosphere of valleys on the "Sunny Side of the Alps" 14). It might seem so, that is, were it not for the troubling fact that history itself, in an unspeakable mirror to NSK's "retro-principle", came to life again -- not just in the Balkans but all across the warming post-cold war landscapes. Hostnik, at least, was consciously making out of his death a last piece of Heimat art. And like Beuys' Greens movement, NSK continued long after the disappearance of one of its key architects; it continues -- with varying degrees of aesthetic fascination -- well into Slovenia's successful secession.

If NSK's "channeling" of an ambiguous mixture of the two great mid-20th century totalitarianismís was deeply unsettling to socialist Yugoslavia -- a state founded with the political system of one locked in victorious struggle with the other -- it may well have served as a kind of inoculation in Slovenia 15. Of all the ex-Yugoslav republics, Slovenia today is perhaps the least likely to endorse ethnically exclusionary nationalist politics of the type evident all around, not just in the Balkans but in Austria, Italy and Slovakia. And here, too, a Beuysian idea slides into place: that of art as homeopathic remedy. "Simula simulabus curantor" 16. Clearly, this kind of experimentation was fraught with Pandoran overtones (as Kim Levin wrote about Beuys: "Like may cure like, but likeness can also be mistaken for emulation. And homeopathic remedies -- wolfsbane for fever, arsenic for ptomaine -- work only in small doses. Otherwise they can cause the symptoms they are meant to cure" 17).

Still, such symptoms also have their less abstract, Suprematist causes, and those responsible for the Yugoslav tragedy are not unknown to even the most lax viewers of global media. As for NSK, their final paradox is one that has been well-earned. Appropriately enough, it too comes in the guise of a "hidden transgression." Having made the materials of politics and religion the substance of their work, NSK have in turn become a part of the history they once only drew on 18. In view of the graphic confirmation of some of their darkest visions, it's somehow appropriate that one new NSK project, at least, fall under the heading of self-examination. A book-length collaboration between NSK theorist Eda Cufer and the five members of the Irwin painting collective will, among other things, seek to investigate the underlying motivation behind NSK's state simulations. It will also ask whether NSK still serves a useful purpose within the changed geo-political environment.



FOOTNOTES

1. Francis Fukayama, "The End of History", THE NATIONAL INTEREST, Summer 1989.

2. The one exception that comes to mind is the authorless "Salon de Fleurus" at 41 Spring Street # 12 in New York City -- a "zone" or space with roots not just in Gertrude and Leo Steinís Paris but in a vanished Belgrade.

3. One could view NSK as a kind of 15-person Gilbert and George. "The NSK state in time is an abstract organism, a suprematist body, installed in a real social and political space as a sculpture comprising the concrete body warmth, spirit and work of its members. NSK confers the status of a state not to territory but to mind, whose borders are in a state of flux, in accordance with the movements and changes of its symbolic and physical collective body." ("NSK State in Time", Eda Cufer and Irwin, 1993)

4. Russian critic Boris Groys argues that the Soviet avant-garde, in the period between the revolution and their decimation by Stalin in the 30ís, saw a future in which the pre-revolutionary role of art within the social order would be completely overturned, as the state itself gradually was transformed into an art-work. In this way Marx's withering away process would eventually result in an ultimate artistic utopia. Perhaps the clearest direct illustration of this belief was the transformation of the provincal town of Vitebsk by Malevich, and his Suprematist followers, into a kind of ornamented out-door work-in-progress in the early 20's. With their passports, embassies and postage stamps, NSK are both art in the image of the state and the reverse -- a kind of definitive dialectical expression. Well before their official proclamation of themselves as a "state in time", the NSK theater group, then called the Scipion Nasice Theater, said that the "only truly aesthetic vision of the state is a vision of an impossible state" (1983)

5. The Natural Sciences section of Munich's Deutsches Museum features a crowd-pleasing, deafening-blinding laboratory re-creation of a lightening storm within the same building housing a lovingly restored squadron of WW-2 Luftwaffe aircraft -- a kind of Blitz and Krieg maintained in safe stasis, ostensibly for research and educational purposes.

6. Slavoj Zizek statement from my film PREDICTIONS OF FIRE (1995 Kinetikon Pictures/TV Slovenia): "Not only does every system include its own inherent transgression, but identifying with this transgression -- which must remain unspoken, concealed -- is the real form of conformism. " Zizek argues that Laibach externalize the transgression, thus making it more difficult for it to reproduce itself.

7. From a statement by NSK theorist Eda Cufer at MAK (Osterreichisches Museum fur angewandte Kunst) in Vienna, 1991.

8. The best and most notorious example of this was the so-called "poster affair" of 1986, in which the NSK graphic arts group NK Studio submitted what they thought was an appropriate poster to commemorate Tito's birthday (a date which, due to the late-Communist stigma attached to the "cult of personality" had been re-named "Youth Day" in the seventies) The victorious poster -- based, as it later came out, on Nazi artist Richard Klein's "The Third Reich" -- was more appropriate than the judges intended. By winning the nation-wide competition, the NSK artists ended up marking the end of the Tito cult -- a definitive stage in the "final solution of the Yugoslav question." They also triggered an unprecedented national scandal. The participation of the state judges, who unwittingly chose the most fascist design to define the officially-sponsored face Yugoslav youth, was a quintessential achievement of Neue Slowenische Kunst in their prophetic mode (the official guidelines of the competition specified that the top award would be given to the design which embodied the "future concerns of Yugoslav youth").

9. PREDICTIONS OF FIRE narrative voice-over written by myself (1995 Kinetikon Pictures/TV Slovenia).

10. Although talented at using the recording studio as an instrument, a la Brian Eno, Kraftwerk, an a vast host of contemporary examples, Laibachís core membership remains unable to play conventional musical instruments, relying on hired musicians and samples. "We are not a band", as one Laibach member put it, "we are political theater. "

11. Not one member of the NSK collective actually knows how to speak German. "The widespread use of the German language and terminology in the work of NSK is based on the specific evocative quality of the language, which, to non-German speakers, sounds decisive, curt, domineering and frightening, and automatically activates traumas buried deep in subconsciousness and history. The activation of the Germanic trauma in turn activates the undifferentiated, unidentified, passive, nightmare-filled Slavic dream. " ("Concepts and Relations", Eda Cufer and Irwin, August 1992)

12. "An Ideal for Living", Culturesound Records June 1978 (Reproduced in "An Ideal for Living, An History of Joy Division", Pg. 23, PROTEUS BOOKS 1984)

13. Slovenian philosopher Rastko Mocnik (previously unpublished transcript of an interview not used in the final cut of PREDICTIONS OF FIRE).

14. Pre-secessionist Slovenian Heimat tourist propaganda, interpretable now as a proto-nationalist manifestation.

15. This despite Slovenia's status as the first Yugoslav republic to declare independence -- an action which can be viewed as nationalistic but also as an explicit rejection of a Yugoslavia under renewed totalitarian control -- i.e., Serbian hegemony. "The whole NSK creation functioned in Slovenian society as a kind of virus. They came, they performed a totalitarian ritual, and the society started to build a mechanism against this political and psychological fact. " Vesna Kesic, Croatian journalist (previously unpublished transcript of an interview not used in the final cut of PREDICTIONS OF FIRE).

16. Kim Levin identifies Beuys as a proponent of the idea of art as a way to heal historical trauma. "Heal like with like" ("Joseph Beuys: The New Order" - pg.181 BEYOND MODERNISM, Harper & Row, 1988).

17. Ibid

18. Is it any wonder that, at the end of a century of genocide, global war, killing fields, gas attacks and mushroom clouds, the past would erupt like a regurgitated trash meal -- something literally impossible to stomach? The classic symptoms of the end of a cycle, in this case, march in lock-step with the end credits of the millennium: "To be continued... " Is this, to invert a line by Churchill, the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning?