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Spectre: I see a red door and I want it painted black

The attempts to escape the nightmare of Stalinism provoke false fantasy alternatives, of vacuous democratic participation or individual freedom. NSK works through elements of the revolution betrayed, and in the process, instills anxiety about what is real, and about what must be given up.

Laibach’s video ”Whisleblowers Image from Laibach’s video ”WhisleblowersSPECTRE, Laibach’s new album, has recently been released. This event raises once again questions about the political interventions of the band and its cultural-political host for many years, Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK).

Both aim to produce anxiety, forcing the audience to work through that for themselves, and they conceptualise their work using psychoanalytic theory. But now there is a contradiction, between the ostensibly post-political sensibility of many NSK fans and the explicit connection Laibach now make with politics.

First we look at the political interventions made by NSK, and focus on the way their project to embed resistance in the heart of power signifies in different cultural contexts. There is a question here of the actual interventions at a time when Yugoslavia occupied an ambiguous and contested place in the imagination of the left, and then the question of the retroactive effects of those interventions at a time when neoliberal capitalism is rampant and every socialist alternative is mocked by the right.

Revolution 

The cultural-political interventions made over the past forty years or so by Neue Slowenische Kunst, (NSK), should really be understood as posing questions rather than giving answers.

These questions have a double-aspect that can be grasped by seeing the interventions as operating rather like those of a psychoanalyst, with a kind of anxiety provoked in the audience that looks rather like that produced in transference.

In some ways this is not surprising given the popularity of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan along with a number of other French theorists among the opposition in Slovenia in the 1980s. One of the distinctive characteristics of the Slovene radical movement in those years was the use of what is usually termed ‘post-structuralist’ theory. Another was the role of punk.

The imagery used by Laibach needs to be understood in that context. The point about the use of transference as a political weapon was made by Slavoj Žižek some years back in his paper ‘Why are Laibach and NSK not fascist?’ It was a point he repeated many times in his defence of them.

Žižek’s question is a good one, and until I accidentally met one of their avid supporters in the Metelkova autonomous space of Ljubljana ten years ago I thought I knew that Laibach must be fascist. This supporter was Alexei Monroe who wrote a great book about NSK, Interrogation Machine.

The double-aspect of the questioning NSK engages in are, first, to pose the question to the audience ‘what do you want?’ ‘No, really, beneath the polite timid socially acceptable requests that you make, what do you really want?’ It is always surprising how low the bar is set for what people will say they want when they are asked on makeover television programmes. How little they ask for. In contrast, as a patient in psychoanalysis, even if you cannot ever do it completely, what is articulated is a voracious unlimited demand, desire.

The second aspect of the questioning concerns what is then provoked in the audience, and thrown back at the analyst, artist, performer, to ask them; ‘What do you want?’ ‘Who are you, what do you want of me, what are you doing, what are you doing this for?’ In psychoanalysis, that huge range of really impossible paranoiac questioning is condensed, according to Lacan, into a relation to a ‘subject supposed to know’, and then into puzzling about how relations with this figure replicate relations with other important figures in the patient’s life. 

What bigger stage could there be for raising these kind of questions than that of revolution? You can see at the heart of NSK revolution, revolution as a dialectical intermeshing of questions, what do you want and what does power want of you, and questions about those questions. To get at that heart of NSK we have to go back a century, to the period around 1915 when Kazimir Malevich founded ‘Suprematism’ as an art movement in Russia, and to 1917 when the Bolsheviks harnessed Suprematism to the avant-garde revolutionary creative process unleashed by the revolution.

The Malevich black cross (and the black square) is crucial to NSK, and they deliberately extracted Suprematist imagery from one revolutionary situation, Russia in 1917, to throw it in the face of a regime that was a rotting parody of socialism in Yugoslavia in the 1980s. 

This imagery designed to be the core of authentic Slovene art is taken from outside Slovenia, it is not ‘Slovene’, and it is not at all what it seems. We discover after a quick internet search that Malevich was not a Bolshevik at all; he sees a red door and he wants it painted black. Malevich was used by the revolutionary regime as cynically as he used them, and he wasn’t even Russian, as a quick search of Ukrainian nationalist websites will reveal.

We can now be a bit more specific about these questions about revolution in NSK; they are about the revolution betrayed. The Bolsheviks were revolutionaries, the creative ferment just after the revolution was authentically revolutionary, but with the civil war, interventions by twenty-one armies of fourteen capitalist countries, mass destruction of the economic infrastructure and mass starvation, the rise of the bureaucracy and the triumph of Stalin, we have betrayal, betrayal institutionalised.

In place of the revolution as international revolution, there is a revival of nationalism. In place of the intent to dismantle or let wither away the state there is a crystallisation of the state apparatus. In place of women’s liberation and sexual freedom, there is a reinforcing of the family. These betrayals paint black what was red, they smear socialism with authoritarianism.

Then the attempts to escape this nightmare of Stalinism provoke false fantasy alternatives, of vacuous democratic participation or individual freedom. NSK works through those three elements of the revolution betrayed, and in the process, instills anxiety about what is real, and about what must be given up. 

Nation

Let us fast forward from Russia in the 1920s and 1930s to Yugoslavia in the 1980s. This is a moment when internationalism is replaced by the rhetoric of self-management socialism underpinned by a Yuguslav state which, under Tito until 1980, differentiates itself from the Soviet Bloc.

And this ‘Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia’ is itself actually internally structured so as to set each national component against the others. There is competition over production targets, and linguistic control. In the case of Slovenia up in the north west of the republic, for example, the armed forces are required to speak Serbo-croat. Actually Slovenia, which is historically a richer part of the republic with huge industrial and mining plants in places like Trbovlie, birthplace of the band Laibach, is quite lucky; Tito holidays there and the countryside remains relatively unspoiled.

Press photo of Laibach in 1983. Press photo of Laibach in 1983. www.laibach.orgThe project of Neue Slowenische Kunst, is already the appropriate sarcastic response to a regime that claims to be an open inclusive socialist result of the anti-fascist struggle. They name it in German, drawing attention to the regime’s investment in a distorted nationalist version of ‘anti-fascism’, and the band give themselves the name of what the Germans called the capital for the Slovenes, Ljubljana, but which is actually the old original name for the city, Laibach.

The symbolic architecture of the regime was a cynical veneer used to justify pragmatic balancing between the needs of the Slovenes and their masters in Belgrade and to cover over the increasing marketising of social relations.

To be against all that is to be, we might say, ‘anti anti-fascist’, and that is precisely the game NSK play in their strategies of overidentification. Overidentification is a strategy of mimicking power, coming closer to it than those inside the apparatus can bear, causing them anxiety. And that strategy of mimicking power causes anxiety in the audience which they must work through themselves rather than being told what to think and feel.

We see this strategy of overidentification very clearly at work when NSK enthusiastically embraces the declared ideology of the regime in 1987 in the ‘poster scandal’ when a poster submitted by the Novi Kolectivism component of NSK wins the youth day competition, and  is praised by the judges as embodying the authentic spirit of socialist youth only to then be revealed as based on a 1936 Nazi poster.

The NSK message: ‘You say you want socialism, but when we tell you what you want us to tell you, it looks like this. It is the betrayal of the revolution and its secret name is nation’.

Statehood

The project to construct an authentic Slovene art, to play with nationalist imagery and fantasies of community ate away at the Yugoslav State in the 1980s, but it also poses questions about what the nature of the Slovene polity will be as a state of its own citizens.

These questions seemed to be resolved in 1991 with the declaration of independence of the new Republic of Slovenia. ‘Identity’ is one of the most dangerous of answers to the question of being when it closes in on itself to protect what seem to be harmonious homogenous contents from conflict outside.

If the State is ultimately ‘a body of armed men’, then the identity of the State is designed to be an armed body which pretends to protect itself but will then put most of its energy into protecting itself from itself, suppressing internal conflict, treating internal conflict as the fault of saboteurs working for alien interests.

The formation of NSK’s State in Time in 1991 answers this problem of the new Republic with new questions. The State in Time as a global State which issues passports regardless of geography is not, it should be noted ‘democratic’. It does not pretend to offer to its citizens an ideal space, for it is precisely designed to operate as a State. Your passport gives you citizenship but you quickly discover that this does not make you a member of NSK (and neither, for that matter, does my own ‘diplomatic passport’). This State poses a question about what it means to be included, and what you will pay to be included in something that is ostensibly open to everyone but which always holds something back. 

This ‘State’ character of NSK as State in Time sets up a series of contradictions about what ‘participation’ can be, and what the limits of participation are. These contradictions also ran through the October 2010 first NSK ‘Citizen’s Congress’ that was held in Berlin. I was invited to attend to facilitate one of the workgroups. What the ‘citizens’ had to struggle with was their desire to guide the State – this is what they were incited to do in the invitations sent out a year earlier – and they had to struggle with their Slave-like dependence on this master-State from which they sought symbolic recognition as they dutifully carried out their work.

Sex 

Marxism is turned against itself in the NSK project, simultaneously betrayed because it itself, this Stalinised Marxism in Yugoslavia, had already betrayed the revolutionary impulse and crystallised Marxism into a State ideology. The question is whether this betrayal of a betrayal returns us to something which redeems Marxism as the truth.

And the first-wave feminism of the Russian revolution is also turned against the familial ideology of the nation-state, and re-doubled (and more) with a series of interventions in and around NSK that combine elements of second-wave and even third-wave feminism. To say that these interventions are ‘feminist’ is stretching the definition, as much as to say that NSK itself is really Marxist. But the questions they pose might actually energise as well as enrage Marxists and feminists.

For example, Malevich’s black square was put to work in contemporary art practice in feminist interventions at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Tanja Ostojić was at the centre of a piece of performance art that was designed to throw into question the power relations and systems of patronage at such art events.

Her performance was called ‘I’ll be your angel’, in which she followed around a wealthy curator and art historian, and was photographed smiling sweetly at him, humouring him and playing the part of the good dependent woman artist. As part of this performance, which eventually led to the curator angrily denouncing her when he found out, Ostojić shaved her pubic hair into a black square in an overidentification with the art establishment that played into and against the objectification of the female form

Marina Gržnić provides an account of this in her book Situated Contemporary Art Practices: Art, Theory and Activism from (the East of) Europe, which is a powerful feminist description and defence of the NSK project: ‘…in between Ostojić’s legs the real/impossible kernel of the art power capitalist machine received the only possible radical and critical appearance that is an appearance in flesh and blood’. Gržnić, a long-time supporter, also provides some interesting links between questions of this ‘State’, asylum-seekers and refugees today. 

Another project by Tanja Ostojić from 2001-2005 was called ‘Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport’, which involved posting images of herself on websites as an online performance piece. This work drew attention to the nation-state as patriarchal apparatus which consigns desperate poor women who want to cross borders to the status of a prostitute. Over 500 letters were exchanged with men, and the performance continued after a marriage was arranged and she got a family unification visa for Germany. She separated from her husband in an online performance in 2005.

Ostojić’s ‘EU Panties’ poster, a pastiche of Courbet’s ‘L’Origine du monde’ (a painting once owned by Jacques Lacan, not coincidentally I reckon), was selected to promote Austria’s presidency of the Council of the EU in 2005, and then condemned for dragging Austria’s image through the dirt and for being ‘state funded pornography’.

Political Intervention and SPECTRE

NSK functions as a political intervention at the level of state politics, what is commonly imagined to be the realm of the political, and as a political intervention at the level of subjectivity, at what is commonly imagined to be the realm of the ‘individual’.

And those two interventions also throw into question the relation between politics and subjectivity.

The nation, the state and sex are mobilised to make us ask what we want, and to refuse to accept any closed ideological answers, whether those answers go under the name of fascism, Marxism or feminism.

But the open perpetual questioning NSK provokes is, eventually, something that corrodes the little fascist that neoliberal capitalism incites inside each individual, and forces a connection between Marxist and feminist politics, so that the revolutionary impulse that is at the historical origin of the NSK project might once again be revived.

Now Laibach have a new album, and its title, ‘SPECTRE’, which evokes the ‘spectre of communism’ haunting Europe that Marx and Engels referred to in the Communist Manifesto, begs a question, ‘SPECTRE of what?’

The album comes with a SPECTRE Party membership book, with a link to register, at which point you will be warned that ‘You can’t leave the Party. But the Party can leave you’.

The booklet repeats the Laibach 1982 proclamation that ‘All art is subject to political manipulation, except for that which speaks the language of this same manipulation’.

At the 2010 Berlin Citizen’s Congress, members of Laibach commented in the final session that they felt they were ‘orphans’, for a long time not part of any state. There was a sense of exhaustion then on the part of founding members of NSK who had kept the frame of uncertainty about politics in order to keep the anxiety burning that fuelled the project from the early 1980s under Stalinism to present-day neoliberalism. There is a message about something that is all but a break with NSK in the launch of the new international ‘Party’.

The biggest surprise, almost a disappointment, is not so much that this album contains so much that is the same as before, but that what is different is peculiarly explicit, readable, even acceptable to the left. So, there are borrowings from and reversals of popular culture, as in the track ‘Resistance is Futile’ which declares ‘We are Laibach / And you will be assimilated’ which reprises Borg-like themes from their soundtrack to the Finnish crowd-funded film ‘Iron Sky’.

And then there are some fairly clichéd agitprop sentiments in ‘Americana’, that ‘If you wanna change the system / get out on the street. Cos’ if you don’t – you’ll hear a different beat’. Žižek has already jumped ship, and has turned to Rammstein as a better example of the production of anxiety and reduction of signifiers to nonsense, a move which also abandons the broader political project of NSK that I have commented on elsewhere. At one moment, in ‘No History’, there are recognisable NSK/Laibach motifs, as in the injunction to ‘Use the language of misunderstanding / Disguise it’. And at another, continuing in the same verse, there is a more reassuring call to ‘Occupy Wall Street’.

The first track, ‘The Whistleblowers’, is a fairly unambiguous celebration of transparency in politics, even if it is spiced up in one line with a reference, there for aficionados, to ‘The black cross machine’. The track should be listened to on YouTube while watching the marvellous affecting video shot in Latvia of young athletes. It includes the lines ‘From north and south / We come from east and west / Breathing as one / Living in fame / Or dying in flame / We laugh / Our mission is blessed’. The affect, I would say, is not anxiety. There is closure. The black door has been closed, at last repainted red.

About the author

Ian Parker is Professor of Management at the University of Leicester, and Visiting Professor in Cibersomosaguas, Facultad de Ciencias Políticas y Sociología, Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain.


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