LAIBACH 2014 - A Spectre is haunting Europe: the Spectre of Laibach
Laibach is the continuation of an avant-gard art
Some months ago, while trying to organise a short seminar on Laibach and the Neue Slowenische Kunst movement just before the release of Spectre, one of the speakers I had invited to join the seminar declined my invitation saying something that sounded as follows: 'I cannot accept your invitation. I do not know anything about this band [Laibach]. I do sometimes read about them in the newspapers, and it might well be that they are the same people who have been performing under this name back in the Eighties. But precisely for this reason, I wonder whether their continuation is either provocative or usurpative'. Such a statement is in itself unexpectedly intriguing and in a way provocative, and it seems to point to the fact that nowadays, at least for some commentators and intellectuals, Laibach are a much different band from the one that existed in the Eighties. That's a fact, for sure.
Nonetheless, I argue that Laibach remain still unbelievably original and provocative despite having been on the scene for more than thirty years now. In mid-1983 the political authorities of the Republic of Slovenia - then still part of the Yugoslav federation - invoked the city's by-laws to prevent the provocative Laibach from appearing in public. Among other things, they forbade to use the name Laibach, arguing that 'the name Ljubljana is used in a distorted German translation'(1). From an art history point of view, Laibach's efforts and endeavours are the continuation of an avant-garde tradition with important historical roots. Telling is also the fact that other artists had been banned by the Slovene/Yugoslavian authorities before Laibach. In a way, their inability to perform during the first half of the Eighties reminds of the case of the visual artist Avgust Černigoj (1898 - 1985): 'under political pressure, he was forced to leave Ljubljana for Trieste, where he co-founded the Constructivist Group in late 1927'(2).
In my opinion, Laibach belong to the top of contemporary European cultural expressions. Their new album Spectre, released on Mute Records in March this year, is yet another proof of that. My aim here is more to contextualise the new album from a cultural and political point of view rather then attempting to provide a musical review or simply comment on Laibach's musical complexity and multifacetedness - something that is nowadays well accepted.
The new album Spectre, which contains ten new tracks, is declaredly political: as a matter of fact, it was defined as a 'political manifesto in poetic form'(3) (Mute Records, release of the album). In it, Laibach address political issues they have focused on in the past as well as new problems that have become pressing in the last few years. All in all, in Spectre Laibach emphasise the fact that there is nothing entirely new about socio-economic problems that the so-called advanced societies are now facing - the same problems that Laibach had foreseen long ago. For example, in the album Kapital (1992) Laibach already envisaged the troubles and challenges of contemporary capitalism: the song 'Wirtschaft ist Tot' clearly points to the fact that Western economic ideas (and particularly the German-Rhenanian model of economic growth and development) are unsustainable and doomed to failure(4). Spectre can be interpreted as a continuation of such a critique, supported by solid facts.
As it has been for more than thirty years now, 'unsolved' and unaddressed issues from the more-or-less recent past, sooner or later appear on the albums of this intriguing Slovenian band - and Spectre is no exception. For instance, the opening track on the album, titled 'The Whistleblowers', centres on the problems of free communication and freedom to get timely access to meaningful information. The song is inspired by the stories of Julian Assange, Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, who have been given media attention due to their fight for freedom in the era of 'digital' communication. Needless to say, Laibach are on the side of those who stand for reliable and easily accessible information, for those capable of wisely provoking and are thus ready to bypass the rules in order to achieve goals such as secured access to meaningful and transparent communication(5). On the other hand, however, a careful reading of the lyrics in 'The Whistleblowers' can be interpreted as a warning on the possibility that even a sincere support to open communication can translate into a fellowship primarily based on the cult of personality, thus risking to become very anti-democratic in its essence. As such, it has nothing to do with the fight for a transparent and democratic society.
A second important topic in Spectre is that of the (unintended) consequences of the rise and fall of contemporary capitalism. The theme is not new to Laibach: in different occasions and in various settings they have warned their audience of the dark sides of capitalism. One of their songs from the 2003 album 'WAT' - precisely, 'Das Spiel Ist Aus' - hinted at the forthcoming break-up of a self-regulated capitalism with no rules. Furthermore, Laibach have constantly pointed to the shortcomings of capitalism in itself. Capitalism is the triumph of greed, they once declared, and an entire album - Kapital (1992) - can be viewed as an open critique to those who uncritically cheer upon the triumph of capitalism worldwide: 'the fundamental self-destructive force of capitalism and its driving force is greed. It is a characteristic of greed that it only ceases its hunger when it destroys itself'(6) (Predictions of Fire). With Spectre, however, Laibach take a further step forward. With reference to the dismantling of democratic institutions in several capitalist societies, they interpret current political and economic problems that appear to be rooted in capitalism. Laibach's warning on that 'Fascism under the vest of democracy takes the form of power of financial capital'(7) sounds more actual than ever.
The third major theme that is given thought in Spectre is the threat of a political collapse looming on Europe, mainly due to the lack of a number of essential democratic institutions that would be necessary in order to keep it safe and united, politically stable, and to secure citizens their basic rights. Laibach have always been well aware of Europe's past, made of nationalistic attitudes, ethnic conflicts and a constant drive towards domination. Whether such forces have ceased with the constitution of the current European Union is debatable. In Spectre, Laibach accurately interpret the feelings of many citizens from the EU countries, who are unable to feel true common bonds and a common European identity despite their willingness to do so. As in the past, the threat for a rise of authoritarian politics and undemocratic political expressions in Europe is thus again pressing, Laibach suggest. As it is, the EU is gradually turning into an unfulfilled promise that might sooner or later collapse: 'Europe is falling apart'. The picture portrayed by Laibach in the song 'Eurovision' is that of a dystopian and fragmented society, where the ideals of citizens have been betrayed and their suffering is left unaddressed: 'There are crowds in the street/ they are crying to be heard… They are trying so hard/ but the ears are kept shut'. This time, Laibach are no longer solely questioning - and limiting themselves to solely act as an 'interrogation machine'(8); instead, they are observing and interpreting them, thereby mirroring what is currently happening, and calling for action.
As in other albums, one of the defining characteristics of Laibach, which also shows in Spectre, is their uncommon ability to interpret the social reality (social problems, political trends, but also threats) and predict its outcomes ahead of time. It seems as if the musical products signed by Laibach are a perfect mixture of careful and skilled work of a think tank made up of gifted musicians, first-class artists, unconventional philosophers, political sociologists, heterodox economists, and top visual artists. The level of complexity is such that interpreters of its albums and live shows are tempted to associate Laibach's products to well-known thinkers such as Žižek, Deleuze and Guatarri, Deridda, the postmodern philosophers, the negation of the Frankfurt School etc(9).
Whether Laibach themselves agree or not on such a comparison is questionable. Instead, it can be argued that what makes Laibach so actual and often ahead of time is their intuitiveness, a key element that the rationalised and formalised European society is gradually forgetting about. In addition to that, Laibach are a group of talented musicians and artists who perform their art in an excellent way under a collective idea: 'it is not the individual (artist) but the organisation (Laibach) that speaks'(10). Nowadays, Laibach are also a politically correct group, as they also include the female musician Mina Špiler, originally lead singer of the Slovene band Melodrom.
True. With Spectre, Laibach might have disappointed some of their hardcore fans. Nonetheless, they have once again remarked that they retain in contemporary music the same place that Slavoj Žižek retains among contemporary sociologists and philosophers - that is to say, a top place. And despite that, it is up to their listeners to decide to what extent they are to be taken more or less seriously. Probably, it is a matter of personal taste, sensitivity, beliefs. It is this freedom of choice that, in my opinion, makes Laibach so democratic and libertarian despite their very authoritative imagery.
With Spectre, Laibach have once again proved their uniqueness: I can hardly think of any other band similar to Laibach. It is highly unlikely that Laibach could form and develop nowadays as they did in the Eighties, since a number of co-occurring political, intellectual and artistic factors is needed in order to get a rich and complex phenomenon such as Laibach(11) (Erjavec, 2014). Laibach are the artistic phenomenon par excellence. The Slovenian ensemble is among the very few bands able to cross the distinction between high culture and pop culture, and circumnavigate the obligations of the musical industry despite reaching a certain amount of success and visibility. And more than that. Laibach are able to interpret reality and see what wise and competent policy makers should see (but are often unable or unwilling to see). Finally, Laibach are a media phenomenon, too, since after thirty years on the scene they keep attracting media attention and media coverage.
Mitja Stefancic 2014
1 See the booklet of the album M.B. December 21, 1984 (Mute Records, CD edition released in June 1997).
2 Irena Subotić, in Timothy O. Benson and Eva Forgacs (eds), Between Worlds: A Sourcebook of Central European Avant-Gardes 1910-1930, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2002, p.570.
3 Url: http://mute.com/mute/s-ep-out-now-new-album-spectre-out-in-feb-2014
4 See Alexei Monroe, Pluralni Monolit: Laibach in NSK, Ljubljana: Maska, 2003, p.290.
5 Laibach view Assange, Manning and Snowden as heroes who play a crucial role in keeping the 'public reason' alive. In fact, Laibach seem to define whistleblowing as an 'essential art' - essential in the way it manages to keep democracy alive. Similarly, drawing on Kant's distinction between the 'public' and 'private' use of reason, Žizek argues that whistleblowers currently play a crucial role in keeping the 'public reason' alive: 'Assange, Manning, Snowden, these are our new heroes, exemplary cases of the new ethics that befits our era of digitalised control. They are no longer just whistleblowers who denounce the illegal practices of private companies to the public authorities; they denounce these public authorities themselves when they engage in "private use of reason"' (refer to Žizek's comment for The Guardian, published on 3 September 2013, url: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/sep/03/snowden-manning-assange-new-heroes)
6 Michael Benson, Predictions of Fire/Prerokbe ognja, New York and Ljubljana: Kinetikon, 1995.
7 slo. Fašizem pod krinko demokracije je oblast finan?nega kapitala, see Michael Benson, Predictions of Fire/Prerokbe ognja.
8 Alexei Monroe, Interrogation Machine: Laibach and NSK, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2005.
9 Refer to, amongst others, Michael Goddard, We Are Time: Laibach/NSK, Retro-Avantgardism and Machinic Repetition, in Angelaki: A Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 2006, 11(1), pp. 45-54;. Marcel Štefančič, Teror zgodovine: kako je Laibach na začetku osemdesetih premaknil nacijo, partijo in filozofijo, Ljubljana: UMco, 2012; Sam Kriss, Laibach - Spectre (Album Review), published online on The Line of Best Fit (url: http://www.thelineofbestfit.com/reviews/albums/laibach-spectre-144852 ).
10 Laibach, Rekapitulacija 1980 - 84 reissued in 2002.
11 Aleš Erjavec, presentation at the workshop 'Laibach - Frameworks and Short Circuits', Podlaga Youth Center Sežana (Slovenia), 21 February 2014. For an interesting discussion, refer also to Aleš Erjavec (ed.), Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition. Politicized Art Under Late Socialism, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003, particularly pp. 1-54 (Introduction) and 135-174 (Neue Slowenische Kunst: New Slovenian Art: Slovenia, Yugoslavia, Self-Management, and the 1980s).