Laibach make art against fascism

The Slovenian group is currently in the middle of a world tour, and will be stopping in Quebec this week for the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville.

Laibach 1987
Laibach circa 1987

In the ’80s many bands flirted with fascist and totalitarian imagery, but only Laibach was willing to go all the way.

The Slovenian group is currently in the middle of a world tour, and will be stopping in Quebec this week for the Festival International de Musique Actuelle de Victoriaville (FIMAV).  They’ve recently released a deluxe version of the album they made last year, SPECTRE, which includes SPECTREMIX, an outstanding album of remixes featuring tracks from Marcel Dettmann, Diamond Version (Olaf Bender and Carsten Nicolai), Sandwell District’s Function, longtime collaborator iTurk and other reinterpretations that appeal to the more experimental aspects of the industrial group’s sound.

Laibach 3Founded in 1980 following the death of Yugoslav leader Josip Tito, the world has changed a great deal since its inception. Thirty-five years is quite a long time for any sort of project, let alone an underground multimedia art band, but somehow Laibach manage to stay vital, their artistic interventions again and again proving to be remarkably prescient.  How has their mission evolved over the decades? “The ‘mission’ — if we call it that — did not change at all and our objectives are the same as they were: we still make evil lose its nerves. But evil is transforming its appearance and adapting its character, so we also adjust our approach accordingly, sometimes fundamentally, if necessary.”

Almost immediately after forming, the band earned dissident status in their native country with their media provocations, of which their musical endeavours are but one aspect. “We do not provoke for the sake of provoking; provocation is simply an organic part of Laibach’s character. In whatever context and media we appear, provocation somehow finds us,” they say.

Quickly outgrowing the industrial music box they were put in, they founded the New Slovenian Art movement in 1984, a self-proclaimed independent state that, in addition to issuing currency and passports, includes a Department of Pure and Applied Philosophy. Even their name is provocative, as  “Laibach” is the German name for Slovenia’s capital city, Ljubljana.  With a name and image that harkens back to the Nazi occupation of Slovenia, audiences at home and abroad have never quite known what to make of them. Their countryman Žižek (a no less controversial and confounding figure) defended Laibach in his 1993 essay “Why are Laibach and the Neue Slowenische Kunst not Fascists?”, but this surely raises as many questions as it answers.

Laibach’s performances are not ironic, but intense over-investment in their ideology.  We’ve come to expect ironic detachment from artists and musicians, but irony can never really be effective precisely because we expect it, because everyone can see right through it.  Laibach adopt totalitarian elements in earnest, manifested not only in their image but in the nature of the members’ anonymity and collectivism.  “We work as a team, with collective spirit, according to the model of industrial production and totalitarianism, which means that the individual does not speak — the organization does. Our work is industrial, our language political.” Laibach borrow from not only totalitarian imagery and western iconography but outright pilfer capitalist popular music.

(Members of) Laibach today

Functioning as guerrilla media interventionists, each project affects revelation through exaggeration of the latent political subtext of their source material. The best example of this must be their 1988 album covering the Beatles’ Let It Be, in which, a few short years before brutal wars would tear the Balkans apart, the line “Get back to where you once belonged” takes on a sinister significance.

Laibach tells me that  in order to stay vital, if not relevant, they “only have to produce imitations that are so distorted that everybody can recognize themselves within them.” With anti-immigrant sentiments and outright racism in Europe reaching a fever pitch, the EU’s manipulations are becoming increasingly transparent as the stakes get higher. The most cosmopolitan of European generations — indeed, the most truly “European” — is becoming increasingly disenchanted with internationalism (at precisely the moment a slide into nationalism is most dangerous). Have Laibach’s most untimely mediations become more timely than ever? ■

Laibach play Victoriaville’s Colisée A (400 Jutras E.) on Friday, May 15, 10 p.m., $42