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The Quietus Essay

The Great Divide: On Laibach In North Korea
Alexei Monroe , September 16th, 2015 08:26

As Laibach return from their controversial visit to Pyongyang, North Korea, Alexei Monroe looks at the frequently unhinged Western media reaction to the trip, and asks where it sits with their long-standing ambigious exploration of totalitarianism. Photo by Jorund F Pedersen

"Warriors of Weirdness", "Spiritual Terrorists", "the most dangerous band in Europe". In its 35-year existence, Laibach have attracted these and many other labels, some imaginative, some almost fictional. Emerging from the decaying industrial town of Trbovlje in 1980, Laibach were initially described as "Yugoslav" and after its collapse (which many see Laibach as having prophesied, if not precipitated) as "Slovene", "ex-Yugoslav", "Balkan", "Slavic" or "East European", all terms that can still carry a negative charge in the Western media.

Laibach - ‘Država’ (The State)

Rather than try to evade this by pursuing a friendly, deferential approach, Laibach emphasised the threatening associations that these geographic labels carry in Western popular consciousness, enhancing the symbolic threat with Germanic and totalitarian elements. From 1987's Opus Dei to 1992's Kapital to 1995's NATO right through to 2014's Spectre, Laibach have aggressively interrogated the economics, politics and culture of "the West", trying to retain critical distance even as Slovenia uneasily (re-)joined "the West". Yet from the moment Laibach's North Korean performances were announced, the same media that had largely tried to ignore Laibach and its troubling implications declared it a "Western" group.

As the news went viral, the media scrambled to try and explain Laibach, regurgitating old misunderstandings and spreading new ones. The perennial label "fascist" turned out to be much easier (and maybe more satisfying) to apply than "post-totalitarian", "conceptual" or (in Laibach’s own terms) "retroavantgarde". Little effort was made to find more subtle or accurate descriptions or give any useful context and many reports used near identical language. Laibach's typically sardonic 1980s quip "we are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter" was much quoted, but scarcely analysed.

And there was more. If, because of the concerts, the ["fascist"] Laibach could be "Western", this could be exploited as a chance to "sex up" the story still further by re-classifying North Korea as a "fascist" state and the fact that Laibach was playing in a "fascist" state could be taken as proof of its support for fascism. The problems here should be obvious. The term "fascist" is already massively over-used and diluted, being used to label a much wider range of people and ideas than a correct interpretation of the term would allow. For the mainstream media to indulge so gleefully in this, while often underplaying the growing activities of actual fascists in the West, is at best counter-productive. Using the term to describe North Korea is historically illiterate and politically inaccurate. It is a militarised totalitarian society based on a strong cult of leadership, but it contains a unique blend of Stalinist and local folk elements quite distant from “fascism”. Yet as Laibach has long known and demonstrated, history and detail are rarely the media's strong points.

Since Laibach was now officially "Western" and definitively "fascist", it could also be declared a "rock" group. While it might be unrealistic to expect the media to be able to summarise a career as varied as Laibach's, the news that it was merely a "rock" group will have surprised many, not least because "rock group" is an increasingly archaic and rarely used term. It's hard to know if this was lazy shorthand used by journalists rehashing one or two original reports endlessly or a deliberate attempt to make Laibach sound old-fashioned. Even more improbably Reuters labelled Laibach as a "pop group".

It's perhaps unsurprising that The Daily Mail provided the most spectacular example of mis-labelling with its much mocked and later-amended headline "fascist Slovakian band are first Western band to play in North Korea". While it was certainly striking to see the Mail recognise Slovaks (or Slovenes) as "Western", the irony of the paper that will forever be associated with its infamous "Hurrah for the Blackshirts" headline happily describing others as "fascist" is striking and only slightly diluted by the description later being changed to "fascist-style Slovenian rock group". Nevertheless, the original headline is still being used by websites taking the uncorrected Mail story as the basis for their own cut and paste efforts. This episode alone demonstrated the powerful responses and improbable symbolic effects Laibach can have, compelling the media to assume extremely revealing positions.

There were also less overtly extreme and even "progressive" media keen to be seen to be condemning "fascist" Laibach and its support for the "fascist" regime, including Der Spiegel in Germany and The Conversation in America. The implication was that since Laibach is (now) a "Western" group it should behave as one, obeying written and unwritten Western rules - something Laibach has never done. Much of the exasperated anger (Laibach's BBC World Service interview being a good example) was to do with how the trip disrupted self-congratulatory Western narratives about democracy and totalitarianism, bringing contradiction and ambiguity into what is officially a black and white issue.

The more the coverage emphasised the problematic nature of the "first Western group" to perform in the country (which as many have pointed out it wasn't), the more it amplified the effects of Laibach's intervention. Ignoring it would have done far less damage to a long-planned Western liberation script. The "first Western" concert in Pyongyang should surely have been a euphoric concert by U2 or Springsteen symbolically bringing freedom to a grateful North Korean audience following the fall of the regime. While this may still happen, it won't happen as it would have: they've been preceded by a very different "Western" group and the media's compulsive obsession with the trip is already overshadowing this future story and massively raising Laibach’s profile. To paraphrase the polite reaction of one local concert goer: "Most of the world did not know such art exists. And now it does."

If Laibach generated anger and confusion in the media, they also antagonised some of its followers. Yet Laibach have often made a point of challenging its existing audiences since at least 1984, when a Yugoslav critic criticised the apparent dance orientation of the 'Panorama/Decree' single. Some argue that the last great Laibach album was Kapital, more than two decades ago. Others were alienated by the techno-pop of 1994's NATO and still more by the heavy metal turn on Jesus Christ Superstars (1996). More recently, some reacted to the pop stylings of Spectre and what seems like its abandonment of Laibach's complex, non-aligned stance. The difference now is that Laibach communicates intensively with its audience via social media, especially Facebook and encourages their interaction, asking them to submit photos or "Volkskunst" (Laibach-style artwork). Laibach's greater accessibility plus the media storm has amplified fan reactions to the trip.

Some who've never previously questioned or criticised Laibach have taken this as the opportunity to reject it and assume a moralistic stance after the fact, perhaps after questioning by suspicious friends and acquaintances alarmed by the media reports. Some are even following the media line of denouncing Laibach as "fascist" because of the trip, never having previously expressed any reservations about a group that has appeared in SS and Wehrmacht uniforms (notably in the 2003 action Einkauf when they walked through Slovenia's largest shopping centre in full uniform) and frequently used Nazi propaganda and rhetoric as raw material. Of course, the Nazi elements have always run alongside Laibach references to Yugoslav socialism, Tito, Stalinism, Western pop culture, conceptual and avant-garde art and much more. Yet it's easier (and again more satisfying) to overlook the layers of ambiguity and contradiction surrounding the North Korean venture by swiftly and misleadingly denouncing both the state and its unusual guests as "fascist". Having followed a group whose work is centred on ambiguity and paradox and who long ago referred to themselves as "engineers of human souls" some fans now react with horror to Laibach following the logic of its entire career and taking its totalitarian-derived art of the state into one of the most totalitarian contexts possible.

Some reactions seem straightforward and sincere, an involuntary response to the horrors that North Korea represents – they may not have had any doubts about Laibach previously but it’s as if the trip has retrospectively thrown their previous acceptance of the group into doubt. Other reactions are strikingly contradictory and ironic, above all a tiny Facebook group Laibach? No Thanks! created by members of Belgian Eco-Anarchist group Militia and people associated with Italian group Kirlian Camera (whose own paramilitary aesthetics have also drawn accusations of fascism). One of the group’s first plans was to gather Laibach merchandise for a public burning.

This raises interesting questions: what if, either before or after the announcement, Laibach had decided not to go ahead? Try to imagine headlines such as "Laibach refuses opportunity to perform in North Korea" and the negating effect that would have on the group's history to date. Equally, if Laibach should not have performed in North Korea should it perform in Putin's Russia? Going back further, should they have performed in Serbia in 1997 under Milošević (when one response to their visit was a bomb going off outside their hotel)? Should they have performed in Jaruzelski's Poland in 1983 under the auspices of the Yugoslav Ambassador? Arguably these highly charged contexts are those in which Laibach's volatile presence makes most sense.

Should they only play ideologically uncontroversial locations vetted in advance on social media by the fans and the public, some with a vested interest in restricting the effects of their work? The show has challenged people to draw a line that's very hard to enforce in practice and drawing such a line means overlooking Laibach's long history of producing thought-provoking art in the shadow of and in the faces of repressive states. In fact the de-humanised totalitarian severity of Laibach's original "political poetry" (as it referred to its statements in the 1980s) makes even North Korean propaganda seem like a weak imitation). This doesn't mean that Laibach won't in future go too far for fans who don't have a problem with these shows or even for this writer - the possibility that Laibach may one day go too far for me or a larger group of the fans is part of its dynamic, a risk that has to be borne.

Laibach is also accused of uncritically glorifying the regime and/or collaborating with censorship. Again, this comes from the position that Laibach (as a newly-"Western group") has to respect Western norms and limits (no longer having the excuse of being "Eastern"). Without an awareness of Laibach's history and techniques (which have also seen them accused of nationalism, communism and anarchism) the photos of Laibach posing outside North Korean state buildings in grey shirts could seem like glorification and this (necessary) misunderstanding works very well both for the condemnatory media (enabling them to symbolically "cast out" the touch of evil that Laibach brings) and for Laibach (adding another contradictory layer to its iconography and enhancing its sinister allure).

As for collaboration, the fact that Laibach provoked what is seen as the world's most totalitarian state into censoring material including North Korean songs (their version of 'We Will Go To Mount Paektu' was rejected partly because Laibach changed the tempo too radically) shows the censors and the regime were unsettled in their own back yard. This alone contradicted the patronising subtext of much of the Western coverage – that the North Koreans weren't sophisticated enough to understand what they were dealing with). Even songs from Spectre, superficially their least provocative and most democratic album to date, were censored. Yet what did they let through and what might the effects of this be?

In the light of the censorship couldn't the demands for Laibach not to play there also be seen as a call for the regime to be protected from Laibach’s proven destabilsing effects? Isn't a regime being provoked into censoring performances of its own songs by foreign guests admitting a kind of weakness? Should Laibach really have refused to perform at the last moment? Is it perhaps good that the regime and a small number of its citizens were exposed to something it felt the need to censor and to keep its party and military elite well away from? Laibach may have softened its repertoire for the shows and stated that it was not going to provoke, but neither the group, the media, nor the state could fully control or predict its effects. The state has always been Laibach's most important audience and the trip was a natural move for a group that's always tried to question totalitarianism from within, not from a safe "Western" distance.

Laibach - ‘Edelweiss’

It’s even been argued that the project is part of a Laibachian strategy to move further into the art world, yet the controversy may well lead some curators to conclude that a Laibachian touch of evil is a bridge too far. Laibach post-North Korea is that much harder to "museumise". The music and visuals may be vastly removed from its past work and the North Korean performance surely wasn’t Laibach’s most significant in strictly aesthetic terms, but assessing Laibach exclusively on either aesthetic or political grounds is a mistake. Laibach’s artistic style and mode of communication has changed significantly but it still retains great power to alarm and divide, spilling over into real life in the avant-garde tradition. To its critics Laibach’s post-visit comments add to the injury - a deliberately irritating rubbing of salt in the wounds and a way to maintain the lingering tension. Moreover, Laibach’s deflective highlighting of incipient Western totalitarianism isn’t mere rhetoric but valid and timely comment (see the recent U.N. comments describing U.K. surveillance as '"worse than Orwell").

The coverage was marked by a dialectic of delight and disappointment – delight at having a major news event in the dog days of August and disappointment that events deviated from the preferred script – there was no incriminating photo of Laibach and Kim Jong Un (which opponents had already speculated/fantasised about) and there were no party leaders or military officials present. Yet even if there had been an elite audience, should this have been grounds for automatic condemnation – who better to expose to Laibach's unpredictable effects?

Could it have been done more tastefully or skilfully? Perhaps. But could it not have been done at all? If Laibach had refused to play either before travelling or once in North Korea it would have been a very radical break with its past (more radical than any to date). It would have been an abandonment of its non-aligned position and a falling into line with the Western consensus reality and meant, as Avi Pitchon puts it, "collapsing into the realm of social banality". It would have lost its capacity to criticise and antagonise the West, becoming just another artivist group, allowed to ask difficult questions only on the understanding that ultimately, when all's said and done, "it's alright", that they're really "one of us". Laibach would have been following in the path of numerous Western counter-cultural groups who ultimately only went so far and were ultimately happy to conform while still pretending to challenge. Ultimately, you can have ideological and moral reassurance or you can have Laibach. You can't have both.