The release of Laibach's 'Occupied Europe NATO Tour' box set marks a time for a valuable reassessment of the prophesies, predicaments, controversy and enlightenment thrown up from their work so far. Though their questioning attitudes have often incited bewilderment and misinterpretation during their 16 year existence, it has become clear that everything they have anticipated has come to pass. Since 1980, Laibach's music and art - Laibachkunst - had been rehearsing the break-up of Yugoslavia and the Soviet block. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that signalled the final collapse of communism in Europe, their work shifted focus to a world where utopian dreams have been replaced by the cynical values of the market place. From the beginning they have astutely observed the signs, incorporated them into their work and exposed the hidden formula of potentially explosive equations. Their early art and music was fraught with the underlying tensions threatening to blow Yugoslavia apart.
From Trbovlje, a revolutionary mining town in Slovenia, Laibach formed in 1980 shortly after the death of Marshall Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia's single post-war leader who also established principles of non-alignment within the communist world. His death began a period of uncertainty in Yugoslavia, resulting in power struggles between Stalinist hard-liners and more liberal politicians, which in turn started crystallising into a struggle for influence between the different republics constituting Yugoslavia.
Laibach's response to this confusion was to present themselves as a totalitarian organism whose zeal for authority far outstripped that of the state. They announced themselves through poster campaigns around Trbovlje and Ljubljana, where they would eventually settle, Their posters played off elements of National Socialist and Social Realist propaganda, partisan folk art against each other. Confronted by these powerful images, Slovenes were reminded of their own wartime past under Nazi and Italian occupation, and the immediate post-war era of more rigorous communist rule. Laibach's name itself contained the germ of their future strategy: Being the German for Ljubljana, it was fraught with uneasy associations.
Early Laibachkunst exhibitions were very quickly closed down. Then came the music. Live, the group, in uniform black, performed ferocious noise assaults before a backdrop of totalitarian regalia and wartime slides. Ragout political speeches from Tito and others were spliced into the mix. (The tension and excitement of those early concerts can be heard on the Grey Area of Mute archive release of 1982 live material "Laibach-Zagreb-Beograd"). Bans followed and, with them, notoriety. In 1983, a TV commentator concluded a live interview with a call to viewers to crush the group. If it became difficult to play in homeland Slovenia, opportunities were still open to them in other Yugoslav republics. When, in 1994, war finally broke out in Slovenia, Radio Zagreb officials hysterically demanded, "Are you happy now? War is here. You have got what you always wanted."
During the intervening years Laibach played a cat-and-mouse game with the various authorities who seemed to be embarrassed by this group who were consciously calling on them to more rigorously exercise their authority. And when it got too hot at home, Laibach undertook with the English group Last Few Days a tour of "Occupied Europe" that travelled through both the Communist East and a West occupied by NATO troops. A live album, recorded in London, Hamburg and Ljubljana, entitled 'Occupied Europe' was released in August 1986 on the Side Effects label, and featured what would become one of their most celebrated covers, that of Opus' Eurovision hit 'Live Is Life', revised as 'Life Is Life'.
In the West they were met with a different kind of confusion. Rock audiences weren't used to seeing music as a theatre for ideas rather than rock as a simplistic rallying call for those who share the same beliefs. Despite the usual misunderstandings, the group made enough contacts to secure a contract with Cherry Red for the release of the 12" single "Panorama", whose superbly drilled militant/minimalist percussion track is now acknowledged across Europe as a forerunner of both Electronic Body Music and Techno. The Album "Nova Akropola" followed. With tracks like "Vier Personen" - "Four People" - they drew parallels between the classic rock format and the perfect totalitarianism organism. Such comparisons hardly endeared them to a rock fraternity who posited rock as the embodiment of freedom. Other tracks like "Drzava"/"The State" and "Die Liebe" were thrilling and/or beautifully chilling pieces of music in themselves.
If the rock fraternity were unnerved by Laibach, other media took them more seriously. They collaborated on the Sadlers Wells production No Fire Escape In Hell with dancer Michael Clark, which featured the above named "Drzava" to telling effect. Said Clark at the time; "I wanted to concentrate on the more frightening aspect of my work, a more horrific aspect and they fitted the bill. In terms of dancing, there's such a drive in that music that we really compete with it, shoving ourselves around and dancing much harder than we would normally. It's the force of the sound."
Later, they participated in a prestigious Hamburg Schauspielhaus production of Macbeth (soundtrack available through Mute). In the meantime, at home in Slovenia, they formed the utopian arts collective NSK with the art group Irwin, the theatre wing Scipion Nascice (later Red Pilot and, latterly Noordung), the graphic design dept NK, the dept of applied philosophy and so on. Through the organism of NSK, they began addressing the nationalist aspirations surfacing in Yugoslavia, most notably in the spectacular NSK theatre presentation "Baptism Under Tiglav" (Laibach's soundtrack is available in a lavishly illustrated set released by Sub Rosa/Walter Ulbricht Schallfolien. Four "Baptism" tracks also feature on the Mute CD release of "Opus Dei".) "Baptism" is also the best illustration of the NSK retrograde method: that is, revisiting/reclaiming the 20th century Avant-Gardes in the same Freudian spirit that believes that traumas from the past affecting the present and future can only be healed by returning to the initial conflict.
Laibach themselves applied the method with vengeance to popular music on their first Mute releases. They revealed the true nature of Queen's "One Vision" by translating it into German. At the time of release, they astounded interviewers with their interpretation of the significance of the Deacon/Taylor/ Mercury/May oeuvre: "Queen are very honest," noted Ivan. "They are bringing out the main principles of pop culture. Queen show how the concert is really a political event. The band controls a large number of people and has them behaving according to their vision. If you understand Queen you probably understand pop culture and they are British." They did something similar with the fully realised version of "Life is Life". Both singles are featured on their 1987 Mute debut LP "Opus Dei". "We are quite aware that if we are doing pop music and pop culture and so on," announced Ivan Novak, "then we must go to other parts of Europe. To the centre of the beast." The Swastika centrepiece on the inner sleeve caused some controversy until some more astute observers pointed out the Laibach version, constituted from four bound, bloodied axes, was, in fact, the work of the famous German anti-nazi photomontage artist John Heartfield.
By this stage, Laibach had disseminated enough clues about what they were doing. The double 12" release of "Sympathy For The Devil" outlined Laibach's modus operandi. And the 1988 release of "Let It Be" was further evidence of Laibach's sophisticated approach. By choosing to mould the Beatles' least successful LP in their own image, they were in essence paralleling the disintegration of pop's utopian dream with the (by 1988) accelerating disintegration of Tito's dream utopia of a single multi-cultured Yugoslavia. They were also interrogating pop art's cherished ideal of originality. Laibach's original covers challenged the meaning of copyright in the age of computerised reproduction. "We are not interested in making cover versions as another tune of the same song, but changing history," stated Ivan. "Remaking history. We are particularly making originals out of copies, because pop music is based very much on repetition and copying. It is hard now to see big differences in pop music. So we always treat pop music as unoriginal music."
In 1990 Laibach celebrated their 10th anniversary on Boxing Day, with a performance outside Trbovlje, shortly after Slovenia voted to secede from the Yugoslav republic. That the break up Laibach and NSK had rehearsed in their art was beginning to happen did not cause them to rejoice. Rather, it completed the first phase of Laibach/NSK. By now it was clear to many that, contrary to opposing democracy, Laibach/NSK were partially its catalysts. "This is all but unknown elsewhere in pop music but is true to the tradition of intellectual vigour which flourishes in the café society of Ljubljana," noted The Guardian's John Honderich, reviewing the 10th anniversary concert. "A society which, incidentally, is a powerful corrective in a country where reading a book in most pubs is liable to be seen as a sign of pretentiousness or homosexuality." Laibach were not so much espousing totalitarianism as, by embodying such a hated organism and exposing its ugliest facets, setting up authority/totalitarianism itself as its own scapegoat.
The end of communism across Europe and the ex-Soviet Union prompted Laibach to take stock of what was lost with the end of the utopian dream, and what the west had to offer in its stead. With the 1992 LP "Kapital" they set out to preserve certain spiritual values that looked like getting lost in the East's wholehearted and unthinking embrace of Western systems. "Slovenia is not a problem. It does work as an independent state. It is quite prosperous compared with the rest of eastern Europe. In Slovenia you see much less poverty than in New York or London," Ivan pointed out. "It's a pity that people are not more open in the west. I get the feeling that people, particularly in Britain. are living in a shell, they are very much self-satisfied. Things are not as good as they seem to think." To elaborate further, they issued this release:
"Democracy ensnares people through the Utopian injection of
desires and fantasies into a social bloodstream. Its hypodermic
needle is the entertainment culture industry. It's a shared
needle. And a shared needle leads to the spread of disease. In
democracy there is no cure against its own disease.|
"The East collapsed because it blindly believed in the Western utopian definition of freedom of the individual. The West only survives because it slyly established a system which insists on people's freedom . That is to say, under democracy people believe they are acting accordingly to their own will and desires."
The reluctance of the E.C, UN and NATO to intercede to halt the aggression in Bosnia and the nationalist disputes of ex-Yugoslavia and the ex-Soviet Union prompted Laibach and NSK to proclaim themselves as their own state, one without geographical boundaries or physical borders. The state of NSK formally announced its existence in July 1994 with official celebrations in Moscow and Berlin. Passports were issued to anybody who wished to hold one. "NSK has not been set up in opposition to the exclusive economic, political and defence zones - the EC, eastern commonwealths - presently erecting walls around themselves and excluding the rest," ran the official statement. "On the contrary, NSK is a state refuge for those left out in the cold by the new power blocs."
With the 1994 LP "NATO" Laibach draw the political-cultural map of the space that simultaneously separates and bridges West and East, using specially selected "originals" as their co-ordinates. For example, initial western amusement at their cover of Status Quo's 'In The Army Now' was put into perspective when Laibach explained that the original was a hit in the Balkans following the outbreak of civil war. They stood by their promise to take NATO where NATO themselves had never gone by playing in Sarajevo. "Even though NATO is the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, designed to, Prevent aggression or repel it in the North Atlantic area,' and Sarjevo is in that area," commented Ivan. "Since NATO was founded there have been no big wars, but many small wars, which are the direct result of the absence of a major war. It is the fact that all the industry, all the capital, must have an exit somewhere in the most brutal form. The 'civil war' in Yugoslavia is not the result of ethnic conflict, it is the result of the economic and political imbalance in Europe."
The feature length documentary Predictions Of Fire, a history of NSK threaded throughout with Laibach music and texts, was premiered at the 1996 Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals in January and February this year, and will start a theatrical run from October 2 at New York's Film Forum cinema, as a run up to the release of the 'Occupied Europe NATO Tour' boxed set. (For more information on Predictions Of Fire, contact the Kinetikon Pictures Website at: http://lois.kud-fp.si/kinetikon/).
Laibach's Final Countdown to the year 2000 has begun.
Bio taken from Mute Liberation Technologies homepage