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In The Name Of Idea: The Birth Of Action From The Spirit Of Music (Igor Vidmar)

From Unearthing The Music

Laibach live at Novi Rock Festival in Ljubljana, 1982 pic: Siniša Lopojda (Archive Igor Vidmar)

The text by Igor Vidmar was first published in NSK from Kapital to Capital: Neue Slowenische Kunst – An Event of the Final Decade of Yugoslavia (Ljubljana: Moderna galerija & Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2015), pp. 290-298.

Translator: Tamara Soban

IN THE NAME OF IDEA: THE BIRTH OF ACTION FROM THE SPIRIT OF MUSIC

… for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited. So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe him; – he says that when modes of music change, of the State always change with them. (…). Then, I said, our guardians must lay the foundations of their fortress in music? - Plato

The structurally and synchronously fairly consistent formal features of Laibach Kunst and Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) – in particular Gesamtkunstwerk, retrogardism, thematic sources, and artistic references – have already been extensively studied and analysed. What this text purports to do is to draw attention to what might be called the diachronic dimension in the development of Laibach Kunst, i.e., its initial stage immediately predating the inception of Neue Slowenische Kunst. Laibach Kunst was not connected merely to the Idea of the global alternative popular music of the 1970s and 1980s – in its own words “industrial, bruitist, and disco music” – but also to the local alternative music and culture.

Igor Vidmar and members of Laibach at Disco FV, 1982 pic: Vojko Flegar (Archive Igor Vidmar)

The premise of this text is that the final formation of the Idea of Laibach Kunst into a total scenic-musical-visual performance (which followed the initial visual arts stage) was not merely some extratemporal act of “pure” creation ab ovo in the subjective space of artistic imagination, but was crucially determined by the cultural and political context and by the specific way Laibach Kunst entered the public arena and then worked in the public sphere, including the feedback, i.e., the representations in the dominant mass media and the reactions of the dominant socio-political structures. The above-mentioned analyses contain the relevant data related to this process, the context, and the interactions; this text provides additional information to supplement them, possibly suggesting alternative interpretations.

THE ART OF POPULAR MUSIC: A CRASH COURSE

If art is, according to Hegel, the “sensuous shining of the Idea”, music is the sensuous sound of the Idea or the sonic shining of the Idea. Mainstream popular music is above all sensuous, with little shining and few Ideas, imbued instead with the ideology of “pure fun” as another form of that which is described as the basic message of contemporary capitalism or “the maxim of contemporary democratic materialism, which commands us to live without any Idea.” [1]

Poster of first Laibach Kunst action in Trbovlje on 26th of September 1980

In the system of commanded sensuousness and pleasure, popular music has fit the bill for the most part, with a couple of short intervening periods of autonomy and ideas of counterculture, first in the 1960s and then in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In the system of real socialism (also called actually existing socialism), on the other hand, popular music – as an expression of Western, capitalist values and decadence – was initially unacceptable. After the détente (and in Yugoslavia even earlier, after the break with Stalinism in 1948), it became relatively acceptable – on the condition that it was without an autonomous Idea of its own, and truly acceptable if it was in keeping with the ruling Idea or ideology.

ZEITGEIST

Under Yugoslavia’s self-management brand of socialism, which entailed a socialist market economy that was relatively open to the West and included a budding economy of mass entertainment and modern popular culture, popular music was not underpinned by any Idea at first – deliberately and painstakingly so. That was the unwritten rule regarding music in a regime that had distanced itself from the Soviet model of party-approved art by turning conservatively to bourgeois pure art in classical music and pure entertainment in popular music. The modern forms of the latter were perceived as individualistic and hedonistic, and were as such only partly acceptable, restricted, and closely watched, except when they coincided with the official (anti-war) ideology (regarding, e.g., the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia or the Vietnam war). This was true also of the early, mostly derivative local rock music as an echo of both the global phenomenon of the autonomy of youth culture and of the partial liberalisation of Yugoslavia and its opening up to the West.

After a period of what was later referred to as “consumerist (neo)Stalinism”, which had followed the clampdown on the liberal party factions in most Yugoslavian republics in the 1960s and early 1970s, and under the influence of Anglo-American progressive rock, the 1970s saw the evolution of home-grown rock in Yugoslavia, with the most massively popular being the Bosnian populist and pro-regime “shepherd rock” band Bijelo dugme. The local variants of rock music in Slovenia were individualistic, psychedelic, and post-hippie; the band that came closest to an open break with the regime’s “music rules” was Buldožer with its Zappaesque irony, farce, and acerbic parody.

PUNK UNDER SLOVENIANS – A SHORT LESSON

Poster of Laibach show at Disco FV in 1982 entitled "Night of Long Knives"

The next stage in the evolution of the Idea in Yugoslavian popular music was the advent of punk in 1977. [2] By giving their first album the apolitical title of Dolgcajt (boredom), and with lyrics like “things ain’t moving, things ain’t moving at all, c’mon, let’s start now”, the first Slovenian punk band Pankrti articulated a very new and autonomous Idea in Yugoslavian rock music, “which has always been a battleground of ideas.” [3] Their ostensibly apolitical gesture was very much political at the time of “consumerist (neo)Stalinism”, after the death of the student movement of 1968, and the end of the students’ political autonomy through the dissolution of autonomous student organizations. In addition to pointing out the fallacy of the idyll of self-managed socialist boredom and the tightly controlled conformist youth culture, the lyrics were fairly explicit in their distrust of the system, of comrades in high places, and the “total revolution”, making overt references to the country’s repressive apparatus (e.g. Yugoslavia’s gulag island of Goli otok).

Coupled with effective punk music and stage performances, these messages of dissent soon became immensely popular, which became another political dimension of punk in Slovenia. [4] Crucial for the assertion of punk, its DIY ideological autonomy and self-examination, was the endorsement of two student institutions: ŠKUC, the Students’ Cultural Center, and especially the locally specific Radio Študent (Radio Student), or RŠ for short.

REMAINS OF THE “RED DECADE” DAY

“The open secret of the electronic media, the decisive political factor which has been waiting suppressed or crippled for its moment to come, is their mobilising power (…) namely, to make men more mobile than they are.”- Hans Magnus Enzensberger, The Consciousness Industry (New York: Seabury Press, 1974)

Everywhere codes analyse, mark, restrain, train, repress, and channel the primitive sounds of language, of the body, of tools, of objects, of the relations to self and others. All music, any organization of sounds is then a tool for the creation or consolidation of a community, of a totality. It is what links a power centre to its subjects, and thus, more generally, it is an attribute of power in all of its forms. Therefore, any theory of power today must include a theory of the localization of noise and its endowment with form. - Jacques Attali, Noise: The Political Economy of Music (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), Chapter 1, 6. (Published in Slovenian translation in 2008.)

Radio Študent and ŠKUC were unusual for a socialist country, even such a soft-core one as Yugoslavia (and Radio Študent, as an electronic and thus less controllable medium, was unusual for the time also generally in Europe), and they played a major role for punk and, only a little later, Laibach Kunst. [5] They owed their exceptional freedom and autonomy to their origin: both were founded in the wake of the student movement of 1968, Radio Študent as a direct consequence of the student protests in May and June 1968 in Yugoslavia and Slovenia [6] and ŠKUC from one of the final protest acts, the sit-in at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana in 1971. [7] They operated independently under the auspices of the autonomous students’ political organization, the Ljubljana University Students’ Association, which was itself an achievement of 1968.

LP "84" (ZKP RTVL, 1984), compiled by Igor Vidmar, featuring Laibachs (dead) first singer Tomaž Hostnik on the cover and a hidden track by Laibach alongside Laibach side project 300.000 Verschiedene Krawalle and other post punk acts

After the above-mentioned clampdown on the liberal factions within the system in the early 1970s, the official League of Youth of Yugoslavia was reorganized by a party decree into a new, “unified” League of Socialist Youth of Yugoslavia (ZSMJ); subsumed under the new League, the students’ association lost its autonomy. For a whole decade to come, the professed goal of “reorganizing” guided the stand adopted by the new youth organization towards undesirable “youth phenomena”, especially those connected with the erstwhile students’ association. [8]

ZSMS began to change its controlling and repressive attitude only in 1982, years after the explosion of the “punk movement” and its widespread DIY production of images and fanzines. Laibach Kunst also experienced ZSMS and their initially negative attitude when it made its first public appearance in Trbovlje. [9]

PUNK AND LAIBACH

“Capitalism alone benefits from the Left’s antagonism to the media, as it does from the depoliticization of the counterculture.” - Hans Magnus Enzensberger, 256

To begin with, Laibach Kunst had no other option but to operate in the context of the punk underground. It debuted in a punk club, Disco FV, in Ljubljana; in Yugoslavia it performed in student centres and student art galleries. It contributed material to three punk-themed issues of the established literary theoretical journal Problemi, entitled Punk Problemi. [10] Laibach Kunst was a part of the plurality comprising both the underground and the relatively successful Pankrti and their “collaboration with the State”, as they ironically described it themselves on their second album entitled Državni ljubimci (State Lovers, released in the spring of 1981). This was Pankrti’s reaction to a certain normalization of punk; though generally still controversial as a youth counterculture, the ruling political doctrine did not attribute much political significance to it. Pankrti even received an important official award (the Seven Secretaries of SKOJ).

Poster for the Laibach show at Music Biennale Zagreb in 1983

Initially, punk – and Laibach Kunst, then still a part of it – remained largely on the margins of the dominant culture, social theory, and the official “youth” and commercial mass media. It was not until 1981 that punk was first written about in a serious cultural theoretical journal, and then virtually on its own initiative – in the first of the three above-mentioned “punk” issues of Problemi. Despite the relative normalization of punk, the Punk Problemi project was not without its risks: it was still ideologically suspicious, not under the control of the League of Socialist Youth, and enjoying the support of what remained of the student movement. What it produced was the first theoretical consideration of punk outside its own thinking, in the editorial to the first issue of Punk Problemi, penned by the editor-in-chief, Slavoj Žižek.

Crucially, the editorial said, “If making a distinction between a non-dogmatic and a dogmatic Marxist approach is to make any sense, then this distinction must (also) include allowing – when… coming across a point with the value of a symptom – this ‘symptom’ to speak for itself, rather than understanding it a priori, i.e., reducing it to the already known.” (italics by I. V.) This was soon to become a commonplace in defensive discourses of the “friends of punk”, whether they were pro-regime or not, typically phrased as “punk is a symptom that has spoken”. The editorial further offered: “Punk literally performs the suppressed dimension of the normal, being thereby ‘liberating’, introducing a certain estranging distance (…) this absence of an explicit ‘perspective’ indicates that punk is speaking from some ‘utopian’, ‘non-alienated’ place.” [11]

SYSTEMIC RETRO-AVANT-GARDE

But neither the erudite editorial in Punk Problemi nor the massively attended punk festival Novi Rock, co-organized (and, remarkably, broadcast live) by the national radio in the elite, serious music venue of Križanke six months later managed to bring about the ultimate legitimization of punk in Slovenia. On the contrary: they may well have precipitated the system’s harsh reaction, the staged “Nazi punk scandal”: at the same time as a banner headline in a top-circulation tabloid denounced “Who Is Painting Swastikas?” the repressive organs arrested three “Nazi” punks, began harassing punk fans, and similar.

Insinuating a connection between punk and the ideology of Nazism, historically the Slovenian people’s archenemy, and the repressive measures that came in its wake were among the final “retro-avant-garde”, “totalitarian” reflexes of a system in (identity) crisis. The affair was reminiscent of the times of loyalty to Stalin’s Soviet Union: legal action in the name of “rule of law” synchronized with a media campaign to denigrate the “enemy” and mobilize the public.

ACTION IN THE NAME OF AN IDEA

With its German name and “aggressive” image, Laibach Kunst fit the concept of this state and media “systemic retro-avant-garde” to a T, but had initially managed to remain under the radar. There is no evidence of the Nazi punk scandal having a direct influence on the evolution of Laibach Kunst into its next, “totalitarian” aesthetic phase; the only thing known for a fact is that a new member of the group, who went on to become the protagonist of its new, totalitarian image and performance, frontman Ivo Saliger, mentioned it in an interview. [12] The group’s first Ljubljana concert happened soon after the scandal broke, in February 1982, while the frontman’s first performance in uniform, which is now formally considered the beginning of the Laibach “totalitarian” phase, followed in June that year, at a marginal international leftist festival Rock In Opposition.

As already noted, the group gave its watershed performance in September, in front of a packed audience at the punk festival Novi Rock. The crowd reacted to the frontman’s “totalitarian” stage persona and the noisy, cacophonic, electronic-industrial, utterly “non-rock/non-punk” music by catcalling and throwing things. The new Idea of popular music as articulated by Laibach Kunst was unacceptable even for many of the new audience, or it may have come too close to becoming a “mirror of reality”. The effect that this performance had on the new generation of avant-garde artists, however, was substantial, and especially relevant for at least two of the founding members of NSK. [13]

By symbolically enacting a repressive system’s retrogardism, Laibach Kunst revived the radical estrangement effect of early punk, challenging the normalization of punk and its growing fan base and revitalizing the Idea and the autonomy which it had partly lost as a result of the normalization process, the moderate commercial success that came with the latter, and the pressures in the aftermath of the Nazi punk scandal. The aesthetic means employed were radically different – a “musical innovation (…) full of danger to the whole State” – and were soon conceptualized by outside thinkers, first as “hyper-regime” and later as “over-identification”. They also meant the end of Laibach’s formal or aesthetic association with punk, although the media and security organs continued to regard it as such for quite some time. Laibach Kunst thematized the punk method one more (arguably not the last) time, when appearing for the first time at a serious music event, the Music Biennale Zagreb in April 1983.

ONE STEP BACK, TWO STEPS FORWARD

Leading up to this appearance – in addition to the performance at the Novi Rock concert – was the publication of “10 Items of the Covenant”, several Laibach lyrics, and “Apology Laibach”, a programmatic poem by Saliger, in Nova revija, the leading dissident journal for cultural and social issues. The texts were published under the heading “Laibach Kunst: Action on Behalf of the Idea”, in a special section entitled “Totalitarianism”, to which the editorial board added an essay by renowned literary theoretician Taras Kermauner. In “x + (-) 11 = ?”, Kermauner describes Laibach Kunst as “a group that calls itself totalitarian” and sees its work as poetry that goes beyond the boundaries of “pure” poetry. “Laibach tries to break the entanglement in text alone, which represents the entanglement and de-socialisation of the seventies.” Especially important is his thought that “Laibach take the role of (…) ideology. With a suppositious gesture they unveil this ideology as totalitarian and their conscious adaptation of non-freedom they unveil as freedom. (…) When Laibach act excessively and undesirably hyper-regime-like – they radicalise the totalitarianism of Nazi-Stalinism as a supreme value of authority – it shows how they are becoming, as demaskers of the regime, anti-regime, and (…) outer-regime.” [14]

Seeing as Laibach itself decided to shift from one cultural and theoretical context (of Problemi) to a different one (Nova revija), it can be assumed that Kermauner’s text was relevant for the development of the concept/Idea of Laibach Kunst, in particular for its first “total” staging in a TV interview, as a hyper-regime-like response to the reaction of the system (and the public at large) to Laibach’s “provocation” at the Music Biennale in Zagreb. The controversial part of Laibach’s performance – formally video art (video projection on top of a film screening, multiple screens, etc.) – had explicit and political content that incensed: a looped sequence from a pornographic video was projected onto a big-screen projection of an official propaganda documentary Revolucija još traje (The Revolution Continues), coinciding with footage of Tito. The performance was cut short, there was media outrage, followed by a “denunciation” in the above-mentioned TV interview (which would become notorious), and culminating in the official ban on the use of the name Laibach – in short, the Nazi Laibach scandal.

BACK TO THE FUTURE

While formally undoubtedly artistic, the Zagreb “action in the name of (an) Idea” was very much punk in terms of content, rather than “hyper-regime-like”. The official ideological arguments justifying the banning of the name were not unlike those surrounding the Nazi punk scandal. What was later to become the central theoretical explanation of Laibach Kunst and NSK – conceptualized by Žižek as over-identification (with the State/System), or, prior to that, described by Kermauner as hyper-regime-like – was for the first time “totally” articulated by Laibach on the occasion of its stage-managing the above-mentioned TV interview, which had a particularly profound impact on the “first TV generation”, as Laibach described its own generation. By provoking a public outcry and calls for repression it was also a moment of truth for the wider socialist public.

According to Kermauner: “Laibach members unmask that rotten compromise, which is common nowadays and which does not mean freedom but corruption; that it is possible to combine genuine personal freedom with belonging to society or its parts (class, party, group).” [15]

AFTER PARTY

Laibach’s hyper-regime-likeness and, subsequently, NSK’s over-identification appear both as an aesthetic strategy and as “action in the name of (an) Idea”. This became clear in the previous system in the case of the “poster scandal”, which triggered the end of a key state ritual in Yugoslavia, the Relay of Youth, symbolizing brotherhood and unity; in effect it deconstructed one of the final ideological false fronts.

The rest is history – the unfortunate history of the dissolution of the self-managing socialist, federative, and non-aligned Yugoslavia, and the advent, among other things, of the liberal-capitalist, NATO-member Slovenia. These historic events made “the modes of the State change with them”, and Laibach Kunst’s, and later NSK’s, “action in the name of (an) Idea” played a role in all of this, regardless of one’s take on the outcome. The profound and interminable latest crisis in “the best of all possible worlds” seems to indicate that the changes were not for the better; but Laibach Kunst and NSK’s rather unique and place- and time-specific role in these events also seems not to preclude a universal emancipatory and utopian potential of a permanently alternative creation of “noise”, i.e., disturbance in and of the System. This lasting appeal is a challenge to rethink “action in the name of Ideas”, including the question: does any remnant of that which once made the “modes of music change” survive today, in the totalitarian grip of the spectacle, of permanent market normalization and preemptive counter-revolution?

References

[1] Alain Badiou, “The Idea of Communism”, in: The Idea of Communism, eds. Costas Douzinas, Slavoj Žižek, (New York, London: Verso, 2010), 1. https://selforganizedseminar.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/zizek_douzinas_idea_communism.pdf

[2] The first punk band in Slovenia and Yugoslavia, Pankrti (Bastards) was formed in the summer of 1977 in Ljubljana. It made its public debut in October, a month before the release of the Sex Pistols album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols.

[3] Slavoj Žižek, “Mnenje” ([Opinion]; Igor Vidmar’s archive). ŠKUC started the initiative to get the Sex Pistols album released in Slovenia (and thus Yugoslavia) in 1979, and was endorsed by Slavoj Žižek with the “Mnenje” (Opinion) essay. In it, Žižek also writes: “The so-called rock music, in the broader meaning of breaking with ‘popular music’… has always been the battleground of ideas, preserving its authentic subversive core through the years of attempts at commercializing it (…) at present, this rift is evident primarily as the opposition between disco and punk music.”

[4] Another thing was the uncanny timeliness of the Pankrti records: their first single was released the same year Edvard Kardelj, the father of the idea of self-management, died, and their first album just prior to the death of the President Josip Broz - Tito.

[5] Long after it “separated” from the punk scene in terms of concerts, ideology, and programme, Laibach was still seen as a punk band, both by the media and the national security agencies, judging by the official reports gathered by Igor Bašin for his book on the so-called Nazi-punk scandal. I am most grateful to Bašin for allowing me to see the documentation.

[6] The story of the origin of Radio Študent says that a student radio station was proposed in a debate with protesting students by none other than the head of the University League of Communists, Stane Dolanc (who was later to become political figure no. 2 in Yugoslavia, right below Tito), on the grounds that the students were ill-informed about the goals and endeavours of the League of Communists, i.e., the system. A group of students of electrical engineering and of journalism took him up on his suggestion, and he was unable to back down.

[7] This final act of the student movement in Ljubljana already evidenced an awareness of the importance of electronic media in the form of the demand to occupy the national (Slovenian) broadcasting company RTV Ljubljana. H. M. Enzensberger’s book quoted above was never published in Slovenia, neither in the old nor the new regime.

[8] When student organizations were being integrated into ZSMS, Radio Študent too underwent a purge. ŠKUC, as a cultural organization on the other hand, escaped it. RŠ recuperated part of its original orientation by including punk in its music programme, which was possible per negationem thanks to it being an electronic medium, to the system being unaware of the “industry of consciousness”, and to the absence of a Marxist theory concerning the media, as pointed out by Enzensberger. Both institutions thus preserved the continuity of the Idea and the spirit of the time, of the local version of what Badiou called the “red decade” (1966–1976). The student movement and the New Leftist revolutionary spirit of the red 1960s found inspiration in the Western Marxism of Rosa Luxemburg (“Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks differently.”), the Frankfurt School, early Lenin, and, in terms of theory, early Marx. Laibach Kunst defined its relation to that at the outset, proclaiming, “Freedom is always, and exclusively, freedom for the one who thinks the same.”

[9] This is documented in two books, the anthology Punk pod Slovenci [Punk Under Slovenians], Ljubljana: Krt, 1985, and Punk je bil prej: 25 let punka pod Slovenci [Punk Came Earlier: 25 Years of Punk under Slovenians] (Ljubljana: Cankarjeva založba Ropot, 2002).

[10] Initially a literary journal, Problemi progressively began to welcome critical writers and thinkers in the late 1960s struggling for autonomy and freedom of creativity, theory, and speech. In the 1980s, philosopher Peter Mlakar, later the founder of the Department of Pure and Applied Philosophy of NSK and co-author and interpreter of speeches at Laibach concerts all over Europe, became a member of the Problemi board of editors (as well as a punk sympathizer). Dejan Knez, a founding member of Laibach Kunst, contributed “photo-graphics” to the three punk issues Punk Problemi.

[11] Slavoj Žižek, editor in chief, Punk Problemi 205/206, 81. He offered further “I must admit I completely agree with any critics” (on the subject of punk being a “symptom”) “although the term likely has different connotations for me. A symptom is a return of the repressed in an inverted form. (…) Punk as a symptom condenses everything the abstract ideological and political jargon calls ‘the rule of techno-bureaucratic forces’, ‘the undeveloped relations in self-management’, ‘the bourgeois ideology dominating our consumerist everyday’, etc. … – becoming a unique indicator of how the pressure of techno-bureaucratic forces in the socioeconomic field coincides with the dominance of bourgeois ideological forms in the field of (mass) culture.” This could have been seen as ideological anathema, but the editor takes a clear stand in favour of the publication: “Therefore let me, too, conclude with a ‘provocation’ – I fully support this issue, not only as the editor in chief, but also and above all as a member of the League of Communists, as a communist worker in the field of culture and theory.” This statement could also be interpreted as a precursor of the theorem of “over-identification” as a strategy of confronting the Regime.

[12] In an article in the newsletter of the Kranj Music Lovers’ Club: “Monstruozni pojavi v deželi Kranjski” (Monstrous Goings-on in Carniola), Glasilo Kluba ljubiteljev glasbe 1, 1982, as cited in Punk pod Slovenci. Ivo Saliger was a pseudonym used by Tomaž Hostnik.

[13] Eda Čufer, “Laibach Stratagem: Two Stories by an Observer”, Ausstellung Laibach Kunst (Lodz: Museum Sztuki, 2009), exhibition catalogue.

[14] Taras Kermauner, “x + (-) 11 = ?”, Ausstellung Laibach Kunst (Lodz: Museum Sztuki, 2009), exhibition catalogue. 54.

[15] Kermauner, ibid. This seminal text is reprinted in its entirety in this book.