WHO ARE LAIBACH, AND WHY ARE THEY PLAYING IN NORTH KOREA?

by Irena Šentevska

In summer 2015 the whole world was made aware that for the first time in its history, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would invite a western rock band to play in the country and that it would be no other act than the Slovenian art band Laibach. They would perform as part of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of Korea’s liberation from Japanese colonial rule (15 August 1945). Hence the title of Morten Traavik’s documentary which in the ‘let’s-put-on-a-show’ subgenre depicts the thrills and the drama of presenting a highly controversial Western band to a ‘brainwashed’ and utterly unpredictable audience in the supposedly most totalitarian and isolated society in the world.

Yet, the main protagonist of this drama is Morten Traavik himself, the theatre-trained director and ‘matchmaker’ of this highly unlikely and yet, in some sense, perfectly logical choice – at least from Laibach’s perspective. As spectators we are well made aware in the film that none of this would have happened had the Norwegian director and artist not had previous experience and contacts, acting as a cultural impresario for Norway and other countries in North Korea. In May 2012 he organized the first ever Norwegian cultural festival in Pyongyang, named after the title of the Norwegian national anthem and taking place on the national day of Norway, invited by and in close collaboration with North Korean cultural authorities. His previous film about his experiences in North Korea “Yes, We Love this Country” prompted the viewers to decide for themselves whether it is ethical at all to engage in a country so widely derided as one of the most brutal regimes in the world.

Explaining his focal role in the film Traavik noted that according to the laws of film dramaturgy one needs a driving character to keep the plot together. So, it was hard to get around him simply because his role in the whole undertaking was so pivotal for its preparations and execution. This is quite obvious. However, what this film does not explain in such obvious terms is why exactly Laibach would be the ‘most appropriate’ artists to be invited to South Korea for this special occasion, described by Laibach’s spokesman Ivan Jani Novak as ‘a small step for Laibach and a big step for humanity’.

In a 2015 interview for the Belgrade political weekly Vreme I have asked Novak how they conceived the ‘playlist’ for the Pyongyang concerts and what kind of audience they hoped to address: ‘We have decided to prepare a program that would communicate with the perception of the Korean audience which operates, in aesthetical and value terms, in completely different paradigms then the Western audience. We are going to play for them songs which are at least to a certain point familiar to them. Say, they know well the melodies from the musical The Sound of Music, because in high schools they learn English from those songs. They are also familiar with some Beatles songs, so we are going to play for them our version of Across the Universe…’ To my question ‘is your departure for North Korea manifestation of desire for a political utopia, solidarity with ‘otherness’, nostalgia for (political) differences, implicit criticism of the new Cold War and the current geopolitical conflicts, all of it together or something completely different’, Novak replied that everything was said in the question and they did not have a better answer to offer.

Laibach’s credentials for this type of cultural diplomacy may be best observed in the sociopolitical context of the 1980s, as the existing Cold War order was facing its demise and the all-encompassing system of global capitalism was starting to come into its own. The Laibach phenomenon is indeed rooted in the context of the (f)ailing socialist Yugoslavia and its version of socialism. Since their beginnings in the early 1980s, Laibach had been emphasizing both socialism’s subordination to Western culture and the logic of capital in which socialism was trapped. Hence their simultaneous fascination with, and distance from, the North Korean political utopia, evident in the Liberation Day.

Laibach was originally a member group of the interdisciplinary artistic collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK). They were part of a community which took collectivism seriously and which operated within a broader alternative cultural scene of civil society movements in Slovenia (then Yugoslavia), engaged in the critique of the established socialist order and working towards the overall democratization of the society. Laibach was among the three founding members of NSK – together with the theatre group Scipion Nasice Sisters Theatre (1983-1987) and the visual arts group IRWIN (1983). Later in 1984 the three groups founded the NSK design department New Collectivism, followed by other subdivisions, including the theoretical Department of Pure and Applied Philosophy lead by philosopher Peter Mlakar. Mlakar’s speeches as prologues to Laibach concerts, highly politically charged and specific to the locations were equally provocative. The very fact of being forced to listen to his complex discourse was itself already a provocation for the regular ‘rock’ audience.

Characteristic of the NSK were different media and approaches employed to transcend the boundaries of usual understanding of art, and emphasis on the relations between art, politics and processes of nation-building. The name Neue Slowenische Kunst alluded to “Junge slovenische Kunst”, the title of a 1929 special issue of the German avant-garde journal Der Sturm featuring young Slovenian art. The collective’s German name challenged the trauma of more than one thousand years of German political and cultural hegemony over the small Slovenian nation. With its eclectic iconography, largely borrowed from the past (from Eastern and Western European avant-garde traditions to socialist and national-socialist realism), NSK called attention to a society of discipline and collectivism which was dying out together with its apparatus, only to fall prey to the far superior forces of capital with its all-encompassing technological control. NSK differed from the Western ‘appropriation art’ in that it appropriated the state itself and official institutions with its events. According to NSK both the state and its institutions needed to be constructed (anew), which in reality happened in Slovenia with the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991. The more the state is failing as a public authority, the stronger the various nationalisms and neo-Nazi-fascisms emerge on the both sides of the former Iron Curtain. The more the real power of global capital grows individual states cling more desperately to their national symbols. NSK and Laibach underscored all this, making evident that Nazi-fascism had never been conquered on the symbolical level. National states are left holding the symbols of authority as empty signifiers of a bygone era. Accordingly, after the breakup of Yugoslavia and the establishment of the independent Slovenian state, the NSK groups joined forces in founding the NSK State in Time (1992). Since then, the NSK State in Time has issued passports, had its own visual identity and symbols, opened embassies and consulates in countries all over the world, and has far surpassed the Vatican in the number of citizens. Members of Laibach were among the first holders of its passport.


Laibach’s symbolically charged language
of visual communication encompasses an eclectic assemblage of artistic, totalitarian and religious visual references, often provocative and confusing, which happened to be the case in North Korea as well. The so called Laibach cross and other crosses (including swastika), images of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler or Josip Broz Tito, speeches by Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, hunting club regulations, cogwheels and wreaths, mounted hawks, stag antlers, locusts, sculpted war heroes, Teutonic script, the Prussian eagle, Aryan families and gymnasts, Mercury’s winged helmet, the Sacred Heart, circle of thorns, harbingers of apocalypse and the exorcist’s words vade retro, from the typically Slovenian hayrack (kozolec), partisan songs, national anthems, old maps of Europe, maps of international time zones, or UN and NATO insignia to references to Kazimir Malevich, Edward Munch, John Heartfield, Josef Beuys, Anselm Kiefer or Gilbert and George – these are just some of the more recognizable motifs that Laibach appropriated throughout their career to explore the relationships between art and ideology, often relying on their shock value.

As for Yugoslavia, the black cross was not only a recognizable symbol for Laibach’s core audience, but something that a wider part of the population was coming to know and, in many cases, genuinely fear. On the album Nova akropola (1986) Laibach’s “militant classicism” combined with industrial noise and samples from contemporary, classical and film music induced a sublime terror. Laibach transformed even love, the major signifier of pop ideology, into a demonic totalitarian force, resurrecting past terrors as a retroactive warning of things to come.

Laibach was formed on 1 June 1980 in the small industrial town of Trbovlje. As starting points for their work, Laibach cited the models of industrial production and totalitarianism, collectivism and member anonymity, focusing on identification with ideology (or over-identification – a term coined by Slavoj Žižek). Laibach’s industrial aesthetics has served to emphasize the group’s origins, referring to the working-class and revolutionary traditions of Trbovlje. Laibach returned to the industrial era and used its almost archaic iconography to deconstruct the post-industrial nature of both socialism and capitalism, as well as that of the contemporary cultural industry. According to the practice of contemporary industrial music bands, in their early works they used sounds and images as tools to provoke fear and fascination. With Laibach, industry appeared as a specter from a nightmarish, archetypal past, rather than the promise of a gleaming technocratic future.

Accordingly, a special place among Laibach’s visual references was claimed by the works of the Slovenian artist Janez Knez, along with Laibach’s ‘own’ symbolism of Mount Kum (prominently featured in Liberation Day) and Mount Triglav as the highest peak and national symbol of Slovenia. In Laibach’s eclectic symbolical language this was easily translated to Korean through the symbolism of the volcanic Mount Paektu, ‘sacred mountain of the revolution’, mythical place of origin of Kim Il-sung’s socialist state and alleged birthplace of his son and successor Kim Jong-il. Yet, the state-sponsored pop hit ‘We will go to Mount Paektu’ in the Laibach version was too ‘wild’ for the Korean censors and the song was eventually not performed in the respectable Ponghwa Art Theatre. Nor did the hosts allow matching ‘Edelweiss’ from the Alpine Hollywood musical The Sound of Music with images taken from the North Korean 1972 film classic The Flower Girl.

Throughout its career Laibach has used the full range of available ways of manipulating the film image: cutting, transformation, combination, repetition and montage of ‘found’ clips from old documentary films (including pornography)… According to this old Laibach ‘tradition’, already the opening credits of Liberation Day feature documentary footage of World War Two events on the Korean peninsula interspersed with scenes from modern rock concerts which include adoration of Freddy Mercury or Michael Jackson.

In its cover versions of Anglo-Saxon rock classics (Rolling Stones, Beatles, Queen etc.) and second-rate European acts (Opus, Europe), Laibach amplified and ‘made strange’ the structures of unquestioning adulation (and obedience) common to both totalitarian mass mobilization and capitalist mass consumption. (These videos received extensive airplay on TV channels, establishments which Laibach would both benefit from, and attack in their work.) According to Laibach “disco rhythm, as a regular repetition, is the purest, the most radical form of the militantly organized rhythmicity of technicist production, and as such the most appropriate means of media manipulation.” Transcending the mediocrity of the original works, Laibach’s ‘new originals’ impose an (ironically) epic and heroic tone, challenging Western assumptions about Eastern artists inferiority by producing something more sophisticated and multi-layered than the actual originals. (‘More Kraftwerk than Kraftwerk’)

Laibach’s 1987 album Opus Dei was a shift from industrial sounds and militant classicism to a more communicative and apparently populist sound. At the time when Laibach disclosed unexpected affinities for Kraftwerk, Motorhead and Queen, Britain’s Communist newspaper, The Morning Star, called them ‘The Soldiers of Freedom’. Other parts of the British media focused on the parody aspects of Laibach’s ‘new originals’, namely the bombastic arrangements as proof that it must ‘really’ (only) be a joke (and thus undeserving of serious discussion). Even today, Laibach are described as ‘high-kitsch Slovenian art-metal veterans best known for their doomy neo-classical covers of such pop cheese nuggets as Live is Life and The Final Countdown’ or as ‘mildly notorious for flirting satirically with fascist imagery’. In Liberation Day, such reception of Laibach on the part of the Western media was voiced by John Oliver who raucously mocked the Korean mission in HBO’s Last Week Tonight, saying ‘North Korea seems like a terrifying place to visit. But if it is really true that that guy (Milan Fras, lead singer) is going to be singing The Sound of Music – I kind of want to go there.’

In light of Laibach’s history of provocative behavior, censorship and police records in socialist Yugoslavia, the scene in Liberation Day where Ivan Novak leaves the group to explore the street life of Pyongyang for himself (provoking outrage from Traavik and the Korean hosts) seems almost absurd. In Novak’s own words from many years ago, also featured in the film, ‘We cannot concern ourselves with fulfillment of other people’s expectations of us. Our only responsibility is to remain irresponsible’. One of Laibach’s well remembered concerts in Ljubljana (1982) was introduced with the words coming from one of the many protest letters expressing outrage at its German name – “Is it possible that a youth band in Ljubljana – the first Hero City of Yugoslavia – has been permitted to wear a name that forces us to recall the bitter memories of Laibach!” When asked why they were wearing Yugoslav army uniforms and using means of combat (smoke bombs) at their concerts, Laibach answered that they were working on war-related subject matter.

The name Laibach first appeared in 1144 as the original name of Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, then in the era of the Austrian Hungarian monarchy, and finally in 1943, at the time of the German occupation of Yugoslavia. The controversy around the name and the group’s provocation reached its peak in 1983, when they appeared at the program “TV Weekly” broadcast on national TV. They staged a controversial appearance, after which the host journalist (successfully) called for a political lynching of the group. Eventually, the presidency of the Ljubljana City Committee of the Socialist Alliance of Working People of Yugoslavia passed a resolution to the effect that the German name of the group was inappropriate, that the group’s use of it had no legal basis and contravened the ordinance on the proper use of the coat of arms, the flag and the name of the city of Ljubljana. A formal ban of all public manifestations of the group under the name Laibach, registered in the Official Gazette of the Republic of Slovenia, remained in effect until February 1987.

After an exhibition of Laibach Kunst (1983) the members of Laibach were escorted to the railway station in Zagreb (Croatia) by the police and told to go and display their beautiful creations elsewhere. The appearance of Laibach at the Zagreb Music Biennial in the same year meant another large-scale inter-republic scandal for Laibach followed by a media witch-hunt, because during the performance, a pornographic scene was repeatedly projected over images of Josip Broz Tito, leader of socialist Yugoslavia. The concert organizers, the police and even soldiers rushed into the hall and attempted to end the concert. Some months later Laibach was supposed to release its first album, Nebo žari [The Sky Glows] by the national public broadcasting organization ZKP RTV Ljubljana. Due to this scandal, the album was never released.

To celebrate the first legal Laibach concert in Ljubljana after the five-year ban they played recorded partisan songs outside the hall and German songs from the same period inside. In this period, at the invitation of Peter Zadek, the intendant of Deutsches Schauspielhaus, Hamburg, Laibach were invited to participate in Wilfried Minks’ Macbeth, after the theatre’s successful collaboration with Einstűrzende Neubauten. Laibach’s contribution of oppressive, martial music divided opinion amongst the German audience and media, with some interpreting the group as neo-fascist, despite the theatre’s radical tradition. In the previous year (1986) Laibach was invited by the controversial British choreographer and dancer Michael Clark to collaborate on the performance No Fire Escape in Hell. When Laibach wanted to perform it at the BITEF festival in Belgrade, the festival management would not allow their live performance. The show was staged with recorded music, and Laibach was obliged to censor the video recordings of a patriotic speech by Josip Broz Tito.

In the late 1980s Laibach tested the Yugoslav audience’s endurance with cultural (political) provocations like recorded excerpts from nationalist speeches by Slobodan Milošević and gusle (folk instrument holding a special place in Serbian cultural heritage) played at a concert in Zagreb. In Belgrade, Peter Mlakar would address the audience paraphrasing Slobodan Milošević, while a Third Reich film entitled The Bombing of Belgrade ran in the background.

What followed in former Yugoslavia is not a concern of this film, which is very much concerned with the arms race and frightening incidents at the border between South and North Korea, symbolically perceived as the border between ‘our’ world and the ‘other planet’ where fear, oppression, kitsch and 1950s technology rule. Liberation Day is definitely not about Korea. Nor is it about Laibach. Instead of Laibach this could have easily been reassembled A-Ha performing in front of the same audience on this special occasion. But, as Slavoj Žižek rightfully reminds us: ‘Laibach is not simply making fun of totalitarianism. Laibach is bringing out – let’s call it – the authoritarian feature which is present in all societies, even the most democratic… You see, it’s not about North Korea. You will not learn a lot from Laibach about North Korea. You will learn a lot about our own anxieties and hypocrisies’, which is exactly why Liberation Day is still worth watching.

Irena Šentevska
holds a PhD from the Department of Arts and Media Theory, University of Arts in Belgrade, Serbia. Her research focuses on the issues of identity (re)construction in the post-Yugoslav political and cultural contexts, as reflected in the contemporary arts, media, and popular culture in South-East Europe.  Her first book The Swinging 90s: Theatre and social reality of Serbia in 29 pictures was published last year by Orion Art in Belgrade.

This article was first published in The Norwegian Shakespeare and Theatre Journal #1/2017,
chief editor: Therese Bjorneboe