Tuomas Tähti interviewed Simon Bell via email in January 2014.
TT (Tuomas Tähti): Please introduce yourself to the readers. Who are you and what do you do?
SB (Simon Bell): My name is Simon Bell, I work in theatre as a director and tutor, and stage combat instructor. I am currently a Performing Arts lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, conducting research into Laibach and the NSK (although Laibach is the central focus). This research is now complete, and constitutes my doctoral thesis.
TT: The first time I contacted you was in November 2011. At that time you were already writing the doctoral thesis you just mentioned. The working title was Laibach and the NSK: Ludic Paradigms of the Post-totalitarian Age. Why did you choose this particular topic?
SB: Since I first came across Laibach in 1987 they have been a continuing inspiration to me, and when the opportunity arose to research them at doctorate level I jumped at the chance. Until I embarked on my research I knew Laibach primarily as a music group, and although familiar with NSK and Laibach imagery, my understanding was not in any great depth. My doctorate was initially going to be about the playwright Howard Barker, but once I had completed my M.A. dissertation on the NSK, which was very well received, it was suggested I develop my M.A. research into a Ph.D. Laibach are not really about music, they are art, politics, history, ideology… they are so many subjects – all of them and yet none of them – and because of this the course of my research over the years has been consistently fascinating and endlessly multi-faceted. I work in theatre, having directed over 140 productions (including operas, revues, musicals, tours, etc.), but I have also directed 38 Shakespeare plays, as a result of which I have come to fully appreciate the depths to Shakespeare. It is the same process in the work of Laibach and the NSK. With both Shakespeare and Laibach the layers of meaning generate a repeated fascination, an enigma that draws you in, much as the puzzle of Iago’s malevolence in Othello becomes a point of fascination. And like Laibach, Iago never reveals his motives.
TT: Has the title altered since 2011?
SB: The title has indeed altered, and is now Laibach and the NSK: An East/West Nexus in Post-totalitarian Eastern Europe. Doctorate research is expected to change as the researcher develops the research. The original title refers to Laibach and the NSK as ‘ludic paradigms’. However, as my research into Laibach became more in-depth, particularly in the context of Eastern Europe, describing Laibach as ‘ludic’ turned out to be false on many counts. There is nothing playful about Laibach, and to assume they are playful, ironic, or indeed humorous, is to take an ideological position within contemporary capitalism (otherwise known as third-stage, advanced, or ‘late’-capitalism). Laibach have referred many times to humour being an interpretation of their work, and characteristically will not be drawn on this subject. Moreover, to call Laibach ‘ludic’ is to suggest they are Postmodern. Postmodernism is often described as playful ironic pastiche, a toying with the pieces of history. Laibach and the NSK do not ‘play’ with the pieces of history as so much kitsch Weltanschauungen, but re-mythologise (re-capitulate) the iconography and tropes of the Grand Utopian Narrative and the European traumatic historical within the spectral monolithic construct that is Retrogardism. The energies of these ideologies are left intact, but reformed within Laibach and NSK praxis. A significant part of my research was into a posited Eastern European ‘Postmodernism’, which existed pre-Socialism, during ‘actually existing Socialism’, and shaped the legacy of post-Socialism. This Eastern ‘Postmodernism’ (which of course cannot really carry that name as Postmodernism is a Western construct by definition) is an approach to history/culture reflected in the Retro-avant-gardism of Laibach and the NSK, and it is certainly not playful… So the title had to change.
TT: What got you interested in Laibach and the NSK in the first place? How and when did it happen?
SB: My first encounter with Laibach was in 1987. I was listening to a late-night radio show hosted by John Peel, during which he played Laibach’s ”Krst”. I had never heard anything like it before; the monumental triumphalism of an industrial steam-hammer in a cathedral – a call to arms. The next day I bought the albums Opus Dei and Nova Akropola, which is when I first came across Laibach imagery. I particularly remember seeing Heartfield’s swastika axes and wondering if this was acceptable – were they indeed a neo-fascist group? It appeared to me at the time – and still does – that not only were Laibach ‘my band’, but that there had been an absence, a hitherto unexplained and ineffable void in European culture and Laibach had filled it. As if Laibach had filled a silence that you only knew was missing until you heard it – in Laibach. Here at last was a group who articulated the dark unspoken energies of Europe, and spoke them unapologetically, even triumphantly. If Boris Groys is right that totalitarianism is the completion of the historic avant-garde project, then Laibach were its next aesthetic manifestation – the missing component.
TT: I have never seen two identical descriptions of Laibach. How would you describe the group with a few sentences?
SB: There cannot be two identical interpretations of Laibach. Each interpretation, from whatever part of the ideological spectrum, is valid in Laibach Kunst, whether that be the left or the far-right. There can be no misunderstanding in Laibach, only ignorance. Laibach locate the subject – their audience – in a void of meaning, and the usual recourse to identification represented in conventional popular music ‘fandom’ is denied. The Laibach audience subject is caught in a riptide between a visceral response to their audio-visual impact and a cerebral engagement in deciphering their conundrum. In my thesis I have described Laibach as: ‘An aesthetics machine whose workings are overtly visible, but the material produced by this machine is its own visibility, with no purpose but reflexivity’.
TT: Please describe the structure of your thesis. What exactly is researched and how have you carried out the research? What does the Table of Contents look like?
SB: The Table of Contents is not really that revealing, what might be more helpful is a breakdown of the thesis by chapter. The introduction chapter introduces the themes of the thesis, as well as a contextual overview of Laibach and NSK history. The second chapter; ‘The European context’, lays out a discursive field for analysing an East-West cultural divide, which includes an interrogation of the hegemonic Western aesthetic discourse and attempts by Eastern European artists (such as IRWIN and their East Art Map project) to establish an autonomous Eastern European aesthetic discourse. The chapter on Retrogardism continues from an analysis of these aesthetics and explores in-depth the nature of the Retro-avant-garde, its origins and central dynamic, and posits that the NSK’s re-coding of the iconography of the ideology of power constitutes a ‘new-Suprematism’. The ‘Over-identification’ chapter tackles Laibach’s over-identification strategy as being not a study in totalitarianism, as is commonly thought, but of the mechanisms of ideology. This chapter also discusses over-identification as a potential strategy of resistance, whilst pointing out that Laibach and the NSK are neither oppositional nor dissident artists. The chapter ‘Nexus’ is directly concerned with how Laibach operate within a conceptual space between Eastern Europe and the West, articulating this space as a point of communication and as text for interpretation. For this chapter much Western reportage on Laibach is cited, predominantly from the music press. ‘Interpellation’, the next chapter, is concerned with the various ways Laibach appeals to its audience – what exactly is Laibach’s fascination? The final chapter, ‘Conclusion: Resistance’ compares Laibach and the NSK aesthetic praxis with Western Performance Art discourse, and finds the latter not only lacking, but in actual collusion with late-capitalism.
TT: What is the status of your doctoral thesis right now?
SB: The thesis is finished, and now awaits its viva, which will be sometime in the next three months. Once that is done I will be contacting those who took part in my audience survey and letting them know the results of the survey.
TT: Laibach often differ in style from album to album. What is the appeal of this to you?
SB: I recognise one of my audience survey questions… As I have said before, Laibach are not about the music. Those who appreciate Laibach engage with them as a whole, in which all their albums in all their varying forms/genres are part of the same Gesamtkunstwerk. But saying that, the music has such an immediate pull – it is music that means something, and it is art. Each album release is a study in subjectivity. Relating to Shakespeare again, Hamlet too is a study in subjectivity. Hamlet is Shakespeare trying out states of being, whether misogynistic, oedipal, or madness itself. In a similar way with each different album release Laibach are exploring subjectivity, and like Hamlet, who explores these states of being to fatal excess, Laibach take their explorations to excess. There is no such thing as Hamlet, no core character, and there is no such thing as Laibach, no core Laibach ideology; it is the void at the heart of the NSK spectacle, the Immanent Consistent Spirit of the NSK. Like studying a black hole; the hole itself is invisible, it is only through studying its effects on the surrounding stars that we know the black hole is there. That is Laibach.
TT: While writing the thesis, did you find it troublesome that the topic is so contradictory to itself? Or is it?
SB: Contradiction is central to Laibach and the NSK. Their entire praxis is paradoxical. Their central tenet – Retrogardism – is a paradoxical aesthetic system. It simultaneously looks backwards to the Grand Utopian Narratives of the historic avant-garde, and yet forwards to these same utopian energies. Contradiction is vital to Laibach and the NSK, in the same way that contradiction and inconsistency maintains the fascination of totalitarian systems. A system that can create its own logic – an [il]logic – can defeat death. Slavoj Žižek recognises this same process at work in faith. The contradictions within Laibach and the NSK are bound together by its aesthetics. This is – if you like – a meta-text to Laibach, that their aesthetic system binds together its inconsistencies and dissonance in the same way Nazi Kunst or Socialist Realism aesthetics were vital in papering over the cracks in their respective totalitarian systems.
TT: Compared to all the other books on Laibach and the NSK, what are the assets of your thesis?
SB: My thesis is the first to examine in depth the role of Laibach and the NSK as a nexus between East and West. The reading I have undertaken on the subject, and the colloquia I have attended, have all neglected what I think is Laibach’s elephant-in-the-room; that Laibach have never been understood (particularly in their heyday between 1980 and 1992) in the West. Western mis-readings of Laibach are very telling, and betray Western ignorance and chauvinism. The West may never understand Laibach, because the West has never known total war, never known the mythic relationship of culture to national identity in those Central and Eastern European nations whose borders not only constantly fluctuate, but indeed have been in danger of being lost altogether (the Sorbs, for example). In my study of Laibach I have come to realise how little Britain (let alone America) understands Europe. The English Channel has separated the British from continental Europe not only geographically, but culturally and ideologically. The British (and I am British) have yet to grow up from World War II; they are obsessed with the myth of Spitfires and Churchill. The British lament the bombing of Coventry, in which 500 people died, but all too few in England know of the firestorms of Hamburg or Leipzig, or indeed how poorly Coventry’s 500 compares to Dresden’s 25,000 (which is a minimum estimate). Even fewer British people have heard of the battle of Kursk, (where the tide of war can be said to have truly turned) because neither combatant – Germany or Russia – had a major post-war motion picture industry. Moreover, the British still think they won the war, when in fact the Russians won it and the Germans lost it. My thesis examines this ignorance and chauvinism, which extends to all spheres of life, and points to how Laibach articulate this lack of communication between Eastern Europe and the West, whilst simultaneously exploiting it as a Duchampian ready-made text.
TT: You mentioned that you have sent questionnaires to Laibach audience. What findings did the answers bring to you? Were the responses very different from each other, or is there something that the whole community seems to have in common?
SB: The findings from the survey were really very varied. However, I was not surprised to learn that most respondents were not only well-read independent thinkers, but were very keen that more people should know about Laibach. People were on the whole very helpful, and a few were surprised there was an academic study being made of Laibach and the NSK. There were a total of four who withdrew; two decided an intellectual study was not right for Laibach, and another two withdrew their participation on the suspicion that I might be working for an anti-fascist organisation. Most respondents ‘got’ Laibach, even if they were not able to articulate exactly what constitutes Laibach’s appeal. Most were drawn by Laibach’s uniqueness, their courage, and the fact that Laibach’s music was something they could engage with on a visceral and a cerebral level simultaneously. Many also enjoyed what they perceived as the humour in Laibach, whether straightforward ‘parody’ or a dark – or ‘black’ – humour. The widest band were male, British or American, aged between thirty-one and forty, working in the creative arts or media, and educated to a degree level or equivalent. It was not of course a comprehensive survey, as obviously I never heard from those who did not want to take part (656 were contacted, and 225 responded). I remember approaching Laibach audience members before a performance in London, asking if they wanted to take part in my survey, and one young couple in their twenties, dressed identically in a military uniform, categorically refused, but unfortunately gave no reason. Sadly, these were the type of people I particularly wanted to hear from… What arose from my survey was that Laibach operate as a form of ‘Barnum statement’; something you think only applies to you, whereas in actuality it is universal. An example of this type of statement would be: ‘Everyone thinks you’re outgoing and an extrovert, but inside you’re really an introvert’. Everyone thinks this only applies to themselves – it is how cold-reading, psychics and astrologers work, and how Laibach’s appeal was expressed by respondents to the survey. The survey revealed that understanding Laibach was a personal thing, and a common concern with my respondents seemed to be that only they ‘got’ what Laibach were about, and everyone else misunderstood them.
TT: What are the main conclusions of your work? Did you expect these results on the first day, or has the process included some surprises?
SB: As I said, doctoral research changes as it progresses. When I started I had a certain idea of what I wanted to research. However, as my research developed I discovered the ‘truth’ was much more illuminating. For example, I did a great deal of initial work on totalitarianism, including writing an entire chapter on this subject, but then as I began to examine Laibach and the NSK closer, I realised they are paradoxically not about totalitarianism at all. My eventual ‘conclusion’ did not take any coherent form until relatively late in the research process. I wanted to explore how Laibach ‘interpellate’ (how they appeal to) their audience, but I had no idea what these factors of interpellation might be. For example, I had no idea when I started that this would involve an analysis of Lacanian Che vuoi, the sacred, and ideological non-alignment as interpellative factors (among others).
TT: Have any of the members of NSK art groups helped you with the thesis?
SB: I had access to Laibach – I was emailed by a founder member out of the blue one day, just to introduce himself, which was most appreciated, and during the season of NSK-related events, talks and exhibitions in London in 2012 I met members of IRWIN on several occasions. Although I discussed with them the nature of the events, I did not ask for clarification of any texts. Asking about the meaning of a Laibach or NSK text would have indicated misunderstanding the nature of these texts. Laibach and NSK texts are provocations, not answers. That is why in my thesis I never refer to Laibach as having ‘fans’, but instead I use the term ‘community’ or ‘audience’. A band such as the Rolling Stones has ‘fans’, as their product is finite, their required subject-identification is clear. With Laibach there is no such clarity. Full subject-identification with Laibach means identifying with an impossible authority paradigm to the point of autism, with ultimately frustration at the core of the spectacle, as there is no legitimising ideology at the heart, only a void. Thus Laibach and the NSK’s audience are more ‘collaborators’ than ‘fans’, as expressed in the rise of NSK folk art, which is artists taking the provocations of Laibach and the NSK and exploring these ‘dark energies’. In this way I see my thesis as, to an extent, also NSK folk art – it is a natural extension of NSK/Laibach praxis.
TT: Richard Wolfson wrote in 2003: ”Laibach’s method is […] horribly open to misinterpretation.” Especially in the 1980s Laibach could be seen as a communist group in Western Europe and as a Nazi group in Eastern Europe. Over-identifying with the totalitarian characteristics was their key strategy. Now Europe has changed: Instead of the West and the East, we have the heavily expanded European Union. Laibach’s strategy has also changed: In the 1980s the group’s style and messages were very ambiguous, but the 2006 album Volk and the upcoming 2014 album Spectre are arguably the most straightforward and explicit Laibach albums so far. How do you see this change in the group’s self-expression? Have they lost something important, or is this lyrical change a logical reaction to the changes in Europe’s political and societal environment?
SB: Wolfson’s observation that Laibach’s method is horribly open to misinterpretation misses the point – it is essential that Laibach are misinterpreted. This is the very corner-stone of their praxis, it is the Lacanian objet petit a – the nothingness around which everything coalesces – at the heart of the spectacle (and this void is the NSK’s Immanent Consistent Spirit). It can however be argued, and it is something a few respondents to my survey brought up, that Laibach are at their weakest when at their most straightforward. Releases such as WAT (2003) and Volk have received criticism for being too clear, and thus sacrificing Laibach’s defining radical ambivalence. But Laibach have always been about difference, specifically Eda Čufer’s Difference. Čufer (an NSK theorist) talks about the Difference between Eastern Europe and the West. Laibach are about this very nexus point of frisson, but in Laibach and the NSK’s hands, Difference is constructive, in that the failure to communicate generates a creative interplay of texts and aesthetic systems, which in the NSK’s case is the unique art form that is Retrogardism. Laibach could be said to have lost some of their essential ambiguity, but they will always be about Difference… The ability to communicate is vastly over-rated, and becomes a moral sickness when applied to art. Art is not about healing and harmony, otherwise that is utility art. In late-capitalism, which fetishizes individualism and the individual’s right-to-be-happy, art becomes a commodity, whereby its value is judged by its capacity to communicate, and to heal. This is a cultural disaster, and practitioners such as Laibach and the NSK, non-aligned to any ideological position, whether affirmative or oppositional, are a vital counter-argument to utility art.
TT: Žižek said years ago that Laibach take the system more seriously than the system takes itself. Is this still true in the European Union today?
SB: Some cultural theorists have challenged the efficacy of over-identification (which is what Žižek is referring to here) in the age of globalisation. But these writers have overlooked the vital dynamic that drives over-identification. Late-capitalism has proved itself adept at the strategy of over-identification itself. In 2003 the manufactured pop group Fast Food Rockers released The Fast Food Song, whose chorus celebrated fast food outlets and made no pretentions to being other than a bubble-gum pop song directly marketed at the pre-pubescent. In similar vein, Las Vegas can be said to revel in its own neon hypereality, whilst Dubai’s material excesses of artificial islands and the largest indoor shopping mall in the world is a naked paean to excessive consumerism. Yet this counter-argument of late-capitalism’s self-over-identification does not reflect Laibach’s singular use of over-identification, which is not concerned with ideology per se but networks of domination and control. Laibach point out that Western liberal democracy is itself a totalitarian system, at best a ‘polite expression for developed totalitarianism’. In this way Laibach’s system of over-identification is still very much relevant. On another level, the fanaticism and commitment inherent in over-identification illustrates the puerility of contemporary cynicism. Laibach have also spoken out about the impossibility of a European Union: ‘Europe is not North America. It has marinated in blood several thousand years of political and cultural differences between regions, each with its own powerful traditions. It cannot turn itself into a characterless melting pot without causing pain, frustration and conflict.’
TT: The online magazine Exeunt published your essay ”Laibach: Post-Ideological Tricksters” in 2012. In that essay you ask what possibility can there be for opposition to late-capitalism in an era when Iggy Pop advertises car insurances and late-capitalism is fully equipped with the vocabulary of the transgressive forces. You continue by pointing out that ”Laibach disrupt hive-mind media-orientated late-capitalism by not existing in a commodifiable fantasy space”. Does this mean that the days of over-identification are over? What is the main strategy of Laibach today?
SB: In the answer to the previous question, I tackled the notion of a continuing relevance for over-identification in the ‘post-ideological’ age of late-capitalism. There really is no such thing as a ‘post-ideological’ age, it is just that these current ideologies of liberatory individualism are far more insidious. Furthermore, late-capitalism is driven by cynicism, and the humour derived from such. Simon Critchley posits the idea of humour-as-resistance, wherein humour sees power as a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but in late-capitalism the emperor stands in the crowd laughing at himself. Advanced capitalism anticipates its own critique. In 2011 the coffee chain Puccino’s sold coffees accessorised with a wrapped biscuit, on which was written: ‘Stupid little biscuit’. Puccino’s are asking the consumer to laugh along with their ‘stupidity’ whilst buying their product. Laibach are not laughing.
TT: Laibach have declared that only God can subdue Laibach, so I will not ask about Laibach’s future. But how do you see the future of the NSK State in Time? There are over 10,000 citizens and the first NSK citizens’ congress was held less than four years ago. What do you think will happen in the next 10 years?
SB: Laibach and the NSK are not about future, nor present nor past. They are time. Glib cryptic statements like this are easy to make, but the concept of Laibach and the NSK cannot be understood in teleological terms. As part of their over-all non-alignment strategy, as well as geo-political, aesthetic and ideological non-alignment, Laibach and the NSK practice temporal non-alignment. That is to say, arising from Horvath’s ‘space of non-being’ that is (post-) Socialist Eastern Europe, Laibach and the NSK cannot be successfully affiliated to any linear continuum; whether cultural, political or aesthetic. Perhaps this is best encapsulated in Retrogardism, which is a statement of temporal non-alignment. Retrogardism is a paradox of simultaneously looking forwards and backwards at the same time. Although Laibach and the NSK directly reference history, these signifiers are removed from their temporal context, and within Retrogardism, form a ‘new-Suprematism’; a utopia of pure-form. The NSK state is similarly utopian, and a state-in-time. I cannot speculate as to what may happen to the NSK state-in-time, as the question seems unnecessary, but affiliated to this state is another ‘phase’; what has been called the State of Emergence. This development is to some extent a moving away from the NSK, a loosening of the bonds, whether that be the burgeoning NSK folk art movement (for example the forthcoming NSK Folk Art Biennale in Leipzig in April 2014) or indeed my own research work.
TT: Are you a citizen of the NSK State in Time? Why?
SB: I am indeed, and proud to be. I was given my passport by a member of IRWIN, and I carry it to every research-related and NSK event. I am British, but I consider myself to hold dual nationality. It is a performative statement of identity. It is also, from my point of view, a statement of opposition to the country I was born in. Britain is a martial nation, locked in its ignorant past, and although there is much in it that is good, there is so much about my native country that disappoints. In being a citizen of the first global state of the universe I am associating myself with the utopian NSK state and its impossibility.
TT: Do you wish to be still writing about Laibach and the NSK in 2024?
SB: No, someone else should be by then, for Laibach will have developed. By then I will be old, and my ideas will be old. We are currently in a paradigm shift, and Baudrillard’s nightmare of the implosion of meaning, aided by the vertiginous psychosis of technology, will change the nature of consciousness and being. There may be new blood who will rise from the ashes of this future that is already here. There may be a new Futurism that will sweep away all old ideas and make the world anew. The only word of caution I will add to those who will look to Laibach and the NSK in the future is not to be retrospective. Already this is a malaise that is affecting academic study of Laibach and the NSK. It has been over thirty years since Dejan Knez first sent his New Year’s postcard – the first Retrogarde act – and over twenty since the period of ‘classic Laibach’ (1980–1992). A recent dangerous trend has been to consign Laibach and the NSK to history; to associate it solely with transitional post-Socialism. The Tate Modern symposium on the NSK was retrospective, entitled: Neue Slowenische Kunst (1984–1992): A Historical Perspective, and even Laibach have contributed to this alarming development with the release of Gesamtkunstwerk ’81–’86, and An Introduction to… Laibach / Reproduction Prohibited, which are both retrospective in nature. Retrogardism, despite drawing its energies from history, is not a historical art form, and neither is it a study in European history. The open wounds of the European traumatic historical are not healed by retrospectives. Laibach have not only demonstrated the importance of Difference as the potential for a creative interplay of texts and aesthetic systems, but the value of ambiguity and enigma in its relationship to subjectivity. The Laibach Kunst Machine is still very much relevant, perhaps even more so now, under the burgeoning and all-assimilating power of late-capitalism.
TT: What is your greatest dream?
SB: I would be the last to know that.