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Interrogation Machine: Laibach and NSK

by Alexei Monroe; Foreword by Slvoj Zizek
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2005
400 pp., illus. 30b/w, 20 col. Paper, $35
ISBN: 0-262-63315-9.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Perhaps because I'm not an ethnic Slovene, I don't appreciate the wit and subtlety of the political imagery of Laibach and NSK. Except for their opening of a mock embassy, issuing passports and stamping faux-official documents late in their two-decade career, there isn't much sense of fun to the body of artworks shown here. Nevertheless, the philosopher Slvoj Zizek finds it worthy of the attention Alexei Monroe gives it in this thorough and detailed book and provides its foreword.

The very name Laibach is provocative, being the German name of the city of Ljubljana, last used during the Nazi occupation. For centuries there has been a strong German element to Slovene culture, and the Slovenes were the only Slavs that were absorbed into the Third Reich rather than considered conquered inferiors. Nationalism came to a head with the post-Tito breakup of Yugoslavia, the conflict between Serbia and Croatia and the bloody "ethnic cleansing" in Srebenica and Sarajevo. Throughout this era NSK created artworks that employed Germanic graphics, often juxtaposed with similar Soviet socialist ones. The latter included a print of a factory complex that had been created by one member's father much as the American collagist Winston Smith uses images from 1950s magazine advertisements that exude corporate confidence. They also drew upon early twentieth century avant-gardes, including John Heartfield's anti-Nazi work (though Heartfield's swastika assembled from fasces could be read positively too).

To this reviewer, NSK and Laibach's imagery is reminiscent of the use of Soviet and Nazi imagery of strength and industry by designers in London, New York, and Los Angeles in the Punk and Post-punk era, 1976 to 1984. This reviewer remembers his own delight at the strangeness of Maoist imagery the undergraduate found at China Books stores in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco in the 1970s, a burly pink-cheeked female utility worker smiling atop a telephone pole during a howling storm (now that's sexy!). In Michigan, Ron Asheton of the Stooges wore Wehrmacht regalia onstage, and German electronic band Kraftwerk parodied Third Reich (or East German DDR) drones in their short haircuts, tight collars, and neckties. London Punk's use of the swastika, like the surfers' Iron Cross in the 1960s, tweaked the generation of fathers who fought in World War Two. Susan Sontag's 1975 essay "Fascinating Fascism" charts the militarist visual appeal that has outlasted the Thousand-Year Reich by many decades.

NSK used their imagery and cut-up and repurposed lines from official Yugoslavian pronouncements on culture in performances throughout the 1980s. From NSK spun off the band Laibach––perhaps, like San Francisco Punks, No Sisters, to provide performances for which to make posters. Not having heard Laibach's albums, this reviewer finds their descriptions––Beatle songs in martial choruses and choirs, old German songs, industrial noise collages, sped up tapes––not particularly inviting. Perhaps like the Residents, or the late Lester Bangs' favorite, Godz, they are better read about than listened to. In photographs Laibach sports a certain bully boy macho that is ludicrous when not dangerous (call them Sha Na Na-zis?); Californians might be reminded of the video of the art school Punk band, Crime, dressed like stern prison guards while playing for the amused inmates of Lompoc state prison. Perhaps like Crime, Gwar, Slipknot, or even Kiss, they are better seen than heard.

While Laibach ("Better known than Ljubljana", says author Monroe) have evidently embarked on several successful European tours, the non-European reader wonders exactly who is their main audience. Do German youth dig 'em? Slavic youth? It appears that while stirring up controversy with their imagery, they received much critical acclaim and sporadic public support, perhaps because they were homegrown Slovenes most of all. This reviewer would have liked to see this aspect of the NSK/Laibach history compared to critical ethnic nationalistic art produced under public art programs in American cities. Monroe's book is detailed and thorough, if perhaps as dry and humorless as its subject. Interrogation Machine will likely remain the central document of these artists' historic moment in the sun.




Updated 1st May 2006

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