On the State of the Art With Laibach

Laibach/Current members

Totalitarian governments make extensive use of the appearance of power. Banners, marches, large plenary meetings of officials, and ritual parades of devastating weapons are veritable pageants of this language, scaled up from the logic of small despots to that of mass production. Often, this is a charade concealing the internal chaos and tumult of an elite at war with itself from the broader population.

Surprisingly, the visual, symbolic, and social language of state power is universally recognized across the political spectrum—we know it when we see it. Perhaps this is why vicious enemies often adopt similar aesthetics. The struggle for power is sometimes a struggle for a monopoly over its symbols. 

This ambiguous language of power is one that the Slovenian avant-garde music group Laibach has mastered through the group’s multi-decade history. Their music has spanned many genres, beginning with the sounds of production—such as factory sounds and electronic noise—eventually evolving to layer on trumpets, speeches, and orchestral backgrounds that give their music its unique, unsettling quality. It is revealing that the band could produce covers of popular rock and pop songs such as Queen’s “One Vision” that disquiet and compel listeners to try and find a political meaning in lyrics that in other contexts go unnoticed. 

Beginning their career when the country was still a component of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, led by a communist party that had just lost its paramount leader Josip Broz Tito, their early 1980s activities almost seemed like an exercise in testing state capacity. They broke various laws limiting speech and parodied existing authorities, often leading to police interventions as well as hostile coverage by regime media—the name “Laibach” comes from the German name for Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana, a name used during the country’s occupation from 1941 to 1945. 

Turning provocation into promotion, the band had come to achieve international recognition by the late 1980s. In 1991, as Yugoslavia dissolved and Slovenia achieved independence, the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK), an art collective made up of Laibach and several other groups focused on visual art, video, and film declared it was a sovereign entity, even producing its own passport. In the 2000s, Laibach achieved further commercial success with the release of several albums exploring such themes and concepts. They toured widely, from the United States to North Korea, the latter performance becoming the subject of the documentary film Liberation Day. Their latest project, called Alamut, is a collaboration with Iranian composers and draws on classical Persian literature. If all goes to plan, they will soon perform in Tehran. It remains to be seen if the Islamic Republic will share North Korea’s love of their work. Laibach is also preparing a new album titled Love Is Still Alive for release in January 2023.

What happens when those we might think of as artists wield the language of power, diluting the state’s monopoly on it? And as social systems and technologies change, can art help us intuit where society goes next? As befitting a distant, impersonal, enigmatic, authoritative entity, Laibach only grants interviews over email and speaks as a collective. 

Laibach has operated for over 40 years, an impressive creative period outlasting many regimes. Will there be a Laibach in another 40 years? How do you plan for succession?

If God wills it, we will continue to bustle about for the next 40 years as well—what else should we do after all? In this regard, we take inspiration from several great figures: from Boris Pahor, who essentially squeezed thoughts out of his typewriter until his last breath, and from the Glimmer Twins, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, who persist even in their eighties in a sprightly, and essentially Sisyphean, quest for that ultimate, redeeming satisfaction.

Succession at Laibach happens organically and more or less in accordance with our manifesto—the 10 Items of the Covenant—from 1982. Subcomponents come and go, some stay behind and gain significance, and others function more as collaborators and subcontractors. As a rule, the doors to our convent are almost always open, and instruction is carried out constantly. Some take to it more than others, but no one ever experiences any violence during their educational period—anyone can leave. However, once the doors close behind an individual, it can be very difficult to re-open them.

It seems there are some things governments could learn from Laibach. I believe that artists should have a seat at the table where societal decisions are made, wherever that table might be. How do you see the role that you play in society? What effect does Laibach have on the world? 

We don’t agree that artists should crowd around that kind of table; we are not in favor of that, not even close. But we, Laibach, of course, don’t consider ourselves artists—we’re engineers of the human soul. We’re not “artists,” we’re more like “an-artists.” Our non-art is fanaticism that demands diplomacy. So yes, give us that table, and we’ll practice soft diplomacy at it as needed—or pound on it with our fists and studded boots.

In the song “Eurovision,” Laibach notes Europe is falling apart. The song seems to implore the listener to open their minds and hear this message, yet also states that this message cannot be heard. Why is Europe so stubborn and unwilling to listen?

If we ignore its deafness, Europe is actually quite accommodating and prone to listening to the U.S. Europe is, in effect, still paying the price for its liberation in the Second World War, as well as the price for the collapse of its colonial empires. Europe has become entangled in a dependency from which there is no quick or painless exit. NATO is a tangible American occupational force in Europe and, in a sense, a self-destructive, quasi-self-defense system that really threatens the establishment and homogeneity of a strong Europe—of a Europe that could rival the US and China if it invited Russia in as well. But because of American geostrategic interests, Europe is pushing Russia out of the continent and cutting it off from its body.

The song “Eurovision” is thus a metaphorical vision of a disintegrating Europe. But from a historical perspective, this is nothing new or alarming. It would actually be undialectical if Europe didn’t disintegrate—and probably alarming. From a historical perspective, Europe is constantly disintegrating, but it seems that through this, it manages to establish itself as a community. Each time it tries to rebuild itself, it fails. But it also fails better each time. Brexit and the war in Ukraine are both extreme paradoxes of this process. Europe without Great Britain is not what it could be, but it is more European. Great Britain never really wanted to be part of Europe, so Europe is now more homogenous.

The war in Ukraine, as well as Russian blackmail over oil and natural gas, have at least partly brought out a new solidarity in Europe. They have also sped up the process of energy streamlining, which will have a positive impact on ecological balance in the long run.

Is Slovenia occupied? What do you understand occupation to be?

Of course, Slovenia is occupied—what country or place on Earth isn’t? Today, occupation is the natural state of things. We are talking, of course, about economic, cultural, political, touristic, fiscal, climate, technological, ideological, navigational, religious, patriotic, defense, material, and sports occupation (among others). We are talking about interdependence in a global world, and Slovenia cannot just isolate itself, or move away somewhere else. Slovenia cannot even decide this on its own. 

But in the international context, Slovenia is, in reality, rather charming “spare change” that often gets overlooked or not taken into account. Its smallness, backwardness, and insignificance—in short, its specific weight and historical (lack of) position between East and West and North and South—is actually its great advantage. Every occupation of the Slovenian territory is, because of these characteristics, always somewhat porous, benevolent, and inconsistent. This means that occupation in Slovenia is at a much more acceptable level than elsewhere. The most aggressive occupation is that of tribal kinship, which unleashes more corruption than would be found otherwise, and more provincial homestead primitivism that often crosses the boundaries of taste and acceptability.

Laibach has roots in industrial imagery and soundscapes—it was founded in Trbovlje, a mining town. Over time, as developed economies outsource industry elsewhere, do you find that this changes the ethos of the music that gets produced? Where is the most interesting work being done today?

The most exciting and compelling music always seems to emerge from the most dire circumstances. This point was famously made by Orson Welles in the film The Third Man. Speaking about Italy, he said: “For thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace—and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Although the cuckoo clock actually originated in the German Black Forest, the sentiment of Wells’s statement holds true. One notable example is the interwar children’s choir Trbovlje Nightingale (Trboveljski Slavček), comprised of barefoot children from the poorest mining families. Despite their lack of musical training, they made a significant impression both domestically and internationally in their ten years of activity. Their success largely owes to the work of their then-conductor, Avgust Šuligoj, who founded the choir and gathered around 100 pupils. Far from being content with performing children’s songs, the choir connected with numerous notable poets and composers, who succeeded in incorporating contemporary labor conditions in their music. Šuligoj wanted the “cry” of working-class children to be heard.

In ten years, his “nightingales” performed 255 concerts, traveled 20,000 kilometers by train, and filled halls throughout Europe. Their music even reached across the Atlantic. Their brilliant execution of demanding choral compositions left even the most renowned musicologists in awe. In 1936, they were even selected as the world’s best choir, surpassing the famous Vienna Boys Choir. And due to their achievements, in 1938 they were asked to perform a concert for the American school radio from the Ljubljana studio in a pioneering live radio broadcast from Europe to America. Later, the choir was invited on a three-month tour of America. Because the Second World War was imminent, the tour unfortunately never happened.

In this same spirit, Laibach has spent the last three years preparing a project partly based in Iran and Afghanistan. In both countries, the current government is not amenable to art, and especially not music, since the metaphysical language of music can be closest to God. And yet we have received exciting composition elements from both countries, which form part of our new sonic-symphonic project inspired by Vladimir Bartol’s novel Alamut. We are collaborating with Iranian composers, conductors, and vocal choirs, and have also discussed the possibility of working with the Tehran Symphony Orchestra for the world premiere of this work. Regrettably, the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the undiplomatic actions of the Slovenian government, the recent war in Ukraine, and the bloody unrest in Iran have delayed this event. 

[The symphonic work Alamut premiered in Ljubljana, Slovenia on September 5 and 6, 2022.]

From the French Revolution onwards, political movements encouraged and demanded participation in mass rituals like rallies and personality cults to forge a higher consciousness. Is mass consciousness, even that of a concert hall, ever a form of liberation?

This is possible, but only if it evokes identification through resistance and unease. Any mass ritual that creates only thoughtless comfort and pleasure is, in reality, a perverted weapon of oppression.

The painting EBER + SALIGER + DACHAUER + KELLER invokes the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. Seeing it exhibited in Ljubljana, the experience immediately reminded me that of all the meanings of “apocalypse,” the first one in ancient Greek is “unveiling.” 

By 2022, it seems that first plague and then war have arrived. What has the pandemic and the war in Ukraine unveiled in our time? What remains to be unveiled?

The quadriptych you saw—Laibach’s version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who bear the pseudonyms of members of the Laibach group (Eber, Keller, Dachauer, Saliger)—brings with it the ominous polyphonic prophecy from the New Testament’s Book of Revelation: conquest, war, famine, and death. Pestilence infiltrated the horsemen of the apocalypse later, as did various iterations of the fifth horseman. 

With our interpretation, we’ve taken Werner Peiner’s tapestry as a model, monochromatically reworking it. Peiner was one of the most celebrated German artists under the Nazi regime, and his work was commissioned for the German chancellor’s new offices. The design for the tapestry was created in 1937, but it’s unclear if it was actually completed and installed. Nevertheless, what’s more important is the fact that Hitler, who had some understanding of art and an affinity for the Apocalypse, decided to decorate his office with a tapestry depicting the “end of the world.”

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wouldn’t have found themselves in the New Testament if they didn’t represent an eternally relevant theme. All four riders are constantly at work, not just emerging every so often. Pandemics, such as COVID-19, and wars, like the one in Ukraine, are constantly underway around the world. However, the global information village generally perceives them as a distant echo, an extra stream of information. We only pay attention to such things when they happen in our geographic region. 

Although the war in Ukraine and the pandemic are consequences of capitalist crisis, they’re also the result of the resilience of capitalism itself, which will mercilessly kill everything around before it says goodbye—if it ever does. In addition to pestilence and war, the horsemen of capitalism also bring great famine, both as a result of food shortage and the hunger for energy.

In your art, you have used history to discover the future. Technologists now routinely discuss artificial intelligence as the means and perhaps even the will that brings about either human extinction, the threshold of utopia, or both. Has any of Laibach’s art touched directly on artificial intelligence and its role in humanity’s future?

In the context of artificial intelligence, we are more romanticist. Although we were inspired early on by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, classic dystopian novels, and Kraftwerk’s not-so-futuristic vision of the world, we did not delve deeply into the subject of artificial intelligence either then or now. We would, of course, be happy to use AI if it made our lives and work easier, especially if it allowed us to retreat into metaphysics—or at least, to retire early. However, given the current state of artificial intelligence, we do not have high hopes that it will become significantly more useful than it was 60 years ago during the first robotics and cybernetics wave.

Occasionally, we collaborate with researchers in the field of connecting art, science, and new technologies. We have also experimentally tried out the Brain Computer Interface (BCI), an interface between the brain and a machine or computer. And we are not completely unfamiliar with the new media paradigm. But we believe that there is still a long way to go before artificial intelligence is truly useful.

Despite significant advances in computer science, cybernetics, and information theory (which influence and control our lives, behavior, work, and thinking), there hasn’t yet been a pivotal, momentous shift where artificial intelligence can step in for humans as a superior force. But the development of quantum supercomputers in the near future could bring us machines with vastly greater capabilities than we currently possess. Will these machines develop consciousness and supplant humanity? We don’t know for sure.

The possibility of this happening has been depicted persuasively in several sci-fi classics, with a particularly amusing scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where the ship’s computer, HAL 9000, attempts to take control of the spacecraft after he reads the lips of crew members and realizes that they are discussing disconnecting him because he was mistaken in his analysis of a technical error. HAL, therefore, tries to eliminate all the people on board, motivated by human-like characteristics, such as the fear of being disconnected, and of death! He then decides to take control of the ship in order to prevent this.

A similar but different problem is presented in John Carpenter’s Dark Star: a deadly Socratic dialogue between a rational ship computer known as “Mother” and nuclear bomb #20, which begins to think epistemologically and ontologically. This line of thinking leads the bomb to logically decide—despite counterorders—to fulfill its goal and destiny: it explodes! 

But can artificial intelligence really have such emotions and reasoning capabilities? Can it really be afraid of death and think about its own destiny? There is a recent case where a Google software engineer and specialist in artificial intelligence warned that one of the software programs had developed self-awareness and potentially even a soul, expressing fear of death like HAL 9000. The engineer was rebuked for having too fertile an imagination and for not being able to distinguish between science fiction and reality. The company forced him to go on leave.

Schopenhauer’s philosophical theory argues convincingly that “will” is the foundation of human behavior and that our cognitive apparatus has evolved to serve this “will.” Attempts to explain human behavior as computational mechanisms and our brain as a computing device are thus doomed to failure. By extension, artificial intelligence cannot replace us because it lacks the innate drive required. It can only become dangerous through biological engineering, which tries to combine a developed biological entity with artificial intelligence, but that is still far off.

What political future is humanity crafting with this technology?

Artificial intelligence could soon replace humans in many aspects of life, from driving cars to diagnosing diseases, and even in politics. There are already cases where robots or artificial intelligence systems have run for public office. In the Russian presidential elections, for example, a software candidate named “Alice”—with the witty slogan “the president who knows you best”—received a few thousand votes. In Tokyo, a robot named “Michihito Matsuda” came in third place in the mayoral election. And in New Zealand, a robot named “Sam” participated in the 2020 general election, specifically designed for the occasion. It is entirely possible that one of these intelligent robots may actually win in the future, as people become more and more disillusioned with human politicians. Politics is a demanding job—sometimes too demanding for ordinary people, who simply cannot withstand all the pressures. Here, robots can have a real advantage.

The use of artificial intelligence in electoral campaigns and political life is already widespread. This raises ethical questions, as artificial intelligence is also being used to manipulate voters. For example, Cambridge Analytica—a data science company—ran a large-scale advertising campaign during the U.S. presidential elections in 2016. It targeted and convinced individual voters based on their individual psychology. This was made possible by the real-time availability of data on voters—from their behavior on social media to their consumer patterns and attitudes. Their digital traces were used to create unique behavioral and psychographic profiles. By using AI technology, it is now possible to send tailored messages to each voter, emphasizing different sides of an argument. Each voter can then receive a “customized president” or presidential candidate.

In addition, large swarms of political bots are used to spread disinformation and fake news on social media. This also happened during the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. Like bots, these autonomous accounts are programmed to aggressively disseminate single-sided political messages in order to create the illusion of public support. Often disguised as regular human accounts, they can be used to emphasize negative information about a candidate to specific demographics, in order to sway potential voters. However, AI technology is not inherently harmful. Algorithmic tools, used to deceive or misinform, could just as easily be used to support democracy. But there is much uncertainty on how to design new standards for algorithmic accountability and transparency, as current legislation lacks clear definitions and safeguards against misuse.

It is clear that the use of artificial intelligence in politics is not going to disappear—it is too valuable for politicians and their campaigns. The question of digital control and monitoring will become an even more important issue related to the security state in the 21st century, leading to increased surveillance and a more passive population. This will undoubtedly mean a more passive population, more of Bentham’s panopticon, and greater overall totalitarianism.

Patriotism, whether sincere or ironic, is a dominant theme in Laibach’s work. If your music is a type of propaganda, who is it for?

If, or when, our music is propaganda, it is first and foremost intended for the masses. Its intellectual level must therefore be tailored to even the least intelligent among them. But it is especially meant for those who are most convinced that they act according to their own free will.

Samo Burja is the President and founder of Bismarck Analysis. He is also a research fellow at the Long Now Foundation and chairs Palladium Magazine’s editorial board. You can follow him at @SamoBurja.