Yugoslavian communism, for those not in the know, was far more lenient than the type sustained in the Eastern Block. The country balanced itself between east and west, initiating the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement. As such, it was less restrictive towards free speech than you might expect – and in general art didn’t seem to concern the politicians (presumably because it wasn’t considered worth making a fuss about). Even in these circumstances, Laibach managed to get themselves banned in 1983, three years after the band was formed.
It’s maybe no surprise then that the group’s following in their neck of the wood (the six countries formed after Yugoslavia reinstated the meaning of the word ‘balkanisation’) is far more interested in their politics than their music. Laibach started their career by openly and all too successfully pointing out the similarities between fascist and social-realist art and propaganda. They included Tito’s speeches into their concerts, and performed in uniforms, to promote de-individualisation and criticise the cult of personality. Over the years they continued to be equally responsive and controversially outspoken towards all the changes Slovenia was going through on its way to liberal capitalism. Around Europe however Laibach was perhaps initially more appealing to the fans of their rough, industrial and heavy sound, although they continued to be known as masters of subversion: their covers distorting pop-anthems into ominous military marches should probably be used as textbook examples of the practice.
There’s no real appreciation of Laibach without a clear knowledge and appreciation of the socio-political context they refer to (be it a local or a global one). That’s why their musical retrospective at Tate Modern, which coincided with the symposium on Neue Slowenische Kunst, the art movement Laibach helped establish, seems at times out of touch with the band itself. Imagined as a soundscape through the band’s rich history, the concert brushed on the musical, much more than the conceptual phases Laibach went through – diverting the attention to their gradual softening of an initially quite industrial sound. That approach meant the all too relevant context was either slapped around like a Che-Guevara t-shirt, or at the very least taken for granted. Thirty years later the videos of Tito and other SFRY material probably mean next to nothing to the UK audience; for those more ‘local’ Laibach fans they have become a part of the widely abused Yugo-nostalgia, symbols that today replace the historical perspective. The band’s military iconography, black crosses, or the boots that almost stomp over the audience in Tanz Mit Laibach, still resonate – but the ideas that were once idiosyncratic and frighteningly accurate, now serve as a reminder of the influence Laibach had on other artists.
That’s not to say that the concert didn’t offer a chance to seriously consider the band’s credentials, progress and principles. Divided into four parts, following their work from the very beginning all the way to the soundtrack for the long awaited feature Iron Sky, it inadvertently makes Laibach’s iconography fade in comparison to their absolute resolution to mock anything and everything that disturbs them – be it a pop song or NATO. Listening to Laibach’s chronology (accompanied by suitable video material) unravels how consistent the band has been in maintaining critical thought and social awareness as their first and foremost principle. The more recent songs, that hold no connection to nostalgia of any kind, reveal how fresh and unique Leibach still is. Ultimately however, the idea of a musical retrospective turned out to be counter-productive. To those who are already well familiar with the band it might have offered a unique chance to reminisce or get a second chance to live through some of Laibach’s pivotal moments. To everyone else, this concert might have looked like a superbly executed performance, overshadowed by populist imagery. There’s no recreating the specific time, place and context that led Laibach to be banned or form their own totalitarian state – to attempt it is to underestimate their desire to be constantly in touch with the socio-political changes. Exchanging the zeitgeist with its mere iconography, that has since been subverted and re-appropriated several times, is the visual equivalent of a blurb; in Laibach’s case it’s also somewhat unappreciative of the retro avant-garde thinking that the band championed.