Can art change the world? If you know the history of Laibach, then you also know that the answer to that question is 'yes'. Laibach undoubtedly had an important influence on the history of Yugoslavia and the Slovenian state in the 1980s. And this record - 'We Forge The Future', available on CD and vinyl - is proof of that.
On the disc, you will find a recording from 2018 that was intended to be a new performance of the controversial concert that Laibach gave on April 23, 1983 at the XII Music Biennale in Zagreb, the capital of the Croatian state. It was a turning point in Laibach's career, and the group would receive a lot of criticism as a result. But it was precisely this course of events that made Laibach legendary.
Before we look at that performance, I would like to give some historical context. After all, Yugoslavia held a special place in the cold war. After a few years of conducting himself as a fine student of Stalin, the Yugoslav leader Tito broke with the Soviet Union in 1948, and with that, in fact, with all the other Eastern Bloc countries. Tito co-founded the Movement of Non-Aligned Countries, an association of countries that did not want to take sides between the two superpowers in the Cold War.
This led to a relatively more liberal policy in Yugoslavia, although the country remained a one-party dictatorship that sent dissidents to prison. Not only as a result of liberalism, but also because of economic necessity and the isolation the country was in, Yugoslavia was very open to Western European culture. Records of many Western rock groups were thus freely available, as were Western films and other cultural products.
Slovenia, the northernmost state of Yugoslavia, was even more liberal, partly because it was more prosperous economically and partly because it operated on the periphery of the Yugoslav federation, where more was possible. Thus, in 1969, Radio Študent was born, an independent radio station resulting from student protests at the University of Ljublijana a year before. Radio Študent operated under the wings of the ZSMS, the Union of Socialist Youth of Slovenia, affiliated with the ruling communist party.
Also affiliated with the ZSMS was the ŠKUC, a cultural organization founded in 1978 that, among other things, released the Sex Pistols record in Yugoslavia, and organized exhibitions and concerts by alternative artists. But all this also arose at a time of increased authoritarianism as a result of nationalist aspirations of young people in the federal states (especially after the Croatian Spring). The ZSMS increasingly became the mouthpiece of the disatisfied Slovenian youth.
This is the context in which Laibach came to the fore in 1980. Laibach's first event, a few months after its founding, was immediately banned after the group pasted lurid posters in their hometown Trbovlje. It took until 1982 before Laibach could perform for the first time in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. This too was not without a struggle, because the name Laibach was the German-language name of Ljubljana, a name that evoked memories of the Nazi occupation and the colonialism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The performance 'Mi kujemo bodočnost' - We Forge The Future - took place in April 1983 in Zagreb, the capital of the Croatian state. Here too, Laibach already had a bad reputation. After a performance by Laibach at the 1982 Yu-Rock festival in Zagreb, the group was questioned by the military police for using real military smoke bombs as visual effect during the show, causing considerable difficulties for musicians and audience.
Ten days after this concert, singer Tomaž Hostnik committed suicide by hanging himself on a kozolec, a kind of drying structure for hay that is sometimes seen as a national symbol of Slovenia. The group condemned the act and posthumously fired Hostnik from Laibach. Still, Laibach would regularly pay tribute to Hostnik in the future, as we'll see later.
Also in Zagreb, an exhibition of Laibach Kunst – Laibach's visual arm – was banned after a few days because of the shocking images. But the biggest scandal was the performance at the Zagreb Music Biennale. This festival was highly regarded because - as the conditions in Yugoslavia allowed - it invited both Western and Eastern musicians. The festival was mainly based on contemporary composers, but in 1983 the organizers decided to schedule two evenings with avant-garde rock groups.
However great the freedoms in Yugoslavia were in comparison to other communist regimes, Laibach managed to cross the lines. The problem was not so much the inscrutable industrial music, and the uniforms and visual references to fascism might also have been possible. It was the projected videos that went too far.
As the festival represented high-quality culture, Laibach decided to turn it into a multimedia show with 10 different screens. On it, they showed their experimental film 'Morte ai s'ciavi' (Death to the slav[e]s). The group also showed the agitprop film 'Revolucija še traja' (The revolution is still going on), a documentary retracing the history of Yugoslavia since the Second World War, simultaneously with a porn video.
When at a certain moment a speech by Tito coincided with images of a penis, the organizers broke loose, because the images were undoubtedly also seen by the police informants in the room. Since there are different versions on the internet about the events that night, we decided to ask for the experiences of someone who was definitely there that night, namely Laibach chief ideologist Ivan Novak:
‘The whole event for the Music Biennale with Laibach, Last Few Days and 23 Skidoo started at 24:00. Last Few Days was the first group to play, and it went through well. Laibach was second, around 2am, and we managed to play the show from beginning to end also. But because of our show, and especially the film projections, the police and later even the military arrived soon and they interrupted the concert of 23 Skidoo.
As far as I remember they were not even allowed to go on stage. We decided to go on nevertheless. The three bands took the stage and we would jam together as long as they didn’t pull us off by force, which eventually happened around 4 AM or even later, when the electricity was turned off and the audience had to leave the venue as well.
There were about 1000 people in the room, maybe more. I believe they were astonished from the whole show and to certain extend also entertained by the entire circus that happened when police arrived.’
Someone who wasn’t able to enjoy the show was organizer Igor Kuljerić. He is said to have suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the performance and fled to the Croatian island of Silba to seek peace and avoid legal prosecution. Thanks to the intervention of a number of high-ranking party members – including Ivo Vuljević, then director of the Vatroslav Lisinski concert hall – the consequences for the festival were fortunately limited. Still, the Croatian government would protest to their Slovenian counterparts about the concert.
Panic in Slovenia
Three weeks after the performance, Laibach published its manifesto - Action in the name of an idea - in Nova revija, a literary magazine from Slovenia (which had announced at its inception that its goal would not be action in the name of an idea). In reality, the text was already written in 1982 with the input of Tomaž Hostnik, among others.
A few quotes:
Laibach works as a team, according to the model of industrial production and totalitarianism, which means that it is not the individual who speaks, the organization does.
The name Laibach is a suggestion of the actual possibility of establishing a politicized ideological (regime) art because of the influence of politics and ideology.
All art is subject to political manipulation, except the art which speaks the language of this same manipulation.
Laibach practices provocation on the revolted state of the alienated consciousness (which must necessarily find itself an enemy) and unites warriors and opponents into an expression of a static totalitarian scream.
Laibach thus adopts the ideological goals of the Yugoslav regime, in what is sometimes referred to as 'over-identification' or 'over-affirmation'. Laibach poses as the biggest fans of the Yugoslav system, but in doing so also undermine the system, by letting their identification go together with a lot of references to Nazism and by pushing their totalitarianism to a point where it becomes absurd.
Television star Jure Pengov thought it was time to teach the band a lesson. He interviewed Laibach in his TV Tednik program, which was broadcasted immediately after the television news. In the interview, we can see Laibach in military uniforms, looking straight ahead, with totalitarian posters behind them (recorded in the ŠKUC gallery, the gathering place of underground Ljubljana that operated under the auspices of the communist youth league).
The interview refers to the scandalous performance in Zagreb, and to the reaction of the organizers who claim that Laibach promised to refrain from provocations and did not keep that promise. Apart from that, Laibach just continues to play its totalitarian parody:
‘Happiness consists in the complete suspension of one's own human identity, in consciously giving up one's personal taste, conviction, judgment, in voluntary depersonalization and the ability for self-sacrifice, identification with a higher, superior system - with the multitude, collective, ideology.’
Laibach also repeats the statement ‘Art is a sublime mission that requires fanaticism’ several times, including when they are reminded of the suicide of their former singer. This is a quote from Hitler that is included - of course without citing the source - in their discourse, just as Laibach often incorporates references to all kinds of political or artistic figures in its works.
At the end of the interview, Jure Pengov, the interviewer, rhetorically asks whether someone will finally act against these dangerous ideas and expressions. The answer came quickly. On June 29, 1983, the municipality of Ljubljana announced a ban on the use of the name ‘Laibach’. Performing under this name is therefore no longer possible, and Laibach is de facto banned in Slovenia.
We Forge The Future
Now let's look at the new record. This is a new performance of the concert at the Zagreb Music Biennale in 1983. It was part of the exhibition ‘NSK. From Kapital To Capital’ about Laibach and the NSK (Neue Slovenische Kunst: an art movement that united Laibach with other art collectives and which again included a reference to fascism, namely to the Junge Slovenische Kunst under the Nazis) at the Reina Sofia Museum in Spain.
The exhibition was opened by the Spanish King Felipe VI and the ex-Communist Slovenian President Borut Pahor, a sign that Laibach is now recognized in the highest political circles. The booklet with the record also contains an interview with Ivo Josipović, ex-president of Croatia and assistant at the Biennale at the time (later also director). He emphasizes that Laibach's performance was 'not a great artistic achievement', although he does think it should be legal as an expression of artistic freedom.
With a Laibach disc, the layout is always important. The cover shows the group in front of a painting that reminds one of Picasso's Guernica, the masterpiece referring to the bombing of a Spanish city during the Spanish Civil War and which is the main work of the Reina Sofia Museum. But anyone who studies the painting will notice that it is not the Guernica… Laibach has made a Slovenian Guernica, in which it incorporated drawings by Nikolaj Pirnat – a Slovenian partisan during the Second World War.
By the way, on the cover of the booklet you will find Tito with his partisans, although the heads of the partisans were replaced by early members of Laibach like Tomaž Hostnik, Dejan Knez, Milan Fras ... The title is 'The Revolution Is Still Going On', which is of course a reference to the documentary that Laibach played at the Biennale. In the booklet you will find images from the film and from the simultaneously played porn film.
Musically the record most resembles the 'Revisited' box that was released last year, and more specifically the third CD from that box: 'Underground'. That record was also a new performance of the concerts of the early days of Laibach concerts by some of the original members of the group. On 'We Forge The Future', you can hear the current band members, but the records are very similar in terms of sound and setlist.
Those who like to hear how the group sounded originally in these early years, can look for the record ‘Ljubljana-Zagreb–Beograd’. This now hard to find record contains performances from the time when Tomaž Hostnik still sang. I have to say that the sound on this old record is very different from the new ones: it is messier and rougher, but it is an important time document. Anyone who wants to go for a pleasant listening experience will prefer this 'We Forge The Future', which is simply recorded in better conditions and with better musicians.
How did Laibach fare after the ban on their name? Initially, the group turned its attention to the international level. They did several European tours and even moved to London. But they would challenge the Slovenian government again by performing an anonymous concert in Ljubljana in late December 1984, exactly two years after Tomaž Hostnik's suicide. The poster only saw a black cross - the symbol of Laibach that the group members also wore on their bracelets - and the location of the concert.
In 1985 the same tactic was used to release Laibach's first album. Here too, we see only a black cross before which a body turns as if it were being crucified. In this way, the use of the name – which was prohibited – was avoided. The record was released by ŠKUC , the cultural youth organization associated with the communist youth league ZSMS. ŠKUC has actually supported Laibach from the very beginning.
The pressure to legalize Laibach increased. The ZSMS had strongly condemned Laibach's first prohibited action in 1980, but in the following years was heavily influenced by the emerging new social movements: punk, LGBT movement, environmental movement, peace movement ... In 1986, the ZSMS openly advocates legalizing Laibach.
In 1986 also, Laibach released its second album 'Nova Akropola' on the British Cherry Red Records, a sign that the band managed to score internationally. On February 17, 1987, Laibach is legalized and can finally perform openly again in Ljubljana, which is celebrated with a Yugoslav tour. A few days later, 'Opus Dei' is released on Mute in the UK and confirms the group's international breakthrough with hits such as 'Geburt Einer Nation' (a cover of Queen's 'One Vision') and 'Opus Dei' ('Life is Life' by Opus).
Yet Laibach still manages to torment the government. Every year in Yugoslavia, Youth Day was celebrated on the day of Tito's birthday. Every year a different republic was responsible for the event, which was preceded by a tour with a torch held by youngsters that ran through the different states of the federation and ended with a large-scale sporting event in Belgrade.
In 1987, Slovenia was responsible for the Youth Day, but the ZSMS had become very committed in its fight against Yugoslav centralism and lacking pluralism. It strongly criticized the Youth Day, even suggesting that the entire event should be abolished. It ordered a poster for the Youth Day from Novi kolektivizem (new collectivism), a designer collective associated with the Neue Slovenische Kunst, in which Laibach played a very active role.
The poster showed a muscular young man in front of a Yugoslav flag and with a number of other typical Yugoslav symbols. The image seemed to reflect the social realism that hard-line communists loved, and was thus approved by the central committee in Belgrade. But they soon found out… that the poster was a reworking of a 1936 Nazi poster by Richard Klein. The Nazi flag and symbols had been replaced by Yugoslav and communist symbols.
Of course, a huge scandal broke out, which shook the whole of Yugoslavia. Worst of all, the ZSMS just kept supporting Laibach. They even wanted to print the poster on the front page of their magazine Mladina, but that was forbidden by the government. So they put the poster on their fold-out center page and replaced the front page with an article about the poster scandal.
Mladina plays an important role in the Slovenian independence efforts. In 1988 there was a major lawsuit against the magazine for allegedly releasing military information. One of the defendants was Janez Janša. At Mladina, Janša specialized in the army, which was generally regarded as the enemy of Slovenian progressives (among other things because young people often had to do their military service in other republics and therefore in a different language).
Public opinion fully supported the defendants, forcing Slovenian President Milan Kučan to take the lead in the constituent republic's quest for independence. Janez Janša became increasingly anti-communist and has become the right-wing populist first minister of Slovenia today. (In 2012, Novi kolektivizem would also launch a poster campaign against austerity measures by the then Janša government.)
Laibach was of course there to worsen everything when they proclaimed on their ten-year anniversary in 1990: 'Ten years of Laibach, ten years of Slovenian independence'. It led some to blame Laibach when war broke out in 1991 after Slovenia's declaration of independence.
Laibach connoisseur Alexei Monroe argues for just the opposite. It was impossible for true radicals in Slovenia to be even more radical than Laibach, which mitigated their fanaticism. In that sense, Laibach would have ensured that the bloodshed was kept to a minimum.
Be that as it may, I hope to have shown with this article that Laibach had a real impact on the political developments in Slovenia in the 1980s. Conversely, I hope that it is clear that Laibach is a typical product of the Yugoslav system, and did not just arose in a vacuum. Art can indeed change the world, and Laibach is proof of it!