Skip to content

Laibach and think of North Korea: The subversive political message of the Slovenian band

Updated Tuesday 18th August 2015

Having accepted a booking to play North Korea, Laibach are suddenly achieving more attention than they've had in the rest of their thirty-five year career combined. But is the casual dismissal of their music as fascists missing something deeper in their art?

The 70th anniversary of the Korean peninsula’s liberation from colonial Japan is being celebrated in Pyongyang with two concerts by the Slovenian rock band Laibach. This will be the first performance of a foreign band in North Korea.

Laibach Creative commons image Icon Laibach under CC-BY-SA under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

The choice of band may seem appropriate. Formed in 1980, Laibach is known more for its controversial aesthetics and performances than for its music. Its early stage shows took on the characteristics of mass totalitarian rallies, and its name has fascist associations, being the German word for the capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, used by the Nazis during the occupation of the country.

Despite the incendiary name, the actual position of the group has always remained stolidly opaque. This has meant that Laibach has frequently been accused of both far-left and far-right political stances. They remain resolutely ambiguous, saying in a notorious TV interview in 1983: “We are fascists as much as Hitler was a painter.”

To get to grips with the band, a little history is necessary. In 1941, Slovenia was divided among Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and Hungary. Under Nazi rule, Slovenians faced complete annihilation of their national identity: Slovene books and monuments were destroyed, and names, like that of Ljubljana, were Germanised. After the defeat of Nazi Germany, Slovenia became part of Yugoslavia. The partisan movement that helped liberate Yugoslavia from the Nazis was not only celebrated, but became central to the official narratives of the new country.

Mussolini on stage

Laibach appeared in Slovenia the early 1980s. Their flagrant use of the Nazi-era name angered those who still remembered the war. Yugoslav partisan veteran organisations voiced their disapproval of the group through a public letter-writing campaign, many of which were published in the popular press.

Laibach did not take heed. At the Novi Rock Festival in Ljubljana in 1982, Laibach took it up a notch with a spectacle that came to be characteristic of their concerts: a militant authoritarian performance, the lead singer playing the role of a dictator. Extreme noise, sirens, horns and smoke bombs aurally assaulted the audience, accompanied by film footage of German atrocities, Nazi mass rallies and the partisan resistance and socialist propaganda. The band’s performances effectively restaged the relationship between the individual and the totalitarian regime. But they provided no explanation for this contradictory imagery, leaving audience members to interpret it for themselves.

Audiences who went to their concerts expecting to be entertained were disappointed. Laibach’s performances subverted the notion of a rock concert, taking spectators well out of their comfort zones. Audiences not yet familiar with these strategies responded with equal violence: at the 1982 concert, the lead singer, Tomaž Hostnik (who was dressed as Mussolini in full military gear) was hit in the face with a bottle. Instead of responding, he maintained his authoritarian stance, and continued to perform with blood dripping from his head.

Soon after, and especially in the aftermath of the infamous Hitler quip, the Ljubljana City Council, citing the group’s “abuse” of the name of the city, banned the group from performing in public while using the name Laibach.

Fascist or forward thinking?

Given this background, the reasons for their invitation to North Korea may seem obvious. But since the 1980s, following their international success and a better understanding of their strategies, much of the disapproval with the band has dissipated. Even their material has changed: under communism their focus was on political regimes, whereas under capitalism their focus has been popular culture and music. The concert in Pyongyang shifts these expectations again: it’s reportedly to feature their interpretations of songs from the musical The Sound of Music, along with traditional Korean songs.

These days the general consensus is that Laibach took on fascist imagery in order to provoke discussion on politics and forms of government – something that the North Korean leaders have perhaps not cottoned on to. So the fact that they are the first foreign rock group to play a gig in North Korea is perfect.

Laibach’s metamorphosis from being viewed as a fundamentally fascist band to a subversive, forward-thinking one is largely down to the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek – one of the group’s strongest defenders. In 1993, he penned an essay explaining how Laibach’s excessive adoption of the aesthetics, choreography, militarism and intensity of totalitarianism could be seen as anti-fascist.

Instead of overtly critiquing or mocking fascism, Laibach imitates its strategies and copies its aesthetics faithfully. Žižek considers that the cynical distance allowed by an ironic performance would actually represent conformity, in that it acknowledges the system. The system requires the appearance of dissent, through criticism, as a validation of its existence, in order to function. So true subversion, Žižek postures, only comes through direct copying, as Laibach does.

Laibach’s attitude toward fascism is deliberately ambiguous – in presenting fascist symbols and postures without commentary, they can be interpreted as being either for or against its authoritarianism.

By walking the line between the two positions, Laibach forces the audience to choose which side they are on. In this sense, their show can function simultaneously as an obedient act for the regime, as well as offering audience members the freedom to decide. And for this reason, there could not be a better selection of band to play this concert in Pyongyang.

While the government and administration of North Korea will be pleased to have found a band that seems to support its centralised, single-party government, others may suspect that this is one massive joke played on the Supreme Leader. Neither would be correct. As Žižek has said, Laibach “does not function as an answer, but a question”. And questions are far often far more subversive than answers.

Laibach’s Sound of Music concerts will take place in the Kim Won Gyun Music Conservatory and the Kum Song Music School in Pyongyang, North Korea on August 19 and 20. The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

Have a question?

Other content you may like

How Trump's 'fire and fury' threatens to destabilise the Asian Pacific region Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Guerra article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

How Trump's 'fire and fury' threatens to destabilise the Asian Pacific region

Donald Trump's strongman rhetoric in the face of North Korean provocations is a risk for the whole region, believes Genevieve Hohnen.

Article
Despite sanctions, North Korea's nuclear programme is enjoying success. How? Creative commons image Icon Roman Harak under Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0 license article icon

Society, Politics & Law 

Despite sanctions, North Korea's nuclear programme is enjoying success. How?

Despite over a decade of sanctions, North Korea has pursued an ever-more-successful program aimed at developing nuclear weapons. So, asks Daniel Salisbury, have sanctions failed?

Article
20th century composers: making the connections Creative commons image Icon The Open University under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license activity icon

History & The Arts 

20th century composers: making the connections

Explore the world of 20th century classical and avant-garde music through the composers and the fascinating connections that exist between them.

Activity
When was the heyday of the symphony? Creative commons image Icon Work found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Carl_Wenzel_Zajicek_025.jpg / CC BY-SA 3.0 under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

When was the heyday of the symphony?

Robert Samuels looks back to when symphonies were the way to get noticed in the world of music

Article
Yesterday’s genre, or the music of the future? Creative commons image Icon Work found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Philip_Glass_018.jpg / CC BY-SA 3.0 under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

Yesterday’s genre, or the music of the future?

Ben Winters ponders the state of the Symphony since the Second World War.

Article
What you listen to shows how you think Creative commons image Icon Tejastheory under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license article icon

History & The Arts 

What you listen to shows how you think

New research suggests that your choice of music might show how you think.

Article

History & The Arts 

Sensory augmentation devices

How can new technology help you to play a new musical instrument? The E-Sense research programme is experimenting with novel augmentation devices to explore sensory, bodily and cognitive extension. In this interdisciplinary research, philosophy and art combine with various flavours of computing: ubiquitous; wearable; and physical. We take a look at how E-Sense's speculative philosophical research experiments, built on the 1960's work of Paul Bach-Y-Rita's minimal tactile vision sensory substitution (TVSS) systems, are now helping progress research in other very practical applications.

Video
10 mins
Music: How To Have A Number One Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Production team article icon

History & The Arts 

Music: How To Have A Number One

"Alien" Jim Credland has been writing dance music for several years and wanted to get his music heard by a larger audience.

Article
Learning to groove Creative commons image Icon Bill Henderson under CC-BY-SA licence under Creative-Commons license audio icon

History & The Arts 

Learning to groove

The story of Tomorrow's Warriors, teaching young people to love jazz - and training them for music industry success.

Audio
15 mins