Of Transmitters and Receivers

I see cinema today as more interesting than any other form. Except that its power has been usurped. There’s been a usurper: television. That’s how I see it… with the acquiescence of accomplices – who are us, ourselves. Or versions of ourselves. Television is the usurper. When I watch French television today, I think I know exactly how the French resistance felt about the German occupation, or about the collaborators.
- Jean-Luc Godard, Soft and Hard

 

In the beginning, Gizmo created the heavens and the earth, and they did circle each other with great precision at 24 frames per second. Only we did not know it yet. And an epoch of 100-year intervals did pass before the 20th century redefined fathomless stimuli, converting them to moments sampled in time. And it was good. So good, in fact, that an entire race stayed home on Friday night, watching visions of themselves play in moving shadow across the glass cathode-ray tubes. Like true children of the Garden, mesmerized again by the Moment – the absence of Before and After – they lived in an eternal Present. And went occasionally to the refrigerator for a beer.

This was a solace much sought after, for the century had been a bloody one, and the surviving masses were in need of diversion. In view of the seductions of the Medium, and so long after the original Fall, it was too much to ask that these Moments be without bias or agenda. In the palpable absence of Gizmo, that which is sampled has a sampler. What is assembled has been so joined, and by the serpentine reflexes of human skill.

And so, Blakean visions were accessible to almost everyone, and for a Song. And towards the end of that period of years (an era which had seen humanity rise like Christ from the earth in airships, airplanes, rockets, and in thousands of billions of bits of information) – a second Fall took place. And innumerable new trees of knowledge did multiply across the warming post-Cold War landscapes, their metallic branches receiving and further dispersing visions beamed from the indifferent Heavens.

And so it came to pass that the Balkans erupted once more in bloody war.

***

On the evening of April 26th, 1983, at exactly 8:52 PM, tens of thousands of Slovenian and Croatian television watchers were shocked by a vision seemingly dredged from the blood and soil of historical memory. It came to them across the state-controlled television of Yugoslavia’s Westernmost republic. Despite appearances, this event – which came in the guise of an “interview” – was not simply an ideological provocation. Nor was it merely an art action. It was, in fact, a synthesis of the two.

The vast majority of TV Slovenia’s viewers, however – unfamiliar with “avant-garde strategies of scandal” – simply concluded that a group of neo-Nazis had appeared in their midst. And certainly the sarcastic questions of the journalist left little room for doubt on the subject. In fact, Slovenia was having a collective first encounter with an ambiguous new phenomenon, something which would later grow into the art movement Neue Slowenische Kunst.

What did they see? A group of five men in their early 20′s, seated in a row wearing greenish uniforms. Lit from below, as in a horror film, staring straight forward, their faces expressionless under close-cropped hair, members of the “rock” group Laibach had engineered an assembly of generic “triggers” which, in combination, seemed to indicate some unspecified totalitarianism. Each wore an armband with a calculatedly ambiguous symbol: a symmetrical cross in an industrial cog wheel. Black leather boots, gleaming buttons, crossed arms, and blank eyes completed the effect. Behind them, two posters were visible.

***

The autumn of the 20th Century is the season of the channel changer. Atrocity is replaced by entertainment, or simulated atrocity as entertainment. Spring, 1991. Young men burn in the sunny fields. An eerie disassociation is experienced by one Slovenian at the beginning of the Yugoslav wars of secession. Watching JNA tanks advancing down streets she knows to be only a few blocks away, she nevertheless still has the option of switching to MTV – or CNN, where the magnitude of her local crises will be reduced to the smallest of blips within a synthesized world order.

Slovenian secession then deposits her in a “secret republic” – nobody further than a few hundred kilometers away has ever heard of the place.

***

Although at first glance they seemed very simple, the posters in fact were quite interesting. One of them depicted a giant worker figure raising a hammer in front of smoking factory stacks – classic socialist realism, but visually interchangeable with Nazi iconography. In the smaller poster, a mass political rally was depicted, in which a tiny central figure delivered a speech. Above, where the state symbol should be, the same cross-and-cog-wheel used in the armbands was visible. This image, although clearly adapted from Nazi archival photographs, could just as easily have been derived from photographs, for example, of Stalin addressing the Supreme Soviet.

Both posters had evidently been made with the most primitive techniques; the smaller one was in fact a photocopy, and the larger a two-color silk-screen. But their primitivism belied the sophistication of their ambiguity.

***

Summer, 1991. The hotels at Portoroz, on Slovenia’s Adriatic coast, are all closed. We watch the degraded signal relayed to the coast by bombed transmitters. It shows the commander of the Yugoslav National Army, Adzic, giving a speech in Belgrade. All JNA senior officers of Slovenian or Croatian origin, he says, will henceforth be purged from the ranks. The image buzzes as he speaks – a product of his own bombing. The very wiring of Yugoslavia has been tampered with. The effect is that the signals emanating from that state are getting weaker and weaker. Yugoslavia is getting further and further away, in both time and space.

Adzic, who lost both parents in Croatian Ustase massacres during the Second World War, is livid with rage. We watch with a certain resignation. The implications of his statement are clear.

***

The entire assemblage – this synthesis of totalitarian tropes glinting malevolently from multiple TV screens – appeared at what could only be termed a problematic time. In 1983, only three years had elapsed since the death of Josip Broz Tito, creator of the “second”, Socialist Yugoslavia. The demise of the architect was gradually bringing the design of his structure into question. Laibach’s visual style alone represented the purest affront to a state founded on a romantic mythology in which the Balkan St. George slays the fascist dragon, defies Stalin, and then becomes the glue holding a multi-national state together through sheer force of charisma. In the most disturbing manner possible, and in both form and content, Laibach brought into focus an inexorably increasing uncertainty over the future of the composite country. They did this by explicitly presenting both the iconography and the methodology of what would become the new Balkan mythos.

***

Christmas, 1989. As in a miracle or dream, the revolutions in the East have taken place without a shot being fired. Now the world watches the charade of the Romanian “revolution.” In this, the only Eastern country other than Yugoslavia and Albania where Soviet influence was relatively indirect, troops fire into darkened buildings. The Romanian flag, its red star cut out, waves over the main squares of Bucharest and Timosuara. It is compelling theater. Yet it becomes increasingly clear that these fire-fights are a kind of televised window-dressing; what is really happening is the type of palace coup which leaves state power entirely in the hands of the same people (minus their executed figure-head and his execrable wife). Most of the action, in fact, appears to be taking place around the TV station itself. In a kind of real-time October, defense of the revolution becomes defense of the organ creating an ongoing image of revolution; that image in turn consists of extended footage of the TV station, which is defending the revolution; and the cycle starts again.

Although it supplanted historical reality with ease, Eisenstein’s magnificent storming of the Winter Palace was in reality a sleepy police action; the noisy chaos of the Romanian revolution likewise masked a quiet transfer of the levers of power within an established inner circle. But the dramaturgy of this scene is only complete if one considers a final detail. Live images from Romania are fed to the western world through Belgrade – which is being exceedingly cooperative, despite Serbian media and telecommunications being entirely in the hands of “ex” Communist apparatchik Slobodan Milosevic…

***

After the initial visual shock, “the interview” commenced in the most artificial manner possible. An anonymous voice asked questions from behind the camera. These in turn were answered by Laibach’s singer – the figure at the center of the whole arrangement. Surrounded by anonymous, static colleagues, otherwise undifferentiated, carefully and without inflection, he read answers from a prepared script. They were couched in a turgid, leaden phraseology. Together with image, they constituted what may be one of the most subversive uses of television recorded in post-war Eastern Europe.

“Laibach uses means mostly to a manipulatory end and of a propagandistic character, and repressively uses the power of information. In the first place these are means fit for collective consumption most effective in dissuading the masses from critical thinking – such as film, the most powerful weapon for long-term and long-lasting influence on the spirit.”

***

Spring, 1992. On the first weekend of serious attacks, a signal expands outwards from the last TV transmitter still under civilian control in Sarajevo. It reveals long, almost lyrical shots of a city under artillery bombardment. It’s difficult to describe their effect; a city completely silent, apart from the occasional echoing explosion, and apparently empty, apart from the occasional stunned, wandering person. There is a kind of depersonalization to the footage – a removed quality – partially because some of the “takes” come from robot cameras on the roof of a government building. The effect of this footage is completely different from all the other televised reports from the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. It is cut together almost at random – though it has a kind of internal logic. The result is almost a “God’s eye view” effect. Meanwhile, the quality of the signal itself grows steadily more degraded. Then, a very calm news announcer comes on. He says, quietly, that the main TV Sarajevo transmitter is under Serbian attack and is burning; the signal could die at any time. His face cuts to a shot of the incongruously futuristic transmitter, on a hill above the city. Shells are striking the base of this tower – even as the TV picture continues to fray and degrade.

TV Sarajevo is literally broadcasting its own death.

***

The voice issuing from behind the camera – from outside the image, a voice produced by the apparatus of state-controlled television itself – turns self-referential. Up until now, it says, Laibach has been spreading its “ideological provocations” through the written word. So why now appear before a half million TV viewers?

Again, the central figure consults his text. “Television. Within the industry of consciousness the television medium is, beside the school system, the leading molder of uniform thinking. Television programs are basically centralized, with one transmitter and many receivers. No communication is possible between them. Laibach is acquainted with the manipulative capacities of modern media and the system that links them. That’s why in its propaganda campaigns it uses the repressive power of media information. In this case it is the TV screen.”

***

Dolly back, fade to black.

___

Michael Benson
8/10/95

 

(Predictions of Fire postcard book essay)

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