Is it possible to present NSK (Neue Slowenishe Kunst) on film, to find a common denominator among the rather different fields of their interests, experiments and actions? Is it possible to present their key works — or their appearance in general — all the while explaining the stratified context of ex-Yugoslavia and its history as a necessary condition for complete understanding? Is it possible to make an art-work which answers the previous questions in the affirmative, while at the same time being a fragment of NSK’s artistic spirit? After watching Michael Benson’s Predictions of Fire, my answer is — yes.
The film is neither a systematic presentation of NSK’s work nor a lecture on the history of the region, but the relations between history, Yugoslav society, and NSK are compellingly and successfully described. The work of Laibach was accompanied by shock, panic and condemnation from the beginning. The dominant culture accused them of fascism, and even within “dissident” circles a typical question was raised: “are these guys taking themselves seriously, or are they ironic?” In Predictions of Fire Slavoj Zizek describes that question as the wrong one because the alleged subversion in saying “yes” to the ironic position does not correspond to the ideology of the contemporary system. A prevailing cynicism within the ideology of the system suggests a certain distance. Ironic distance becomes something inherent to the system. If we want to be subversive we had better take the system more seriously than the system itself does. That, as Zizek pointed out, was the strategy of Laibach.
And they really were subversive. That subversion went deeper than mere conflicts with Communist authorities. They also challenged each individual’s personal relationship to a specific problem — that of Authority itself. By aestheticising fascist and Stalinist rituals they challenged the fascism of real, everyday life. They didn’t want you to “feel good” within their concerts or other performances. They used to attack the audience, for example, with extremely bright lights which exploded suddenly, causing pain in the eyes and brain. With your ears suffering, while the actor on stage radiated “hidden transgression”, you could suddenly hear the voice of Tito saying: “We won’t allow anyone to plot against us or destroy our self-management!” Laibach-Kunst caused and provoked many reactions. Some identified themselves directly and completely with the symbols and rituals; others, like a group of students from Zagreb, decided to call Laibach “fascists” — not that they believed it. They only wanted to provoke those “not sure yet.”
The first performance of Laibach in the Croatian capital started with barking dogs — a lot of them — closely followed by a porno film and a Tito speech. It was immediately interrupted — stopped by the scared organizers.
Tito and his “experts in theory” turned the whole country into a perfect laboratory for their experiments and their “social genetics.” NSK used this pre-set lab to show that art and totalitarianism don’t exclude each other. In a society still dominated by mass manifestations and state rituals, NSK had a nice chance to be serious. They proposed a design for the “Stafeta.” Their version of the ceremonial baton, traditionally carried by runners throughout the country filled with messages for Tito’s birthday, weighed 8 kilos!
Another example — unfortunately not shown in the film — was the story of the official poster for the same celebration. Their proposed design for the poster was accepted by the League of Socialist Youth of Yugoslavia. Nobody realized that the young man pictured on the poster was transported, via NSK’s “retro-method”, from an official Nazi poster for a similar mass rally. When the authorities discovered the origins of the poster, a hysterical political campaign against NSK was organized — but it was too late. NSK had already shown that the emperor was naked. And they did it several more times. It was a kind of Yugoslav fairy tale, using the language of the Russian avant garde, as well as the one spoken by Nazi kunst.
Predictions of Fire consists of fragments which together construct the story of NSK, but these fragments function as perfect short stories by themselves. To take one example: a communist demonstration in Moscow, and another actor on-stage — this time with four slogans. First one: “Fascism will not win!” Second: “Americans, listen to the voice of working Russia!” Third: “Take your dirty hands off Yugoslavia!’ Fourth: “Serbia, Serbia!” And another lovely combination of two fragments: first we see an exhibition by Irwin in the mines of Trbovlje — then the film continues by showing Tito’s visit to Trbovlje. His body-language tells us everything. Perfectly chosen.
The cult of domination. The language of manipulation. By exorcising these cults at different stages, using identical language, NSK both destroys and provokes our own conformism, social inertia and oppression. Benson’s film even gives us fascist and Stalinist monumentalism — the ideological surroundings of NSK in space and time — with a sense of humor. This film is a true contribution to our understanding of NSK’s work, which means to our understanding of our own barbaric civilization.
Finally, the film may well be a nightmare for those “politically correct” left-wing interpreters of the war in ex-Yugoslavia, all those nostalgic preachers of “equal distance” still involved in a game with their favorite toy — Yugoslavia. Why? Because this film shows some specific facts, both artistic and historical. Unlike Kusturica and Zafranovic, Benson gives you a wider context — it goes beyond the horizon of Tito’s self-managed workers’ paradise.