With a few notable Reagan-era exceptions, the American art world has generally kept a wary distance from politics, only occasionally being dragged into the fray as a right-wing whipping boy. Which partly explains why the work of NSK, the Slovenian art collective that has followed a program of political provocation in the heart of the rather easily provoked Balkans since 1980, is at once so refreshing and unnerving.
NSK, the subject of this intriguing documentary, is made up of the celebrated painting ensemble Irwin, the theater group Red Pilot and the industrial dance band Laibach. Together they seek to reclaim the mythmaking aesthetic of the state in an attempt to “[expose] the hidden mechanisms of ideological manipulation” and “make Evil lose its nerves.” The group’s most grandiose scheme was to declare itself a sovereign nation, open an Embassy in Moscow and begin issuing passports. Laibach, in particular (the band’s name, German for the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, is itself enough to stir up repressed historical memories), has adopted the totalitarian aesthetic with such flawless deadpan that some have accused its members of promoting fascism — not a frivolous charge in a region racked by ethnic warfare. Footage of a 1989 Belgrade concert in which lead singer Milan Fras gives a fiery speech laced with Serbian nationalist rhetoric shows a glibness that in retrospect looks chillingly ill-considered. (Fortunately, this is the same band that recently covered “The Final Countdown,” by the high-80’s hair band Europe, so you know they have a sense of humor.)
Benson, a former New York Times journalist [sic] who has lived in the region, skillfully weaves old newsreel footage, war propaganda films, talking-head interviews and scenes of various NSK performances and actions into a surprisingly straightforward examination of the group, situating it carefully within the context of Slovenia’s troubled history. In the end, it’s clear that NSK’s work did in fact foreshadow Yugoslavia’s bloody breakup. Of course, predicting a fire is one thing; putting it out is something else.