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The drop that hollows the stone

Laibach is a highly relevant player in Morten Traavik's North Korean project.


Laibach performed as the first western band in North Korea in August this year. It's a striking thought: the Slovenian band with its charismatic front figure with the cellar-deep voice, which became herostrally famous with its German-language versions of pop songs in the 1980 century, on stage in the Ponghwa Theater in Pyongyang. A totalitarian band in a totalitarian country. It could hardly be better for the many journalists and readers out there who still see Laibach as a crypto-fascist band.
This ghost goes again in the mention of the performance. The Daily Telegraph is content to refer to Laibach as "a Slovenian band with a penchant for Nazi uniforms". Georg Diez in Der Spiegel gives the band more space in their commentary on the concert ("Im Disneyland des Faschismus"), but thinks far and wide that they are dismissive: "Fascism is no antidote to communism." He also dismisses popular music's opportunity to change anything: "Popular culture today is just a source of misunderstanding."
In any other context, this would be cultural pessimism. In the case of Laibach, it is a gross misreading. That's how you want to ask: Laibach, where did it come from more in all the fuss about the concert?

Paradoxes. The answer is probably partly the press's old view of them as "difficult". It seems that journalists see Laibach as a band that "flirts with" and has a "love for" one thing and the other – and may not quite understand what they are doing. In the English-speaking world, this is reinforced by the fact that they often sing in languages ​​other than English, and put political questions and problems into debate in music. They do not play by the rules of rock or press, and thus remain the difficult and eager Eastern Europeans.

They do not play by the rules of rock or press, and thus remain the difficult and eager Eastern Europeans.

A number of paradoxes underlie the phenomenon of Laibach. Perhaps the best example is the contradiction between fascist aesthetics and avant-gardeism. Laibach has just used symbols of fascist presentation, such as the hook cross consisting of four axes on the cover of the album Opus Dei (1987). However, the ax picture was drawn by the anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield, and the band has also regularly used the black cross of the Russian avant-garde Kasimir Malevich in its visual expression. Anyone who wants to accuse the band of taking too lightly the meaning of fascist symbols must also keep in mind the vulnerable position of avant-garde artists in totalitarian societies. If one finds an example of fascist iconography in Laibach's expression, it is never far to the nearest example of degenerate art (called «degenerate art» in Norwegian).
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Laibach has cultivated an increasingly refined musical expression. On plates like NATO (1994) WAT (2003) and Spectre (2014), they enter into a dialogue with their contemporaries, and address the tension between Eastern and Western Europe, from the EU to anti-Semitism. In a developing Europe, Laibach serves as a reflective reminder of what has been, and which many may not think about.

The dictator's language. On WAT we also find the band's self-ironic song «Tanz mit Laibach», where Chaplin's caricatures Adenoid Hynkel and Benzino Napaloni from dictators appears side by side with words like Totalitarianism og Fascism. Again, it is the paradoxes that make the mind move on. Here Laibach also uses one of his most effective tricks: By singing in German, they can use words and expressions that can make an unreflective listener immediately think of World War II. However, the language works on many more levels than just the banal reminder of Nazism. When the band interprets Queens' "One Vision" in German, the uncritical listener may come to believe that the band invokes fascist ideals when they sing "ein Herz, ein Geist, nur eine Lösung" – even if it is only a direct translation of Queens «One heart, one soul, just one solution».
The aestheticization of (total) power appears in itself as a fascist gesture to many – but it is precisely this Laibach not does. If we look closer, we constantly see a revelation, a parody of what they allegedly appear to be. By translating English lyrics into German, they also turn the idea of ​​the rebellious and individual in Anglo-American popular music upside down.
Laibach challenges the stereotypical notion of "the state as oppressor and rock as liberator", as we know it from the Cold War. They are able to play both roles, because they also speak the language of totalitarian power. The band knows how to undermine a totalitarian regime while apparently maintaining it. The concert in Pyongyang can therefore be understood as Laibach showing the country that they understand the dictator's language – without the dictator necessarily understanding it.
Laibach's concert tour to North Korea came about on the initiative of the Norwegian artist Morten Traavik. He stated in an interview with The Guardian that the combination of Laibach and North Korea had to come sooner or later, as a logical extension of his cooperation with both parties, and he has stated that he and the band traveled "without hidden intentions" – "it is more likely that western human rights defenders will car provoked than that the North Koreans will be ", he told the newspaper in July this year.

Wormwood in the cup. The discourse on North Korea locks the country, in the eyes of the world community, into the role of an inedible warlord, ruled by a bloodthirsty dictator who does not go out of his way to execute his own family or let the people languish. It is probably easy for many to write off Traavik's project as useless: No matter how hard he works to break the North Korean isolation, there will only be drops in the sea. The conversation about North Korea is thus similar to the one about Laibach: One sees the obsolete, and therefore does not want to see any other sides of it.
Traavik's commitment makes him, in a way, one enfant terrible, one who basically cultivates the abominable. But a project like "Miss Landmine" in Angola and Cambodia (which Diez in Der Spiegel dismisses with an ironic remark) can also be seen as visible, not only by landmine damage, but also by non-white women.
Among other things, Traavik uses music to get behind the unassailable facade. The videos of North Korean youth playing "Take on Me" on accordion, including in a shipyard in Kirkenes, have made their global victory on the internet. The performance Cardamom in Bergen in 2014, where North Korean children performed "Western" music, similarly moved the immaculate and talented North Koreans out of their comfort zone and deconstructed the seemingly unbreakable smiles. It can well be seen as a drop of wormwood in Kim Jong-un's cup.
For Traavik, it is undoubtedly a point in itself to work with North Korea to show the country to the outside world, and vice versa. There is not necessarily anything beautifying about his art projects in the country. It is also important to remember that change takes place over time. The point is clear enough: we can not pretend that North Korea is not an inedible dictatorship, but we can also not pretend that the country does not exist. And Traavik's work is a visible commitment to the country.

Traavik's commitment makes him, in a way, one enfant terrible, one who basically cultivates the abominable.

Change. “Stop thinking badly about things you know nothing about. Expand your horizons. Be the drop that erodes the stone, »is Traavik's call to the West (Morgenbladet 25.6.2010). We can well see his many years of work with art projects in North Korea as this call translated into practice. Laibach, who has always worked at the intersection of popular music, politics and art, is a band that can be this task adult when they do something as radical as holding a concert in North Korea.
The paradox of the fact that "the world's most closed country" allows the performance of such a subversive and critical band, Laibach probably also appreciates. For all we know, the band sees it all as a joke, an opportunity to have fun at the expense of as many as possible. But then: Had they been more outspokenly critical of Kim Jong-un's regime, the North Korean regime would in all likelihood have closed down and denied them entry. A concert is better than no concert. And a band that masters the language of the totalitarian state can also liberate from that language. Maybe they can be one of the drops that erode the stone, and contribute to change, in the long run.

Broch Ålvik is a musicologist.

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