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Rock as propaganda

The Slovenian band Laibach can be read as an ironic commentary on rock's relationship with fascism. However, it is questioned whether the audience reflected on just that when the band held North Korea's very first rock concert. 


Liberation Day
Directed by Ugis Olte and Morten Traavik

The Norwegian artist Morten Traavik is probably what in tabloid orderly terms is called a controversial artist. In any case, several of his projects have created, in part, strong reactions, such as the miss competition Miss Landmine with landmine-injured women from Angola and Cambodia, or when he was a "house artist" at the Defense Museum and defense management stopped extensive parts of his exhibition series Hærwerk.

And not least, his numerous art projects in North Korea have been contentious. Many have responded that the artist with public Norwegian funding has chosen to cooperate with the totalitarian regime on various cultural exchange initiatives, including 17. maiforestillingen Yes, We Love This Country, which was performed in North Korea's capital Pyongyang on Norwegian National Day, and the Thorbjørn Egner musical Kardemomemyang, performed with North Korean music students during the Bergen International Festival.

First rock concert. Traavik's latest project in North Korea is by far his most ambitious. The Norwegian artist was behind nothing less than the very first concert with a foreign rock band – and thus probably also the first rock concert ever – which was arranged in the closed dictatorship state. And when The Rolling Stones in March this year became the first rock band to hold a major outdoor concert in (increasingly smaller) communist Cuba, there was a far less obvious choice of ensemble that entered the stage in Pyongyang two nights in August last year (even as a mark of the Korean National Day, which goes by the name "Liberation Day").

Though – one might also think that when Traavik decided on the Slovenian band Laibach, with its more or less ironic use of the expression and aesthetics of totalitarianism, it was as appropriate as any other band when it was first to rock in North Korea.

Documentary. The project has also resulted in the artist's debut as a documentary filmmaker, as he together with the Latvian Ugis Olte has documented the work and performance of the concert in the "documentary musical" Liberation Day. The film had a Norwegian premiere at Film from the South in Oslo in October, as part of the festival's focus on North Korea, and has an international premiere on November 19 at the important documentary festival in Amsterdam (IDFA), here with a subsequent Laibach concert.

With its alternation of talking heads, observing sequences and the use of TV clips and other archival material to provide the necessary background information, the film is strikingly conventional, especially given that it has been signed as a little traditionally bound – not to say pervasive – artist. This is not meant as any objection – a more experimental expression could have gotten in the way of the rather unique story being told. Likewise, I have no major problems with that either Liberation Day never let us get to know the band, the art project and the phenomenon Laibach. The most interesting thing here is the concert project itself and the rare insight it gives to the North Korean community – the final documentary on Laibach may rather come on another occasion.

Hollywood resistance. The documentary shows how Traavik, as the artist in charge of the concert, meets resistance worthy of a Hollywood protagonist. Something is of a technical nature, in that the concert is a kind of new work, but much is obviously culturally conditioned. The content of the concert must be approved by the authorities, and not everything (but surprisingly much) passes through the censorship. However, a major challenge also seems to be that the Koreans involved are reluctant to make even the smallest decisions, as a result of their collectivist way of thinking.

The concerts were to a certain extent arranged for the special audience by including several songs from The Sound of Music, which is well known in the country.

It is undeniably impressive that Traavik has at the same time captured the events on film, but one can probably assume that his director colleague Olte has taken much of the responsibility behind the camera when the conflicts have been at its worst.

At some point, the resistance also comes from Traavik's own ranks, when one of the members of Laibach embarks on a walk alone in the streets of Pyangyang – contrary to what they are allowed to do. Nevertheless, it seems that Traavik has been given relatively free reins to film in the country, unlike Russian filmmaker Vitaliy Manskiy. His documentary Under the sun, which was also shown at the Film fra Sør festival (and which was featured in Ny Tid's October issue), is based on a script the director was awarded by the North Korean authorities, and which he had to strictly adhere to in order to film in the country. But by also letting the camera go when the government representative instructs the family to play out the presumably everyday scenes, the film paints an effective (albeit somewhat repetitive) picture of how thoroughly regulated North Korean society is. And in a way you can say that the two films complement each other, something Traavik also pointed out during a Q&A with Manskiy during the mentioned festival in Oslo.

Virgo audience. It is difficult to assess Liberation Day regardless of the project it depicts. Morten Traavik may be criticized for being naive when he chooses to collaborate with totalitarian and inhumane North Korea, but this concert project is nevertheless more complex than an attempt to bring new music to an oppressed and rockless people. And it is undeniably interesting to see the reactions of an audience that has never had any involvement with this type of music. This seems to apply to most people in the hall, who were reportedly a selection of more or less ordinary North Koreans – though some diplomats and some influential Laibach fans must have been among those invited as well.

Ironically fascism. Nevertheless, the choice of band is very special, and the decision was probably not just because Traavik is a pronounced fan and has previously directed a music video for the group.

Laibach (named after the German name of Ljubljana) was formed under Communist Yugoslavia, and is both a band and an artist collective. With a massive, gloomy and synth-dominated soundscape that might best be described as an Eastern European and Old Communist meeting between Depeche Mode and Rammstein, the group has made their mark on their cover versions of famous songs. These get brand new connotations in Laibach's taping – whether it's the eighties bats Life is life og The Final Countdown, The Beatles Pearl Across the Universe or musical classics from Jesus Christ Superstar or The Sound of Music.

It is not inconceivable that Laibach uses the expression of fascism as a deliberate provocation, as various punk bands used crosshairs and other Nazi symbols, or for that matter used by the Norwegian band Turboneger (who, incidentally, should have had "Nazipenis" as an alternative name suggestion) take care of the aesthetics of the gay subculture. But at the same time, the group has been concerned about maintaining some ambiguity in that way – possibly not to be dismissed as a cheap gimmick. And while I may be inclined to believe that Laibach as a cover band is an ironic nineties suite that is not overly fun anymore, I must admit that Laibach as a concept has its interesting sides. Especially then as a demonstration of how it once saw the free-thinking and rebellious rock, with its mass suction and idolatry, has some clear similarities to fascism.

However, I would assume that these opinions went far beyond the heads of the North Koreans present at the concert. This gives you an unpleasant feeling that the project – at least on paper – partly benefits them. But it should also be said that Traavik appears respectful to both its Korean partners and the general population. In addition, the concerts were to a certain extent arranged for the special audience by including several songs from The Sound of Music, which is well known in the country.

Advertising. "Art is either propaganda or decoration," Traavik said with a customary tip word during the aforementioned meeting with Film from the South audience. His point here was to both the aforementioned Under the sun and his own film is the former, albeit from different sides. However, it may seem that the message in Traavik's propaganda is sometimes overshadowed by his desire to shock, and thus his own concepts become a bit like Laibach: Easy to dismiss as a kind of joke, but perhaps more complex than that.

At least I'll admit that Liberation Day is a fascinating film, which gave me little insight into a society I know very little about. However, what the North Koreans got out of experiencing Laibach at a concert is hard to say.

Liberation Day has an international premiere at the Amsterdam Documentary Film Festival (IDFA)
November 19th.

Aleksander Huser
Aleksander Huser
Huser is a regular film critic in Ny Tid.

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