NSK: The State which Ran Away with ItselfAlexei Monroe
‘How is it possible?’…
NSK State is the ideal form of the State; its organizational principle is collective absolutism; the “head of state” is Immanent-Transcendent Spirit. It has no formal “government” and no central committee, only citizens, few bureaucrats and some administrators. The last two only deal with technical issues – keeping the State formal. It is based on self-management and non-alignment and it coexists as a parasite within existing, already established bodies in the entire area of Time. By signing the citizenship statement the holder of an NSK passport pledges to participate on a best effort basis to support the integrity of the NSK state. Laibach, 2007
This text exists because in 1984 a small group of marginal artists gathered in Ljubljana, a provincial capital in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Artists from the groups Laibach, IRWIN and the Theatre of the Sisters of Scipion Nasice created a conceptual organization/movement called Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK). NSK has shaped not only the politics and culture of Slovenia and (ex)-Yugoslavia, but has also influenced numerous people (including the author of this text) in radically varied and improbable contexts.
The outlines of ‘the story of NSK’ are increasingly well-known: a series of increasingly monumental and ambitious actions generated some spectacular political and cultural scandals and excitement, first in Slovenia, then in Yugoslavia, and then across the rest of Europe and beyond. Rather than re-telling this story, this text attempts to trace a tracing a parallel history of NSK via some of the improbable and unforeseeable reactions it has generated in the most unlikely and improbable contexts. Improbability was ‘hard-wired’ into NSK from the outset. While an extremely prescient observer might have foreseen that something like NSK could have emerged from the (already unlikely) Slovene sub-cultural scene and the elements that influenced NSK members (Fluxus, Bruitism, Pop Art, Totalitarian Art, Religious Art, Folk Art, Punk, Industrial Music, Yugoslav ideology,…), it seems very unlikely that anyone could have foreseen the eventual result (and no-one seems to have done so). Examined coldly, a Slovene formation calling itself Neue Slowenische Kunst and combining these elements is inherently improbable. Its subsequent development and global spread is even more so (it’s easy to forget now that in the early 1980s few people outside Yugoslavia and the Slovene diaspora were even aware of Slovenia’s existence). The fact that NSK initially wasn’t taken that seriously in the Western art world allowed an unmonitored, subterranean development, at least partly free of the usual ‘guiding’ influences that might have diluted its Sloveneness and so, paradoxically, made it less internationalist and less globally resonant. Yet another de-nationalised form of contemporary art would not have had the same type of impact.
Following Slovenia’s break-away from Yugoslavia (a process NSK both commented on and contributed to), the most radical and improbable step was taken. NSK re-launched itself as the NSK State in Time. It was established as a response both to NSK’s own activity to date and to post-1989 political events. It designated its own conceptual territory and issues passports and citizenship on its own authority. In the 1994 text Concepts and Relations Eda Čufer and Irwin retrospectively claim that the creation of NSK already foresaw the establishment of a “state”:
“The aim of the association was the constitution of a transnational paradigmatic state, in which Laibach represented the ideological, the theater (sic) the religious and Irwin the cultural and historical impulse. The element shared by all three groups is the scientific factor, a tendency towards a formative, not only verbal, but also physical analysis of concepts on the basis of which states had been constituted or dismantled throughout history. The 1980s were a period when the NSK body was formed, through a selection of concepts and symbols, relationships and structures. The body of the NSK State was built when an equilibrium was established between the syntax of images, musical and theatrical texts in relation to their media with the syntax of the NSK body in relation to the social, historical and state context.” Čufer/Irwin 1994.
In the mid eighties Irwin had already stated “We believe that our [NSK] structure is a twin of the state, a revised repetition of the state.” Yet NSK was not just a repetition but a massive and distorting amplification of the utopian and dystopian potentials contained within both the actual state they lived under (or which lived under them) and within the notion of the state as such.
NSK’s literally monumental deception was to seduce the state and the public into believing that it wished to possess or was able to grant access to such power even while contaminating it and taking it away from the sphere of actual daily politics. This statist gesamtkunstwerk was a supreme example of the Soviet military doctrine of maskirovka – destabilising your enemy by creating the impression that you possess far more power than you actually do. NSK demonstrated or suggested it possessed more power than it actually had (or wished to have), demonstrating that the state lacked but still coveted such power. Similarly, the Nazi SA (Stormtroopers) or the Bolsheviks had to embody more power than they yet (legally) possessed, acting as if already in possession of full state authority in order to present the actual government as illegitimate. Laibach have described their performances as “… a ritualised demonstration of political force” and the NSK state structure represents the ultimate (abstract) embodiment of NSK’s symbolic power display (Laibach’s “systematic ideological offensive”).
The emergence of the NSK State was already spectacularly unlikely, and this de-stabilising quality of radical improbability is more relevant than ever in the present period of systematically programmed kleptoculture, which is designed either to prevent or to pre-assimilate the unplanned emergence of cultural initiatives. Since utopianism is now often seen as suspect and unfashionable, NSK’s continued existence represents a defence of the right to an “escapist” imagination that critiques reality and refuses to recognise the limitations imposed by any “actually existing” cultural, political and economic regimes.
Although it has only become apparent gradually, NSK’s inherent, catalytic improbability has always been active behind the scenes, determining both NSK’s actions and, crucially, people’s reactions to it. Even now that NSK is far-better known and has several thousand citizens, it continues to generate unexpected responses emerging from the collective NSK space inhabited by fans and citizens, some of which have been even more surprising to the artists themselves. What we are dealing with here is a series of uncoordinated initiatives and responses, all inspired by the aesthetics or the concepts of NSK.
As early as 1985, non-members were producing their own unauthorised NSK artefacts and tributes (for instance the retrospectively authorised Laibach live release Neu Konservatiw). In 1989, Donald Campbell produced the first printed edition of a Laibach fanzine and in the mid-nineties created the unofficial Laibach website. In 2000, Haris Hararis initiated the Athens-based website nskstate.com. As well as providing information on NSK activities, the website soon began to feature both NSK-style graphics and un-sanctioned texts by fans and citizens. Some of the most active of these writers are Nikica Korubin (Macedonia), Hanno Reichel (Berlin) and Christian Matzke (America). While non are ‘professional’ writers or critics and all are openly pro-NSK, their texts do contain some insights and new perspectives and perhaps draw conclusions that art-historians, curators and critics might not be capable of. In other words, some perspectives may be accessible only to those with an intimate relationship with the works. The site has grown to the extent that it is now viewed as the primary NSK information resource (including by NSK). Also acting on his own initiative, Christian Matzke has created the Retrogarde Reading Room website in America. This is a type of ‘library’, listing NSK publications, interviews and more. It also solicits the help of other fans in solving some of the mysteries and inconsistencies surrounding NSK (for instance identifying figures in photos or listing bootleg recordings).
Besides these semi-authorised information sources, NSK has also inspired a secondary strata of pseudo or meta-NSK actions and objects. Acting in response to a discussion on the Laibach-NSK mailing list, Christian Matzke created a Laibach stage tableau using Lego figures (this demonstrates what to outsiders might seem a surprisingly playful streak among NSK afficionadoes). Haris Hararis created graphics and screensavers for his website in the style of NSK, combining NSK symbols with other imagery. Other fans have built on the video imagery used as a stage backdrop to Laibach’s Volk tour, producing their own Volk video. Amongst American fans there is a disorganised but frequent “sub-genre” of Laibach and/or NSK tattoos. Other para- or pseudo-NSK items produced by fans include jewellery, posters and shirts. To promote nskstate.com Haris Hararis has produced a range of licensed ‘NSK Virtual Embassy’ shirts as well as others using NSK and Laibach motifs.
One of the most unlikely and improbable responses to NSK emerged from Reykjavik, where a small group of long-term NSK followers took the initiative to organize a series of events, outside the usual structures. In 2006 they brought Laibach to perform in Iceland for the first time. They subsequently declared the anniversary of this date (22nd March) as the annual state holiday of NSK in Reykjavik. In 2007 they opened a one-day NSK Embassy event, featuring a lecture, a display of NSK artifacts and video screenings. This was the first (authorised) NSK Embassy event at which no NSK members were present. It also featured two unauthorized artefacts. The first was an NSK Embassy shield in Icelandic, based on the official NSK Embassy shields used since the Moscow Embassy in 1992. This same image also appeared on a commemorative bottle of wine sold at the event. More audaciously, the organisers displayed a previously prepared image based on Irwin’s NSK Garda series. In these actions, Irwin have taken photographic portraits of members of national armies wearing black cross armbands standing at attention below the NSK flag. In the Reykjavik version, three uniformed members of the Icelandic Fishery Protection service stand at attention by an NSK banner. This image is more dramatic than the Irwin originals in that it was shot during a fierce blizzard and a visiting Danish warship is visible in the background. It is perhaps the most elaborate and ambitious example of a para-NSK work, which received a very positive reception from Irwin when they were presented with it after the event.
At this point, the British artist and curator Jeremy Deller’s concept of folk art seems relevant. In his folk art exhibitions based on a continually developing archive of contemporary British ‘folk art’ he presents a wide range of unauthorised and non-professional work ranging from folk festival objects to trade union banners to prison art and more. The objects and actions discussed here represent a kind of NSK folk art, which, borrowing from the title of the Laibach album, could better be termed ‘Volk Art’. Moreover, the range and growing extent of this activity also suggests the need for a Deller-style ‘Volk Art Archive’ which might take the form of an exhibition and/or an online resource.
The technical definition of [NSK] Volk Art would simply be un-authorised and unpredictable works and actions produced in response to NSK work which are produced primarily (but not exclusively) by NSK citizens. However, it is important to stress not just the wide range of ability and motivation, but above all the inherent improbability of the Volk Art style. Even after many years of exposure to fan and public responses, the members of NSK are still surprised by examples such as those of Rejkjavik, which could hardly have been imagined at the start of the present decade, let alone when NSK was created in socialist Yugoslavia.
Geographical Displacement and Improbability
“Territorialities, then, are shot through with lines of flight testifying to the presence within them of movements of deterritorialization and reterritorialization.” Deleuze and Guattari.
If we trace examples of Volk Art to their sources we can see an inter-related geographical as well as conceptual improbability. NSK’s work generates “lines of flight”, not just out of the specific conditions which generated NSK’s art, but out of NSK as a system in itself and into new and unforeseen zones of (un)reality.
In a filmed statement on his NSK citizenship, Christian Matzke compares the NSK State to the land of Oz in the children’s story. For its citizens NSK can act as a fantasy zone which allows greater conceptual freedom than is available to them through their ‘given’ national or state identities. The Oz comparison is apt because of the fact that, as in the story, the imagined ‘Wizard’ is an empty and deceptive figurehead who has no ‘programme’ to be implemented (in NSK’s case there is not even a ‘wizard’ figure). The moral of the two ‘stories’ is that even if the fantasy zone described exists or is accessible, there is no solution except that which the visitor-citizen can implement for themselves and the lack of any programme to follow leads people to generate their own narratives in relation to NSK.
For Matzke, the NSK State met a pre-existing “urge to find citizenship outside of the land I was born in” and many citizens have expressed similar sentiments. This urge connects with the way that NSK both acts upon pre-existing nomadic impulses and activates them and it is this has carried the NSK meme to so many improbable locations and generated even more improbable responses. To use another Deleuzo-Guattarian metaphor, the NSK State is a type of “… assemblage that makes thought itself nomadic.” It activates unforeseeable associations and disassociations, setting the imagination (including its citizens’ imagination of what the State might be) onto new trajectories. As a projective apparatus the State is actually dependent on this process and on generating speculation and intrigue among those casually exposed to it. There are many possible NSK states in the minds of those it encounters. Its cryptic core facilitates this and works as a symbolic condemnation of programmed culture, and an incitement or even compulsion to go beyond the usual conceptual and geographic channels.
NSK works as a nomadic interrogation machine which mutates and proliferates to bring everything into its scope, interrogating the systems that interrogate and manipulate at every level, from the psychic to the national. It attempts to transcend alienation using the codes of the same alienation, and to create a line of flight away from the apparent inevitability of oppression. So both by active interventions and simply by its continued presence (inexplicable to many, irritating or perplexing to more), the NSK State creates momentum and illustrates previously unimagined trajectories. It suggests that no matter how fixed, or closed a regime/system/machine appears to be it always contains within its coding possibilities of escape, superseding, obsolescence, disintegration or mutation.
This interrogative dynamic can be seen as a version of what Gerald Raunig describes as a ‘technique of permanent questioning’ employed by the Zapatista movement to prevent itself reifying into an oppressively hegemonic revolutionary movement. Something similar, though more implicit, is at the heart of the NSK dynamic and has helped to keep it in flux. However, this same open dynamic also entails the possibility of an uncontrollable overflowing into reality: the opening up of a line of flight which takes NSK beyond its own comfort zones or conceptual ‘home territory’ and into unknown and unfamiliar territories.
Reality has sharp edges (When appropriation is re-appropriated by (sur)reality)
‘Which state you belong to can be a matter of life and death…’ (Christian Matzke)
Just as NSK took utopian and dystopian elements of the state more seriously than it does itself, so the NSK State is (and will probably continue to be) taken more seriously by the citizens than by the originators themselves. This applies both to ‘the initiated’ (those who ‘get’ the idea and produce ‘Volkish’ responses) and the uninitiated. In this second category are those who have encountered the NSK State as an apparent reality rather than a consensually constructed conceptual space: as a fully-functioning rich Western state rather than an Oz-like autonomous zone.
In Nigeria, the NSK State has collided with the sharp edge of reality. The perception of NSK as a physical European state has been spread virally to the extent that NSK have received hundreds of applications for passports from Nigeria. Many of the applicants refer to the NSK citizenship being equivalent to, or granting access to, Slovene and EU citizenship, with attendant employment, social and travelling rights. The Slovene authorities also received numerous queries and had to place warnings on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs explaining that the passport did not confer rights to visit or reside in Slovenia.
In order to understand the phenomenon, and attempt to explain that the passport was not actually what so many Nigerians wished it to be, members of IRWIN met with several applicants in London in May 2007. These encounters raised questions about whether people genuinely understood that they were dealing with a (semi)-virtual conceptual project rather than a ‘real’ state. While claiming to understand this, many were incredibly grateful to receive the passports and seemed still to harbour dreams that it would grant them access to a new life.
There are various factors behind this deliberate (mis)-perception. Firstly, NSK has created something so implausibly plausible that it has achieved a kind of reality. By now it has a sufficient reputation and history for it to seem credible. Secondly, the accumulated improbability and surreality of the NSK state seems as nothing compared to the structural unrealities of life in our ultra-spectacular klepto-democracies and this is even truer for those looking on eagerly from ‘peripheral’ territories. Is the idea of a European state selling ‘citizenship’ over the internet really any stranger than the day to day realities of globalised consumerist culture as experienced through the prism of the specific conditions active in Nigeria? (endemic corruption, poverty, violence and ethnic tensions). Some of these applicants’ desperation to believe has fatally intersected with the initiated citizens’ intention to believe, which in turn helps sustain the NSK state as a paradoxical reality, which is both not real enough and too real for those who dream of it as a physical territory which will grant them access to a life in Europe for 26 euros.
Returning to Deleuze and Guattari we can see this not as a Deleuzian re-territorialization (a moment when the destabilising dynamic ossifies) but as an unpredictable re-de-territorialization (in other words as a moment when the line of flights unexpectedly veers off into even less controllable territory). Like the capitalist klepto-culture within which and against which they operate, conceptual processes of the type unleashed by NSK are so thoroughly improbable and surreal that they carry the danger of producing a kind of delirium. The NSK passport as a symbolic device allows for the crossing of conceptual borders between daily reality and self-constructed reality, and as the improbability of daily life and of the NSK state accumulate it becomes harder for some to believe that it will not guarantee the crossing of physical borders between marginal and favoured territories.
What NSK has encountered in Nigeria is prophetic and symbolic of the ever more improbable encounters between ‘first’ and ‘third’ worlds which globalisation produces. The NSK state is by its nature universal but it is the product of extremely specific local cultural and historical conditions. The question of what happens when an audience with no knowledge of these nuances and perhaps no understanding of Western concepts of irony encounters a project like this is one that more and more artists are going to face. Once a project is online it is already global and the possibilities for improbable, destructive and creative misunderstandings are massively multiplied. In a sense, the Nigerian response to NSK is utopian. It is based not purely on desperation but on the absence of Western cynicism. It asks ‘why wouldn’t this be real?’ and so perhaps shows the possibilities of sincere and utopian responses to first world culture emerging in the most unexpected contexts and forms as unpredictable as that of the Zapatistas to Western revolution or of early eighties alternative artists in Slovenia to Punk, industrial or conceptual art. If the type of improbable cultural-political response that NSK represents was possible in Slovenia and if this response could then trigger even more improbably responses globally then ‘it’ can happen in other equally unforeseeable ways in even more improbable locations.
Perpetual Flight/Destination Mars
The 1995 video to Laibach’s Final Countdown is an animated futuristic fantasy showing what appears to be an NSK spacecraft and prominently advertises the NSK state in several languages. In the final sequence we see an archaic-pagan looking structure on the surface of the red planet. The building is an old NSK motif, the monumental Slovene architect Jože Plečnik’s unbuilt design for a Slovene parliament. In the final sequence we see the inscription on the facade: “NSK Embassy Mars.”
This was a playful but symbolic annexation of Mars in advance of its colonisation by actually existing national-corporate interests. This gesture precedes the arrival of the shockwaves of the NSK state concept in Iceland and Nigeria by over a decade but it already suggested that NSK’s lines of flight could only continue to proliferate.
It is possible to trace at least some of the trajectories followed by the NSK state concept since its ‘launch’ in 1992. It is also possible to trace lines back, say from Athens or London to Ljubljana, and to view the impact of responses to NSK upon the (partly illusory) core of the state itself. Then there are the increasingly frequent and autonomous interactions between citizens, which often bypass the ‘centre’ completely and only increase the likelihood of the unlikely and the (re-)emergence of NSK in bizarre and sometimes challenging spaces.
As an imaginary-real matrix, the NSK State produces improbably real-imaginative responses and potentials. Since citizens continue to join and since they often have such a strong preference for this State over their own “given” states, it seems (im)probable that the NSK State plural monolith will have a long afterlife, continuing to provoke, facilitate and diverge far in space as well as time.