Irwin & Eda Cufer interviewed by Joanne Richardson
>> Neue Slowenische Kunst was formed in the early 1980s in Slovenia from the discrete groups Laibach, whose musical performances exhibited a fanatical overidentification with totalitarian rituals, the visual arts group Irwin, whose montage paintings juxtaposed fascist and communist symbols with avant-garde iconography, the theater group, Scipion Nasice Sisters, which proclaimed an exorcism of religion and ideology into the mirror image of art, and the design group, New Collectivism, best known for a scandal that ensued in 1987 when their remake of a Nazi poster was awarded a prize in a national competition--thereby showing the proximity between socialist realism and Nazi Kunst. Following the scandal, the yearly ritual of celebrating Tito's birthday was abolished. The most known projects of the 1990s have been the NSK "State in Time," the organization of various embassies, and the creation of passports. Can you start with a personal account of the founding of NSK in the 1980s.
Eda: Probably each of us would have a slightly different story, a different memory. In 1984 three groups joined Laibach (founded in 1981) and created the larger collective NSK. I personally remember the beginning of the eighties as a sudden and quickly progressing explosion of alternative art, culture, and discourse that challenged the existing social and political system. Laibach did this in the purest, most radical way. From the beginning Laibach distinguished itself from the rest of Slovenian alternative culture in a manifesto: "Art and totalitarianism are not mutually exclusive. Totalitarian regimes abolish the illusion of revolutionary individual artistic freedom. LAIBACH KUNST is the principle of conscious rejection of personal tastes, judgments, convictions … free depersonalization, voluntary acceptance of the role of ideology, demasking and recapitulation of regime, 'ultramodernism.'" Around the core ideas of this Laibach manifesto, a community was created. Those of us who were working in different groups realized that we had common goals, that first of all we shared Laibach's reflection and approach to the existing society, and that we had a similar approach for using Laibach's formula in developing different formal languages for the different group (visual, theater, design, etc.) We created this whole social field-through conversations, through normal social life.
Miran: It is important to emphasize the political, cultural, and social circumstances of the 1980s in Slovenia. There was a very strong civil society movement; philosophers, politicians, and intellectuals opened discussions about the political system and ideology. A lot of new media appeared, like Mladina and Radio Student, and independent art productions started. This political and social context also helped to shape NSK as a group. Laibach started in 1980 and by 1983 all the other groups had already been founded: Irwin, Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater, and New Collectivism. Each group has its own field, its own media; each has been functioning as an independent group from the beginning, and still does today. When we found out that we were gravitating toward similar goals (analyzing the relation between art and ideology, working on the internationalization of the art scene in Slovenia, linking different media of art) we started to communicate more widely. The first important act at the beginning was publishing an issue of the Slovenian magazine called Problemi. This was the first time we used the name Neue Slowenische Kunst, which appeared on the cover of this magazine. After that we collaborated on various projects. In 1985-86 we worked together on the theater production entitled Retrogarde Event Baptism below Triglav (conceptually prepared by the Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater). This production was very important because it was our first collaborative art project. I think this was a turning point in how NSK was perceived in Slovenia. The event, which took place in Cankarjev Dom, Slovenia's central cultural institution, was at the same time the inauguration of the biggest stage in Slovenia. One of the main topics of the show was the permanent conflict between avant-garde and tradition. It is important to stress that our position from the beginning has not been to operate against existing institutions, or outside these institutions, but to create a parallel institution. This was the important difference that distinguished NSK from other alternative groups in Slovenia at that time.
>> In what sense is NSK as a parallel institution, because parallel implies something that is alongside and moving in the same direction? Maybe perpendicular would be a better word?
Borut: Parallel is not a very exact word, but neither is perpendicular. The fact is that there were no institutions to be parallel or perpendicular to. From the beginning it was our conscious decision to establish an institution, to occupy a position. During the 1980s art would circulate only on the borders of Yugoslavia, and really mainly on the borders of Slovenia. There was no possibility to exhibit abroad. Only certain artists who were favorites of the central committee would be in a position to move outside. The whole situation was not controlled in the same way as in Russia or Romania, by excluding the possibility to travel. We had passports and could travel, but the situation was controlled by two means. The salaries were so low that it was nearly impossible to allow yourself to travel, so there was no real possibility to function in Western countries. The possibility of certain artists to have state exhibitions outside was based on the choice made by the cultural bureaucracy. The position of being or not being an artist was defined externally, by somebody who would give you a job as an artist. To decide at that time to establish our own social grupation was to decide not to accept such a system. For this reason NSK was not parallel. There was no possibility to enter any kind of normal circuit, to break the borders in other ways. What we did in a way was to establish an artistic field in Pierre Bourdieu's sense of word. Looking backwards, exactly such social entities existed throughout the whole history of the avant-gardes.
>> What is the relationship between NSK and the previous avant-gardes? In an earlier manifesto you define the retro-avant-garde project of NSK as "reviving the trauma of the avant-garde movements by identifying with them in their moment of assimilation in a system of totalitarian states." What is the nature of this trauma?
Eda: The nature of this trauma is the assimilation into the totalitarian political regimes in Russia and Italy, to be perhaps too concrete. But I would first try to explain the context and the significance of the idea of "the avant-garde" for us. At the beginning of the 1980s there was a huge intellectual production in Yugoslavia by aesthetic philosophers who wrote books that for the first time brought the history of the avant-garde to readers. There was a parallel worldwide process of redefining the historical avant-garde, but it was important that this also happened in the Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian languages. At that time, this was a kind of radical discourse because internationalism was used to oppose hermetic national and communist ideological models. We of course read these books, and they were a source of knowledge for us, but at the same time, we were standing on completely different historical and sociological grounds than those writers. Maybe I'm wrong but at least this is how I see things today. There was an ideological shift in the value system, a real difference between the "retro-avant-garde" and the early 1980s academic interpretation of the avant-garde. The attempt by philosophers to place the avant-garde in a historical and theoretical framework was based on the perspective that socialism would never collapse. We used this potential of the avant-gardes from another, rather twisted perspective--that socialism will collapse. We were deconstructing it.
Borut: The relation to the avant-gardes was very different--it was not unified within the larger group.
>> What are these differences among the groups?
Eda: Laibach was representing the field of ideology; the theater was representing the field of religion, and Irwin was representing the field of culture. Each group had its own strategy. If I can speak for the theater group, the subjective and utopian potential of the historic avant-garde was a huge inspiration. I think this return to the initial trauma of the historic avant-garde was true for the whole NSK project, which I see as a critical project. But the story is not finished of course, and the evaluation has to be done from the outside.
Miran: We even used different expressions. Laibach used the expression "retro-avant-garde"; Irwin used "retro-principle"--strictly; the theater group used "retro-garde." The meaning of these words differed, as it is obvious from the expressions themselves. For Irwin, in the first manifesto, this was declared as a principle, as a way of doing things. "Retro-principle" was connected to the organic eclecticism of Slovenian art; we accepted eclecticism by birth, we took it over as an obvious standpoint, even though everybody at the time was trying to speak about the "originality" of Slovenian art.
>> NSK is frequently defined in terms of a strategy of overidentification--not a parody of totalitarian codes, but an obsessive identification with them, in a sense, taking totalitarianism more seriously than it takes itself. Fanatical identification by excess can make manifest what usually needs to be suppressed for the social order to function unquestioned. In this context it is important to mention that the Communist authorities banned Laibach performances. Was overidentification used primarily by Laibach, or by all NSK groups?
Borut: Overidentification was very important for all of us, but it was first introduced by Laibach. It is necessary to stress the different roles of the NSK groups. Laibach are the politicians. Irwin are the chroniclers and we overidentify with NSK itself, more precisely with the construction of the system--which is going to be shaped at least partially by our present description of it.
Eda: Laibach's use of it was the most total. Until 1986-87 they practiced their role everywhere, in coffee bars, in social spaces. They were always in uniform. The design of the uniform was an art in itself. This was very important for the urban, social climate, since it was a highly visible social ritual in a very small Ljubljana. The ritual created the sense of constant physical presence of this entity; it conjured an ideological-artistic construct in real life. All the other groups were much more "professional"--the rituals were framed in the context of art events. Irwin, for instance, wore the uniform strictly around their projects, for their openings. Each group applied the strategy of overidentification to their own field.
>> Is the organagram of NSK--the division into different bureaucratic departments--an instance of overidentification with the structure of the State? What is the relationship between NSK and the State, not the actually existing state, but the State as a form or a concept?
Eda: The State and state rituals was the main subject of NSK already during the 1980s. In the 1990s, this idea was conceptualized into the so-called "State in Time" project. I think that Irwin worked the most on this project trough the Embassies and Consulates. Recently Jani Novak from Laibach told me that from Laibach's point of reflection, NSK was finished as a movement by the beginning of 1990s, and that it transformed into a State with an unlimited number of citizens in the 1990s, which I think is a relevant point. The approach to the construction of the State, its rituals, and its language can be understood by reference to another statement from the same Laibach manifesto I quoted before: "Who has material power, has spiritual power, and all art is subject to political manipulation, except for that which speaks the language of this same manipulation."
>> But is Laibach speaking the same language of manipulation? If you're just speaking the same language of manipulation or mirroring the same structure of the State, what's the point? Even though overidentification is frequently distinguished from a "critical" stance, there is obviously a critical distance between these two moments. Overidentification does not speak the same language but makes use of a kind of supplement or an excess, and it is precisely this that has a critical function.
Eda: I agree. Identification, mimicking, rewriting always brings a new moment, insight, or perception. I don't know how to explain this in words. I think all these NSK strategies functioned best on stage, in action, as real performances. Of course the energy in the 1980s was stronger and the language more ambiguous, while in the 1990s it became more analytical, more openly critical, more reflexive. The languages of the State and ideologies are rituals, and rituals are really designed for two things: for repetition and for direct impact in the given context.
>> You know, the term overidentification was first popularized by Zizek. In fact, several critics have suggested that NSK can be viewed as an aesthetic equivalent of Zizek's theory. How do you view your relationship to Zizek? It seems Laibach and NSK are legitimated and rendered important because of the value Zizek's name has on the intellectual market.
Miran: Laibach in fact, at the beginning of the 1980s, first started using this method of overidentification. Zizek theorized what Laibach did, so the temporal relationship was in a sense reversed.
>> Do you want to say that Zizek is really the theoretical equivalent of the aesthetic practices of Laibach?
Miran: Why does this possibility seem so strange for you?
Borut: But it is a fact that the Slovenian Lacanian school, Zizek and Mocnik, in the early 1980s began holding lectures, which was extremely important and it influenced all of us. We all went there. So there was a real interaction.
Eda: Lacanians were very present at that time in Ljubljana. From today's point of view you can observe the whole NSK phenomenon as a kind of theatricalization of a few Zizek theses, but at that time this way of thinking was already in the air; it was the language of the alternative society. You didn't need to read the books, the original Lacan or Zizek; you could get it from the journal Mladina, or from Radio Student--it was everywhere in the media, in private talks, etc.
>> Do you think of the later concept of the NSK "State in Time" as a continuation of the strategy of overidentification, or as a break?
Miran: In the period of the 1980s we were still living inside an ideological block, in a one party system. NSK was an entity inside this system, especially defined within the frame of this political reality. After the collapse of Yugoslavia and the entire East, we found ourselves in a different situation. Some people were thinking that NSK was dead because it depended specifically on the political conditions of Yugoslavia. What they overlooked was that we had not a logic of opposition to the system, or just deconstruction, but we were constructing ourselves as a group, in terms of our art, our methods, and so on. We created a social base that was independent of existing institutions. In this sense we were different from Sots art, which was overwhelmed by their political reality. In the beginning of the 1990s we created our own state, NSK, as an idea to move to other territories, for instance as in the Moscow Embassy project. We didn't change NSK, but we switched from the organization of NSK to the NSK State in Time, which started to move, to construct.
Borut: This continuation should be defined more precisely. In the first phase we took advantage of the sociopolitical system which fell apart in the 1980s. We were used by the system for political purposes, and we used the system that was falling apart for our own purposes. In the 1990s the second phase started and was directed primarily toward the formalization and contextualization of our own entity. If the boundaries of Irwin and NSK in the 1980s were shaped by the resistance of the authorities, in the new situation we needed to establish our own way of defining our borders. And here lies the reason for moving: to move with a social entity means to establish the visibility of its form. This logic is connected to something peculiar, which probably you have noticed: all avant-gardes are somehow fixed to certain places. Berlin Dada, Zurich Dada, French Surrealism. You never had bodies that moved, which was characteristic of heresies. All these movements disintegrated when they moved; Surrealism disintegrated when some of them moved to NY. The definition of the avant-gardes by their space is very interesting. By contrast, we decided to move with this body, and the projects in Moscow and America stemmed from this reasoning.
>> In the book about the Moscow Embassy edited by Eda the project is described as trying to create a direct communication about art structures that is outside mediation (by galleries, by exhibitions). It seems that the Moscow Embassy project was trying to re-enact the model of the art community organized around the kitchen table. In this sense, Moscow Embassy is not an overidentification with the structure of embassies, but an attempt to create an alternative space for art, which is a different project. Why did you choose the word "embassy" for this project?
Miran: It is exactly through the NSK Embassy Moscow project that NSK transformed into the NSK State in Time. In 1992 we were invited to participate at APT-Art International by Viktor Misiano, Lena Kurljanceva and Kostantin Zvezdochiotov. This invitation was very important because it was an opportunity to talk directly about what happened in the East after these social and political changes at the end of the 1980s and about how we saw ourselves in the beginning of the 1990s. They asked us to do our project in a private apartment. At that time Moscow artists were already showing in galleries and museums, and making an exhibition in a private apartment seemed to us a very nostalgic idea. Viktor and his colleagues wanted to find out if the idea of apartment art was still relevant, if it still had some elements that were useful in this new period of time. For us the double-anchored space of the project was important. The embassy, first of all, represents the State territory--in this case not a physical territory, but the territory of our work and activity. Secondly, the NSK Embassy Moscow took place in a private apartment, so the conjunction of the embassy (as a public space) and the private apartment created a very specific situation for communication.
Borut: One other element is extremely important for me. The wave of Russian artists coming to the West had already ended by that time, at least for most of them. The enthusiasm with which they went West was over. All the big expectations about a democratic art system which were shared by artists from all former socialist countries, including us, were destroyed when we found out that these expectations were not linked to reality. We realized that the previous situation, sitting in these private apartments, was much more important for forming a community. After the 1990s, we lost exactly this social field, and this is what we wanted to rethink--whether this was possible again in any sense. Our own idea was about movement. If you are moving as a person, you get absorbed by the city you're moving in, you are reformed as you get connected to certain circles. But with such a social entity as NSK we had the opportunity to establish our own kernel; we could become a circle, and retain our shape in Moscow or in USA as well.
Eda: This whole apartment art idea is extremely interesting sociologically. It expresses something that disappeared with the collapse of socialism, and the entering of the Western value systems and capitalism into these societies. This movement was crucially connected to the question of audience. In the 1980s Scipion Nasice Theatre also did the first performance in a private apartment, and the second performance in an abandoned studio. This was the time when you got the impression that art was really needed by somebody. The fact that we did all these rituals to answer this need gave us extreme satisfaction. Today it would be difficult to achieve this kind of attention and hunger from the audience even with the most brilliant public relation strategy. But at that time, it meant something else, it had an impact. In the East, you could really say that you had art in this APT-art situation because there was an audience who needed it for survival-spiritual, mental, intellectual survival. Apartment art was not a social contract; it was an organic relation between the audience and the art. So in this context of the non-structured social space, the Embassy had a very special task.
>> Eda, in the book you edited about Transnacionala you describe it as "an art project in the form of a journey." During June-July, 1996, the 10 participants (Eda Cufer, Irwin, Michael Benson, Vadim Fishkin, Yuri Leiderman, and Alexander Brener) set out in two RVs across America with the goal of organizing a "direct network" that "would take place outside the established international institutional networks, without intermediaries, without a curator-formulated concept, and without any direct responsibility toward its sponsors." Do you see Transnacionala as a continuation of the Moscow Embassy project in the form of a road adventure?
Eda: For me, there is a difference between Moscow Embassy and Transnacionala. Moscow Embassy was a transitional moment between APT-art and public space, between 1980s and 1990s, between NSK as a collective experience and the need for individualization. With the Embassy we tried to create a public space out of private one, while Transnacionala was something else. Transnacionala was not a trip of a collective but of individuals, or even a trip of individualization. I am convinced that nobody during the Transnacionala conversations was thinking about how they would sound, and what it would come out like. The public, except in a very few places, did not care much about us and we did not care much for the public either. This was a kind of self-contained experience and it was designed to be a private experience, more a gift to ourselves than to a public. This is what I found very interesting about the project, and my part in putting together the book was to catch these moments of intensity-the fact that these conversations were not made for the camera or the tape recorder but that they had their own, autonomous intensity. Of course we had recorders and cameras as well, but this is another issue.
Miran: The difference between Moscow Embassy and Transnacionala was that in Moscow NSK came as a body. In America it was much more personal, there was much less stress on the fact that this was Irwin or an NSK project. Only the last stop in Seattle put some more stress on NSK, because the people who organized the Seattle station of Transnacionala expected a more attractive event from us than just communication with the local art scene.
Eda: They wanted Laibach. They wanted the NSK icon.
Miran: The organizers of the Seattle event, Charlie Krafft and Larry Reed, suggested that we should have a kind of embassy in Seattle, and we said no, this is not about an embassy, we just need a decent place to sit down and talk. When we arrived in Seattle, there were already NSK flags and posters, and a jazz orchestra was playing.
Borut: The formal difference is that in Moscow we decided to occupy the flat to install our works in it--pictures, videos, posters, and performances--and to transform it into a space for communication. The Transnacionala journey was conceived differently. We expected that permanently changing circumstances would establish a shape by themselves, and that the act of moving through America would shape us.
>> What is the relation between the artwork "Transnacionala" which you made subsequently for museum exhibits and Transnacionala the event, the trip?
Miran: For us the book and the film directed by Michael Benson, which is not finished yet, are the tools for communicating the event to a wider audience. The Transnacionala wall for exhibitions is neither the illustration nor the documentation of the Transnacionala journey. We used the experience of the Transnacionala journey as an anchor for the Transnacionala piece.
>> Perhaps I'm just a fetishist of the event, but to me it seems the event attempted to escape mediation by galleries and the exhibition system, while the piece you produced subsequently for museums sought participation in this system. In this sense, the projects appear not only different, but antithetical.
Borut: A lot of artists today try to produce pieces that are supposed to be connected to real life. The problem with a lot of these artworks is that they compromise themselves in trying to be both at the same moment--to be exhibition pieces and on the other hand to show up as something that has nothing to do with this formal aspect of art, but completely drowned into real life. It seems to me that they lie on both sides. Very consciously, we make a complete distinction. Museums are museums. They are getting what they are asking for.
>> Do you think the piece produced for the exhibit was a recuperation of the event by the art system?
Borut: This question would be proper if the exhibited work tried to present the trip positivistically, but it is no so. Between both projects there is a relation; this is exactly the relation of exchange, when one project represents the other. This takes place in a manner and with means that are immanent to the field in which they are placed. The concrete trip remains excluded from any possibility of museum recuperation precisely because of the Transnacionala wall. Oscillation between these two poles is constitutive for Irwin. I would remind you of the statement that we published on the cover of all our catalogues from the 1980s: "We are artists and not politicians. When the Slav question is solved, once and for all, we want to finish our lives as artists." But without any doubt the trip itself is recuperated in the Transnacionala book and through interpretative and theoretical texts which dealing with it. In this case as well, if we are consistent we can describe it metaphorically as a corpse.
>> It has almost become a cliché to insist that the crucial distinction between the West and the East is that there is no art market in the East. But doesn't the exhibition circuit of Eastern artists function in an analogous way to the Western market (leaving aside the issue of money), insofar as it creates a similar structure of standardized production?
Borut: These exhibitions offer one possibility: the possibility to circulate. They offer the possibility to get informed directly and to inform directly. Exhibits are first the circulation of ideas, even if these ideas are only the visual impact you would get there. You would feel the atmosphere; you would measure the temperature. They provide very important information about the art situation. Then there is this element of personal introduction, shaking hands, saying hello, which is very important. Through that, you are existing, you are participating in a certain ritual. By the way, we met at the exhibit in Stockholm didn't we?
>>Yes, exhibitions function on more than just an official level, and can become important places for meetings, communication, and friendships. But this doesn't rule out questions about the structural function of exhibitions in the system of contemporary art. I'll ask the question again, indirectly, by referring to something Alexander Brener said about the collusion of curators, critics, and art institutions in producing the idea that nothing else is possible than the desire to become part of the system. Is anything possible outside the "art system"?
Borut: The problem is similar to asking whether there is anything outside "capitalism." Of course, it is possible to act outside the art system but in that case these activities are not art any longer, but science, or political activity, or simply a journey. Dealing with the system de facto means participating in it, especially if you allow others to call you an artist. If we take seriously the discursive nature of art, it is very difficult to imagine a complete exclusion. For us, Irwin, it makes sense to collaborate in creating an art system in Slovenia. In doing so we consider the formation of East-East connections extremely important. We are not interested in bumping into the Western art system, but in a collaboration within the limits of our own possibilities, in building an art system in the East--as an "institutionalization of friendship," to use the term coined by Viktor Misiano. Our opinion is that, paradoxically, a desire for an autonomous art system in the East makes more sense today than the traditionally rebellious position of a radical artist.
January, 2000, Ljubljana
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