Saturday, September 07, 2013

Pluralni monolit, 2003-2013.

Pluralni Monolit/WAT launch event, Vila Bled, 07.09.2003
The first edition of my book on Laibach and NSK was launched exactly 10 years ago to the day at Vila Bled, Slovenia, in a hall used by Tito for diplomatic receptions.

This is an edited version of my presentation at the launch events in Bled and Ljubljana...

This all began twenty-three years ago in Trbovlje when posters briefly appeared with a black cross and the word “Laibach”. No-one then could have imagined we would be here today, presenting this, but in the end time always catches up with itself. What would the former resident of this place have made of this gathering and his place on the cover of the book? Perhaps the situation seems even stranger because this book is not by a Slovene author. What right does a foreign author have to come here and present your history? The same right that Laibach and NSK had to respond to the cultures and symbols that intruded on their space. These artists took for themselves a right to reply to the elements of their reality they found themselves confronted by – to Western and British pop on the radio, Tito’s face in every building, the ubiquity of ideology. Part of this response meant returning to the sources of these elements. To penetrate the heart of the pop machine Laibach came to London and signed to a British record label. So perhaps it’s only natural for someone from Britain to respond to the incursion of Laibach into the British cultural space. This book is my response to Laibach’s response, a reaction of the same type to a “foreign” element that becomes part of the host reality.

The book isn’t a history but an interrogation of the subject. It’s not fun and it’s not funky, no-one is spared the implications, even if it will take years for these to emerge. The process was never going to be easy and nor is this book, but it’s said that nothing worthwhile ever is. It doesn’t try to repress the noise and confusion that generated NSK’s responses and which structure them.

What the book does not do is deliver what so many people seem to want of NSK. Even after 23 years of activity Laibach particularly still face the demand to reveal where they “really” stand, what it’s “really” all about. What lies behind this effectively totalitarian demand is the wish for a final solution. Once the subject is finally defined it can be neutralised and disposed of. Accepting that “Life is Life” actually means accepting the contradictions and paradoxes that structure us and being suspicious of the desire for a final solution.

The title, “Plural Monolith”, embodies one of the key forces behind NSK, paradox. It draws attention to the fact that what seems monolithic and uniform is extremely diverse and plural, composed of a huge range of dissonant, shifting sources. Even at it’s most monolithic the process remains plural and in motion, a still-active compulsion to explore to the limits. Yet this plurality is what makes it seem to be what people want to believe it is. The book is not so much about what NSK “really” is but about how it comes to seem to be what people want to believe it is.

Illumination dwells at the obscure levels where myths are destroyed and created – if you can catch glimpses of this level of reality you can begin to understand [art, politics, life, the universe and everything], precisely through going into this “darkness”. Try to imagine the weight of leaving unexplored the “mad tale of woe” Laibach have had to tell. If you deny or close off such oppressive material, it only becomes heavier and more oppressive. The way to illumination is through this adversity, exploring the deepest levels. Such knowledge is hard-fought and has a price but it is a way to a kind of illumination. Understanding brings power and following the law of contradiction dark light can illuminate.

Finally, a warning. Do not make the same Fukuyaman mistake that has been made so often. When the old system collapsed it was said that NSK’s work was done and it is also being said that this book, in placing its subject into history, represents an ending. Yet in fact the game is not over, “Das Spiel ist nicht Aus.” Even when there are no more releases and silence seems to fall, the story will be far from over and its posthumous career and influence will continue for some time. For as long as art, war and states exist, so will the harsh need for such painful, fascinating illumination. People encountering the works or this text in the future will continue to regenerate their own meanings and the text is not about drawing a line but about proliferating meaning. People are already coming to me with their stories, interpretations and experiences of NSK, which will appear as the text grows into other language editions and its scope widens.

This is the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. The sword borne by the Marshal in the illustration is passed on to the readers, to use to cut through the darkness of ignorance, fear and mediocrity. The fate of the book now lies with the readers those who will proliferate its meaning, to what ends we can’t predict. And so as someone else once said - Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom!

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Talk at EMSAR Electronic Music Conference, Cambridge May 11th.

I'l be giving a talk entitled From Electronic Terror to Electronic Terrorism: Dr. Who Soundtracks and Industrial Music as Sonic Dystopianism. This is a sequel to the Doctor Who and The Death Factory talk from last year and will include new audiovisual examples and other material.

You can view the programme of the conference here. There are papers on preserving electronic music, classic equipment, the work of Daphne Oram and more. The event will conclude with a concert marking the 80th birthday of EMS pioneer Peter Zinovieff.

Doctor Who and The Death Factory is an evolving project and I've created a youtube playlist to demonstrate its arguments. More news on this work will follow...

Monday, March 04, 2013

Cerf trouve/Tracks of the Stag

Pri zeleni zajec, Ljubljana. Photo by A.M.
After a long hiatus I've re-activated my Stag research blog, images and leads are welcome...

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Radio-Activity in Tate Modern, February 7th 2013.

Kraftwerk in Tate Modern. Photo by A.M.
I've seen Kraftwerk four times. Firstly in 1991 on The Mix Tour at Brixton Academy. Next in 1992 at a “secret” warm-up gig at Norwich University before the Greenpeace show in Manchester. Then at the epic midnight show at Brixton in 2004 and (possibly but not necessarily) finally at Tate Modern. 

In the aftermath of David Cameron's speech on the European question and open discussion of a British exit from the E.U., the high-profile arrival of an explicitly European German group with a futuristic vision couldn't have been more timely.

The Robots. Photo by A.M.

All the Tate Modern shows opened with The Robots, possibly because the 3D effects are amongst the most impressive (at least on this particular night). The figures looked colossal and the monstrous, slowly rotating robot hands were both ridiculous and threatening.

I had never imagined I would see the majority of the Radio-Activity tracks live, let alone see the entire album performed in the Turbine Hall yet here I was. Radio-Activity gets less attention than it deserves, and seems overshadowed by it predecessor Autobahn and its successor Trans Europe Express.

Radio-Activity. Photo by A.M.
One explanation for this could be due to its political taintedness. In 1975 the title track was seen by some as unambiguously pro-nuclear – the most unsavoury expression of Kraftwerk's ardent technophilia. This view mistakes ambivalence and ambiguity for an overtly pro-nuclear stance yet whether it was justified or not, the fact that in 1991 Kraftwerk rather unsubtly engineered in the word “Stop” shows that they were sensitive to the criticism. There is also the question of the cover image: the old-time radio depicted on the sleeve can induce feelings of warm nostalgia for the golden age of radio, even in those too young to have experienced this. Yet it is not just any radio but a German radio (already enough to provoke some) and more specifically a Third Reich-era Deutsche Volksempfänger (DKE brand Model 38). So the album is marked by double fears of physical and technological-political contamination, demonstrating how Kraftwerk were subtly illuminating the darker aspects of the technological they seemed to be celebrating.

Then there is the mystical, other-worldly atmosphere that suffuses parts of the album, primarily the sublime Radioland but also Uranium and The Voice of Energy. It was especially good to see the lyrics used as an integral part of the 3D projections and it seemed that lyrics were used much more extensively in the Radio-Activity projections than for the tracks from other albums. The fact that the German as well as English lyrics were being used added another element and demonstrated what many serious Kraftwerk listeners know: the German lyrics seem to have a greater weight and seriousness. Seeing the line The Voice of Energy lyric Ich bin Ihr Diener und Ihr Herr zugleich

(I am your servant and lord at the same time) was especially striking. News/Nachtirchten projected a series of short headlines (including some on nuclear power), waves of text appearing and receding in response to the sounds, succeeding brilliantly in capturing the spirit of the original. The track sounded more digital and had a fuller bass but the effect was subtle and here you could see the advantage of performing the album in full as some of the shortest tracks are actually the most interesting.

We had incredibly high expectations for Radioland and Kraftwerk exceeded them. The sound was rich and warm and the stately grace of the original shone through. The animated image of the wireless showing the names of international stations was very delicately done and evoked the ever more historically distant romance of listening to distant radio transmissions (tuning into the shortwave bands nowadays is an increasingly unrewarding and melancholic experience as more and more stations are ceasing to use this most mystical of frequencies).

In general, apart from the title track, the album was subtly filled out and updated rather than radically overhauled in the way that some later Kraftwerk tracks have been and this worked very well. The same could be said of the visuals - some of the graphics already existed (see the booklet of the re-mastered 2009 edition of the album) but the newer elements were very much in sympathy with the spirit of the album.

Unfortunately the reception of Uranium and Transistor brought the phrase “pearls before swine” to mind. Some preferred to drink and chat with their mates loudly rather than paying attention to a historic performance (at least until they were curtly requested to keep the noise down.)

I imagine this wasn't such an issue during performances of the later albums, which are far less introspective and atmospheric. Ohm, Sweet Ohm (later used by Igor Vidmar and Laibach as a eulogy for Tomaž Hostnik and also memorably used at the end of the Chris Petit's film Radio On) sounded as majestic as ever but perhaps the clouds of floating 3D cellos on the projection were just a bit too kitsch.

From this it was straight into Autobahn, which is now accompanied by a long driving video which is charming but a little empty, although the sequence of 3D notes floating out of the car radio is charming. Trans Europe Express now features newer, more abstract visuals than before, primarily black and white and more functional than those used on the 2004 tour. This seems like a shame as the train footage used then and in 1991 is far more evocative and romantic than the new 3D visuals.

Finally getting to hear Spacelab live was a great pleasure. In a sense the fact that this dynamic track was being performed was enough in itself but it was played with conviction and energy. Yet again the same can't really be said of the visuals. The 1970s pulp-comic style drawing of a spaceship window through which we view repeated runs over the Earth didn't really convince. It seemed strangely amateur for Kraftwerk and detracted (deliberately?) from the epic nature of the track. However, the way in which the 3D satellite seemed to emerge into the audience was more impressive.

On the de rigueur and perfectly effective The Model the “classic” black and white visuals were left largely untouched (although perhaps here it would have been interesting to update these with more cyborg-like models). Sadly, The Man Machine itself was much weaker than the monumental version I heard at Brixton in 2004. It seemed lacking in bass and the main sequence seemed to falter at times.

This was followed by an unexpectedly long sequence from Computer World (which of course is one of the most important and prophetic releases). The 3D animated Numbers visuals worked well and the track was full of energy. Each time Computer World itself is performed it's more poignant as we're a night closer to the dystopian ideal of total surveillance the lyrics warned of in 1981. The retro computer visuals looked both more old-fashioned and more-advanced than when I've seen these tracks live previously and it's great to see that Kraftwerk can still maintain this retro-futurist tension even in the present day context. Computer Love (which in any case can never be quite the same again after Coldplay's desecration of it) didn't feel right – somehow slightly too fast and a little ragged. Kraftwerk seem to want to sound more live and at times that can work really well but at other moments things didn't quite cohere. Fortunately Home Computer and above all It's More Fun to Compute were much tighter and more powerful and the latter was one of the highlights of the second part of the show.

The opening chords of Tour De France were spellbinding and the original version came over very well, with the classic retro cycling footage seeming even more romantic than at previous performances, surprisingly they segued straight into the 2003 version where the 3D again worked well even if I again had the feeling that it had been a little more powerful back then. Then it was into Planet of Visions which was spirited but not wholly convincing. It might have been more interesting to see an upgraded live version of Expo 2000 itself. Here the visuals have a now-slightly-embarassing turn of the century feel to them that's it's hard to get past.

Knowing that I wouldn't be at the Techno-Pop performance I'd hoped to hear my old favourite The Telephone Call live for the first time but here there were no surprises, Krafwerk finished with the standard crowd-pleasers Boing Boom Tschak, Techno Pop and the traditional Musique Non Stop finale. These were all in good shape, though again I found the Boing Boom Tschak visuals a bit too kitschily pop for my liking although it's a playful track so maybe they're not so inappropriate. Techno Pop sounded great if maybe not quite as (positively) cold and clinical as I've heard in the past. A powerful version of Musique Non Stop seemed to pass by far too fast but it was great to see each Kraftwerker playing a brief solo sequence with relish. By the time his last bandmate began his solo, Ralf seemed to be in a very jovial mood, smiling benignly with crossed arms and nodding head.

So definitely a memorable night with some incredible moments, yet despite the monumental artistic context of Tate Modern and the historic thrill of seeing Radio-Activity it was less of a totality than the 2004 show. The inevitable DVD release of these shows will give a chance to assess the shows better, but I really hope that Radio-Activity is made available in full as it really deserves a wider audience.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Architectures against Strategy page online

Istanbul Brutalism. Photo by Alexei Monroe.
Architectures against Strategy is a new base for my expanding work around architecture. The page will initially be more focused on architectural photographs and links but I'll also be developing some of the concepts presented at my recent talk in Maribor dealing with monumental London architecture as an ambivalent setting for the unfolding of cultural and political forces. This in turn was a sequel to my Tate Modern presentation discussing monumentalism and the work of the NSK architecture section Graditelji (The Builders).

Monday, January 14, 2013

Die Inquisitionsmaschine

The revised and expanded German translation of  Interrogation Machine will be published by Ventil Verlag this Spring. It contains much new material on the activities of NSK groups and citizens in the last decade as well as exclusive new photos.

Further information on the release date and special events in March and May will follow, to keep up to date following the book's German language tumblr page.