Inke Arns:
Mobile States / Shifting Borders / Moving Entities

The Slovenian Artists' Collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK)


"We always refer to objectivity and subjectivity, but never to trajectivity. The anthropological discussion of the nomadic life and of sedentariness explains how the city emerged as the most important political form in history; but there is no understanding of the vectorial aspects of our species and its progress to and fro across the earth. Between the subjective and the objective there is obviously no room for the "trajective", that is, for the fact that movement takes place from here to there, a movement from one to the other, without which we will never really understand the different rules for the perception of the world." (Virilio) (1)

At the end of the eighties and beginning of the nineties, political events have led to a disintegration of the previously valid world order, according to which the world was separated into two antagonistic blocks. This formerly prevailing order is now being replaced by globalization tendencies with world-wide effect, causing new mental cartographies to emerge and so demanding radically different systems of coordinates. Two strategies of reaction are now becoming visible: on the one hand, there is reversion to a static, defensive understanding of one's own location ("space of regression, ethnospace"), and on the other hand, the possibility of what might be referred to as a more situative or dynamic location of the self ("world spaces / transit spaces"), which is intended to guarantee a means of orientation within the now mobile global spaces.

Space of Regression / Ethno Space
After the recent end of the once prevailing division of the world into antagonistic blocks, a new order of the world is emerging; one which, according to Baudrillard, is "characterized by white fundamentalism, protectionism, discrimination and control". This "real, white - that is, morally, economically or ethnically 'whitened', uniform and cleansed Europe" (Baudrillard) (2) is a result of the concept of ethnopluralism, which, whilst it perhaps underlines the right to be different, only allows this right in conjunction with a guarantee of the inviolability of personal identity - that is, which functions by means of a segregation of the other (3).
In present day Europe, the concepts of national-cultural identity which have been conceived in this way find expression in a tendency towards increasing subnationalisation. But this particularism in fact represents no more than a transference of the well-known "lebensraum concept" to the regional area. Within the context of the preservation of "lebensraum" for European nations, in political practice both an increasing tendency towards the hermetism of the external boundaries of the territories they enclose is emerging in political practice, and a simultaneous increase in their ideological overloading, inasmuch as the territory is becoming a significant point of reference with regard to separation from the other / the others.
Although it appeared to have been overcome, the concept of the territory is gaining a new explosive nature in the nineties: as the crystallization of present-day political conflicts.
In the nineties, artists are investigating the mechanisms which constitute the political, territorial status quo. In this process, they create subversive orders which function parallel to the status quo, and which are always aimed at a transformation of the territory, that is, at breaking through the established territorial boundaries. On the one hand, the artists of the nineties attempt to create alternative counter-ideas to the newly underlined political fixation with territory, ethnic groups and borders; on the other hand, they question the sense of a territory defined in national-cultural terms and - to cite Fredric Jameson - attempt to develop new productive categories for the definition of social space:
The new political art - if it is at all possible - will have to deal with the 'truth' of postmodernism, that is, it will have to hold onto the most important fact, onto the new kind of world space created by multinational capital. In this, a breakthrough ought to be possible, a breakthrough to new, as yet inconceivable means of representing this space, means with which we can again begin to determine our position as individual and collective subjects. [...] If there is anything which may be referred to as a political manifestation of the postmodern age, then this would be called upon to design a global cartography of our perception and cognition, and to project this into a social space open to precise evaluation. (4)

World Spaces / Transit Spaces
At the present time, it is becoming obvious that the previously valid rules for the perception of the world are not the only valid ones, and that besides or below the former systems of world order, new and alternative forms and rules for the perception of the world are possible. Our cognitive process towards the perception of the world is a process which has, with the use of analogous media and the increased extension of transport routes, undergone fundamental changes since the 19th century. Since the 80s, a process of increasing dislocation (that is, of increasing removal from any spatial ties) has been accelerating with the employment of digital media and global (at the same time globalizing) computer networks, a process which makes the development of new regulative criteria necessary. According to Virilio, the world is shrinking due to the acceleration of information and transport routes, and the most recent aspect of this process is the "disappearance of distance". Whilst the past was determined by spatial order, temporal order will be the key to the future. Shrinking physical, territorial space is set off by digital territories, from whence emerges, according to Druckrey, "[...] a neuro-geography of cognition, an utopos of networks, forms of electronic reception, and of post-territorial community [...] whose hold on matter is ephemeral, whose position in space is tenuous, and whose presence is measured in acts of participation rather than coincidences of location." (5) The French urban planner and dromologist Paul Virilio also points to the alternative possibilities of perception when he refers to trajectivity and the vectorial as two constants neglected by our perception.
Since 1991 the Slovenian artists' collective 'Neue Slowenische Kunst' has been developing the "NSK State in Time". This state concept, which is neither based on a concrete geographical territory, nor on an ethnically fixed Staatsnation, but rather on the notions of 'time' and 'movement', could be seen as a project addressing these aforementioned constants.

The 80s: Facing Ideology - "NSK - More Total than Totalitarianism" (6)
Founded in the Slovenian republic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1984, the multimedia artists' collective 'Neue Slowenische Kunst' ['New Slovenian Art'] consists of the music group 'Laibach' (* 1980), the painters collective 'Irwin' (* 1983), and the performance group 'Gledalisce Sester Scipion Nasice' (* 1983). According to the declaration 10 Tock Konventa written in 1982 by the precursor of NSK 'Laibach Kunst', NSK did not define itself as a union or an alliance of single individuals but rather as an explicitely uniform collective. This collective took the State as its model, committing itself to the "directive principle" and the principle of industrial production, and adopted the "identification with ideology" as its main working method. This well-calculated taking over of elements and the play with fragments and scraps belonging to official ideology, understood as "ready-mades" (Duchamp), was about taking up existing codes of power and "answering those languages by / with themselves." (7) It was a strategy defined by Slavoj Zizek as radical "over-identification" with an ideology understood as regulating all societal relations. 'Laibach Kunst' and later 'Neue Slowenische Kunst' appeared on stage as an organisation that seemed to be "more total than totalitarianism" (Groys), using all moments of identification pregiven implicitly and explicitly through official ideology. NSK embodied a provocative hint towards the ideological structure underlying the "semitotalitarian system" (Barber-Kersovan) of Yugoslavia (8).

'Retrogarde': Focussing on collective traumata
All the groups of the NSK were bound to the working method of 'retrogarde', which through an "emphatic ecclecticism" used all those texts (signs, images, symbols and forms of rhethoric), that retrospectively have become identification signs for certain artistic, political, religious or technological 'salvation utopias' of the 20th century. These very different 'salvatory utopias' or 'ideologies' have been formulated aesthetically as well, and it is exactly these aesthetic signs that - following NSK - are associated with certain collective traumata still at work today. Rather than through the invention of a new sign language, it is through a recourse to existing traumatic texts that it is possible for NSK to return to, name, point to and re-work those specific moments in history in which the turning-point from genuinely utopian dispositions into traumatic experiences has crystallized. For NSK one such turning-point is the assimilation and consecutive abolition of the artistic avant-gardes into totalitarian systems at the end of the 1920s.
Through using and interconnecting signs taken from different contexts, e.g. Russian suprematism and socialist realism, NSK does not want to point to the formal differences (in this case abstract / naturalistic); rather the aim is to confront layers of meaning lying behind the signs, and thus to make us aware of these meanings. The question is whether these layers of meaning connected to the signs are compatible or radically different. The working method of 'retrogarde' evokes the historical meaning of these signs as well as the meaning that retrospectively was added to these signs through the course of history, and insofar can be understood as a "reconstruction of complex systems of thought." (Grzinic). The eclecticistic use of "symbolical forms" (Cassirer) from different cultural traditions as well as from different periods clearly refers to the assimilatory character of Slovenia's 'eclecticistic' cultural history, understood as a european microcosmos.
NSK's 'retrogardist', or emphatically eclecticist working method, can be seen as a radically intertextual artistic practice, adopting and developing further the concept of intertextuality originally formulated in the field of literature.
NSK's strategy does not aim at overcoming the power of ideological signs through irony, parody or satire, but it is rather about calling our attention to the power of these signs. Their strategy works towards a return to, a reconstruction of, and, consequently a deconstruction of ideology into the aesthetical elements that constitute its power. The Slovenian collective is convinced that these ideological sign cannot be overcome. It is only through calling our attention to these aesthetical foundations of an ideology that ideology can be partly deprived of its power.
Thus the 'retrogarde' method, most clearly formulated in the paintings of 'Irwin', has to be distinguished from other artistic strategies, which at first glance might seem similar, e.g. from american postmodern 'appropriation art' as well as from the Soviet sots-art or the Moscow conceptualism of the late 70s and the early 80s. Even if we can suspect that during the formation period of the retrogardist working method it was influenced conceptually by american postmodernism, this influence was restricted to the early beginnings of NSK and its predecessors, and got completely assimilated into - one could even say appropriated by - the concept of 'retrogarde'.

Subversive strategy
The radical artistic strategies employed by NSK in the 80s can be understood as an aesthetic transposition / conversion of the theory of the Slovenian Lacan school, developed in the early 80s around the psychoanalytic and Lacanian Slavoj Zizek. This new theory, which members of NSK already referred to in the beginning of the 80s, became an important theoretical foundation of Ljubljana's subcultural scene. The activities of the artists' collective are not merely to be seen as reactions to events in Slovenian, or Yugoslav daily politics. Rather, NSK should be understood as a research enterprise that, through 'over-coding' the ideologic-aesthetical foundations of the State, set out to subvert the so-called ideological superstructure of the Yugoslav state. The emphasis is put on subversive, because NSK's strategy did not consist of an overtly critical or moral discourse vis--vis the state and its ideology; it did not distance itself from ideology through satire or irony, but rather 'over-identified' with the ideology in power.

'Over-identification' with the 'hidden reverse' of ideology
According to Slavoj Zizek and Peter Sloterdijk (9), overtly criticizing the ideology of a system misses the point, because today every ideological discourse is marked by cynicism. This means that every ideological discourse has internalized, and thus already anticipated its own critique. Ideology does not 'believe' its own declarations anymore, it assumed a cynical distance towards its own moral premises. Consequently it became impossible to adequately encounter cynicism as a universal and diffuse phenomenon through the traditional means of critique of ideology (e.g. through enlightened engagement). Vis--vis a cynical ideology, according to Zizek, the means of irony becomes something that 'plays into the hands of power'. The public declarations and values of an ideology are 'cynical'; they are actually not to be taken seriously.
But as soon as an 'adequate distance' no longer is kept, when an 'over-identification' with ideology takes place, the so-called 'ruling ideology' has a problem. According to Zizek an ideology consists of two parts: a) public 'explicite' values of a political system and b) the so-called 'hidden reverse', i.e. the implicite values and premises of an ideology that have to remain hidden in order for the ideology to reproduce itself. NSK addressed these 'implicit' ideological premises (i.e. violence, fascination, enjoyment / jouissance) and, through the strategy of 'over-identification', brought the 'hidden reverse' to the light of day.

Creation of a dysfunctional ideology
Zizek perceives the offer of jouissance (enjoyment) as one important element in the functioning of ideologies; i.e. the fact that an ideology offers the individual a chance to take charge of the ordering of the Real. The ideological discourse consists of single elements, the so-called 'shifting signifiers' or sinthomes. These sinthomes, which bear no meaning in themselves, gain their ideological meaning only within the context of the discourse of an ideology.
According to Zizek, the deconstruction of ideology - which is performed most effectively by 'Laibach' performances - has to be understood as a process working on two levels: 1. as a de-contextualisation, i.e. as an extrication of single elements from the context that confers meaning to the phenomena, and 2. as a re-contextualisation of these meaningless fragments (sinthome) within a dysfunctional or pseudo ideology created by the collective.
This supposed offer for identification, which seems to be inherent in all the ideological elements used by NSK, dissolves after the removal of the context granting meaning. The elements and splinters of ideology that are left over can now be experienced in the 'complete stupidity of their material presence' (Zizek). The goal of this 'excorcist strategy' (Benson) can be described as 'holding up a distorting mirror', aiming at a cathartic 'self-enlightenment' of the public by revealing the inherent jouissance (enjoyment) within any ideology.

The Slovenian Syndrome
The NSK was founded at a time when the domestic political situation in the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia was characterized by mounting differences between the individual republics. Soon after Tito's death in 1980 a process of political re-orientation started. It rapidly became clear that the majority of responsable politicians on the federal level tried to tackle the looming political dissolution of the country by taking authoritarian measures: by re-centralization and by fighting liberalization. These decisions also implied a renouncement of the autonomous rights of the Yugoslav republics guaranteed by the Yugoslav constitution, as well as of the decentralized organisation of the state. These steps taken were directed especially against Slovenia; in comparison with other Yugoslav republics, a more liberal climate prevailed in the Socialist Republic of Slovenia. The hard-liners called this climate the "Slovenian Syndrome" -- a quite derogatory and almost pathological expression. The development of this more liberal climate in politics and culture could take place due to the relative open-mindedness of Slovenian authorities towards the alternative movements which had begun articulating themselves in the early 80s. This open-mindedness became obvious, at the latest, around 1986/87. The alternative or subcultural scene had begun formulating alternative social and autonomous cultural concepts long before the process of party formation in 1988, which in politological terms is normally equated with pluralization and democratization. The activities of the 'alternative' triggered a process which can be seen as an important factor in the development, or rather the re-emergence, of civil society in Slovenia.
It is important to know that the carriers of this process were neither dissident intellectuals nor reform communists; rather a network of alternative groups developed, communicating through deviating subcultural forms (e.g. punk), or through new 'alternative' art forms and social interest groups (the New Social Movements). This 'alternative' didn't have reform of the existing political system in mind, nor did this 'alternative' perceive itself as a 'dissident' movement ex negativo. Rather it tried to create its own autonomous structure of an alternative public and, according to the new contents, to create and use different forms of communication. In the 80s, the formulation of alternative societal outlines was clearly linked with the creation and development of new artistic and aesthetical forms of articulation.

NSK's 'subcultural escalation games'
Within the 80s subcultural scene of Ljubljana, 'Neue Slowenische Kunst' represented the most radical exponent of the 'alternative'. NSK consistently combined all the elements that existed within the alternative scene: In the 80s, the artists' collective was playing "subcultural escalation games" (Dieffenbach), which were constantly pointing towards the aesthetics of power. The NSK did not perceive itself as a 'moral instance' opposed to a presupposedly 'amoral' state. Rather, it displayed the absurd theatre of the fascination of power, using the pre-given available ideological material. Even 'Laibach's 'exorcist' strategy can be subsumed under the new form of communication: It was about bringing the hidden phantasm into the open, on stage; not by explaining rationally how suppression works, but by making this mechanism psychically and physically understandable and thus depriving it of its power. Right from the beginning, the aesthetic principle of 'Neue Slowenische Kunst' was anti-enlightening: It exhibited not a single millimeter belief in the cold power of rationality. It was a provocation of a political-ideological system based on pathetic anti-fascism, but which "remains mute when it comes to the structure of [totalitarian] longing." (10). By addressing all the traumatic experiences of European as well as Slovenian history, by breaking all taboos, NSK brought to the surface those things that had remained concealed: the existence of nationalist myths and the subcutaneous longing for voluntary subordination. Zizek has called this subversive strategy "traversing the phantasm".

Catalysing democratisation processes
How is it that an artists' collective that declared itself 'totalitarian', was perceived as one of the catalysts of the pluralization and democratization processes? How is it that, according to Alenka Barber-Kersovan, the 'totalitarianism' of the "spiritual terrorists" (11) of NSK became an "essential element for the democratization of a semi-totalitarian system" (12)? Besides the fact that NSK's artistic activities were a genuine part of the complex activities of the alternative scene, the effects of the collective's artistic strategies have to be emphasized in two directions: towards the public / the audience and towards the state authorities. By refusing to take an unequivocal stance regarding their genuine position and by refusing to taking a clear didactic role concerning the evaluation of certain phenomena (e.g. 'totalitarianism'), NSK remained an ambivalent phenomenon, permanent trigger of public discussion. NSK's ambivalence called for a constant self-control and for a permanent positioning of the individual towards collective identification patterns.
But it was also the socialist regime that had to react to this ambivalence. The regime perfectly understood the pathetic mockery produced by NSK provocateurs. The measures taken against NSK by the authorities in the 80s can be understood as an indicator of the readiness of the Yugoslav authorities to allow actions outside the sphere of the officially sanctioned discourse; respectively the form of this discourse. NSK was challenging these boundaries / limitations; it was about testing how far ambivalent cultural phenomena and strategies diverging from the official discourse could induce the state to react politically. The state could not avoid reacting to the challenge of NSK, and whatever the reaction was, it allowed an insight into the 'nature of power'.

Anti-enlightened strategies with an enlightening effect
Behind the 'anti-enlightened' strategies of 'Neue Slowenische Kunst' in the 80s one can perceive a driving force which can be described as having a thoroughly enlightening effect. It was really through the ambiguity, through the seemingly open 'totalitarianism', through its collective form of organisation which proved to be latently menacing, that the NSK forced the single individual to constantly check his or her own political position. Retrospectively the unusual artistic strategies of 'Neue Slowenische Kunst' can be seen as one of the factors in the social changes that were happening during in the 80s in Slovenia, a societal change which became the decisive condition / presupposition for the political processes of pluralization and democratization taking place at the end of the 80s.

The 90s: Facing Global Politics
The political events that were taking place in Yugoslavia in the beginning of the 1990s have not left unaffected the work of the artists' collective 'Neue Slowenische Kunst'. Parallel to the declaration of independence of the Republic of Slovenia in 1991, NSK, previously an 'organisation', declared their transformation into a 'State'. The artistic concept of the NSK Drzava v casu ('NSK State in Time') comments on concrete political developments in ex-Yugoslavia in a specific way:
through an artistic counter-sketch (plan, project) NSK tries to offer a hint at an alternative to the political fixations on territories, ethnic groups and borders that gained strength since the beginning of the 90s (not only in ex-Yugoslavia, but certainly there in its most extreme shape).

Time & Movement: new categories for defining space
As an artistic state concept, the NSK Drzava v casu defines itself neither through a concrete geographical territory, nor through an ethnically fixed Staatsnation. For the definition of a proper 'spiritual' territory the concept of NSK emphasizes the notion of time. The notion of time is understood as a new productive category for the definition of space. Within this terminology, 'time' is equated with the individual accumulation of 'experiences':
The role of art and artists in defining time which belongs to them individually is more effective than in defining territory. The real, not imaginary, 'fatherland' of the individual is limited to the circle of the house in which he was born, the classroom or the library in which he acquired knowledge, the landscapes in which he walked, the spaces to which he is oriented, to the circle of his own individual experience, to that which exists and not that he was born into.
The territorial borders of the NSK state can by no means be equated with the territorial borders of the actual state in which NSK originated. The borders of the NSK state are drawn along the coordinates of its symbolic and physical body, which at the time of its activity acquired objective values and objective status. (13)
The artistic concept defines the "NSK State" as an 'abstract body' whose borders are in a state of constant flux, depending on the activities of its 'physical' and 'symbolic' body, and whose 'territory' is situated in the consciousness of its 'members':
The NSK state in time is an abstract organism, a suprematist body, installed in a real social and political space as a sculpture comprising the concrete body warmth, spirit and work of its members. NSK confers the status of a state not upon territory but upon the mind, whose borders are in a state of flux, in accordance with the movements and changes of its symbolic and physical collective body. (14)
By putting an emphasis on the factor of movement, another productive category for the definition of 'space' is given. It is through movement, i.e. a physical change of location, from one place to another, and through the ensuing intellectual preoccupation with the 'other place', and with the 'other spiritual territory', that new experiences become possible, leading again to the creation of 'time'. "The relation between place and time is the key relation. Movement implies temporality, i.e. produces time." (15) Within Irwin's terminology, this specific form of movement can be equated with a 'transplantation of knowledge':
There are basic differences between the perception and interpretation of the sign language of Irwin's paintings. This is one of our main concerns, because signs change with time and place. A sign may have one meaning in Russia, and yet another meaning in the West. Recognition of signs and symbols functions in such a way that their meanings differ with places; but nevertheless they have certain elements in common. Differences and similarities provide logic to our research. Irwin's starting point is to proceed from the specificity of the place of its origin, and to transfer experience [to the West]. This is transplantation of knowledge. (16)

More NSK


related URLs:

Transnacionala. A Journey from the East to the West (June 28 - July 28, 1996) or

NSK State in Time / The Official NSK Electronic Embassy

Documents / Reviews on "Predictions of Fire" (USA / SLO 1995) by Michael Benson
NSK State Interview