Interview: 'THE HILLS ARE ALIVE' – LAIBACH opens tonight the steirscherherbst' 18, the most representative international festival for contemporary visual and performing arts in Austria, with their own version of 'The Sound of Music'

A week ago, Elfriede Jelinek published an article on her website (Oh, du mein Österreich! Da bist du ja wieder!), referring to her awakening in a crypto-fascist country: Austria. What she calls “crypto” here is the nature of a secret system of values everyone knows but no one openly confesses. Jelinek denounces many things in her text, alongside promoting a protest against the government in Vienna, on October 4th.

How fascism is re-staging itself, how the sentiment of holocaust guilt appears to not being taken seriously enough in Europe; How Austrians were associated 1938 on their dirndls and lederhosen to the Nazis and they didn’t even notice. Jelinek objects that public opinion is now very public, but even behaviour on public transport is restricted. Overall public opinion spreads out, no longer in secret, finally free, relying on everyone knowing what is meant.

Prosperous self-sufficient heads of state, disconnection from the ideals that have long inspired and united a balanced democracy, the collapse of established parties and political mainstream in chaos are the depictions of today’s social landscape. In this state of flux, the 51st Edition of ‘steirischerherbst’ sees the light, inviting for it’s opening night the famously controversial Slovenian music and performance group Laibach to premiere their musical and remake of Hollywood’s classic 'The Sound of Music'. The concert is embedded in this year’s theme of the interdisciplinary arts festival, which arrives annually in the city of Graz, entitled “Volksfronten” (“Popular Fronts“). The title, which not only plays a subversive role towards governmental new directions, also encourages to look closely at the festival's political agenda. It points to the fact that right and left wing aesthetics, as well as symbolisms blend into each other, obscure, conceal and adumbrate up to a point where the mergence becomes invisible.

Laibach may seem to give a slightly more ‘poppy‘ impression than the past fifty editions of ‘steirischerherbst', and that is where Katerina Degot's decision of opening the program with Laibach already starts to get interesting. The original 'Sound of Music', a 1965 American musical film produced and directed by Robert Wise, and starring Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer, Richard Haydn and Eleanor Parker is a beautiful example of the deeply rooted, traditional and controversial semiotics of our history. Drawing on film references, such as the open-air stage of Salzburger Festspiele, Laibach’s performance reconfigures common aesthetic choices inherent in Austrian culture. The film has brought perverse contradictions of power mechanisms in a cute cover across borders and it is the right time to unpick naïve platitudes, guilt complex riddled and superficial engagement with our past, and unroll the seedbeds of nationalism, racism, fascism, and war.

Founded in Yugoslavia at the beginning of 1980s, Laibach cultivates a musical culture of intense agitation and permanent, systematic, propagandist and ideological offensive, comparable to bands like Coil, DAF (Deutsche-Amerikanische-Freundschaft) or the pioneers of industrial music, Throbbing Gristle. Yet the apparent techno-revolution of Laibach, which flirted with the growth and multiplication of machines of the time, was closely linked with the rise of modern consciousness and the new socio-economic relations of their hometown, Trbovlje.

Since then, Laibach is used to give interviews about their intentions as artists, the (im)morality that surrounds their aesthetics and relevance of freedom in their work. After 40 years of this kind of visibility, my questions here refer to a history of subculture, social antagonism, dark pop and satire. Send by correspondence, their answers are formulated collectively and with a certain hermetism that wouldn’t allow the risk of being spontaneous. Like politicians, or pop stars.

María Ines Plaza Lazo: After all these years of polemic, have you ever lost your interest in provocation?

Laibach: We are not interested in provocation; we are interested in truth, even if it’s a fake one. But the truth is that a non-provocative work of art is sense-less and is not a work of art at all (not that we consider ourselves as a work of art…).

MIP: Laibach’s version of ’The Sound of Music' had its own debut in North Korea in 2015. Songs were dedicated to the country. Is the upcoming version of Steirischer Herbst dedicated to its new right wing party?

L: ‘The Sound of Music’ album that we originally recorded for our 2015 show in Pyongyang, is officially dedicated to the people of North Korea and the people of (entire) Austria. Steirischer Herbst will be the place for the world premiere of the complete Laibach’s ‘Sound of Music’ show.

MIP: You’ve been wearing military uniforms on stage, toying with socialist and Marxist themes and making visual references to authoritarian symbols from the very beginning. Is that still an act of subversion for the stage?

L: Between 1982 – 1984, we literally wore Yugoslav’s army working uniforms on stage. After that we didn’t wear any military uniforms on stage anymore, but even almost 40 years later everybody still talks about Laibach wearing uniforms. Which means that ‘wearing military uniforms’ is obviously still is an act of subversion, at least to some people and to some extent. Which also goes for ‘toying with socialist and Marxist themes and visual references to authoritarian symbols’ – although we don’t really do that. Most people assume that we do.

MIP: Is the controversy Laibach, awakens the reason why the band is invited to several theaters to perform, or is it the theatricality of it all?

L: We generally do good shows and interesting music and we believe that this is the main reason why we sometimes perform in theaters as well.

MIP: Is the coquetry with authoritarian symbols associations a bit of a transvestite aesthetic? No matter how many changes the costume undergoes, it will always show it’s original state behind the make-up?

L: This is an interesting theory and maybe that is why Laibach is quite popular among the transvestite population.

MIP: ’The Sound of Music‘ is a story told by Hollywood to depict - with a large amount of sweetness - the entrance of Austria into the Third Reich in 1938. How does the musical fit into current European state of affairs?

L: We believe that ‘The Sound of Music’ is a universal story about the nuclear family, about the patriarchal and matriarchal authoritarianism, about the discipline and drill, but also about the music theory, national pride and nationalism, cultural and political immigration, the power of religion, etc., etc., the subjects that are all important for the current European state of affairs.

MIP: Steirischer Herbst is historically known for it is government critical content. How does, in your opinion, Laibach fit in here?

L: It’s hard to say; we don’t like to criticize, not even governmental policies. Laibach is not dealing with daily politics; we do, although, like to analyze the relation between art and ideology, between culture and politics.

MIP: Not to directly comment on the current transition of the Austrian government into the far right wing would be certainly failing the cause of Laibach’s provocative game of aesthetic. How does this work within Laibach’s concert at the opening of Steirischer Herbst?

L: We were told that Austrians actually hate this film, believing that it does not accurately reflect Austrian reality, which already makes it quite ‘subversive’ on it’s own. Slavoj Žižek explains that ‘The Sound of Music is “a much trickier film than one might expect. If you look at it closely, it’s officially Austrian resistance to Hitler and the Nazis, but if you look even closer, the Nazis are presented as an abstract cosmopolitan occupying power, and the Austrians are the good small nationalist fascists, so the implicit message is almost the opposite of the explicit message.” The real message to be dug up, for Žižek, is “honest fascists resisting decadent Jewish cosmopolitan takeover.” This might also be why the movie was so extremely popular elsewhere, because it “addresses our secret fascist dreams.” Except of course in Austria, where the difference between dreams and reality exists only within the Freudian psychoanalyst theory.