When in 2015 the Slovenian avant-garde industrial rock band Laibach became the first Western group to play in North Korea, it caused an international stir. Since their formation and initial ban in Yugoslavia, Laibach have become infamous for drawing on fascist imagery, and for the uninitiated, it proved difficult to discern whether they were satirizing or glorifying the most isolated regime in the world. Watching the group perform sinister cover versions of “Sound of Music” numbers, dressed as Nazis who’ve returned from a 70-year sabbatical in space, whether in Pyongyang or Berlin, doesn’t do much to demystify the decision.
The mastermind behind the concert was Morten Traavik, a Norwegian artist and film director with a penchant both for North Korea (he’s visited more than 20 times) and bizarre, wry interventions. As the Norwegian Army’s first and last artist-in-residence, he slipped a giant condom over a nuclear-ready missile. Four years ago, he re-recorded the ’80s pop group A-ha’s debut album “Hunting High and Low” with a group of North Korean traditional musicians. His new film “Liberation Day” documents the story of Laibach’s concert.
In person, Traavik likes to remain in character. When the K2.0 photographer arrives, he dashes off to his hotel room to change into what he describes as a much “cooler costume.” When he returns some minutes later, the black shirt he’s wearing — combined with his pointed silver goatee — gives him the appearance of a totalitarian military general. He attaches to the shirt, which is from North Korea, a badge of Laibach’s severe official logo. When a phone call interrupts him in the flow of conversation, his ringtone is “The Whistleblowers,” the national-anthemic Laibach song he shot the music video for. To both myself and the photographer, he calmly disseminates badges of flapping blood red flags. It is not Kim Jong-il, but Laibach’s frontman Milan Frans gazing into the eternal distance.
Yet like Laibach, Traavik’s persona is a contradiction. Another of his answers is cut short when his young son draws a blue plastic sword into his father’s throat. As much as Traavik would love to attend Sarajevo Film Festival next week, where “Liberation Day” will be screening, it clashes with his son’s first day of school. You must choose your priorities, he explains.
K2.0 caught up with Traavik at DokuFest to discover these priorities, and delve deeper into his unique world.
K2.0: Have you shown the film in North Korea?
Traavik: Yes but to a very select audience, at least that I know of. I’ve shown it to my two rock and roll brothers — Mr Ryu and Mr Ri who you see in the film — the guy who is the big official and our helper, my counterpart, who you see quite a lot. I brought it on my laptop last October and gave it to Mr Ryu, the official, on a USB, which he kept for the week so I’ve no idea who he’s shown it to, but those two have seen it. They like it, though of course they are almost contractually obliged to say that. There are elements that they don’t approve of and so on but I could tell that they thought it could have been a lot worse.
The film is quite truthful, showing what actually happened. I don’t think we are pulling our punches either from showing the problematic sides, but we are not wallowing in human rights so you know how evil the North Korean system is. We are more offering people an opportunity to think for themselves.
This is a problem I have with a lot of documentaries. I just leafed through the film program that I have here and there are still dozens and dozens of films about Syria, about refugees, about human rights, social activism. Of course I support the attitude behind it… well, maybe not entirely, but I understand the attitude behind it. But quite often, even if it’s a well-made documentary, the whole purpose sometimes becomes virtue signalling, and I’m not into seeing that. We get that through the news media, maybe not in such a cinematographic way, but the message is the same. The documentaries and art that interests me is one which is not compiling any established narrative.
There’s a scene in the film where Laibach is rehearsing with dozens of apparent censors hanging around. Nobody is sure what their job is, even themselves. The situation here seems less intimidating than absurd…
There is so much humanity, even behind a system such as North Korea. That doesn’t make the system or the level of repression more sympathetic, but something can be serious and funny at the same time. I think North Korea, just like Laibach, is a great example of something that is both deadly serious and comic. You have to be able to see both sides at the same time, because if not, you’ll end up either as a terrified, or terrifying, war monger or as a self-glorifying human rights warrior. You can get quite a lot further adding that little glint in the eye.
For example, there’s Mr Ryu’s welcome speech early in the movie, in which he lists all these pejoratives against Laibach that he’s found in western media branding them fascists and Nazis, and concluding that the band can no longer play in Pyongyang. It’s brilliant trolling from him. I was the only one in the room who knew that this was done deliberately for fun. He actually takes the Laibach technique of using power language and uses it against them. That was a great example of somebody having a sense of mischievous humour that you’d least expect to have it. But you have to spend a lot of time in a place which is as uptight as North Korea to see that.
Official trailer for Liberation Day
The lack of time people spend there one of the main reasons why all these stereotypes about North Korea are so easily perpetuated. If you’re a journalist, you go there for a week, you’re on a very tight leash, you will only be able to speak to the people they want you to speak to, only getting a quite inane “we are grateful to our great leader” cliches. You can forget about getting anywhere past the Truman Show stereotype on one visit.
And then, as a journalist, you go back and your editor needs something from you and, of course, it’s always more clickbait: “this is what North Korea didn’t want you to see.” Then you photograph a bus with a punctured tyre. That’s a much easier way for people to earn their pay than to spend four years going back and forth to get to that level of trust from people and open up in these unexpected moments.
But the reason why we were able to capture these human moments in our film is because of all the time I’ve been spending in North Korea. All that time allows for North Korea to be sufficiently relaxed around me and subsequently around whoever I bring in, and to create an atmosphere where this can happen, where we can be on a relatively equal footing.
Laibach are usually very guarded and in the film rarely reveal anything of themselves beyond their performance. What was their impression of North Korea?
They’re actually worse than the North Koreans. It’s easier to get an unguarded moment with a North Korean than with a Laibach member.
They were the same as all other people who have not yet made up their minds: bafflement at the strangeness of the place, because it is strange, but also more familiar than you would imagine. This ambiguity is something that most people experience, and it is sometimes very contradictory. It is because there are all these military parades, there is real surveillance, a very controlled system, but at the same time you experience a lot of kindness and genuine sweetness from people and it’s really not a threatening place.
For Jani [Ivan Novak, Laibach’s lighting engineer], who is from an older generation, it became a sentimental journey. On such a short trip to North Korea you see a lot of aspects of Yugoslavia that it’s quite easy to feel nostalgia for. This sense of community and relative equality. Even though it’s an “everyone is equally poor” kind of equality, it’s at least a certain kind of equality. Then there are the aesthetics, the classic props of socialism — the uniforms, the emphasis on the heroic partisan.
Your website, which is styled as an ‘Arts Inventions Development’ organisation, lists both Laibach and North Korea in its Culture Department as ‘TotalKunst.’ Do you see them as two sides of the same coin?
It’s sort of my artistic statement to underline that the kind of performances I am dealing with as an artist is from the perspective of what I also call ‘hypertheater.’ You really don’t need to bring Shakespeare or fictional material into the equation. All the performative actions are rituals; from the small everyday performances which I do when I put on this shirt for the photographer to the big political theater with North Korea — all the woofing with Trump on one side and North Korea on the other. As a director, reality provides you with a lot of ready-made theatrical situations.
This is something that Laibach discovered quite early on, and made their hallmark, exposing this very theatrical, almost burlesque factor of propaganda and mass communication. And they subverted it not by being human rights warriors standing on one side from on high condemning it, but by osmosis.
That strategy was enormously influential on me and still informs my work. You can’t go there with an Amnesty International kind of banner.. You have to work within a form and a format that they understand and they can relate to and use the propagandistic language that they are steeped in. Then you can add some levels to that language that is not immediately apparent, even to many inside North Korea but that doesn’t matter.
I was so proud when Mr. Ryu made that welcome speech. That’s totally a product of us working together on three or four other major projects before Laibach, which were all about gently subverting or enriching propaganda aesthetics. So in that sense, you could say Laibach was both the least likely but also the most likely band to perform in North Korea. That’s the beauty of it for me, that ambiguity, that contradiction within itself. In cinema or art, I don’t want answers. I want to be debating with myself.
Radiohead received a lot of criticism for performing in Israel recently. What do you say to people who argue that by performing in a totalitarian state like North Korea, you are endorsing it?
I don’t believe in cultural boycotts, or even boycotts at all that much. In some instances they might work, but historically, there are very few examples of boycotts that do more than just perpetuate the status quo, and only in a shitty way for the least guilty ones.
I read somewhere that ‘boycott is war for cowards’ and I agree with that. You either have to pull your dick out and bomb the place, get it over with, or engage. Even bringing ex-Yugoslav industrial music is a better alternative to drone bombing.
You could also of course turn the tables and say, what would be your suggestion? What’s your strategy for dealing with a place like North Korea, or Israel for that matter? Or any kind of system which does not tick all your boxes of how a society should be. You won’t really be getting out much if you start applying these standards.