You can only effectively parody something,
If you like it quite a lot as well
Brian Eno, discussing the work of AVIA
By the early 1980s, Soviet ideology had experienced major transformations. It became irrelevant whether one believed or disbelieved the ideological statements of the system, provided that one experienced these statements in the public sphere as immutable. In this context, a new type of critical engagement with ideology emerged instead of contesting ideological dogmas, as was practiced by the dissidents, it was based on the imitation of ideology. We may call this method, mimetic critique of ideology. Mimetic critique was not designed to expose the falsity of ideological statements of the system, rather it showed that these statements no longer needed to be read for literal meanings and their that task was to create the experience of their own immutability (Yurchak 2006). The method of mimetic critique became particularly widespread among informal artists, musicians, and other members of such circles. Central to this method was the aesthetic principle of overidentification with ideology the exact replication of the form of ideological symbols and enunciations, with a major shift in the meaning that they conveyed. This method had a few advantages over direct opposition to the system. First, the state could easily identify and isolate any oppositional discourse as anti-Soviet, while recognizing the discourse of over-identification as a form of opposition was difficult by definition. Second, this approach did not require one to reject all things Soviet as immoral, which allowed one to conduct the critique of Soviet ideology without automatically critiquing the communist project as such.
In the 1980s, mimetic critique was practiced by many famous representatives of informal artistic communities, from Prigov and Kuryokhin, to Miki and the Necrorealists. It was also widespread in Eastern Europe. Arguably, however, this method acquired its purest form in the work of two musical groups Laibach from Ljubljana (Slovenia) and AVIA from St Petersburg. The conceptual and aesthetic parallels in the work of these bands are quite impressive, especially considering that they never cooperated or even interacted.
Laibach and AVIA were not just rock bands but multi-media projects that investigated the relationship between ideology and art. Indeed, AVIA preferred to call themselves the laboratory for the study of ideology, and Laibach belonged to the Department of pure and applied philosophy of the Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) art movement. The method of mimetic critique in their art developed in the late 1980s, during the period of Soviet Perestroika. However, the first examples of this method in both cases date back to the early 1980s. It was at that time that Laibach released its first cover-version of the then popular song Life Is Life by the Austrian band Opus. Laibach slightly changed the song. The final verse of the original song went like this: «And you call when it’s over, you call it should last. Every minute of the future is a memory of the past. ‘Cause we all gave the power, we all gave the best. When everyone gave everything and every song everybody sings, life is life!». Laibach rewrote this text as follows: «And we are all glad it’s over, we thought it would last. Every minute of the future is a memory of the past. ‘Cause we gave all the power, we gave all the best. And everyone lost everything and perished with the rest, life is life!». What sounded like a light, euphoric number celebrating common joy and happy togetherness turned into a maniacal anthem calling for the ultimate sacrifice in the name of a common idea. Laibach did not so much change the original as emphasized its message, highlighting the totalitarian basis of all mass culture, with its mythology of folk roots and national unity, and its ecstatic mass appeal.
In 1984, the band Strange Games, three members of which later organized AVIA, recorded its own cover-version of a popular Euorpean hit, Felicita, by Italians Al Bano and Romina Power, which Soviet television frequently played in its entertainment programs. The cover-version of the song sounded like a cross between avant-garde jazz and a spy-movie soundtrack. The only word remaining from the original text, «felicita», was sung slowly, pompously, in a low electronic voice. Like in the previous example, this absurdly ironic version exposed an underlying ideological principle of mass culture: a mindless tune about love and happiness sung in non-threatening Italian (as opposed to dangerous English associated with rock’n’roll) was perfectly suited to Soviet television, revealing common totalitarian roots of commercial and ideological mass culture.
When AVIA was formed in the mid 1980s they further refined the mimetic method of critique. In the beginning of the show the band’s front man shouted a series of what sounded like recognizable Soviet slogans: «Earn it and receive it!», «Nominate and elect!», «Be ready!», «Care for the main thing!». Taken out of the everyday context these slogans sounded impressive and utterly absurd. This was at once a fierce satire of the dying Soviet system and a nostalgic tribute to its forgotten ideals, which is why the program was called Forward to the One Thousandth Anniversary of the Great October! In the song Lullaby the unfulfilled utopia of the Bright Future is treated with irony and naïve, child-like tenderness. This is obvious in the music (the lullaby gradually transforms into march) and in the text: The fanfare will sound, and the sun will shine, and time will forever stop. The gardens will bloom, the icebergs will melt, and water will leave every swamp. Therell be fireworks, music, eternal bliss, our life will be happy and light! This will happen tomorrow, I promise you this, if at first you will sleep tonight.
Central to every AVIA show was an extremely elaborate stage presentation, with multiple props, flags, podiums, backdrops, collective marching, pyramids of the AVIA physical exercise group, etc. Before every show the audience waiting in the foyer could hear The rules of behavior for the theatrical event of the AVIA collective loudly played through the PA system. The rules instructed the audience in bureaucratic Sovietese what it could and could not do during the concert. If spectators liked some song they had to refrain from random clapping and instead had to stand up in their place and shout hurrah. If they liked a song particularly much they had to organize other people in their row of seats to stand up and march as a group in orderly fashion, while shouting triple hurrahs. And so on. When in Spring of 1989, the rules of behavior were played in English before the AVIA concert in Queen Elizabeth Hall, the respectable London audience happily went along with the suggested behavior and shouted hurrahs all evening. The irony that dominated these shows was directed not only at the communist system, but also at the growing tendency to trivialize it as a system of totalitarian automatons or the Evil Empire. This is why both AVIA and Laibach drew much inspiration from the art and philosophy of the early Soviet period, when the ethos of sincerity and experimentation was still strong. In 2002, the former leader of AVIA, Nikoali Gusev remembered: «Balancing between irony and genuine fascination is what has always interested me most. I want to avoid the situation, where my stuff could be interpreted ‘straight’, unambigiously. In AVIA there was the same kind of fine balance. We never wanted to parody anything, even though many saw us as anti-Soviet satire. I have always been very interested in the avantgarde of the 1920s, which is for me on par with punk rock of the more serious and fine varieties designed to tear down the walls. The Soviet avantgarde of the 20s, Constructivism, El Lissitzky and so on were a huge breakthrough, a heavy blow on a hammer.”
Laibach also drew heavily on early Soviet avant-garde (especially the art and writings of Malevich), often mixing it with the symbols that looked fascist without necessarily being fascist. The task of this mixing was neither to promote nor criticize fascism as such, but to show that any kind of totalitarian symbolism from fascist uniforms, to communist slogans, to corporate brands always functions in the same fashion: it describes not the surrounding reality but itself, drawing the masses into this process. One important feature of the mimetic critique of ideology is that it often leads to diametrically opposed interpretations. Indeed, both bands have been sometimes accused of promoting fascism and sometimes celebrated as ingenious anti-fascists, ridiculed as communist sympathizers, associated with aggressive anti-communism, and so on. This ambivalence and impossibility of knowing what the author really thinks was an important political outcome of this critical method. As Slavoj Zizek observed, those intellectuals who ponder over the question, what do the members of Laibach really think?, miss the point that Laibach itself does not function as an answer but a question. The same is true about AVIA. By making its audience wonder what to make of their acts or by forcing it to disagree over interpretations, these bands make visible the fact that ideology operates on a much deeper level than we normally think, and that direct opposition to this or that ideological statement may turn out to be just another element in the same ideological system. In other words, instead of accusing Laibach of employing fascist symbols one may wonder to what extent they function like other symbols — communist slogans or corporate brands — which members of Laibachs audience themselves constantly reproduce. Similarly, in todays Russia one may consider Putins anti-liberal regime as the opposite of liberal market economy, or, alternatively, one may consider both these regimes as two elements of the same problem — as two manifestations of global state-corporate capitalism. After the implosion of state socialism around 1990, and during the period of aggressive market reforms in the following decade, both bands tried to adapt their artistic approach to new conditions. Laibach issued several albums with telling titles: Kapital (1992), NATO (1993), Occupied Europe (1996), trying to apply mimetic critique to the post-communist situation. In an interview in the Slovenian youth magazine Mladina, which was conducted in Laibachs recognizable style, members of the group announced that corporate democracy is just a euphemism for developed totalitarianism. In order to avoid any totalitarian inequality they proposed to create an authoritarian NSK State, in which subordination would be total and therefore equal: «Democracy is a system exercising the subordination of the minority to the majority, in Communism the reverse is true, whereas the NSK State is an all-embracing alloy in which subordination is the universal imperative of common happiness. Similar statements were made at the time by the conceptual leader of AVIA, Nikolai Gusev, who called for the creation of a utopian authoritarian state: I am a totalitarianist and a monarchist, declared Guzev.
These statements could be characterized as familiar mimetic critique of all kinds of new totalitarianisms, from the corporate market version to the nationalist response to it. However, the post-communist situation was certainly profoundly different, and despite all attempts to adapt ones aesthetics, the bands relevance rapidly diminished. In the early-1990s, AVIA decided to cease its experiments. Although Laibach proved more resilient and continues recording albums even today, their revolutionary aura and relevance are long gone.
In the post-communist period both bands found themselves in the position of vanishing mediators those actors, who actively contributed to creating conditions for the change, but lost their ability to conduct relevant commentary when the change arrived. What is the reason for this shift? Perhaps mimetic critique is no longer relevant today? Indeed, this method seems particularly important during periods when regimes are imploding and epochs are changing, and perestroika, unlike the current situation, was certainly such a period. However, the apparent absence of mimetic critique in Russia today does not mean that this critical method is equally irrelevant in the broader global context. It is telling that today mimetic critique is increasingly employed in US media and political art from the popular TV shows Daily Show With Jon Stewart and Colbert Report, to the series South Park, to political art group The Yes Men. Perhaps in today’s authoritarian Russia this critical method may resurface in the sphere of media (Live Journal, flash mob, etc?); perhaps it will engage state-corporate ideology from a much broader, global perspective. But this is a topic for a different essay.
Alexei Yurchak is Associate Professor of Anthropology at University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Everything Was Forever Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton University Press 2006 – Winner of 2007) His other papers are available at https://anthropology.berkeley.edu/yurchak.html