Temporary Hegemonic Zones*

By Stevphen Shukaitis, 18 January 2011

Attending a sprawling congress for Neue Slowenische Kunst's imaginary state proved to be a worthwhile exercise in traumatic participation – writes Stevphen Shukaitis

In the book Essays Critical and Clinical, Gilles Deleuze outlines an understanding of aesthetics, primarily through literature, where the role of artistic production merges with that of diagnosis. This is a point where the task of literary criticism hybridises with that of critique, leaving both renewed, even if a bit unsettled by the process. While it is almost impossible to encapsulate what the Slovenian art movement Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) has undertaken, in all its manifestations, since forming in 1983, we could perhaps describe it best as an aesthetic apparatus for collective diagnosis. Its work - spanning music, theatre, philosophy, and statecraft - has served to diagnose multiple forms of repressed and sublimated desires lingering in the collective imagination: from the continuing but unacknowledged appeal of totalitarianism operating within the Yugoslav state, to the fascist dynamics found within the dynamics of pop culture. NSK has operated an aesthetic diagnosis through a process of what Zizek, borrowing from Lacan, describes as 'overidentification'. That is, to take a system of ideology more seriously than it takes itself, and through doing so to unearth the hidden, obscene elements and social interaction which provide an unspoken function of social cohesion.i

The activities of NSK over time have evolved towards a more general critique and recovery of the aesthetics of the state form. While NSK's oeuvre involves a high degree of work with state aesthetics, this has been particularly pronounced since the launching of the State in Time Project in 1992.ii The State in Time was declared to be an infinite state existing only in time, and thus lacking any physical boundaries or territories. Thus it was claimed that this would make the NSK State the first 'global state of the universe', existing only in the workings of time, or perhaps in the territories of the collective imaginaries animated by the various events NSK would hold, such as setting up temporary embassies and post offices. Since its inception, the NSK State now involves over 13,000 citizens, where the status of citizenship was conferred by applying for a passport either at an NSK event or through its website. After years of existing primarily as a virtual entity, this October the NSK State held its First Citizen's Congress in Berlin as a process to examine itself and evaluate its workings.iii

Image: Neue Slowenisch Kunst, First NSK Citizens' Congress logo, 2010

The congress was held at the iconic Haus der Kulturen der Welt (House of World Cultures), and was accompanied by a corresponding exhibition of materials created as part of the State in Time project and a selection of NSK Folk Art, or materials created by citizens of NSK and those inspired by it (some of which has previously been displayed at the Taipei Biennale). The event itself was organised by IRWIN, the painting wing of NSK, and Alexei Monroe, along with a host of others. The event was funded by the European Commission Culture Fund (who apparently remarked that they understood the congress to be a rather clever form of irony) along with the Berlin Capital Cultural Fund and the Slovenian Cultural Ministry. Even if the NSK State only exists in time, the territorial basis of its funding support seems to have grown appreciably. The Slovenian state now regularly promotes the work of NSK and Laibach which, aside from the writings of Zizek, is probably their most successful national export. I attended the congress as a delegate, one out of the 30 who had been chosen in spring 2009, when all NSK Citizens were contacted and invited to apply to participate in the congress. The application itself consisted of a fairly in-depth set of questions asking for impressions about the role and importance of the NSK State, how it had affected citizens' lives, and possible routes for its future development.

It is difficult to characterise the conference as whole. The days consisted mainly of working sessions for the three smaller groups the delegates were divided into, and the evenings were filled with public talks, film screenings, and other events. While I had no idea what to expect, it quickly became clear that there existed a quite wide array of political and aesthetic perspectives held by those attending the event. The organisers, perhaps all too aware of this, cautioned against making assumptions about the perspectives of others. While this is certainly sensible in a gathering involving attendees from the far left and far right, it may have inadvertently led to an air of excessive civility. The days' debates vacillated between philosophical debate and model UN session, or perhaps between a fan boy event for NSK/Laibach enthusiasts and a cultural theory conference. The constant presence of a Slovenian film crew also injected the proceedings with an air of reality TV, as debates on the future of the NSK State trundled on.

These ongoing sessions, while sometimes strained, also involved a number of quite interesting and (at least for me) unexpected points of debate. For instance, how does the NSK State relate to micronations? Is the NSK State a micronation? While members of the NSK State have previously participated in micronation themed events, such as the 2003 Summit of Micronations in Helsinki, a consensus emerged that the NSK State was not a micronation because micronations by definition are small, limited entities.iv Conversely the NSK State, being an infinite entity, could not be considered micro. Thus it was argued that to engage in diplomatic relations with micronations would be to belittle the status of the NSK State, reducing it to marginal phenomena, rather then continuing to proclaim its infinite and totalising nature. To a some extent, attempting to reproduce such a debate outside its context renders it absurd, although it does provide a small glimpse into the functioning of the kind of totalising, almost involuntarily Hegelian rhetoric that discussions of the NSK State take. Likewise there were extended discussions about the composition of the citizenry and how it breaks down along demographic and geographic lines, and how it might become a more inclusive project. But this begs the question of just how useful it is for an artistic project, whose territory is time and the workings of the imagination, one that rejects the operations of liberal democracy itself, to become more inclusive in any more commonly understood sense.


Image: Discussion at the First NSK Citizens' Congress, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin 2010

While a primary purpose of the congress was to produce new directions for the NSK State, perhaps something like crowd-sourced state planning, the outcomes reached were not particularly innovative. The statement produced, the 'Findings' as they were called, were rather tepid, reading rhetorically as Laibach-lite.v Is a tepid consensus any better or worse than a false consensus? The main outcome was basically to affirm the founding principles of the NSK State and that there would be further interest in turning the NSK State from a virtual aesthetic entity into an ongoing project embraced by its citizens, or in turning that heretofore symbolic but empty signifier into something more substantive. Despite the somewhat uninspiring nature of the outcome, the final statement did include several interesting reformulations of the relation between states and time, the conjunction of depersonalized aesthetics and governance, as well as the paradoxically clever idea that 'Freedom of choice creates trauma; lack of freedom of choice creates trauma. The NSK State acknowledges the right not to choose.'

A similar dynamic of cautious but not overly striking innovation characterised the pieces in the NSK Folk Art exhibition and poster competition. While some of the pieces developed new iterations of existing themes, for the most part they stayed close to the aesthetics that NSK has developed for several decades, meshing together imagery from the history of the avant-garde with industrial, fascist/totalitarian and Slovenian themes. And while much of this was quite interesting, and perhaps even quite startling for individuals who first come across these re-workings and hybridisations with no background information, it did not seem to produce anything near the constant stream of creativity and innovation that is assumed to flow from crowd-sourced modes of participation and artistic production. By far the most interesting piece in the exhibition was a poster created by Bertrand Binois, which was a map of the world where overlapping perpendicular layers of grey created darker sections that evoked the Rorschach ink blot test. This moves beyond recycling previous tropes and hints toward ways in which the NSK State might function in the future: as a kind of critical-clinical diagnostic aesthetic for assessing the functioning of state imaginaries.

Image: Betrand Binois' Rorschach inspired Map of the World, 2010

This idea emerged as a theme in a number of the congress sessions, that the role of the NSK State was less important in itself and more in how it developed tools that could be used in different locations and situations to excavate suppressed, obscene shared traumas. While this is an interesting proposition I am uncertain of how far this could actually go outside the original context and historical conditions marking the formation of NSK. For instance, could such a strategy of overidentification be employed usefully within the US?vi While one argument about NSK's role in 1980s Yugoslavia is that by taking on and pushing right wing nationalist positions to an extreme, particularly while combining them with 'foreign' elements, their performances and aesthetics served to make these positions unusable, would this tactic work in the United States? It might be seen that any attempted ideological monkey wrenching of this kind, far from sabotaging a section of the political spectrum, could just as easily end up creating new platform ideas for the Tea Party.

This also suggests a possible limit to the congress as a format for interaction, particularly as a space for developing strategies for social and political intervention relevant beyond the context of the NSK State itself. Or to put it another way, if NSK applies the principle of the monumental retrograde to tease out the residual potential of aesthetic and political movements long thought dead, how does this lead to creating tools for intervention aside from keeping alive a constant process of ideological recycling? NSK has often described the State in Time Project, following the idea of Joseph Beuys, as a form of social sculpture. The congress itself could then be seen as a moment of taking the idea of social sculpture forward in an interesting way, creating a space where the virtual relations created the State in Time are transformed in actual form as the project is taken on and run by its participants. This would be the social sculpture coming to sculpt itself, moving from a position of 'social sculpture in itself' to 'social sculpture for itself'. But how far can this process go? What actual innovations and creativity are produced out this move? The outcomes of the congress this far tend to indicate that this might be limited, or at the very least more difficult than anticipated.

Image: Poster for the First NSK Citizens' Congress, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 21-23 October, 2010

While there are interesting examples of how NSK State citizens have taken up and articulated the NSK State in new ways (some examples of this could include Christian Matzke's Maine-based Retrograde Reading Room or Charles Kraft's NSK dinnerware), the congress also showed how a participatory platform and convergence of varying backgrounds and ideas does not necessarily produce anything new or interesting.vii Or to put it another way, while the gurus of the post-Fordist creative networked economy might fetishise relationality and participation, the formal process of collaboration emerging from projects attempting to make relational aesthetics genuinely participatory does not in itself guarantee interesting results. While the focus of congress discussion was ostensibly charting new directions for the project, what was actually produced was more a reaffirmation of its founding principles, the groping towards a droll kind of constitutionalism and formal procedural mechanisms necessary to opening up a collective process to those not physically in attendance (assuming that other people would even want to be involved). The problem with this, at least for me, is that it was not very inspiring. What interests me in the NSK State is how it operates to create cracks in state imaginaries and processes of identification, the audacious proclamation of its own infinite and total nature in absolutist terms that had seemingly been left behind, rather than the ability to merge art into everyday life as participatory bureaucracy.

Perhaps one of the most promising, if fittingly ambivalent, signs that the NSK State still has the potential to unsettle and create significant effects in the world, came up through one of the most difficult of the conversational threads running through the congress. It can be summed up in one word: Nigeria. For most of State in Time's development, the number of citizens increased at a relatively slow but steady pace, connected mainly to the activities and travels of Laibach and Irwin.viii Thus the geographic distribution of citizens was spread mainly across Europe and the US, with the most significant clusters in the UK, Germany, the US, and Slovenia. Starting in 2004, but then picking up in a major way the following year, this pattern changed dramatically. First in small number, but then in the hundreds and thousands, NSK started receiving applications for citizenship from Nigeria and neighbouring areas. It gradually became clear that many individuals were attempting to acquire an NSK State passport in the mistaken belief that it would grant them the ability to travel to Europe, to move to Slovenia or, quite strangely, to move to the 'country' of NSK. Even more problematic was that this was happening not just through people applying directly to NSK, but also through networks of middlemen falsely claiming to represent NSK. These networks of intermediaries often made claims about the ability of the passport's use for travel, in the process raising false hopes and extorting quite significant amounts of money.

Image: Neue Slowenische Kunst, Towards a Double Consciousness: NSK Passport Project, Centre for Contemporary Art, Lagos, 2010

But this leaves the question of how to respond to such a situation? Similar dynamics have affected various micronations, some of which, like the State of Sabotage and the Conch Republic, project a façade with a much less passably state-like appearance. While some of the projects confronted with this question decided to stop producing passports as part of their practice, NSK chose a different response. Rather than stop the passport production activities altogether, in addition to taking much more care to stress that the passports were not for travel, they took out radio and newspaper advertisements in Nigeria clarifying the purpose of their project. They also conducted a series of interviews with Nigerians in London to more clearly understand what the passports meant to those who were trying to acquire them for travel. In July this year Irwin participated in a project with the Centre for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria entitled Towards a Double Consciousness: NSK Passport Project.ix This allowed Irwin and NSK to respond to what easily could have been a quite distressing problem in a more sensible way than stopping the project altogether, or refusing to involve participants in the State in Time from Nigeria. If the goal of the avant-garde was, and perhaps still is, to merge together art and everyday life, it is clear that this does not always go the way that might have been expected or hoped for in advance. The outcomes of artistic projects that spill over into directly political and social forms often do so in messy and ambivalent ways. One could suggest, then, that a politically responsive political-art practice, rather than trying to imagine forms of intervention free of contradictions or unpredictable effects (if that would be possible or desirable) would rather be one that creates ethical relations within the unforeseen effects generated when the artistic, political, and social recombine in unforeseen ways.

If one understands the history of institutional critique as the interrogation of the fields of power and operation of art galleries and museums, the strategy of overidentification could likewise be understood as a form of institutional critique.x But this would be an institutional critique that takes the state-form itself, in its most absolute and impossible form, as the object of critique. Just as Boris Groys has pointed out that the historic avant-garde, by eliminating the difference between the art work and the profane thing, leads directly to the building up of museums, the monumental retrograde activities of NSK have led to a building of a Slovenian state from within the Yugoslav state. The State in Time project was itself created during a period when Yugoslavia was falling apart and being torn up by horrendous genocidal tensions and violence. At that moment creating a state without territory, without ethnicity, and which thus sat above all the conflicts of time, was a utopian gesture. While Hakim Bey's roughly contemporaneous concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone became popular for thinking about the creation of evasive spaces between and outside states, the State in Time project negotiated a relationship through the state not by evading its attraction, but working through and against it. The project arguably forms autonomous zones, but creates them precisely as what Alexei Monroe has quite cleverly termed 'Temporary Hegemonic Zones', or zones of autonomy created from hollowing out state logic from within.

Image: Diagram tracking democracy as totalitarianism, First NSK Citizens' Congress, 2010

But it is the word temporary in the concept of a Temporary Hegemonic Zone that points both to the potential and the limits of the NSK State moving from a virtual to an actual entity. During the closing ceremony of the congress a member of Laibach commented that during the 1980s they had very much wanted there to be a Slovenian state, but that once it actually came into existence it was much less interesting or desirable. The formation of the State in Time was one way out of this conundrum, shifting these desires to an impossible terrain. Which leads one to ask whether the most disappointing move would not then be to actually try and create the NSK State as an actual entity? Would this not then create another and even deeper level of disappointment in the sense that any actual realisation of a total and impossible state could only be partial? Perhaps the entire congress was doomed, from the beginning, to failure. In that sense the most promising outcome was not the official findings but, rather, the counter-statement that was also read at the closing statement denouncing the whole process, (and paradoxically redeeming it through this denunciation):

The state is the manifestation of Kitsch. We hereby disassociate ourselves from your coffee-scented dog-breathed manifestations and unilaterally declare the dissolution of ourselves and the elimination of time through the timelessness of Kitsch. We find your bourgeois adoration of time and form repulsive and degenerate. Suborn yourselves to your pathetic creation in time at your own risk. We dissolve ourselves, demolish eternally your structures and leave this hollowness to re-form under new circumstances at the very moment of our creation. Your time is dated. Ours will never come.xi

While it took the form of a rather caustically humorous invective, this so-called 'Atomic Declaration of Dependence' displayed a greater understanding of the event than any other made during that entire event. A constituent assembly for an impossible totalising state, by only being able to partially realise it, would thus necessarily betray it. The only possible fidelity to be found in realising the project of an absolute state would thus have to bring together its constitution and dissolution in the same moment or, better yet, to open a rip in time where the destructuring force bends time itself so that the State of Time collapses even before it has constituted itself: only through an impossible act of constituent self-negation. And this is what is written in Latin on every passport, 'Ama nesciri', or 'love the unknown, the obscurity'. If the simplest Situationist act was attempting to abolish dead time, the NSK State in Time realises that act by bringing together the absolute state form of time itself with its simultaneous abolition, and by doing so the constituted state never actually occurs.xii

Stevphen Shukaitis <stevphen AT> is an editor at Autonomedia and lecturer at the University of Essex. He is the author of Imaginal Machines: Autonomy & Self-Organization in the Revolutions of Everyday Day (2009, Autonomedia) and editor (with Erika Biddle and David Graeber) of Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigations // Collective Theorization (AK Press, 2007). His research focuses on the emergence of collective imagination in social movements and the changing compositions of cultural and artistic labour

* The phrase 'Temporary Hegemonic Zone' is borrowed from Alexei Monroe's 'Laibach Kunst and the Art of Total Non-Alignment', in Laibach Kunst Recapitulation, Lodz: Muzeum Sztuki: 2009, pp.135-138.


Alexander Alberro and Blake Stimson, (eds.), Institutional Critique: An Anthology of Artists' Writings, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009.

BAVO, Gideon Boie, Matthias Pauwels, (eds.), Cultural Activism Today: The Art of Over-Identification, Rotterdam: Episode Publishers, 2007.

Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone: Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, Brooklyn: Autonomedia, 2003.

Benjamin Buchloh, 'Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions', October 55, 1999, pp.105-143.

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Gilles Deleuze, Essays Critical and Clinical, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

Boris Groys, Art Power, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008.

Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, (ed.), Summit of Micronations: Protocols, Helsinki: MUU Artists' Association, 2005.

Alexei Monroe, Interrogation Machine: Laibach and the NSK, Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Alexei Monroe, 'Laibach Kunst and the Art of Total Non-Alignment', Ausstellung Laibach Kunst Recapitulation 2009, Lodz: Muzeum Sztuki: 2009, pp.135-138.

Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray, (eds.), Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, London: MayFly Books, 2009.

Stevphen Shukaitis, 'Overidentification and/or Bust?' Variant Number 37, 2010,


i For an excellent exploration of the NSK project as a whole and in particular Laibach, see Alexei Monroe's book Interrogation Machine (2005).



iv For more information on the Micronations Summit see . There was also a book published after the summit, edited by Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen (2005), one of the summit organisers.

v The congress 'Findings' can be found on Plural Machine, Alexei Monroe's blog:

vi For more on recent uses of overidentification and strategies similar to those employed by the NSK, see the Cultural Activism Today: The Art of Over-Identification (2007) collection edited by the Dutch art group BAVO. Although it is debatable whether some of the examples contained (such as the Yes Men) are indeed based on a principle overidentification. It is clear in their performances, for instance, that they are not actually advocating the hyperbolic position that appears to be advocated under assumed roles. This was not the case for the NSK and Laibach whose work was all the more unsettling precisely because one could never really be sure if they meant it or not, and thus resisted easy interpretation.


viii One easy but ultimately not very interesting critique that is sometimes made of NSK's work is how deeply it is entrenched in European history, in ways that have long ceased to be intellectually fashionable. In other words that it is Eurocentric. This is certainly true, but only to the extent that it is through a deep excavation of such histories that it becomes possible, to use Dipesh Chakrabarty's phrasing (2000), to 'provincialize Europe'. One could argue that by developing intellectual tools for the excavation and interrogation of historical trauma, the NSK turns from an assumed backdrop and system of measurement to a tool that can be used elsewhere. However, identifying such a potential use of the NSK does not necessarily result in it being used in this way. To give a small example, at the same time as the congress there was an exhibition at the same institution called The Potosi Principle, which was about the Spanish colonisation and the continuation of primitive accumulation in dynamics of globalisation and labour exploitation ( ). In many ways this was the ideal complement to the NSK event in that it also excavated a suppressed history and its continuing effects in the world. But it did not seem to interest many of the delegates, although that easily could have been because they were too busy with other things to take the time to check it out. This is only to note that it is through better exploring these related forms of historical and political practice that the work of the NSK and projects like the State in Time become all the more useful.

ix For more about this project see The CCA Lagos website is

x For more on institutional critique see Alberro and Stimson (2009), Raunig and Ray (2009), and Buchloh (1999).


xii This statement is from 'Unitary Urbanism at the End of the 1950s', Internationale Situationniste #3 (December 1959). Available at


Neue Slowenisch Kunst's First Citizens Congress for the State in Time was at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin, 21-23 October, 2010,