INTERVIEW: JANEZ JANŠA
The artist changed his name in 2007, turning himself into the alter-ego of the Sloveninan prime minister. A conversation on crossing the boundaries between breaking fiction and fake news.
The air is bad under the masks that you’ve been wearing for over 8 hours. The Austrian hits on the radio are driving you crazy, and then suddenly you are in the second half of the final game of the European Football Championship. Finale is the name of the piece with three endings, which vary depending on tmahe taxi you’re in. In our taxi, the moderators, as well as everyone else in the stadium, are eaten by bats. The bats are mentioned in literary and philosophical notes for 45 minutes throughout the game; these mythical animals are now on everyone's lips, believed by many to have transmitted the coronavirus to humans in China. At some point we end up in the ugly outskirts of Graz, full of petrol stations and conservative advertising. McDonald’s, H&M and other discounters lead our way to the parking lot of the enterprise Legero United. With chips and cheap prosecco, which we treated ourselves to thanks to a detour by our nice Tunisian taxi driver, we watched the layers of the public sphere and the radio play intertwine. With Janez Janša’s The Final Match, Steirischer Herbst crosses the line between breaking news, fake news and art on the radio.
For many people, football is so much more than a game. But now, the impact of the pandemic means that fans will have to tread softly for an indefinite time. This is not so in Janša's radio play and performance. In his alternate reality, the European Football Championship, planned for 2020 and postponed to 2021, is taking place this year after all. For the final match, it’s Germany against Sweden. The audience can only experience it in their cars, where they listen to two sportscasters bring the phantom game to life through their descriptions alone. Talking shop and philosophizing, they set the stage for ingenious plays, chants, and insights into the abysmal world of professional football, reflections on current world political events and even touch upon the utopian and emancipatory potential of the present crisis. It’s the same as always: the ball is round, the game lasts ninety minutes—the rest is theory.
The boundaries between reality and art began to merge in unforeseen ways in 2007, when he and two others joined the conservative Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) and officially changed their names to that of the leader of the party, the Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša. We spoke with the artist about life as a twilight zone.
Have you encountered difficulties since you became the Slovenian prime minister’s “body double”?
There were difficulties on professional and political levels. When we were making the movie My name is Janez Janša in 2012, the second Janša government wanted to stop the production and cut the funding, so we had to do it in a private studio. There was also a lot of public defamation, including hate speech. But we also got a lot of support!
For parents it’s difficult to understand because they give you two things: life and a name. The rest is optional and if you take away what they give you, it’s difficult for them. My father had a hard time understanding it, despite the fact that he can see that it’s not something you do because you don’t like your name or your family.
Prior to changing your name and positioning yourself within the boundaries between fiction and reality, were you working on similar issues as in The Final Match?
Yes, twenty years ago I did a drive-in performance for the opening of the Manifesta 3 biennale in Ljubljana. People came to The Republic Square in Ljubljana (in front of the Parliament) in cars to watch a performance for which the music score was broadcasted from the national radio station and it could be heard only on radio receivers. When Steierischer Herbst changed their paradigm due to corona, I knew I wanted to do something “corona-possible.” And to know that whatever happens this could still be a performance. I call this a drive-out performance. In English it works, but in German it doesn’t because they call it Autokino.
It could be a transgression of this definition! After all, not everything has to work in the same language. In The Final Match you decided to do a football commentary with three different endings. You have two other versions of reality that you make up for the taxi drivers, what are they?
The taxi drivers are a key element of the performance, since they mediate the event live. As a listener/spectator in a car, you cannot not be intrigued by the performative manoeuvres of a taxi driver, since you are driven and guided by him/herself. The three endings of the match deconstruct finality and singular winning structure of a competition. On the other hand it is not so difficult to imagine that customization of products might arrive to a point in which a game you watch ends in a way you customize it.
So, yes, there are 3 different endings of The Final Match and no one will ever see all of them!
For this iteration of Steirischer Herbst, it’s a beautiful start. Nobody else will be able to experience the work that happened yesterday night.
It is hard to imagine there would be a repetition of the final football game at the European Championship. But who knows. The Final Match as performed yesterday could be repeated and the result would be the same.
I agree that it doesn’t need to be repeated. But how does the audio piece prevail, especially when Steirischer Herbst offers a digital platform for people who are not able to come to Graz?
We discussed this a lot, thinking of transmitting the piece on the national radio or something similar. But in the end we wanted to create the game situation in reverse. Usually there is a game somewhere and then there is the radio transmission. Here the game basically doesn’t exist but there is a radio, which is in one exact place, as if one would watch it live on the stage. It's not about exclusiveness, it's about creating live conditions. But it is also not a radio play. The taxi driver is a key person, a kind of mediator of the mediatised.
"Any kind of game is based on ethical principles. Generally speaking, football is a fight between two teams that try to win and the winner gets the symbolic capital. What are the ethical premises of the organisation of the game? Why is it divided by nations? That's obsolete."
Now that we are uncovering several layers of the piece, I wanted to ask about the amalgam of philosophical references in the work?
Any kind of game is based on ethical principles. Generally speaking, football is a fight between two teams that try to win and the winner gets the symbolic capital. What are the ethical premises of the organisation of the game? Why is it divided by nations? That’s obsolete. Why does sport have to follow the United nations structure? Is it a presentation of power, political position, a representation of nations? Oftentimes the question of representation of the nation clashes with the ethnical background of players. If you look at the players in The Final Match, they are nearly completely of immigrant background, situated in the economically powerful North (Germany vs. Sweden)
These references suggest that there is a slight hierarchy between the European Meisterschaft and the rest. You go back to philosophical statements that the commentators make fun of. What is the idea of philosophy you present here?
You come to the question, what is in the game that goes beyond the execution of the game itself. For example, why is football homophobic? It’s a question that goes beyond the game. Ownership in football can also be approached from a philosophical perspective. Some football teams are enterprises that operate on the stock market. They are owned by rich people, oligarchs, sheiks, and tycoons. Money laundering, tax evasion, fixing matches... big social differences come to the fore, where there is one percent of successful football players and ninety-nine percent of people who couldn’t make it and find themselves in radically precarious situations.
Are you also mirroring the social and class dilemmas of the football player with that of the artist?
Structurally speaking, there are similarities, though I wouldn’t go too far in comparisons. Football is in the first place big business, too big to be treated as a game. The rich are always the winners. But yes, there are social differences in art, there is an economically powerful West (or North) and globally poor South not only on a geographical level, but in one and the same artistic community.
"If things don’t work, it is important to see that you are not the only one for whom things don't work and to associate and work on changing unjust conditions."
How do you resolve that for yourself?
As a freelance artist, if there is no institutional background for what you are doing you become an entrepreneur yourself. That is the reality of the majority of artists (not the only reality, of course) today. In 2002 the situation with independent institutions and artists in Slovenia culminated in precarity, so we created an organisation of independent artists (“Asociacija”) that exerted continuous political pressure on decision makers in order to consider the kinds of artistic and cultural production that could be comparable to mainstream or institutional ones. With this we achieved quite a lot: new venues have been opened and there is more stable financing of independent organisations. But it’s far from something close to how the public institutions should work. If things don’t work, it is important to see that you are not the only one for whom things don't work and to associate and work on changing unjust conditions.
It was important to create an association where these issues were questioned and turned into a political action. The results are visible and there is value in society for this. It is important as a cultural worker to know that the government cannot just do whatever they want.
This kind of activism seems to be heavily present in this year's iteration of the Steirischer Herbst, even though the fictional reality that you presented yesterday seems almost elliptic and story-like. How do you bridge daily activism with the nature of the art work?
Sometimes you walk, sometimes you run, sometimes you go under the bridge. :) I think activism is a way you operate as a political subject. It can manifest in a pure political activity, but it can also condition professional artistic endeavours. Art and Activism are not a 1:1 relation. The Final Match addresses the conditions in which it was created - lockdown and antisocial political measures. How can one produce a live situation that can cope with the strictest corona measures? How can we be together?
What does identity mean to you today, in your artistic practice but also in private life?
If you mean that changing your name changes your identity I would say not really. When you change your name, you basically realize your name belongs more to other people than yourself. First of all, it is something that is imprinted on you, although we call it personal. But what is actually personal about it? It’s actually quite violent to be forced to carry something that is so important in your social life, and on the other hand to not have much to do with the decision. So your name is used much more by other people, and when you change it, it is other people who have to get used to it.
Many European countries welcome legal name changes if your name is of a foreign origin. That is where structural violence is performed on identity level.
This is structural racism that is paradoxically not even based on race.
What is your relation to totalitarian leaders?
What do they do to us? What makes people vote for Putin all over again? This interests me more than any authoritarian figure. In The Final Match we deal exactly with a basic psychoanalytic perspective: we know all the terrible things surrounding football, and yet we love it regardless. Psychoanalysis teaches us knowing is not enough. Knowing the truth does help, but it is not enough to fight totalitarianism.
Image: Janez Janša, The Final Match (2020), Radio play and performance, Graz, Photo: Mathias Völzke
The interview was conducted by María Inés Plaza Lazo