An Interview with Janez Janša
In 2007 three Slovenian citizens changed their names to Janez Janša, the name of the man who was at that time the Prime Minister of Slovenia and the leader of the right-of-centre Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS). I met with Janez Janša at the Café-Bar of the Cinémathèque Québécoise on September 9, 2013 and we discussed some of the cultural, political and legal dimensions of their collective practice.
Marc James Léger: Often there are art critics who write about an artist and who override or influence them in some way to the point where you can’t tell the difference between the artist and the theoretical criticism of their work. For example, in the book Name Readymade there are many different approaches to your work.1 I wonder, when you set out to change your names, what were the specific conceptual, theoretical or social and political concerns that motivated you?
Janez Janša: One aspect was certainly the status of the name in the public sphere and the power related to names. If a person is in a position of power, how does their name function, and what happens if they are not the only person with that name? The questions that we were asking are: ‘How can you actually produce something in the wider social and political reality but not necessarily by doing something in political reality as such but from a specific standpoint, a different context, from which you can generate questions?’
MJL: Like a Robert Smithson site/non-site strategy?
JJ: We call this “collateral effects.” So basically you do something – you change your name – but it has as a side effect many implications. The point is that you do a precise gesture that is very small and in a way administrative and that basically everyone can do. Anyone in Slovenia, or elsewhere, can change his or her name into Janez Janša or into nearly any name.
MJL: This comes very close to Fluxus, where you don’t need to be specially trained or qualified in order to perform the work.
JJ: Yes, it’s not something artistic per se. The only thing that makes it artistic is who we are, our respective professions. It would be interesting to see if another politician would change his name to Janez Janša, or another public person, for example an athlete, and what that would produce. Could you imagine a G8 meeting where all the presidents and prime ministers of different countries would be called Janez Janša?
MJL: Has anyone so far followed your lead in this regard?
JJ: Not that I’m aware of and not that I know, in legal terms, but there have been occasions in which artists or journalists and even activists have done so as a temporary parody. But this is not what we are doing. We changed our names legally. So very little of what we’ve been doing is related to a concrete person – a politician – which anyhow, legally speaking, is not Janez Janša but Ivan Janša.
Our agenda involved a much wider question about the status of names in cultural, political and social life. Name change has many aspects and name change procedures are very different from one country to the next. In Slovenia it’s a relatively simple procedure, but in some other countries within the European Union, it can be much more difficult. We can say that there is one common feature in most countries of widespread immigration and multiculturalism and that is tolerance towards name changing in order to allow for easier integration into the host culture.
MJL: United States immigration uses the term naturalization.
JJ: In Europe we call it assimilation.
MJL: Is there any theoretical or philosophical approach to the notion of names that you were particularly concerned with? For example, Jacques Lacan discusses ideology in terms of the Name of the Father, and so if you think of it in those terms it opens up a very specific psychoanalytic field of knowledge. If so, I would be interested in knowing your relationship to NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) and in relation to them what’s been written by Slavoj Žižek in terms of over-identification, or what some others have referred to as subversive affirmation.2 Around 1992, after NSK State was created, they issued NSK passports, which some people have used to help them immigrate.3 So this I would imagine is an important reference point for you? In the way that NSK was over-identifying with totalitarian regimes as a way to subvert the Yugoslavian state regime, were you looking for a form of subversion that can work to subvert the now Slovenian neoliberal state regime, where arguably there is more tolerance for cultural dissidence?
JJ: Okay, this is now a big question. We had an interesting discussion with Mladen Dolar, who is a Lacanian philosopher, on the relation between life, or identity, and the function of the name.4 Our view is that the name is an interface, the means through which you enter the symbolic order, community, context, etc. To go back to John Stuart Mill, the name functions as something that helps us to identify what we are talking about but without knowing anything about qualities or specificities concerning that which we are talking about. In social life, the function of the name has a very precise structure and in that sense we understand it as an interface.
When you change your name you realize that the situation is similar to when you die. When you die, other people are busy with you. You have to do many things in preparation for your death, but once you are dead, you no longer have anything to do. It’s the same with a name change. When you change your name you are busy with the decision-making process, but once you get there, other people become much more busy with your name. The interesting question about a personal or proper name is the extent to which your name is personal. On the one hand your name is imposed on you, given, and on the other, it’s used by other people much more than by yourself. So your name is one of the most public things about yourself – the most public dimension of a person.
Now, our debate with Dolar was interesting because he somehow disagrees with the statement expressed by Juliette, in Romeo and Juliette, when she is lamenting on what is a name. He words are:
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell just as sweet; / So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, / Retain that dear perfection which he owes / Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name; / And for that name, which is no part of thee, / Take all myself.
So she is saying to Romeo that he can change his family name so that they can be together. Dolar’s position is that all of us are episodes in the life of a name and that our name will live much longer than we will and that we will be remembered for our name, or by our name. He’s metaphorically, or literally, saying that it’s our name that will be written on our tombstones.
Our question is then which name will be inscribed on our tombstones, or by which name will we be remembered. This is quite an interesting question. When we were doing research on the reasons that can be accepted for a name change, the main reason in central Europe is marriage, usually women taking the family name of their partner. The second main reason is numerology. Statistically speaking, many people change their names for numerological reasons.
MJL: You mean in terms of superstition and good luck?
JJ: Yes, exactly. Sometimes they are just small changes, one letter or two, and sometimes it’s a complete change – but this is a widespread phenomenon. In most European countries you are obliged to register your child’s name within the first 30 days. This is a rather new practice. Previously, because of a Christian tradition, this was conditioned by religion and was a perfunctory ritual; but now the state gives you the time needed to ‘personalize’ the name based on the time it takes to get inspired and ‘read’ the personality of the baby. One example of the way you can see this new process taking place is in Iceland. In Iceland it used to be that you had to select a name from an official list. About twenty years ago, a mother wanted to give a name to her daughter that was not on the list. Initially this was not accepted, but her daughter later registered and won a legal case that became a precedent. So now in Iceland you can name your child whatever you want. So these new practices have less to do with Fordistic tradition and family trees and more to do with post-Fordistic customization. The idea that sustains this shift is that you respect the baby, that you don’t apply a label on the baby until you can interpret its personality.
MJL: Right, a kind of postmodern racism.
JJ: I think it’s part of this neoliberal logic of the “narcissism of small differences,” to use one of Žižek’s terms. So this is the context that we are dealing with in terms of name. In relation to NSK, again, I think the most simple relation has to do with the fact that we’re from the same city and country, and that the work they did in the 1980s and 90s had a major influence on culture in Slovenia. From my perspective that means understanding art as something that is at the core of society and not merely secondary to economic life – as in modernist autonomy. This means knowing very well that art is part of the context in which you operate. So the question of over-identification, in terms of Žižek’s essay on Laibach, and subversive affirmation, is one way to look at our gesture of name changing, which means that you embrace a certain ideological discourse in a way that you are not supposed to, and that’s where conflict and tension arises. The problem with that relation is that you can’t oppose what you over-identify with.
MJL: Are you saying then that in an over-identification you can’t be opposed to what you over-identify with?
JJ: No, what I mean to say is that the one who is in the position of, say, the Party or the politician, can’t be against what you’re saying because you’re using their words, generally speaking. For example, one critic, when he was asked about the reaction of the government, in the early stages, maybe one year after our name change, was asked why Janez Janša or the Slovenian Democratic Party did not react. He said that basically they couldn’t react – there was nothing they could do. They couldn’t kick someone out from the Party for having the same name as Janez Janša. You could imagine the headlines. On the other hand, they did not want to allow us in the Party with our new names, so we joined before we changed our names. Since we had to change all of our other documents we asked for new membership cards, but we never received a reply. But of course, if France isn’t big enough for two Napoleons, how can you imagine the SDS with four Janez Janšas?
So the question of over-identification becomes even more interesting when you know that the legal name of Janez Janša the politician is Ivan Janša. It’s very common in Slovenia for people who’s name is Ivan to be called Janez, because it’s ‘more’ Slovenian. In his case, he appears with different names in two institutional situations. In political life he always appears with the name Janez Janša, but in legal affairs, and he goes very often to the courts, for various reasons, now because of corruption charges, and appears with his legal name, Ivan Janša. He never did an official name change, so there is a kind of schizophrenia in his case. When the story came out that we had changed our names he was asked if he would legally change his name and he said no. Interestingly enough, he had at that time been Prime Minister for two terms, and so when he was inaugurated in 2004, the then President of Parliament referred to him as Janez Janša, but in 2012, when he was inaugurated for the second time, he was referred to by the President as Ivan Janez Janša. Now, what this means nobody really knows, but there was a slight difference. As he has now been sentenced to prison for taking bribes, the question is who will actually go to prison: Janez Janša, Ivan Janša, or Ivan Janez Janša? And I think that this is not an unimportant question.
MJL: If you don’t mind I would like to try to answer this question by doing a little bit of Lacanian palm reading – if that’s okay?
JJ: [laughs] That’s totally okay.
MJL: I would here once again use the Lacanian Four Discourses, which helps me to think about the place of the subject in the network of signifiers.5 Of course Lacan works with Saussure’s idea of language as a synchronic structure so that every signifier has its meaning in opposition to every other signifier. There is no positive meaning to any name, or signifier, and so meaning is produced differentially. In terms of the function of language in both the psyche and in reality, the name is both a kind of transcendent Master Signifier, and also, at the same time, a matheme for the foreign body, the objet petit a, which, structurally, in terms of interrupting the closed circuit as a missed object, as a trauma, has a similar function to what Giorgio Agamben discussed in terms of sovereignty and bare life.6 So the name as objet petit a introduces a black hole or a split in the chain of signifiers, making it so that culture represents the reign of the dead (letter) over life and making it so that one experiences the self as abstract negativity. So there is both an inside and an outside to power, a fault line that can only be given meaning retroactively, stringing all of these procedures – cultural, political, legal – to one another. So, to read your palm, I would ask you, if we take Janez Janša as the Master Signifier, where do you locate him in your work? Are you addressing him personally? Is he interpellating you? Is over-identifying with Janša the precise goal, or are you trying to say something broader in terms of what all of this tells us about naming?
JJ: I think it’s more concerned with saying something about the function of the name than to identify with Janez Janša. There is no identification with Janez Janša. In his text for the book Name Readymade, Blaž Lukan, I think, wrote about the emptying of the signifier.7 When you asked me before about NSK, I would say that the Lacanian school in Slovenia had a similar impact in terms of the materialist critique of ideology. Through their writings you become sensitive to how ideology works and also how you can use it to either support or question things. If Rosa Luxemberg wrote that freedom is the freedom of those who think differently, and if Laibach responded by saying that freedom is the freedom of those who think the same, I, Janez Janša, and Janez Janša say: freedom is the freedom of those who think differently and the same. So, before we changed our names we joined the SDS, since it would probably have been difficult to enter with the name Janez Janša.
MJL: So you sort of infiltrated the Party, since you don’t identify with its politics?
JJ: Well, I don’t need to answer that question. [laughs] I’m a member of that Party. When we joined the Party we received a very nice letter from Janez Janša, which ends with the sentence: “The more we are, the faster we will reach the goal!”
MJL: And you adopt that motto as well?
JJ: Exactly. We adopted it, and did precisely what was written in his letter.
MJL: And so you reached your goal, like the letter that always finds its destination?
JJ: Certainly we are more than we were before. That is the goal. If you read carefully what is the goal – the goal is that we are more. Why?
MJL: How much more, like 20% more?
JJ: [laughs] Well, you know, you can ask at the headquarters of the Party, but I think the mechanism is very clear and transparent. The goal is never written in the letter, which means that the goal itself is that there should be more of us. In that sense, we embraced the letter of the text. The ultimate goal is that we’re all the same – we’re all members. There is only our Party. We’re the only ones. So we did exactly what is written there, but obviously we did too much, and by doing too much, by doing even more than expected, this became the flipside of the coin. So it’s not about counter-pointing and confronting, but it’s about understanding something about the mechanism of ideology and power. So for instance we work a great deal with legal regulations, especially in terms of identity documents. We’re not doing this against law, but we take law and stretch it further, performing the law in such a way that the law itself realizes that it can no longer function, that it’s crazy, or that it’s imperfect and inconsistent, in other words, that it’s purely ideological. So the way you construct law is the way that you frame conditions for the performance of power. There is no law that is immune to its own madness or limitations. Every law is created in such a way as to be performed only up to a certain level. It is meant to be performed in such a way that one knows it’s a fiction. As soon as you take law as something real, as soon as you take it literally, the law gets crazy. So law is a fiction that regulates reality and projects certain types of behaviour into reality. There is therefore no law that proposes a one-to-one relation between the word and the reality. So this brings us back to your palm reading.
MJL: Yes, this makes me think of the film Kagemusha by Kurosawa, in which a common criminal, who happens to look like a dying warlord, is planted as his double, only to eventually convince even those who know he is a replacement that he has effectively become, for a while anyhow, the dead leader. So, the fact that you are not directly addressing Janez Janša but rather something like the psychoanalytic theory of the mechanisms of ideology, this situates you somewhere closer to the Discourse of the University or the Capitalist, where Janez Janša functions as the hidden symptom. So, you are either speaking to discourse as a split subject, as who you used to be, or as objet petit a, as Janez Janša. So I would think that you’re a split subject that has become aware of himself as objet petit a, who has undergone a certain death or loss. If Janez Janša is a hidden symptom, he should also be a kind of fantasy figure and I would assume that there is an element of desire involved, maybe to be Janez Janša, or to have been interpellated by this figure of political power, the way the Kagemusha was interpellated. This relates then to the Discourse of the University, oriented towards knowledge, or the Discourse of the Capitalist, oriented towards the market. Whichever Janša goes to jail, I predict that this will have a direct impact on your work.
JJ: I think it has more to do with revealing the hidden symptom, to see how power works, than to place oneself in the position of power. I think it’s more about what Žižek calls cynical distance, where, from the position of power you say something but you actually don’t believe it. Over-identification works by short-circuiting this cynical distance, which is not only a feature of classical totalitarian regimes, but is also found in neoliberalism, or any ideological structure. But things are not that simple since when you say “The more we are, the faster we will reach the goal,” you are an agent of an endless story that has a very clear goal, which is to have absolute control. The one who says this obviously doesn’t believe in this ultimate goal.
MJL: But if there’s enough of us, if enough people believe, it doesn’t matter.
JJ: Exactly. So basically, the horror of seeing that there are more than one Janez Janša is not the horror that one day we will all be Janez Janša, or that we’re all Janez Janša already, but that this is a border that you cannot cross – there is only one Janez Janša. So the series of the “more of us” has one exclusion, and that is the one who speaks the words.
MJL: The subject of enunciation.
MJL: In terms of series, there’s a difference therefore between permutation and consequence. So how do you confront this matter of subject of enunciation in terms of the generation of documents and in terms of art? It terms of artwork, the one who speaks produces its own discursive operations. What I would say is that in your practice there is no necessary object or document and so everyone who comes into contact with you or with it generates not so much artworks, not even a total work of art, but, and without here looking for an escape route, an impossible knowledge – in other words, objects or documents that have no specificity, that can be anything. It’s permutation but it’s not serialized – it has no specific form – and so the question of consequence is particularly difficult to map.
JJ: Yes, I totally agree. It produces in many cases a tension between being reality-driven and functioning in part on a very personal level. So someone who is talking to one of us, especially if they knew us from before our name change, has to decide what to call us. This is a real dilemma. The reason it’s a dilemma is because very few people can accept the name we gave to ourselves. When we are asked why we changed our names we say it’s for personal reasons. This answer is usually interpreted as a kind of political rhetoric. But this is not quite correct because a proper name can only be changed for personal reasons. At the end of the day these are personal reasons.
In terms of the relation between art and life, you can also understand this as a kind of “extended situationism.”
MJL: Yes, a premonitory détournement, which retroactively affects the original context of whatever has been brought into the new context.8
JJ: Right. And what’s interesting about it is its duration. So the situation is not about a relation to a concrete politician, but about a shift of perspective on everything that is done. For example, when we made the exhibition Name Readymade in 2008 we exhibited our Identity cards, passports and other documents that have our names – credit cards, bank cards, and so on. The question we asked ourselves in that situation was: ‘Does this correspond to the structure of artist-object-artwork?’ ‘Does the classical readymade operation apply here as well?’ So if you take objects from reality and place them in a gallery context, does this produce art? Instead of answering this question ourselves, we invited a court assessor, who is appointed by law to judge the value of an artwork. In their routine, usually what they do is estimate the value of stolen or damaged artworks. So this institutional figure does not belong to the realm of the art system but is nevertheless a kind of authority for art in the legal sphere. He found that our passports are indeed artworks and that they have a certain value based on the tradition of body art and conceptual art.
In this way, rather than “speaking pie to power,” we make power speak, producing symptoms and bringing symptoms to the surface. We have been criticized for promoting a politician and so on, but what we are actually working on aren’t concrete persons or policies; it’s much more about mechanisms of power. Many people were inspired by our name change and so when the government changed, people assumed we would change our names once again. Power manifests itself in different ways and adapts itself, and so you never have an ultimate mode for power. There is always a certain, how can you say?
JJ: Yes. But we never show work that would be conditioned by the politician. The closest to this was a letter we sent to him and which solicited a response from him in a radio interview, three and a half years after he received it. After having been asked about us he said that he doesn’t follow our work, but he wonders what kind of artists we are if we have to get attention by changing our names to the name of a known person. He said he also sometimes receives our mail by mistake, and that this is mostly invitations to court proceedings, for fines against us. He gave as an example an invitation to a Paris tribunal due to the fact that one of us didn’t pay rent for 15000 Euros. This is a total lie, but he is aware that his voice is heard by many people and so whatever we do in response will be heard by fewer people. However, by being more of us, who knows.
To come back to the question of the status of the document, the Identity cards and passports were exhibited as certified art and then the Museum of contemporary art in Ljubljana wanted to include these Identity cards in their collection. We said no problem but please help us to solve the problem of the legal exception of these objects since passports, after they have expired, and since they belong not to us but to the state, must be destroyed. So even though the court assessor has agreed that yes our Identity cards are artworks, they remain valid as legal documents. They therefore can’t be sold on the art market because they are valid legal documents that cannot be legally sold. After the expiration date they have to be either returned or destroyed. Even in these days of digitalized surveillance there remain situations in reality that would cause authorities to need to physically destroy documents that are no longer valid. What interests us is the tension contained in the document while it is still valid. While it’s valid it can be both an artwork and a valid identification paper – so its existence as an artwork that sublates the difference between art and life has this limited life. After it’s no longer valid, its artness, its double status, will no longer be valid either. So on the 6th of July, 2017, a certain artwork will no longer exist. But after that date, there will be more documents that will have this double status. So these objects are not like Duchamp’s pissoir, which never bothered the company that produced it. In this case it bothers the authorities who issue the documents, and it also bothers the Museum and the Ministry of Culture, who are asked to find a legal way for us to legally obtain our expired documents. The Ministry of Interior Affairs told us we can’t buy it. So you have a situation in which, at the end of day, you have a definition of power and control. I need to go to the bathroom.
- See Name Readymade (Ljubljana: Moderna Galerija, 2008). See also, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Janez Janša, Podpis/Signature (Ljubljana: Institute for Contemporary Art, 2010).
- See Slavoj Žižek, "Why Are Laibach and the Neue Slowenische Kunst Not Fascists?" (1993) in The Universal Exception: Selected Writings, Volume Two, edited by Rex Butler and Scott Stephens (London: Continuum, 2006) 63-66, and Inke Arns and Sylvia Sasse, "Subversive Affirmation: On Mimesis as a Strategy of Resistance," Maska 21:3-4 (2005) 5-21.
- See www.nskstate.com.
- See Mladen Dolar, "How You've Changed, Emil," in Jedrt Jež, ed. Reconstruction, Voice, Identity (Ljubljana: Maska, 2010) 7-20.
- See Jacques Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis: The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XVII, trans. Russell Grigg (New York: W.W. Norton,  2007).
- Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press,  1998). See also Slavoj Žižek, Enjoy Your Symptom! Jacques Lacan in Hollywood and Out (New York: Routledge, 1992) 48.
- Blaž Lukan, "The Janez Janša Project," in Name Readymade, 11-28.
- See Guy Debord, "Methods of Détournement," (1956) in Ken Knabb, ed. Situationist International Anthology (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets,  1995) 8-14.
Marc James Léger is an independent scholar living in Montreal. He is editor of Culture and Contestation in the New Century (2011) and of The Idea of the Avant Garde – And What It Means Today. He is author of Brave New Avant Garde (2012) and The Neoliberal Undead (2013) and of the forthcoming Drive in Cinema: Essays on Film, Theory and Politics.