Still Culture Jamming
Negativland’s Mark Hosler talks about intellectual property, creativity and multimedia art
by Gene Armstrong
April 12, 2007
Viewed by some as artistic outlaws, Negativland are either the merry pranksters of music, or the monkey wrench gang of popular culture.
For almost 30 years, the group has created striking political statements via media collages–initially in the realms of music and live performance, and now also in the area of visual art, video, books and radio–appropriating sounds, imagery and text from other sources. This sometimes got the group into hot water.
Mark Hosler, de facto leader and spokesman for the group, will visit Tucson this weekend with his multimedia lecture about Negativland and its activities. “Adventures in Illegal Art: Creative Media Resistance and Negativland,” is scheduled for Friday night, April 13, at Solar Culture Gallery.
As the raw material for its singular art form, Negativland uses information and the ways of disseminating and manipulating information (media), the 45-year-old Hosler says in a telephone interview from his home outside Asheville, N.C.
“We digest information and spew it back out in all kinds of interesting ways. As much as I enjoy music and art and literature that is more traditional, for reasons I don’t quite always understand, myself and the others in Negativland, we’ve always been drawn to doing art that tries to go in new directions,” Hosler says.
“Ironically or paradoxically, if anything we’ve done has seemed interesting or inventive creatively, it is because what we do is take things that others have created and reused them.”
He describes Negativland’s collage art as recycling. “You can take all this stuff, the castoff crap of our culture, sludge from the bottom of our pond, and make something interesting out of it.”
The goal is to provide audiences with enough information so they can think critically about the media messages that inundate them in contemporary society.
Negativland even coined a phrase, “culture jamming,” to describe its modus operandi. Since then, the phrase and the concept behind it have been further commoditized and marketed.
It’s important to note that, although it has released more than 10 CDs, Negativland isn’t really a band as much as it is a European-style artistic-activist collective, or as the group’s Web site puts it: “an unhealthy mix of John Cage, Lenny Bruce, Pink Floyd, Bruce Conner, Firesign Theatre, Abbie Hoffman, Robert Rauschenberg, 1970s German electronic music, old-school punk rock attitude, surrealist performance art, your high school science teacher and lots more.”
Throughout Negativland’s history, it has used appropriated audio and visual works to explore subjects such as media hoaxes and media literacy, the art of collage, propaganda, anti-corporate activism, mass-media critiques, file sharing, intellectual-property issues, the notion of what it means to make and own art in our constantly changing digital age and, simply, humorous surrealism.
Negativland formed in Concord, Calif., a small town east of the San Francisco Bay Area. Hosler remembers when he was about 16 and had no ambitions beyond making some cool recordings at home.
“This was just something we did in our bedrooms after school, messing around making tape loops and plugging in a synthesizer to make weird sounds in different ways.
“I was writing screenplays when I was 12 years old, based on novels I’d read, and I was making animated monster movies. But I realized that to make a movie took so much money and so many people back then, it was just impossible. But the technology of tape-recording did exist and was cheap enough that we started making our little experiments.”
For the most part, the personnel in Negativland has remained constant.
“There’s one person who worked with us for about 17 years, and then slowly, he faded away in the late ’90s, and one person who has worked with us for the last 10 years or so, who we still call the ‘new guy,’ but that’s pretty much the only changes we’ve had.”
Nowadays, though, the members are scattered from San Francisco to Seattle to North Carolina.
Negativland reached what was perhaps its widest audience when Island Records sued the group to stop the distribution of its infamous 1991 “U2” single, a haunting 7-minute parody that used bits of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as well as some surprisingly nasty sound bites of radio celebrity Casey Kasem.
As a result, in 1995, the group released a 270-page book, accompanied by a 72-minute CD. Titled Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, the package documents the four-year battle over the audio piece “U2.” You can hear the single–among various other wonderments–at the Web site www.negativland.com, which you can explore for hours.
By documenting the case, Negativland essentially turned the entire experience into a piece of conceptual art, Hosler says.
“We never had a hit record, but we did have a hit lawsuit. That’s sort of our legacy, our claim to fame.”
Since then, Negativland projects have become more ambitious multimedia affairs.
With the 1997 CD Dispepsi, Negativland took on the giant cola conglomeration with an amazing satirical collage based on, but not limited to, Pepsi advertising jingles from around the world.
Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak, from 2002, is a poignant attack on the safety of automobiles. It consists of an elaborate 6-by-12-inch, 64-page full-color book and a full-length CD, packaged together inside a die-cut, custom-designed automotive courtesy envelope.
And The Mashin’ of the Christ is a video work that used excerpts from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, along with more than 27 other Hollywood portrayals of Jesus, to depict the last moments of Jesus’ life. In four minutes and 14 seconds.
Most recently, Negativland released a live CD of its current stage show, titled It’s All In Your Head FM, which Hosler is quick to point out does not deal with issues of intellectual property or copyrights. “It is a show about God, and why we believe in God, and what that means.”
Hosler will make his visit to Tucson a mini-vacation, staying for about a week after his presentation at Solar Culture. He is admittedly obsessed with everything about the Sonoran Desert, and plans on doing a lot of hiking in the area.
“I’ve never before in my life been so taken with a place, as I have with your area of the country, that I had to learn everything I could about the plants, animals, natural history, even the soil. … I think I have read about 70 books about the region, and I am always looking for more.”
Mark Hosler of Negativland presents a 90-minute storytelling and film presentation
9 p.m., Friday, April 13
Solar Culture Gallery
31 E. Toole Ave.
$10, all ages
© 2007 Tuscon Weekly