Negativland: A Hi-Fructose Exclusive Interview with the Pioneering Culture Jammers

by Steven PavPosted on

Negativland is arguably the preeminent audio collage collective of our time. In their 30+ year career, they have: released a dozen stylistically diverse albums; been sued nearly out of existence for copyright infringement by U2; had a tour canceled because their music allegedly inspired an axe murderer (not really); coined the term “culture jamming,” and practiced it relentlessly; and have tackled, through their work, America and Americana, Coke vs. Pepsi, O.J. Simpson, god, suburbia, big business and the cult of copyright. The band has an upcoming retrospective art show at the La Luz de Jesus Gallery on view Sept. 7-30, and are to give a concert at the opening reception on Friday, Sept. 7th at 8-11pm. See previews of their gallery work for the show, learn about their history in an exclusive interview with members of Negativland and see their videos here!

An interview with some of the members of Negativland — in this case, Don Joyce, Mark Hosler, Dan Lynch and Peter Conheim — about Negativland’s audio work, and their upcoming retrospective visual art show and live performances in Los Angeles.

Q: You guys started out doing a lot of studio work around reel-to-reel tapes. There’s a fun kind of physicality to tapes — you can run them backwards, manipulate the wheels, run electromagnets over parts of the reel, etc — that the young whippersnappers with their Macbook cut-and-paste can’t really tap in to. On the other hand, the level of commitment required for physical cut and tape sound collage work is much higher than for digital work. So there’s maybe a quality-quantity spectrum. I’m wondering how your process has changed over the years with changes in technology. Because it is not entirely obvious that a digital process is automatically better, and you’ve acquired a lot of skill with the old techniques. Like when the piano was invented, people still played the harpsichord for a long time.

Mark: You point out something very true about working with analog tape that I really loved — the physicality of it. With reel-to-reel tape you pull it with your hands and move it around and rub it on the tape heads and cut it up and splice it. It’s a very tangible medium, and it made working with sounds feel very sculptural to me. Computers are amazing tools, but no matter what you make on them, all you are physically doing is lifting your finger up and down with a slight wiggle, while staring at a TV screen. Bleh!

Don: Since a whole lot of our audio archives are on tape — on reel-to-reel and cassettes (because we’ve used cassettes to record off of mass media for decades and still do), I still constantly use those analog technologies in preparing the radio show and for Negativland releases. The quality difference between digital and analog is no great concern to me. If you can understand it, I’ll take it. I now even like the sound bed noise differences for a variety of sound qualities in a work. That makes it even more obviously “found sound.”

“Over the Hiccups”

Q: Most bands do not age well, especially those associated with fast living that did not have the fortune to die young: the Rolling Stones are now rolling in wheel chairs, etc. Negativland, on the other hand, is more like John Lennon in reverse: your earlier work is reel tapes, the booper box, maybe more experimental, say, and you’ve been progressively more song-based over the years. What’s next for you guys? How does an experimental music band experiment? Are you going to become a pop band? Have you thought about making music for kids? (I’ve got one at home. In a cage. (That’s a joke.)

Mark: It’s certainly something we are always thinking about, even after 32 years of doing this – how to keep doing work that challenges both ourselves and our audience. That was very much our goal with the “It’s All In Your Head FM” tours we did a few years ago. But as to becoming a pop band, we’ve had songs on our stuff since the very first LP in 1980. And experimental noise is still very much a part of our work, too. In 2002, I think we put out our most challenging and experimental sound work ever – “Deathsentences of the Structurally Weak.” Then “No Business,” which was a 100% found sound cut-up project, then a pretty accessible DVD compilation of all of our short films, and then ‘”Thigmotactic,” which is the all songs pseudo-pop project I think you are referring too. And our current live show is 100% instrumental electronic noise! By the way, we did put out a super cute cassette for kids that we produced back in the late 80’s called “Al The Alligator.” You need to get that one and let your child out of their cage and play it for them.

Don: I do appreciate how Negativland has kept going (to varying degrees) for so long — it is unusual and gratifying. We often seem to run out of ideas, but then come up with more! Next is the visual art exhibit in L.A in September at La Luz De Jesus, and more live performances based entirely around our homemade electronic feedback boxes called “Boopers.” We’ll be doing that show in at The Echoplex in LA the day before our art show opens, as well as at the gallery itself.

“Favorite Things” (Negativland’s edit of the Julie Andrews song from Sound of Music.)

Q: The conspiracy theory floating around in the mid ’90s was that Negativland’s copyright problems with U2 were actually a hoax, a la the David Brom/Helter Stupid episode. Do you wish to comment? (Note that your answer cannot, of course, dispel this conspiracy theory.)

Don: The U2 incident was an elaborate hoax on the part of U2 themselves to see how easily manipulated media manipulators like Negativland can be manipulated. It worked like a charm, and everyone’s still laughing about it many years later. Actually, Dick Goodbody is good friends with The Edge’s BMW mechanic!

Peter: Actually, SST Records cooked the whole thing up as a distraction from paying us our royalties on the albums they released. It worked like a charm… we haven’t been paid a cent since 1992!

Q: Mark, your collages for Thigmotactic are interesting to me because, like much of Negativland’s music, they are collages, but since they are physical three dimensional objects, they cannot be easily reproduced and distributed in the way that music now can. In that sense, they are “terminal” works, whereas any music that enters the public domain, or rather finds its way on to the Internet, can be remixed, and the remix remixed, ad infinitum. Are these just yin and yang for you, two sides of the same coin, or one side of a mobius coin?

Mark: You’ve touched on a very interesting issue for me personally — the Internet as a delivery mechanism means that music is no longer an object. It’s no longer a thing, a conceptual project, or has graphics. It tends to reduce all music to separate tracks in random shuffle play on ones mp3 player of choice. And here we are making elaborate concept albums for 30 years, each one meant to be heard in their entirety, in the right order of tracks, and with all the graphics and liner notes as support for the work. So the Internet, as much as I love many things about it, reduces Negativland to being a singles band! Its quite frustrating and disheartening, because I think a big strength of our work is how the sum is greater than its parts. So, for me, making this visual fine art stuff is partly a reaction to that — these are truly one-of-a kind works that cannot be digitally reproduced, and you have to actually go to a real place in the real world to experience them. We’ll keep making stuff that can be electronically mass re-produced, but the fine art shows are a good balancing out to that kind of work. And of course live performances, though we do them rather infrequently, is another site specific time based medium where you pretty much have control over how the audience experiences it.

Q: A lot of the collages in your upcoming show at La Luz de Jesus Gallery have words “mixed in.” Is this just the physical realization of the old audio collage formula: “find some guy saying something outlandish and mix it over something almost like music?” Isn’t this harder to do in a physical format because quoting entire phrases on a physical collage would be awkward?

Mark: I think we all just love words and language, so in our audio our work that is obvious in one way, and in my visual art work it comes out in a different way. We all like how juxtapositions of words suggest meaning, but we are careful to make sure it’s not 100% clear what the meaning is. That is an edge that is fun to play with in collage. I have this idea that each visual work I make should feel like a story with a beginning and a middle, but you make the end up yourself.

Don: Mark’s visual collages are much different than mine — mine now all consist of aerial images of crop circles which have occurred overnight and anonymously in English farm fields over the past few decades, cut up and mixed together to make large wall works. I have used graphic words in other works and I tend to stick to single words or short phrases, but not always…

Q: In general, how do you bridge the gap between your narrative works (the music and videos) and the physical works? One can’t control attention in physical works as much as in music, say.

Mark: I don’t think we are concerned with that gap. They are different mediums. But, with both, we do hope that there is enough apparent care and detail in the work that people are drawn into spending a bit of time with them.

Don: It’s not like “bridging a gap,” it’s more like two different experiences requiring two different approaches.

Q: Does the band all collaborate on the collages? The medium does not seem well suited for collaboration.

Mark: Yes, we do collaborate on some of them, but less so than on the audio work we do.

Don: With our audio, we collaborate on those, especially in the final mixing of big works.

Q: A lot of the collages in the show are referential to the past–1953, JFK, Nixon. Part of this, I suppose, is baked in to how physical collaging is typically practiced: find some old stuff and glue it all together. I am wondering, however, is there a period of time that resonates most with you? This is a retrospective show.

Mark: Partly it is, as you say, “baked in.” But in both our audio and visual work we have always been drawn to things that have a timeless sense, or a sense of being not-from-now. Our work often functions as an archaeological dig from the future of our ridiculous American past.

Q: If you could design and set up your own ‘market’ for copyright clearing for works in all easily-replicated media, how would you do it? The goals would be to maximize utility to all parties, guarantee that works enter the public domain after a fixed period, certify originator as well as possibly ‘owner’, and should incentivize creators, re-creators, and consumers alike. Any ideas?

Don: Copyright laws should freely allow any reuse of existing work as long as a NEW work is created from them. Only the reproduction of pre-existing works in whole and unchanged should be prohibited without permission. Collage should be free to practice. (I can easily imagine a system like this gaining enough momentum that it would become the de-facto standard, but you would need an army of lawyers to prop the thing up.) It’s pretty easy to see whether something has been changed from its original form in a reuse or not.

Mark: Your questions are good “real politick” ones about the complexities surrounding these issues. The real world solutions you allude to will always be hopelessly and horribly compromised, and will never work very well due to the technologies we are stuck with. I guess I’m a pessimistic idealist, so I assume that what I would like to see will never occur in my lifetime. My slightly realistic advice to artists about intellectual property issues is “ignore the law and create good work.”

Q: Just a few years ago the recording industry was a colossus. Now it seems the Internet has eroded their monopoly on music distribution and democratized, somewhat, our consumption of music. The recording industry was, however, the bane of collage artists. Are we at a power equilibrium yet, or will things continue to get worse for the industry? What does David do without a Goliath?

Mark : A mainstream generation is now growing up that sees the mainstream music biz as increasingly irrelevant, and the appropriation and re-use of the culture around us as no big deal, not even “avant garde” anymore! It’s just one of the tools in ones tool box. These are welcome sea changes, though the long term cultural and economic meanings of them are still unclear. And will the law ever catch up to reality?

Q: The works from the Volcano Society series are new to me. What’s the story behind these? The process is entirely different from all the other works. Has Negativland gone digital?

Mark : We’ve used digital imagery in our work since the U2 record cover in 1991, so that is not new for us. But Dan does take it to a new level with these current “paintings” of his.

Dan: The visual side of Negativland raises the same questions as the audio side of Negativland: what is “original”? What is fair use — particularly in the digital age, where a lot of creative work is highly derivative? The visual sources of the four works you ask about are from many different places — my own photos and drawings, as well as from online. The paintings start as composites of many, many different pieces of images from disparate sources, carefully pieced together. Then they are digitally reworked to create a painted patina on the computer screen. These “base images” are printed on canvas in a large format (36×36 inches), stretched, with multiple layers of details and washes added by hand with acrylics. The end results are highly unique, individual, personal works, despite their having been realized on a computer. I’ve never been satisfied that a high quality color print is the end point of digital creation. Instead, I see it as a middle point in the creative process, which can only be completed if personal effort is exerted onto the work, using crafts that are a part of the physical, non-digital world. These four works hang on the wall in a specific order. Light bounces on their textured canvas surfaces depending on the physical factors of the room they are displayed in. They are meant to connect to the real world, and are not merely prints from a computer. And although the source “bits” that comprised the composite base images came from countless sources, the finished works are whole, original and unique. They are meant to challenge the notion of derivative creativity in the digital age.

The quadriptych started from a photo I took of middle-aged ladies eating lunch while wearing their red hats at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, built in 1712. The four painted collages of the Volcano Society quadriptych are different details of one scene, depicted in four magnifications. Each painting is a detail of the previous one in the series, starting with the whole scene of an egg-shaped planet; then zooming to the top of the planet, to a shack; then to the interior of the shack; down to one woman’s bedecked red hat. I didn’t understand what I was looking at while shooting the original photo. It turned out that within this 294 year old dining room were members of the Red Hat Society, a social organization founded by women approaching the age of 50 and up. There’s around 70,000 members in the world.

I imagined the many stories that these women with rich histories had earned in over the course of their lives. Stories of adventures, lost loves, family, and the many intricate details that older people silently carry within themselves. The ephemera of their life stories could literally construct their hats, that contain symbols of their age—such as eggs representing lost fertility; or an ostrich, a proud, elegant bird that is strange, like how some of middle aged people feel in their older bodies. Each lady’s hat tells her story. This series is not specifically about the Red Hat Society, or women—it’s merely inspired by a serendipitous photo. I am not commenting on their society, or seeking their approval. The works are a keen observation of the overlooked value of human aging.

“Gimme the Mermaid”

Q: Probably the greatest interview ambush of all time was when you and Don Joyce interviewed U2’s the Edge for Mondo 2000 magazine, after U2’s management had sued Negativland’s “U2″ album out of existence: you got the Edge to admit he had no problems with sampling, regardless of legality, then you revealed who you were, and asked him for a loan! While I wish I had that kind of ace card up my sleeve, I do not. But I would like to ask if the Edge did indeed essentially finance Negativland’s Free album, and whether you paid him back? Well, actually, I would ask you for a loan, too, but I’m doing OK for now.

Mark: We never did get that loan from the guy, but we all went out for lunch at the In-N-Out Burger near his house after working on his car in Malibu and The Edge covered the bill! Your own financial situation sounds good. They must pay you well at Hi-Fructose for doing interviews like this.

“The Mashin’ of the Christ”

“Aluminum of Glass!”