The pop-culture multimedia hustle of Negativland knows no bounds
Rock band, experimental-art group, media pranksters and ersatz archivists of audio detritus, Negativland is a “modern noise collective” that filters the sea of popular culture into demanding multimedia works that attack the boundaries of art, taste, intellectual property rights and sometimes the limits of the law. Manipulating found sonic art in collage-based works, the band is part of a continuum that stretches back to Marcel Duchamp and includes the Dada and Fluxus movements, William Burroughs and Andy Warhol — not surprising for a group that helped introduce the term culture jamming into the modern lexicon.
Negativland — Mark Hosler, Richard Lyons, Don Joyce, David “The Weatherman” Wills and Peter Conheim — works primarily with found sound, which the members continually collect and process. The result is an intense mix of religious nonsense, political rants and crank calls over a bed of noise. But the band is not above writing a punk song, an acoustic sing-along or a bit of radio theater to get its point across. Although the role of each person shifts with every project, one consistent element is contributed by The Weatherman, who creates modulating washes of sound using resonant filters and elaborate feedback schemes. The mix often includes broadcast, ham and shortwave radio; scanners; vintage analog oscillators; television; and miked recordings of ambient traffic sounds. Obscure recordings from tapes and discs are also fair game.
The band spent more than a decade in the San Francisco underground scene before unintentionally gaining international notoriety when Island Records sued the group over the EP U2 (SST, 1991). Although Negativland's opus included profane bloopers by American Top 40 host Casey Kasem over a 30-second snippet of U2's “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the litigation concerned the EP's cover art, charging that it would confuse the public into thinking the disc was an official U2 release. The resulting lawsuits are detailed by Negativland in the book Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 (Seeland). (Years later, when Negativland released its 1997 condemnation of cola consumerism, Dispepsi [Seeland], Pepsico Inc. was savvy enough to announce publicly that it would not go after the band.) The lawsuits also thrust Negativland into the movement to reform the fair-use statutes in U.S. copyright law. Most notably, the group has contributed to the Sampling Licenses project with fair-use advocate Creative Commons.
Through Joyce, Negativland is also responsible for Over the Edge, the longest-running free-form radio show in history. Since 1981, the show, which is still broadcast (and available on the Internet) on KPFA in Berkeley, Calif., has fostered the “democratic principles” of phone-in radio access and continues to serve as a platform for the band to develop ideas and projects. The earliest recording of the U2 track “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For” appeared on the show, and both banned versions of the song are included on These Guys Are From England and Who Gives a Shit, a “bootleg” on the suspiciously named Seelard label.
Despite how the band is portrayed in the mainstream press, the members of Negativland are serious artists who continue to challenge themselves and their listeners. For example, the 2002 multimedia release Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak (Seeland) is a deep — and sometimes disturbing — work that marries photos of junked cars to a soundtrack of classic musique concrète. Lyons describes it as “destroyed electronic sounds and wrecked music.”
Negativland's latest cultural critique, No Business (Seeland, 2005), includes a CD and book but tosses in a provocative video and a Creative Commons whoopee cushion for good measure. Dozens of pop images adorn the artwork, including trademarked icons such as Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob SquarePants, Batman, Hello Kitty and the Starbucks logo. The band created the musical content in a similar fashion: Hosler and company repurposed iconic sounds for the occasion, with nary a peep recorded by the band members themselves. The booklet, Two Relationships to a Cultural Public Domain, includes new essays regarding fair use. It ends by questioning how the band can still get away with blatantly appropriating “privately owned mass media.”
“After writing a much shorter version of what became the No Business essay and presenting it at the Conference on the Public Domain at Duke University in 2001, we realized we had more to say about these intellectual property issues we are often associated with,” Hosler says. “We hadn't publicly issued any work that related to the topic since 1995's Fair Use book. So 10 years later, we are looking at how things have changed and how they haven't — file sharing, downloading, the supposed collapse of the music industry, et cetera. Along with the essay, the audio and video are putting theory and practice all in one nice package.”
But No Business isn't the only new project from Negativland. Our Favorite Things, a collection of short films by the group, will soon be released on DVD. And a “midcareer retro-future-introspective” called Negativlandland will run Sept. 8-Oct. 22, 2005, at Gigantic Art Space in New York City. Sonic Outlaws, Craig Baldwin's must-see documentary about the U2 lawsuit, is now available on DVD. Negativland's extensive Website (www.negativland.com) is also worth a visit. It's as informative as it is entertaining, and anyone interested in the legal aspects of sampling should visit the Intellectual Property Issues page.