One of the founders of Negativland talks shop, which for him means lawsuits, collage, intellectual property and “culture jamming”
Mark Hosler's got boundary issues.
He doesn't understand the boundary between something he's made, and something that's out in the world.
Those are his words.
"It's just all stuff that's around me, whether I find it, see it, discover it or whether it comes out of my own head," he says. Hosler is one of the original founders of Negativland, the nonband band that grew famous in some circles for its sound collages. Before hip-hop brought sampling to the radio, before digital technology made clipping and layering found sound easy for everyone, there was Negativland, which formed in the early ’80s. Guild co-owner Peter Conheim has also been in the group for 10 of its 26 years.
Using U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," the group created a mishmash and released it as a single in 1991 with U2 in huge letters on the cover and Negativland in smaller font at the bottom. Days after the album hit the stands, Hosler and his friends got a 200-page lawsuit in the mail.
To this day, that may be what Negativland is most well-known for in the mainstream. "We never had a hit single, but we kinda had a hit lawsuit," Hosler said at his presentation at the Guild on Sunday, Sept. 3. Though you can no longer purchase the U2 song because it's illegal for the group to sell it, you can download it for free at negativland.com.
Hosler can't say for sure why his approach to music and creativity never took the "let's start a band" route. He's a musician, an artist, a repurposer. During our interview, he told me about his copper tourist ashtrays. He doesn't smoke, but he collected about 100 of them from every state. Then he used double-sided tape to painstakingly stick them all to a door in his home, creating a mosaic effect. That's repurposing—taking something you don't like that's available in plenty (say, commercial music) and turning it into something you do like.
What year did Negativland start?
About 1980, we put out our first record. I was in high school, and after school I'd lock myself in my bedroom—my friends and I. We weren't in their fooling around with each other or doing drugs. We were making tape loops and playing with synthesizers and making funny noises, and I think our parents were generally kind of a bit worried—like, "What are they doing in there?"
Your crazy laboratory ...
It wasn't a meth lab. Mom, we're not making drugs. We're making tape loops.
Where does the term "culture jamming" come from?
That term originated in a radio broadcast. We have this weekly collage, improvised cut-up mix radio show called "Over The Edge." That's been on since about 1981. One week, we were getting interested in and recording ham radio and ham radio jammers. People would go on there and just be annoying, obnoxious, juvenile--you know, swearing and making test-tone noises and interrupting other people who were trying to communicate. They were jamming them.
It's pretty juvenile, but it was funny, and we were recording it to use on the radio. We just liked the idea. We were doing a particular show all about ham radio jammers. One of the characters we had on our show, Crosley Bendix, who was a cultural arts critic, he did a little talk about taking the idea of jamming and applying it to art. He used the phrase "cultural jamming," which later got shortened to "culture jamming." He was talking about people who alter billboards, people who take the media, maybe make a comment or a statement or a response to the media, to advertising, to popular culture by using bits and pieces of it itself. That's something we do as well.
Many years later—I think in 1990? ’91?—there was an actual real cultural critic named Mark Dery, and he wrote sort of a trend piece looking at different artists who were using the detritus, the cast-off junk of our media, to do stuff with and to poke and attack and satirize. He wrote a couple of articles in different magazines, including Elle magazine, the fashion magazine, and he used that phrase.
Nowadays, I'm not even sure how much it’s being used. Adbusters promoted the hell out of it. I thought it was kind of a mistake. I said, "If you make this into a big hot catchphrase, it’s just going to die."
You guys have always been just under the radar.
Yeah. It’s just that we’re a legal nightmare, you know. We’re a lawsuit waiting to happen.
Lawsuits did happen, right?
Yeah, there were a couple lawsuits. That was quite a while ago, the early ’90s. We’re very upfront about what we do. We list on our records who we appropriated from. We’re very out. We’re out of the closet.
Right, you’re not sneaking around.
We don’t get permission. We don’t pay sampling clearance fees. We don’t do any of that. We take whatever we find interesting. Everywhere you go you hear a pop song playing, right? It’s constantly a soundtrack. Everywhere you go there are ads, there are billboards, there’s information.
We don’t feel like we have to ask for permission. No one asked me if I wanted to see that billboard in the middle of the street. Someone just paid enough money and plopped it there, and I think they’re ugly, and they ruin the landscape. So I don’t know if I need to ask permission to take a bit of a Pepsi commercial and cut it up and do something with it. That’s kind of been our logic.
Some of the ideas Negativland has been talking about for a long time are coming up more frequently and are important to a lot more people. File sharing, for example. You guys were on the forefront of some of that discussion.
Do you know the phrase "the canary in the coal mine"? When we were sued in the early ’90s, that was kind of what we felt we were like.
The things that were happening to Negativland, the lawsuits and stuff, seemed really kind of arcane and maybe not that relevant. We had the clear idea that, eventually, it would become extremely relevant. The shit will hit the fan when everyone starts to be able to download entire records and movies, and completely pirate things, and bootleg things. That's something we (Negativland) have never done. We’ve always just used bits and pieces of stuff.
Now I’d argue that collage and cutting up and remixing has become completely normal and mainstream. I’m sure millions of teenagers all over the U.S. just think nothing of taking bits and pieces of some songs and layering them, and just messing around, doing something funny with them, grabbing a bit of a TV show and adding in their own commentary, just generally playing with it, mucking about with the culture.
I think it’s a really healthy thing, a really healthy development. We’re not just passive, consumer sponges of media. People are actually creating it and responding to it.
What's your favorite trouble you've been into?
(Laughs) I mean, I can tell stories about what we've been through, and I can certainly tell all the funny parts. But the truth is, they're exhausting. They're draining. They can be from hell.
The U2 lawsuit was a nightmare, and it dragged on for four years. Every single day of my life for four to five years, every day, I was dealing with something to do with those lawsuits and trying to pursue that, fight it, get our record back. It kind of took over my life, and I certainly know I was obsessed with trying to get something more positive out of the thing and trying to get all the people who were suing us to go away or to come around to our point of view. Or, at the very least, completely and publicly embarrass them for doing something so stupid.
So do you think music, and all forms of media, should be free?
No. It gets confusing sometimes to people, I think, when we talk about these issues. I don't think Negativland is against the idea of copyright or the idea that you can profit from your creative work.
However, read copyright law. I think a lot of the people in the entertainment industry haven't read the law in a long time. Copyright was always intended to be a balancing act. Copyright was not an omnipotent property right, not this exclusive property right forever and ever and ever. Copyright says, "Hey, on one hand, we want to encourage creativity by giving creators a way to control their work so they can profit from it, thus encouraging more creativity. On the other hand, we also see that there's no such thing as a completely new, original idea; that we all build on what came before us." So copyright can't last forever.
When copyright first came around, it only lasted for 14 years. A lot of people don't know this. So if you wrote a book, copyright would expire in your lifetime. In some ways, maybe that's frustrating. Maybe that's a pain in your ass, because you want to keep making money off of your book. On the other hand, that certainly inspires you to write more books. Copyright now has extended to being the life of the creator plus 74 more years. To me, it's completely insane, it means anything created in your lifetime or my lifetime will not come into the public domain while you are alive. That balance that was trying to be struck has been completely lost and is not even talked about in the industry.