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Since 1980, the California-based cultural-collage collective Negativland has built records, videos, and art installations from fragments of popular media, creating work that comments on mass communication while exploiting it for new forms of entertainment. More than once, this has caused trouble: In 1988, Negativland pretended that its song "Christianity Is Stupid" was responsible for inspiring a Minnesota teenager to slaughter his family, and when the hoax was exposed, the band used the subsequent controversy as the foundation for the album Helter Stupid, which itself proved controversial. In 1991, the band put out the single U2, which featured an unauthorized cover of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," peppered with profane outtakes from a Casey Kasem recording session. Kasem and U2's label, Island Records, weren't thrilled, and the resulting string of lawsuits nearly bankrupted SST Records, Negativland's label at the time. But by the end of the '90s, thanks to hip-hop sampling, "culture-jamming" appropriation had become common enough that when Negativland took on the soda corporations on the 1997 album Dispepsi, the lawyers hardly blinked.
Negativland's latest release, from its own Seeland Records, is No Business, a CD of chopped-up audio tracks from the likes of Ethel Merman, The Beatles, and Disney's The Little Mermaid, packaged with a lengthy essay about the changing nature of copyright law in the digital age. No Business comes amid a yearlong celebration of Negativland's 25th anniversary: Earlier this year, Craig Baldwin's Negativland-heavy documentary Sonic Outlaws hit DVD, and a DVD of Negativland videos and short films is expected to be released shortly by Other Cinema. Helter Stupid was reissued this past spring, and in the fall, Gigantic Art Space in New York City' Tribeca neighborhood will be hosting an exhibition of the band's visual art. To mark this "year of Negativland," The A.V. Club spoke with the band's longest-serving members: founder Mark Hosler and 1981 recruit Don Joyce. They were interviewed separately, but their comments have been cut together, Negativland-style.
The Onion: Are you surprised the band has lasted 25 years?
Don Joyce: Sort of. It's kind of amazing, considering how long the average musical group lasts. Maybe it's because we never got rich and famous. We never had the opportunity to get really mad and sensitive about money issues, because there hasn't been any.
O: Sometimes the lack of money can drive people apart.
DJ: That's been a source of stress, but we make up for it by having complete creative control over everything, which is so satisfying that we'll do it for nothing.
O: All of your albums are currently in print and available on iTunes, with the notable exception of the 1983 LP A Big 10-8 Place, which first brought you national attention.
Mark Hosler: A Big 10-8 Place is in the process of being put back in print as we speak. That's a unique one. Ten thousand million billion tape splices on it. Took two years of editing, with razor blades. Some of the tape is literally a quarter of an inch long. We were just so excited, discovering the potential of what you could do, cutting up sound. That record was made between 1981 and 1983, and there was something really wild about cutting sounds shorter and shorter and creating this kaleidoscopic, really intense effect.
O: You could do that with a computer now, but would you want to?
MH: Well, surprisingly enough, this new record of ours, No Business, is actually the first thing we've ever done that was entirely assembled in the digital realm. We've never had the money or the gear before to do what everyone else has been doing. With digital, you can move things around in incredibly precise ways, and do all kinds of new stuff.
O: Which came first with No Business, the essay or the CD?
MH: Kind of both. An early version of the essay was put together for a presentation we did for the Conference On The Public Domain at Duke University. This was like the founding of the intellectual-property Sierra Club, and Negativland was like the people from Earth First!, brought in to give a talk. Looking at the issues that were arising through the '90s–copyright issues, intellectual-property issues, who owns the culture–it became pretty clear to us that our point of view, however well-articulated, was not in the mainstream. What you needed was an organization willing to play the Washington D.C. game: lobbying people, dealing with politicians. Respectable writers, lawyers and academics.
I think the most well-known now is Larry Lessig and Creative Commons. It's more watered-down than our point of view, but they're reaching a lot more people. Creative Commons' approach is not to try to change existing law, which is what Negativland would love to see happen. Their approach is to do a kind of sidestep around it. "Let's make our own sandbox over here to play in." They're creating an alternative. But what they're doing has been effective, creating awareness that copyright law as it exists now doesn't work with the type of world we live in and the technologies we have.
But when they came to Negativland and wanted us to sign on and help promote their agreements, we said, "We'd be interested, but you just don't have a licensing agreement that fits with how we operate, so no, sorry, we can't work with you." Months later, they came back and said, "Hey, Negativland, would you like to be the project lead on working with our legal team to write the license that you want to see?" So that was quite a challenge. And we knew it would be frustrating and difficult, because when you're idealists–which I think we are–and you try to turn your idealism into language that a lawyer will vet, you're just asking for frustration.
In the end, we came up with a sampling license that was saying, in effect, "You can reuse bits and pieces of our work for profit. You can sell it. But we'd like it if you mention where your sources come from." And the only exception to this is that advertising can't use it. It's okay for anyone to use anything, except in advertising, because we don't consider advertising to be free speech. It's paid speech. And as artful as advertising can be, it is not art.
O: How do you define advertising, as opposed to just something that's very commercial?
MH: I don't think it's that hard. The problem in writing one of these agreements is that any time you try and nail something down, there's always going to be someone who tries to think, "Aha! I've got you! What about this?" Art is hopefully going to continue to evolve, and there will always be artists who push at the edges of what's okay. We were trying to put some language in there that acknowledges how we don't know what the future holds for people combining and collaging and mashing things up. We know what's come before, and we can sort of describe that, but we don't know what's going to come next. Our own work being a good case in point. I think nowadays what we're doing seems a lot more mainstream, but when we started out, what we were doing seemed really on the edge of what might be considered music, or even what might be considered original work.
O: Is it fair to say, based on the No Business essay and your comments elsewhere, that you believe–advertising aside–that everything should be available to everyone, to be used however an artist wishes?
MH: Pretty much. I really like this phrase "transformative reuse." What's tricky is that people can conflate those ideas about collage and appropriation and art and culture with ideas about downloading and file-sharing. They're different things. Obviously they overlap, but if you're downloading someone's track, it isn't to make anything out of it, most likely. You're just taking it to listen to and enjoy. So that's one discussion we can have. But what about people who are living in a world of media, and want to make art or music that reacts to that world? In that area of the discussion, yeah, pretty much anything other than the whole is up for grabs. And I'd personally rather see a world where we erred on the side of sometimes letting people take too much and maybe make some stupid bad art out of it then the world we live in now, where it's so restrictive.
O: Can you see a clear line between appropriation for the purpose of art, and appropriation for the purpose of exploitation–like sampling some pop record's hook and changing very little about it?
DJ: I don't know. We're never using our sources for their marketability. Never using sources because we think it'll make the piece we're working on sell better. I don't know if it would work in the first place, and even if it would, it doesn't interest me. I think most artists who are sampling or remixing stuff are actually interested in changing it, not leaving it like it was. And when you change stuff, any sort of marketability of that source changes too.
Yes, somebody could take a big hit song, change three seconds of it, claim technically that it's a new work, put it out, and hope to sell it, because it's practically like the thing that's very popular out there. But if that happened, would you buy that piece over the original? I just don't think so. What's preferable about it? I can't see that being any threat to the original source.
O: It could be a form of piracy. The market gets flooded with a cheaper version of essentially the same product.
DJ: Maybe. But if my rules were in effect and you tried that, you'd be accused of just trying to counterfeit the work, basically. Depending on these so-called changes, you could probably be prosecuted for counterfeiting, which is still against the law under our rules. Our point is that true collage does not do those things. No artist is going to counterfeit, because it's not satisfying.
MH: What you've got to realize–and this is what was so tricky about writing the license for Creative Commons–is that if you draw a line in the sand, there's always going to be someone who's going to go over it. That's what we did. So there might be someone who decides to take an entire Negativland track, except for the last three seconds, and give it a new name and say it's theirs. I guess they could do that if they want. But it's kind of lame. [Laughs.] I sort of look at someone like Vanilla Ice with "Ice Ice Baby," or MC Hammer with "U Can't Touch This," and I think those were very unimaginative uses of someone else's riff. But the punishment should not be that they get sued for millions of dollars, the punishment should be that they just get consigned to "lame-art jail." [Laughs.]
DJ: A lot of new work trades off old work in all kinds of ways. No art is based more on precedent than music. The whole concept of what is stolen, what is not, what is somebody else's, what's fair game... I'm entirely open to anything in those directions. When a sampler uses a very familiar hook that everybody recognizes, I'd say they're aesthetically trading off that hook. I wouldn't say economically. Aesthetically, they're using it because it's familiar, and it has a whole aura that goes along with it–the place and time it came from, or whatever. That's part of why people use things. Sometimes it's just pure nostalgia. There's all kinds of reasons for doing it that are valid aesthetic reasons. I'm open to it all. Although you can come up with technical examples and theoretical examples of how this could backfire, I don't care if it backfires. I'm interested in the ten thousand people who do this in a creative way, and not the one person who's going to go out there and abuse it. Let them abuse it. There's plenty of abuse now.
MH: I think a lot of these debates should never enter a court of law at all. They have no right being there. They're debates about aesthetic things: art and culture. It's unfortunate, but it says something about what kind of society we have now. If you go outside the U.S., the stereotypes people have about us are that we all have guns, we all drive giant SUVs, and we all sue each other. I think that last one's been added over the past 20 years.
O: You'd argue that existing copyright law keeps people from being creative, but others have argued that copyright law is in place to encourage creativity, as opposed to outright copying.
DJ: That's the theory, yes.
O: You don't buy it.
DJ: Only in the sense that I mentioned before, in protecting people against counterfeiting. That's a good service. They call that theft, and they're right. But they also call everything else theft, and they're wrong. Copyright law does not distinguish between sampling and counterfeiting. That's just stupid, that's just art-oblivious, and that's just no way to proceed in this century. Or the last one. It doesn't bode well for the future of art that the law can't distinguish between this simple idea that's been around for a hundred years, that art can be made out of other art. If you prevent people from doing it, you're really constricting art itself, because, gee, a lot of people want to do it.
O: Do you think the majority of artists feel the way you do?
DJ: I think if it's explained, yes. I think it's rare that this whole big mess of copyright law is really understood. Once you get across that simple idea that copyright ought to distinguish between different forms of reuse, and keep some of them illegal and make other ones legal, because there's a big difference among them... that's understandable, I think. But there's still a lot of people who just don't like the idea of someone using their work. It's some kind of creative offense to them, and they won't see it as a positive thing no matter what.
Our motto has always been "Fair Use For Collage," which requires the free use of art. That's what collage is–art made out of other stuff. To restrict it by a copyright, to require payment and permission, actually stifles the art itself, for artists who either can't afford it or aren't going to get permission due to the nature of what they're doing. So we see copyright, in terms of collage, as a form of censorship. You have to approach these people and they can approve or disapprove of what you're doing, and allow or stop you from doing it, by simply withholding the sources that you need.
O: As media consumers, do you tend to gravitate to material that's similar to your own, or material that's different from what you do?
MH: Actually, in the last three years, I think I've bought maybe three, four new CDs. [Laughs.] Lately, I've been really into things like old Swiss polka records. I'm trying to build up a real collection of Swiss tourist music. I just love that stuff. Yodeling, you know? And accordions, polkas... the alpenhorn. And the record covers with guys in lederhosen. [Laughs.] I just found a wonderful record of organ music with a guy who imitates birdcalls on top. That's going to be used in the live show we're working on right now. It fits perfectly. It sounds like you're in an insane asylum when you listen to it. It's pretty great. I sort of, kind of pay attention to what's going on out there in music that's related to us, but it's not something I put on for my own enjoyment.
DJ: I like to think I have different zones of appreciation. I like pop stuff, and I like esoteric avant-garde stuff. I especially like to mix the two. I do that a lot on the radio show, to find out how the things are relative to each other in ways we never think about.
O: What about film? Do you prefer the avant-garde?
MH: I personally don't. It's silly, but I have a childhood love of monsters and science fiction. When I was a kid, I made animated monster movies, and I wanted to grow up and be Ray Harryhausen. That was my dream. I wanted to turn my favorite H.P. Lovecraft stories into animated monster movies. But unfortunately–or fortunately, depending on how you look at it–my Super-8 camera broke when I was about 15, and all of my moviemaking exploits came to an end. And I had been getting into more fringe-cinema stuff, and older films, and European films, and movie soundtracks. So I started getting into sounds. I heard about this instrument called a "syn-the-siz-er." [Laughs.]
I am the most ADD-ish member of our group. That explains a lot about my contributions to what we do. That's probably why I like tape splicing. I'm like, "That's boring!" after two seconds. "Let's change to another sound!"
O: How do the members of the band work together?
DJ: We hardly ever brainstorm on an initial idea. But the collaboration varies on different projects. Different people do different things, and different amounts of things, on any given project. It's not broken up by job assignment. It's very spontaneous. Some people are more interested in some projects than others. But we all generally get in on everything to some degree.
MH: That's part of what's fun about being in Negativland. I work with a bunch of peculiar, eccentric guys who have a lot of really strange ideas. I think one of the things that's worked to our advantage, since we stopped saying who's in the group so many years ago, is that what we're excited about are ideas. What we debate about and fight about are ideas. Not about who's getting the biggest cut of the royalties, or who's going to get their picture on the front of the record. We're not fighting about the sort of stuff that can really tear apart creative collectives. We do go to battle over these projects, absolutely. But there's not really a lot of ego involved. Everyone's just fighting to make the project as cool and smart and funny and weird and interesting as we possibly can.
O: Have you ever had any internal debate about whether you've gone too far with a project?
MH: I think the Helter Stupid project itself arose over questioning internally whether we were doing the right thing. Once that prank blew up into something much bigger than we had expected, we decided that the responsible, ethical, and creatively cool, fun thing to do was to make a record out of it. Of course, once the record came out, unless you listened to it carefully and read the liner notes, you wouldn't know that this was explaining our lie. In a way, the record simultaneously explains the prank and also promotes it.
Of course, what I'm now realizing is that if you go buy Helter Stupid from iTunes, you don't get the liner notes. Because they haven't figured that out yet. I find that to be incredibly frustrating, because a lot of our work is very conceptual, and meant to be listened to from beginning to end. I always tell someone, if I give them one of our CDs, to think of it as a movie they just rented. You're not going to put on a movie and then go walk outside, talk on the phone, do your dishes, and play with the dog. You're going to sit and watch the movie. So wait until you have 45 minutes of free time, and just sit and listen to it from beginning to end.
From a cultural standpoint, I think the fact that people can get music in different ways and trade stuff around is great. But from the standpoint of a person who's in this ridiculously brainy, conceptual art-and-music group... [Laughs.] It actually pisses me off! We work so hard on all the graphics and the design and the liner notes! I mean, shit, if you go and get No Business on a peer-to-peer network, however you want to get it, I don't care, but you ain't going to get the essay, and you can't download the whoopee cushion. And you won't get the video. No Business, interestingly enough, if you look at it as a complete package with all the physical objects in it, is something that's not downloadable.
O: Isn't it potentially frustrating for other artists who get sampled or appropriated by groups like Negativland to have their work taken out of context? Isn't there some irony there?
MH: I think I'm expressing both sides of it. If people want to take the work out of context, that's fine. I can also look at the conceptual side of it, and see that the integrity of the work is lost. But I think that the argument we've always made is that it all just comes with the territory. That's just the way it is. If someone really wants our entire work and wants to know the way we meant to present it, and want the whole package and all of the information, then I hope they'll know enough to know that they have to go get the physical object. I keep wishing there was a way to put notes up on iTunes that says, "Here's all the things you don't get if you buy this as a download!" [Laughs.]
But no, if you want to completely control your creative work, you should just keep it in your house, and don't let it out to the rest of the world. If you're going to put it out there into what I think is the public domain, you don't get total control anymore. That's not part of the deal. That's not part of having a healthy culture. It's really too bad when I see musicians and artists espousing these ideas of total control and ownership of their work. I just think, "God, you sound like a lawyer." It's like they've internalized this corporate thinking that's floating around out there in the ether. They don't sound like artists at all.
To go back to what you were saying about regrets, if you're implying that we'd have any regrets about the U2 single, absolutely not. No. We don't regret what happened or what we did at all.
O: It wasn't a case of it being one band member's idea, and everyone else going, "Man, why did we let Mark talk us into this?"
MH: "Now look! They're suing us!" [Laughs.] No no no, not at all.
DJ: There was plenty of stress, but not so much between us in the group so much as pressures from outside. Getting sued is just no fun. Lots of paperwork. But nothing close to breaking us up at all.
MH: Basically, by the time anything we make gets out to the public, you've got to realize it's gone through four, five, or six bullshit detectors, and it's been thoroughly vetted by the Negativland "creatively successful, fiscally failing" project-review department. [Laughs.] If it gets to the point that we're putting it out to the public, I feel like we've all critiqued the crap out of it by then, and it's probably pretty good. That's another benefit of being in a collective. I don't think I would entirely trust my opinion on anything we make, if it was just me.
O: You obviously felt comfortable enough about the U2 record to re-release it a couple of years ago, albeit in a somewhat covert format, as These Guys Are From England And Who Gives A Shit.
MH: What? What are you talking about? That wasn't us, that was See-lard Records! We don't know who that was! But they certainly did a fine job. It's a very good-sounding record.
O: Did you catch any flak the second time around?
MH: No. Absolutely nothing. In fact, that record was going to be available mail-order only, and then with Napster blowing up and Kazaa, et cetera et cetera, our thought was that all those lawyers who might have come gunning for Negativland years ago are all too busy. They don't care. They're too busy worrying about their whole business model collapsing around their ears. "Let's just get this thing out into record stores, in a totally upfront, very mainstream kind of way, and people will pick it up and say, 'What the hell? How is this out? What happened? How did you do that? What changed?'" And the answer is, you know, nothing changed. We just did it.
DJ: I think all the publicity that Island Records went through with the suit worked against them, and they probably wish now they'd never done it. They certainly didn't get anything out of it.
O: Have you considered making your music freely available on your website?
MH: We've discussed it. But we are trying to survive off of what we're doing. We're hoping to make enough money to scrape by. If people want to find our work out there and share it on peer-to-peer networks, it's really a non-issue to us. If they want to go get it as a legal download, they can do that to. If they want to buy directly from us and support what we're doing, they can do that too, and get all the super-cool groovy packaging.
O: Do you have outside jobs?
DJ: I make a little off of Negativland, but not too much. Mainly, I have inherited investments, which I got through no talent of my own, but there it is.
O: Given that you're trying to make enough money on your work to continue doing it without getting trapped in a capitalist ethic, is your ideal business model for art more of a patronage system, where people who want to pay for it do, and you just sort of rely on hope?
MH: I think that would be nice, but in our culture, we just don't live like that. America is a mean, uncivilized country, and we really don't give a shit about our artists and our musicians and our creative types until they've become rock stars. It's kind of like, everyone supports you and loves you and is into what you're doing and wants to think they support the arts, once you've made it. But if you're struggling to get your stuff out there, it doesn't seem to me as a society that we value it that much. What we value is success. Do we like Brad Pitt because Brad Pitt is a good actor, or because Brad Pitt is a big star? There's an extent to which because he's made it, and is successful and is everywhere, therefore he is good. But he actually isn't a bad actor. [Laughs.]
It seems to me that in other countries, there's more of a tendency to say, "Hey, you're a carpenter, you're a doctor, you're a lawyer, you're a dentist, you're a postman, you're a gardener... Those are all things that we value and need to have in our society. And hey, you're a novelist, you're a filmmaker, you're an artist, you're a musician... those are good things too." There's more a sense of all those things being equally valued. In the U.S., we don't do that. To survive here as an artist means that you're up against a lot. Though I think the fact that it's so challenging means that the United States has produced some really good work. On the one hand, I wish there was more support, and that we were more civilized in that way. But I also couldn't imagine a group like Negativland coming out of, say, Canada. [Laughs.]