Since the early 1980s, the members of Bay Area artists’ collective Negativland have engaged in acts of aesthetic subversion on an unsuspecting populace. They first rose to prominence with the release of 1987’s Escape From Noise on SST Records, a brash, disorienting, brutally funny aural collage combining re-purposed TV chatter, parodies of radio commercials, clattering electronic music and even the odd folk song into a single package that came across like an extraordinarily caustic effort from the Firesign Theater. Their landmark 1991 release U2 remains a banned record to this day, thanks to the draconian efforts of some rock band that claims to own the trademark on the name of a plane dating from World War Two, inadvertently setting up one of the pivotal legal cases around the issue of sampling. Their work since has taken on multiple forms, but the acid humor and the principle of creating their work primarily out of found objects has remained intact.
Still active in 2012, the group appears on Thursday at the Echoplex with German electronic pioneer Moebius, and on Friday, will perform at the unveiling of an all-new visual art show at La Luz De Jesus Gallery. Fans that caught the group’s multi-media extravaganza at the El Rey a decade ago should be sure to temper expectations, as this is one group that can’t be counted on to repeat itself. We spoke to founding member Mark Hosler this weekend, just as his band practice was wrapping up, about the forthcoming show, the evolution of media in the internet age, and the perils of working in their chosen medium.
How did practice go?
It went fine. We’re doing a show where it’s an improvised show, and that’s the thing we’ve been doing live lately. Something very new for us, to do shows where they’re wholly improvised. So you do a lot of… rehearsing isn’t the right word, you’re playing together, for hours and hours and hours and days and days, trying to kind of cultivate a vocabulary in how you’re going to play. You’re almost creating a rule set of where you’re gonna go and where you don’t go, what sounds you’re gonna use and which ones are off limits. And it’s all based around these homemade electronic noise-makers we have called Boopers, which are built by one of the members of our group, and they’re all feedback devices, it’s all based around modulating feedback.
And so we’re doing something really different, there’s no voice tapes in this show at all, it’s all sound. It probably won’t be what some people expect who know our work. But we’re always trying to do, in performance, I guess in anything we do, we’re trying to do stuff that challenges both ourselves and our audience, and goes in new and different directions. You know, after thirty-two years, you gotta keep doing… you don’t want to just settle and, I dunno… you see a lot of these different older artists now going out and just saying, “we’ll play our entire album from 1985.”
So anyway, yeah, it went fine.
What else can you tell us about the exhibit that’s coming to La Luz?
In everything that Negativland’s ever done, with sound, performance, films, visual art, etc.,while it’s all over the map from stuff that’s surreal, abstract, really political, funny, conceptual, dada, it always, always, always seems that we are utilizing some form of collage. We’ve just always been drawn to that, using things that we find in some new way. Even the house that I live in, I fixed it up myself and it’s all found, old ceiling tins, old tiles, barn wood siding, all of these things I used to just make the inside of the house interesting.
So the work at the art show is gonna be coming from stuff that’s collaborative, that we’ve done together as a group, as well as things that we’ve each done on our own. They’re all very different kinds of collage. And I should also add that I think that one of the art forms that can be the most lame and lousy is… collage. (Laughs) So, uhm, being drawn to working that way and then trying to do something that we think really does work well is a good challenge. It’s always tricky.
As so much of your previous work has centered around media commentary, the role of the media has become more and more twisted and almost sinister, since you started making your best known work, I was wondering if the mode of commentary has had to evolve as well.
Well, that’s a good question. I think that, if you go back to our very, very first recordings, I was still in high school when our first record came out, we weren’t trying to be political. Or critical or commenting on anything. We were just kids reacting to this strange suburban world that we were growing up in, and we were throwing everything in the mix that was part of our environment, which includes TV, talk radio, recordings of our parents in the kitchen baking. And gradually as the years went by, we kept using the media and thinking more and more about it. What ARE we doing by taking this stuff that doesn’t belong to us and re-using it? What are we trying to say? And back then, this appropriation was still kind of a more unusual thing to do. It isn’t now, it’s a very common practice now. I basically feel like appropriation and collage has really become a pretty mainstream practice, you know, it can be just kids screwing around with their home computer and re-combining things together. The computer to me is like a built-in collage box, it just makes it real easy to take different things and re-use them, and cut them together and mix them up.
As the years went by our work became more and more overtly reflective and critical, and thinking about and responding to this world we were seeing of media becoming, as you said, more and more disturbing and frightening. Fewer and fewer people own more and more of the mainstream media, so the diversity of voices you’re getting is non-existent. This presidential campaign we’re in the midst of watching, it’s just horrifying to watch how no tough questions are being asked of anybody, really. It’s astonishing what I see on both sides, but particularly on the Republican side. And it’s sort of astonishing how much of what people are saying is outright falsehoods. It’s like – why isn’t that a huge story? Well, the media does the he-said she-said kind of thing, where you give each side equal weight, as if each side has an equally valid point of view. And all that stuff’s pretty horrifying.
It’s kind of a roundabout way to answer your question but, in any of the work we’ve done, we’ve never set out to say “Hey, we’re going to be political! We’re activists and we’re going to make this commentary.” I think that aspect of our work grew organically out of our own intuitive responses to the world we were in and the mediums we were using, and it does turn out that, with visual collage, interestingly enough, the work you’ll see if you see the art images on the La Luz De Jesus website, they did not turn out to be as overtly critical and political as our audio and film work has been. We’re never trying to contrivedly do that in any of our work. When you create different things in different mediums you kind of go where it takes you.
And so I’m actually really, really curious about the response to the work that we’re going to be showing. People who have followed our audio and film work, I’m really wondering what they’re going to think about it.
In addition to mass media, through the internet you have the rise of other voices in a somewhat more democratic medium, do you think that’s been a positive that people have more direct access to sources now?
Well it just depends on who you are. I am, you might say, a bit of a socio-economic social justice environmental global news junkie. I follow the news pretty closely and have the time to do that. I don’t have kids, I don’t have a family, so I realize I may have the luxury to do things with my time that other people may not. And something I like to do is read a news story that pops up on the radar, and you can read from five or six different places, get the different perspectives. So I can get the CNN version, the Fox News version, the New York Times version, some left-wing news site, Mother Jones or Truth Out, etc. And you get different perspectives, and I think from working with media for so many years and dissecting it in our own work, I feel like there’s been this kind of process of self-education in gaining a kind of media literacy, getting a better sense of how to read between the lines for what’s left out of a story, or the kernel of what’s really the heart of it is buried way in the middle of it. I think Noam Chomsky was once asked, where do you get your information? How do you know all this stuff? And he just said, “I read the new York Times.” But he was a careful reader.
So, that’s a possibility that the internet allows us, that’s fabulous. But I think the flip side of it, what the internet also allows, is it allows these niches, these echo chambers to evolve that you don’t go outside of it. If you ever go to Fox News, which is painful to read, but I do read it sometimes, and it’s always got the most racist, over the top, horrifyingly stupid, brain damaged…it is so scary when you read the comments there. They are so vile, vicious, often very violent, and you get the sense that these people have no other point of view that they are exposed to, that they’re just echoing back what they hear from the right wing media echo chamber. So I think that the internet allows extreme people with extreme points of view to find each other in ways that don’t help them broaden their perspective. It helps them limit it. Does that make sense?
So it’s like everything – is it good? Is it bad? Is it just different? There’s lots of things to say about it, but no single answer.
One thing that we’ve said in our bio is that we try hard to be artists first and activists second. We’re highly aware of the activist element to what we do, but we also really try hard to make sure our work really does work as an aesthetic experience, as a work of art. So it’s not just propaganda, it’s not just a manifesto. And there’s nothing wrong with the propaganda approach in the art world, but it’s not what we’re interested in. The aesthetic aspect of it is super important to us when we’re creating it, in any medium. And so, as I said earlier, when it comes to making visual art, it turns out that the aesthetic choices that we’re making means there….it turns out that the work doesn’t have as obvious … I think it’s there but it’s much, much, much less direct than in a lot of our recorded work. And that’s just kind of how it turns out when we’re making things that turn into visual art. We want it to work as a piece of visual art on your wall, not just something that simply has a message or something. In our mind, we think that would be a failure.
Don of Negativland has become really, really fascinated with crop circles, and he’s made a large series of works, there’s only a few I think that are going to show in Los Angeles, but he’s done a whole series of work that’s using aerial photography of crop circles. And cutting them up and re-arranging them and making these really dense collages. And they literally are cut up and taped together, this isn’t being done with computers. Its scissors and packing tape. And that’s intentional, he wanted to make something where you could see how it was made. How it’s put together is very, very apparent.
And then Dan Lynch, who is part of Negativland, he has this series of work that’s going to show called The Volcano Society. His work is the opposite, where he’s using all kinds of images he found online, some of them he took himself but mostly it’s all found images using Google Image Search. And he collages them all together in the computer, re-colors, re-lights them, re-paints them pixel by pixel using a little digital paintbrush, and produces something that we hope to your eye looks really like a painting, that you cannot tell it was digital collage art. He’s hiding his technique. So it’s kind of the exact opposite technique of the stuff that’s Don’s doing.
One thing that’s been fun about being part of Negativland, it’s a collective, and I would definitely say I’m a fan of everyone in the group’s work, and what we all do, that we all can contribute to it. It’s been really exciting to get to pull together this other aspect of what we do and have a visual art show. And, as you may know, we’ve never had one in Los Angeles before, this is a first. So it’s been super fun, super exciting.
I should mention that we’re going to play at the Echoplex on the night before the art show, and we’re playing with Moebius, who was half of the German group Cluster back in the seventies. I am quite nervous about the fact that we’re going to share a stage with him because as a teenager I just worshipped their work. I loved all that German electronic music in the seventies, I still listen to it to this day. So that’s a total thrill.