CULTURE- INTERVIEW- Splicing culture: The man who angers artists
Where were you the first time you heard "The Letter U and the Numeral 2"?
I was in college in the early '90s, when a friend turned me on to an experimental band from the Bay Area known as Negativland. They had just been sued by U2 and Island Records for releasing a kazoo instrumental cover of the Irish super-group's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" mixed with unforgettable hilarious audio snippets of a secretly taped Casey Kasem going on a profane rant ("These guys are from England, and who gives a sh*t!").
The suit was settled out of court, and the legendary collective has continued to release acclaimed cut-up works of sound, video, pictures, and live performance for the past 27 years, all while maintaining their idealistic stance toward the free re-use of creative work. Many consider them the first band to get people thinking about intellectual property law, copyright, and fair use, issues that have exploded in our era of computer downloading, sample usage, remixed You Tube videos, and mash-ups.
"I've been paying attention to collage, cutting up and remixing, since I was a teenager," says band member Mark Hosler, now 45. "In an odd way, I feel you can make work that's more honest by using things made by other people."
It's that kind of talk that has caught the attention of lawyers, but Hosler is fortunate that one of them has become an intellectual mentor of sorts.
After a high-profile stint at NYU, Siva Vaidhyanathan recently relocated to Charlottesville as an associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia. The title of his 2001 book panicked artists all over the world: Copyrights and Copywrongs: The Rise of Intellectual Property and How It Threatens Creativity.
"He should be at our show," says Hosler.
Few bands help shape the course of intellectual property law, and Hosler relishes that.
"I've met lawyers who got into being intellectual property lawyers because they were inspired by what we did," he says. "It's great to know that in our own tiny way, we maybe had little tiny impact on the public discourse on these issues."
Today, Negativland stays busy running its own label and management and a weekly radio show on Berkeley's KPFA, but it hasn't toured since 2000. Since this summer's tour includes an August 7 stop at the Satellite Ballroom in Charlottesville, the Hook caught up with Hosler by phone in North Carolina, where he was working on one of his million side projects.
What can people expect at the upcoming Charlottesville gig?
This particular show is taking our radio show and doing it live on stage. We pass out these colorful children's-party piñata blindfolds for the audience to wear, which look really funny from the stage. The show is very much a post 9-11 Negativland show. It's looking at different themes than stuff we've been known for dealing with in the past– copyright infringement, anti-corporate activist stuff, and advertising media literacy.
When we play live, we don't play songs from our records. We try to create shows for the stage that are unique for that space. When we were pulling together this show, we looked at how the country has changed since our last tour.
Today we're seeing a return of fundamentalism in both the east and the west that's kind of shocking. We have a president who believes God is telling him what to do, and he's fighting terrorists who believe God is telling them what to do. So, we thought: You can't really get any bigger than God as a subject. Of course, we still have our own peculiar, oblique, weird Negativland take on it, but we're really trying to do a show that's thought-provoking.
We're asking questions like: What is faith? Why do we believe what we believe and how does the brain work? Why do we believe in one God, and is that a good idea when it seems to cause so much misery?
Doesn't much of your work favor the artists' rights over corporations?
I don't actually care about the individual artist. If your work is sampled in something, and you don't like it, I don't care. I think there's a greater good to be served by having a free exchange of ideas and information and creativity, and it doesn't help anyone or serve anybody to shut it down, or intimidate and scare people with all these laws.
What do you think about YouTube?
From a standpoint of empowering the individual, the more people are encouraged to produce their own media, news, information, culture, I think that's great. I think we want a bottom-up, grassroots culture and less of the top-down, corporately produced stuff. As for whether people are making something that's any good, that's a whole other question. What you have now, if you're trying to do work and get anyone to notice what you're doing, the noise level is so high, so deafening, it's become that much more difficult to get anyone to notice what you're doing.
Why are you so high on Siva Vaidhyanathan?
He's brilliant. He'll tell you things most people don't know– like when copyright first existed, it only lasted 14 years, then it was over. It's amazing to think that in the earliest days of conceptualizing copyright, nobody thought it should last 150 years, which is what it is now, the life of the creator plus 74 years. That, of course, has been changed because corporations pushed for it, because corporations are immortal, and they want to be able to profit forever.
When Mark Twain was alive, he couldn't stand it. He kept running around trying to change it, or extend it, because all his books kept coming out in the public domain. I can see that. But on the other hand, it probably encouraged him to write more books. I use the example of J.D. Salinger today. If the copyright of The Catcher in the Rye had expired after 14 years, it would've kicked him in the ass, and he would've given the world more great literature. There's a good argument to be made that extending copyright does the opposite of what we intend to do: it can actually discourage creativity.
What are you currently working on?
We have a DVD called Our Favorite Things, featuring all our short films over the last 10 years, coming out in October along with a bonus CD that's one of the strangest things I've ever heard. It's a black gospel, doo-wop soul/R&B group from Detroit doing a cappella cover versions of Negativland cut-up collage pieces. It's absolutely insane. We're also reissuing Big 10-8 Place [with a bonus DVD], which is sort of our tape splicing extravaganza, back when we used to cut tape. It's a favorite of a lot of people who like our work.
What do you think the legacy of the band will be?
In a way, it's one big 27-year-long conceptual art project. When I hear feedback about our work, and I do get a sense it had an impact, you can't put a price tag on that. For my life having meaning, to feel like while I was here I did something with my time, that's what counts. And I'll keep telling myself that while I go eat my Top Ramen noodles.
Negativland brings "It's All in Your Head FM: 'Over the Edge' Live on Stage" to the Satellite Ballroom August 7. Doors at 8, $12/$14. satelliteballroom.com