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To paraphrase (or steal from, depending on your politics) the Firesign Theatre, everything you know is still wrong.
Questioning assumptions about our information-saturated society since 1980, West Coast culture-jammer collective Negativland uses satire, parody, appropriation and sonic experimentation to examine media manipulations. From the lowliest cable-access commercial to the latest Pepsi ad, from the most holier-than-thou televangelist to the cultural lows of "American Top 40," Negativland treats the pre-existing sound spectrum as a readymade source for its sonic collage art.
Negativland plays out only rarely, and when the group brings its multimedia "True/False" show to Clutch Cargos on Thursday, its as part of its second-ever extended tour. Alas, fan favorite the Weatherman (David Wills) will be present only as a talking head on a TV screen. However, the core of Don Joyce, Mark Hosler, Richard Lyons and Chris Grigg will mix radio theater and radical cultural criticism, musique concrète and their own wit.
Says Joyce, "The True/False theme is kind of built around the idea that in modern life, especially in media flow today, its very difficult to discern whats true and whats false. And yet were all hearing all this stuff all of the time and passing it on and spreading it around without ever knowing how much is actually true.
"I think its kind of a keynote feeling nowadays, especially with the Internet, which is so notoriously unreliable, and yet all of the stuff that happens there is spread around very quickly."
Over the years, Negativland has released 18 records some studio concoctions, others edited down from the groups weekly "Over the Edge" radio program. "OTE" is several hours of live, improvised group collaboration, integrating all sorts of radio gadgetry, tapes, homemade electronics, in-jokes and even real-time phone calls from both fans and irate listeners. Negativlands studio albums, meanwhile, are meticulously constructed assemblages, and feature the best long-play comedy since the heyday of the groups forebears, the Firesign Theatre.
Negativland reached an early peak with 1987s Escape From Noise. This record contains the hit, "Christianity is Stupid," wherein some found-sound preaching of the title phrase (and its rejoinder, "Communism is Good") is deployed and diced up over fake industrial dance plod. The whole album is quite an aural achievement, but Negativland would soon top itself.
When a 1988 tour had to be canceled for financial reasons, Negativland issued a spurious press release, attributing the cancellation to a request by federal officials to stay put until a non-spurious Minnesota ax murder was cleared up. The press release insinuated that "Christianity is Stupid" played into the reason why the suspect murdered his family, and many a media outlet reported this link. The coup de grâce came when a California television station reported on the Negativland-ax murder connection as the lead story on a news broadcast. Negativland regurgitated these misshapen media reports into a brilliant collage entitled Helter Stupid.
Then came Casey Kasem, a dead dog named Snuggles, and the letter U and the numeral 2.
Negativlands hilarious 1991 masterpiece, U2/Negativland, used such found sound as a particularly potty-mouthed Kasem outtake, an altered MIDI track of "I Still Havent Found What Im Looking For" and some irate ham radio operators. Little did the Negativland principals suspect that disaster loomed. Island Records (U2s label) sued SST (Negativlands label), and when the dust cleared, Negativland was out $70,000 and its own record, which was recalled and destroyed (though there was one on eBay last week). Negativlands artistic processes went head to head with copyright law and issues of fair use, and those who had the most money won. Though Negativland still hasnt gotten its record back, the group did produce a fascinating document of the saga in the book Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, which details all of the correspondence, media coverage and legal actions.
As Joyce explains, "These copyright laws, which are fairly recent in human history, are trying to make culture and art and creative things into private property, which I dont think they were ever intended to be. Culture is supposed to be a shared phenomenon, and when it ceases to be that, it just becomes a product.
"Somebody owns it and is making a profit off of it, and thats it. But regardless of how much it has become a product, it still influences people, and the tendency is there to reuse it, to recycle it and to make it into your own," he concludes.
Despite the traumatic experiences, Negativland continues to integrate found sounds into its creations. Joyce explains, "We worked the same way all the way up to U2, and we have worked the same way ever since, and thats the only time weve been sued, for doing basically the same thing (that we had been doing all along). The reason is, is that was the first time we used a current, popular, big-name source in our work. We usually actually prefer more obscure stuff. Crazy stuff from out of print records or antique stuff, or old kids records, self-help cassette tapes the stuff that nobodys paying any attention to, and nobodys watching in terms of its reuse.
"Theres no distinction being made between a creative reuse and an economic rip-off, you know?" Joyce continues.
"No distinction between the guy whos bootlegging an entire work just as it was done in the first place, just to make an illegal profit from it, and the artist whos just taking samples and fragments, and putting them in new contexts and creating new work out of them. Thats a critical distinction, but its a distinction that doesnt exist in copyright law. They see any reuse as theft, which is stupid.
"Its a natural human function to take from whats around you and mold it to your own purpose. Its the nature of evolution, certainly the nature of creative evolution," Joyce maintains.
With its aesthetics of unabashed appropriation, Negativland fits perfectly into the evolution of art that stretches from "monkey see, monkey do" to Marcel Duchamp and beyond, over the edge.
Greg Baise gets electric in the Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Baise sold all of his U2 records way before that Negativland flap ever happened.