They Saw This Coming Years Ago
The other day, I got my hands on a business card for a company called Content Content Content, Inc. The company is based in a city called Content. The company’s email address is . In the bottom corner is a tiny copyright logo, along with the word “Content.”
I came across this strange little card when I attended a concert by the experimental sound collage group Negativland at the Cinefamily theater in Los Angeles on Thursday night. A man gave it to me as I was walking into the room, saying it was the “program” for the show. The only way I could tell that this man was affiliated with the band—and not just some rando handing out weird propaganda—is that the URL for Negativland’s website was printed on the card.
Funny, incisive, strange. The move is Negativland in a nutshell. In the great arms race for Internet page-views—where every media outlet tries everything it can to fill its pages with “content” to be consumed—never read, mind you, simply “consumed”—Negativland might be the most subversive content producers around. Since the early ’80s, they’ve been plundering the annals of American culture, compiling an expansive archive of sonic detritus to use for their own purposes.
These days, what Negativland does is pretty much di rigueur in Internet meme culture—collage, mashups, reappropriation, recontextualization. But these guys were doing this stuff long before the age of YouTube and Tumblr, decades before it was cool. They’ve gotten pretty damn good at it, too. And if you ask Mark Hosler, a founding member of the group, most of the stuff you’ll see today is total crap compared to Negativland’s best work.
“We’re in a very different era now where it’s very easy to do cut-ups, mashups, and layer things and mix things. It’s so easy to do that there’s an enormous amount of it out there that’s really, I think, pretty mediocre,” Hosler says.
At Cinefamily on Thursday, Hosler and fellow Negativland member Peter Conheim offered a sampling of quality content. Joined onstage by electronic artist Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) and video artist Steev Hise, they kicked off the show with a media barrage akin to the tuning of an intergalactic radio dial. Using a table full of gadgets—including finicky, self-made noise-boxes called Boopers—Hosler, Conheim and Leidecker proceeded to produce atonal yet strangely melodious bloops and drones, reinterpreting some of Negativland’s most classic songs. Meanwhile, Hise manned a laptop, triggering images to go with the music. The show had elements of improvisation, but aside from a couple obvious onstage malfunctions, the quartet played in perfect concert.
Onstage, the group had posted up two banners bearing the words “Content!,” written in Disney-style script. At the beginning of the show, a sampled voice beamed across the room: “NEVER FORGET THE FACT THAT WE ARE ALL JUST CONTENT.” On cue, Hise pulled up images of somebody mashing potatoes, along with the logo for the TV show MASH. There was a certain DEVO, de-evolutionary quality to this part of the performance: The group seemed to be saying that, in this age of digital information, the very essence of humanity is being mashed into a buttery spread of useless “content.”
But it doesn’t have to be like that. Even as he laments the poor quality of so many mashups today, Hosler highlights the potential of what you can do with collage.
“You can use collage to really talk about things,” he says. “You can use it to comment on and talk about our culture, our society, our media, the whole strange crazy world we live in in America. And that’s kind of what’s always interested Negativland about collage.”
Hosler, a tall bespectacled fellow with a nerdy demeanor, first realized the magic of cutting up sound when he was growing up in the late ’70s and early ’80s in Contra Costa County, a suburban part of the San Francisco Bay Area. Using razor blades to splice magnetic tape, he and his bandmates collected sounds off of TV and radio—as well as in their parents’ kitchens—and chopped them up to make playful, Dada/surrealist compositions.
“We’re kids growing up in the suburbs and we’re just kind of discovering that you can do this. And it’s very exciting,” he recalls. “You realize you can make sounds loop, repeat. You can make people say things they never meant to say. Or you can take exactly what they meant to say but drop it into a new context.”
As the years passed, the group grew more ambitious. Eventually they adopted an activist’s stance, raising dialogue about their mode of copyright-plundering in the hopes of making it more politically, legally and culturally acceptable.
Though that sounds like a pretty serious endeavor, it sometimes manifested in hilarious ways. In 1991, Negativland drew the ire of Island Records when they released the infamous U2 EP, which was packaged to vaguely resemble and actual U2 release and featured two cartoonish covers of U2’s hit “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Island, which represented U2, promptly sued the band over trademark issues, and the band responded by issuing a lengthy magazine/CD package chronicling the ordeal (only to get sued by their own label, SST, for putting out the magazine).
Hosler says now that the lawsuit experience was “kind of horrifying.” But it also gave the band a chance to publicly raise questions that weren’t being asked at the time: “What is culture and who owns it, when it’s all ones and zeroes? What does the law say? What does common sense say? What’s good for art? What’s good for culture?”
“That conversation was not happening” at the time, he says. But things have changed over the years. Girl Talk is throwing dance parties. Auto-Tune the News is a YouTube stable. People are mashing up video clips of Leonardo DiCaprio with audio clips of Meshuggah. All across the board, perceptions about fair use and copyright have changed. Now, Hosler says, “That conversation is happening in a big way.”
So, does this mean Negativland’s mission is accomplished? Time to pack up and do something else? Hosler doesn’t think so. But he does think being provocative and interesting is more of a challenge for Negativland in this new content climate.
“The very act of doing this—the act of appropriation, the act of archiving, the act of sharing this weird shit that we find—that is what the internet is now, right? A huge part of the internet is just people sharing all the goofy stuff that they find all over the place,” he says. “It’s a very different climate that we’re creating this stuff in. Perhaps it makes our work less interesting. I don’t know. It’s possible. But it also challenges us to try to make damn sure that what we’re doing with collage and mashup and layering and remixing of things is interesting.”
Sometime in the next three or four months, Negativland will release a new album—their first in 6 years. It’s called It’s All In Your Head, and from the way Hosler describes it, it might just be Negativland’s loftiest and most intense record yet.
“It’s all about fundamentalism, monotheism, how our brain works. Why humans have this deep need to believe in one god,” he says. “It’s about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, the Middle East, suicide bombers.”
We’re living in an age of content. The onslaught will never end. Some things will go viral, and some will be buried in the morass forever. But with a topic this immense, Negativland might just pull through.
“We were looking for a subject that was bigger than any subject we’d ever tackled,” Hosler says. “You can’t get any bigger than God.”
Photos by Jill Marie Holslin
Previously, Peter looked into whether the lead singer of As I Lay Dying may have gone crazy on steroids.
Peter Holslin is a content creator. He's on Twitter. - @peterholslin