For those who don’t already know, Negativland is a group of sound collage artists whose “music” (and I’m using the term “music” very loosely here) is best known for containing elements of surrealism, blended with absurdist humour and “copyleftist” politics. Mark Hosler, one of the group’s founding members, appeared as part of the “Copyright/Copyleft”-themed Vancouver New Music Festival.
Hosler definitely has some interesting things to say about copyright, and he’s recently been sent to talk to Washington D.C. legislators to present another side of the copyright issue.
Downloading music isn’t going away, and that should be acknowledged. “Is it good or evil? I don’t care; it’s gone really mainstream,” he said, bringing up a good point. Downloading culture is so prevalent in society that debating whether it is right or wrong is irrelevant. Instead of constantly fighting people who download music, maybe we should acknowledge that it’s going to happen anyway and try to find ways “we could actually make this work.”
In his appearance at the festival, Hosler played the part of the storyteller more than the lecturer, while sprinkling his performance with music videos and a news broadcast from Negativland’s catalogue. Hosler’s talk was clearly a well-practiced set of stories that documented Negativland’s inception as a young group fooling around with reel-to-reels, all the way to their transformation into copyright activists.
The best parts of the night were the stories Hosler told that bookended the videos he showed. Hosler talked in great detail of Negativland’s duping of the media after they issued a fanciful press release saying that they had to cancel their first tour due to an FBI investigation which connected their song “Christianity is Stupid” with teenage axe murderer David Brom. (They’d actually had to cancel their tour because they were broke and couldn’t afford to go.) Through a bit of dumb luck and some shoddy journalism this story ended up in the evening news (a clip of which was shown during the talk) and gradually ballooned throughout the media until they revealed to NPR that the whole thing was a hoax.
Negativland’s second claim to notoriety came after sampling U2’s “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and using it in a track laced with profanity from well-known radio DJ Casey Kasem that was leaked to Negativland by a fan. U2 sued them, and after a four-year lawsuit they had succeeded, if not in winning in the courts, at least in making U2 look like assholes and putting together a conceptual art piece called Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2, which compellingly argues that remix and collage should be considered fair use.
While their actions may have been unethical or even illegal, Hosler said that these things (and most of the things Negativland does) were motivated by the principle of rebellion.
“It was something you weren’t supposed to be doing, and that is precisely why we did it,” Hosler said.
Hosler was forthright about the group’s willingness to break the law and push boundaries, but also—and perhaps most importantly—how their personal experiences transformed him into someone at the forefront of the copyfight.
“We just keep doing this kind of work and by doing it, provoke change,” he said.
For those of you interested in Negativland’s work you can check out a lot of it on their website (www.negativland.com) or you could just go download it.