NEGATIV LAND: YOU CAN’T DIGITIZE THAT
‘the discussion’ courtesy mark hosler
I first discovered Negativland about sixteen years ago. I was intrigued just as much by the musical and narrative ideas they created as I was by their subversive inclinations. Negativland will be coming to L.A. to perform at the Echoplex and to present a large retrospective visual art show at La Luz De Jesus. I called founding member Mark Hosler and was greeted with a blast of noise that I initially assumed was some obscure avant-garde music, only to discover it was actually the Clash. This interview by Stephen Sigl.
What are you listening to?
The Clash—their first LP. I was just laughing because the lyrics to ‘White Riot’ are actually really funny.
Is this the Clash album that came out in the U.S. or is this the English version with different songs?
The import version. When I was discovering music as a teenager, I was getting into all kinds of different weirder music. I was discovering all kinds of German electronic stuff, kraut-rock, prog-rock, punk rock and post-punk. I was kind of checking out everything and a lot of this stuff hadn’t become popular in the U.S. yet. So I have the Cure’s first album on import, I have Siousxie and the Banshees first record on import, the Clash—a bunch of that stuff that I got before I knew who these groups were. They had no image really connected to their music in the U.S. I just wanted to know what they were doing. Those are all pretty great records. ‘I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.’ and ‘White Riot’ are fantastic songs. I think I lost interest in the Clash when they got to be more mainstream; the more mainstream they got, the less interesting they were to me, musically. My tastes were all over the place: Gang of Four, Cabaret Voltaire, Wire, the Fall, Pere Ubu, German electronic stuff, minimalist stuff like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, Neu! Cluster, Faust, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. I was into prog-rock too, like Emerson Lake and Palmer, Genesis, Pink Floyd, Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and Yes, Firesign Theatre records, Monty Python. If you put all that into a blender that kind of turns into Negativland, or at least my contribution to the group.
I was watching an interview with you on YouTube and you said that you were into tourist records from Switzerland and polka music.
Oh yeah—and Hawaiian stuff from the 20s and 30s too. I’m a really big fan of an online radio station called Venerable Radio and it plays nothing but gospel, jazz and blues, early country, all from the 20s and 30s and 40s. All old stuff, just old re-mastered 78s, most of which I don’t have. It’s fantastic! I really like fake Italian music and fake French music—it’s just stuff you would buy if you were a tourist in the country and bring it back as a souvenir to America in the 50s or 60s. The tourist records you’d buy in Switzerland are a genre of music that I don’t think has been discovered by hipsters yet. It’s stuff that people really don’t want to listen to once they buy it. I think, with those records, someone probably died who had it in their record collection since they bought it in the 60s and never listened to it. Usually when you open up any of those ridiculous records, they’re in pretty pristine condition. And eventually they wound up in some thrift store.
Speaking of obscure albums … I wanted to mention the Negativ(e)land Live album released on SST after your departure from the label. I got the album when it came out, and then found out much later that you guys opposed its release—why? What happened?
Like everything, it’s more complicated than that. That was a record we edited together and approved of, and it was supposed to come out after our ‘U2’ single and be called ‘Live Stupid.’ It was finished. So we stand behind it in terms of its quality—it is a good document of what we were doing live at the time, which was very different than what we were doing on record at the time. As you may know, our group is a little unusual in that when we perform live, 95 percent of what we do is uniquely composed, created and performed just for a live setting. It’s not Negativland going out and performing our tunes from our records. That’s always been the case for us, going back to our first show in 1980. So, that live record’s fine. The problem was … one, it’s taken from a cassette copy. A crappy cassette that we sent in that was just so [SST Records owner Greg Ginn] could hear what we were up to because we were making a digital edit of it. And two … we had all these graphics we made for it. The whole thing had an elaborate design with a lot of text and images—it was very fun—but when our whole relationship disintegrated with SST because he was suing us, that never came to be. He just put it out in a plain sleeve from a crappy cassette copy and intentionally misspelled our name. And of course he kept all the money from selling it.
Negativland is going to be putting on an art show here in Los Angeles in September. Thirty-two years into the band’s career, what prompted this retrospective?
We have never had an art show in L.A. before. This is not Negativland putting the covers of all of our CDs up on the walls—this is actual visual art that, for the most part, nobody has ever seen. So it’s a retrospective of the visual art we’ve been making for many years, and some of it’s very new, some of the stuff has been finished in the last couple months, and there’s stuff going back to the mid 90s. In 2005 we had a really big visual art show in New York City, and that’s the first time that we had an art show, actually. We managed to talk a New York gallery into letting us have a show, and it was a great experience! I’d always thought that one of the areas that Negativland could do some interesting work in would be to actually show some of our visual art. And if we started doing that, I hoped it would encourage the group to start making more—because if you have a place to show it, that can give you an incentive to make more of it.
Does the visual art ever have an impact on the music you’re making concurrently?
Some of the visual art is illustrations that were made for an all-songs record we put out in 2008 called Thigmotactic. There’s about ten or twelve pieces in the show that are actually the illustrations made for each track on that record. So that’s very directly connected to one of our recording projects. We also have visual stuff related to the Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak book and CD, which we put out in 2002. There’s some stuff taken from the Time Zones Exchange Project double CD we put out in the 90s.
That’s one of my favorites. I love the Time Zones Exchange CD.
Have you seen the ‘Visit Howland Island’ documentary that’s on our DVD compilation? We put out a DVD collection of our short films and there’s a cut-up documentary about Howland Island on there that you might really enjoy. Right now we’re trying to figure out how much space we have for the amount of artwork we’d like to show. But if the Howland Island stuff gets in there, we will have a screen showing the short documentary about it.
The Time Zones Exchange CD—and you could say this about a lot of the Over the Edge CDs—it hits the exact mark of what 30s and 40s radio drama was doing. The sense that you get from listening to it, and only being able to listen to it and not having a visual at all. That’s something that I really enjoy—that it exists only aurally.
That’s what’s great about radio—it’s the old ‘theater-of-the-mind’ thing that you’re playing with. When MTV came around, I always thought that it took away something from a lot of music, because I think that a lot of the power of music is how much you, the listener, add to it. If the experience of music is like an equation, then you’re a huge factor in that equation. So when you put visuals to it … instead of remembering a song and how it connected to you, to the time that you heard it and what was going on in your life, instead you’re going to remember it as, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the R.E.M. song where everyone gets out of their cars on the freeway.’ I think that takes away some of what I always loved about music, which is how much you get to use your imagination. So on our weekly radio show we’ve done tons of things where you get to play around with that because no one can see what’s really going on.
You had planned on releasing a UFO-themed Over the Edge CD.
On our website we’ve been putting up all the UFO-related Over the Edge shows—it’s sort of a sub-series called ‘Another UFO.’ And in our art show in Los Angeles, related to that … Don in Negativland has made a series of visual pieces where he’s cutting up color images of crop-circles taken from the air. And making these really dense—and I think very beautiful—collages out of them. He’s made about nine of them now, some over 6-foot square. Some of those will be at the show in L.A. for sure. They’re cut up with scissors and held together with packing tape, and that’s intentional. He very much wants you to see how it’s put together. The collages that I make, I’m trying to hide how everything is glued and screwed and wired together so you don’t see any of it—it looks like it magically appeared floating on the wall. And Dan in Negativland has been making stuff where he takes images from Google Image Search and he pastes them all together in Photoshop and he lights them and repaints them one pixel at a time and he blends them together and then prints them out on canvas and then adds real paint to it. So in the end he makes these collages where you can’t tell that all the images are appropriated—it’s actually completely hidden. I think he’s just fantastic at doing that. It’s not intentional, but in our sound art, in our radio show, our live shows, in the films we’ve made, and in the visual art we do … we’ve always been drawn to collage, always, always, always. I think in our audio work it’s ended up being at times a lot more political—a lot more of an overt critique of the media we are appropriating, while, interestingly enough, in the visual art I find that doesn’t happen as much.
How is it different?
It’s more subtle. Someone was describing some of our visual art pieces to me and said, ‘It’s kind of like a story where you have to finish it—there’s a beginning and a middle, but the end you have to figure out yourself.’
I think that sensibility is very apparent in the recordings as well. When I was younger I really liked some of Zappa’s story-songs … however something like ‘A Big 10-8 Place’ couldn’t really be captured on film in the way some of Zappa’s songs could.
That goes back to the idea of the theater-of-the-mind—when you’re doing the kind of collage that we do, you are playing around with the way the human mind wants to make meaning out of everything, right? Our brains are always trying to make sense of everything around us. So when you put things together in some form of collage, we don’t put things together randomly, it’s very carefully considered. But at the same time we also try hard to make sure that it doesn’t make exact sense. I know we’ve had pieces coming together where I would say, ‘This seems too literal—let’s throw in some twist or confusion or sleight of hand’ … just to throw people off so that they can’t reduce it to an exact point-of-view. Because, to me, that’s the difference between it being art and it feeling like propaganda. I think of when we were making Dispepsi—do you know that record at all?
Yeah—you guys really thought you were going to get sued for that one.
Yep. By that point we actually had lawyers helping us out for free. We were preparing legal briefs to respond to Pepsi if they tried to get a court order to shut us down. As it turned out, they did not—they did get a hold of it but they decided to let it go. On that record there’s a track where we have a recording of an executive from Coke with a wonderful voice, speaking in reference to the introduction of ‘New Coke’ and saying, ‘Changing the taste of Coke is like making the grass purple, or putting teeth on your knees.’ And we thought that was just genius surreal poetry out of the mouth of a Coke executive. That kind of stuff really appeals to us. When we’re picking out the voice-bits we’ve used on a lot of our projects, we are picking them not only for what they say but how they say it. We’re very much attuned to timbres and textures. It’s not just about the meaning of the words. There’s an attraction to the aesthetic quality of a voice, of the cadence of how someone speaks—just like the sounds we use when we’re trying to use strange sounds in our work. So I think that’s true with the visual collage we’re doing, too. What’s been interesting for me personally in moving more consistently into making visual art is that it’s really been a good challenge. The idea of Negativland was always that it was this umbrella for us to do whatever we want—a project name under which we could do radio stuff, create characters, do visual art, write, make records, noise, sing, lecture, animation, films, set design, photography … a bit of everything really.
In regards to what you said about creating characters, you created the C. Elliot Friday character …
He really exists.
I kind of don’t want to know that, though.
He ran for president in 1984. He may run again. There’s talk of him running again.
What you just said is straight off the Time Zones CD. I remember that—it’s said during the interview, and you guys cut up some scientist who’s talking about Faraday.
But you cut it so he’s saying ‘Friday.’
Wait till you watch the ‘Visit Howland Island’ documentary. A lot of times when we do edits in our sound we’re trying to disguise the fact that it’s an edit, that’s part of the fun, but in the ‘Visit Howland Island’ documentary we had fun making something where the edits are really obvious and they’re intentionally quite bad. So it really sounds like someone tried to manipulate everything into making it say the right thing.
How has the internet changed the way you make music?
We’ve always thought of the entire body of our work as one giant conceptual thing, so we had characters and themes that re-occur over the years, and we always liked the idea of putting in enough detail for someone who was really into it … they’d start to discover that there’s more going on, many layers, and that it all connects. In regards to music going digital—I think the majority of people now are getting music not as an object. They’re listening to it as mp3s on random shuffle or what-have-you, which is fine on one level. For me, though, it’s sort of disheartening because I realized that I love making these works where the sum is greater than the parts, where each track builds to a sort of finale, in terms of the kind of points it’s trying to make, what it’s trying to evoke, the graphics are related to the project—the whole thing is a thing. It’s an object. And when you think about the work turning into just some tracks on random shuffle play and no more graphics connected to it, it doesn’t make me as excited about making records because you feel like you have no control anymore—like the technology forces you into being a singles band. Part of what makes me interested in doing our visual arts show is that this is a show of actual things, actual objects, actual stuff … and it’s all put together in a way that we want it, and the way you experience it is that you have to go there and you have to be in the room to actually see it. You can’t digitize that experience.
NEGATIVLAND’S “OUR FAVORITE THINGS” ART RETROSPECTIVE OPENS FRI., SEPT. 7, AT LA LUZ DE JESUS, 4633 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., HOLLYWOOD. THE BAND PLAYS LIVE AT THE OPENING AND ALSO WITH MOEBIUS ON THURS., SEPT. 6, AT THE ECHO, 1822 SUNSET BLVD., ECHO PARK. 8 PM / $12-$17. VISIT NEGATIVLAND AT NEGATIVLAND.COM.