TRIP Magazine – the Journal of Psychedelic Culture
Issue #9 - Spring 2003
Since 1980, Negativland have been at the forefront of underground audio collage, helping to establish it as a unique and legitimate genre. Their cultural critique landed them in hot water in 1991, when their single U2 - a savage parody of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" intercut with Casey Kasem spewing obscenities about the band during outtakes from his radio show - got them nearly sued into oblivion by Kasem and Island Records. Undeterred, one of their follow-up projects, an album called Dispepsi, takes dozens of Pepsi commercials as source material for a witty, sharp skewering of the world of advertising, and in 1999 they released an EP with Chumbawamba called The ABCs of Anarchism. Along the way, they became known as experts on the topic of intellectual property and copyright laws, giving lectures around the world on the topic, and coined the phrase "culture jamming," which found its way into the pop culture headspace.
TRIP: What inspired the Deathsentences project?
MH: A few years ago a member of the group, Richard Lyons, who used to earn a bit of extra money by buying used cars and fixing them up and selling them, was in a wrecking yard looking for a car part. He found a car that he had once owned, and, since he had sold it, it had clearly been in a terrible accident and had been cut open with the Jaws of Life to get the people out. He was poking around in the car and found stuff that had been left behind inside of it. He was very intrigued by the whole situation, and started poking around in more wrecked cars, and finding all sorts of stuff that people had left behind. He had a disposable camera and he started taking pictures of the cars and saving the things he found in them. He kept returning to the wrecking yard, finding more things, and eventually ended up with enough interesting finds and photographs that he decided to make a little color Xerox book out of this stuff and make copies and pass it around to all of us in Negativland and a few of our friends. And we all really liked it. We thought it was really interesting. Everyone who looked at it had a really intense, strong reaction to it, and yet everyone's reaction was very, very different. It was open to so many different ways of seeing the material, very blank in a way, very open to interpretation. People thought it was funny, sad, poignant, voyeuristic, disturbing, creepy, silly…all kinds of reactions.
And then what really kicked it into being a full-on project for us was that a collage art friend of ours, Sean Tejeratchi, who does Craphound Magazine, was in touch with Ira Glass of This American Life, the radio show on NPR, and they were doing an episode called "Other People's Mail." They were interviewing people who had found and read other people's letters. And Sean said to Ira, "Oh, Negativland has this little book they're doing, you should check it out…" And they came to us thinking it was more of a full on project than it actually was. We were just fooling around with this material with no clear idea of what to do next with it, but they wanted to see it, and they really, really liked it. And they ended up working with Richard - Richard has a beautiful radio voice - and they let him write the text for the entire segment - they did a whole section on This American Life about the project. And that got an even greater reaction from loads of people who heard the show e-mailing about it…folks who didn't know anything about our group at all. Listeners to that show were really interested, really responded to the material, and again had a very, very wide range of reactions, and that was when we all said to each other, "Well, this is just great, this thing has taken on some kind of weird life of its own. On some level we're not even sure what this project's about, but this is cool, very evocative, let's make it into our next release!"
So as we worked on creating the whole package, we decided to make a soundtrack of destroyed noise to go with the book. We were really thinking of this as being a book with a CD, not a CD with a book. What was really difficult was that all the usual Negativland approaches that we were throwing at it didn't work, because we always tend to want to do stuff that's funny, that has a lot of goofiness in it, that kinda directs you towards all the layers of meaning we put into the work, as well as lots of intentionally confusing fingers pointing in all different directions about what the work might mean or might not mean. We kept trying all these usual Negativland tactics because that's how we work, and we kept realizing, "Nope, that approach doesn't work, and…hmmm…that approach doesn't work, and, well, that approach doesn't work either! This project simply can't be funny!"
The project went through a whole lot of different iterations of how we thought to design it and how we thought to put it all together. Our original packaging ideas were way too expensive. At one point we looked into making it leather bound with a gold embossed cover like a bible! But there was no way we could afford to do it that way, so that got dropped. How do you design something that conceptually fits the whole project, is super cool in its design, and doesn't cost a bazillion dollars to make? So very gradually we came around to the finished package you have now, which is that the book now looks somewhat like it's some kind of an automotive manual, but it's not quite clear what, and it's inside of a large die-cut jacket sleeve that looks sort of like something you might put your automotive records in, or your car manual, or your receipts from your brake job, something like that, but it's not exactly clear what that is either. And the CD doesn't look like it's any kind of music CD at all; it's just some kind of audio demonstration disc for your car stereo. The entire package is suggestively automotive, but unclear as to exactly what it is. At every level of the project creation and design, we kept deciding that the best approach to the presentation of the material was to make it as blank and as open as we could to whatever people might think it's about. We had to get ourselves out of the way as much as we could. At this point the one thing about the entire project that we all think is very funny is that it's not funny!
TRIP: Many of the letters had a lot of poignancy to them, and were really kind of sad.
MH: Some of those folks in there are barely literate, in and out of jail and drug rehab programs, fighting alcoholism, getting abortions, boyfriends who are crack addicts…
TRIP: It was kind of stark to see that language so plainly. I don't get exposed to that…mailing lists are the way that I get much of my interaction with my friends and my subculture, and everyone there is relatively literate…
MH: Same with me. Same with all of us in Negativland. Finding that stuff was, for me personally, very much a glimpse into a whole world that I'm not a part of. My friends are not in and out of jail, my friends are not in rehab, they don't have substance abuse problems, my friends can spell and communicate pretty well, and so we found it to be really interesting to bring that stuff out in a creative project. But doing that could be really touchy, or seem condescending, almost like, for example, being a privileged white middle class male trying to make meaningful work that deals with issues of race or gender in an art project. So that was a big reason why the project really needed to present the stuff in an interesting, non-patronizing and evocative way, and leave the ultimate meaning up to you. We did try writing an afterward that explained everything, we wrote an intro, we tried all those approaches of laying it all out and giving an explanation, and we decided we just didn't like doing it that way. Having no explanation does mean there'll be this small percentage of people that are just totally mystified and put off by it, but mostly it seemed to us like it was a stronger work that way. It engages you more. If you want to check it out and spend time with it, then by us not clearly explaining what we were doing, it hopefully draws you in and gets you to do some of the work in figuring it out, and that gets you more engaged. And there's no right answer.
TRIP: The CD was the piece that kept me from my reflexive desire to try to find the overall, linear story, which of course doesn't exist… you could put the CD on shuffle, and page randomly through the book, and what you get is this very bizarre slice of life, where you're walking through this graveyard of vehicles, imagining the worst possible fates that could have befallen the passengers, and the letters provide eerie snapshots into these unknown lives.
MH: Right. Was this a letter they wrote and never sent? Was this a letter they got from somebody else? My mind is always making up stories to explain the world to myself and make it make a bit more sense, and I guess we all do this. I know as I go through my life, every time I go someplace new, or meet a new person, or have a new experience, I'm always trying to make sense of it with a story of how or who or why or when it is the way it is. So I find myself making up all these stories when I read the stuff in Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak. The other thing that we struggled with a lot, a seemingly minor thing but a huge thing to figure out, was that, in the end, we decided that the letters we found would all be presented the same size, they're all quite small. We could have made them big enough to read, but we liked focusing more on the text by presenting the text of the letters separately in big blocky letters. The book is not so much about the actual found thing, but the found thing is just sort of there as supporting evidence. As we put it all together, I often kind of thought of it as an archeological and anthropological presentation.
TRIP: It's a jarring effect actually to see text that was really professionally typeset, yet thoroughly illiterate in places. It was hard for me to accept that there wasn't a proofreader taking care of all of that.
MH: Oh boy, we went through it sooooo carefully to make sure we got it all… We had to make sure the printer knew about that. "You're going to get this project, and don't be confused by all the typos. Because they aren't typos!"
TRIP: So how has it been received? I saw a little blurb about the project in Newsweek. Are you getting good press on this in general? The pop culture part of me is curious.
MH: Well, just so you know, you can get a nice review in Newsweek, which goes out to a million and a half people, and it'll only help you sell a few thousand copies of your project! We've gotten some great press on it and some very bad press. It's been very mixed, and we expected that. I've even heard reactions from fans of our work who are almost angry with us for doing this, really disappointed. This is not what they expected from us. "We want that funny cut up anti-corporate stuff that you do so we can quote little bits of your funny tapes to our friends as we drive around town."
TRIP: That's a shame, because I thought this was a great addition to the Negativland body of work. It still had the Negativland voice to me.
MH: I certainly think so. It's still the found aesthetic.
TRIP: But it was a unique mood for me from what I'm familiar with of your work. Unlike something like Dispepsi or the U2 stuff, I could envision listening to this CD under a wider array of circumstances. I could imagine taking that CD and divorcing it from the book and listening to it while writing, for instance, and having it be the soundtrack to a range of dark or absurd or surreal moods.
MH: We're also getting wonderful reactions from people who really like it and who also appreciate the fact that we did something that risked alienating people, and they are saying, "Yes, great, good for you guys, it's great you took a risk and made something so different". I think that for Negativland it has helped to remind us that an essential aspect of what Negativland is has always been that it was an umbrella under which this loose knit group of odd-ball people could do whatever the heck they wanted: sound, movies, books, radio, performances, lectures, art shows, whatever we wanted to do as long as we all agreed it was good stuff. And not worry about whether or not the things we made would sell or not. Unfortunately we had to borrow quite a lot of money to put the Deathsentences project out - it was still really expensive to do it the way we wanted to do it, even though we did it as cheap as we could figure out how to do it and still keep it really, really cool. I think we will basically break even, that's it. We won't make a cent from it. Back when I was much younger and I wasn't living off of Negativland, breaking even would be just great. But now that I'm trying to survive off it, if you work on a project for three years and thousands of hours, and you just break even, well…
TRIP: Well, you seem savvy enough about pop culture to know certain ways you could take projects that would be more commercial. Do you just inherently reject that approach? How much does that enter into what you're doing?
MH: No, I don't think we have a grasp of how to do that, to steer a project in a certain way so that it will sell better. We've done these projects that have gotten a lot of attention, like the U2 project, or Helter Stupid, or Dispepsi, but they were just intuitive responses to the material we found and the world we live in, because of course we're always inspired by what we find. We don't search out targets; we get inspired by the stuff we find, and build projects around that, and that's completely what Deathsentences is. Richard found those letters and that's where he got the inspiration that led to this project. So I do think that part of the strength of the work we've done over the years, particularly the work that we're more well known for, is that they were very intuitive, kind of organic reactions to the bombarding world of pop culture and media that we're living in. We weren't calculatedly sitting down and saying, "Hey, we need to get in trouble. How can we do that? Let's come up with a list of ideas on how to get in trouble." I think if that's how we operated, our work would seem really contrived and stiff.
TRIP: You had the experience at one point of actually being approached by an ad agency.
MH: Yeah, Weiden & Kennedy, an ad agency based in Portland. They're gigantic. They do the ad campaigns for Microsoft and Nike. They're considered to be a "cutting edge" advertising firm. When we were working on the Dispepsi project, both [Negativland member] Don Joyce and myself pretty much simultaneously got phone calls from them. They wanted to hire Negativland to create these radio ads for Miller Genuine Draft Beer. We were right in the middle of doing the Dispepsi project on advertising, so it was a depressing, sort of shocking, but very healthy kind of wake-up call. The degree to which these people try to appropriate and absorb the people that are appropriating and critiquing them… it knows no bounds. These ad people thought it would be really cool to hire Negativland. They wanted to give us their ads to cut up and do things with and mock them and manipulate and do our Negativland "thing" to. Since they were offering us a lot of money - $25,000 or so - both Don and myself immediately thought, "Wow, we'd like that money, that sounds great. Is this an opportunity we could do something with?" Because over the years when weird things have happened to us, like when we've gotten in trouble, we've looked at these things as opportunities, not problems. In this case, my brain was doing the same thing: "Can we somehow subvert these guys and do something interesting with this, and turn the tables on them?" And what I then realized was, "Wait a minute, they called us because they want me to be thinking exactly what I'm thinking right now! That's what they want the ad to be." So then I realized that we'd been had, we were fucked. There wasn't any way you could out-think them.
And I've heard people say, "Well, you were stupid to turn them down- you could have just taken the money and used it for your own projects." I think that's the rationale a lot of people would use. But I think for us, given some of the content of our work and how we're perceived, if we had taken that money, I feel like it would make our work and our point of view seem like a farce, and I don't see how we'd be seen as having any integrity anymore. Another thing is, I just feel like somebody has to say "no" to these kinds of guys, you know? We aren't going to sell out to them! But of course, the whole notion of "selling out" has now become almost passé. It's become "quaint," and "old fashioned," which I think is really sad. And I think that's partly because our lives are now so circumscribed by corporate interests, by corporate ways of thinking, by the corporate cultural and economic model, that we've internalized it more than we realize. It doesn't matter how smarty pants lefty you are or how neo-con right wing you are. We do internalize those things and they come out in how we think and how we act. And so now the notion now that there's even any alternative, that anyone might say "no" to an offer like that… it's like, "integrity is stupid, give up!" And I worry about this. I worry about kids growing up who don't even know what an independent bookstore is like. You don't know what the experience is of even being in one. You'll never know it, because there's only Borders and Barnes & Noble. I think that's what's happening, and it seems tragic and sad to me.
Allen Ginsburg got asked to do a GAP ad. He did it, he took all the money and he put it into his Naropa Institute in Colorado and used it for scholarships for his students. Yoko Ono took money from Nike for use of the Beatles song "Revolution" in one of their shoe ads and donated that money to charity, she didn't keep it. But even so, I still think it's terrible that they did those things. Of course it's their image and their music and it's their choice, it's really none of my business…. but I think that the cumulative effect on all of us of seeing this kind of use of all of these magical bits of our culture, particularly iconic parts of oppositional culture and fringe counterculture, it just feels like this pathetic diminishment of these wonderful, beautiful, amazing things that us humans have created. It's as if the only value that these creations now ultimately have is in how they can be hooked up to a product to get you to buy something. It just makes me feel like shit when I see it.
TRIP: Did Pepsi ever have a reaction to your Dispepsi album?
MH: Oh yeah, they sure did. We got a very nice little segment on NPR about it because of that, actually. We were preparing to be sued. We had a team of five lawyers, all of whom were volunteering their time. We were preparing legal briefs to respond to a judge, in case they came after us with some sort of injunction. We were being told, "If they come after you, it'll be really fast, and really hard, and you need to strategize now for how to respond." Those lawyers also advised us, "If you don't want to get sued, don't put it out, but if you're going to put it out, choose your battles wisely. Don't put the word 'Pepsi' anywhere on the cover, because they can sue you for trademark infringement. If they're going to sue you, force them to sue you for copyright infringement, where you have a very defensible case." That's why we took the name off the cover. But then we came up with a fun solution to that problem, which was to put a nice sticker on the front that said, "Due to the limitations of US trademark law, we cannot put the name of this record on the cover. Call the Negativland Word-Of-Mouth Hot Line to find out." So we actually thought that the solution to the problem was far more interesting than if we'd put the actual CD name on the cover.
Anyway, Pepsi listened to it, their lawyers checked it out, they definitely wondered what we were up to, and they decided to do nothing. This resulted in a very funny quote from a Pepsi spokesperson, who said, "It's no Abbey Road, but it's a pretty good listen." And I think they were just saying, "We can take a joke, ha ha ha, we'll let it go." Or maybe they thought that if they sued us, it would only help publicize the project and help us out. So when Pepsi declined to sue us, it took some of the drama out of it, but we were also very relieved. I did not want to go through another lawsuit. None of us did. They're really, really horrible. We didn't want to go through it, yet at the same time, we felt strongly enough about these issues that we did put the record out and we did want to take that risk. We thought it was still worth doing. I think what was interesting about Pepsi's response was, here is a gigantic, multi-national corporation, and they're publicly allowing this thing to exist that actually does sample from their copyrighted commercials, quite heavily at times, mutilates them and cuts them up, and they just let it go. That was the right response. It doesn't set a legal precedent, but it does set a real world precedent.
TRIP: What's the Negativland take on filesharing and downloading?
MH: That's our next project. We're going to do another book with CD project and it gonna be called No Business. I suppose it's probably more of the kind of thing people expect us to do. It's all about downloading and stealing music and the supposed demise of the mainstream music industry. It comes with a 15,000-word essay all about file-sharing and collage and our take on these issues circa 2005, and the central track on the CD in No Business is called "Downloading." It uses a speech by Michael Greene, now the former president of the Grammy Awards. He spoke at the Grammy Awards last year and he took that occasion to admonish the youth of America about the evils of filesharing: "You are destroying the music industry." He resigned as president of the Grammies two weeks later amidst accusations of sexually harassing his staff. [laughs].
TRIP: Instant karma.
MH: Yeah, he's a good man, that Michael. Anyway, so we took his speech and we built a track around it. Actually what we've done is make a track that sounds like Negativland is against downloading, that we agree with this guy and think it's terrible, because that's what his speech is about. But the way we've supported his speech is we have interrupted him and collaged around him and layered around him all kinds of stolen music and lifted bits from all over. That struck us as being much funnier and more interesting than making a piece saying "Downloading is great, steal all the music you can." Obviously Deathsentences has been a big flop on college radio, but a lot of our other work has done quite well on college radio, so I also like the idea of giving all these people at college radio stations who are pissed off at the music industry and the RIAA for their insane reactions to file sharing something they can put on the radio that maybe gives a little bit of voice to some of those feelings.
Now of course Negativland doesn't mind if folks download our music from file-sharing networks, but interestingly enough Deathsentences and No Business are both projects that really can't be downloaded. If you just get the audio without the books and the die-cut sleeve and the rest of the packaging, they simply wont make much sense at all.
TRIP: I noticed I can go to your web site and download the U2 tracks or buy the CD. I was surprised that after all the hubbub about that project, it's so easily available. How is that possible?
MH: We just did it.
TRIP: So no one's paying attention to you anymore and the publicity's died down…
MH: Or they are paying attention to us but they are just letting it go. I've spoken to people at some pretty big record labels who follow what we do and that's what I've been told. In the case of the U2 single, all the people involved emerged looking pretty bad. Island Records has been bought out twice since then. All the people who worked there when they sued us are gone, even the president. And U2's not even on Island Records any more. That's just all in the past. You know, we put out John Oswald's Plunderphonics project on our Seeland label, a double CD that's still totally illegal, and it got favorably reviewed in big time music industry magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin, and they mentioned the fact that it's 100% made of other people's music. They even named who some of those appropriated artists were: Michael Jackson, Metallica, the Beatles, the Doors, Dolly Parton. And nothing happened. And our calculated risk strategy there - which we always have, we're not as reckless as we seem to be, we're always balancing risk versus artistic coolness - but at the time we were thinking, "You know what, the music industry attorneys out there are all completely preoccupied with suing Napster and worrying about Kazaa and Morpheus and Limewire and the collapse of their entire business model. They aren't going to care anymore about going after a bunch of people that sell 2,000-10,000 copies of a record that cuts up the Beatles. Let's put it out."
TRIP: Didn't you even have a back and forth exchange with the RIAA where they admitted there was a gray area around collage?
MH: Well, these days that's the problem in getting your work out. If you are releasing collage stuff on your own, I don't think the industry cares much any more if you are doing any sort of fragmentary appropriation. The problem is now the CD manufacturers where you might get really hung up. We get e-mails pretty often from people who are doing audio collage stuff, and they're saying, "We're trying to get our CD pressed, and the RIAA has now so thoroughly intimidating all the CD plants that they're routinely turning down our stuff when they hear snippets of anything they think might be found sound." We ourselves now have a pressing plant we work with that doesn't pay attention to what we do. Ssshhh, don't tell anybody! I'm not going to tell who they are in this interview, but if anyone wants to know, if you're out there reading this and doing any kind of audio collage and you're having problems getting your CD pressed, drop me a line. It's easy to reach me through our web site, so send me an email and I will let you know who we deal with, because every time we send somebody their way, there's been no problem.
And of course none of the stuff that we send to be pressed is actually pirating anybody's work at all, anyway. As far as we are concerned, it's all fair use. We're not putting out a pirated copy of the new Britney Spears record or something. It's all audio collage. In the music world, I've been hearing a lot less about threats over collage work. That's where we had the go-round with the RIAA (http://negativland.com/riaa/index.html), about their guidelines with pressing plants, and we finally did get them to at least acknowledge or pay lip service to the idea that there is a gray area, and not all reuse of someone's copyrighted material is automatically an infringement. However, CD plants are still going to err on the side of being too conservative because they're a business. They're not interested in free speech issues. I was talking to one plant that turned us down, and the woman there said, "We'd like to help you, but we just can't take the risk. You don't know what it's like. These people come in from the RIAA and it's like the Gestapo." She used that term. She said, "They scare the hell out of us. They tell us we could be liable for contributory infringement. For every CD that we make for you, we could be fined $100,000." On a bigger front, too big to go into here, the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has been really bad for consumers. It's eroding fair use in terms of the consumer end of what they can do, making copies of CDs they have purchased to use in their car or at work or to share with friends… on that end it's very fucked up, and it's very much an issue to be aware of and try to resist. What's happened to Internet radio because of CARP is a horror show.
What I think the whole entertainment industry is doing right now is grossly overstating the damage that file-sharing and Internet radio might do, because what they want is the playing field all to themselves. So they think if they can get the people in Congress to believe this is the deathblow to the music industry, they can get Congress to agree to whatever they want. Frank Creighton, who's the head of criminal investigations at the RIAA, has likened their efforts to stop file-sharing to the war on drugs! Which I thought was a great analogy to pick, because the war on drugs is a total failure and drugs are cheaper and more pure than ever before, and now we've got the largest percentage of our population in jail of anyone on the planet. Of course in this case, I guess, if they go after everybody, it won't be a bunch of black inner city kids, it'll be a bunch of white suburban kids. But that's where most of the drug abuse in our country really occurs, so maybe that all nicely balances out...(laughs).
What's been so amazing about what happened with Napster is that it took these issues about who owns information and ideas, intellectual property ideas and arcane copyright issues, and propelled them onto the cover of Time magazine and The New York Times. Suddenly you had all these explanations of fair use in mainstream media. We called our book that came out in 1995 Fair Use: The Story Of The Letter U and the Numeral 2 because we wanted to call attention to that phrase, which didn't seem to be well known at the time. But now a lot more people are aware of the notion, and what's happened lately with so-called "mash-ups" and "bootlegs" really blows my mind. Just when you thought appropriation couldn't get any more mainstream, it got more mainstream by leaps and bounds! Mash-ups are something that's become a particularly big trend in England. It's people taking two or three tracks by different bands and playing them at the same time, and layering them to make a new track. Quite often it's taking an a cappella version of something and layering it on top of something else. Quite often it's black culture overlaid on top of leaden electronic white culture. When I was in England last year someone actually pointed out to me something that I had not quite caught culturally, which is that in England you don't really have black urban radio. It does not exist. There might be stations that play reggae, but you don't have any of the stuff you have here, so part of the novelty of hearing Missy Elliott or Atomic Kitten singing on top of cut-up Gary Numan is that there's a certain black culture thing they're not hearing in the mainstream over there. So this mash up I just mentioned, I think it's called "Freak Like Me," it's a #1 hit single. I heard it literally everywhere I went in England, and met the guy who made it at an event I was speaking at. Richard X, he's a very nice guy. He'd just come back from two weeks on a yacht off the coast of Greece with P. Diddy, who hired him to work with him on his next project!
TRIP: So are those legal releases?
MH: Well, no, the interesting thing about mash ups… well, with that #1 hit single, first it was just an illegal 7" that Richard put out. It was a huge hit in clubs, and it was a big enough hit that it came to the attention of a record label who then licensed the sampled tracks as well as paid money to go into the studio to recreate the parts they couldn't get the rights to sample. Weird, huh? But what's really fun about the genre is it's almost 100% completely underground and illegal. It all exists as MP3 files and white label 7" singles. And actually, one of the tracks on No Business is being given to Richard X to remix it for release in England as an illegal white label 7". So what's interesting to me about all this is that it's enormously mainstream and popular. There are thousands of 13-year-olds all over England who are taking their PCs and iMacs and they're just dragging little sound files one on top of another to make new songs. It's very punk rock. It's great. You don't have to know how to play anything at all. Also what's interesting is that it seems to have no political, cultural critique in it whatsoever; it's just about making some funny thing you can dance to. A couple years ago on the True/False Tour, I used a ZZ Top song ["Sharp Dressed Man"] played at the same time as Julie Andrews singing the theme from The Sound of Music, and made it work, and it was really funny. It's a very satisfying thing to pull off.
To step back a bit to a bigger picture, the reason all of these arcane intellectual property issues are important is because these are all examples of ways corporations want to divvy up, own and control absolutely every square inch of not only the physical world, but also the inside of your head, your ideas, art, and culture. I think that's the reason why I'm interested in it. It's not that I particularly care about copyright law. I actually don't! It's just one way Negativland got impacted by the hammers of the corporate world. But oppressive intellectual property laws are literally a matter of life and death when you're dealing with things like patent laws that might allow a drug company to sell an AIDS drug that costs them 50 cents to make for $15 a pill. That's where it's really serious.
TRIP: Many people may not realize that Negativland is the source for the term "culture jamming." How did that wind up happening and getting propagated?
MH: Partly it goes back to a release we did in 1984 called JamCon 84 which was edited from our weekly radio show, Over The Edge. We'd done a show that was all about jamming, ham radio jamming, an international jammers convention, with sound effects, live music, mixing, callers… it was trying to sound like we had roving live reporters interviewing people at this huge convention. We actually did get a real ham radio jammer to come up for the show and talk to us. Our interest in this came from all our listening and taping of ham radio jamming…. we got some great recordings to use! They were always jamming each other with test tones and being obnoxious and silly, so we naturally used this stuff on our own live-mix radio show. Whenever we were doing our radio show, and you're at home or in your car and tuning your dial, and you end up stumbling across this thing we are doing that is not like anything else on the radio, well, our show itself, to us, is kind of a jamming sort of a thing. Just the whole notion of jamming fit with how we saw some of our work. Actually our use of the term "jamming" goes back even earlier…it first appears on the LP version of our 1983 album A Big 10-8 Place, all over it actually. There's even a little hand embossed thing on the plastic sleeve that says "A Jammer Can," and I just recently remembered sitting around in 1982 with Ian, who was part of the group back then, and we were saying, "Wouldn't it be neat if someday people thought this whole idea of jamming and being a jammer was really cool, and that's what they wanted to do themselves? And it wouldn't be about just jamming the radio - but about jamming the media in a bigger, cultural, political sense?" And I guess our wish sorta kinda eventually came true! I only just now realized that.
Anyway, somewhere in 1990 or 1991, a writer named Mark Dery was noticing some of the things that were going on in our music, as well as in other music and art, and he wrote a sort of trend piece for Elle magazine about people who were doing art and activist media that dealt with media, media that took the media and used the media itself to respond to the media, and he ended up using our phrase. He then went on to do a nice little pamphlet called "Culture Jamming." And then Adbusters magazine printed a portion of it or of some article he wrote, and that's how Adbusters ran across the phrase. And at some point, they decided that they really liked this "culture jamming" phrase and they wanted to brand their movement, label it, give it an identity, and market it… which is actually a lot of what they're attacking in their magazine, which I think they think is a clever thing to do. I don't agree, actually. I think that strategy is fraught with peril. They have commodified the idea of attacking the commodification of everything. So anyway, it took on a life of its own through Adbusters.
Interestingly enough, and I don't really understand why, Adbusters has never written about what we do, ever. You'd think Dispepsi would have been right up their alley, you'd think they'd be all over it. We took a pretty huge risk doing that record, and they never wrote about it. It's strange. Of course they mean well, and they have a circulation of 80,000, so clearly the magazine resonates with a certain kind of person. That kind of person isn't me, though, or anyone in Negativland. They seem to want you to join their "culture jamming club" and their on-line "culture jamming network" (which isn't a network at all, actually, its just a mailing list)…but you know that old Groucho Marx saying " I'd never join a club that would have me as a member"? That's me. I'm not a joiner. I kind of have the feeling that the phrase "culture jamming" has become a sort of proprietary thing for them. They really feel like it's theirs. And they are the same about Buy Nothing Day: they didn't invent Buy Nothing Day either, but you'd never know it from the way they promote it.
One thing they say about their work is that they're beyond left and right. From what I know of Adbusters, you get the impression that what they're saying is if you just alter enough billboards, if you just jam enough media, if you just make enough counter-ad ads, somehow this will change the world and make everything okay. And I just think that leaves a huge part of the equation out, which is the political process. Of course I think it's great fun to cut up media and make stuff out of it. I think it's very empowering for the individual. It can change your relationship to mass media and mass culture when you start to look at it as being a two-way thing, when you look at it as something you can respond to and do things with. You aren't being just a consumer anymore. It's great. But I don't know how effective it is as an agent of change. It's definitely an element of it… but I think the two biggest things that need to happen in this country that would change everything in a kind of huge trickle down effect is, first of all, some true, real, honest to God, campaign finance reform. If you actually made our so-called democratic process truly democratic and politicians really represented the people, everything would change, including things like the quality of our media, and you wouldn't have all these mergers with fewer and fewer companies owning more and more of our music, newspapers, TV… there's so many good things that would come out of this to do with jobs and health insurance and unions and the environment and on and on, if you simply had politicians doing their job and actually looking out for the public good. Which would happen if you took out special interest money.
And we have to stop the legal definition of corporations being defined as persons, when they cant be punished and held accountable like an actual individual person is. By definition, a corporation has to make money for its shareholders no matter what the cost to human lives or the environment. That needs to be changed. They can still make money, but they aren't persons, and they can't make their profit at the expense of people's quality of life or health or the environment. Both these things are two pretty simple yet huge things, really, if only we had the will to make them actually happen. There's a city in Pennsylvania that just declared, "We do not recognize corporations as being persons. They are not persons, and they are not entitled to any of the rights of persons." It's amazing… I don't know what's going to happen to that town, but it's really incredible. It came about because a corporation actually sued the city saying they had the rights of a person because the city was preventing them from doing something in the town that the town thought would endanger their quality of life, and I think that corporation suing the town pissed enough people off that they passed this thing. It's a small but incredibly significant step.