WIRED October 2007


An extensive e-mail interview with three of the members of Negativland (Mark Hosler, Don Joyce, and hard-working satellite member Tim Maloney) about their new DVD "Our Favorite Things", and a whole lot more.

Q: What are your favorite things about Our Favorite Things?

MARK: We love them all, and that’s why they're all on there. But, as much as you could say that our DVD is almost like some sort of weird “greatest hits” collection, the various shorts are all sequenced to work together as a greater whole experience when you watch it, with the intent that it works as a mirror of how strange and scary and upside down things have been getting in the USA these days. Some of it is funny too, but, to me, it turned into a surprisingly dark work, one of those occasions where the unconscious part of the creative mind is reflecting back more about the state of things than it realizes. And in showing these films to audiences over the last few years as the project has developed, we also noticed that by taking our approach to sound and transforming it into new moving pictures, our work seemed to become much more accessible to a lot more people. That wasn’t the intent in making this DVD, but it’s a great side effect.

DON: I like it, despite the experience being like a curious "greatest hits" retrospective. I'm usually more concerned about adding to our various "milestones" than reiterating the ones we already have, but then the video half of everything in Our Favorite Things is 100% brand new. (While “new” is not as important a word in advertising as "free,""new" is the other important word.) So between this "new" aspect and the proven popularity of retrospectives, we figure to be sitting on pretty street in no time.

Q: And does it provide an accessible point of entry to new adopters, who might not understand you were culture jamming before YouTube was a billion-dollar idea in some Stanford grad's head?

MARK: Again, not the intent, but we do hope it could be exactly that - a pretty comprehensive point of entry into our rather peculiar approach to re-using and re-making the culture we live in. And, whether you like what we do or not, hopefully it also works as yet another example of why, as “illegal” as our DVD might seem to be to those we appropriated from, that it’s actually a totally legitimate artistic approach to making new work. Of course, that argument is much easier to make these days as collage has gone from the fringes as a style and an "art "strategy, to being very, very mainstream. Mash-ups, and now YouTube, in particular, have really inspired and given a platform to thousands of folks to try their hand at cut-up and appropriation and collage in a big, big way.

TIM: Is YouTube culture jamming? I thought YouTube was just a website where kids put up clips of anime episodes and "Family Guy" episodes.

Q: Can you talk about some of the indie filmmakers you teamed up with, and why?

MARK: Negativland has always been a collaborative effort between the four or five or six of us, and over the years we have often gone beyond the immediate group to work with various designers, artists, noise makers, animators and film makers whose work we like and who seem enough on the same wavelength as us that something fruitful might come of working together. We always try and be as respectful as possible with working with outside creators, and try to make it as collaborative as we can. The amount of work put into this DVD by all the other folks who contributed was just beyond belief, so it couldn't have been made without them.

TIM: The big problem was that most of the indie filmmakers we contacted about working with us turned us down. Stanley Kubrick, for example, absolutely refused to do anything with the group, using the excuse that he had been dead for years. Some of filmmaking's greatest minds have told Negativland they were "washing their hair that night" and couldn't help - even while they secretly ripped us off and stole all our ideas. David Lynch, for example, rushed out his own pale imitation of our DVD that he called "Inland Empire," and Guy Maddin made a movie about a forgotten silent film star who wouldn't even listen to Negativland records.

Q: You were ahead of your time in many ways, just as Situationist Internationale was ahead of their own. Do you feel responsible in some ways for exploding the envelope on the digital age, and paving the way for found media to be used in myriad ways, not all of them legal? In fact, do you feel partially responsible for changing the idea of what should and shouldn't be legal in the first place?

DON: In my mind, digital technologies are an influential bystander to a much older and now continuous urge to recompose the world around us and call it art. Beyond the habit of painting the world around us, it began in earnest with the invention of photography, and around 1900 with Surrealism, Dada, and collage. When electronic audio/visual media emerged (now a big part of the "world around us") it only greatly encouraged and greatly enabled the democratization of this urge to recompose our world so natural to any creative activity today. When you can conveniently capture anything from media, you can begin to think about media as art rather than whatever it was intended to be. I don't think we have ever done anything categorically new, but that maybe we were re-interpreting an artist's approach to selectivity in found content - recomposing found content in some way that might distinguish us.

MARK: Are you asking if we are in some way responsible for all those mostly crappy audio and video mash-ups being made these days? Good question! But let's leave the answer up to the public and the ex-spurts to decide, because Negativland just needs to keep moving ahead and doing our best to keep doing good work. But we have certainly tried to set an example with all we do, and be as fearless as possible in doing this sort of thing over the last 27 years. And yes, we do sometimes hear that what we do inspires people, which is fantastic, but that's not a smart or healthy thing to dwell on, so we don't. And, by the way, at this point I think that this kind of approach (re-using bits and pieces of mass culture to make new things) has mostly gone back under the legal radar for the owners of mass culture - they are far too worried about their entire business model collapsing to waste time suing someone who sells a few thousand CDs that chop up old Beatles tunes, or who intercuts old "Family Guy" episodes with anime to make some some video collage on YouTube.

However, if some one *did* decide to go after us for copyright infringement, we now have Larry Lessig of Creative Commons fame willing to put himself and his legal team to work for us "pro bono" in defending us. I feel pretty darn sure we’d win such a case, and then we’d be able to talk to folks like you about what our work is actually about, instead of how we make it! In fact, I think the cultural awareness about this stuff is so far ahead of the laws and industry practices, that *someone* has to step up and just boldly do it in a very big in-your-face mainstream way, and stop asking permission to do it. It’s absurd that what we do is still considered to be illegal by the mainstream music industry, so we need to find some giant corporate label like BMG or Interscope or Starbucks to sell out to, as long as they agree to let us keep doing our work with no permissions being sought for what we sample. If someone sued us for it, the label would not be out of pocket for legal fees because Lessig and his crew would fight for us. If (a very big "if," I realize) we could find some big time label head who was culturally enlightened enough to see the bigger picture here, then that would be worth betraying all our principles and signing any contract, no matter how vile or onerous (as they all are). As nauseating as it might be to work with these folks, we’d do it, as long as they agreed to our one rule - no samples will be cleared. And if any of them are reading this, hey, drop us a line and let's make a deal! Just look us up on the web, and remember there is no second "e" in Negativland!

Q: What are your thoughts on the evolution of intellectual property law(suits) and copyfighting?

TIM: Lawrence Lessig said it best when he asked that we challenge the notion that "intellectual property" are two words that even go together. There is no such thing as "intellectual property," and the more we use this term the more we give credence to the notion that an idea can be owned. It can't. That is a fiction, and we give it power by believing in it and acting as though it were true.

Having said that, I think you should know that those of us in the First Church of the Mashed Christ abhor the word “evolution” and request that you change your question to read “the intelligent design of intellectual property law(suits) and copyfighting.”

MARK : The laws about IP have only changed for the worse, and our now former attorney general has been thinking up new rules that are quite draconian, and seem as bad as you could imagine. We'd become felons for doing what we do! But the real-world practices are very very different, as Don points out below. And while we definitely have our disagreements with them, Larry Lessig and Creative Commons have done a fantastic job of publicly articulating the idea that the current copy regime is broken and we need other options. We worked with them a few years ago to write their sampling license, which was quite a challenge to turn one’s idealistic ideas into legalese.

You know, our main worry in making "Our Favorite Things" was not from the owners of the IP we used to make it, it was with the DVD plant who pressed it. We were terrified they would preview it and say “Hey, hold on! We can’t press this and take this risk, because the RIAA and MPAA tells us we could be liable for contributory infringement!” So we see that most of the bottleneck is at the manufacturing ended of things. We get e-mails every month from other audio collage artists who have pressing plants freaking out on them and turning them down. It's depressing.

Q: Your U2 prank made me beg for a job at MONDO 2000...

MARK: Ha! Half the staff at MONDO 2000 did not even want to run that interview, and the guy who set it up nearly quit in protest! I think the publisher was afraid of upsetting the powers that be in the entertainment world and losing "access" in some way, as U2 was by far the biggest band in the world at the time.

Q: Do you think intelprop and copyright infringement have become huge cash cows since then?

MARK: Intellectual property, obviously. It’s one of our countries main exports! But infringement, no. I don’t see much money being made over it, as all the cases are settled long before they go to court.

TIM: Once again, both of you, stop saying “intellectual property.” It’s not a valid concept.

Q: And how much of that litigation is based on the desire to not actually make anything, with new or old materials? Is it the lazy artist's new franchise?

MARK: Those two questions don’t make sense. But it’s true that technology makes it very easy these days to do lame-ass collage that isn’t really about anything. While we are certainly careful about the surfaces in our work, doing work that is about nothing *but* surfaces has never had much appeal to us. Like many mash-ups and collages seem to be - however fun they are and as much as we might enjoy them - they are often never really about much of anything. In the end, whatever technique or medium you use to create stuff, it all boils down to whether or not you have a good idea. It is interesting? Is is smart? Is it funny? Negativland would have quit long ago if we thought we had run out of good ideas. Luckily, with so many eccentric and difficult personalities in our group, that never seems to be a problem.

DON: Our 2005 release "No Business" and the 64-page propaganda pamphlet inside it was our summing up of the state of cultural ownership for now, and since there were no lawsuits or cease and desist orders concerning any of the 100% stolen audio on "No Business", one of the points in the pamphlet may be true - that this creative method (recomposing found sound) is now so common and generally accepted as esthetically valid in all media (everyone who owns a computer knows what "cut & paste" means) that it's becoming like common law, increasingly "legitimized" through mass practice. I hear of few suits in music anymore over sampling, the whole litigation focus has moved to the Internet, and there it's still mostly about the unauthorized copying of whole works (music and movies) - making an unauthorized profit off ripped copies of whole works. Lawsuits over material on YouTube may begin to include any kind of unauthorized fragments or partial clips because that’s the way the law allows lawyers to think. This becomes an attempt to intrude more into personalized recomposing of copyrighted material, but I don't believe any economic "competition" is at stake in such free re-uses of fragmentary material on-line (thus suggesting your point that copyright clearance fees are an easy and uncreative living to be made). We still hold to our motto - Fair Use For Collage. As long as the whole work is not reproduced unchanged, any piece of it is up for grabs in art for free. It harms no one (a “loss” of unexpected and unearned clearance income from fragments of one’s work is not a loss). Otherwise, this use of copyright law becomes an inhibition of free expression, not to mention free speech.

But nevertheless, I think the Internet is now verifying the idea that in the future, nothing will remain intact. Copyright law should be revised to acknowledge this, or remain outside any marching orders for modern artists. When crime is art, art is crime. That's an unacceptable M.O. for the future of art.

Q: You've got a bonus disc of faves performed by a capella crooners The 180 Gs, and you recently teamed up with DJs like Steinski and Double Dee. What are your thoughts on the nexus between hip-hop (the shit that doesn't suck, that is) and your own work?

MARK: I was a big fan of all the early Public Enemy stuff when it came out way back when because it was so dissonant and noisy and political. And the way Eminem managed to piss off virtually *everybody* a few years ago was appealing. But I sure wouldn't call the 180 Gs hip-hop! They are a bunch of very nice church-going boys from Detroit who do a bang-up job transforming our cut-up collages into Gospel, Doo-wop, and R & B stylings.

Q: Speaking of, how does your work (and Steinski's, come to think of it) call theories of "authenticity" and power into question?

TIM: I'm not sure we should answer that question on the grounds that it sounds like a semiologist asked it. And we simply cannot capitulate to semiologists. They are silly people who use words funny.

MARK: I don’t think those issues matter to us very much when we are making our work. Though, in fact, I think the particular way we very carefully approach collage can actually be a more honest way to make something that is, paradoxically enough, *more* authentic, as it conveys a ton of layered information and yet leaves so much of the interpretation up to the listener. It can have a complexity of meaning to it that is more like real life, because it uses all this actual real stuff from real life. And it works in a very multi-plane way, since you have no idea why we chose the bits we chose to collage with- is it because they were funny, sad, profound, smart, dumb, weird, creepy, banal, idiotic, surreal, cryptic, obvious, symbolic...?? Which? Well, it could be any of those reasons, and usually it's more than two or three or four of them all at the same time! And your brain has to do the work of sorting that all out and putting it all together in a way that I think is quite different than if we just sang lyrics and spoke in "our" voice like most bands do.

Q: And are we at a stage when little can be co-opted or repurposed with impact, because most are on board with the idea that marketing and advertising are just propaganda?

MARK: Quite possibly, but that does not mean that repurposing stuff does not still have an effect. Don't forget, as our esteemed colleague Dr. Oslow Norway always says - "Intelligence is temporary." So we need to hear these things over and over sometimes, but in new ways. Conversely, your implied point is a good one and is why some of our latest work isn’t about those things at all. One of our newest projects has been a live show we have been touring the last two years that is all about why we believe in God, and the role our brain plays in that, and why this belief in one God is causing us humans a lot of problems, especially now. And we use collage as a way to talk about that stuff. Also, I think that co-opting Negativland is a bit difficult because our work is still in a very legally grey area that makes people with money very nervous.

Q: And what do you think of blockbusters like The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, who basically mash CSPAN footage and other snoozy political crap into hilarious new packages? Has hyperreality come of age at last?

MARK: We kinda had this idea back in the early 90s that collage would become one of the next millenniums preeminent styles and art forms, and that the kind of work we were doing, which seemed so transgressive and "edgy" at the time, would one day become a very normal mainstream art practice. With the explosion of mash-ups and collage in the last five years or so, I think we are seeing this come true. It’s pretty wild. And what's not to love about two T.V. shows that essentially teach media literacy? They're great.

DON: In the future, nothing will remain intact. Intact works will remain of course, as always, but they also won’t remain intact in new uses. That's just the way it's going, so get used to it. Seriously, the 20th Century mined so many extremities of what art might consist of that we now see few if any options to create anything which used to be called "original," or even "new" in any real way. Now art is much more about transforming what already is. (More economical if nothing else!) Now we're applying our originality to practices of transformation, not to creating "new" styles or "original" content. No such thing anymore. All so-called "original" work today is so full of genre and technique copying it's not even funny.  So be it, this was always true, it's how art progresses, and it will continue because most people really do prefer twists on the well worn and familiar to the unknown. Collage is all about twisting what is old into something new, still a defining method in modern creativity as time goes by. Simple legitimacy will come to collage when we all cease seeing the reuse of existing work to make new work as either uncreative or a crime or both. 

TIM: When Baudrillard wrote about hyperreality he was describing a condition that he already felt in America, not a moment to come. Yet the hyperreal is, if my reading is correct, the point at which the original is completely lost, and we have only an unending series of references to other references without any originals. So, for the real hyperreal trip we would have to see CSPAN recutting the same political mashups into serious political statements - making Stephen Colbert endorse the Iraq War and Jon Stewart enthusiastic about the unitary power of the Executive.

Even better, the day that we find out that Osama Bin Laden was, in reality, just a CGI character, and that George Bush is a mannequin controlled by Microsoft, then we have either fulfilled Baudrillard's prophecies or we have just entered a Philip K. Dick novel, take your pick.

The logical end-result of the Baudrillard Universe is a kind of asymptote wherein all signs lose their relationship to the signifiers, and we end up in a world of free-floating signs that have no referents at all. Nice idea, but the fact is we really can trace back all the referents if we want to. We’re only in a few levels deep, with little to indicate a rupture in significance any time soon.

We don't really live in a world where we have lost contact with the original referents. We do live in a world where the chain is getting longer and longer, and derivative work has a surprisingly lengthy pedigree. But this is quite different from the alarmist notion that we have spiraled out of control to the point in which civilization and language break down completely because of somebody copying something.

Q: How has your work evolved since the early days of your self-titled debut?

DON: I see innovation in our terms as taking found content (both with and without original sonic additions by us) and bringing it to new places via rearranging (what we used to call editing in analog material.) We have always tried to do this in our releases, trying to make each one significantly different in the themes tackled or content selected from project to project. Jumping from "Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak", which has an audio component to the book that is made from mostly original destroyed electronic sounds generated by us, to "No Business," which is a 100% recomposition of other people's music, to "Our Favorite Things" which is our experiments in video, to a future project we have in the works that is all actual real songs from beginning to end, is generally what we're after from work to work. With so little sales of any of them, I figure unpredictability is our last strength.

Q: With the internet, pranking has gone wide-screen. And looking at our political situation, everything has seemed to become one big joke. What's left to make fun of?

TIM: Irony.

DON: Well, dying is easy, comedy is hard. That 19th Century actor's death bed confession could hardly have suspected that making fun is not only hard, but that someday there would be nothing left to make fun of! I think a longer view will show that there is plenty left to make fun of now, even if there is nothing "new" to make fun of. Let's start with ultra serious religionism before it kills us...
[ To Editor: Yes, I'm possibly making up words here, it's okay, they may even catch on if you let them through, but it's my artistic license to invent something appropriate in language, too. I know, I know, "what if everyone did it?" That's why selectivity is still the key to all greatness, in art or in editing. Thank you. DJ]
Q: Kidding aside, there is still a massive gap between those who are plugged into the relationships of power and media, and those who think Reality TV is actually reality on TV. Not that I want to quote Baudrillard but I have to: Have we reached the vertigo of information he talked about?

TIM: See, the awkward thing about criticism is that it tries to frame our present world as existing in some state of delicate crisis of philosophical terms. And this invariably attempts to induce a kind of millennial panic that simply does not exist and which no one would never experience if not prompted by criticism. Don't get me wrong, Baudrillard was a lovely thinker, and his books are downright hilarious, but no one in their right mind would say he lives in a "vertigo of information" and keep a straight face.

Are we too saturated with information? Americans have been asking themselves that for about 30 years, and maybe even longer if we researched it thoroughly. The "information overload" concept comes from Alvin Toffler's "Future Shock" (1970) and it figured pretty prominently in criticism and art throughout the 80's. So it’s a pretty old notion we’re kicking around here.

In the end, I have no idea. I don’t feel particularly vertiginous in the face of however much information is out there, so I’m not inclined to believe in a dissolution of language or society resulting from it. Once again, a nice little idea, but not a very close reflection of the lives we live.

Q: If the cliche is that information wants to be free, then how come some people are getting dumber by the day while the rest are using Wikipedia?

Don: We did a live tour back in 2000 called True/False, and it was all about the rapidly expanding information environment around us and how the heck can you distinguish whether anything is actually true or false within it. Yes, there can be too much information to be useful, and we are now in that realm. Information verification and fact checking is out the window, gut feelings take over. Opinion replaces knowledge. Dangerous? You bet!

MARK: We live in very weird times, permanently so. As Negativland satellite member Dan Lynch once described it to me, we would one day live in a world where the rate of change was so fast that if you looked at it as a curve showing that rate as it exponentially rose in speed, the curve would have curved up to no longer being a curve at all, into just being a straight line of permanent rapid-fire change going up.... forever. This moment in human history is called by some "The Singularity", and I am sure you WIRED guys have covered this in some way in the past. Tim might disagree, but I believe that for all intents and purposes, we are there. So if the rate of change is that rapid, and paradigm shifts in culture and technology and politics and power and economics are happening all the time, how does anyone, from the average person to the most powerful rulers, make any sort of smart choices about how to live, what to eat, who to vote for, how to spend one’s money , who to love, what country to invade, what to create, etc. etc. It is really like a new form of mass collective hallucination and mass insanity, and Dick Cheney is in it just as much as you or I. It's very dangerous.

And for anyone making “art” or anything creative, how in hell do you thoughtfully respond to all this, especially when you do work, like we do, that often takes years to finish? And this has only gotten more and more challenging to me personally when it often feels like if you don’t do something smart or funny or clever on the web the second something hits the fan, then it doesn’t matter. I don't think that is actually true, but it often feels that way.

TIM: Yeah, I’m still going to disagree about this “singularity” notion. It can FEEL like change is happening rapidly in our world, but this notion of unending straight-line change is not actually occurring.

When we (and poor Mr. Baudrillard – quit picking on him!) talk about these theoretical limits as if they have been reached it just seems like silly millennial thinking. We might as well say there is an End to Art, although we all seem to keep making it every day. It’s a clever, incendiary critical construct that neither informs creative work nor helps create more of it.

Q: Finally, where do you think all this is headed? Tech has given the people the means of production like never before, but it has also drastically expanded the reach of snoops, spies and grifters.

MARK: It’s an important point to remember - that for all the sexiness of all that high tech hardware and software that WIRED has relentlessly promoted and advertised since it’s inception, the darker side of how it messes up our lives needs to be addressed, something WIRED has often been very remiss in doing. Sure, we are “empowered” by computers. But the tradeoff is that the corporate and government and intelligence world has access to us and our lives in ways that are unprecedented and show no signs of going backwards, and the impact on our day-to-day lives has been very mixed.

Back when I was a kid in the 60s and early 70s, I can recall hearing this relentless mantra that computers and robotics would mean that because we could do in one day the amount of work we used to do in five, that we would all work less and have all this new leisure time to make art and go back to school and be with our families and travel and volunteer in our communities, etc., etc. But what did we actually get? Because you can now do in one day the amount of work it took you to do in five days, it mean that in five days you are expected to do the amount of work you can do in 20!! So computers gave us *less* leisure time, not more, and made the quality of our lives in many ways much worse. In this example, you never get to "go home" from work, because your cell phone and Blackberry and wireless laptop means you are always connected and always on and your boss expects you to always be working and ready to reply!

I had an interesting conversation about all this with John Perry Barlow a few years ago. John, along with Kevin Kelly, was one of WIRED's early main proselytizers about the bright shiny future that the Internet was creating for us, the global "hive mind" and all that stuff. And he admitted to me that he agreed that you guys kinda blew it in your assessment, and definitely blew it as far as failing to cover all these new technologies with a much more thoughtful and critical analysis. I like John, so I was glad to hear he can see this now. In fact, someone ought to write a book that is all about how places like WIRED were describing the future, and then talk about what actually happened in that future. It is naive to think that technologies are neutral and that we make of them what we want. I don't believe that. They do change us and we warp ourselves and our lives to fit the technologies, not the other way around. Look no further than the invention of the automobile to see what I mean.

TIM: Here again I’m going to disagree with Mark’s argument, even though I agree with all his supporting statements for it. I think technologies themselves are neutral, it is only in their application that we can see the benefits or harms. Machines are just tools, and in the hands of the apes who want to crush, dominate, control, and grab everything for themselves, technology has given them some extraordinary ways to accomplish their aims. For the rest of us, who feed on crumbs dropped from the table of power, the technology may also give us interesting ways to live our lives.

What Mark is describing is, to me, just a statement about human nature and the tendency for those in power to oppress those not in power. The broader historical view is that it's still big bully apes pushing around the little ones and taking their fruit. It’s just that they can use computers and cell phones to do it now.

That said, WIRED is usually overly optimistic about the role technology has in our lives. It’s an easy mistake to make - Philo T. Farnsworth was convinced television would be used for education.

Q: Will intelprop, DRM, copyfighting, P2P and the rest normalize at some point, or will they continue to be volatile points of contention going forward?

DON: The democratization of creativity which digital technology encourages is a boon to this culture's art and cultural output of all kinds, but it also fills the playing fields with an even more overwhelming amount of junk than anyone could have imagined a few decades ago. I see the whole Internet exactly like I see a flea market. Anything is possible, but no quality control.  There are still gems among the trash, and trash gems too, but the incredible scale of the Internet, the amount of it all, takes everybody’s whole art game to a very different scale, both in access to source material, and one’s potential to distribute. More than ever, collage art becomes all about being able to select the special thing out of an ocean of way too many things. Selectivity becomes of prime importance, whether it's looking for content for new art, or just trying to find something you're looking for in a thousand pages of search results. The scarcity charm of source material has disappeared in art appropriation, as in everything else. At some point in the near future, there will be no records out of print. But that's way too many to ever make actual use of, so it's the quirks of careful selection that determines the quality of collage now. As Duchamp and Warhol predicted before they ever saw a computer, there is an art and a “message” in the act of selection, itself. The digital era has found them to be ever more correct.

Q: Wait, one last thing: Was the point of Mashin' of the Christ that Christ himself was a mash-up, a composite? That would explain Everything!  


MARK: Yes, that explains everything.