Since 1980, the semi-anonymous California collective Negativland has created music, art, video, books and performances using appropriated sounds, images and texts. Its members are especially known for their music and their activism against intellectual property regulations, which they claim stifle creativity. The use of pre-existing material poses questions about copyright law, and their work generally serves as a provocation and a punk-inspired commentary on our mercenary culture. “Negativlandland,” their densely installed recent show, lampooned commercial galleries as theme parks: parts of the show were cheerily dubbed noisyland, eBayland, or videoland. Included in the audiovisual riot were videos, paintings, photographs, collages and assemblages, interactive installations and an iPod listening station.
Some of the individual pieces included direct and caustic references to a landmark copyright lawsuit involving Negativland’s music. In 1991, the group released a parody album combining a U2 sample with hilarious and obscene outtakes from Casey Kasem’s radio show. Island records, representing U2, launched a very damaging lawsuit against Negativland and SST, the company that published the group’s records, leading SST to sever ties with the band. (The album cover and a book by the group documenting the affair were on view.)
From that time on, Negativland’s members have been eloquent and impassioned spokesmen for ideas like a “creative commons” and broader protections for fair use. Negativland has also been goosing U2 ever since; here, U2 vs. Negativland iPod (version 2G), 2005, a customized version of the popular device, contains Negativland’s discography. It was created by a fan (artist Patrick Hwang) as an alternate version of the iPod U2 Special Edition, released by Apple in 2004. Further indicating Negativland’s unrepentant stance, the video No Business (all video works from a 2005 compilation) montages clips of shoplifters with a soundtrack of Ethel Merman made to sing, “There’s no business like stealing!” Superimposed on images of a boy filching a candy bar are computer graphics indicating the progress of downloading a file; as a hand grabs the boy’s collar, an error message appears: Download interrupted.
The Mashin’ of the Christ, a montage of movies about the Savior, takes aim at the commercialization of religion: in it, the endless repetition of conventions of the genre makes the films seem absurd. Similarly poking authority in the eye, in the installation MightRight (2005), a life-size mechanized Abraham Lincoln dummy speaks rearranged audio samples from a recording made for a Disneyland attraction in 1965 and supplied to Negativland by a company insider, as indicated in a gallery handout. This “Abe,” like our current commander-in-chief, repeatedly fumbles his speech about faith, might and right.
“Deathsentences,” a 2005 series of photographic collages of junked cars and their contents, dominated the entry and one gallery wall. Each piece was a portrait of a smashed automobile alongside a photo of its mundane, poignant or bizarre contents – from shopping lists to prison love letters. The trashed cars serve as a metaphor for the husk of the market system, taking these bits of personal expression with them to the crusher.
It’s salutary to see these smart and influential guys get a gallery show. One wonders, though, what would happen if they were to drop the self-protectively sarcastic punk-rock attitude and infuse their work with the nuance and earnestness they bring to their discussions of intellectual property.
- Brian Boucher