The Negativland Story

Since 1980, the 4 or 5 or 6 Floptops known as Negativland, a performance and recording group based in the San Francisco Bay Area, have been creating records, CDs, video, fine art, books, radio and live performance using appropriated sounds, images, objects, and text. Mixing original materials and original music with things taken from corporately owned mass culture and the world around them, Negativland re-arranges these found bits and pieces to make them say and suggest things that they never intended to. In doing this kind of cultural archaeology and “culture jamming” (a term they coined way back in 1984), Negativland have been sued twice for copyright infringement.

Over the years Negativland’s “illegal” collage and appropriation-based audio and visual works have touched on many things – pranks, media hoaxes, advertising, media literacy, religion, the evolving art of collage, the bizarre banality of suburban existence, creative anti-corporate activism in a media-saturated and multi-national world, file sharing, intellectual property issues, wacky surrealism, evolving notions of art and ownership and law in a digital age, and artistic and humorous observations of mass media and mass culture.

While it is true that, after being sued, Negativland became more publicly involved in advocating significant reforms of our nation’s copyright laws (more recently finding themselves being brought to Washington DC and Capitol Hill as citizen lobbyists for copyright and art issues), Negativland are artists first and activists second. All of their art and media interventions have intended to pose both serious and silly questions about the nature of sound, media, control, ownership, propaganda and perception in the United States of America. Their work is now referenced and taught in many college courses in the US, has been written about and mentioned in over 150 books (including “No Logo” by Naomi Klein, “Media Virus” by Douglas Rushkoff, and various biographies of the band U2), cited in legal journals, and they often lecture about their work here and in Europe.

Since 1981, Negativland and an evolving cast of characters have operated “Over The Edge,” a weekly radio show on KPFA FM in Berkeley, California. “Over The Edge” continues to broadcast three hours of live, found-sound mixing every Thursday at midnight, West Coast time, also streamed online. In 1995 they released a 270-page book with 72-minute CD entitled “Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2,” documenting their infamous four-year long legal battle over their 1991 release of an audio piece entitled “U2”. They were the subjects of Craig Baldwin’s 1995 feature documentary “Sonic Outlaws” and created the soundtrack and sound design for Harold Boihem’s 1997 documentary film “The Ad And The Ego,” an excellent in-depth look into the hidden agendas of the corporate ad world and the ways that we are affected by advertising. In 2004 Negativland worked with Creative Commons to write the Creative Commons Sampling License, an alternative to existing copyrights that is now widely used by many artists, writers, musicians, film makers, and websites. In 2005, they released the elaborately packaged “No Business” (with CD, 15,000-word essay, and custom-made whoopie cushion), and debuted “Negativlandland” – a large visual art show of over 80 pieces of their “fine art” works, videos, home-made electronic devices, and a life-sized animatronic Abe Lincoln robot, at New York City’s Gigantic Art Space. That art exhibit continues to change and evolve and has traveled around the country, showing in Los Angeles, Seattle, Minneapolis, Houston, and Richmond, VA.

In 2007, Negativland released “Our Favorite Things”, a feature-length DVD collection of their many years of collaborative film work, and in 2008 they surprised themselves and everybody else by putting out a toe-tapping all-songs project of one member’s compositions called “Negativland Presents Thigmotactic,” and they continue to occasionally visit Washington DC as citizen lobbyists.

More recently, Negativland has been performing a show of radically new audio-visual versions of many Negativland fan-favorites that have never before been heard live. Negativland’s current performance project, entitled “Content!,” finds them teaming up with electronic musician Wobbly, and “live cinema” video artist Steev Hise, to create a visual and sonic performance that reinvents favorite past and present dialog cut-ups, while showcasing Negativland’s homemade electronic noise-making devices that they call “Boopers,” and relying heavily on group improvisation.

And in 2014, for their first new audio release in six years, “It’s All In Your Head” finds the group tackling their biggest subject ever: God.  This ambitious and densely-crafted double CD is packaged inside an actual King James Holy Bible which has been appropriately repurposed into a “found” art object. Negativland mixes found music, found sound, found dialogue, guest personalities and original electronic noises into a compelling and thoughtful musical essay on monotheism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, neuroscience, suicide bombers, 9/11, colas, war, shaved chimps, and the all-important role played by the human brain in our beliefs. The audio is presented as a live radio broadcast (modeled after the “Over the Edge” radio program). This theater-of-the-mind project has been assembled from basic tracks recorded live in front of blindfolded studio audiences, and documents the unique style of live collage performances that Negativland has been presenting on stages, and on radio, since the formation of the group in 1980.

Get “It’s All in Your Head” here.

Negativland is interested in unusual noises and images (especially ones that are found close at hand), unusual ways to restructure such things and combine them with their own music and art, and mass media transmissions which have become sources and subjects for much of their work. Negativland covets insightful humor and wackiness from anywhere, low-tech approaches whenever possible, and vital social targets of any kind. Foregoing ideological preaching, but interested in side effects, Negativland is like a subliminal cultural sampling service concerned with making art about everything we aren’t supposed to notice.

See a 90-minute presentation on Negativland’s work, history, copyright activism, and fair use, as shared at the 47th Ann Arbor Film Festival,
titled “Adventures in Illegal Art”:


Declared heroic by their peers for refashioning culture into what the group considers to be more honest statements, Negativland suggests that refusing to be original, in the traditional sense, is the only way to make art that has any depth within commodity capitalism…

Negativland isn’t just some group of merry pranksters; its art is about tearing apart and reassembling found images, objects, and sounds to create new ones, in an attempt to make social, political and artistic statements. Hilarious and chilling.

It’s an often ignored request, but you may pay more attention to the phrase “Please remember to take all your belongings” after seeing Negativland’s eerily mesmerizing new project…

Negativland is arguably the preeminent audio collage collective of our time.

Negativland argues persuasively that creators should be able to appropriate bits and pieces of anything and incorporate then into their work without fear of legal action.

Negativland, longtime advocates of fair use allowances for pop media collage, are perhaps America’s most skilled plunderers from the detritus of 20th century commercial culture…the band’s latest project is razor sharp, microscopically focused, terribly fun and a bit psychotic.

For more than 20 years, Negativland has earned renown for manipulation of both tape and media.

Collage pioneers…..genre-defying, densely layered, strangely accessible…..

Negativland…known for their media pranks….

Negativland are at it again…a parody of soft drink marketing.

Scathing and entertaining…they believe that the sheer volume of advertising is degrading to the mental and physical environment

A provocation and a punk-inspired commentary on our mercenary culture…eloquent and impassioned spokesmen for ideas like a “creative commons”…it’s salutary to see these smart and influential guys get a gallery show.

Fearless artistes or foolhardy risk-takers….by constantly haranguing the listener with authentic advertising spiel and highlighting its transparency, they kill the messenger, kill the message and produce highly entertaining art simultaneously.

Musical-collage pioneers…..genre-defying, densely layered, strangely accessible…..

Twisted genius…compelling…..parody and satire as a grass roots weapon of consumer resistance.

Negativland: a sense of humor, brilliant collage work (especially on a purely aesthetic level), and great cultural criticism. These qualities have long been the cornerstone of an artistic and activist career which is second to none…

The band hilariously juxtapose and layer sound bites and jingles…to help their targets hang themselves. What if the Pepsi execs actually like the album?

It’s no “Abbey Road”, but it’s a pretty good listen. – PEPSI SPOKESMEN

5 Responses to “The Negativland Story”

  1. In Focus: Negativland | Remix says:

    […] in the 1970s, Negativland has been coined as an American ‘experimental music’ band. Perhaps their being defined […]

  2. NEGATIVLAND (WEEK 6) | Remix says:

    […] While it is true that, after being sued, Negativland became more publicly involved in advocating sig… Negativlands have contribued their time to Creative Commons, an non-profit organisation that focuses on providing a large range of creative works for other to legally use as their own. Very much like Negativlands way of using elements from other artist’s material/visuals/audios and recreating it into their own unique way. […]

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    […] Negativland Official Bio […]

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    […] Negativland sono la storia del noise puro: in attività dalla fine degli anni ’70 non si sono mai fermati […]

  5. Culture Jamming – Where Art and Pranking Meets Activism. A Micro Essay – Citizen Media says:

    […] Kline also offers description of culture jamming and brings up famous examples such as the band Negativeland, who originally coined the term culture jamming and fought with numerous corporations and producers […]

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