Negativland: Sonic Dada at the Allied Media Conference

Review by William J. Emerson III

[1] Like an ambassador from some wise-ass, disjointed sonic reality Mark Hosler commented "OK, you laughed. That's good," and for the first time that evening I felt part of a defacto test audience for Negativland material. Make no mistake, Hosler came off as naturally charismatic, the type used to generating an air of spontaneity during public speaking bouts. However, my decade and a half of exposure to his work lead me to believe that Negativland is a work in progress calculated for effect rather than randomly designed. This calculation presumably has resulted from seemingly endless lawsuits and general misunderstandings by record companies and various media outlets over the years. Equal parts soundscape, political expression and cultural criticism, Hosler appeared to be giving less a presentation than an infomercial. Unlike an infomercial, what Mark was peddling was not badly conceived plastic kitchenware. He was pushing his own brand of chaos, an anarchy that both threatened and entertained, approximating a grinning Pavlovian brain-fuck.

[2] Formed in the San Francisco area in 1980, Negativland released 3 albums before becoming associated with the punk label SST (who produced work from Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, and The Minute Men). SST was started by a founding member of Black Flag, Greg Ginn. The band's KPFA radio theatre show Over the Edge, used crank phone calls, misinformation and elements of Firesign Theatre to challenge accepted broadcasting conventions. In describing the manner in which the band functions Mark stated that it's "pretty democratic. [And later] we are interested in what we find." The group's music is primarily created by Negativland, but also consists of appropriations from other artists along with found sound.

[3] The band's material, both cinematic and sonic, was described by Hosler as "collages and the juxtaposition of images." And it comes off that way. Negativland initially appears to have a Dadaist cynicism, but unlike Dada their art is curiously optimistic. It has more in common with Chaplinesque chaos than dour anarchism. For example, at the conclusion of Mark's presentation he mentioned being "optimistic about the human race over the next 1000 years," thus departing from the pessimism that tends to dominate contemporary leftist thinking. Similarly, in speaking on the War in Iraq Hosler stated, "there was no way to stop that war, but millions of people came out to protest around the world and that's inspiring."

[4] The central focus of the show was the track Christianity is Stupid. The song was the impetus for a publicity stunt that would later be called the 'axe murder hoax.' Fundamentally it was a simulacrum of the landmark 1985 Judas Priest controversy concerning two Nevada teenagers who allegedly arrived at a suicide pact after being exposed to subliminal messages on Judas Priest's "Stained Glass" album. Subsequently, Judas Priest was taken to trial by the teenager's families, thus providing the band with plenty of dubious press coverage. So one night while working as a security guard one of the Negativlanders penned a false press release concerning the triple murder in Minnesota. The press release alleged that a Rochester Minnesota teen had been arguing with his parents over the song Christianity is Stupid prior to killing both his parents along with his brother and sister. Ultimately it was, in Mark's words, "a simplistic narrative that [would] suck the media in."

To listen to "Christianity is Stupid," please follow this link (it will open in a new browser window). This file is in MP3 format (with a size of approximately 3.5MB), which is playable through Quicktime, Windows Media Player, Winamp, and several other programs. This track is provided with kind permission from Mark Hosler.

[5] "The Axe Murder Hoax" as it came to be known was the first of the band's many forays into the area of intentional disinformation. Through a spurious press release the band asserted that they had to discontinue because "federal authorities" had asked them to do so. In reality the band's tour was cancelled because of poor ticket sales and the triple murder by a Minnesota teenager had nothing to do with Negativland or their single Christianity is Stupid. Due to particularly shoddy journalism and the 1980's desire to associate music with tragedy many newspapers and television news programs worked hard to perpetuate the Negativland farce. Ultimately the band admitted to have engineered the canard, but by that time there was no mistaking the fact that Negativland was spoiling for trouble.

[6] In response to the media hype surrounding last summer's surprise commercial success, The Passion of the Christ, Negativland decided to produce a video for the track Christianity is Stupid from their 1987 album Escape From Noise. Hosler alleged that the Allied Media Conference was the first time that he had shown the video to an audience, but given his propensity for simulacra, I could not help but wonder if I was being manipulated into feeling on the inside, privy to information known only to the few. In all fairness, this sort of Philip K. Dick uncertainty was key to the presentation's efficacy. The video, titled Mashin' of the Christ, pirated movie images both depicting Christ's crucifixion and communist propaganda. At one point Christ morphed into Mao Ze Dong and the Allied Media Conference hall broke into wild applause. Throughout the video all of the hammers crucifying Christ, whips hitting his back and the footsteps of communist soldiers were in time with the music.

[7] Hosler's presentation then went on to another Negativland manipulation, The U2 incident. In 1991 Negativland designed a record to look like a U2 album called Negativland. The band used a synthesized kazoo to perform U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" on their U2 single and mixed in dialog of radio personality Casey Kasem waxing belligerent about a dog named 'snuggles.' At this time U2 was immensely popular and their music was heard regularly on commercial radio. U2's management demanded that the record be pulled. To this Mark asked, "why can't we use ubiquitous music?" The band was sued by U2's record label along with being abandoned by their own label, SST.

[8] In many ways this controversy forced Negativland to be the indicator of future controversy concerning Napster and intellectual property rights. They were, in the words of Mark H., " the canary in the coal mine," vividly illustrating what could happen to those who violate copyright. According to Mark some of the materials that he showed in relation to this incident had been rendered illegal for public viewing by a court order, but he was "showing them anyway." Whether or not this was the case, it had the desired effect of further endearing him to the audience by allowing us access to clandestine information. Again we seemed like a test audience for his simulations.

[9] Mark spoke of the need for human beings to be told stories in a primordial manner, around a fire, or through flickering images in a darkened theatre which was "wired into us." This idea was extended to the band itself during their 2000 True/false tour when David Willis of Negativland appeared only as a taped image broadcast through a television monitor ala Max Headroom. Few bands would have the audacity to pull off such a stunt. All in all the plasticity of presence and sound reinforced Negativland's tendency to negotiate the strange waters of presentation. Moving between illegality and farce, chaos and humor, Negativland earned its place among the strange at the Allied Media Conference.