Negativland: It's all in your head

Mark Hosler steps out of his comfort zone

For the past 34 years, the mixed-media sound-art collective Negativland has built a body of work that challenges large-scale sociopolitical topics, such as religion, government, marketing tactics, gun control, and copyright laws, with a mix of repurposed found sounds, experimental electronics, and genuinely catchy pop constructs. The band's members work in a number of mediums including radio shows, short films, lectures, art shows, and more. Negativland's latest release, It's All in Your Head, is a two-hour concept album that examines why people believe in God, and comes packaged in a modified Bible. Presented as a radio network broadcast, the album juxtaposes existing songs with found sounds, religious audio and media snippets, and the band's signature "boopers," all of which sit comfortably and uncomfortably alongside each other. Negativland's founding member Mark Hosler took a few minutes to talk about the modernized approach to found material, the recent U2 controversy, and the perks of stepping out of his comfort zone with his current set of solo shows.

When Negativland started, the found audio approach must have been more laborious than it is now. Before you really had to dig or stumble upon sources, but now you can click to YouTube and skim through an endless amount of source material.

We all have a love of using things we find. In a sense, everyone in Negativland is an archivist — an anthropologist or archeologist of our culture. We find and dig up these crazy, amazing things and then we get to reuse them, present them, and share them with the world. That's always been something we have a common love or appreciation for. The advent of YouTube was a sea change in many ways, because it's like a gigantic, globally created archive of shared material. The tricky thing about looking for things on YouTube is that if you can find it, anyone can find it.

But part of what has often inspired Negativland's work is when we find things no one else has found. So if you find a weird audio thing in, say, a thrift store somewhere, instead of YouTube, there hasn't been much way for anyone to share it in a mass way yet. The record we got a lot of attention for in 1991, the U2 single, was made because we got a hold of these outtakes of Casey Kasem having a bad day in a recording studio, and if the Internet had existed back then, I guarantee you we would have never made that record. We were inspired to make it partly because the material we found was so great and rare, but the other part of it was, "We have to share this with people! Oh my God! This is amazing. Wow!" This kind of joy, almost a childlike thrill and excitement, "I have to tell all my friends!" The way we share this with our friends is we put out a record.

What was your reaction to U2's recent album being sent to everyone's iPhone?

On some level, what they did is completely offensive, and on some level it's really interesting. There's a lot of ways you can look at, though it was sort of shocking to read Bono quoted as saying something like, "This was very punk rock of us and in your face" putting their new album onto your iPhone like that. When in fact U2 just got paid $100 million by Apple. U2 didn't give it away. Apple paid them for the rights. And of course, if you're a customer of Apple you've signed all of these agreements that do allow them to do stuff like that. To some degree, I get the complaints. On the other hand, I think this is what we're signing up for, isn't it? If you want to be this enmeshed in the corporate world and Internet online digital device world, guess what? There's weird stuff they can do to you.

Some of Negativland's works are labeled "pranks." Is that an agreeable term, or does it devalue what you're about?

In some ways we're happy if people are aware of our work, no matter what way they are. We know that there are certain aspects of our work that get a lot of attention, some of our work gets a medium amount of attention, and other aspects of our work get very little attention. But for us, all of the layers of our work are very important, and they're all a part of what, I think, makes Negativland this very complexly layered creature. What I do like about that is if someone gets interested in our work, and they start to dig — if they take the time, which in this day and age is a lot to ask — I'd like to think our work has enough details, layers, and interconnectedness between projects, contexts, all kinds of referential things — a whole alternative universe is there for you to dig into and enjoy. But maybe all you know is, "Oh those guys are just shit-stirring pranksters and they got sued by U2." But obviously there's a lot more to the story.

You've been associated with Negativland for 34 years now. When did you start doing solo shows?

I was building a new performance setup to use for recent Negativland shows and decided to focus on all these homemade electronic devices and boxes we have called Boopers. I thought, if I overdid this and had way more devices than I needed for a Negativland show, I wonder if I could do a solo performance. That would be really challenging, and scared the hell out of me. But that's interesting that it scares the hell out of me, maybe that means I should look into this. It was freaky to do at first, because I had no safety net. No one was there to back me up, like when I'm on stage with Negativland and we're all trying to mix with each other and be all one piece in a coherent way.

Martin Schmidt, of Matmos introduced me to the idea of performing in quadraphonic sound. I realized with the mixer I had that I could do an extra set of outputs and do my performance in quad, and that has turned out to be so much fun. I think the human brain just takes music in differently when it surrounds you, and starts to think it's more "real." It's like peripheral vision with your eyes, but you have sound coming from in front of your face and behind your head and something happens that I can't put my finger on. It's a good challenge to figure out how to perform where I'm not only choosing the sounds I use but I'm constantly choosing where they go in the room and where they move to between the four speakers. It looks like I'll be able to do that at Eyedrum. I can't do that at every venue.

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