Adventures in Illegal Art

We caught up with a friend last night for dinner followed by Mark Hosler’s
presentation, "Adventures in Illegal Art: Creative Media Resistance and
Negativeland" in SU’s Shemin Auditorium. Hosler’s been involved with
Negativeland for 25 years. The group
self-identifies with media hoaxes; provocative audio-mixed new media films and
shorts; and radical fair use
(i.e., it’s all public domain). They’re well-known for
lifting material from U2, mixing
it into a two-sided vinyl single including profanity and stolen U2 cuts, then
repackaging the album in a jacket with U2 featured prominently so as to dupe
unsuspecting consumers. Lawsuits followed, as you might expect, and Hosler
alluded to a dicey four years, fraught with legal uncertainty. Here’s that album cover:

Hosler opened with a short on stealing, mixed from "There’s No Business Like
Show Business Stealing" sung by Ethel Merman. Other
segments included "Guns" (lots of B&W footage of ads for guns, westerns, etc.), and
"The Mashin’ of the Christ." “Mashin” used a mix of some evangelical
preacher’s Cold War prophecy that the West would be overrun with Communism, that
everyone would be converted by a mantra of "Christianity is stupid; Communism is
great." The song was matched with clips from 25 crucifixion scenes from movies,
but I’m not sure I took the critique. It was violent, to be sure, but
beyond that I was unclear whether it sought to comment on Christianity,
illogical evangelicalism, or the spectacle of crucifixion scenes. Hosler
told us about Negativeland’s well-known media prank–a press release they
distributed in California about a cancelled tour, shut down because federal
authorities connected them to a quadruple homicide in Rochester, Minn (much of
which was fabrication, only the murders were real). The San Francisco
NBC (or was it CBS) affiliate eventually caught wind of the release and covered
it, interviewing the "band" and featuring the event as a top news story. Then there was
fallout and confusion (it had to be true because it was on the tube).
He also shared shorts on Casey Casem losing his cool–a tirade of shrits and flucks–while
recording a Top 40 dedication for a deceased pet; Ariel, the Little Mermaid,
drawn to synch with the dialogue from a tapped phone conversation with some exec
on proprietary rights; and a remix of Julie Andrews’ "Favorite Things" from the
Sound of Music made-over to express only contemptible things.

The best part by far was Hosler’s description of the group’s methods, the
uncanny ways materials accrete, piling up and mounting an almost irresistible
force. "It’s as if a good idea walks in the room. You can’t just
slam the door on it," he said. It echoed Sirc in "Box-logic" from
Writing New Media
: a dissatisfied collector who gathers, assembles, and
realizes surprising ties. And also, there was a surprising dig on SU’s
Newhouse journalism program and on formal, explicit education in art ("I’d never
attend an art program," or something close to that.)

Hosler refined his craft–cuts and pastes–during the 80’s and 90’s. He
spoke of splicing tape and two-reel recorders. And he also made it clear
that he thought of Negativeland’s albums as concept albums; he thought of those
albums as having a kind of coherence that dissolves in the age of mp3 exchange.
Any individual track–detached from the artifact of the album or CD, the jacket
notes–diminished the conceptual coherence of the album. His response to
new media, to the digital’s blurring of media, was tentative, uncertain (or
perhaps just underdeveloped because we were out of time). He also said he
wasn’t sure whether the group had a myspace account. Apparently someone
outside the group claimed a space for Negativeland, but they haven’t done much
to bolster their online presence. Hosler ended by noting that times have
changed. Once scarce materials (the Casey Casem rant, for example) now
circulate more freely than before. They’re abundant. And as he said
so, I had the impression that the counterculture rush of Negativeland’s work
has–for Hosler–lost some of its novelty because of massification, diminished
in waves of hobbyists trying–through success and failure–to create homegrown,
DIY media projects.


  1. I agree, D. I really enjoyed Mark’s stories and sense of humor — a great talk for sure. However, his last point seemed a little hypocritical to me. Granted, the proliferation of digital technology has probably created more consumers than producers, but to pine for the glory days of DIY punk purity (a day that never really existed, I think) too quickly denies the creative sensibilities of millions of artists who have continued to use new technologies to create collage. Maybe mash-ups are just “cute,” but the very act of co-opting two copyrighted works IS political. In the end, Hosler had a liberal cynicism that seemed to undermine the purpose his whole talk.

  2. It was subtle, but I’m glad to know I wasn’t the only one who left with that impression. Because he seemed unenthusiastic about the explosion of “everyone can do this now,” I thought much of the excitement leaked out towards the end of the talk. It’s as if Negativeland achieved notoriety because of the conditions of their times (an era of media scarcity, the 80’s and and early 90’s, before the web’s abundance took crept over). That he was unsure about whether Negativeland was blogging, that he didn’t address podcasting with much conviction (“we have a radio show…also available on the web”), and especially that he expressed a clear preference for “good” collage as distinguished from the mass of often-failed experimentation circulating on the web–each of these seemed to contrast with what I expected his stance would be: a more resolved approval of the wider circulation of “illegal art” and the expanded presence of underground mash-ups, media-experimental politics, etc. Not to mention a multiplied and moving assortment of legal targets.

    And yet, all of this said, if put to more direct questions (and with more time), he might very well have clarified and elaborated his view on these few issues.

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