Negativland's Mark Hosler at Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex), Friday (April 18). $10-$12. www.imagesfestival.com Rating: NNNNN
If you had told the members of Negativland back in 91 that their subversive cut-ups would be mainstream music in a decade, they would've laughed you out of town. You certainly would've got loud roars from U2, who at the time were attempting to sue Negativland into oblivion over their hysterical and now notorious melding of the Irish supergroup's I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For with a cursing Casey Kasem.
For the culture-jamming San Francisco crew who have been toying with concepts of copyright and intellectual property for more than 2o years, U2, like Pepsi (whose ads were cleverly used against them on the Dispepsi disc), were an obvious target.
The 1991 single The Letter U And The Numeral 2 was spliced together at a time when Napster founder Shawn Fanning was still in short pants and the concept of file sharing didn't exist. A decade later, the work of Negativland and like-minded innovators like Plunderphonician John Oswald seems prescient.
Mash-ups between juxtaposed songs are now chart-topping singles, and anyone with an Internet connection can challenge laws that international property watchdogs once took for granted.
"In the last four years there's been an explosion into public view of a bunch of different issues that we've had a connection with for a long time," Negativland's Mark Hosler explains from North Carolina. "Intellectual property stuff, file sharing and the discussion of who owns digital property have become incredibly mainstream. That's something we've been talking about for almost 15 years.
"The whole mash-up and bootleg culture is an incredible example of this. Just when you thought appropriation couldn't get any more mainstream, one of the main mash-up guys ends up in a studio with Janet Jackson and Puff Daddy. It's a kind of appropriation that is totally devoid of critique. They're just looking for something you can dance to.
"It's amazing how cultures evolve, and what was fringe becomes pop. U2 are a great example of that. While their label was suing us, they were doing live shows where they stole all kinds of avant garde approaches to performance. Negativland hasn't changed, but the world has, so we don't seem as weird and far out as we once did. There are courses being taught in culture jamming. We have an odd kind of respectability now."
That sudden respectability hasn't turned Negativland into pop stars, but it has given them an unusual perspective on the current copyright battles shaking the music industry and others to their core.
Hosler has distilled that experience into a 90-minute multimedia show that, in essence, summarizes Negativland's pranks and battles over the past 20 years. His Creative Media Resistance retrospective, which he brings to the Images Festival Friday, has played to some surprising audiences, including a few listeners who, a few years ago, might have been facing Hosler in court rather than a lecture hall.
"The shift in pop culture and things like the success of a book like Naomi Klein's No Logo, which we're in, have brought us to the attention of a lot of people," Hosler agrees. "We get asked to do presentations at hacker conferences, law schools, film festivals and universities.
"I'm telling our story, and I find that after people hear what we went through and how we kept our sense of humour, they leave inspired. I hope people come away thinking that going out and doing creative activism isn't just dour, heavy stuff."
The costs, however, have been heavy.
"Although we're better known now than ever before," says Hosler, "Negativland is doing worse financially than it ever has. The only way I can pay the bills is by doing these lectures. I'm not complaining about this. It's just interesting how these things work."firstname.lastname@example.org