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Negativland Finds Its Muse at the Auto Wrecking Yard

September 26, 2002|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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

A 1989 news release by the audio-visual art collective falsely claimed that a Minnesota teen who killed his family had cited Negativland's provocative track "Christianity Is Stupid" as inspiration. The "news" was reported as fact by several print and electronic outlets, proving the group's underlying point about media unreliability.

Two years later, the Bay Area-originated group released a single featuring chopped-up and rearranged bits of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" mixed with purloined outtakes of an expletive-laced rant by radio and TV personality Casey Kasem. That spurred protracted and costly legal action by both U2's label, Island Records, and Kasem, while also putting the group front and center in the debate over copyright and fair-use issues.

All of its albums, its weekly radio show on Berkeley's KPFA-FM and the various publications and projects carried out on the Web site www.negativland.com are rife with tape-splicing, topical high jinks and surreal satire that incisively stand pop and corporate cultures on their heads with equal parts Stockhausen, Chomsky and Firesign Theatre.

So, when Negativland started showing friends and fans its latest project, a book and CD revolving around letters, notes and other written material found in vehicles at a wrecking yard, the group got some puzzled reactions.

"The first friend who saw it said, 'Where's the joke? Where's the hoax?' " says Mark Hosler, one of Negativland's five members. "The joke is there is no joke."

Nor is there any hoax involved. "Deathsentences of the Polished and Structurally Weak," which was released earlier this week on the group's Seeland label, is uncharacteristically straightforward, and quite moving.

In the book, packaged as an auto owner's manual and maintenance log, each found document is shown on a left-hand page, with a photo of the demolished car it came from on the facing page.

"Dead Daddy, I Love you. Michelle" is scrawled in crayon on a magazine insert card, a rainbow and three red hearts added. On the right-hand page is a red minivan, its front end smashed and twisted.

A young woman's letter to a friend chronicles her tortured life, with the facing page a photo of a red car that appears to have been in a brutal head-on collision. Another is a certificate of completion of a drug-and-alcohol rehab program, with the accompanying photo showing the trunk of the car littered with beer cans and bottles.

There's nothing to indicate the fate of the people in the autos, or whether they were the writers or recipients of the missives, although the states of the cars imply tragedy. The eerie, heartbreaking aura is enhanced by the audio on the companion CD, an ambient soundscape that evokes metal impacting metal in slow motion.

Hosler says it was that emotional aspect that drew Negativland to the material, which originated with group member Richard Lyons' trips to a wrecking yard to scavenge car parts. Lyons made 10 or 15 copies of a small book of retrieved materials and gave them to friends. Two years ago, Ira Glass, host of the public-radio show "This American Life," heard about it through a mutual friend and asked Lyons to do a spoken essay about his finds.

"The reaction to that was so strong, and from people clearly not our normal audience," says Hosler, who now lives in Olympia, Wash. "And that made us think, 'Wow, this is good. It's evoking a wide range of reactions, seems to be really compelling. Maybe we should expand it into a real project."

Initially, the group approached it much as it had such works as the 1997 album "Dispepsi," which tackled the topic of advertising with both audio and cover graphics taken from or parodying PepsiCo campaigns. But the usual approach proved inappropriate for "Deathsentences."

"We kept doing the things we do in other Negativland projects--add funny stuff and layers and explanations," says Hosler. "And everything we tried didn't work. And the more we worked on it, the answer became, 'Get Negativland out of the way and let it speak for itself.' "

The change in tactics turned out to be particularly satisfying, given that the group's collage style has lost some of its novel edge over the years, becoming commonplace both in professional media and among the public with cut-and-paste techniques accessible to anyone with a computer.

Increasingly, what the members of Negativland find themselves speaking for are the copyright issues implicitly challenged by their work. They've become the center of a community of artists working with sound collage for similar aims, including Canadian "Plunderphonics" artist John Oswald, the group the Tape-beatles and English DJ Vicki Bennett (a.k.a. People Like Us).

They're also in demand in academic and legal circles as experts on intellectual property matters. Hosler says he actually makes most of his income now as an invited speaker at symposiums and seminars. "Issues of fair use, what is property, what is the culture and who owns it have become a lively debate since the arrival of Napster," he says, likening Negativland's activities in the field to the tactics of the environmental militants in Earth First!

"Negativland is more interested in staying on the outside and lobbing our little mind bombs over the fence. Even though we're clearly associated with the issues, I don't want to turn into a lobbyist. We don't want to go in there and stay there--partly because it's more fun out here."

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