Interview With The Collective Known As Negativland

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Erica White attended the opening for Negativland’s “Our Favorite Things”, at La Luz de Jesus which included a rare live musical performance by Negativland.  She conducted the following interview via email with the collective.


Negativland performing at La Luz de Jesus

Introduction: Los Angeles is a city overflowing with small niche galleries with works of art from artist with both large and small followings.

In the back of Wacko in the La Luz de Jesus Gallery a rare performance by the collective Negativland followed an impressive opening reception of the group’s first retrospective “Our Favorite Things.”

Pasting rows of knick knacks, incense, and special interest books, a crowd of over 100 Negativland admires crammed in the small gallery taking quick shots on smartphones while trying not to elbow other patrons.

The collective has been around for over three decades using the process of collage to create mixed media fine art, music, and video.

Artists Robert and Suzanne Williams admire Negativland’s art

Members of the collective, Mark Hosler, David Wills, Chris Grigg, Don Joyce, and Richard Lyons live, work and play in California, North Carolina, Washington, and Massachusetts making this a much anticipated event.

The buzz from the rare live performance was palpable as art aficionados mingled looking anxiously towards the makeshift stage in the very back of the gallery, everyone wanted a good seat. By the time Negativland settled behind their instruments a ring of admirers were seated on the floor before the oil cloth covered tables, while others stood angling themselves in order to get a good view.

Negativland’s live shows are as much visual as they are auditory. Three members of the collective tinkered with homemade electronics creating a collage of sounds and beats that Tim Burton and Danny Elfman would be envious of. The audience was forewarned that the instruments play Negativland as often as the collective plays them.  This much was evident as the group worked off each other’s creation, weaving sounds in and out smoothly until unexpected feedback would break up the groove. Un-phased the members used the unexpected to create new avenues of sounds.

Approachable and kind, after the performance the members offered guest a chance to come up and ask questions about their process and the instruments they play.

Erica White: Last night it was mentioned that your homemade instruments you call Boopers  “play you as much as you play them.” How does that work as a collaborative effort? While performing, do you take cues off each other and go from there, or is there a structured sound you’re going for initially?

Peter: It’s a great question that I think we are constantly attempting to answer.

Mark: The show, which is quite different each time we perform it, might be the answer to the question.

Peter: The whole project is essentially based around listening; one part is listening to each other and what noises emanate from each person’s corner, and then trying to tonally compliment (or even straight-up match) the sounds they’re making.  Another part is to key into the intermittent rhythms, which basically are controlled and triggered by Jon (who also works solo as “Wobbly” and has been a long time collaborator of ours).  In my own setup, I think largely because of my experience playing bass and percussion in my other projects, I tend to try to accent Jon’s rhythms with polyrhythms, or just get really goofy with my own patterns.  And all those rhythms are, in turn, sampled from our Boopers to begin with; they might be samples from sound check that same day, or from rehearsals or performances weeks before.  Complicating it further, Jon brings his own demented rhythmic sense to crafting those loops, but the original sound from the Booper which he grabbed is often totally rhythmic.  In other words: it’s chaos, and it’s delightful to play.

Jon : The original Booper was created by David Wills (aka The Weatherman), a founding member of Negativland, and submitted as a final project for his Introduction to Electronic Music course at Diablo Valley College in 1975. At its heart is a small amplifier sourced from a transistor radio, with several outputs wired back into itself as inputs.  Radio signals are audible only with all pots and switches set to null; otherwise, electrical current immediately forms a closed loop, and the Booper begins to feedback and howl and sing in unpredictable and only partially controllable ways making them less instruments than collaborators. Additional Booper based on Wills’ original design have since been constructed by Adam Shaw, with some additional wiring by Peter. Most of the sounds in any given concert are generated on site by the Boopers, then captured and fed back into the mix by a variety of delays, processors and samplers.

Erica White: The collective has been doing mix media collage work with text, sound, and various materials for decades, but for someone not familiar with the collective’s work, how would you describe it or introduce them to your art?

Don: How about this – Since 1980, the 4 or 5 or 6 Floptops known as Negativland have been creating records, CDs, video, fine art, books, radio and live performance using appropriated sounds, images, objects, and text. Mixing original materials and original music with things taken from corporately owned mass culture and the world around them, Negativland re-arranges these found bits and pieces to make them say and suggest things that they never intended to. In doing this kind of cultural archaeology and “culture jamming” (a term they coined way back in 1984), Negativland have been sued twice for copyright infringement.

Negativland is interested in unusual noises and images (especially ones that are found close at hand), unusual ways to restructure such things and combine them with their own music and art, and mass media transmissions which have become sources and subjects for much of their work. Negativland covets insightful humor and wackiness from anywhere, low-tech approaches whenever possible, and vital social targets of any kind. Foregoing ideological preaching, but interested in side effects, Negativland is like a subliminal cultural sampling service concerned with making art about everything we aren’t supposed to notice.

Erica White: I read that you all live all over the country and group appearances are rare. After this gallery showing, are there plans for another, and any more live performances in the future?

Mark: Looks like we have another art show lined up for next year in Richmond, VA, and will be playing more Booper based live shows very soon in Portugal, the Boomslang festival in Kentucky, then Oakland CA, and next year on the east coast. This new show is not quite what our fans are expecting from us, but reaction so far has been very encouraging. We like to challenge both ourselves and our audience as often as possible, and are having a lot of fun doing this ridiculous all-Boopers-all-the-time live show.

Erica White:  Where do you see yourself in the next five years? 

Peter: By the time Negativland celebrates its 35th anniversary in 2014, I intend to have worked with a highly advanced species of German electronics designer whom I cannot name, who will have perfected a method of having our own bio-feedback rhythms sensed (via subcutaneous implantation) and fed back into the “inputs” of our Boopers for maximum player-machine intercourse.  I’ve been trying to get Mark, Don and Jon on board with this, but they’re not yet convinced.

Jon:  The invasive cranial surgery that would be required in order for such a concert to really “take off” is not only experimental, but quite dangerous. But I’m willing to do just about anything for music.

“Our Favorite Things” will be on display at La Luz de Jesus Gallery until Sunday, September 30, 2012 and feature works from the Thigmotactic Series, The Volcano Society Series and Over the Hiccups.

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