Moving Image 11-19-2004

Copyright, Jesus and the Art of Collage

An Interview with Mark Hosler of Negativland


For twenty-five years, Negativland has been making smart, witty sound collage albums, questioning copyright restrictions and media assumptions, challenging concepts of art. In this interview, founder Mark Hosler discusses his quarter-century in the avant-garde.

If you’ve ever downloaded a song off the internet, noticed snippets of phone calls or presidential speeches spliced into music, or even just thought about the knottiness of copyright law, you’ve got Mark Hosler and Negativland, at least in part, to thank.

Negativland has been a subversive force in college and alternative radio for more than twenty-five years now, starting out as basement pranksters, now finding themselves elder statesmen who frequently lecture at colleges and law schools about copyright issues. Their manic, cerebral brand of unauthorized sampling has also made the occasional brush with the mainstream—creating an uproar (and a few red-faced media outlets) with a fake press release blaming them for an axe murder, and being sued by Ireland’s biggest rock band, among other notable moments.

The band—more accurately, the Negativland collective, which does everything from standard albums to a radio show, video collages, books, lectures and Web pranks—had its genesis in Hosler’s high school experiments with found sound and tape-splicing. “[Frankenstein] was sort of a central mythological, metaphorical story for me as a kid, and I ended up doing collage,” as he recalls. “To this day I have always enjoyed finding things that exist and finding ways to repurpose them and reuse them.” …

Jon Nelson: You’ve sort of been forced into this position of authority on issues of copyright and creativity—how has your position on fair use developed over the years?

Mark Hosler: Copyright law is frequently misunderstood. Copyright is not an all-encompassing property right. It’s a balancing act. If you read copyright law, it’s written that way. The law recognizes that you want to allow people who create things to own and control and profit from their work on the one hand; on the other hand, the law also recognizes that there’s no such thing as a truly new idea. You build on what came before you. You’re influenced, you appropriate, you steal, you borrow—use whatever term you like—but there’s no such thing as an original idea. That’s something people need to get over. So, yes, you should profit from your work, but how much and to what degree? There’s a limit. Should the estate of William Shakespeare be able to sue the guy who wrote West Side Story because he stole the storyline from Romeo and Juliet? Should the guy who came up with the English drinking song that ended up being the melody of our national anthem be able to sue Francis Scott Key? It’s ridiculous when you start to think about it. Think about how many ads now use images by Vincent Van Gogh. How long do you need to control these things?

In the case of Negativland, we’re not bootlegging or pirating entire works. We’re using a chunk of something, and we’re combining it with chunks of hundreds of other things. It’s collage. My feeling is, if you want to completely, utterly control your work if you’re a creative person, you should just keep it in your bedroom and play it for your mom and dad and your friends. But if you’re going to put your work out there into the world, into the literal public domain, then I think that part of the cultural bargain you make is that you don’t deserve and you don’t get total control. It’s a particularly ugly, corporate way of thinking, small-minded and short-sighted, to just say, “Mine! Mine, mine, mine, mine, mine!” It’s culturally stingy to take such a position. If you take that kind of corporate-think, about the control and ownership of everything in the cultural realm, to its logical conclusion, it’s the death of art. If all of culture is privately owned and controlled that leaves us nothing to do but sit passively and consume it. That’s just darn silly.

There’s this old idea among activists, that one thing you can do is to try and change the world; another thing you can do, though, is to live your life as if the world already is the way you want it to be. That’s one of the ways Negativland chooses to make art and music. We’re not so much setting out to break these laws and rules as we are trying to ignore them altogether—to behave as if they don’t even exist and just follow the creative impulse and try to make something interesting.

It’s exciting to see that some of these ideas that we’ve been talking about for years are getting into the mainstream. It’s not so radical anymore. It’s more like we’re kooky elder spokespeople, the old guys.

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