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Tue May 9 08:52:17 MDT 2000
New York Times, May 9, 2000
It Splices, It Dices: Negativland's Big Mix and Medleys
By JON PARELES
In editing rooms everywhere, people succumb to what might be called rapture
of the tape. A snippet of sound or image, repeatedly replayed during
editing, begins to seem like a mantra, more potent with every reiteration.
Negativland, which has been splicing and manipulating found materials for
20 years, showed some of the symptoms in its show at Irving Plaza on
Wednesday night, part of its first tour in seven years.
Negativland, based in the Bay Area, has devoted itself to what it calls
culture jamming: lifting and mixing bits of pop culture, especially
advertising, to call into question the credibility of mass media or simply
for the fun of it. The group has a weekly radio show on KPFA in Berkeley,
and puts out albums of its sound collages; it also tours now and then.
In 1991 it ran afoul of U2 and Island Records when it released a single
called "U2" that used U2's logo on the package and a distorted sample from
a U2 song; it was forced to withdraw the single. Now, Negativland sells
lapel buttons that read, "Copyright Infringement Is Your Best Entertainment
The two-set, two-and-a-half-hour show, part of which can be heard at
http://www.negativland.com, is called "True or False," a phrase that is one
of the concert's recurring sound bites. Negativland attacked its favorite
targets -- commercials, fundamentalist Christians, manipulative media --
with varying degrees of deftness and smugness.
For a group that was prescient enough to proclaim itself a product of the
"Universal Media Netweb" early in the 1990's, well before the Internet
explosion, Negativland uses some charmingly low-tech equipment. Along with
a laptop computer and a video monitor, it had home-movie projectors,
turntables and a cartridge machine that radio stations use to play effects
and commercials; it also had hand puppets.
Negativland does brilliant scavenging, from old instructional films to
unhip music to announcers' outtakes to bits of television news. Posing the
sound-bite question "What's music?," it came up with movies demonstrating
high-school band instruments and sang a German-accented brass-band version
of U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
It also re-edited Julie Andrews singing "My Favorite Things" into a more
surreal inventory -- "crisp eyelashes with noodles" -- and had Ethel Merman
belting "Let's go on with the stealing," using words from "There's No
Business Like Show Business."
Another piece, adapted from the band's album "Dispepsi" (Seeland), piled up
bits of cola commercials to suggest a mind-control conspiracy, followed by
the plotting of a McDonald's ad: "We can go out of the ordinary but we
can't live there."
But there were also shopworn stretches. Parodies of Christian preaching
made Negativland seem as intolerant as its targets, and the band was far
more fascinated than its listeners by the logical paradox inherent in "This
statement is false." A long, hectoring piece about how information overload
makes it difficult to sort truth from fiction was old news. As playfulness
gave way to didacticism, Negativland's deconstruction of propaganda veered
toward propaganda itself.
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