"I think a lot of the people who use culture-jamming techniques now are ... doing things to manipulate people, not enlighten them. And I think, 'My god, that's not what Negativland was doing.'"
These days Mark Hosler, of veteran culture-jamming collective Negativland, has been thinking a lot about how the tools of his avant-garde trade – sound and visual manipulation – have been perverted in right-wing circles. Video hoaxes perpetrated by the likes of Breitbart News lack the finesse and subtlety and humor that Negativland has been employing for decades to strike back at the overreach of those in power and increasingly insidious corporate marketing.
"The whole idea of culture-jamming was to demonstrate things like 'The media lies!' and 'This is fake news.'" says Hosler. "But what we were really doing was punching up – speaking truth to power, as they say – trying to get people to look at things in a different way, trying to create a more educated, thoughtful, compassionate, kinder, better world. In our own weird-ass way."
And no one did culture jamming better or, indeed, more weird-ass than Negativland. Started in San Francisco in the late 1970s by a group of young outré sound enthusiasts, the band quickly became concise, and often darkly funny, media deconstructionists. Audio pieces like "Christianity Is Stupid" and "Guns" displayed a group working on a whole different level than the punk scene happening around them. It's worthwhile to point out, though, that although Negativland's cynical blade could be very, very cutting, the band never lost sight of the essential humanity at the core of their work.
In 1991, Negativland hit the "big" time, sued by Island Records on behalf of U2 for the revelatory pop pastiche U2 EP, which included samples from U2's then-hit single "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and outtakes from a Casey Kasem radio broadcast where he repeatedly stumbles over the group's names and lets loose a torrent of obscenities.
The band turned litigious lemons into lemonade by fighting back in creative ways, including interviewing U2 guitarist the Edge in disguise for Mondo 2000, before unmasking and getting the Edge to admit that the lawsuit was a little on the heavy-handed side. Against all monetary odds, Negativland survived and came out of this ordeal stronger than ever, continuing to this day. The larger collective, though reeling from the recent deaths of members and collaborators, is working on two new albums currently.
But as 2019 dawns, Mark Hosler is focused on his solo work. And it's a very different beast than Negativland, consisting of adventurous and often overwhelmingly beautiful washes of sound conjured up from a bank of "unstable" equipment that Hosler customized and developed to his particular needs. "Negativland makes work about the things that make all of us anxious," says Hosler. "But when I go solo it's about pure sound."
Hosler's solo performances are engaging and evocative, with the focus on the high-wire act of live improvised performance, of being fully absorbed in the act of creating. He talks about his equipment like a mercurial creative partner: "All of these instruments ... cannot be well-controlled, but they can be herded, they can be nudged, and if they do something that I don't expect, my job is to be a good listener and think, 'Oh, that's really interesting, I'm going to abandon where I was going and go with that.'"
For now eschewing any recording, Hosler's solo work is all about the chances and circumstances and musical X-factors that happen on that particular night, during that particular set. "What interests me is what's happening in the moment during the performance with me and with everyone else in the room," explains Hosler. He speaks of his improvisatory techniques as a matter of timing: "I have this inner clock that tells me when to move to the next thing. And when I'm doing a solo set, I don't know what that next thing is going to be; I have to make that up on the spot."
In contrast to a lot of his peers, Hosler's current "live" setup is all about doing away with barriers between artist and audience, both metaphorically and in the most literal terms. He prefers to set up on the floor, lights his hardware – "You can see exactly what I'm doing and exactly why things happen. Oh, he turned that knob and things went Ooooeeeoooo" – and invites the audience to get up close and personal. And then go on a musical journey, in the moment, where anything can happen.