By Silke Tudor
The interior of the Trocadero felt like a sweltering greenhouse last Thursday night as blasthaus, San Francisco's premier techno art gallery, presented "Premeditated Breakdown" as part of the "SoundCulture 96" festival. The heat-generating crowd of over a thousand exchange moist handshakes with an apologetic wiping of palms, while brows and upper lips glisten with quickly drying beads of sweat, but everyone's determined to sit the climate out, because the Bay Area musicommedia-pranksters of Negativland have not performed live in over three years.
"The last time I saw Negativland I was out of my head," admits Cheryl, a linguistics student at UC Berkeley, "but the impression lasted. Their albums capture a feeling, but live the sound is so, um .... Large is the only word that comes to mind."
Monolithic speakers pulsate with a blanket of odd sounds as DJ Jonah Sharp, the formidable Hardkiss Brothers, members of Negativland, and other experimental groove merchants collaborate and improvise onstage. " 'SoundCulture' is an interdisciplinary festival of sonic art installations," explains 28-year-old blasthaus co-founder and "Breakdown" producer Will Linn. "It's a chance to bring together everyone who is addressing sound as art, but not exclusively as music."
"I don't know, it's hard to tell if they are really doing anything," says a spectator whose shorn head bears a big-eyed alien as he frowns at the stage. "They just twist knobs and take their headphones on and off." Nearby, two clearly thrilled observers argue the finer points of sampling equipment while a clutch of elated, if soppy, dancers undulates under the twirling disco ball.
Eye-grabbing visuals, operated and conceived by Sonic Outlaws (a documentary about Negativland) director Craig Baldwin, flicker from every wall, enclosing the entire space in a cocoon of found imagery. "Baldwin is able to appropriate footage and create something entirely new," says one devotee.
Standing before a bank of projectors, Baldwin and partner Steve Bolta move like insects, their hands illuminated by hot white bulbs as they reach in and out of a nest of film loops and spinning reels. The choices may appear random -- clips from Planet of the Apes, The Flintstones, and old Coca-Cola propaganda -- but the result seems perfectly orchestrated, even rehearsed. It's hard to tell whether Baldwin is accompanying Negativland or vice versa.
"It's so fluid," gushes Fawn, who has stopped dancing to sit against a far wall to ponder the looming central screen. "It's a real exchange of ideas. And no one person appears to be any more important than anyone else."
The infamous Weatherman, who hasn't performed with Negativland in over six years, but who contributes to the band's latest release, Sex Dirt (Seeland), uses a scanner to capture random cellular phone conversations and project them over the sound system. Not fully satisfied with that bit of culture jamming, he moves into the bathroom where he describes the, shall we say, unsanitary conditions. "The Weatherman is a very clean guy," Linn laughs. "His life is Ziploc bags and 409."
Upstairs, where Linn claims "the proponents of techno-sapien youth culture" are networking, the air seems somewhat cooler, perhaps from the lack of projectors or the cooling swatches of white material cascading from the ceiling. An odd assortment of visual and sound artists moves in and out of the cloth orally conceptualizing, exchanging business cards, and slagging off the "dancing fools" who keep bumping into them downstairs.
One such "fool" whispers under her breath, "They're all a bunch of pretentious artistes, too wrapped up in critiquing the show to enjoy it."
"I was surprised," admits Linn, "the crowd wasn't as unified as I would have liked. It was really diverse, but they just weren't mingling much." On the good side? "[The artists] were really thrilled to have an excuse to collaborate onstage."
Fair enough, breakdowns never go exactly as planned -- even "Premeditated" ones.
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In Night Crawler (April 17), the name of film director Craig Baldwin's assistant was misspelled. It is Steve Polta.