Accentuate the Negativ

Fathers hide your intellectual property: The Bay Area's original culture jammers are back

According to Joyce, the new album is a combination of collage and something the band calls "recomposition." "There are certain pieces that are collage, just a bunch of different stuff from different places, but the songs 'No Business,' 'Favorite Things,' and the Beatles stuff, those are all made completely out of themselves. Nothing's been added.

"Basically, collage is a matter of combining disparate elements and putting them all in the same context. The recomposed songs are taking the original song and rearranging it -- moving parts around to make it into a different piece of music." Joyce compares this to the artistic concept of détournement, and points out that Negativland's cut-and-paste technique has much precedent in the art world, including in dadaism and Marcel Duchamp's found objects. "It's come to music now," he says. "It sort of had to wait for the reproduction technology that visual arts already had, like photography. But music didn't get that until tape, and now digital. Now you can copy and paste anything you want, to any degree you want."

Last year one of the biggest stories in the music biz was DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, wherein he mashed together Jay-Z and the Beatles record commonly known as "The White Album" and was promptly served with a cease-and-desist notice by EMI, the label that owns the master recording of that particular album, aka The Beatles. Danger Mouse complied with EMI's order, though the bootleg is still available for free download online if you do a little searching. Despite what happened to Danger Mouse, Joyce says he doubts Negativland's repurposing of a Beatles recording will draw any serious consequences.

When asked how he would justify the wholesale use of a Beatles song in court, Joyce says that ideally he'd like to defend it as recomposition. "And [the copyright owners] would say, 'What's that?' Any kind of artistic defense gets nowhere. If they want to kill you, they will. They have plenty of lawyers. It's very cheap to send a letter that is very threatening. A lot of times that's all they'll do, because going beyond that will cost them money." In reality, Negativland would probably have to invoke some sort of Fair Use defense, arguing that the use of a pre-existing Beatles recording was valid because the public is entitled to freely use portions of copyrighted materials for purposes of commentary and criticism. At times during our conversation it's an argument that Joyce seems all too willing to make.

"I would be very interested to someday find myself in court," he says. "I'm sure my lawyer would advise me against doing it, but I would love to defend art against commerce, get in there and say how art works, what it is, what it needs to do, what it's always been."

So what motivates Negativland to tempt fate to such a degree? Are the musicians trying to martyr themselves in protest of a culture in which copyright stifles creativity? Joyce says the band's art of infringement doesn't have a specific message per se; rather, it's an approach the Negativlanders have been drawn to since day one, and in recent years they've found themselves out of necessity having to defend it as what they see as a valid art form. "It's more like we're just averse to all this stuff," Joyce explains, referring to the din of aural information that surrounds us all, "and it becomes our source material. It is all around us, and it is so influential." But he admits that Negativland's newer work à la No Businesshas also become a de facto statement on copyright protection in the arts. "This whole climate of intense protection of cultural properties, I think the whole thing is sort of directed against that. It's a little guerrilla attack on that whole climate.

"I'm happy to push that envelope this far," Joyce adds. "With an artistic motivation, it just gets out there. And if it's allowed to stay out there, the less people are up in arms about it, the easier it is to continue doing this stuff. It just becomes more accepted."

All that said, Joyce does admit that sonically, the most dangerous material on No Businessis the abundance of Disney soundtrack music and samples. "Disney is known for going after people on principle to protect its properties," he says. "They are very litigious. Even though [the material is] all mixed up, if they realize what we're doing, we could bother them greatly. But how are they going to find out about it except for reading pieces like yours? I don't know why I'm talking to you. It's dangerous."

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