Don’t Don’t Get Freaked Out: An Interview with Negativland’s Mark Hosler
Negativland is a chronic cultural carnivore. Since 1980, the experimental sound collage group has been sampling offal from the corporate culture machine and repackaging it with subversive hilarity. Their latest album, “ The World Will Decide,” was released on Nov. 13.
Today, the group consists of Mark Hosler, David Wills (a.k.a. “The Weatherman”), Jon Leidecker (a.k.a. “Wobbly”), and others. Whether their subject of critique is the omnipresence of corporate advertising or the reign of technocracy, Negativland has proven audio collage to be a wickedly effective means of exposing cultural hypocrisy.
As 2020 approached a welcome close, I spoke to one of Negativland’s founding members, Mark Hosler. In addition to a discussion of the new album, we shared a grimace over our tech overlords and their rampant digital diddling. Thankfully, Mark supplied some ideas as to how to combat those creeps, or at least resist their rewiring of our feeble mortal minds.
Lydia Sviatoslavsky: What galvanized the project? Was there a plan to create an answer to
Mark Hosler: Yes, very much so. The whole thing was one giant project from the very beginning. We ended up with so much material for a new album that we realized that it seemed to self-organize into two separate works that would speak to each other, but each have their different focus. True False ended up being an overview project of all the things that we are thinking about and concerned about as we’re making it in 2017, 2018, 2019. With regard to the material that’s in The World Will Decide, we’re looking at how technology affects us, all our hopes and fears around technology, and the way that it’s becoming harder and harder to tell ourselves apart from our technology. That spoke to us as being a very interesting area to work in.
We also had an incredible amount of found sound material, particularly coming from our archives of (now deceased) member Don Joyce, that connected to all these new ideas. So there are sonic elements on these two records that go way back, even to the eighties. The track ‘Discernment,’ on True False, the basic voice edit of that is actually a 20 year-old piece that we felt was so completely timely and relevant to our current moment. We’d used it as a live performance piece, but never for a studio track.
LS: How did you go about selecting samples? What was the recording process like?
MH: It’s a weird mixture of what you’ve intellectually and conceptually thought about that you’d like to do with a track, along with an enormous amount of it being just an intuitive sense or feeling that something works. We also just like things because they’re funny, or ridiculous. We have a healthy love for things that are just pure Dada nonsense. We also like to make tracks where we hope that you can more or less tell what we’re getting at, but there’s enough things in it that monkey wrench and derail where you think the track is going, that make your brain go-Sorry, this won’t translate well in an interview-’GLGHGHGGG!’ Little doubletakes in your brain. And anything that we can come up with that’s funny is gonna go in there, for sure.
When picking the voices we use, we’re picking them for what they’re saying, but we’re also always listening to how they’re saying it: the timbre of their voice, the inflection, the cadence. So it’s always a mixture of the content and pure aesthetics. We pick the found voices we use both because of what they are saying, and because we find something juicy or interesting about the quality of their voice, and a musicality to how they’re speaking. Because they’re the vocalists and lyricists of our pieces.
When we started out in the 80s, we cut everything with razor blades. It was reel-to-reel tape, and we’d cut the tape with a razor blade to arrange and rearrange our sounds. In the digital world, you can take a sentence and you can literally put a quarter of a second between a word to make a sentence just perfectly fall with the rhythm of that sentence on the beat, or where the chord changes, so that you’d never know the level of fine microscopic tuning that Jon got really good at doing. You’ll hear a sentence, and it sounds just like someone’s speaking. What you don’t know is that we’ve actually ever so slightly spaced it -and sometimes even time-stretched a word — so that the whole thing just glues into the music in an ever more musical fashion. Jon’s gotten to be just brilliant at it.
LS: How do you think audio collage lends itself to the conceptual thrust of this album?
MH: Over the years, the more we dug into appropriation and collage, it spoke to us as, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of depth to what you can say by appropriating things.’ In fact, paradoxically, it can feel like trying to talk about our culture and our world and our country by using bits and pieces from our culture actually feels more honest than trying to write song lyrics about it. By 1983, our work became very overtly conceptual and has remained that way to present day.
LS: Did the pandemic have any influence on the recording process, or the ideas put forth in the album?
MH: It didn’t. Everything was done before this all happened. These records were finished before disinfecting your groceries became the new normal. The opening track on The World Will Decide sounds like we made it this summer, though. Sometimes it feels like artists and writers, filmmakers and musicians, can create things where it feels like their antenna are a little further out, picking up on things that are in the ether, things that are about to happen. That seems to happen with art a lot, and that may be the case with our new record.
LS: A lot of the messages embedded in The World Will Decide echo the warnings put forth in the 2020 docudrama, The Social Dilemma, in which former tech puppeteers reveal manipulative tactics used by major social media platforms like Google and Facebook, as well as their real world consequences. In the film, former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris advocates for humane regulation and redesign. Are you hopeful? Do you believe that the advancement of technology can successfully coexist with a humane ethical approach?
MH: If we lived in a world without the brutal, winner-take-all capitalism that we practice, yeah, maybe, but we don’t live in that world. Those are great, aspirational ideas that should be fought for, but, just being realistic, when you look at the forces that are out there, that are driving this, and it’s mostly about who can make the most money, so I don’t know how you do it. As we’ve been observing shifts in technology, as it’s been growing and growing into our lives, particularly over the last decade, there are some things we sort of predicted pretty well -going back to the 80’s and 90’s -in our work, and other things we did not see coming. If you look at ideas about the internet in the 90’s, it was a very utopian vision, and no one thought it would turn into one giant shopping mall. But it did. And we certainly didn’t envision a digital business model where they’re selling you this ‘amazing’ idea that you’re all getting to talk to each other and share information, but in reality we don’t actually care what happens on our platform, we just want to keep you on our platform. And the way we keep you on our platform is by feeding you stuff that we know you already want to see.
I try and look at all these different perspectives in news stories on different websites to try and get a broader idea of what’s going on out there. It’s amazing that technology exists where I can do that, and I also happen to have the time to do it, and many people don’t. But I couldn’t have guessed at how incredibly undemocratic the way these echo chamber algorithms on these social media platforms would end up becoming, where you can just disappear up your own butthole. All you hear are people who agree with what you think. QAnon is a horrific expression of that. I don’t look very much at my Facebook feed, but people who I know, who I’m friends with, are going down these very dark conspiratorial rabbit holes. It’s freaking me out. You can have this incredibly skewed perspective of what’s going on if you live online. It’s pretty dark. Between that and the degree of data that’s being sucked up about all our behaviours online, the best I can do as one human being is try and be as mindful as I can possibly be about how I take in information, and what I do with my technology. But that’s not what our culture does when new tech comes along. We don’t have thoughtful conversations as a culture about how we want to use this stuff. We just start buying it and using it.
It’s amazing that The Social Dilemma was in the works at the same time our record was, and that it’s obviously dealing with similar ideas and themes, though I do think it’s a bit like the ‘Reefer Madness’ of big tech. A woman who’s featured in there, Shoshana Zuboff — We sampled her on our record. I think her voice is on the finale track.
There’s a Negativland Alexa Skills set created with Kristin Erickson that you can use which temporarily breaks your Alexa and makes it say confusing stuff. We also have a Google Chrome extension, DISCERNMENT.CRX, that we worked on with the artist, Dina Kelberman in LA, who’s brilliant. It’s a Chrome extension that hijacks any website you go to, and turns it into some broken, strange hack-jam. I really love both of them, but the underlying idea was to hopefully point you toward thinking more about these quote ‘fun’ tools that actually exist entirely to spy on you and collect data on you.
LS: The track titled “Anything Else” speaks to everything we’ve lost in the wake of computer technology. What do you think is the greatest loss? What do you, in particular, mourn?
MH: I don’t have a soundbyte answer for that. There are of course incredible things you can do with these tools, but there’s also something about the way they’ve affected how our brains work, our attention spans. It feels like they help us know more and more people, less and less well. And they help us know less and less about more and more. The amount of noise that comes into our head all the time, it’s not using the long-term part of our brain that helps you make thoughtful decisions about what you want to do with your life, your job, the environment, who to vote for, etc. Instead, it all feeds into this animal impulse part of our brain. It’s all short-term memory, which is terrible at making thoughtful choices. There’s a really good book that came out called The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brainsby Nicholas Carr. I highly recommend it if you’re concerned about this stuff. He’s not against new technologies, but gets into the science of neuroplasticity, and how quickly your brain can get rewired. If you don’t use your hippocampus, which is the long-term memory part of your brain, it actually, literally, shrinks. That’s what’s happening nowadays. Part of our brain is shrinking! So there’s some sense I have of the quality of how we interact with each other and the world at a human-to-human level that is vanishing, and it feels profoundly sad to me. And it makes me feel like I’m some cranky 80 year-old man, like ‘GAH. Nobody talks to each other anymore!’
This world that we’ve moved into…I don’t really like it. I’m gonna engage with it, I’m gonna use the tools and make art that is responding to it, but there is something about it where I feel like I just want to hide from it all. But I can’t, and I won’t. I’m drawn into it, I read way too much news everyday, etc..
Some years ago I was doing a tour with some other experimental sound makers where part of my job was to call these smaller arts kind of venues in advance to make sure that they had everything in order that we needed to do the show. I hadn’t done this in a number of years, and I found that I couldn’t get through to anybody anymore when calling or emailing them. And I was told, ‘They’re all in their twenties, and they don’t answer the phone or email anymore, but if you text them, you’ll hear from them right away.’ So I did that, and it worked. But here’s the thing — If I’m touring, I’m not doing it to make a good living. It’s because something else drives me. And if I’m performing at a venue, where someone puts on avant-garde experimental weird music, they’re not doing this to make money, either! They’re doing it because they have some passion or drive, and they want to support and promote alternative culture, and different ideas and communities. So, to me, part of the enjoyment of doing this is having that human interaction, like, hey, look we’re all working hard doing this stuff for shit pay, but we all do it because we care about it, we love it. We’re all, the artists and venues, driven to do it. And so my interactions with these people, instead of connecting with them as a human being who’s probably someone I would enjoy talking to, and would respect and admire for what they’re doing, is reduced to an interaction with them on my phone via text messages. It reduces the entire experience to just a business transaction. All the humanity and the care and the heart is gone. I was so depressed and upset about it. It made me really angry. I thought, there’s nothing I can do about this, because that’s the way people are now engaging with each other. And this is never going away, either. It’s probably the new normal for the rest of my life. I felt kind of crushed.
There are generations who are coming of age now who aren’t learning as a teenager how to engage with people and talk to them and read facial cues and tone of voice and body language, because everything is mediated through a screen that presents a highly curated version of who you really are. You present your life through your social media. I have a friend who’s been a drama teacher at a high school for decades. She was saying to me, ‘Nowadays, when I’m asking my students to do an improvised emotional scene as we’re learning how to act, they’re confused about how to do it. They haven’t learned how to talk and express and interact with people in the way they would’ve thirty years ago.’
LS: What is your own relationship to technology like?
MH: There’s a conference that happens every year in NYC called “ Hackers on Planet Earth,” and they had me out there as a guest speaker to talk about the history of Negativland’s work. There was a fellow there who was a kind of forensic data detective. At the beginning of the conference he asked for a random volunteer, and the next day, in his presentation, he was able to show how much information about that completely random person that he was able to gather in one day using all of his tools. It was pretty frightening to see how much information he had so quickly. Companies suck up data on you and put you into different categories, in terms of your age, sex, your worldview, what you buy….One thing he said that really stuck with me was, ‘If you’re a person who goes to great lengths to not leave a data trail, that actually shows up, too. Just enough of you shows up that we know you’re out there, and we know you’re working really hard to not show up, so that flags you right away.’ So that’s a category, too. There’s no way out!
But, still, there are different extensions you can add to your browsers: Privacy Badger, Ghostery, AdBlock. I’ve switched to uBlock Origin, which is probably better, and I got rid of AdBlock and Ghostery, but I still have HTTPS Everywhere and Privacy Badger, which prevents you from leaving a trail. Use it on Firefox or something. Don’t use Chrome.
Even though we appreciate how many folks we can reach through, for example, our Facebook page, we are also, as more and more dark stories come about how they operate, pretty horrified at ending up relying on them so much. We see no easy way out. It’s something we talk about quite a bit.
LS: How does The World Will Decide complement or contradict your 2019 release, True False? Can you talk a little bit about the inverse nature of the two album covers?
MH: We realized we wanted something that visually communicated instantly how these two projects connected. What we set up with the True False cover is that portal that the gorilla and pug go through. We knew it’d be a visual loop between the front and back of both albums, and there’s a story there that’s being told, though hopefully it’s not 100% clear. How you explain what that story is is up to you. And if you listen to both records a lot, there are words, phrases, and concepts that are on both albums that speak to each other, both by implication but also quite literally, and specific voice tapes that appear on both albums. The artwork, by Dan Lynch, is painterly, but the petals are digitally created.
The theme of death comes up a lot on both records. We were sort of aware of it as we were making it, but when we finally put it all together there was more than we realized, and I think that’s because we’ve all experienced so many losses in our lives lately. No matter how conscious you think you’re being as you’re making art or music, there’s always other stuff that’s coming through that you don’t realize until you’re done with it. During this pandmeic so many of us are being forced to be even more online than ever, even more digitally enmeshed and removed from humanity, so things on The World Will Decide relate to our current moment in deeper ways than we ever could have imagined.
We try to make projects that, if you choose to spend a lot of time with them, you’ll find all kinds of easter eggs and ways that these projects speak to each other and interact, even across decades. Our imaginary audience for our work is someone who’s paying attention, listens carefully, is thoughtful, has a sense of humor, is engaged with the world. Part of what’s fun about making these strange creations of ours — You feel like you’re throwing a message in a bottle out into a vast ocean, and you don’t know how people are gonna perceive it. And our work isn’t something you just ‘get’ when you listen to it the first time.
LS: I’m curious as to what cultural influences inspire the group. Who are your cultural influences? What are you reading and watching these days?
MH: Lately I’ve been reading way too much news and not enough books. I’ve got a couple of books I am trying to read. One of them is about mesquite trees, as I’m very obsessed with the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Oh, and The Hidden Life of Trees. Reading about trees! [ Laughs.] I’d also like to read Shoshana Zuboff’s book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism.
I spend a lot of time sitting on my porch listening to the wolves howling. And in the summertime (near Asheville, NC), there’s a symphony of insect sounds that all have these different rhythms and pitches and cadences to them. It all sounds like this giant arrhythmical avant-garde Steve Reich piece. It’s like music for 18 insects. I really enjoy that. I’ve been listening to that jazz pianist from the 50’s and 60’s, Bill Evans, which is just kind of soothing. The funny thing is that I wouldn’t listen to Negativland records. They don’t work as background music. They’re terrible for that. They’re like a movie for your mind. Whenever I give people one of our records, I always say, ‘Wait until you have time to do nothing but listen to the record.’ In this day and age that may be asking a lot, and it may mean that you don’t listen to it for many months, but that’s the best way to listen to it. It’s also how I listened to music when I was younger. I would put on the headphones, and I would just listen. Our stuff is very much headphone music, for sure.
Entertainment and music has become like water. You need water to live, but you don’t think about it much or its monetary value. It’s just always there, on tap. So I do wonder how our relationship to culture and entertainment has changed. When I was getting into weird and unusual music and films, it was very hard to find out about them. It was hard to hear them or see them, and so I had a lot invested in it. I’d save up my paper route money, I’d have to ride my bike to the BART station, take the train to Berkeley…What it took to get to this one record store that sold all of the weird post-punk, experimental stuff, and space music. I’d go there once every few months, and I’d stay there from opening to closing because they’d let you listen to records, they would do needle drops. This was in 1977, ’78 and ’79. Back home I would put on my huge boxy headphones and lie down on my parents’ orange shag carpeting next to the giant Magnavox console stereo, and I would be so invested in giving those records my time and attention. I’m not necessarily saying that’s better than now, but it’s certainly different. My relationship to those records is really intense, and it still is. And I wonder now about people at that age who are excited about music, how much they develop a connection to it, and in what ways.
By the third record we made, ‘A Big 10–8 Place,’ which came out in 1983, almost everything we’ve made since then has been a concept album. They’re meant to be listened to from beginning to end. They’re meant to be absorbed with the packaging, the artwork, the liner notes. And as streaming took over, I realized that we were being reduced against our will to being kind of a singles band, where the tracks aren’t going to exist in any context at all. That was really distressing. While True False and The World Will Decide arevery much conceived as concept albums that we hope you will listen to from beginning to end, and exist as a greater whole, each track had to tells its own story, and we had be more careful than ever that each track had a very definite beginning, middle, and end, and could exist all on its own, devoid of any context. It was a very tricky needle to thread, having the albums work in both of those ways.
LS: You’ve been a member of Negativland since 1980. How has your outlook changed over the decades, politically and otherwise? How has your approach to creating art and music changed?
MH: It’s changed a lot, but it also hasn’t changed at all. I don’t know where it came from, but as a teenager, I instinctively had this idea that the world out there prescribed messages to you about your gender, your education, what music you should like, that you’re supposed to have a certain kind of job, and on and on…but I had this strong sense that that’s just a made-up story you’re telling me. So what’s my own story? Because I’m not buying the one you’re selling me. And I don’t quite know what my own story is yet because I’m only 15 years old, but I know that I don’t wanna go down those rabbit holes. There’s no reason to.
So when we made our first record when I was 17 and 18, we made 500 copies with handmade record covers and we thought we might sell a few hundred over the next 5 years or so. We ended up selling 500 in about two months. The record was so strange, and the handmade covers just got peoples’ attention. These distributors that we didn’t even know existed picked up on it, and before we knew it, we weren’t just selling them in a couple stores in the SF Bay Area. Suddenly they were being sold all over the world in underground record shops. That was so exciting to us! It gave us a great energy and encouragement to keep at it, and I think it’s because our expectations of ‘success’ were so modest. I encourage people creating — You’re being force-fed these ideas into your brain about what it means to succeed, and they’re bullshit. You have to construct your own idea of what success is if you’re an artist in any way. It’s so important, because if you buy into the larger culture’s idea of success, you’re gonna burn out. The chances are incredibly tiny that you’re going to become successful in that way. But by our idea of success, I feel we’ve done incredibly well. We got to do what we wanted to do on our own terms, I think we’ve kept our integrity, are respected, and we’ve kept trying our best to challenge ourselves and our audience. I was inspired as a young person by encountering other artists who were doing things in a very iconoclastic way, clearly pursuing their own bizarre, unique visions.
LS: Do you have a favorite track off of the new album?
MH: Probably the final track, “The World Will Decide.” I think it’s partly because that track doesn’t sound like any track Negativland has ever made. It has something going on that’s really different in it, so it just tickles my brain, like ‘How did we manage to even make that?’ We worked on that track with this drummer, Prairie Prince, who’s an unbelievably genius drummer. He’s a real musician in a way that we are not. He plays drums on both albums and didn’t just play the beat. He added all these wonderful ornamentations and percussion details.
LS: What’s next for Negativland?
MH: This project’s not done yet. There’s more to come. There are more pieces of this project that are gonna come out in 2021. We have two more chunks that are gonna come in different formats. There’s still more to be said. These two records, by the way, have callbacks to our old albums, going back to the 80’s. We decided for the first time ever to actually sample from ourselves. We’d actually never done that, believe it or not. Has our audience shrunk or grown because of all the technological changes we’ve been discussing? I don’t know…
I mentioned neuroplasticity to you earlier. Years ago, once I started reading more often on the internet, I realized that when I would read an actual book, my attention span was drifting a lot quicker than it used to. At some point, it dawned on me that my attention span was drifting when I’d gotten past the length of the average internet news article. Nicholas Carr’s book that I mentioned talks about neuroplasticity and how, in just a few weeks, you can majorly rewire your brain and your attention span. That’s what had happened to me. I’d basically rewired my brain. But these things can be undone, too. I’m still a huge reader, going back to when I was seven or eight years old and reading the original Dracula and Frankenstein. I don’t know how I made it through those books at that age. Frankenstein in particular was a very archetypal story for me, about a collaged human being that’s been stitched together from pieces of other humans. Maybe it set me on my path… and I always identified with the misunderstood monster, of course, and was always rooting for the monster. Everyone else in those stories seemed terrible to me. I always wanted the monster to win.
I think there’s a lot of entertainment that doesn’t ask you to be engaged. It’s about shutting your brain off. There’s nothing wrong in making and enjoying stuff like that, but I’m not personally interested in making art that does that. That just doesn’t motivate me, even though I see the value in sometimes just shutting off your brain. For us, if we’re going to keep making what we make, we better be sure that we’re only putting out work if we feel like we have something to offer, something to say.
Excerpts from this story were originally published at LocalNewsMatters.org
Originally published at https://thought-rot.net on January 15, 2021.