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Hosler hits the road

If you ask Mark Hosler, the band Negativland never set out to attack copyright laws or to go up against a world-famous rock group in court. But while Negativland’s career runs the gamut from ambient music to anti-corporate provocation, their name will always be tied to their sensational moments. The most notorious was in 1991, when their single "U2" — which sampled U2’s music and had a cover that resembled a U2 album — sparked a lawsuit by Island Records that financially devastated Negativland.

"That’s when we started realizing we’re not actually doing anything wrong, and actually, we shouldn’t be getting sued for this," says Hosler, on the phone from California. "This is ridiculous. And so it politicized us further in our work."

When Hosler speaks in Boston this month — at the Coolidge Corner Theatre on Monday, December 6, and at MIT the next day — he’ll give a talk that sprawls from file-sharing and the fair use of samples to hoaxes, pranks, and creative activism, and he’ll use the band’s history as illustration. Hosler explains, "What I’m doing is basically telling the story of how we went from being a bunch of pointy-headed, geeky white suburban teenagers making tape loops in our bedroom with no intent of doing anything activist or political at all, and how that turned into what we’re doing now."

Hosler describes his presentation as "a cross between storytelling and a lecture and stand-up comedy and an experimental short-film festival." It began when he was asked to present short films on which Negativland had collaborated at a Taos, New Mexico, film festival. That led to more invites — from art schools, law schools, independent media groups, and hacker societies. "Some anarchist-based ISP in Amsterdam flew me over to talk for their 10th-anniversary concert event," he says.

Although Hosler never expected to land on the lecture circuit, it was a natural transition: Negativland have studied and written about their work since 1989, when they pulled their first successful — and unintentional — media hoax. They wrote a fake press release claiming that their song "Christianity Is Stupid" had caused a quadruple ax-murder; the hoax took off like wildfire, with major papers and newscasts picking up the story. Negativland commemorated it in a collage on their 1989 CD, Helter Stupid.

Next year, Negativland will release No Business, a CD and a 15,000-word essay about the "illicit" sharing of music and movies on the Internet. With a few caveats, Hosler supports file-sharing. "If I have a car, and you steal my car, well, I don’t have a car anymore," he says. "But if I have a car and I drive by your house and you point your car-copier at me as I drive by your house — I’m not even parked in front of your house, I just drive by it — and you copy it, well, I still have my car. So I don’t really care. And in fact, in our case, what we’re doing is we’re copying lots and lots of cars and we’re taking different pieces from different cars to create our own kind of collage-hybrid-art car."

Next year also marks Negativland’s 25th anniversary, with a full schedule of events including a gallery show of media and previously unseen fine art next fall in New York City. Hosler looks forward to showing sides of the group that the public has missed. "We’re basically most known for having what you would call a ‘hit lawsuit.’ We never had a hit record; Negativland had a hit lawsuit. And so that is the single thing that most people know about us." But he also insists that’s not a bad thing. "[In terms of] getting our ideas out there and getting our two cents into the public discourse, on these issues? Wow, well, we succeeded — it’s like we might as well have had a 10-million-selling hit record."

Mark Hosler speaks on Monday, December 6, at 7:30 p.m., at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, 290 Harvard Street, in Brookline, (617) 734-2500. Tickets are $12, or $10 for members. Hosler also speaks at MIT on Tuesday, December 7, at 5 p.m., Building 6 (Eastman Laboratories) Room 120, 182 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, as part of the CMS Colloquium Series (web.mit.edu/cms/Events/colloquium.html).

Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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