Saturday, January 29, 2011

Secret Influences 6: Negativland

16 years old, escaping from the cultural wasteland of Oshawa, and on one of my monthly excursions to Toronto to scour headshops and used record stores along Yonge Street I accidentally discovered Negativland. Could it have been at Peter Dunn's Vinyl Museum? It was definitely along that strip, and in the days before CDs dominated, that I remember hearing "Christianity is Stupid" and being blown away. At the time, the extent of my interest in alternative music was REM and Husker Du (I hadn't even discovered the Replacements yet) and I hadn't heard anything remotely like that track--oppressive and just plain heavy. Heavy, that is, without seeming to use traditional rock structure (such a thing seemed impossible to conceive, having been conditioned through my early teens to respond only to Hair Metal and Q107 classic rock). I couldn't figure out what it was doing, or why someone would compose a track like that, but I was intrigued enough to actually ask the surly cashier what album was playing and make the first impulse-buy of my record collecting years.

After a few more listens to the track (on headphones it's an even more intense experience) I came to the conclusion that the song was attempting to replicate the psychic/sonic warfare of Vietnam, or perhaps Korea, where American GIs would hear anti-American broadcasts over shortwave radios, or in POW camps: "The loudspeaker spoke up and said: `Christianity is stupid. Communism is good. Give up.'" But who knew? Maybe Negativland really did think Christianity was stupid? It kept confusing me: it seemed to be a direct assault on American ideology, but seemed equally critical of Communism. And what to make of that final line: "Shop as usual, and avoid panic buying." Surely that was meant to be taken as ironic, and a dig at capitalism?

But that was just the one track. Listening to the entire album of Escape From Noise (1987) was a complete mindfuck, both musically and politically. Some tracks like "Sycamore" were obviously critical of American ideology (guns and good real estate combined in a surreal radio commercial) but what to make of the psychotic rant "Car Bomb" or the sonic-collage about nuclear fall out shelters in "Yellow Black and Rectangular"? I didn't always get what they were doing, but it was clearly oppositional, and something I listened to obsessively for about a year, particularly the radio cut-up "Time Zones."

And it wasn't just the music but the whole package: from the design of the sleeve with the upside down graphic and text along the border, to the contents within the album which included a CAR BOMB bumper sticker (what would that mean, politically, to affix to your car and drive around with?) to a zine which described other Negativland activities and releases (they seemed to be a loose collective of pirate radio broadcasters and record producers). It was my first introduction to interdisciplinary art practice and an attempt to create a immersive aesthetic experience, from sound to visual to tactile.

But this isn't meant to be a record review, but a comment on how Negativland influenced my poetics. At the time I was writing poetry, and was voraciously reading all the Canadian poetry I could get my hands on at the local library. In Oshawa, that mostly meant Leonard Cohen and with a smattering of Irving Layton and Alden Nowlan, although I had just stumbled upon bpNichol and David McFadden. Once Negativland was added to the mix, I started seeking out more political and collage-based writers leading me to read bill bissett and, eventually, the Steve McCaffery of the Carnival period. By the time I was in university and had access to the Queen's library and special collections I was finally able to investigate Nichol's The Journeying and the Returns (which included a vinyl record, concrete poem postcards and objects, and a standard book of poems) and could see the connections between avant-garde poetic practice and the music and politics I had been fumbling towards for the previous five years.

Once I arrived in Toronto in the early 1990s and became involved with the experimental poetry community, it seemed like a home-coming: this was a period of intense self-publishing and material-experimentation with poets producing poems in bottles or baked into pastries, releasing audiotapes of sound poetry, broadsides of concrete poems, and poems affixed to pieces of hardware, bullets, and Rubik's cubes. Everyone seemed to have their own micropress and were pushing the limits of how to distribute and produce poems. I jumped right into the fray, recognizing the connections I had already established through encountering Nichol and Negativland, with my own micropress Kitsch in Ink investigating concretism and alternative forms of material production, as well as starting to engage with the highly-political LANGUAGE and KSW poetries.

In retrospect, and after having read extensively in the avant-garde for the past two decades, it now seems clear that Negativland were merely the late 1980s manifestation of many previous experimental currents including Dada, musique concrete, and most particularly Fluxus and the detournement of the Situationist International. Yet to a 16 year old in 1987, Negativland may as well have been from Mars, and I like to think that my later interest in avant-garde movements in general was sparked by this initial encounter.

Even in my more recent poetry I often find myself looking back to what I learned from Negativland. Most particularly, the importance of found material and manipulating this material to reveal its political ideology (both latent and manifest), and the need to work hegemonic political ideologies against themselves through parody and recontextualization. What I heard in "Time Zones" and "Christianity is Stupid" is present in my own "Hydra" or "American Psycho", and Negativland's ambivalent engagement with American politics and ideological structures is one of the inspirations for the confused and angry flux of "American Standard" as well as my forthcoming publication I Can Say Interpellation.

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