Penn State

Matt Jackson - Associate Professor of Communications, Head, Department of Telecommunications, Penn State University Park

Book Title: Escape From Noise

Author: Negativland

Book Description:

I first stumbled upon the album Escape From Noise during college (yes we still listened to vinyl records back then--CDs were not available). The "songs" were funny, thought-provoking, and sometimes musical. Negativland was not in the news yet, just a group of "radical" artists from the San Francisco Bay area with a weekly radio show and a keen ability to deconstruct our cultural landscape. Indeed, the first song "Announcement" succinctly critiques corporate radio a full decade before new ownership rules allowed Clear Channel to purchase 1200 radio stations and become the poster child for all that is bad about media consolidation.

The group combines two artistic skills that I greatly admire: creative appropriation and scathing critiques of our media culture. Negativland artfully uses sampling, collage and juxtaposition as techniques to make potent political statements about the world we live in. Indeed, it was Negativland and similar artists who inspired my research career, which has steadily examined how copyright law and technology shape issues of free speech and control over culture. It seems appropriate to "sample" Negativland here: "At one point in the past, artists responded to their environment and made paintings of trees or birds or whatever, but now, the environment is billboards, advertising, television, radio, Muzak..."

Negativland later earned a small measure of fame when Island Records sued the band and its record label (SST Records) for a release titled U2. The album included a photo of a U2 spy plane on the cover and a song that satirized the famous Irish rock band U2 and its lead singer Bono (who were part of the Island roster of bands at that time). While Negativland lost the lawsuit and had all copies of the record confiscated and destroyed, countless bootleg copies of the album are available (with Negativland's approval and support). In true spirited fashion, Negativland documented their legal troubles in a book titled Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2. The book is a wonderful critique of copyright censorship and contains valuable historical documents as well.

In deciding what work to choose in honor of my promotion and tenure, I considered many of my favorite novels and leading scholarly texts on free speech. While I hope that my scholarship adds to that research literature, it occurs to me that what I have been defending and advocating in my own work is precisely what Negativland practices. So the group is not only what got me interested in scholarship, it also provides the reason for it. As I look back on my research trajectory, I am happy to say Negativland is just as relevant today as it was when I started. The title for my first journal article, "Commerce versus art," was from a quote by Negativland: "Make no mistake, this is essentially a struggle of art against commerce, and ultimately about which one must make way for the other.


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