Of the many fun aspects of my job at Yahoo! managing the “TechDev Speaker Series” is pretty close to the top. “TechDev” stands for “Technology Development,” the group I work in along with Jeremy Zawodny, Simon Willison, Ken Hickman, and now Tom Coates (welcome, Tom!) Bradley Horowitz is our leader. Every Friday, we bring in luminaries and generally interesting people from a wide variety of professions and disciplines to do lunchtime talks for Yahoo! employees. This week, I had the pleasure of hosting Mark Hosler, one of the founding members of the “experimental and sound collage band” (as Wikipedia puts it) Negativland. Negativland is most famous to the world for being sued by U2’s record label for copyright infringement — a suit that they ultimately lost (read the Wikipedia entry for Negativland for an outline of the juicy details). There are most famous to me for two reasons: 1) I used to play Negativland cuts during my brief 2-5am college radio DJ shift way back when, and 2) Negativland sampled paranoid preacher Estus W. Pirkle in one of their songs. (Growing up in a Southern Baptist church back in NC, I was actually subjected to Rev. Pirkle’s scare films on at least one occasion — look here for a peek into the Pirkle mind. Estus Pirkle made Sen. Joseph McCarthy look like a Commie-lover by comparison.)
We had Mark in on the heels of an incredible TechDev talk last week by Dr. Lawrence Lessig, who mentioned Negativland in his presentation and said they were “fantastic” when I told him Mark was coming in to speak the following week. Negativland played a key role in authoring the Creative Commons sampling license, as noted on the Creative Commons site:
Creative Commons first considered offering a Sampling License at the suggestion of collagist People Like Us (a.k.a. Vicki Bennett) and Negativland, the appropriationist art collective that has since served as the public discussion lead during the license drafting process.
Mark lives in North Carolina now and his parents live in the East Bay where Mark grew up, so he was staying with them on this trip to the west coast (Mark and Negativland are preparing for two rare live shows at the Great American Music Hall later this month). I picked him up on Friday morning at his parents’ house. His mom (who shares the same relatively uncommon first name as my mom!) met me at the door — beaming with pride — and said that she regretted that she wasn’t going to be able to see Mark speak this time. As we loaded up Mark’s gear, she made sure that he had a healthy breakfast for the long drive to Sunnyvale (a banana, a hard-boiled egg, and some hot tea). Mark told me that when his mom flew to NY for the opening of their big 25th anniversary show (link to the gallery here, and mention on BoingBoing here), she transported carefully-wrapped homemade brownies on the plane. The jaded New York art world was appreciative. Apparently, homemade brownies are a rare treat to New York art-show-goers. Mark’s mom waved goodbye from the driveway and we headed to Sunnyvale. Mark’s mom is really cool.
My biggest regret about our commute to Sunnyvale was that I didn’t record our conversation and make a podcast out of it (I am certain Mark would have been fine with it), but suffice it to say that it was the most engaging commute I’ve had in a while. Normally, I might be listening to a provocative interview on NPR, but this time I was Terry Gross with two hands on the steering wheel. We covered copyright, technology, the U2 lawsuit, and Silicon Valley culture. . . among many other things. I was verging on disappointed when we arrived on the Yahoo! campus for the real talk.
The intial soundcheck was more or less perfect (thanks David!) so I went to the Yahoo! mailroom to get the DVD that Mark had fedexed for his presentation. The sender was Tim Maloney, a former Disney animator who helped Mark and Negativland produce some of their work. (Whew, the DVD was there.)
A little after noon, I introduced Mark briefly, and from there Mark gave a history of his work with Negativland, peppered with various videos and entertaining stories that went on for about an hour and a half. I can’t even attempt to describe the talk adequately — you had to be there. I’m at a loss for words when it comes to Negativland (though I like this description from their recent show announcement: “Okay, but what, you still ask, is Negativland exactly? That’s hard to answer. Negativland definitely isn’t a ‘band,’ though they may look like one when you see their CDs for sale in your local shopping mall. They’re more like some sort of goofy yet serious European-style artist/activist collective – an unhealthy mix of John Cage, Lenny Bruce, Pink Floyd, Bruce Connor, Firesign Theatre, Abbie Hoffman, Robert Rauschenberg, 1970’s German electronic music, old school punk rock attitude, surrealist performance art, your high school science teacher…and lots more…”
After the talk, Mark, Ken Hickman, and I headed to URL’s (the Yahoo! cafeteria), where David Beach joined us for a while for another wide-ranging discussion that would have made a great podcast (note to self: must bring recording gear EVERYWHERE from now on). David recounts the gist of our conversation in his blog:
Subjects included answering machines, cyber kids, ourmedia, oil, war, travel and some other stuff. . .
Lunch was definitely a continuation of the earlier fun. Before we left, I loaded Mark up on some free Yahoo! coffee (photo here) and I dropped him off at a friend’s house in SF (but not before snapping some photos of Mark with the rare Estus W. Pirkle book I picked up a couple of years ago, Preachers in Space. Photos here and here.)
Mark had to leave some Negativland merchandise in my car since he was going to take BART home later that night and couldn’t carry it all. Good news, Mark — I sold $107 worth of Negativland merchandise to my super-hip dog walker on Saturday morning. . . she’s a fan. I’ll drop the cash off with your mom sometime this week.