Double Negative: Negativland At The Highline Ballroom

I was trying to think of an analogy all night: Seeing Negativland at the Highline Ballroom is like...? Like what, dammit? Basically, I need something that gets at the incongruity of it, the inherent contradiction.

If you're not familiar with Negativland, I'll do my best to sum them up. They've been around since at least the '80s and they're from the Bay Area. And their medium is sound, but they're not really a band per se. Basically what they do is sonic collage--they layer music, speech samples, sound effects and other stuff together, often manipulating the source sounds via repetition or splicing or what have you.

More important than their method, though, is their politics. They've got a few pet issues, one of the main ones being their disdain for copyright law. That's probably an oversimplification, but they were famously sued by U2 a while back for using a snippet of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" in one of their pieces. (Check out their webpage for a bunch of fascinating documents related to that scenario.) They also engage in a bunch of other lefty-type commentary that's topically predictable but formally awesome.

Anyway, if I haven't already conveyed this notion, the band is pretty much built around the idea of subversiveness, of magnifying all sorts of cultural hypocrisy and absurdity in the name of reason, humor, enlightenment, etc. So it was really weird to find them putting on a show at the Highline, which is essentially this sterile, wanna-be fashionable megaclub, complete with ungodly drink minimums and oppressive air conditioning.

So this show--"It's All in Your Head"--was basically a live version of the Negativland radio show "Over the Edge." Three of the dudes in the collective were onstage fiddling around with electronic gadgets, voicing certain roles and creating this two-hour-plus sound expedition dealing with the absurdities of various religious beliefs. But even though the "band" was illuminated and elevated in front of the crowd, you weren't really supposed to be watching them. Blindfolds were even passed out. In short, it was designed as a totally aural thing.

Anyway, I've gotta get focused here. Overall I thought the show was very cool--maybe a little overlong and overly blatant at some points, but extremely unique and thought-provoking. One thing that was kind of crazy: During the first half of the show, there was one dude in the audience to the right of the stage who was clapping loudly and inappropriately. After a while it became just plain annoying and it was obvious that he was intentionally disrupting things; I thought at one point that he might have actually been part of the show, but then I noticed the band members glaring out into the crowd. He was a heckler, all right.

Now this is not the kind of show you expect to find a heckler at. What I mean is that--as my colleague Mike Wolf mentioned in his insightful interview with the band in last week's Time Out New York--Negativland is the kind of group that routinely preaches to the converted. In other words, it is very likely that not a single person in attendance at tonight's polemic against God-belief actually believed in God or was in any way swayed from their lefty, atheistic, intellectual stance. So it was just sort of weird to see Negativland getting their feathers ruffled at this one disruptive dude when basically in 99% of imaginable cultural scenarios (i.e., most events that aren't Negativland shows), they're the ones doing the feather-ruffling. Not that the heckler was anything other than an out-of-it drunk dude, but still...

As for the content of the show itself, it was hard to concentrate during the first of the two acts b/c of the heckler and the commotion he created. There were a bunch of excerpts of people denouncing God-belief on an empirical basis, some funny skits, such as an aural depiction of an ape getting shaved, and various refrains, including someone screaming, "There is no God!!!!"

The heckler was removed at intermission and thus I could home in a lot better in the second half. Things definitely got heavier. My attention was wavering, but I snapped back into focus as soon as the collage made its way to a section dealing with 9/11. Various commentators were discussing how some of the victims were seen jumping from the towers holding hands; the voices discussed the power of that image: co-workers, or maybe even strangers, choosing to die together, to bond together in their last moments. It seemed to me that Negativland was using it as a kind of profound atheistic statement, i.e., as they were about to die, people were relying on each other rather than appealing to God.

Many of the voices talked about man's need to tell stories about the afterlife to allay the fear of death. One section dealt with suicide bombers and how there's basically no way a person could commit that act unless they felt they were going to a better place. Various afterlives were discussed--Hades, Valhalla, etc.--and all were deemed equally fantastical.

Again, though, it's unlikely anyone in that room was sitting there believing in paradise and having their religious foundation shaken. But the commentary did hit pretty hard and did do an amazing job--via its incorporation of all the major religions--of cataloging the dangers of religious fervor.

It was a surreal experience overall. Highline was designed to showcase a Hot New Band, which Negativland most certainly is not. I guess hearing Negativland deliver an antireligion shpiel at Highline was kind of like...well, it was kind of like hearing them deliver it in church.