SP: Credibility for ripping other people off?
LD: Yes, ripping other people off—but not doing it at their expense. There’s a certain ethic behind how we do this sort of thing. The legal system has all sorts of laws and rules pertaining to how cultural work or cultural property can be used by the people it’s handed on to. And they’ve set up a lot of laws-copyright laws, trademark laws, patent laws-that try to protect the output of creative people. It seems like this is probably a good idea, given the fact that we live in a capitalist society in which ideas are commodities to be consumed in much the same way as frozen string beans.
But we have come to believe that that doesn’t tell the whole story of what intellectual property really is. What culture is is a shared experience. When someone makes a record, or writes a book, or draws a picture, and then sells it, in a sense they’re selling the kind of material substrate that helps the thing exist. But the cultural part, the part that people are really buying it for-not the physical compact disc or the physical marks on paper; but the work itself-becomes part of the consciousness of the consumer. Their mind comes to ‘own’ it in some deep sense. Maybe in some cultures selling cultural experience would be unthinkable; primitive cultures for example, where song and dance are a shared experience. Everyone participates. Here ‘culture’ is merely passively consumed.
Paul Neff: But you can’t really say that we’re trying to move people back to the idea of a shared culture such as a primitive society might have it, because we commodify our work just like everyone else in the society does. We sell CDs, for example. Another way you could look at Plagiarism® as a collective vision is that the way in which we say we plagiarize-and we say Plagiarism® tongue in cheek-we don’t re-package old Beatles material as our own; instead we perform what you could call ‘recombinant’ techniques on them, creating what you would definitely call new works, made out of previously finished products. It’s a collective vision because this is not a practice limited to us; we have never claimed to be the first people to do this and we won’t be the last. This practice of taking work from one context and using it for other than its intended purpose is as old as the hills. The only difference between us and just about any other cultural work is that we say we’re plagiarizing and we make a big point of it. We hope that in doing so we can shed light on the nature of the creative process a little bit.
The Legal Aspect
SP: I don’t necessarily see how being honest about the activity you’re involved in absolves you from the underlying criminality of it.
PN: There’s nothing criminal about what we’re doing. We do not consider what we’re doing to be criminal or unethical.
SP: But if you were to speak to a lawyer they might have a rather different opinion on it.
PN: Well, they might, but they’re lawyers. They’ve got a vested interest.
LD: Right, it’s certainly true that we’re on shaky legal ground with this sort of stuff. We recognize the fact that somebody probably could sue us if they saw an opportunity in suing us.
SP: So you haven’t been sued yet.
LD: No, we haven’t. But we also recognize that the practice of litigation is essentially opportunistic. People are often willing to sue, in the cultural arena especially, only if there is something to be gained. We don’t have deep pockets, in other words. We’re not a likely target of litigation in any of the things we’ve done, mostly because if someone were to sue us, they wouldn’t recoup enough capital to offset legal fees.
The Case Against the Plagiarists
SP: The same situation might’ve applied to John Oswald, I can’t imagine that he had a lot of money that would make him an attractive proposition to be sued, but he was.
PN: Something about John Oswald that might shed light on this issue is that he’s recently released a work of plagiarized audio that exploits a court decision from the ’80s that says that you can sample very small fragments of audio completely legally, something like 3.8 seconds. The fact that a court decision has been made and is now being cited as a precedent that says that you can sample. What we’re doing is not theft. We’re simply talking about degree now. But the court has decided a long time ago that taking something out of context and putting it in your own composition is not the same as stealing. The fact that we sometimes sample people for a good bit more than the 3.8 seconds allowed, is not against that principle. It’s simply a matter of degree. The problem is that a lawyer can make or break a case on that matter of degree.
LD: And besides I think that Oswald was sued in part because of his album cover showed a collage depicting Michael Jackson as a nude woman. I have a feeling that Jackson’ representatives are quite sensitive to this kind of depiction and exert firm control over his image. I think that what got the CD noticed; and when they noticed that there was also plundered audio on the CD they started salivating and decided to go forward. The audio alone, in my view, might not have been enough to litigate and the picture made it seem like something else was at work that should be stopped. The thing that happened with Oswald was not so much of a litigation as it was a suppression. They never really asked for damages; all they asked for was that he stop distributing it, and that all undistributed copies and the master tapes be turned over for destruction.
In the case of U2 Negativland, the work itself became the property of Island/Chappel, which was doing the litigating. In essence, the copyright to this copyright infringing work became theirs.
SP: Would you see a qualitative difference between the Oswald case and the Negativland case?
LD: I think the two cases are very similar, but there are differences. I think U2’s management sued Negativland because of the distinct possibility that a consumer might confuse the Negativland record for a U2 record; because of the fact that the characters ‘U’ and ‘2’ were the biggest thing on the record. I mean, you could make the case that Negativland was trying to dilute U2’s market by releasing a bogus product that was intended to confuse consumers into buying the Negativland record instead of a U2 record. I don’t know how much sympathy I have for that kind of whining, but I do see the point, that consumers might be duped, and that there’s a valid complaint there. But I don’t think Negativland are trying to do that at all. They obviously intended to be provocative, and they wanted to make fun of U2, to satirize their style and content. I think this is a valid thing to do; in fact, if done with the right spirit, it’s a noble thing to do, to call attention to the kind of hype around the group U2. I mean, any thinking human being ought to be a little offended by the kind of hyping that goes on around groups such as U2. It’s valid from my perspective to lampoon this tendency.
The Case in Favor of the Plagiarists
SP: So if the target of Negativland’s lampooning was a particular band and their inflated reputations, what is the equivalent for the Tape-beatles?
PN: Well, our scope is wider. We don’t spend time going after particular people, so much as we go after some broad trend in the political and cultural climate.
Linda Morgan Brown: American popular culture. It’s basically the thing we’re satirizing. The fact that everything we see and do today is marketed to us. Marketing is one of the most influential things in our culture. So I think we’re making fun of how culture and cultural heroes become part of us. I think it can be dealt with more deeply. Perfect strangers have become household names.
SP: Does this activity give you power? Are you trying to keep culture at a distance or are you trying to neutralize it? What are you doing with this work? One would understand that you are against these tendencies in culture, but by taking these different pieces and putting them together—
LMB: I don’t know if I could say that I’m against [mainstream culture]; it’s just an attempt to recognize what it is, to try and define it, and have some of our kind of fun with it.
LD: It’s a valid point of outrage for us to say that none of us, not just Tape-beatles, are active participants in our own culture. We’re encouraged to be passive consumers of culture, and discouraged from trying to make our own statements. The Tape-beatles are trying to empower themselves; basically it is kind of an empowering act to take this kind of stuff that comes out of the pipes like running water, and using it in an ingredient in our own recipe. By taking what we consider to meaningful, telling bits of culture, and looking at them in a new context, and it makes them strange, it estranges us from them and sort of puts them under a microscope so they can be examined with something like detachment and objectivity.
PN: Something that strikes a chord with a lot of people in the audience is a little anecdote I tell about the first time I got a tape recorder when I was a kid. I recorded some stuff off the TV and recorded some funny sounds like toilets flushing and I made one of those records where you do an interview and the answers are people talking on TV and it’s taken out of context and it’s very funny. There is a whole generation of people who know about that sort of thing. It is empowering to take the stuff that comes out of the pipe, which you have no control over except as a consumer, whether or not you buy it, and manipulate it. The first time I was able to do that felt great. And in a sense, everything the Tape-beatles do is a refinement of that fundamental idea.
The Irony! The Irony!
SP: So you take bits from culture, recombine them, repackage them, and sell them, for another audience to enjoy.
LD: Yeah, well it would seem ironic and the point is not lost on me what you’re trying to do with that provocative question. At the same time, it’s our hope and it’s probably the only thing that we can do, that the audience that buys our stuff will understand what we’re doing. They’ll have a different kind of understanding of what we’re doing because they’ll kind of be pre-disposed to understanding our ideas. Because our ideas are kind of radical, I guess, at least for the person who listens to AC/DC. So if you think about it in those terms. I think of our work as being a kind of a virus. We have these ideas that don’t have this broad appeal, but we have managed to get them out there and be heard, to you know, inoculate culture with blips of our stuff. It could roll off into something big. I’ve always very much admired the statement, somebody said this about the Velvet Underground. They said the Velvet Underground didn’t sell many records, but everybody who bought one went out and started their own band.
PN: Lester Bangs.
LD: OK. I’ve always admired that kind of following that the Velvet Underground seem to have. That’s the kind of thing we aspire to.
The Paradigm Shift [sic]
PN: We don’t have any conceits about leading a revolution, digital, analog, or otherwise. I think that the revolution is—
LD: —being televised.
PN: —yes it is! Very much so, and it’s probably on the radio, and on the Internet as well. The very fact that you’re listening to what we’re doing, changes the way you listen to everything else. If you don’t believe me, try it. Listen to the Tape-beatles for a week, then turn on the TV and you will hear the sounds on there in a totally different light.
I’m studying to be a librarian and this perspective on copyright causes me plenty of trouble in trying to reconcile it with my emerging professional views. The issues we’re touching on are very big issues in that climate. Do we continue to hold these really 19th century views on intellectual property in the face of technology which encourages us to do otherwise, bearing in mind that tech tends to motivate cultural change. so it affects what I do, certainly.
LMB: As technology advances, the ideas we use advance with it.
PN: Technology motivates social change, or is it the other way around?
LMB: I think it’s both. You’ve got to be able to use what you know. Sometimes it goes beyond what you know, too, so you have to come up with a new set of ideas to grasp the significance of a new technology.
At one point you start to realize you’re being bogged down with a lot of technique, and you find you’ve bought into a lot of things that are going to encompass most of your time so you have to spend a good deal of your time alone in the studio, cloistered. I joined the Tape-beatles because I was attracted to the idea of a group working together, criticizing each other’s work, being confrontational, and still working toward a common goal. The Tape-beatles were building something rather that working alone and feeling alienated.
LD: We felt that there was a collective aspect to the activity which was really worth pursuing. We did that at the expense, sometimes, of our friendship. The four of us before Linda joined were very aggressive and a little bit hostile towards each other, and hostile to another Tape-beatles’ ideas that didn’t precisely match our own. It was a very male thing. I think all of us came to realize that there are ineffable qualities to the emanations from people whom you don’t fully understand, and that if you begin to work with a person and the things begin to fall into place, it really enriches what you’re doing. In fact, I think that in the collaborative effort we’ve built up over time, including Linda, we’ve become pretty adept right now at negotiating all the little personality foibles each of us has, and working together so that something interesting comes out of it. We’re all always surprised by what we end up doing.
PN: This kind of dynamic is not unique, I think. It pertains to every musical group I’ve worked with. I definitely think of us as a musical group.
LD: and John and I think of it as an ‘art band’; and Ralph probably thinks of it as something a little different, and so does Linda. So all of those aspects help to make it multi-faceted.
PN: We’re not just a musical group, too, in a way. All the different products we have out make us appear multi-faceted. We have a CD out, some tapes, a video, film for the performance, buttons, t-shirts, and all this stuff. We a small sort of media conglomerate.
SP: How do you think that ideas about the original have changed with the advent of new technology, i.e., photocopy, computer, tape, etc.?
LD: That’s an interesting question.
PN: There’s several ways you can approach that. In one sense ideas of the original have not changed one iota since the Renaissance. This is the legacy of copyright laws that we currently have to deal with. A lot of fences preventing the exchange of intellectual property so that it can be trafficked as a commodity. However, a lot of ideas of the original are changing because of technology such as copiers and computers allow us to make very nice copies of things with very little effort. Suddenly a lot of things that were treated as originals, such as documents for example, don’t really have to be treated that way because they can be copied and sent to whomever you want. In the old days, you have an accountant scribbling away at a ledger, and if you lost that ledger, boy, your business was doomed. Now everybody’s got it in digital form and they can send it to whomever they want, and everyday it’s backed up onto disk, and we don’t have to worry about it as an original anymore. And people like that.
SP: So you think the idea of the original is obsolete?
PN: What I’m driving at is that we considered originals to be so important because they were unique. Well, uniqueness is giving away to ubiquity in many parts of our life, and what the Tape-beatles are trying to do is say, ‘Hey, this is not just true in the business world, the research world, and the education world, this is true in art as well.’ Technology is motivating change in art just as it has motivated change in all those other fields. It’s annoying perhaps that we still have to deal with commodification in doing what we do. The reason we make CDs and sell them is because there’s no easier way to distribute our product. I think we are gradually getting to a point where people stop thinking of the song as original, something sacrosanct. I think that’s going away. Commercial concerns, and others, motivate this. It’s almost sneaking up on us. One day a lot of people in the music and art world will wake up to the fact that one can plagiarize, and that it’s o.k.; it’s just another technique. That the whole idea of the original has outlived its usefulness.
SP: Do you think that still defines it as creative activity, or is it an activity that’s more dependent up on choice and selection?
PN: Creativity is choice and selection.
LD: Choice and selection occur in plagiarism, because you have to choose what to plagiarize. So a person’s creative personality come in through the back door, so to speak, because they’re making choices, just like conventionally ‘creative’ artists are. So it’s still a reflection of the individual’s character I think.
Creativity and originality have nothing to do with each other. But I say it more as a matter of instinct and personal conviction than as something I can put into words. (Thinks for a minute.) I mean, when someone is creative, that act does not necessarily entail making something unique and new. Baking a cake is a creative act. Your mother may have used the same recipe as a thousand other women, but it’s still a creative act. So creativity and originality have nothing to do with one another. They’re strongly linked in our minds because of cultural conditioning.
Conjuring Images from the Past
Walter Benjamin deals a lot with the idea of the original in an essay he wrote in the 1930s called ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.’ The medium he was addressing in that essay was the motion picture, but I think the things he raises are really pertinent to Tape-beatle concerns. He defines the original as having a unique quality that no other object possesses, and he calls this quality ‘aura.’ He says that when you stand in front of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris, you experience that aura because you are aware that you are standing in front of an object that was touched by Leonardo, and it is something that has a continuous existence that spans five hundred years. The aura is what, Benjamin maintains, separates the Mona Lisa from any reproduction, no matter how perfect it may be. So we intuitively understand that when we look at a reproduction, the aura is dissipated and the spell of the aura is broken.
But aura becomes kind of cloudy when you start looking at the mechanical reproduction, or production, of artworks. In the particular case of the motion picture, what is it that contains the aura? When you’re in a movie theatre, you’re not really looking at the object; it’s somewhere behind you in the projection booth. It’s a technical expedient to create the moving shadows on the screen which is the motion picture experience. These shadows clearly don’t contain the aura in the sense Benjamin defined it. If you go back in the projection booth and look at the print, you still wouldn’t be in the presence of the aura because a print is just a copy of a negative. In addition, looking at the physical print robs you of the experience of the moving pictures, the pictures in motion, themselves. Then if you were to go to Hollywood and look up the negative in a vault somewhere and look at that, you still wouldn’t have the aura experience, in spite of the fact that you are in the presence of the motion picture ‘camera original.’ To take it even further, if you were to go back in time to attend the filming of the picture-the ‘pro-filmic event’ as film theorists like to say-you’d miss out on the controlled situation that editing and sound mixing and the whole slough of effects that are introduced in post-production. So the aura is dissipated when you make works of art that are intended for machine presentation; this is a predicament unique to the 20th century.
Right now we’re in a position where the original is almost totally unimportant. For example, in digital recording of sound, in theory, every copy is identical signal-wise, to the source tape the copy is made from. No information or fidelity is lost in digital to digital copying of audio, or software, or anything recorded digitally. So the original has no special significance, and has no particular value.
PN: But the idea of the original is persistent, though. So even in cases where you don’t have to have one, you have people who worry it. I’m thinking, for example of the U.S. Constitution. The original manuscript is stored in a vault in the National Archives with all sorts of high-tech protection and stuff.
LD: But it has aura.
PN: But we don’t need it for anything; the Constitution is reproduced in millions of school textbooks, so anyone can read. And I think that anyone who values it at all values it for what it says, and not for what it is physically. It’s values for its ideas.
LD: That’s an interesting issue. Raising this example from the non-art world is provocative, because the original is an object of contemplation like a work of art, right? It’s an object of reverence like a work of art, it’s kind of a sacred relic. It’s the repository for a set of ideas that crystallize at a certain point in time. It’s the physical evidence for that crystallization. In that sense, the Constitution does have an aura. It’s totally imbued with all this cultural residue that we as Americans have in our heads as well as in the school textbooks.
I think this brings us back to some of the issues we were dealing with earlier, too. The fact is that a work of culture is as important as a non-material thing as it is as a material object. We’re claiming that when something comes to us through the channels of reproduction and marketing, that’s a work that has ideas in it. It’s the ideas that are important. It’s not the physical thing itself. It’s not even really the music. It’s what the music does to us that we’re-purchasing. So the Tape-beatles are attempting to de-materialize ideas, to free them from physical shackles, and the laws and constraints around them that are modelled after laws that protect physical real estate.
So, uh, Just What Kind of Band are You?
SP: So you’re a conceptual art-band.
LD: ‘Conceptual Art’ has a connotation of a particular movement and a particular group of works in the 60s. So clearly we’re not that.
PN: On the other hand, what’s not ‘conceptual’ art?
LD: Yeah, every work of art has a concept.
SP: Maybe to be more accurate, you’re talking about things having ideas attached to them that are more important than the things themselves. So when you sample from other sources; one aspect is the joining of different sounds, but also its the clash that comes from the ideas that come attached to those sounds. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you’re a concept band. You’re playing with different ideas.
PN: That’s true. We make our choices very deliberately. We are just as interested in the ideas carried by the sounds we sample as by the sounds themselves. We would be doing something very different without that. I’m sure the Tape-beatles would sound very odd to people who don’t speak English, for example. Or who aren’t Americans and don’t understand all the references or even recognize them. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
LD: The fact that ideas are channelled through these means is the most important element of artwork for me. The fact that information, culture, ideas, what have you, the objects exist simply to transport. They’re substrates, they’re media for transporting ideas, for transporting culture into the heads of other people.
PN: Yeah, but the point I’m trying to make is that a lot of people who make art think that their medium is neutral. I believe that there are no neutral media.
LD: You believe that there are no neutral uses of media?
PN: The fact that you’re using a certain medium to communicate something says a lot about what you’re trying to communicate.
LD: So you’re saying that if we choose to make television, that automatically categorizes us as saying a certain thing.
PN: It makes it easier to do some things and harder to do others. People coming out of the same university journalism departments, some go into print journalism, others go into television. Nobody tries to pretend that these are the same thing. And the reason they’re different, despite the fact that the people in them have the same training and near-identical ideologies achieve different things, because of the media. This is Marshall McLuhan’s basic thesis in understanding media. That however you choose to communicate affects what you’re communicating.
SP: Just broadening the scope from what you’ve just been saying; what do you think the prospects for cultural jammers are when they’re up against centralized media?
PN: That depends on circumstance, and what you’re trying to do.
LD: Cultural jammers actually have an advantage, I think, over other kinds of artists. If you choose to be co-opted by the system-that’s a very charged phrase-but if you choose to exhibit your paintings in a gallery and get an agent and grants and all that stuff, your opportunities for really doing incisive and far-reaching critiques of the status quo and the current social order are severely limited. I think jammers have an special opportunity in that they’re not subject to anybody else’s decisions about their work, about how that work will be displayed, or what the matter of that work is, or what the content or quality is. They get to do it all themselves. That’s a real advantage. They’re not censored by anyone, they don’t pre-censor themselves to curry the favor of granting agencies.
SP. So it’s a kind of marginal out-law position.
PN: The smaller you are as a cultural unit, like the Tape-beatles, probably the less ties you’re going to have, and the more freedom you’ll have to do what you want. And add the proviso that the smaller you are, the less likely you will be to be noticed and stomped on.
LD: And the flip side of that is that your resources are limited, so you have to make the most of what you got. That ends up being good, too, because if you’re being forced to think more creatively, because your resources are limited, about how best to use those resources, the chances are good that you’ll think through the content thoroughly, too, to make sure you have something really good and important to say.
The Case in Favor of the Plagiarists, Revisited
SP. In the late 20th century, is it possible to make art and not steal intellectual property?
LD: No. Some of the reasons are that we live in a culture where intellectual property is the primary currency of transmitting that culture.
LMB: Everything that’s been thought of influences us all. We use things in different combinations to make something that’s newer than what already exists.
PN: You can’t think of anything without using something that came before it.
LD: Ideas don’t come out of thin air. They come out of individual experience, which is shaped by the culture the individual resides in. Culture itself is a set of ideas, so if you’re going to claim that you made something up out of the blue and that nobody had any influence on you, well, it seems obvious that this simply can’t be the case.
PN: We don’t believe we’re the leaders of an avant-garde, because we don’t believe there is an avant-garde. We believe that what we’re doing is the reflection of a cultural trend that has been going on for millennia. Plagiarism® is ubiquitous and eternal, and it is an increasing trend in the age of mechanical reproduction. We’re going to be seeing many, many more manifestations of it.
SP. If plagiarism is such a widespread activity, it would seem from the notoriety that you all have gained, that you’re obviously fairly competent plagiarists. One might also say that you’re also very original plagiarists.
PN: We don’t really think of ourselves as original. There’s nothing original about self-promotion.
LD: We’re original in the sense that we make works that didn’t exist before we made them. I had a friend once who said about us, ‘boy, for plagiarists, you guys are awfully original.’ That’s kind of a key insight, I think.
SP. Plagiarism seems to be an activity inherently antagonistic to capitalism.
LD: It’s also kind of the main project of capitalism, if you think about it. Manufacturing is something that’s set up to make infinite copies of the same thing, if you’re willing to broaden the scope of Plagiarism® to include copying. Manufacturing, they call it ‘production’ when it’s really reproduction, is a big capitalist project.
But you’re right, we pointedly choose our way of thinking about culture to be antagonistic to the way it’s typically thought of. So if people think of music as a commodity to be consumed in much the same way as frozen string beans, then we want to challenge that. We want to say that music is also something else. In it’s most important aspect, it’s something other than simply a commodity. It’s something much more.
Ralph once said something that I think is quite smart. He said that, once you start using plagiarism as a creative technique, the world becomes different, and can be explored anew. Plagiarism freshens that which is stale, and re-invigorates the tired. Under plagiarism, the world is new. You can start exploring it again.
This text first appeared in the fourth issue of Tractor: A Quarterly Magazine of Iowa Arts and Culture in April, 1994.
It was reprinted in the book Sounding Off! Music as Subversion/Resistance/Revolution edited by Ron Sakolsky and Fred Wei-han Ho, published by Autonomedia, Brooklyn NY, 1995.