The Performant: Please appropriate me


Bryan Boyce and Negativwobblyland pump up the culture jams at L@te

Nighttime at the Berkeley Art Museum. An undercurrent of glee emanating from the patrons, as with a roomful of children up past their bedtimes. Enhancing the playground vibe, a giant orange mountain of rippling wooden waves designed by Thom Faulders, squats in the middle of the room, serving as seating for the assembled crowd, as well as pre-show entertainment as we scramble up its sides.

We’re here for the last L@te program of the year for a fanciful pairing between filmmaker Bryan Boyce and electronic noise ensemble Negativwobblyland, comprised of two parts Negativland (Mark Hosler and Peter Conheim) and one part Wobbly (Jon Leidecker). Pop culture appropriationists all, Boyce may be best known as the creator of the crassly hilarious political short “America’s Biggest Dick,” a tortured marriage of Dick Cheney and “Scarface,” while Negativland has been creating sonic mash-ups of samples and electronically-generated noise since 1979—including the infamous, legally-contested “U2” which combined a rude Casey Kasem rant with a casio-tone undercurrent of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and landed Negativland on the Fair Use frontlines.

As the lights dim, a brief burst of fanfare grabs attention, while on the projection screen the face of G.W. Bush superimposed on top of a cartoon sun, rises above the placid hills of Teletubbyland as a baby giggles offscreen. As cute little bunnies come out to play, the G.W. Bush sun firebombs them into oblivion with unexpected superpowers, smiling genially the whole time.

Terry Gilliam springs immediately to mind, and as more politically-pointed clips roll, so do the Yes Men, except instead of dressing up as politicians or corporate shills, the “characters” employed by Boyce is tweaked footage of actual politicians. “This is absolutely unbelievable,” boasts an “infomercial host” G.W. Bush with Jonathan Crosby’s “stunt mouth,” hawking macaroni and glitter “Election Collectibles” alongside Al Gore. Veering into more introspective ground, Boyce’s final two pieces ditch the politics for poetry-in-motion with “More is Always on the Way,” a series of quietly remarkable photographs of signs and billboards in their “native” urban habitat displayed with a spare, electronic soundtrack, and the other, “Whisper Hungarian Softly to Me,” a haunting blend of old Bela Lugosi footage and a trio of modern belly dancers with original music composed by Dan Cantrell. 

Negativwobblyland, clad in identical grey plaid shirts, take their places at a table set with piles of gear, in particular a series of five devices they call “boopers”—feedback devices inventively engineered from recycled radio and amplifier parts. The sonic onslaught created by these deceptively simple devices (and a few judiciously appended drum loops and samples of insect and animal noises) can be likened in some ways to the meandering of jazz improvisation, and inspires (in me, anyway) similar free-associations of image and impression. As the drone of an underwater sea creature, the loneliness of the long-distance trucker, a buzzing chainsaw disco, a teenage Atari foxtrot, the rumble of Tibetan long horns, and the high whine of a Himalayan mosquito swirl through my particular streams of consciousness, onstage, three fearless captains set a course for the opposite shore, jamming our earwaves with their slyly subversive, yet ultimately inclusive, collaboration.


Related articles

  • Lost at sea

    Could a world-class arts festival save the foundering America's Cup?

  • The Performant: Science, Honor, Psychogeography

  • The Performant: The Great Leap Forward

  • Also from this author

  • Bee true

    The documentaries of Berlin and Beyond

  • Divining the entrails

    New Last Gasp releases explore the unsettling art of Laurie Lipton and Elizabeth McGrath

  • The Performant: Epochalypse Now