Last Night: Negativland at Rice University

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Negativland Herring Hall, Rice University April 17, 2008

Better Than: Someone leaping out of a van Old School-style, kidnapping and blindfolding you, then reading Scientology for Dummies through a megaphone. I guess.

Download: Negativland's all-time classic "U2," profane outtakes of American Top 40 host Casey Kasem introducing the Irish quartet ("These guys are from England, and who gives a shit?") spliced with a rendition of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" on kazoo.

Whether it's a platinum-selling rock band, news organizations' lurid fixation on serial killers or children's-television favorites the Teletubbies, Negativland loves nothing more than skewering sacred cows, and for their first Houston appearance in seven years, the Bay Area media pirates locked onto the biggest bovine of all: the existence of God. Staged as a 1930s/40s-style radio broadcast of "It's All In Your Head FM," under the auspices of "Universal Media Netweb," and simulcast on actual Houston FM outlets KTRU and KPFT, the trio spun their trademark sample-heavy sound collage from an array of arcane electronic equipment, provoking both cheap laughs and serious thought as they made their case that the only place the deity - indeed, any deity - exists is within the human mind.

One more thing: the hundred or so folks on hand at Herring Hall (the broadcast was part of local microcinema company Aurora Picture Show's Media Archaelogy: Live and Televised mini-festival) were required to wear blindfolds to heighten the verisimilitude. It's hard enough taking notes in a darkened nightclub; blindfolded, of course, it's impossible. So, I admit, I cheated, raising my blindfold just enough to locate my notebook. It was still a fairly disorienting experience.

The broadcast began with soothing, amniotic-sac New Age music fading into a woman interviewing children about their idea of God, alternated with a sample of a man despairing, "There is no God!" Over a trippy techno-dub backdrop spliced with staticky sci-fi sound effects, various academics cited noted non-believers such as Freud, Darwin and Bertrand Russell as they discussed the nature of consciousness, epistemology (the study of "how we know things") and the idea that religion has lulled humanity into a "cultural trance" by, for example, advancing the idea that believing something without empirical evidence - i.e. faith - is a virtue.

If all that sounds pretty dry, it most certainly was, so Negativland layered in plenty of pop-culture sound bites (dialogue from the Wizard of Oz) and musical cues ranging from the Talking Heads' "Heaven" and the Gershwins' "It Ain't Necessarily So" to a Judy Collins-like folksinger warbling the first verses of Genesis and a barbershop quartet harmonizing "Christianity is stupid." Other sound effects acted as elaboration (airplanes, helicopters) and commentary, as assorted discordant screeches and squalls amplified the contentious nature of the subject matter. One of the most effective juxtapositions came in the program's second half, as a children's choir singing the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" underscored the chilling first-person narrative of a would-be suicide bomber.

Not everything hit its mark quite so precisely, however. A mock remote from the Houston Zoo, where field reporter "Buck Logic" witnessed an assistant zookeeper shaving a chimpanzee named Cherry - leading to the inevitable "shaved cherry" quip, which drew several guffaws from the highly sympathetic audience - to illustrate the minimal differences between humans and their fellow primates overreached by half and lost whatever point it was trying to make in a fog of browbeating slapstick. But otherwise the program made its case without resorting to outright ridicule, determining that, in the words of dulcet-toned fictional moderator Oslo Norway, man is indeed "an evolving animal with a conflicted head."

After all, it was either that or, as one of Negativland's members pointed out before the performance began, "realizing you just paid $12 to sit in the dark for two hours."

By the Way: I couldn't help wondering what someone who randomly tuned in to KTRU or KPFT last night must have thought, especially during the mock civil-defense alert that preceded intermission. Also, as someone who visited the Houston Zoo this past Monday, I can confirm its menagerie contains no chimpanzees at the moment. They do have some pretty entertaining orangutans, though.

Personal Bias: Despite all evidence to the contrary, I do believe in a higher power. Instead of asking "Why?", I prefer the inverse, "Why not?"

Random Detail: However much it may enhance 20th-century media scholar Marshall McLuhan's "Cool Media" theory - the idea that subtracting one of the senses heightens the degree of audience participation - sitting blindfolded for two hours is damned uncomfortable, and several audience members had taken them off by the end.

Media Archaeology continues tonight with installations by Pennsylvania animator Brent Green, with Giant Sand founder Howe Gelb and Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara, tonight at the Orange Show, and televisual artists Shana Moulton and Tara Mateik Saturday at DiverseWorks. - Chris Gray

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