Music Features

Stand By For Failure: JOKERJOKERtv Hosts Negativland Documentary and Performance

Negativland and SUE-C. Credit: Negativland and Jennifer Bennett.

While it seems odd to designate any particular group of subversive artists as being America’s preeminent group of such, the idea being that such an activity would ideally reject hierarchy, there’s just no denying that if anyone deserves the honor, it’s Negativland. 

The group originated in the San Francisco Bay Area over four decades ago, and now its operations are based out of North Carolina. The group’s cut-up aesthetics, its early reliance (out of necessity) on mechanical sound manipulation processes, and rarely changing targets of mockery and/or satire (i.e. religion, popular culture, capitalism, consumerism, etc.) are all elements that have helped Negativland build a reputation and legacy, perhaps even more than they’ve built an audience. They come from the same generation of creatives that gave us Phone Phreaking and Mail Art. 

Longtime listeners can recognize certain members by their inhabitation of certain personas as much as by their given names. The most immediately recognizable of these is David “The Weatherman” Wills, whose telltale voice is exactly what the perfect cartoon game show host would sound like and is often a very sympathetic presence. 

When the group, which for this current tour is composed of members Mark Hosler and Jon Leidecker, returns to Athens this week, it will be under the auspices of its host JOKERJOKERtv. Although certainly no strangers to Athens—especially Hosler, who has performed here as recently as 2018—the convergence between these two outfits feels especially serendipitous. JOKERJOKERtv has always felt, at a minimum, a spiritual heir to Negativland’s philosophy of “culture jamming,” which itself is intellectually connected to several other radical arts movements. The practice—shortly defined as remixing and repurposing cultural signifiers, detritus and value systems—now exists in such a huge way that it’s easy to fall short of fully understanding how radical this was before the rise of internet meme culture, record albums full of nothing but samples, and publications like Adbusters

The actual story of Negativland is pretty straightforward, though, and told in the entirely enjoyable new documentary from director Ryan Worsely Stand By For Failure: A Documentary About Negativland. Taking us back all the way to the group’s infancy in 1978, the film does a wonderful job of humanizing a group that, for the most part, has often existed as relatively faceless. Beginning as a recording project among Wills, Hosler and late member Richard Lyons, one of the great points made in the film is by Hosler, who said, “I remember saying we should say we’re a band. Let’s just pretend we’re a band! ‘Cause I think it’d be more interesting if our records show up in the Popular Music section and don’t get relegated to being in the contemporary, you know, 20th century experimental music section.” The next line, from Wills, is the kicker, though. “I still don’t think I’m worthy of ‘a band’! I have no business being in a band. I’m not a musician. I’m this thing [gesturing toward himself]. What I do here with this weird stuff.” 

It also explores, as fully as possible, the international scandal—and subsequent legal problems—of its 1991 release U2. In that case, the band had parodied and sampled “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and backed it with an entirely not-fit-for-broadcast rant on the Irish hitmakers by American Top 40 host Casey Kasem. It’s packed with vintage footage and photographs, clips of old interviews and the like, and carries the story all the way into the present day with the band collaborating with SUE-C (Sue Slagle). The band designates Slagle, an award-winning video artist and engineer, as part of the extended Negativland family. 

Attendees at this week’s appearance by Negativland will be treated to both a screening of the film and a live performance by Hosler, Leidecker, Slagle (virtually via laptop) and Wills (via Facetime) titled “We Can Really Feel Like We’re Here.” Music and sound are handled by Hosler and Leidecker with Slagle contributing live image manipulations for the screen behind them. It’s quite an intense undertaking and a treat to be in its presence. JOKERJOKERtv will host a special Negativland pre-show with appearances by members of the band on Thursday, May 16 at 6:30 p.m. Visit for streaming options.

WHO: Stand By For Failure: A Documentary About Negativland, Negativland and SUE-C
WHEN: Friday, May 17, 6 p.m. (doors)
HOW MUCH: $20 (adv.), $25