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Slice-and-Dice Aesthetics

Two artists, each at the center of landmark ’90s legal battles that tested the limits of artistic freedom, have recently re-emerged from their respective woodworks with new versions of the products that got them in hot water in the first place. One is Mike Diana, the first artist in American history ever convicted of obscenity and jailed for his work. The other is Canadian experimental composer John Oswald, whose small-edition, not-for-sale Plunderphonics CD of drastically reorganized popular music provoked the full wrath of Michael Jackson‘s attorneys, Sony music and the Canadian Recording Industry Association, which ordered all copies destroyed.

Diana, whose self-published comic zine Boiled Angel was the subject of a suit brought by the state of Florida, will be in town this weekend signing his first new comic book in six years, Superfly #2, as part of something called “The Angry White Male Tour.” The “tour” also includes appearances by Answer Me! auteur and recently released felon Jim Goad, a variety of other transgressive acts (Skitzo the Vomitiste, for instance) and the liberated tombstone of Ed “Psycho” Gein. Superfly #2 won’t disappoint fans of Diana‘s lurid, primitivist sex & violence scribblings, partly because virtually all the material dates from 1995 or earlier, when the book was originally scheduled for publication. Since petitioning the Supreme Court in 1997 to overturn his Florida conviction, Diana has had to fulfill the terms of his original three-year probation, which included a hefty fine, community work, no contact with minors, a psychiatric evaluation at his own expense and enrollment in a course on journalistic ethics. Additionally, Diana was forbidden to produce or possess drawings that might be considered obscene, and the police were granted random unannounced entry to the artist’s residence to search for such materials.

In spite of this outrageous assault on civil liberties, the public outcry and support from the cultural establishment was minor compared to that in support of, say, Naked Lunch or even Chris Ofili‘s elephant-poop paintings. This was partly due to the trial’s location -- Florida, after all, was responsible for the 2 Live Crew fiasco. Nor can we underestimate the snobbery of the American cultural elite, which in spite of Art Spiegelman‘s Pulitzer Prize for Maus still views comic books as irredeemable trash. A large part of the silence is attributable, though, to the content of Diana’s work.

The obscenity charges were based on #7 and #ATE, which were solicited by an undercover cop posing as a zine collector, and unearthed two years later by a publicity-hungry state prosecutor. Diana‘s cover for #7 depicts Pebbles Flintstone in a wide-open beaver pose, spurting blood and other fluids, right leg severed above the knee, with a tiny monster emerging from a hole in her skull shooting jizz from its throbbing outsized member into her empty right eye socket. Naughty, naughty. Diana’s stories in the two issues contained graphic depictions of rape, battery, torture, mutilation, murder, cannibalism, bestiality and irresponsible drug use, usually involving children and often in a manner that reflected poorly on the Catholic Church. Even without a handpicked jury of upright locals and spurious pre-trial publicity linking him to the unsolved Gainesville student murders, he probably wouldn‘t have done too well.

Having exhausted all legal recourse (with help from Denis Kitchen’s Comic Book Legal Defense Fund and, in the final stages, the ACLU), Diana at least arranged to serve his probation in New York and New Jersey, where authorities have shown absolutely no interest in his activities. Nevertheless, he remains a convicted purveyor of obscenities, jailed and fined and stigmatized for his art. And Art it is. Regardless of one‘s opinion of Diana’s sense of humor or moral fitness [editor‘s note: Send him back to Florida!], his art possesses redeeming artistic merit in spades. His early work, though crudely rendered, bristles with subversive energy, aligning itself with the Grand Guignol comic-book tradition established by EC and Warren horror comics. His graphic skills expanded at an astonishing pace, drawing on underground influences -- Basil Wolverton, Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, S. Clay Wilson, Gary Panter, and Boiled Angel contributor Steven Cerio -- to give his comics a visual impact as powerful as their content. His compositional skills grew exponentially, taking on psychedelic mandala structures between #7 and #ATE, and his outsider-style all-over patterning became simultaneously more polished and obsessive.

This period of rapid artistic growth peaked with Superfly #1, published in ’93 and containing the dizzy, unrepentant gore of “Cicada Candy” and “The Curse of the Lucky Stag Beetle Head.” Then nothing. The Supreme Court‘s refusal to hear Diana’s appeal took the wind out of his sails, and the artist kept a low profile until his probation was up. Superfly #2 collects lots of one- and two-page stories from the mid-‘90s, a few longer bits, plus one nine-page extravaganza called “Gator Bait.” The most recent work is a couple of spot illustrations -- filler, really -- from 1999. So it’s hard to say what effect Diana‘s persecution has had on his art in the long run. I’m hoping there‘s a six-year backlog of clandestine transgression awaiting release, but in the meantime we’re lucky he‘s throwing his hat in the ring, and not the towel.

John Oswald is a malefactor of another order altogether. While sharing Diana’s penchant for deliberate provocation, Oswald operates in a distinctively cerebral arena. In contrast to Diana‘s psychosexual id-fest, Oswald assaults the less deeply rooted, but just as fiercely guarded, taboos of intellectual property. He first gained a reputation in the underground cassette-trading culture as the proprietor of Toronto-based Mystery Labs, whose complex “X tapes” were among the most accomplished artifacts of that subculture. Plunderphonics and the attendant brouhaha gave him an international notoriety, and that recording’s technically unavailable but endlessly pirated versions of music by Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson, Glenn Gould, and the Beatles made him king of the highbrow remix-masters. Slowed down, sped up, superimposed, chopped into tiny fragments and reassembled in barely recognizable configurations, the musical works on Plunderphonics compose a radical reassessment of originality, and a revelation of the potential of recording technology as a compositional tool.

Through the subsequent decade, Oswald‘s deconstructive skills were sought out by artists like the Kronos Quartet and Pizzicato Five; Elektra hired him to do a promotional plunderphonic version of its “Rubaiyat” retrospective; and the Grateful Dead gave him free access to their tape archives, resulting in the improbable 110-minute version of “Dark Star” spread over two discs as “Grayfolded.” All the while, as U2 and Negativland duked it out in a much-higher-profile fair-use battle and the Napster wars gathered steam, Oswald’s magnum opus remained illegal -- a much-traded bootleg, but unobtainable by the curious consumer.

A few years ago, that started to change as Oswald set out on the Sisyphean task of clearing the copyrights of all the samples he‘d used on Plunderphonics, hopefully in time for the 10th anniversary of its initial 1989 release. Well, he missed that anniversary, and the 11th as well. Finally, earlier this year, it was announced that, pending a couple of final clearances, a box set of remastered Plunderphonics plus rarities and outtakes, and a handsome booklet, would be available within a few months.

To the relief of those who found this a dubious political move -- some perceive the project as a sellout to the forces of copyright protectionism -- something went wrong. The Plunderphonics 6996 box set, originally slated to carry a staggering ticket price of $100 (all those clearances!) and appear at your local Tower Records next to DJ Spooky, was suddenly available from Seeland Records, Negativland’s Olympia, Washington--based record label: $33 for the “digitally borrowed” set, and copyright be damned! So, for as long as the majors are able to restrain themselves from martyring these aging sonic bricoleurs all over again, we are free to purchase the reputedly stellar collection -- sequenced in a much less jarring manner than the original, and chock-full of surprising obscurities -- in a manner that upholds the righteous tenets of the copyright-liberation movement, i.e., the extra 67 bucks aren‘t going toward a plasma-screen TV in David Geffen’s stretch Hummer.


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