Komotion International: DEFINING MOMENTS

"I was there..."

by Mat Callahan


Volume 2 of Komotion Anthology

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Komotion members Mat Callahan and Robin Ballinger interviewed in May 2012 by Sasha Lilly on Against the Grain.

Saturday night. A storefront on the corner of Valencia and 21st. At street level old stag movies flicker across a wall. Sculptures made of wire, rubber tubing and metallic fabric stare menacingly from odd angles in the room. In the basement, the band is cranking up. Behind the stage, three feet from the musicians, a crew feverishly tries to install toilets, hack-sawing through sewer lines and running PVC pipe. A crowd of a couple hundred had been lined up outside for an hour waiting for the work to be done. Now they rush into the basement where globules of condensing moisture are falling from the ceiling; so many bodies, so much heat. Music charges out over the writhing mass from a pair of speakers suspended precariously only hours before. The bass player is wearing a three piece suit. The crew is carrying plastic bags full of shit from the severed sewer line upstairs through the partying throng out to the street to be deposited god knows where. A woman in the crowd grabs the mike from the lead singer to decry the anti-zionist lyrics he has just sung. She hurls a barely comprehensible defense of the state of Israel into a crowd rapidly entering a state of intoxication. Another song. Just as it ends someone yells out that the cops have arrived. But all they do is confiscate the blue movies and leave. The toilets somehow, miraculously, function -- leaking suspiciously. Crouched in a dimly lit corner, passing headphones back and forth, watching the meters on a decrepit tape deck like they were depth gauges on a sinking submarine, two engineers record the entire event. The band plays on. No one remembers how it ends.

Opening night at the Offensive, predecessor of Komotion. It ran sporadically -- spasmodically -- for the next six months. Police raids and mass arrests eventually took their toll. Events careened wildly between grand multi-media extravaganzas involving theater, film, dance and music and straight-ahead punk rock shows. The organizers were a loose grouping of individuals from numerous countries, different artistic interests and, ultimately, conflicting agendas. But what nova'd into being at 998 Valencia had a character that would not die.

And it's always something to do with the plumbing! It's always something to do with basements!

A few years have passed and we're downstairs launching Komotion, literally underground where an old river still runs. Pumps are required to keep the water level below the concrete floor. The music is blaring, smoke is so thick that you can't see five feet in front of you, a long haired, bearded character is parading through the crowd with a Picket sign reading: "The End Is Near!," when someone notices the water level is rising. The crew (there's always a crew!) runs feverishly through the building to find out why the pumps have stopped. It is eventually discovered that the power consumed by the PA, the lights and the various appliances at the bar have blown a fuse that controls the electricity to the pumps. What to do? Start bailing!!! Of course, the party continues, revelers oblivious to the fact that some among them are now carrying buckets of water out to the street.

The experience proves useful when a year later the building's new owner gets nasty. His power play anticipated, we assemble members of the various bands rehearsing at the space and make a midnight evacuation. We escape with all our equipment and the red velvet stage curtains that hang, to this day, at Komotion's present location. The landlord doesn't know about the pumps and has vindictively turned off the electricity to the building. We get out in time. He comes in the next day to three feet of water and massive damage to all the interior walls in the space!

Meanwhile, a group of people had coagulated into an organization. The Looters had gotten signed to a major label and a year of increasingly exciting shows convinced us we had to get a bigger and better Komotion going. Shortly after our eviction from 2451 Harrison, we found 2779 16th Street and have been there ever since. Once, a sign in our storefront window shouted, "No Turning Back!" We never have. But as the years behind us grow in number, voices of experience sing out from our collective past demanding that we listen. Not just memories. But codes. Bonds. Nourishment. Ten years. Komotion started in 1986. It's 1996. Damn!

The project always sought to transform. Music a weapon and a balm, a tool and a sacrament, a destroyer and creator of possibility. To invoke center in a centerless cosmos. A time after apocalypse when the Universe is just an idea no bigger than the brains that think it. Where what is real is experienced, comprehended, even, but never categorized. How to do what we cannot explain. Why an action matters. Who actually cares. Now.

We had learned the necessity of space. There is no sound in utopia. But our little building, formerly Bradley Enterprises, an electric motor fabricator, did not confine our imagination. Rather it incubated it like a greenhouse. Where we were was always anywhere we could think of, had come in contact with, knew somebody from or wanted to go. The local? Planet Earth! Four walls, a roof, electricity, running water -- all we needed to bring people together, to celebrate life and battle. Anywhere we happened to find ourselves we would be making a Komotion.

The place is packed. The Looters are on stage, the people are dancing, everyone's drenched in sweat and water starts coming up through a drain right in the middle of the entry way to the big room. People squeeze in and out trying to sidestep the growing puddle. Mops and buckets prove ineffective. The sewer line is backing up! It wouldn't be Komotion without calamity (usually of the most basic kind . . . ) Nothing stops the party which is inaugurating our new digs and only next day does the landlord get the Roto-Rooter people to unclog the line. So, literally slogging through mud, we're off to what is to become a nine year run at our present location. Included on the bill that night are spoken word performances, a flamenco ensemble and two bands. Standard fare over the years to come.

Thousands of performers have crossed this stage ranging from Hip-Hop to metal, from jazz to Shona, from grand opera to Bhuto, from poetry to performance art. Always funky. Frequently unexpected. It is the combination that is most startling and provocative. It is the dimension in which boundaries are not only crossed but are suspended out of time, rendered meaningless by the nature of the atmosphere of no fear. It is real. But nearly impossible to imagine. It is happening regularly but is very difficult to predict. When the improbable becomes commonplace what becomes improbable is the commonplace.

As we think back to the depth of feeling that catalyzed in such kinetic, discontinuous yet connected moments -- a strange snake -- it is passion and attitude and hunger and laughter that come rolling up out of clouds of memory. No turning back, indeed. Yet we must not forget. Because Komotion has always been about remembering. Remembering that human beings are a plucky lot. How else could we have withstood the horrors of millennia of oppression and despair? How else could music so joyous and full of life have emerged from suffering multitudes too desperate to express themselves any other way? Crying out into the great, dark night fearful that what will return will be only an echo and not a reply. And then, and then -- there it is . . . "I hear it, did you hear it, too? That's not the song we were singing. That's another song. It's getting closer. They're coming this way..."

Suddenly, we are in the middle of it. People are calling and writing from all over the world wanting to Play at Komotion. We are hearing from radio stations in cities all over North America that are playing the recordings we've made to commemorate the creative life bubbling up in and around us. Our tiny tribe of musicians, dancers, artists and friends has touched enough others of our kind that something more than was ever conceived of is coming into being. We are no longer just throwing parties, creating spectacles, mounting benefits and barely paying the rent. Now we're running a full scale operation with regular shows, a magazine, art gallery, recording studio -- and barely paying the rent. What happened?

When a real history of this endeavor is undertaken -- and someday it must -- many startling and illuminating details will better answer that question. But what began as a place to rehearse, a place to perform and a place to hang out was transformed. What it took to get the Twelve Bass Players of Christmas on-stage or a hundred people swinging sound tubes together to the exhortations of Mondo Jim or to keep the place from burning down during a Crash Worship extravaganza -- all of it recorded and enshrined in our DAT archive -- was a kind of energy that flows from a wild river. Music calls forth its spirit and awakens the real imaginary in all who will participate. Cooperation toward some common goal channels its flow into social relations of a wholly different type than those that characterize this dog eat dog world. And the experience of this kind of event convinces everyone that so much more is possible.

Of course, musicians and artists have "careers." Of course, performers of all kinds want a chance to perform. Of course, self interest motivates the most altruistic individual. And of course, there are plenty of assholes who want to exploit the good will of others. But somehow the very wackiness of our project tended to confuse and diffuse those who approached us seeking only to pursue their own narrow agendas. When managers or promoters would come to our general meetings there was no "Boss" with whom they could identify and schmooze. There was no profit motive they could seek to manipulate. There was little structure or procedure that would allow access to the "reigns of power." At the same time, hundreds of organizations from Food Not Bombs to Seeds of Peace, from La Casa de Las Madres to BACORR found themselves welcome and encouraged to propose events that would both benefit their particular struggle and give focus to the performances that many artists and musicians wanted to do. This reflected the real concerns of members of the collective that had taken shape in the first couple years. But, more than that, it was based on the desire expressed by many artists to engage the world by forging direct links between their own creative work and that of activists.

For a lot of us politics was about losing. Politics was about betrayal. Politics was about boring speeches by self appointed prognosticators who only called for change because they wanted to be in power. But struggle, resistance, purpose were (are) not only necessary components of the human condition but should be celebrated and shared; not properties to be obtained but processes which all are a part of and any can choose to contribute to. This meant that while we maintained a healthy skepticism about many of the particular positions taken by groups with whom we became involved we genuinely supported their efforts and made our place a haven for opposition of widely varying kinds. Thus, we could have a benefit for the Anti-War Informational Network featuring Sabot followed a week later by a benefit for Direct Action for Education featuring Dog Penis! (And then there was Nebuchadnezzar Pet Dispenser in a benefit for nothing in particular ... ) About five years into it we discovered that almost two thirds of our events were benefits. This was not a result of any plan but it did represent the kind of community that was coming into being.

A community born of crisis. And crisis never loosened its grip. Every night we opened our doors we knew might be our last. If poverty did not grind us into dust the police might smash us into fragments. Most of us brought to Komotion a degree of contempt for poseurs and the false bravado so common in popular culture. But after years under siege we could only manage sardonic laughter at the antics of certain "anarchist" punks and wanna be radicals. Not because we thought ourselves so special, quite the contrary, but because we were dealing, continuously, daily, with the forces of oppression and we intended to survive -- not go down in a "blaze of glory." The Temporary Autonomous Zone concept is great. But this particular zone was becoming more permanent than temporary; hell, it was home to dozens of people and projects. We needed this place to continue. If this was a conceptual art piece it was of a wholly different magnitude than a one night installation to be viewed once and dismantled.

Then it happened. A benefit for our sister space in Berkeley, the Gilman Street Project, turned ugly when some members of the over-capacity crowd decided to act out their childhood fantasies, pulling the fire alarm on the corner and calling 911 from a nearby phone booth. Of course, the cops responded with their usual zeal sending a small army to deal with America's Youth. The show was stopped and a near riot ensued as the police herded the crowd into the street and threatened everyone with arrest. What would have been an intense but manageable situation was turned into real trouble by a couple of idiots and their like minded counterparts in the SFPD. It didn't end there, either. The next business day we received a message from the permits officer at the Mission Station insisting on inspecting the facility and making dire threats about our liability and the repercussions of any attempt to continue our operation. She even suggested that rehearsing might be illegal!

The fallout from this bombshell was immediate and far-reaching. On the one hand it generated widespread and enthusiastic support from many quarters. On the other, it put us in a real bind. Arts organizations, neighborhood groups and influential individuals came forward with letters of support and calls to the permits officer. Gilman Street actually donated money to us to help defray our expenses fighting this thing. And the many people actively involved with Komotion rallied together to work on and carry out a strategy for survival. But there could be no mistaking the change this brought about.

First of all, we were determined not to give up. Second, we had to deal with the legal ramifications and find a way to make it look like we were legit. Third, we had to figure out what had brought this down on us at this particular time. Was it simply inevitable? Was it a product of our "success" and the attendant notoriety? Was it a particular kind of crowd for particular bands? Finally, we had to address the real concerns of those among us who had put an enormous amount of time, energy, money and soul into Komotion and really had something to lose. The meetings were large and tumultuous. Resolution was never final or complete but we did decide on a course of action. This involved becoming officially non-profit, with all the bureaucratic bullshit that entails, and more carefully evaluating the shows we would attempt to stage. We all knew that there was no escaping the watchful eye of the authorities. We all knew that the tension we'd endured at every show since the beginning was going to increase.

Then calm. Busy. But calm. We sailed into the next year with less and less trepidation as event after event went well. The cops cruised by with decreasing frequency, finally not even bothering to shine their lights into the doorway. Oh, the Fire Marshals visited every once and awhile. But we were able to divert them because there were rarely enough people in the building when they'd show up to cause any concern. We began lowering our guard.

continued next page

Click for more Komotion stories

More Defining Moments

Conspiracy of Equals

List of Performers

The Art Gallery

Ten Beers

It Makes a Difference

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