February 19, 2003




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Illbient communication
S.F. collective Entartete Kunst surface in the Tenderloin.

By Josh Wilson

SAN FRANCISCO'S ENTARTETE Kunst collective are difficult and prickly, like their moniker. Music is their primary traffic, but they are not interested in delirious pop hooks and dance-floor salvation – their works are politically and intellectually demanding.

It's all about art as politics – radical, tear-down-the-state anarchist politics, in which every nuance packs a punch, even their name. Entartete Kunst ("degenerate art") was a notorious 1937 Nazi Party road show featuring more than 600 artworks by Paul Klee, Edvard Munch, Marc Chagall, and others deemed offensive to Aryan purity.

Funny how controversy fascinates – more than three million good Germans attended the exhibit, making it the first "blockbuster" art show of the modern era. At the exhibit's conclusion, the paintings were incinerated. Entartete Kunst don't want you to forget about that. "If we get any shit for doing this, for any of the things that we say or represent," says Mo Malatesta (a.k.a. DJ Slo Mo), sitting with his cohorts around a cluttered coffee table in his Geary Boulevard apartment, "that would only make the powers that be look like Nazis."

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., and raised in Scotland, shaved-headed Malatesta is the sole male of the collective's core and a veritable fount of political concepts. He admits, however, that the Man has yet to come down on them. "Just covering all the bases, really," he says.

Call it paranoia. Call it a form of preemptive self-defense in the era of the Patriot II and Total Information Awareness. Call it good marketing – the name works.

Urban haunts

And the music – produced and distributed by core members Malatesta, Raw Knowledge, Drowning Dog, and Bitter Pie (a.k.a. the Deletist), along with collaborators including Eddie the Rat and Spazecraft One – is hauntingly good. You probably won't want to do the freak to their downtempo, "no-field," negative-creep electronica. But you'll get the chills when the weird beats, droning synths, and murky, insinuating samples unexpectedly get under your skin. Those suspicious melodies and glimmering sonic recombinations intrigue and satisfy purely as sound, belying the crew's assertion that all art is propaganda and is only valuable as a vehicle for the message.

Indeed, all of their collective imprint's 16 self-released recordings – created in a flurry of pissed-off urgency since 1999 – have radically political themes. War, violence, spiritual apathy, and moral decay are common threads running through the various spoken word CDs, 7-inch records, and music compilations. But merely being politically left doesn't mean they're knee-jerk boosters for every radical idea that comes along. Celebrated Bay Area hip-hop artists the Coup, for instance, get decidedly mixed reviews from the collective.

"I think they're great – I can jam to it," says Drowning Dog, a compact woman given to long silences and abrupt, definitive interjections. "The critique is right on."

"The critique is fucking cool," Malatesta agrees. "But the Maoist shit has got to go."

"Pretty much sums it up," Raw Knowledge says. "That's why I like Mr. Liff better. [Maoists] murdered a lot of people to pursue their ideal result, which as you can see didn't amount to much."

Whether it's capitalism, communism, or socialism, when it's sponsored by the state, Malatesta says, it stops being about people and starts being about power and killing and setting up different rules for society's governors.

"As propagandists our task or role is [to bring about] broader change into society," Raw Knowledge says. "There are people trying to seek out the truth. Propaganda is getting the word and messages out there, making people think and want to know."

Quest for life

This isn't a pose, a black flag as an excuse to throw a rock at a Starbucks window. There is a terrible yearning and frustration in Raw Knowledge's poetry, coupled with a hopefulness that won't quit. In "Quest for Life," one of her contributions to the collective's 2002 Bread and Roses compilation, she lays it on the line: "I'm tired of being ready to die. I'm tired of that stupid phrase being replayed, replayed, and replayed as if it makes you hard. How about being ready to live?"

These people are devastated every day by the wrenching, eternal issues of social justice and human suffering and enraged by the facile hypocrisy of the left and the sanctimonious thuggery of the right. Both problems are flip sides of the same coin, and as dedicated anarchists – as much as one can be in a capital-driven representative democracy, anyway – the Entartete Kunst collective would like to get rid of the coin altogether, melt it down in a hot fire and hammer it into something more useful. Like maybe a spoon and a kettle to cook soup for the starving children.

Remember them? The starving children? Millions of them going hungry right now, while we sip our lattes and attend life-affirming dance parties in the desert. The Entartete Kunst people have a problem with such "indifferent" arts and indulgences, symbolic of our moral capitulation to a corrupt system of commodity and exploitation.

"Sometimes I feel really sad that the artist would choose that," Malatesta says. "To make noises with your software in a world where your government and your country and your taxes subsidize genocide. And you think that it's OK to hang out and have a good time and make noises ... and that you're not somehow part of the process of killing those people."

If that bristles, just take a breath. If you disagree, they're glad to talk about it.

"For me, anarchy means being a sociable person," says Raw Knowledge, a 15-year San Francisco resident, via Bakersfield, prone to broad, disarming grins. "That means coming together and talking it out."

Art is propaganda

Despite the demands of doctrine (their Web site features a quote by George Orwell: "All art is propaganda, but not all propaganda is art"), Entartete Kunst basically got their start as a social club for creative, questing, pissed-off kids looking for a little human contact. "Mo and I used to do Super 8,000 in '97 at the Edinburgh Castle. He would DJ, and I would do Super-8 loops. We did that for nine months every single Sunday," recalls Bitter Pie, who has a slow drawl, a restless, critical intelligence, and a military family background.

Although the beer drinkers didn't get it at first, a crowd began to develop that was paying attention to the topical imagery – loops of protest footage, like police pepper-spraying protesters during the KPFA-Pacifica wars – and Slo Mo's musical selections, which he describes as "mostly mid-'90s illbient shit."

Illbient? Well, where else could such a vibe take root than along the dank and fragrant corridors of Polk and Geary? Those early happenings were perfect gathering points for the optimistic misanthropes.

"Yeah," Bitter Pie says, laughing. "Yep. People who felt uncomfortable at parties. I think that's where it comes from. Because if you hated going to parties, and you hated that whole atmosphere, where do you go?... You're so dysfunctional in society; it's really hard. You still want to go out, because you want to be a human being."

This faith in a common humanity paid off when Raw Knowledge turned up to do a reading at an August 1998 collaborative event with Unamerican Activities (the "Fuck Work" sticker people). By May '99 the first Entartete Kunst compilation CD, Live at the Complex, was released. That document – named for the boxy, battered Polk Gulch apartment building where many of the E.K. folks live – collects tracks full of contrarian politics, tinderbox spoken word, churning downer beats and ambient soundscapes. It sets the tone for the group's endeavor as a whole: Entartete Kunst music is DIY electronica created in the studio, at times gothic, heavy, industrial, enthralling, and shot through with hope and political and artistic ambition.

Today Entartete Kunst are keeping busy with a distribution partnership with AK Press and multiple releases and performances since January – including a new Deletist/Drowning Dog split 7-inch and a self-titled full-length Deletist CD mastered by local sound-designing superstar Twerk.

They also have big plans for a 30-date European tour and a serious commitment to buckle down and formally organize themselves as a collective, with procedures, processes, and methodology. "About six weeks ago we decided that just being friends and doing the same thing didn't constitute a collective and that we'd actually have to create some structure for it," Malatesta says.

Entartete Kunst also must deal pragmatically with the issues of capitalism, commodity, and earning a living, but self-sufficiency is their ultimate goal.

"I'd work 14 hours for the collective; I'm not gonna look at my watch.... Most people want that feeling at their jobs, but they don't have it," says Bitter Pie, who also has made a name for herself publishing her eponymous zine, with its sought-after "Not Your Bitch" bumper sticker. "If it did get to the point where I was helping us make a wage I could live off of, I'd be in heaven. Even though there is no heaven."

Entartete Kunst perform Sat/22 and March 29, 9 p.m., Edinburgh Castle Pub, 950 Geary, S.F. $5. 885-4074.

They appear March 29, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Anarchist Book Fair, County Fair Building, Golden Gate Park. Free.

For more information go to www.entartetekunst.info.