At my first Survival Research Labs show, I was pretty ambivalent. Boys with toys, I thought, even if they are immense, complicated, highly explosive toys, is pretty stale. Then I saw her. Wearing a soot covered jumpsuit, carrying a smoking piece of scrap metal, and sporting a dainty flowered hat. I scanned the crew. Hell, there were dozens of women there! Maybe there was more going on here than I initially thought. I followed SRL's exploits in the mainstream and not-so-mainstream media for a couple of years, keeping a sharp eye out for mention of the women in the ranks. Not much luck there - an inordinate amount of time was spent discussing whether or not SRL's machines were, in fact, giant phalluses - but that's about as far as most went on the subject of gender. So, I went straight to the source and spent several enjoyable afternoons with the women of Survival Research Labs.
Represented are: Diana Coopersmith, Debbie Lee, Baba Lou, Karen Marcelo, Sabrina Merlo, Amy Miller, and Liisa Pine.
Virginia Eubanks: I always thought that the machines weren't the most interesting part of the performance…
Liisa Pine: HEY!
VE: What I mean is that I always found it more interesting to watch the audiences' reactions to the machines rather than the machines themselves. Do you ever get a chance to watch the audience during a performance?
L: You have to watch your ass! It's a dangerous environment.
Baba Lou: If you're working on a machine, or you're working in the show, you often have no idea what's going on with the audience.
Debbie Lee: At every show I've worked on, except the first, I literally haven't had a second to turn around.
B: Deb Lee is our master electrician, by the way, the woman with the power! It doesn't matter how big a machine you build, it won't do a thing without Deb Lee. All these guys going, "Deb…I need some power…when you get a second…please…"
DL: Anyway…that's been an issue with me. The last show, I didn't work the machine I usually work, I made sure everything was all plugged in, and I just went from machine to machine, so I could watch the audience move in masses, and watch people leave, and watch bunches of people frown and one person smile. It's kind of hard work to look at the audience.
VE: In a lot of ways, your shows remind me of Andy Kaufman's performances - that flip-flop of the role of performers and audience - I get the feeling that you're often trying to see just how much an audience will take.
L: We're always curious!
Diana Coopersmith: That's exactly what Mark's doing. He keeps the audience really close to the performance…
L: Well, hoping that people will take care of themselves. That they'll realize that it's not on a screen. People used to watch out for themselves better, there's a weird nonchalance about it. Like they've seen it all before, but maybe it was computer-generated…
Karen Marcelo: There's also a different reaction from people who didn't intend to see the show. For the Crime Wave show, I was watching it from across the way in some yuppie condominiums. Some of the people were into it. But then some of them were like, "This is on the Web?" and went back inside their apartments to watch it on a little black and white square on their computer screens.
B: But the audience is an integral part of the show. If we did all that work, and then there was no one to share it with…
VE: So, do you think the machines are gendered?
DC: Well, I know that I get more respect at SRL with machines I know nothing about than I do on the job (she's an iron worker on the Golden Gate Bridge), where I do know exactly what I'm doing.
L: It's a mixed bag for me. I think that I've felt more exploited at other jobs, but SRL's a normal group, and has as many flaws as any other. It's an interesting place to get exploited. But is the technology gendered? Hell no. If you're thinking about gender when you're doing a show, you're not paying attention, and you're going to endanger my life.
VE: That's what's interesting when you look at the press that SRL gets. There's a lot of talk about toys for boys, and Pauline has even said that he thinks that SRL is a place where women can get in touch with things that are taboo, namely big huge tools. Which I thought was a little strange, because here we go constructing tools and machine as uniquely and essentially male. And I don't know if I buy that. Can't we conceive of machinery as anything other than phallic?
L: The only ostensible "female" machine we use is Rita, and it's a mean machine! It's meter maid car, and it's badass. But people are always talking about the "phallic" V1…it's a hole with FIRE coming out of it! Is that phallic? I don't think so.
DC: I have to say that SRL has had a majority of men, until recently. But in the last five years, the number of women has at least doubled, maybe even tripled. Which is really exciting to me. But it's an interesting place for women to become less intimidated and really learn things about machinery.
L: So often, it's hard to find some one to teach you this kind of stuff. Neither of Diana or I had any experience with machining until we ended up at SRL.
DC: I was at the shop as a photographer, and Mark took my camera away and said that if I was going to be around, I'd have to help out. And then he shoved a grinder into my hand. A big grinder.
L: I didn't even know what a socket wrench was - and he handed me one and said, "The bolts come off counter-clockwise," and put me in front of the V1 rocket. I thought it was going to blow up when I touched it. Mark has taught me some lethal shit, and I'm really grateful.
B: There has been a lot of knowledge passed on at SRL. I have a feeling that SRL is still something of a boys' club, but the one amazing thing is that all the women that come in there take the knowledge. They take it, they learn, and they move on. Amy's got her own business. Deb Lee's an electrician. SRL gives you the ability and the skills to do it. And there are some great teachers there…people who will tell you exactly how to use the stuff, but will never, never grab the tool out of your hand.
L: There's a thrill in taking stuff that's utilitarian, taking it out of context, and having more fun with it, and it having more fun with you.
DC: I like the idea of art and technology mixed together, and the way they took old stuff from the naval shipyard and made these fantastic machines out of it. Taking part of the big military build-up and recreating it as art. Same thing with people's skills - these are skills that can usually be used only in the really straight world.
B: It's kind of a strictly American thing. It's like Boy Scouts going over the edge. Europeans don't have the kind of access to as much stuff as Americans do, and they don't go quite as far over the edge. Americans are obsessive about everything they do. It was really attractive to me. But SRL also has an ability to take things that are just trash, disassemble it, reassemble it and create it into something else.
DL: They don't go for the shiny pieces - they go for the big pieces.
Sabrina Merlo: It's about our consumer society. The most recent thing I've been working on is turning half-inch scrap steel plate into wheels. I'm sitting there, doing this incredible ancient thing - making a wheel - with scrap. It has to be perfectly round, so I'm wondering why we don't just take 12-inch pipe and cut it. It's because there isn't any 12-inch pipe around.
B: We only make machines we things that are already around…
Amy Miller: When I got involved with the organization, I was really sick of mass production. SRL has a view of making things and using tools, and it seemed to me like a really nice way to start over and think about using things in a new way with other people.
DC: SRL has always been fun for me because it's like running away with the circus. You're with these 15 people and you eat, breathe, sleep and live with each other for however long you're together. I've always really enjoyed that relationship.
S: ...and when you look at it that way, SRL is a lot different from the "masturbatory boy machines" rap it gets. There's definitely something political about people who could work for NASA, but don't, and the reappropriation of materials. It's the same kind of rebelliousness that turns a derelict corner lot into a producing community garden.
B: SRL does not blow up machines. Our machines, for the most part, might need to be reworked or refitted or repaired slightly after a show, but we don't destroy any of our machines. That's not the point. What you see is explosives, fire, and burning props. It's misinterpreted. The machines are very, very complicated, and I'd like to see SRL try to educate the audiences more on what exactly's going on - give them diagrams of the machines, or let them come down and look at the stuff after the show. In San Francisco, people know us, and they come down to the shop. But the show we did in France - they hated us, they booed. And I agree. What's a big mess of flames and fumes, really, if you don't understand what's going on?
S: I walked out of a show once. When I got outside, I found Mark trying to put out a fire and resuscitate a generator. And I found that much more interesting than what was going on inside.