Survival Research Labs: Interviews: The Art Of War (World Art 1995)



From flame-throwing robots to manipulator arms that smash through concrete, SRL is bringing apocalyptic art to the masses.

Survival Research Laboratories has acquired an international cult status in recent years through its anarchic gut-wrenching machine performances; theatrical displays which blend high and low technology and transform junkyard, industrial and avant-garde aesthetics into explosive socio-political satire.

To some, SRL is a group of offensive, anti-Christian war-mongers who "have been known to torture and even kill live animals, trapping pigs inside machines and cutting the heads off chickens." To others, they are geniuses - perhaps of questionable sanity - who draw attention to everyday technological violence.

Although SRL has long been dogged by rumours, and even some quite blatant scare-mongering by some antivivisectionists and fundamentalist Christians, it denies having ever killed or tortured animals in any of its performances. The Western taboo of using animal carcasses for anything but human consumption or roadside fertilizer meant that SRL's incorporation of dead animal parts in its early machine performances, in such grotesqueries as the "Mummy-Go-Round," part of a 1982 performance, predictably aroused the ire of moral guardians.

Obviously, SRL touches a lot of raw nerves. And yet it is extraordinary how many law-abiding citizens subject themselves quite happily to an hour-long spectacle of machine mayhem, and then write to SRL and local newspapers complaining, to quote one letter, about "an arts organization which pays an artist to commit acts of violence."

One line of argument is that by satirically representing the mindless violence and alienation which permeates modern society, the artists are condoning, celebrating and perpetuating that violence and alienation. However, such a critique is ahistorical. It ignores SRL's similarity to many different forms of cultural representation and comments which incorporate notions of the grotesque, disfigurement and violence: theatrical and artistic traditions such as French theater of the Grand Guignol in the late 1800s, and Dada of the 1920s; as well as a long literary tradition of articulating the sources of transgression and the profane - from the sexual deviancy of de Sade to the misanthropic visions of William S. Burroughs - whose Western roots can be found, if ,we believe Nietzsche, in the Dionysian cults of the ancient world.

Since 1979, Survival Research Laboratories has been staging "Spectacular Mechanical Presentations," to use its own publicity line. The San Francisco-based group is led by its founding artistic director Mark Pauline. For the first three years of SRL's existence, Pauline worked solo or called on friends; as various members joined the group, the collaborative aims also shifted, from machine performances when Matt Heckert and Eric Werner joined in 1982, to the, larger and more plastic performances after their departure in 1988. Now, six or seven core members make up SRL, along with an equal number who are involved less frequently. |

SRL describes itself as a group of "creative technicians dedicated to redirecting the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry and science away from their typical manifestations in practicality or product." With titles like "Illusions of Shameless Abundance", "Mysteries of the Reactionary Mind," "Will to Provoke," and "Delusions of Expediency: How to Avoid Responsibility for Social Disintegration by Acting without Principle under the Pretenses of Utility", SRL has staged almost 50 shows in the United States and Europe to enthusiastic and at times bewildered crowds.

The ingenuity and variety of their adapted and scratch-built mechanical devices is extraordinary. SRL's earlier efforts include the "Big Arm" a sixmeter-long combination backhoe and dinosaur; "Big Man," a giant robot with a spinning head and flame-thrower arms; a three-meter-tall "One-Ton Walking Machine" that looks like a starved elephant; a four-legged creature called "Inspector," which resembles a hospital bed with clawed arms; "Sprinkler From Hell," an industrial sprinkler converted into a flamethrower; "Throwbot," a 600 kg catapult used for hurling large objects great distances; a four-meter-long "Shock Wave Cannon" that can shatter glass at 50 meters; "Fluorescent Tube Gun" which can fire fluorescent-tubes from eight barrels at 150 mph; along with a large assortment of smaller mechanical beasts which similarly rip, tear, gouge, smash, shatter, burn, cough, splutter, fume and explode in amusing and unpredictable ways.

Recent shows have featured the world's largest Tesla Coil , a V-1 buzz bomb engine built from scratch and based on old Nazi designs, and a "supersonic" propeller built with advice from personnel from the U.S. space agency NASA. SRL has also started to venture into higher-tech territory with computers for programming some of the machines, experiments with laser technology, and more sophisticated remote control devices.

Along with the alternative publication of extremist arts, Re/Search, and other subcultural and mainstream media coverage, a significant part of SRL's reputation can be attributed to the video documentation of its shows. Leslie Gladsjo took over this resposibility in 1988. Gladsjo has made a number of documentaries whose subjects include Kathy Acker, Karen Finley and Modern Primitives. Combining footage of performances, interviews with audience members bers, and commentary by SRL personnel, Gladsjo's work captures the sense of urgency and danger that is a central feature of SRL's shows. The videos are now distributed by Warners, and a more interactive CD-ROM version of material covering most of their early shows is currently in production.

To give some idea of the sheer perversity and power of an SRL performance, the noise from a recent show at the Striercher Herbst Festival in Graz, Austria, so alarmed hundreds of local residents who were unaware of the show that they called the emergency services, the police, the army, and the mayor. A mere 50 km from the border of the former Yugoslavia, the Austrians thought that they were being attacked by Serbs. Even the Austrian Minister of Defense had trouble believing the police that it was only an art performance. While the Austrian army readied itself for war, the Defense Minister sent 20 police officers to the performance with decibel meters and other inscription devices to record the sound levels from the show. They recorded 108 decibels one hundred meters away. The local newspaper later accused SRL of giving the city and the military a terrible case of Kriegsangst, or "War Fear." Pauline judged the show a huge success. Republican arch-conservative Pat Buchanan has labeled SRL's antics "an outrage." More moderate individuals may reflect that SRL's activities highlight our subliminal awareness of the constant threat of attack and disaster, as well as our society's ongoing preparedness for war. The desire for a peaceful world has difficulty acknowledging the dark side of human nature; the violence and aggression which some call the "survival instinct," others "the will to power." It could be argued that our failure to acknowledge the human potential for violence, mass murder and destruction is symptomatic of our failure to recognize the insidious social processes which make such senseless disasters possible.

The artistic precursors to SRL's mechanical performances further undermine some of the more negative responses to their work. The mechanical theater developed by European avantgarde artists' groups of the early 20th century such as the Constructivists and Futurists, as well as by Dada and Bauhaus artists, utilized pseudorobots, puppets made of machine parts and abstract mechanical imagery. However, even though Constructivism, Futurism and Bauhaus embraced a kind of technological utopianism, SRL's work owes more to the anti-art nihilism of Dada. Its work is frequently compared to the Neo-Dadaists of the late 1950s and '60s, particularly that of Jean Tinguely, whose self- destructing kinetic sculptures Homage to New York and Study for the End of the World aroused considerable controversy in the early 1960s. SRL's sloganeering and appropriation of popular media and corporate imagery also recalls the activities of the Parisian cultural anarchists of the 1950s and '60s, the Situationist International. Survival Research Laboratories can also be seen as a dynamic realization of Paul Virilio's proposition for a Museum of Accidents, dedicated to the unrealized dreams, unintentional mistakes and appalling tragedies of modern technology. In a more contemporary vein, the collective organization and efforts of SRL resemble similar principles underlying international performance groups such as the Mutoid Waste Company , Archaos and La Fura del Baus, as well as fledgling Australian groups such as Splinters, Triclops International and the Post Arrivalists.

The SRL headquarters lies in the Mission district of San Francisco. Its workshop-cum-home nestles between the interstate freeway on one side and parkland on the other, at one end of what was one of the area's main industrial streets. Within five minutes of leaving the car at the opposite end of the site to SRL's workshop, someone had mutilated the driver's door lock. As Pauline had warned, the place was full of crackheads and nutcases.

Ten minutes later, Pauline was showing World Art one of SRL's latest creations: a force-feedback attachable mechanical arm-frame and glove which remote-controlled a three-meter-long mechanical arm with a large and brutal-looking pincer for a hand. Movement of the wearer's arm and hand would be mimicked by the mechanical arm and pincers. Australian performance artist Stelarc has used similar technology in performance in recent years. Stelarc's design and performance are perhaps a little more elegant, but the principle is the same. Pauline displayed his dexterity by picking up a hefty chunk of waste metal and repeatedly dropping it disconcertingly close to our feet. A small but appreciative crew of SRL regulars and guest workers gathered for the impromptu performance. When everyone had had enough of that, Pauline showed off the workshop and explained where some of the equipment had come from. A lot of it was ex-navy from the 1940s and '50s, some of it was donated, scavenged, bought or | adapted. There are metal lathes, drill presses, oxy-acetylene and other welding gear, electric saws, and shelves from floor to ceiling stacked with a multiplicity of parts and tools. In the middle of the workshop are most of the sleeping and eating amenities.

Pauline's bedroom features an enormous poster of J.G. Ballard, one of a constellation of Pauline's literary heroes, which includes Thomas Pynchon, William S. Burroughs, Marguerite Duras, Raymond Roussel, and Le Comte de Lautreamont. Bruce Sterling and William T. Vollmann are, in turn, fans of Pauline and SRL. Vollmann's novel, The Rainbow Stories, features a chapter on SRL and its work.

At the far end of the workshop most of the machines are stored, either fully or partially disassembled. A few months after we left, Pauline was moving some of them with a crane and a stack fell on top of him, leaving a massive gash in his lower left leg. Although there are safety signs throughout the workshop, accidents still happen and the worst seem to happen to him.

In 1982, Pauline lost most of the fingers on his right hand while experimenting with rocket fuel. He had two of his toes grafted onto his hand so he can still use it for holding things. Although there is the temptation to describe this exchange of body parts as Frankensteinian, it's hard not to admire Pauline for his stoicism and determination. In an article from The New York Times in 1988, he explained the sense of invulnerability he had before the accident. "When I examined the situation, I realized I was just another white male who had lived a life of privilege. Nothing bad had ever happened to me, and I'd gotten a sense of hubris. It becomes destructive when you think you can do anything and get away with it."

Just the same, Pauline is obviously pleased that other people find his unhealthy obsessions attractive. "I'm interested in intense things and I'm interested in taking things as far as they can possibly go, within the limitations of physics on the one hand, and the limitations of human beings on the other.

"I think that is a function of the way I've always tried to present SRL as an open-ended system. It's not |like there is any dogma that is being perpetrated in the show. We create a very weird set of circumstances that can be interpreted in an awful lot of different ways. To me, the world is just one big gray area, and that's what I like to see presented in the shows. I don't see why we should shy away from presenting things because people won't like it. The same things that attract some people really repels certain other people. Fortunately for me and my conscience, the kind of people who don't like what goes on in an SRL performance are the kind of people who I just don't care that much for either."

Pauline says SRL grew out of his disappointment at the lack of opportunities for self-fulfilment in the fields in which he'd been trained mechanical engineering and fine art. "I wanted to develop something that would encompass all that. I wanted to develop an organization because I thought that the things I had to do would be difficult and controversial. I liked the way that corporations hide behind this facade of blamelessness. You can never pin down who's to blame or who's in charge. Somebody had seen the things I'd been doing, the billboard stuff and such, and they had a magazine called Boulevards. They said, 'Here, you can have a full page in my magazine to do whatever you want.' So I said, 'Well, okay.” I thought I'd make an ad for what I do, but what am I going to call it? So I just lifted a name from this Soldier of Fortune magazine, this disreputable company that was called Survival Research laboratories a sort of right-wing military re-sales outlet. They only appeared in this one magazine, and the circumstances surrounding this organization remain unclear, but I've had no problem from them."

The resonances of SRL's work with the more anarchic tendencies of modern art and popular culture are complex and fascinating. In an article on SRL from Parlwett, Mike Kelley desribes SRL's relationship with popular spectacles such as hot-rodding, drag-meets, demolition derbies, truck-pulls and Heavy Metal concerts. Kelley cites Georges Bataille and his recognition of "the necessity for a division between the economic and political organization of society on one hand, and on the other, an antireligiotls and asocial organization having as its goal orgiastic participation in different forms of destruction." The mirror of conspicuous consumption is mass destruction; the muzak and cheerful ditties that SRL plays before its shows focus attention on the cliched "happiness" that is about to be destroyed in the mock horror of a mechanical apocalypse.

Bataille's observation fails to distinguish, however, between the ritualistic simulation and the brutal reality of destruction, a distinction which also seems to escape many of SRI,'s critics. Festivals which incorporate simulations of torture, death, and rebirth persist to this day in Italy, Spain, Mexico, the Pllililpines, and Indonesia. Such events attempt to expend and pacify the violent and destructive aspects of the Divine. They refer to profound mysteries relating to initiation and the transformation of the spirit through the subjection of the body to magical reconstruction. Such affirmative and cathartic rituals may be too raw and primitive for the modern Western sensibility to accept as valid, but they are, nevertheless, a relatively harmless outlet for such aggressive energies, in contrast to the collective indulgence of fear, hatred and intolerance expressed in war and other forms of mass psychosis. SRL's work can be ugly, nasty and brutal, but it can also be uplifting, awesome and liberating. Gladsjo describes the varied responses to their shows: "You can be interested in it as satire, or as technology, or as violent spectacle. There's just about a million different reasons why people like it or why people don't like it. The people who are really negative after a show and don't like it, who maybe got dragged there by their friends, they always have different reasons too. Some people may think it's too violent or other people might think that it's not violent enough, or that they heard some other hype and were disappointed they weren't killed. There are a hundred reasons why people don't like it too."

Nevertheless the predominant accusations of war-mongering and "toys for boys" persist. Pauline accepts that the latter criticism may have some basis, "But I think that also a lot of women don't look at it that way, but rather see it as a place where they can get themselves in touch with things that are taboo for women, things like very powerful devices, big huge tools, things that they've been denied as women. Women are told that they shouldn't be interested in these intense things that are aggressive and connected to male things. They're told these things are bad for them and not the right and proper thing for a nice young girl to be involved with. I don't think there's anything wrong with believing that, but I know there are other women that don't feel that way and I tend to sympathize with those women more, I guess."

Gladsjo agrees: "There are a lot of women who work with us. I find when I interview women who are working on machines who possibly had no technical skills and who felt that this was something they couldn't do, have found that when they work on these things they get a thrill from using that stuff and find it to be very satisfying. American women are just as obsessed with violence as American men. I can understand women not liking it for other reasons, but disliking it because they think it's a male thing is maybe a way of excusing their fear of that sort of stuff."

Although SRL recently staged a performance in San Francisco entitled "A Calculated Forecast of Ultimate Doom: Sickening Episodes of Widespread Devastation Accompanied by Sensations of Pleasurable Excitement" sponsored by the hip computer-mag Wired, this was the first major show that SRL had done in the U.S. for five years. When asked why this was the case, Pauline was philosophical. "Well, it's difficult because of the economy. It's become like a 'no-frills' economy, a rationalized economy, where unless it's going to generate money or something more tangible, then people don't really jump at it. Like, they wouldn't jump at it because it's exciting! You could look at the phenomenon of something like raves as a business thing where you give people the bare minimum. You don't even pay bands. You have this recorded music and then you charge people as much money as you can and get people high so that they don't notice the difference. It's like a virtual entertainment tnat requires very little outlay and you get a lot more income back. So you're competing against that. The artists organizations that supported us were really damaged by the flak from the NEA (funding restrictions were made by the National Endowment for tne Arts in response to Republican outrage at the pornographic "execsses" of contemporary art). A lot of small non-profit groups really got their budgets slashed. Then the liabilities situation has continued to deteriorate in the USA, so that it's very difficult to get insurance. It's becoming more expensive and the insurance really doesn't protect you any more either."

Gladsjo adds that this situation isn't true just for artists, but for practically anyone who tries to do anything new and innovative. Pauline says that makes people feel very apprehensive about continuing to support SRL. "I've never tried to hide the approach we have to doing these shows. It's a very malicious kind of humor sometimes and I've never tried to hide that or neglected to say it. I admit that it's always a co-conspiracy between SRL and whoever is involved with the production of the show. I don't believe in being sneaky. Really, if someone wants to work with us then they’re going to be in for the ride; the ride of their lives if they're lucky and we're lucky. "After a while, people really start to believe in the hype of it all instead of just accepting that it's a funny thing that people are doing and that we're really not out there hurting other people. It's just a make-believe thing, a weird fantasy that's been created. Some people just look at it in terms of the hype, that we are these fearsome horrible people who are perpetrating these acts. We hear all kinds of things flying around, so I shudder to think if that's what people are hearing in the street. What about people who work for arts organizations or companies?

"I think there's a feeling in America now that the national sense of humor has been severely diminished by the way the economy's going right now. People are just looking to cover their asses and not really looking to the future because that's so uncertain and maybe even more of a problem," Pauline says. Fortunately SRL, is self-sufflcient enough that this is not a crushing blow, but it is more difficult to get shows. "We've managed very well in just leaving the country to do the shows. We've got lean and mean like all the companies are trying to do now in order to survive. In the circumstances, I think we've done very well.