Survival Research Labs:   Shows:   Berkeley Art Museum Show


Those of us who live in the Bay Area are fortunate in that we're occasionally able to experience, firsthand and in the flesh, a Survival Research Laboratories event. A live SRL performance offers so much more than a video/film ever can, including any Virtual Reality invention of the future. Although--I personally would like to see an Imax film of an SRL event...even then, multiple viewings would be necessary. Attending a live SRL show is tantamount to participating in a huge, amazing "crash test" which challenges the legal and physical limits of one's own vision, hearing, and sense of smell--not to mention one's philosophical framework. Earplugs are supplied free at the door for a good reason--they are absolutely essential. Experienced SRL crew members use expensive shooting-range hearing protector headsets which can be quickly removed and placed around the neck. Safety glasses wouldn't be a bad idea, either, and waterproof clothing could prove useful indeed.

The implications of just one SRL performance and its iconography could easily fill an artist's monograph--not surprising, considering that an SRL show consists of the creative output of some fifty artists working together, co-operating (in the original sense of the word) to produce a disturbing, amazing, full-fledged, multi-centered "art" experience ... one which raises myriad questions, and probes the taboos, aesthetics and laws which circumscribe [read: imprison] our daily lives. All this without a taint of academicism, elitism or intellectualism--the shows are actually very funny, that is, if your sense of humor is black.

Experiencing a blazing, thunderous SRL show in full fireworks amidst sulphurous fumes reminds us anew how tepid our daily lives (or rather, what passes for them) have become. It's as if our eyes had become accustomed to only "tasteful, muted" shades of teal, beige, moss, and caramel--and had forgotten that violent reds and deep satanic blacks once existed (and still do).

Upon arriving at 5 PM (Nov. 12, 2003) at the U.C. Berkeley Art Museum, a Bauhaus-like concrete assemblage of superimposed blockhouses and overhanging balconies next to high-rise dormitories, trees, and residences, we noticed large trucks and a crane parked outside. Because of severely limited viewing area, this particular SRL show was dubbed "secret" and for tactical reasons limited to friends of the 50-member "crew," who were each allowed a mere two guests each. Apparently this SRL show had been arranged for the private viewing of an international conference of about 100 art curators from around the world.

Once through the gate, we were exhorted to go to a certain balcony and stay out of the way. The performance area, a klieg-lit courtyard outside the museum, was crowded with SRL performance machines and generators. Really, this was an extremely confined space for an SRL show--which means that those lucky enough to experience it were also placed in dangerous proximity to the happenings. The constant growlings and rumblings of metal-insect machines being tested were pseudo-soothed by mawkish symphonic tides of sonic valium--Yanni was being played at full volume! Dialectical pre-show music.

SRL shows usually feature puzzling thematic or iconographic imagery, which sometimes gets destroyed. Tonight, beautiful high-resolution photographic blow-ups displayed a dwarf in boxing gear (Was he the handsome star of The Station Agent?), a man crouched inside a dog-carrier, a classic Charles Manson-esque hippie flexing his muscles while two women "wrestled" in the background, and a shaven-headed SM-clad man sporting semi-erect male plumage. Dominating the plaza was a gigantic cyclops wearing a loincloth, hoisted high in the air. About 15 feet above the ground, a statue of Jesus Christ with His arm raised in benediction hung horizontally from a monorail-like wire stretching across the courtyard. This plaster "Super-Hippie" had been blessed with a bicycle attached to his back, like some kind of Duchampian prosthetic update.

Shortly after we arrived, the crew of men and women, mostly dressed in jumpsuits, gathered for a final meeting (and burritos and chips) under the shade of a small grove of trees covered by huge strips of silver foil. Each machine had its own group of "handlers" (or is it the other way around?), and crew members were exhorted to perform their own quality control checks--e.g., "Make sure you've got a full tank of gas!" We also overheard remarks like, "This is the best food we've ever had!" Artists, like an army, need food to perform, and if anything in the Bay Area resembles an army of revolutionaries, this would be it. Explosives, incendiary devices, remote-control detonators, motion-sensing devices ... the kinds of diabolical knowledge Vietnam Vets utilized in full combat, are here turned toward...the Creation of Art.

The SRL set was short--just 20 minutes. We recalled how some of our best memories in history were a mere 20 minutes long: seeing the Ramones in August 1976 at The Savoy, and the Damned at the Mabuhay, March '77. Because of the proximity to the machines and the confined architecture of the limited viewing spaces, this particular performance seemed the most dangerous we've ever seen...yet no curators were harmed in the performance of this art. It must be noted that whether intentionally or not, it was the curators--the target audience privileged with the best viewing balcony in the museum--who were drenched with a literal explosion of water (yes, some expensive blonde coiffures collapsed into skullcaps), and shortly thereafter were engulfed in a sweeping 30-foot-tall upswept wave of flame, generated by the Flame Tornado (created by Kevin Binkert). These flames whirled around in a circle faster than we've ever seen before, and in a Marinetti/Futurist way could only be described as "beautiful." We were reminded of those "fountains" in New York City's Wall Street which shoot water horizontally across blocks of stone at 60 (or is it 100) miles per hour.

We could go on and on about the amazing (and beautifully designed) Tesla Coil, the Flippy Box (a personal favorite, for minimalist reasons), the various machine/animal/personalities such as Violet Blue's Air Launcher, the Hovercraft, the Inchworm, the Running Machine and The Big Arm (all identified on the website) with their posturing, bluffing, challenging and withdrawing; the awesome power of the Shockwave Cannon or V1 in action; the physical effects of explosions and dazzling light-rays on one's nervous system... A good art show raises questions--the better the art, the more the questions--and we found ourselves speculating as to whether machines can express emotions, how much one's physical body affects one's personality and outlook ... indeed, for a while it seemed that all the possible speculations regarding the realm of the interaction between the physical and the conceptual were in front of us, just beyond our reach. While we fancy ourselves capable of limitless imaginings in our minds, nevertheless the truth is that our own physical limitations can impose themselves on our theorizings in subtle and sometimes invisible ways.

The "Sculptural"Iconography Which Must Be Destroyed included a very large and cute brown (teddy) bear, apparently smoking a large spliff; the aforementioned Cyclops (reminiscent of those wonderful Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies of the Sixties, but sporting an enormous penis and balls, once the loincloth had been ripped down); and the aforementioned Jesus Christ of the Bicycle (aka Super-Hippie)--perhaps if a large crowd had been present, that lone bicycle would have replicated itself into 5000 Provo-like bicycles for all, like the Feeding of the Five Thousand.

Suddenly the show ended--to the keening sound of fire engines which had just pulled up (they were quickly sent back)--and a huge wave of applause, cheers and whistles burst forth from the audience. A complicated mess remained to be cleaned up--obviously, this was the true test of character and commitment: to stay or not to stay (and help clean up). We couldn't help but think that not only had we experienced art which tested the legal and physical limits of our eyes, ears, noses, and the conceptualizing machines in our brains--i.e., Are we closer to total liberation of the mind and body yet?--but, that we had also gotten a glimpse of a more liberated society of the future, in action, now. A society of artists. A society without hierarchy. Where members act with the goal of mutual aid and personal responsibility. Where artists express uncensored, focused, complex personal creativity while co-operating with other sympatico independence-loving artists of all genders and backgrounds. Great Art is always ahead of its time, isn't it? The Best Art, as Dubuffet once said, never calls itself art.

Postscript: We couldn't help but recall that first public Survival Research Laboratories show, on a sunny afternoon in 1979, at Alex's Service Station in North Beach, San Francisco, at the corner of Columbus and Filbert Streets adjacent to Washington Square Park. This premiere machine performance, when Mark Pauline first staged his "art attack" on the Oil Crisis (which still exists, with the current Bush Administration), featured a conveyer belt-run machine chewing up and spitting out dead pigeons dressed as tiny Arabs, to the soundtrack of noise plus the Cure's "Killing an Arab." (The U.S. government is still killing Arabs, right?, under the guise of "liberating" them.)

This 1979 show seemed to have been totally organized and executed by one artist--one person's vision, undiluted--which must have meant hundreds of solitary hours of conceptualizing and executing the performance, from the oversize black-and-white posters and images on a roll of paper, to the scavenging for materials and the welding and assembling of the machine creatures themselves. The memory of that solitary performance to a crowd of less than thirty people, almost 25 years ago, (with no video or photography) stood in poignant contrast to the bustling November 2003 performance in which fifty-odd people worked in hyperactive harmony in the midst of explosions, smoke and chaos, criss-crossing and streaking through the courtyard on urgent "art" missions, and with nobody killed, despite the rocket blasts and deadly projectile fire. Art after all is theater, not reality.

It is a rare, amazing thing that one person's vision can continue to develop for 25 years to date, and along the way magnetize some of the best people on the planet (so far, we've met Karen Marcelo, Scott Beale, John Law, Eddie Codel, Brian __, Kevin, and That Accordion Guy) into being collaborators, cohorts and even spin-offs. Particularly since this is not done for the profit motive. Today the "Laboratories" part of the SRL name has come true; SRL is definitely a complicated collaborative enterprise.

Having not seen the television shows and whatever else may be out there, we have no comment on the watered-down corporate ripoffs televised under titles like "Robot Wars," which never pay a royalty nor give a credit to the originator, the archetype maker, of violent machine-performance art: Mark Pauline. (Unless this itself is a comment...)

-V. Vale
V. Vale's Newsletter, November 2003

Dangerous and Disturbing Mechanical Presentations Since 1979