IN THE EYE OF THE PROPANE-POWERED STORM
Survival Research Lab’s founder Mark Pauline shares trade secrets, and offers a glimpse at the inner workings of their notoriously explosive entertainment. PDF
By Sunny Bleckinger
San Francisco’s Survival Research Labs (SRL), founded by Mark Pauline in 1978, is considered to be the foremost pioneer in the world of industrial performance art. They’re known for appropriating thunderous and formidable machinery normally intended for military or industrial use, and tweaking it to suit their own twisted purposes.
After arriving here with over 45,000 pounds of equipment, the crew quickly got to work reassembling some of their old favourites, including the V1 (a replica of a WWII German buzz-bomb engine modified to generate a continuously throbbing racket at 45Hz—you might want to bring earplugs) and the Hovercraft (loaded with a large industrial fan for lift, and four incandescent pulse jets for acceleration and steering which, altogether, at 150 decibels, is likely the loudest robot in the world—yeah, you should definitely bring earplugs). There’s also a few new creations, like the improved Mr Satan (a large face of you-know-who sculpted from a 300-pound block of solid stainless steel with a propane furnace that discharges bursts of fire through his eyes and mouth) and the Flame Saucer (a deceptively small metal trinket on a pole that spits flames in all horizontal directions creating a forty-foot diameter blaze), and a dozen other contraptions, many of which will be set to destroy themselves by the end of the show.
If that weren’t enough, they also picked up an additional 20 tons of vari-ous metal objects from a nearby scrapyard. ‘There’s a reason why people don’t do the kinds of shows we do,’ says Pauline, as other oil-covered members of the crew amble around the large NDSM warehouse with welders and heavy met-al hammers, ‘because, ultimately, it’s more or less impossible. We’re lucky. We have a really good crew of people and we’—THAWOOM!—‘Oh, alright. That was a good one.’ Pauline glances over his shoulder at a giant wooden spool that has just been hurled into the air. ‘We’re making a launcher,’ he explains. ‘It’ll go a little faster than that. It’ll be up another ten degrees and then we’ll have a release that drops them. It’ll probably go two-and-a-half times that fast.’
Their shows are more than mere technical displays of cold steel and hot fire (and often various animal carcasses thrown in for good measure), they’re genuine theatrical events, missing only two things: human performers and any sense of subtlety. THATAKAFOOM! ‘Oh, hey. That went better. Just get her up a little higher and add a release mechanism… Yeah, that’ll work.’
Maintaining the faith
Since the beginning, particularly with the larger shows, Pauline has carved out long titles that bear a blatant smirk between the words. This year: ‘A Complete Mastery of Sinister Forces Employed With Callous Disregard To Produce Catastrophic Changes In The Natural Order of Events’. There is a reason for the wordiness.
Pauline explains: ‘Historically, people have connected themselves with things more powerful than they actually deserve. That’s been a means to gaining power. We’re doing sort of a comedy show about that. It’s like a tribute to people who believe in magical things organised in a way to injure or kill people. Except we’re making fun of them.’
Often, the themes in the shows allude to political statements, messages of sorts, but in the end, they offer no clear answers, no clear statements. ‘We’re just trying to create imagery,’ says Pauline. ‘We try to get across an opinion, a style of looking at something. But there’s no language or communication that goes on in the show.’
His approach is reminiscent of young minds who’ve familiarised themselves with far too much of the political corruption running rampant in the world, realising that perhaps the best thing to do to maintain sanity is to poke fun, and of course, watch your own ass.
‘It’s not an aloof activity,’ says Pauline. ‘I do the complicated parts on the machines and build a lot of them, most of them I do myself. It’s not like you’re some painter in New York, and you have some-one do all your paintings for you, like the New York artists do lately. Everyone here is highly involved in the work. You never really get to like it that much, ’cause it’s so unpleasant to do. It’s not fun. We don’t have fun here. What we do is funny sometimes. It’s ridiculous. But it’s too much work to be fun.’
He’s not being facetious. After a slew of incidents early on—in 1982, he blew apart his right hand while preparing a rocket for a show (later, doctors sewed two of his toes on as fingers for added dexterity) and he was named a suspect in the FBI’s Unabomber case—Pauline quickly learned to take great care in his work (in some ways). Naturally, these and other episodes soon spurred him to cult figure status, which apparently means nothing to him. At times, he even seems unaware of it. He and SRL continue on, regularly spawning additional morsels for the grapevine.
Understandably, a long-running show known for creating cataclysmic entertainment will have a number of tales following it around. Surprisingly—and gratifyingly—many of them are true. But a few exaggerations have been supplemented. There’s the story of Pauline’s involvement with some local squatters in the ’80s, who were undergoing yet another planned eviction. In some circles, the story has grown to legendary status, including a version with a giant robot that Pauline constructed to chase the police away.
While picking at cuticles on the ball of deformed flesh that is his right hand, Pauline sheds light on the ofﬁcial account. ‘We just helped ’em burn down the squat. They said the police were gonna kick ’em out, and I said, well, do you wanna burn the entire building down in like, a minute?’ The squatters responded afﬁrmatively —many enthusiastically—and Pauline gave them instructions in his characteristically dry, matter-of-fact way, as if explaining his grandmother’s recipe for pecan pie.
‘First thing you do is break out all the windows, then saw holes through the ﬂoors all the way to the ceiling and make a chimney, or a flue really, and break down all the doors between the rooms. After that, we found these huge drums of wax, took some of it, cast things out of it and put the wax on rags and wood, while other guys made these huge ﬁre piles on the bottom ﬂoor, and we helped ’em make a couple backpack ﬂamethrowers and we let ’em borrow some big military smoke generators so they smoked in the police before burning the whole building down.’ Undoubtedly, none of this solved any of the squatters’ gripes, but it was probably more satisfying than holding hands and singing songs about freedom.
Reports have also come in about SRL shows requiring the audience to sign away their lives before entering a show. This is true. ‘Yeah, but that’s something the promoter does,’ explains Pauline. ‘I don’t make people do that. You can’t really sign away your future rights, at least not in the US. In some ways it’s worse to have people do that. If you make someone sign away their future rights and then some-thing happens, that could mean that you knew it was too dangerous for a person to be attending. People do it because they think it’ll trick people into thinking that they have no right to sue. That’s the only pretence. It certainly doesn’t protect you.’
Pauline makes no attempt to propagate any of the myths that surround him. Countless articles have portrayed him as a furious agitator filled with hate for the world, a sweltering revulsion that’s fuelled his work for nearly 30 years. Naturally, with this in mind, meeting him for the ﬁrst time may seem a bit daunting. But in person, he’s entirely affable and relaxed—like an honest car mechanic whom you feel you can trust entirely with your vehicle. ‘Hmm, yeah. I can be pretty sarcastic, I guess.’ He has to think for a moment about the discrepancy between the reports and reality—most of the press seems to play very little in his own head. ‘Well, most of the people who write that stuff have probably never met me. I sup-pose people just assume that if you do anything sarcastic or satirical, then that’s the way you are. I don’t think I’ve ever been like that. I don’t know why people think that. But it’s ﬁne with me. It keeps people off your back.’ Perhaps it’s com-forting to know that the man who is considered by many to be the father of robotic hell, is really just a soft-spoken sweetheart, and a very good dad.
Pauline beams when asked about his three-year-old son. ‘It’s great having a kid. It’s nice to see him enjoying all the machines. He loves the machine shop, and cries when we try to make him leave. I got him driving the forklift around. He can lift it up and move stuff around. He actually keeps me more focused because when I’m not doing parenting, and I have time for SRL, I try to make sure I don’t just dick around. I actually get more done these days.’ Happily, this doesn’t mean SRL don’t continue to enjoy a healthy amount of mischief. For these long-time pranksters, it runs in their veins.
‘I remember our New York City show in ’88, we made three million dollars of really perfect counterfeit money and blew it up in these leaflet bombs above the audience. Everybody took the money and spent it all over the city, so there was this wave of counterfeit money. I had some guy who didn’t speak English in San Francisco, and he made it for us. He made three colour plates… beautiful… we had the perfect paper…’ Pauline smiles with the memory. ‘Somehow we did it and left and I never heard anything from anybody about it. It was just one of those things, I thought it would be kind of cool and funny. There was a carnival next door. The carnies came the next morning and picked up the money still on the ground—all of it—they were swarming the place the next morning and they gave it back to people at their show as change.’
As for revealing recent off-the-record shenanigans, Pauline hesitates, then smiles. ‘I shouldn’t really talk about it… it’s just stupid stuff. But I think someone gave me a bunch of hydrogen generators and we made an eight-foot-diameter hydrogen balloon inside the shop. Then we brought it out and attached about ten pounds of [potentially explosive] magnesium and a fuse and let it go. It had about fifty or sixty pounds of lift. You could barely hold it down. It went probably thirty-thousand feet up in the air, hit the winds going thirty, forty miles an hour and it just headed over to Oakland. I have no idea what happened. I just know from the speed and the other physicists that were in the shop, they said it must’ve went that high.
‘And sometimes, you know, we just run the machines in the city [of San Fran-cisco]. Take the V1 down to the city street and set it off for about five minutes, then drive away with it. It shakes all the buildings in the neighbourhood. We left and the police came and there wasn’t anything there. They didn’t know where it came from or what happened.
‘Just operating these things in public can be pretty destructive. Generally, I like the idea of doing those kinds of things in urban settings where you’re not supposed to do them, rather than in a setting where you’re supposed to—like out in a ﬁeld in the middle of nowhere. People go to urban areas because they’re more exciting. So there needs to be some genuine excitement to make urban areas feel urban. And I’ve always liked to provide for that.’