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Fear of the Perfect Machine

March 13, 1996

Helpful tip from Cyberpunk: When planning to evoke Armageddon, make sure to have all the necessary permits.

This was the harsh lesson that Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), a San Francisco-based industrial/performance art outfit, learned earlier this month. The members of SRL discovered in that America, land of the free, they can no longer blow up stuff of do strange things in public with the aid of machinery. Not without a license, anyway.

In retrospect, one can hardly blame the two police officers who stumbled onto SRL’s "Crime Wave" event for charging the group with so many violations—13 in all, initially. "Crime Wave" took up an entire city block, attracted about 2,000 gawkers, and resembled chaos incarnate. One of the officers wrote in the police report:

As I walked over to the parking lot, I saw numerous machines. . .operating independent and simultaneously. Some of the machines expended fire, discharged explosives and incendiary projectiles, or made very loud noises. Operators of the flame-throwing machines intentionally set a wood-framed prop and other wood objects on fire. . . .

"Crime Wave," broadcast live over the Internet, was rather small as SRL spectacles go. According to reports as well as photos and video clips at the SRL Web site, the show included a mock prison with mechanical inmates engaging in anal sex, machines resembling gigantic insects roaming the parking lot, and mechanical muggers attacking a giant female figurehead. Fireworks went off, sirens blared, and fire-spewing guns billowed smoke into the air. At the end of the performance, a black street-sweeping truck with helicopter blades twirling on the roof came through to clean up and/or crush the remaining debris.

The mission of the show, according to the SRL Web site, was to encompass "the many humorous aspects of violent human interaction." The San Francisco Police Department, however, was not amused. On January 25, two months after the performance, warrants were issued for the arrest of SRL headman Mark Pauline and assistant Mike Dingle on two charges; unlawful open burning and use of explosive materials, both misdemeanors.

Although SRL shows often attract controversy (One show schedule din New York was abruptly canceled when the promoter discovered the group planned to burn hundreds of Bibles), no member of SRL had ever been arrested for a pyrotechnic performance before.

Pauline, a machinist also trained in the visual arts, created SRL in 1978, lifting the name from an ad in Soldier of Fortune magazine. Since then he’s has put on more than 45 "spectacular mechanical presentations," in the words of SRL’s press kit, usually under such alluring titles as "A Calculated Forcast of Ultimate Doom" and "Delusions of Expediency: How to Avoid Responsibility for Social Disintegration By Acting Without Principle Under the Pretenses of Utility."

During these presentations, Pauline’s highly complex, nightmarish, slightly out-of-control machines are loosed on one another and make general mayhem until they run themselves into fiery disrepair. Some crowd-pleasing favorites include Throwbot, a device which hurls large objects in the air, and the Sprinkler From Hell, which emits flames instead of water. Pauline and his cohorts create these machines from what they call "obtanium"--parts they find in old factories and other locations--or they buy from dealers of used military equipment.

Certainly, we live in a machine age and mechanical devices are created to make life easier. This isn’t Pauline’s goal however. "The real message of the machines isn’t that they’re helpful workmates. It’s like any extension of the human psyche—they’re scary things," Pauline told the cyberzine Spiv in January.

So one has to wonder—was it the fire and minor explosives that spooked San Francisco cops into pressing charges? Was it the simple lack of permits? Or did SRL’s mechanical creatures dredge up deeper, perhaps even unconscious feelings of dread in the officials?

Certainly none of the audience was injured during "Crime Wave" and no property was destroyed, which is in line with previous SRL events. "We’ve been insured many times with no claims. We have a long documentation of events without injuries or mishaps," Pauline told the music cyberzine Addicted to Noise.

(Which is not to say someone doesn’t suffer for SRL’s art—but the victim is usually Pauline himself. In 1982, for example, he blew off most of the fingers on his right hand while working in the shop with rocket fuel. Color photos of the severed index finger and then-nearly digitless hand are at the Web site.)

Luckily, the outcome of Pauline’s latest brush with misfortune—his clash with the law—was "not real dramatic," he writes via e-mail. Earlier this month, the lawyer representing Pauline and Dingle worked out a pretrial settlement—they will collectively pay $400 and do 50 hours of community work. Not exactly hard labor, but, as Pauline writes it is "a lot of money for SRL, and a lot of time I’d rather devote to making new machines."

The worst part of the sentence for Pauline is the stipulation that SRL can’t hold another event on California before the fines are paid and the community time is clocked in, lest the charges be refilled. This, he is not happy about. This, he writes "is indicative of the gradual erosion of tolerance for activities that have no `practical value’ in our society.

"You’d think," he concludes, "that San Francisco would be a holdout."

--Joab Jackson