Mechanical Mutants

-Jeannette Godbey-

Beneath a freeway overpass, 1300 people gather to witness nightmarish, industrial robots, all equipped with unique destructive capacities, manipulate and form an atmosphere of organized chaos. The sounds of ambulance sirens, shattering mirrors, and powerful overhead explosives echo in the ears of audience members while a robot termed the "Sprinkler from Hell" sprays flaming gasoline and a 7-ton street sweeper crashes into a freeway pole. Such is not a vision of Armageddon, but of a particular performance staged by Survival Research Laboratories. For twenty years, this conglomeration of technological artists known as SRL has been bringing mechanical mutants to life and letting them loose on one another. Although consistently linked to the "fringe" of society, SRL has established a reputation in robot or kinetic art, influencing and paving the way for similar performance groups, counterculture or not.

Survival Research Laboratories is the brainchild of Mark Pauline, the current artistic director of the group. In 1979, Pauline and his fellow SRL members staged their first machine show at a Chevron station in San Francisco. Since then, this collective of machinists, mechanics, welders, and other technical specialists have continued assembling their creations, performing over 50 shows worldwide. Through these shows, SRL appears to have built a reputation, and with this reputation comes recognition within the mainstream art world and media. An SRL performance is as likely to take place at the Palace of Fine Arts or the Broadway Theatre as it is under some freeway overpass or in an abandoned parking lot. Mark Pauline can be found presenting panels for various technological conferences, including SIGGRAPH and Web98, addressing interactions between man and machine.

SRL operates within the contexts of society while challenging the parameters society sets. SRL are very much a product of the society that they criticize. Their shows are a "constructed, fabricated attack against the framework of the society" (June17). They examine the standard conventions and interactions and expose them in SRL’s own, atypical way. One cannot successfully comment on society without initially having a good analysis of the society. One cannot simply rebel without having something to rebel against. SRL operates within the system, but not in any accepted way. Their shows are "underground" in the sense that "the ideas presented are not popular, yet really straight people come to them… and because [they] create a compelling image, the media is drawn there like they can’t help it" (Mark Pauline, June 17).

SRL’s creations are an amalgamation of the Industrial Revolution of the past and the cutting edge robotics technology of the present. They combine industrial machinery and military machinery with modern constructions, stripped down so all the mechanisms are visible. Their supplies come from a variety of sources – found parts, donated parts, broken down machines, specifically engineered mechanisms, etc. As Mark Pauline illustrates:

"I’m a parasite, the people I work with are parasites, we live off this parasitic body of society around us. We scrounge around, we get what we want and if they don’t give it to us, we take it from them. And we … just basically get what we need … what we have to have in order to operate and we just keep up-scaling our operations" (Virtues of Negative Fascination, VHS).

Their robots possess both abstract and organic characteristics. Most have humanoid characteristics to some degree, be it claws that resemble hands or an entire anthropomorphic robot complete with a waxen human head. Ironically, these humanoid figures usually serve as pathetic scapegoats and targets for the other violent machines to play with. Typically, these mutant machines are all remote-controlled and manipulated in real-time, allowing every performance to be somewhat impromptu. Thus, the battles these machines engage in are unpredictable. Although SRL may reuse their machines in several shows, no two are ever exactly alike. One of their latest machines, the "Pitching Machine", launches 6 foot long 2"x 4"s at 120 miles per hour towards a target. This machine contains an automatic loading system (up to 20 boards) and has a range of 800 feet.. In addition, the SRL has recently developed machines that can be controlled by multiple users and teleoperating systems, using free software distributed over the web, engaging the audience in manipulating performance. This unpredictability introduces yet another element of chaos.

There is more ideology and purpose driving the SRL than merely providing sensory overload. Each show presents a different social commentary or critique, designed to provoke the audience to some sort of reaction. One catapult actually launches leaflet bombs, spewing propaganda containing hundreds of absurd messages like "Call the Truth and Insult to Avoid Accepting It as Fact." As Mark Pauline states in regard to this particular instance, "so much of that show was connected with that sort of hypocrisy. We tried to set up a parallel situation to society as we see it … With the rhetoric that makes no sense at all, but is very forthright. " (Virtues of Negative Fascination, VHS).

At a performance entitled "Extremely Cruel Practices: A Series of Events Designed to Instruct Those Interested In Policies That Correct Or Punish", SRL created an environment of information overload. Large slow moving, deliberate robots maneuver around the performance area, occasionally throwing flames or exhibiting other intimidating behaviors, including crushing any pathetic humanoid robot that crawled in their path. The only non-pathetic humanoid robot is a towering, fire "breathing" wire-frame one possessing a table-saw as a hand, melding human and abstract form. Two suspended pigskins are torn in half by various robots in a sick game of tug of war . Throughout the performance, sound of laughter and strange demonic sounds can be heard at various instances. A killing spree of sorts ensues, wherein abstract machines destroy the pathetic humanoid types, attack one another, and fall prey to the towering humanoid with a table-saw. It is impossible to follow all concurrent action amongst these machines. As Mark Pauline describes this fabricated chaos:

"I don’t want people being able to sit and think clearly about it ‘cause people don’t use their minds to think clearly about stuff and assess it. They use their minds to dismiss things and to be happier… to seek happiness, or to be more insulated from the world. That’s why we stage the action in the way that it is. We make it really wild" (Virtues of Negative Fascination, VHS).

Through their performances, the SRL presents a dialogue between man and machine, and the society shaped by their interactions. The SRL is fueled and driven by the very society they attempt to shape.

The SRL is not alone in their exploration of the relations between man and machine. Several other machine artists of similar inclinations have come into being, some following in the footsteps of the SRL and others creating their own paths. Eric Paulos, second in command for the SRL, recently began his own project known as the Experimental Interaction Unit. He defines EIU as being "actively engaged in ongoing research into the physical, aural, visual, and gestural interactions between humans and machines and the various permutations of those interactions" ( The interest in teleactivity carries over from his work in SRL to his work in EIU. EIU is more project based than performance based, and Erik Paulos shares the same tendencies in attending various technological conferences, like the IEEE Robotics Conference in Detroit and Ars Electronica.

At Ars Electronica, EIU displayed Dispersion, a vending machine installation designed to disperse lethal biological pathogens to the public. EIU believes that the current increasing ease in procuring biological agents will lead to such specialized vending machines for the public. While these vending machines would be similar to current vending machines, those specialized for dispersing pathogens would need to contain means to "automatically and safely cultivate, monitor, contain, package, and properly dispense lethal biological pathogens . . . [and also] accurately record, track, and monitor the individuals using the system" (

EIU designed a fully functional vending machine capable of meeting such requirements. This vending machine operated for two weeks at Ars Electronica before being quietly removed. Hundreds of small capsules were dispersed to individuals, whose data (e.g. fingerprints, images, etc.) were recorded. The actual contents of these capsules have not been officially disclosed.

Most of the various organizations or performance groups of machine artists currently in existence tend to be well documented and visibly present in various forms of media, especially on the World Wide Web. A network of machine artists seems to be present, consistently linking from one performance group to another. One page alone contained links to approximately 20 other similar artistic projects. The SEEMEN, another San Francisco based group, frequently make reference to the SRL and vice versa. Like the SRL, SEEMEN create elaborate, garish machines endowed with destructive purposes. For the past 3 years, SEEMEN have been the feature performers at the annual Burning Man Festival, held in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. SEEMEN describe themselves as

"Artists that use technology, storytelling and live performance to create a unique event. They see themselves as post-industrial folk artists. Since they create situations where audiences are encouraged to interact with machines, no two performances are ever the same. The actions of their robots poetically symbolize mans struggles and triumphs" (

Again, the use of real-time interactivity adds an element of chaos.

Both SEEMEN and SRL focus on creating symbolic, organized chaos within their performances. In doing so, they make their performances intense, brutal, raw, offensive, and occasionally dangerous, depending on the location procured. They frequently get away with what they can, employing illegal effects if they are less likely to be caught. Within the confines of the Black Rock Desert, the risks of being "caught" are not much of a factor. However, Mark Pauline and other members of the SRL have frequent dealings with fire marshals and other government officials. Occasionally, they face charges and arrest. The groups operate on a rather thin line of legitimacy. The subject matter or commentary their performances deal with further alienates them from mainstream society. Some find no artistic merit in their creations at all (a debate that is to be expected with most works of "art"…). The occasional risk factors, although fairly minimal, introduced by exploding debris and the sheer obnoxious noises and sirens along with robots made from actual dead animals (i.e. a flapping, motorized chicken) subject the audience to an intense, intimidating experience. The EIU also shares in this illegitimacy factor, for the EIU’s Dispersion installation, was quietly removed from Ars Electronica.

Despite these somewhat sketchy tendencies, works by these groups of artists find their way into museums of modern art and actual theatres. It is significant to note that SRL was invited to perform for the opening of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art ( SEEMEN has had pieces in the collections of the New York Museum of Modern Art and exhibited at the Jack Hanley Gallery. The debate seems not to be over whether or not their creations are "art" per se, but what environment is more appropriate for this variety of art. A thin lines exists between performance/ installation based works geared to be exhibited and viewed in museums by culture-minded, artistic types, and those designed to be staged and witnessed in the middle of nowhere by counterculture, artistic types.



Amorphic Robot Works.

Experimental Interaction Unit.

June, Andrea & V. Vale. "Mark Pauline." Re/Search #11: PRANKS!. Re/Search Publications: San Francisco, 1987. 6-17.

Laughing Squid.

Johnson, Pableaux. "Appetite for Destruction." Texas Monthly, Inc: 1995-1999.


"PeopleHater." Discovery Communications, Inc: 1997.

Survival Research Laboratories.


SIGGRAPH 97. Conference. Panels, "Interfacing Reality: Exploring Emerging Trends

Between Humans and Machines."

Streettech. "Survival Research Laboratories."

SRL Performance Chronology.

Survival Research Laboratories.

Web98 Design and Development Conference and Exposition. Keynote Panel, "Displaced

Perceptions: Intriguing Questions on the Desires of Uninhibited Technology."