Is it a case of Department of Defense R & D gone awry, hidden in
Global Dynamics' Section 5? Have the aliens landed? Nope. It's the
massive, unruly spectacle of Survival Research Laboratories, doing what
it does best: converting, perverting, and subverting existing
large-scale technologies and machines for purposes of DIY entertainment.
SRL was conceived of and founded by Mark Pauline in 1978. It evolved
immediately into a group of creative technicians who rededicate the
techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military
away from their usual trajectories. Machines and equipment normally
destined for factories, wars, and construction sites become the
materials for a kind of sociopolitical theatre starring giant machines
instead of people--with lots of barely-controlled mayhem. SRL has staged
over 45 massive-scale mechanized presentations in the United States and
A longtime cult phenomenon, SRL has inspired hundreds of musicians and
artists worldwide. We caught up with Mark to find out what inspires him.
You and SRL repurpose existing technologies and make them into
something new and strange. When were you first drawn to hacking machines
in that way?
When I was a teenager, I worked sequentially for several
companies; they were involved in oil drilling support, tractor-trailer
manufacture, or military equipment. I realized that I loved the means of
production, but felt a deep mistrust for the logic of mass production
for profit or warfare. After taking a few years off work and getting a
college degree, I sat down in 1978 and in the space of a week invented
the concept of Survival Research Labs.
I can relate; I grew up in my family's heavy equipment parts
business and developed a taste for rusting machinery, huge warehouses,
and the smell of Orange Goop. Did you similarly develop a kind of
fetishist's attraction to large-scale machinery?
My early exposure to heavy industry certainly left its mark on me. I
think the key lesson I came away with was that machines of a certain
size evoke a sense of awe that draws your attention in a way that
smaller devices fail to do. Small machines are more akin to insects and,
similarly, they can just be ignored. Bottom line is, if you're going to
make a performing machine, it should at least give the impression that
it could kill a person.
How much do you immerse yourself in the theories and science that
underlie the mechanics of what you work on? Do you spend a lot of time
with schematics, or do you tend to grab an arc welder, seventy feet of
chicken wire, and an old turntable bearing, and just see what happens?
I've always paid lip service to the standard protocols of development
used by mechanical engineers. I do have a lot of respect for the ways of
the old ones. However, since I'm not a trained engineer, it's easy for
me to limit my involvement along that path. I like to think it frees me
to explore the entertainment potential of technologies that are
historically bound by expectations of some practical outcome. I somehow
seem to manage to get things to work despite my ignorance.
Long after SRL began, mainstream culture got interested in robot
wars, home hacking, and the like. Why do you think the larger populace
got attracted to these things?
I think anyone who has ever had a job harbors at least some level of
mistrust for the modern workplace. In two words, autodidacticism rules!
The do-it-yourself-for-no-good-reason thread has a long history in the
US. It's just that these days, access to advanced technologies has
expanded the possibilities for a do-it-yourselfer far beyond Popular
Mechanics projects of the '50s.
What can you tell us about the DIY folks who are attracted to your
DIY projects are of interest to anyone who has a heartbeat [but] I don't
think there have ever been very many people drawn to SRL. [Ed. note:
SRL shows attract thousands of fans, many of them obsessive...] The
typical reaction is "how horrid." Witness the fact that I've been doing
very public events for over thirty years and SRL is still very widely
unknown. Those that are attracted to SRL and show any commitment seem to
be people who have managed to connect to their inner nightmares.