By Jon Roig
Arizona Daily Wildcat February 5, 1996
Stumbling around downtown Phoenix on the Saturday right before the Super Bowl was a surreal experience in itself. The city was alive with technology-fueled excitement. Giant video screens loomed over the sidewalks, bringing a 250-foot tall Kool & the Gang cover band to alcohol-crazed football fans. Meatloaf was to make an appearance later that evening, while across the street at the America West Arena, scalpers hawked floor tickets to the Rod Stewart show. Mariachi music boomed through the disturbingly clean industrial warehouse district of downtown.
Asking for directions to the Icehouse so we could see giant robots do battle didn't seem out of place and didn't even faze the cops doing traffic control.
It seemed almost natural that it should take place in Phoenix over Super Bowl weekend. In America, we love our sports and we love our machines. The lasting symbol of this country may not be the flag or national anthem - it's the automobile. And, while the tractor pull and the demolition derby take the concepts of ultimate power and endurance through machine might to the extreme, Survival Research Labs takes it one step further and puts an arty sci-fi spin on it to make it palatable to the crowd too hip to attend monster truck rallies. What could say "Made in the USA" better than a display of the pure technological power of machines doing battle with other machines?
Enter the world of Survival Research Labs. Founded by Mark Pauline in 1978, the organization has dedicated itself to bringing mechanized insanity to audiences around the world.
Unbelievably loud, and more than a little dangerous, SRL shows have become a celebrated phenomena in the techno-underground. Although Pauline claims nobody has been hurt at a show since 1981, but the disfigured hand of a drunk man who wandered into a restricted area and was hit by a flying rock stands as a testament to the inherent dangers of his art.
That's why several thousand people paid an admission price of $20 to experience an SRL show in person. Sure, you can see the videos - they give you some idea of what it might be like, but get to be grating after awhile. And, yes, Pauline's lectures provide fascinating insight into the fine art of funding over 50 shows where robots are the only actors and humans are only present as audience members or operators.
SRL makes it a point to get the audience involved by torture. The noise was so deafening that earplugs were mandatory and distributed before the show. Robots frequently careened into the audience, and some of us were lucky enough to be shot with a very large and very scary cannon.
But you have to be there to understand it.
"Once you've lived through one of our performances, survival takes on a whole new meaning," says Pauline.
And he's right. When I got shot with that giant propane cannon at very short range, my life took on whole new meaning. Plus, I almost wet my pants.
How do you explain a roller coaster ride to someone who's never encountered one? You go up, then you go down, then you turn ...
That just doesn't do it justice. Giant robots smash and burn each other. Flame throwers jet out over the audience. Sparks from a massive electrical device spray out over the battle scene, and a jet car speeds by, rattling your brain and spewing dust into the air.
When Pauline spoke in Tucson last year, he gave the impression that his organization would no longer be doing shows in the United States. Insurmountable fees for moving the tons of equipment from their base in San Francisco, high insurance rates, plus the general flak from past incidents has made it very difficult for SRL to take their act on the road.
Past incidents? There are many bizarre legends about shows of the past. There was the time when the entire country of Austria was put on alert when SRL fired up a V-8 engine with a long cable attached to it. The resulting supersonic roar could be heard in villages miles away and the country, already on a general alert because of the fighting in Bosnia, thought it was some kind of surprise bombing attack.
Or the time when SRL made the news when it took credit for a number of mock TNT charges found throughout San Francisco. Apparently, after a show there was over, the crowd went down to the resulting wreckage and some took home the plaster-filled devices as show souvenirs, then left them places at random.
That's the sort of wacky hijinks one comes to expect from Pauline and his crew of renegade engineers. There's nothing else like it.
"It was post-primitive," says Karen Nutaro, a junior here at the University of Arizona who made the trek to our sister city up north to see the show. "When you think of primitive, you think of cavemen dancing around the fire. We live in a technological age, so the closest we can get to primal behavior is stripping down the machines that run our world."
Any artistic statement made by "A Million Inconsiderate Experiments" was totally lost on me - for me, the sensory overload and pure exhilaration were what I came for. Maybe that's what the artistic statement was. All I know is, if wars were fought by artists, it would probably look and feel something like a SRL show.
Survival Research Labs has a website at http://srl.org/