Bright Lights Film Journal

Ai, Robot! Survival Research Laboratories: 10 Years of Robotic Mayhem on DVD

A Cruel and Rebellious Plot to Pervert the Minds of Viewers to Unholy Uses

One of the early lessons museum visitors learn, from parents, teachers, and underpaid guards, is: “Don’t touch the art!” The reasons for this vary from commercial considerations (imagine sticky fingers on a Rembrandt) to reinforcing middlebrow notions of quality and taste, but the result is typically a rigid respect, even reverence, for the “art object” that keeps the experience passive and bloodless. The only mainstream institutions that encourage “disrespecting” the art by interacting with it are children’s museums, which are also, significantly, popular with adults. It’s no surprise that “experiencing” art, as opposed to cringing before it, must be ghettoized in a children’s play space, as if too much engagement is a sign of immaturity.

Of course, some adults want more than giant sandboxes and lever-based zoology tests. Fortunately, the more extreme realms of performance art from the last quarter of the last century address this need, providing new and shocking aesthetic thrills. Founded in 1978 by Mark Pauline, San Francisco’s Survival Research Laboratories has been a leading force in this area. SRL creates complex tableaux vivant “starring” hand-created robotic forms and dead animal parts that enact ritualized melodramas of destruction. These dramas, a kind of mechanized Grand Guignol, usually end in an apocalyptic crash, with fur, flesh, metal, and fire exploding across the stage or the street. SRL’s work is visionary: their grafting of the organic with the mechanical paved the way for films like Robocop, Terminator, and The Matrix series, and phenomena like Junkyard Wars and Monster Garage that smear the lines between human beings and machines.

The group’s performances are the ultimate DIY creations, from the crude posters that recall punk rock’s hand-scrawled ads to the robots themselves, which can vary from small automatons with knives attached; to a 20-foot accusatory metal “finger”; to sinister anthropomorphic creations mixing metal and fur; to vast, creaking contraptions that slam through brick walls, incinerate other robots and objects with flamethrowers, or mow down anything in their path. Names like “Throwbot,” “Sprinkler from Hell,” “Rabot,” and “Mr. Satan” show the group’s sense of playfulness around these computer-controlled ‘bots. These creatures — they must be called that — have a maniacal quality but also quasi-human aspects that give a strange poignancy to their activities, a quality recognized in the black-comic titles of the pieces: Bitter Message of Hopeless Grief, A Scenic Harvest from the Kingdom of Pain, The Pleasures of Uninhibited Excess, and the hilarious The Delusions of Expediency: How to Avoid Responsibility for Social Disintegration by Acting Without Principle Under the Pretense of Utility. The titles are like inverted moral messages from the Victorian era, an idea borne out by the florid nihilism of the events themselves; they also satirically echo the inspirational sloganeering of communist societies, e.g., “Red” China’s “Strive to Complete and Surpass the Production Responsibility of 12 Million Tons of Steel!”

Bitter Message of Hopeless Grief (1988) is typical of their work in all respects except one: it’s a filmed, rather than public, event, shot at the SRL “lab.” Pauline and director Jon Reiss might have preceded the piece with a disclaimer: “No humans were harmed in the making of this piece,” something that can’t be said about their other works. The piece opens in a creepy cavern, with a shot of one of several “panimals,” this one a mechanically driven skeleton head that looks like a giant bird or perhaps buffalo. A kind of malevolent god figure, it furiously, relentlessly attacks a ragged rodent-like creature, smashing it into walls, running over it, but also dipping it into a mysterious pool that could signify drowning or, in the complex world on display, a more benevolent baptism. Like all SRL machines, this monster groans and creaks with the cries of distressed humanity, but it’s impossible not to also read the tormented rodent in the same way, as a metaphor for beleaguered humankind in a hopeless world. This work mocks the repeated rituals for which robots were originally designed, as they engage in more violent but equally wrenching variants on the myth of Sisyphus.

In Bitter Message, and indeed throughout the SRL world, these anthro-robots’ repeated smashing into walls and ripping through fabric that signifiies skin are efforts to break through the barriers that hide meaning from mankind. In Pauline and collaborator Mark Heckert’s self-described “fictional worlds,” a bastard technology has replaced humanity, but also longs for that state — Pinocchio’s desperate desire to be a boy. Doubles and doppelgangers abound, from the black bag of blood, disturbingly reminiscent of a crumpled person, run over by a spiked steamroller in The Virtues of Negative Fascination; to the three dead rabbits jolted into jumping abjectly before a huge flaming poster of Billy Graham in SRL Reveals: A Cruel and Rebellious Plot to Pervert the Flesh of Beasts to Unholy Uses, one of the group’s most pointed attacks on religion. The sheer brio of these pieces, with their heady violence, frightening Boschian imagery, and metaphors of anguish and futility, makes them both unsettling and hynotic.

SRL doesn’t travel much. As Pauline says, they’re “a laboratory … a research organization.” Plus the cost of transporting machinery and the complexities of dealing with local police and politicos are usually too daunting. But in the late 1980s, they toured Europe, an event chronicled in two short documentaries. One of them, The Will to Provoke: An Account of Fantastic Schemes for Initiating Social Improvement, shows the SRL gang in Amsterdam and Copenhagen, cultures that, Mark Pauline notes, controls people by “giving them everything they want.” His purpose here is to shake things up, to “bite the hand that feeds you.” And bite they do. Local culture and motifs are ruthlessly satirized in the breathtaking creations devised for a particularly ambitious street performance: a “fondue pit” that’s a liberated dumpster; an impressive Tower of Babel windmill made of brightly colored barrels; even a “meat mermaid” to parody the famous Little Mermaid that is Denmark’s national symbol. In this conceptually rich piece, played out at night on an Amsterdam street, flamethrowing machines rampage; a “sonic gun” based on a banned Mattel toy “shoots” at the audience (terrifying some onlookers); and giant robots dip each other in the fondue pit. The soundtrack, always of prime importance to SRL, is provided by blasting loops of haunted house-type screams and a tank that “runs on a xylophone.” While some audience members scatter, a bemused fireman called to douse the flames declares it “very interesting.”

This tour highlights the group’s inventive use of hard science and scavenging. These are intricate contraptions requiring complicated computer programming and meticulous physical refinement and testing. While they bring much of their material with them, the group also must appropriate all manner of junkyard techno-trash, the leavings of a world that relies intensively on its machines while abandoning them when they fail or become outmoded — another of the group’s metaphors for the human condition. “We sort of breathe these things in,” one SRL-er says with a laugh. Of course, turnabout’s fair play, and they complain later that the police “stole” their fog machine.

Also evident on this tour is SRL’s provoking, almost sadistic attitude toward its audience, as it challenges the safe and sanitized relationship of art and viewer. Assistant director Matt Heckert says with a laugh, “I moved over to the edge and started abusing the audience a little bit.” In Art Space, recording a public piece that takes place in San Francisco, Pauline echoes this sentiment when he talks about the desire to “manipulate audiences … trap them.” In one of their most combative pieces, audiences stand perilously on a moving catwalk while the aforementioned giant finger comes at them, backgrounded by what Pauline calls “a sickening vibration” that causes headaches and nosebleeds in onlookers. Encouraged to interact, some brave watchers hit the robots with a stick that’s then partially devoured; others scramble away. Told about “problems” with the piece, Pauline suggests that potential viewers “size us up … Don’t trust.” (Indeed, even Pauline couldn’t “trust” his creations; it’s well known that most of the fingers on his right hand were blown off in a 1982 accident. They’ve also gotten him into trouble with the law.) As always, here the local Fire Department arrives, called by a panicked audience member, but all ends well when a fireman declares that what’s happening is indeed “art.”

Survival Research Laboratories: 10 Years of Robotic Mayhem is an indispensable DVD that extensively samples the group’s work in formal performances, filmed versions, and documentaries about them. (Some of the major pieces are excerpted rather than shown in toto.) This one’s a no-brainer buy at $19.95. In addition to the aforementioned performance pieces and documentaries, the DVD contains director’s commentary, archival photos, interviews, biographies, and additional works by one of the most important groups in contemporary art.