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Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) is not actually a laboratory that researches how to survive, but is rather a hard-to-categorize performance art project that resembles a circus. The circus in question, however, does not entertain with elephants, tigers, or trapeze artists; here, the performers are all robots. Huge, smelly, grease-covered robots.
Since its inception in 1978, SRL’s founder Mark Pauline has worked with many collaborators, including established artists like Matt Heckert, Leslie Gladsjo, Kal Spelletich, Ken Goldberg, and a long list of welders, mechanics, tinkerers, and scientists. Under Pauline’s direction they stage large-scale sensational “machine art performances,” of which there have been over 55 to date.
Back in the early 1980s, when Pauline originally came to San Francisco, he discovered one could rent a whole warehouse for just $150. Seeing an opportunity, he settled into a space in the Mission district. SRL immediately began designing and producing machines that look like repurposed vehicles from Mad Max or liberated Mars Rovers. As the machines accumulated, the shows began.
Pauline first gained notoriety in 1987 when SRL appeared in Pranks!, a legendary book about subversive art. When the mainstream press covered his shows it was because they were getting shut down by the police for being too dangerous. Yet, despite his fame, until now, Pauline has never done an actual show in an actual art gallery. In many ways, his practice was just not compatible with the white walls of an art gallery. As a result, his career went literally in a different direction by taking his show on the road, setting up machine performances around the US and in Europe and, like a roaming circus, he would go to any town that would have him.
For the first time, these huge, nightmarish machines have been removed from circulation and are on display in Chelsea’s Marlborough Contemporary. Using a characteristically snarky title, SRL is calling it: Inconsiderate fantasies of negative acceleration characterized by sacrifices of a non-consensual nature. Historically their titles have been nonsense, intended to make fun of art-speak, and this one is no exception.
A crowd favorite, “Running Machine” (1992) is an attractive, six-legged beast built with welded steel and aluminum, and operated with a radio controller. It has a gas-powered hydrostatic drive that allows the heavy chain and gear system to function, which would burn out a less powerful motor. One of the challenges is to have the machine move on its own weight without breaking. It looks like one of the Boston Dynamics robots that famously resemble dogs or headless four legged automata. It also looks like it would be at home exploring the surface of Mars.
The centerpiece of the Marlborough show is the self-contained and very dangerous “Pitching Machine.” It’s powered by a 500 cubic-inch Cadillac engine, and only does one thing: it shoots two-by-four boards at 200 miles per hour into a chamber so the force and speed makes the boards explode. It’s kind of hard to describe, but think of a giant wood chipper powered by a car engine and it’s kind of like that.
Pauline told Hyperallergic that he planned his show at Marlborough by considering what was “the most extreme thing I could do inside that wouldn’t kill people,” while still maintaining “a balance between lethality and entertainment.” In other words, the circus is in town.
Other robots on display include the fully functioning “Spine Robot” (2012–2014), a rolling, radio-controlled metal chassis that supports an evil-looking snake-like arm with a claw at the end, resembling one appendage of Dr. Octopus.
With the machines at rest in the gallery, however, I can’t help but feel there’s something missing. Each was specifically made to perform in Pauline’s gladiator-style Situationist-inspired shows and by sitting motionless they seem just a little bit little like wild animals in a zoo. These things do have personalities and out in the world they shoot flames and rip each other apart and make a big mess — all for fun and for the spectacle of it all (Guy Debord would be proud). But here they sit in passive silence.
These machines are far more than just artifacts from a performance and they are certainly more than props. If you are lucky enough to be in New York City on February 10, SRL will be doing a closing show with the robots all out in the street, bringing them to life again and letting them doing their thing, one last time.
Survival Research Laboratories: Inconsiderate fantasies of negative acceleration characterized by sacrifices of a non-consensual nature continues at Marlborough Contemporary (545 West 25th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 10.