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Survival Research Laboratories
(Seattle Show, 6/23/90)
by Luke McGuff

Jane and I took the bus to Third and Jackson, a deserted transfer point just northeast of the Kingdome. The Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) show was about a mile away, on the opposite side, at Brougham St. and Alaskan Way. As sunset began to pink the western sky, the Cascade mountains came out as silhouettes across Puget Sound, and the cranes of the docks stood out skeletal and stark against the mare's tail clouds in the sky. We held hands, swinging our arms and chatting as we strolled through the trash and bums of the warehouses and vacant lots.

We were still a block away when we saw the line for the show. Two young guys sat at the gate of an empty parking lot, sipping brewskis as they watched the crowd gather a couple blocks away. They asked us what was going on. There's a guy who builds giant robots out of abandoned machines, and then he makes them fight each other, Jane said. I don't know if I'd call it art, but it certainly looks neat. The person at COCA (Council on Contemporary Art, the major sponsors of the show) had told me that afternoon that plenty of tickets were still available, and she didn't think there was any danger of selling out. Apparently, a lot of people had held off buying advance tickets, then decided to go at the last minute. We joined the crowd.

The line inched forward. We shared a cigarette. I started to feel nervous: Survival Research Laboratories shows were infamous for the near-danger, the calculated risk. Mark Pauline, the mastermind of SRL, just brought the danger ten times nearer than anyone else. Pauline himself lost a couple fingers when he was making some explosives one time (he mentioned this in a "Re/Search" interview). Flame throwers, bazookas, machines the size of garbage trucks eating each other. Explosions, fire, clouds of smoke blanketing the crowd. Many of the people at the party the night before had quipped about the waiver against indemnification on the tickets they had bought in an edgy, aren't we nervy manner.

The line stood still for quite a while. Jane and I watched the other people and listened in: One guy had at least a dozen earrings in his right ear. Another guy close to us was talking about seeing Donny and Marie Osmond in 1971. After a while, we noticed a woman with a commanding presence at the front of the line. She spoke to the line briefly, and it dispersed. Working her way down to us, she said, We aren't selling any more tickets, we're sorry but it's too crowded in there. If you have tickets, we'll give you a refund. People scattered from the line.

Most people went back to their cars, but a good number began walking around. Maybe there'd be a place to get a good partial view, worth craning a neck to catch a glimpse. We saw some people up on Alaskan Way, a two-level state highway that was the western border of the area set up for the show. They were practically on top of the whole thing. By the time we got to where we might find a way to get up there, though, cops had already arrived to shoo them away. The cops stuck around to watch the show, of course.

The show was in a loading zone/railroad yard that had a couple tracks running through it. Alaskan Way was west of the set-up area, and the audience bleachers were to the east. Behind the audience bleachers was a warehouse. East of that warehouse was another parking lot, then a barbed wire fence, then the alley we walked through. People swarmed through the alley, climbing fences and standing on piles of scrap metal to get a view.

The title of the show said it was calculated to arouse resentment against the forces of order. With a come on like that, why not try to see it standing on a pile of scrap metal? It's not worth bitching at the poor soul who breaks the bad news. But it might be worth while trying to see what you can get. That's what Jane and I and a couple hundred other folks were doing.

One of the forces of order people got resentful of was the long wait: The gates opened at seven, and the show was scheduled to start at dusk. But SRL maybe hadn't realized that dusk at that time of the year in Seattle is after 10, which meant a lot of the people inside (what with arriving early to get a good seat) had been standing for more than four hours when the show finally started. (NB: we heard later from a friend inside that at the last minute a large group of people were let in in front of everyone else, blocking everyone's view).

We found a large group waiting by a gate at the south end of the lot, behind the work area where the SRL group had built the machines. The fence crossed over some tracks; a couple of railroad ties and a smashed and burned Vespa blocked people from crawling under. Look, that's from the dress rehearsal, I said. Sometime while we were in the alley, the pre-show tape had started blasting calliope music out of giant speaker columns.

Just stay here, and Moses will arrive to part the red seas, a guy with beer bottle caps in his dreadlocks said. There were humongous padlocks and chains on the fence, but the only thing that actually connected both gates was a frayed bit of yellow nylon cord.

What with the shifting of the crowd, people leaving as they got bored waiting, and so on, Jane and I pretty soon ended up against the fence, standing on the rails.

The only thing we could see in the staging area was a twenty-foot tall Medusa head, a look of fright on her face and her snakes coiling back in horror. Her mouth was curled in an o, which we found out later was a two-foot diameter gas turbine. Other things were hidden in frames made of 1x2s and plastic garbage bags. The scale was large, the frames looked to be twenty or thirty feet on a side. Mysterious and deadly? We also had a side-view of what looked like a candy-cane barberpole, with giant rotund, happy carnival boys climbing or riding it.

After a while, the crowd started getting a little restless. Everybody inside was standing, and most people had no better a view than we did. Between songs on the tape we heard shouts of do something! But we hadn't paid, so everything was gravy. The guy with the beer bottle cap dreadlocks was the worst of it, I almost wished they'd let him in just so we didn't have to hear him any more. Gay baiting, Hey Marcus, we wanna see you blow up some cows you faggot. This guy was a ditch-digger of cool. (Early SRL shows had used animals and their parts, but the SPCA had complained. Androids will picket him in 2021.)

The rinky-dink versions of American standards (Swannee River, Dixie) had creeped me out and made me feel tense at first. What an odd juxtaposition: Happy, bouncy innocent calliope music when you know the whole point of the show was to blow things up. It's like the way clowns are changing from entertainment for kids into serious creeps like John Wayne Gacy. Well, let's see what we can do to speed the process, shall we.

The only machine we could see looked like a paraplegic backhoe. Every now and then someone would crank it up, and it looked to us like it was trying to hop. Jane cheered it on, but it just bounced in place like it couldn't remember which leg to move first. We couldn't tell if someone was working on it or not. (A week later, Jane met someone in the Bay Area who told her that the problem had been that the computer programming hadn't worked; they were switching it back to radio control).

It got darker, the lights came on, the crowd started yelling more loudly between songs. There was a brief moment during which the light was all red from the sunset, and the orange streetlights had come on; everything glowed like it was on fire inside, and I could see the pattern of the chain link fence on Jane's face, like a stencil tan or a gray tattoo.

Finally the beast moved. For a second it was like the disjunction between dream and nightmare: We had imagined a rather silly, dumb looking hop. But the beast really moved by shoving its nose into the pavement and dragging itself along. Now it looked like a dinosaur. There was a guy with a radio control device telling it what to do, figuring out how to move it. Somewhere in that monster was a rewired Formula One racer, like the one I had seen bumping through the grass at Gasworks Park that afternoon. And I hope it was as happy as Stu, the guinea pig that once ran the hopping machine(another thing the SPCA complained about, although Pauline maintains that Stu got a real kick out of it all).

We noticed that a few people were on the roof of the warehouse mentioned earlier. We talked about trying to get up, but figured that maybe those couple people worked there. I thought, geeze, they should have invited all their friends, made it a cookout or something. We saw a couple more people appear, but then thought, well, the nose-walking tyrannosaur was getting close to the show, and we didn't want to risk a partial view for maybe missing everything while trying to get a better view. I had heard that SRL shows, when they finally goldang started, went quick.

A few more people appeared on the rooftop, nothing seemed to be happening in the show, so we decided to go for it. We scouted out the alley. Somebody sitting on a plank stretched between a corner of two fences told us how he had seen other people go through: they had pulled apart a sliding gate. Jane found the gap and I pulled it apart enough for her to go through. I pushed our backpacks through, and then she held it open for me. We decided to stash the packs, taking only wallets and keys with us. Hah! A couple of foresightful people. The idea was that we might need just that extra little bit of upper arm motion in order to make it. Another guy got his videocam onto the roof (thank God for Anvil cases). I got it all pretty good, he said on the way out, until my battery ran out. (Yo, contact me care of this paper).

To get to the roof, we climbed onto the loading dock. That part was easy: we used the stairs. There was a semi-trailer parked about halfway down. We climbed up on top using the lock, then wormed our way through the gap between the top of the trailer and the awning of the loading dock. As I climbed up the back of the truck, the carnival music was playing Oh Susanna at 110 decibels. There were enough people trying to get onto the roof by now that people ahead would reach back to give a hand, which we all did in turn. Nobody had to tell anyone anything. We all wanted to see the show so we all helped each other. Like a post-holocaust barn raising.

When I came out from the gap between the truck and the awning, the music had changed. It was now metal machine music, grinding howling feedback.

The way to get onto the warehouse roof from the top of the loading dock was to clamber onto a support strut and leap the last foot or so to catch the ledge. I got onto the roof, then helped Jane up, then we turned around and helped the next person. I was kind of clumsy, though, but she got onto the roof without breaking anything. It's nice to be thanked by someone for practically ripping her arms off.

The roof was at about second-story height, and gave us a perfect view of the whole set-up: the Medusa head, the candy cane barberpole, the mysterious covered objects. We could also see the audience and behind it, the snaking cables, the video control van, the sonic cannon that fired at the backs of the crowd. Even though we could see everything that was down there, I had a problem with resolving it, figuring out exactly what I was looking at. Things didn't look like what they were meant to be; in fact there might have been no meant to be involved. What I saw as a tyrannosaur might have appeared as something completely different to someone else. Jane and I had talked about the Medusa head for quite a while before I figured it out it wasn't Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns after all.

When we got to the edge of the roof facing the show, the nose-walking tyrannosaur was just entering the audience's view. I thought I heard some cheers, but the music was too loud to tell. At first the soundtrack sounded like the amplified sounds of the machines themselves, but I realized soon it was just another tape. Occasionally there were voices in the sounds, obscured past recognition, like windblown arguments half a block away (or in this environment, someone right next to you).

But really, it was too much of what you might expect. The bouncy calliope music when you know it's safe to be superior, hah hah, what an odd juxtaposition, we know what's coming next. Why not the metal machine music first, get the ears acquainted to the noise, then lay on the bouncy calliope music when the monsters eat each other. Or heckfire, Mozart string quartets. Someone standing in a cherry picker reading an article from Scientific American about wind-distribution of meltdown fallout like it was a love poem or a Hitler speech (I volunteer).

A couple of the other beasties were moving. Jane really liked the one that used a couple tiller wheels to move. It could move sideways, backwards, forwards, turn in its own radius. It skittered along like a trilobite on the ocean floor.

There was something primitive about the whole show, in fact. All the rusty equipment, the recycled cast-off or stolen aspect of it. SRL used to get a majority of the stuff for its shows by stealing it. I think they're a little too high profile to do that anymore, but I could be completely wrong about that. I heard a rumor that one of the more prominent pieces in the show, a golden calf, was stolen from a Bay Area restaurant.

On the other hand, there was all the radio control equipment, the video crew running around taping the show, the guy in the cherry picker directing the monsters. There was nothing primitive in the video control van. The guy in the cherry picker (Pauline?) wasn't using old equipment.

Half the show's staging area looked like rusty monsters, the other half like a rusty carnival. The nose-walking tyrannosaur monster went bobbing for apples in a vat of gasoline and came up with a head. The praying mantis flamethrower came along and incinerated the head. The tyrannosaur clicked its jaws in glee. The trilobite picked up a couple dozen balloons from a carnival object, then danced with the flamethrower until they were all gone. A few balloons popped loud as dynamite, but most just withered.

The twenty-foot tall Medusa head started rolling, and when its jet engine got cranked it made a thundering noise that was a wave of heat and a physical sensation all the way up on the roof. People close to it must have been pissing their pants. Jane said that the turbulence in the gas flow was making the sound, and that the first reaction of anybody using that on the job would be to hit the disconnect switch. Yeah! Let's pay a couple hours' wages and go stand in front of jet engines and dangerous machinery. Gads, it's great to be grown up and in love at the end of the world as we know it.

Things rolled back and forth, and some of the things occasionally chewed each other or spat flames. The giant tesla coil was really cool, it was directly in front of us and tall enough (two stories) to be at our eye level. That was our favorite. The arcs coming from it were so bright and unnatural looking that as Jane pointed out it almost looked like a scratch in the film. Another case of reality getting hyper enough to be a special effect (although I bet the waiting part got edited out of the video).

But through it all, something didn't connect for me. Even when the Medusa-head and another, wicker-covered flamethrower incinerated each other, there wasn't enough. I've read interviews of Pauline a few times, in Pranks, Industrial Culture, the first couple newsprint issues of Re/Search. There was a review of a New York show in SF EYE, and there are a whole crop of sci-fi writers who would love to be as dangerous in their nightmares as Pauline is on a sunny Sunday morning. But although there's a possibility I was just expecting too much, I also think there's a good chance the show was beset with technical difficulties that prevented it from coming to the climax it otherwise might have.

For example, the cricket machine didn't work: the idea was to spew crickets all over the audience, and after all the noise and hurly burly people would see their totem phobic insect (roaches, centipedes, spiders, etc) coming at them. Helas, the neck of the funnel turned into mashed cricket and it couldn't get going. We could see from the roof a guy frantically shoving a ramrod down the tube, knocking it to get the crickets loose. All he did was make it worse, I bet.

If there hadn't been the surrounding adventure, of trespassing and climbing onto the roof (there were at least a hundred people up there by the end of the show), I'd have been disappointed. Every now and then, we'd stop to look at our panoramic view of downtown Seattle, the buildings a glittering and brilliant wall; or the buses going by on Alaskan Way; or to make out; or to watch a ferry chugga-chugga across Puget Sound, its lights in the water like a toy on a black mirror. If I had been in the bleachers, someone taller than me would have blocked my view, or I would have felt so crowded I might as well have stayed home and waited for the video.

Frankly, once you've seen hydraulic monsters stalk and spit flame at each other five or six times, you've seen all there is to see. This is the problem of such a spectacle: You have to increase the noise and onslaught by geometric proportions just to maintain interest. We're addicted to spectacle by our passive absorption of intrusive media. Something apparently simpler but ultimately more challenging is really more dangerous; a writer like Jim Thompson at his best, for instance.

Jane, who had fewer preconceptions, felt an immense exhilaration at the gouting flames and explosions. Like seeing another kid get away with something forbidden. She knows enough about engineering to have a good idea what it took to make the machines act the way they did, and appreciated that in the same sense a painter might appreciate the brushstrokes on an otherwise failed canvas. There's also the improvisational nature of the whole spectacle to keep in mind: Nobody knows what's going to happen. Pauline says he liberates machines from their human-determined roles. Once the basic set-up is reached, and everything is turned on, no one really knows exactly what will happen next, or if it will remain in control. Pauline's done this often enough that he has a good idea, but he still doesn't know the way a symphony conductor might. A few different rolls of the dice, and the show might have gone far beyond my preconceptions with the very same set-up.

There was one last explosion, the announcer said thanks for coming, you're welcome to linger but don't get too close to the open flames. Somebody said it's eleven, like they were proving a point. The show had lasted exactly an hour. The people on the roof started streaming for the ledges, once again helping a few others get down before moving on.

Jane and I ran around to the front gate to see if we would run into anyone we knew. I left her by a flat bed truck to go further into the crowd. As soon as I saw someone else coming out with a pilfered souvenir, I went into the show looking for something to scavenge. I wrenched the painted bozo head, about the size of a highway exit sign, off the trilobite. Even though it had taken a direct hit from a flamethrower it wasn't blistered from the heat. It was covered with oil, but there was some handy toilet paper in one of my pockets. And yes, I even littered.

Then I noticed there were shreds of measuring tape all over the ground so I started gathering a bunch for a bouquet for Jane. (A guy walked past and said, Isn't six inches enough? and I said, Hey, my girlfriend's good at math!)

Getting home was almost as much of an adventure as the show itself, but one of those tedious too-long ones. The only thing I can say is that the next time SRL's in town, they should send one of those flamethrowing dinosaurs unannounced through F.X. McRory's (a downtown yuppie meet market). I'd pay to see that!

Photo: RE/Search Magazine

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