Survival Research Laboratories was created by Mark Pauline in November 1978. Mark was born in Sarasota Florida in 1953, one of four brothers. His father left the family at a young age, and his mother raised the family while holding down a full time job.
As a child Mark and his brothers explored the neighborhood, including the abandoned properties that littered Sarasota during the 60s. They also kept reptiles, and enjoyed fireworks and generally sought out playful mischief.
By high school Mark was working with his hands, fixing up motorcycles and other projects. During High School he was politically active, printing and distributing anti-war materials. He was also taking science and math classes, but his view of himself as a scientist morphed into a blue collar, machinist mindset. He was interested in arts, but wasn’t interested in living a life of poverty, intending to first make some money and then pursue creative outlets.
At 18, he began working with his hands in industry. His first job was working for a machine shop that was manufacturing 30 ton target robots for the F-111 for the Air Force than ran on railroad tracks, and was quickly promoted to foreman supervising people twice his age. He went on to working on semitrailers, welding pipes for an oil field and working at the Eglin Air Force Base. Discontent with these pursuits, he attended Eckerd College, a liberal art college in St. Petersburg, Florida, where Mark earned a degree in visual arts. While enrolled at Ecked he studied abroad in London for six months living in a squatter community near London’s Regent’s Park. During this period he discovered London’s punk scene.
Mark graduated from Eckerd in 1977, showing up for the graduation ceremony wearing “a shredded gown, a black g-string and cowboy boots, his hair pomaded with florescent pink grease”. He then did a short stint in lower Manhattan. During this post-graduation period he was invited to present an art project at the school’s gallery. For the project he altered a series of commercial billboards, and submitted photographs of these works for the show, which was promptly cancelled. John Law would later co-found the Billboard Liberation Front, and Mark and John would eventually become close friends.
At the age of 24, Mark moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, and continued his work of “creative vandalism” altering Billboards. He also took to hanging his own provocative posters across town, one series of which featured cats fornicating, with text that noted: "in the domesticated cat, as well as among the larger feline predators, the ‘neck bite’ during copulation is a common occurrence." The posters often included threats of retaliation if removed.
SRL is Born
In the late 70s and early 80s, San Francisco was full of abandoned buildings and ship yards. These were ripe for exploration and salvaging. Mark has noted that "at the time I was making a lot of money by breaking into abandoned factories and stealing brass and other kinds of scrap metal, and selling it. I’d go into these factories and see all this great industrial equipment, and I just started collecting it in large quantities and working with it.” At one point he found an abandoned brewery with pristine equipment (located at what is now the SF Costco). From there, and other abandoned manufacturing facilities, he was able to stock his workspace with useful obtainium. [Obtainium: noun Material obtained by an artist, usually without cost via aggressive scrounging.] He also began using the metal shop at the San Francisco Art Institute on the sly (he was never a student there). Between selling salvaged gear and taking well paying skilled welding jobs, Mark had resources to also pursue his dreams of mechanized destruction.
Mark also concluded that creating a company would allow him to get away with activities beyond what would be acceptable undertakings of an individual. Around this time Mark saw the name “Survival Research Laboratories” being used by a right-wing company selling modifications for riffles in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine, and co-opted the name for his own new entity, and SRL was born. A short time later, Boulevard Magazine, a free magazine, offered him a free full page ad, which he used to advertise SRL and seek volunteers; he quickly found himself surrounded by the “weird riff-raff of San Francisco”.
On Sunday, February 25, 1979, SRL debuted its first show, Machine Sex at Alex’s Service Station in North Beach (now the home of the North Beach Farmers Market), with the help of friends and some students from the SF Art Institute. The station was closed Sundays, and Mark had not sought permission to use the lot or the electricity powering his machine. The show consisted of a machine (pictured) with a conveyor belt that lead to an industrial fan covered with a Plexiglas dome. Anything conveyed into the spinning blades would be "de-manufactured" by the blades. The owner of the station soon arrived, was bribed $20, and watched the show along with the rest of the small crowd. Eight dead pigeons dressed in paper white Arab robes were placed on the conveyor belt, which lead them slowly to the blades. The blades macerated them (visible via the plastic dome), before shooting the remains into the crowd.
A short while later, Mark teamed with machine/sound artist Matt Heckert, along with Eric Werner, a collaboration that would last until the late 80s. Heckert would go on to form Mechanical Sound Orchestra.
In June 1982, Mark suffered an injury that severely deformed his hand. A friend of Mark’s, who was a PhD student at Stanford, found a pamphlet on how to make a test batch of rocket fuel. Mark purchased the listed ingredients and started to assemble the engines for the rockets. While tapping out a pin in one of the rockets it exploded, removing most of the fingers and flesh from his hand (doctors reattached one of the three lost fingers, and used two of his toes to stand in for the other lost digits). Mark is left-handed, which helped him return quickly to his work.
In November 1982 (delayed from July due to the accident), Mark staged a major show outside of Somarts art gallery in San Francisco. A Cruel and Relentless Plot to Pervert the Flesh of Beasts to Unholy Uses (see video insert), involved many mummified animals that SRL recovered from a city tunnel, which had a large ventilation fan that dried out and mummified animals that had expired in the tunnel. Pauline is interviewed about the show here. Mark had first seen dead animals re-animated into “organic robots” by industrial music pioneer Monte Cazzaza. In the Cruel and Relentless show, he featured his own organic robot, Piggley Wiggley: “Monte and I made him out of a pig’s carcass and a cow’s head we cut off; he had little pig’s feet, and a little arm that had parts in it, so he could paw out like a wounded animal. On the inside, he had a motor that would make him vibrate, so his head would shake back and forth real violently.” (Video insert features Piggley Wiggley in action)
SRL attendance jumped once it attracted the attention of Gary Warne and John Law, of the Suicide Club. Mark’s first meeting with John Law was memorable. In 1983, Mark received a call from Chris DeMonterrey, who told Mark that a friend had recently committed suicide with a machine gun [not true], and that he had a bucket of human skin he wanted Mark to store [true]. Chris and John Law, along with other Suicide Club members had recently explored an abandoned and about to be demolished mortuary science building on Cathedral Hill. There, Chris had discovered a five-gallon bucket containing a full set of human skin preserved in formaldehyde. Chris put the five gallon bucket in his apartments refrigerator, his roommates discovered it, and he promptly thrown out of his apartment. Law recommended Chris call Mark to store the skin, and Mark agreed. Seven years later Re/Search Magazine created the book Modern Primitives, now a classic on contemporary tattoo work, and held a book signing in San Francisco. Mark called several friends, who trimmed the skin and sewed it back to original condition. A well-known tribal tattoo artist agreed to tattoo the skin, and Mark had the skin mounted and put under Plexiglas and hung at the book signing. Eventually, the skin was lost to rats at SRL’s warehouse.
May 1989 show in San Francisco, "Illusions of Shameless Abundance Degenerating Into an Uninterrupted Sequence of Hostile Encounters" -- a typical SRL title -- lasted an hour and attracted a paid audience of 2,500, as well as 1,500 onlookers beyond a cyclone fence.
August 1990: Pat Buchanan's "Outrage of the Week." SRL poster that requested the donation of Bibles to be burned as part of the show and that suggested donors steal them from hotels or churches. The Bibles were to cover a "love goddess machine," like tiles on a space shuttle, and the goddess machine would be involved in fiery battles.
1997 Austin The SRL show in Austin, Texas featured a recreation of the University of Texas clock tower. In 1966, the tower was used by a gunman killed 15 and injured many more. In the show, a robot was mounted at the top of the tower, shooting fire at the crowd. The tower is reminiscent of the 1996 Helco Tower at Burning Man, both towers being built by Flynn Mauthe with pyrotechnics supplied by Kymric Smythe.
While many point to the social commentary they perceive in a SRL show, Mark has noted that “when you are dealing with the avalanche of technical crap [required for an SRL production] there’s not a lot of time for philosophical musings . . . most of the time [the message] is accidental.” Mark notes that much of his work has been ignored by the art world, but embraced by the science and “maker” world. Nonetheless, in January 2018, the prestigious Marlborough Gallery in Chelsea New York held a major exhibit featuring SRL, including eight machines and videos of past performances. The show was called Inconsiderate fantasies of negative acceleration characterized by sacrifices of a non-consensual nature. During the show, the gallery shut down a block of Manhattan, without any permits. Chris Hackett of the Madagascar Institute, manned one corner of the street, waving away traffic. When a police car attempted to gain entry, Hackett, dressed in a hard had and reflective vest waived them away sternly informing them “Sorry officers, streets closed for art construction.”[fn]
While still based in the SF Bay Area (Petaluma), it is virtually impossible for SRL to conduct any major show in the area due to conflict with the SF Fire Department (Read Banned in SF here). Mark and SRL remain active, with Mark frequently speaking about robotics and technology. SRL shows continue.
A detailed timeline of SRL events can be found here.
Other Notable Press
Bomb Magazine Interview with Mark and Bill Edmondson, July 1, 1983
Monster Robots Bash Paradise in Mock Battle, New York Times, May 17, 1988. Coverage of the The Misfortunes of Desire (Acted Out at an Imaginary Location Symbolizing Everything Worth Having) show
Is Phoenix Burning? - Wired Coverage of A Million Inconsiderate Experiments (by Bruce Sterling), July 1, 1996
Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century By Mark Dery, with a detailed discussion of SRL’s early work.