“I have no regrets.”
You've heard it before, this stock phrase, this stale mini-performance. With little effort you imagine it dribbling from the mouth of an unctuous politician, smiling through his concession speech: “I have no regrets.” Picture it as a gray smog of language exhaled by the disgraced sports star unmasked as just another cheater: “I have no regrets.” Or mouthed by the reality TV “personality” perched comfortably in her faux-confessional, in a last defiant sound bite before being escorted from the island: “I have no regrets.”
Of a suspicious cast of mind and having lived a little yourself, you look skeptically on “no regrets.” It’s a claim of having chosen just this life and lived it through. I yam what I yam and tha's all what I yam, it says, an incantation against introspection. In a particularly cynical mood, you might opine that two kinds of people claim to have no regrets: liars, and people who ought to know better – those fortunate souls blessedly untroubled with self-awareness.
What kind of machine is Mark Pauline?
So then the man before you, standing in his olive green t-shirt, looking out from behind a pair of silver browline glasses, with his gray flattop haircut as level and sure as the deck of an aircraft carrier, his mangled right hand tucked into the pocket of his black shorts — he says he has no regrets. He is 58 years old and he has no regrets. He says this with easy conviction, seeking to persuade neither you nor himself. This is how he talks: in declarations, statements of fact. His voice rarely rises in frustration, even with cause. He speaks with the confidence of distance, having taken his own mental temperature and found it very cool, indeed. No regrets.
This is Mark Pauline, and for 34 of his 58 years he’s built robots. They are not practical robots, not servile room-sweepers or toadying floor-moppers, but multi-ton monstrosities, feral machines of metal and fire birthed from his idiosyncratic imagination. Everywhere he looks he sees machines yoked to the banal — a jet engine, a backhoe, a pair of industrial movers — everyday technologies bored by their routines. He sees their potential, then sets to liberating it; he digs deep into the machines to discover what they really want to be. Five pulsejet engines become a pillar of fire called the Flame Hurricane. A backhoe finds new purpose as the lurching, squeezing Big Arm. A mass of cable and tubing becomes the Hand-O-God, a great and terrible metal hand whose wrath strikes with eight tons of force. “I build machines that have a lot of character,” he says, “These machines, hopefully, have enough character so they can be used as actors in performances, and I stage public performances with these machines.”
The performances are Hobbesian spectacles, wars of machine against machine. At eardrum-threatening volume they lurch and crush, grind and stab, launch projectiles and spew fire. What begins as choreographed quickly becomes chaotic, a primal combat at the edge of control. Audience members sometimes become involuntary participants. There is shattered glass and rent metal. There are smoking craters. There are ruins.
The operatic scale and pyrotechnic intensity invites comparisons to Dante, Bosch, Cronenberg, Grand Guignol, Gotterdammerung, and Mad Max. “It's as if several junkyards' worth of our refuse had risen up to let out an immense collective scream,” wrote The Boston Globe’s Leighton Klein. With titles such as “An Explosion of Ungovernable Rage” and “Ghostly Scenes of Infernal Desecration” and “Further Explorations in Lethal Experimentation” and “A Calculated Forecast of Ultimate Doom: Sickening Episodes of Widespread Devastation Accompanied by Sensations of Pleasurable Excitement,” the shows — over 50 thus far, from San Francisco to Copenhagen to Tokyo — don’t so much confront audiences as assault them. The machines deliver a message: despite your safety, there are indeed things in this world that can kill you.
He is 58 years old and he has no regrets
This is Survival Research Laboratories, purveyors of “Dangerous and Disturbing Mechanical Productions Since 1979.” It is Mark Pauline’s life’s work. When he stands in his workshop — an outwardly unremarkable building in intently picturesque Petaluma, California, the city immortalized in American Graffiti — and says he has no regrets, he’s surrounded by what his years have wrought: literally tons of machinery, much of it industrial-scale and innately menacing. There’s the six-legged Running Machine, the forever-conjoined Dual Mules, and the newest addition, the Doctor-Octopus-like Spine Robot. There are tools and parts and machines for making machines; there’s even a building he calls the Old Folks’ Home, where retired projects slumber.
Behind the metal and the grease and the gasoline lies Mark Pauline’s greatest project: his own life. Like any machine, a man has in him a calculable number of productive hours; the span of a life is variable but always finite. You can choose how to spend that time — or the choice can be made for you. With this understanding Mark Pauline created Survival Research Laboratories, because he could not do otherwise. With his hands and his brain, he applied himself to his own life as he would have any other intractable problem. He bent it to his will, creating his own survival machine. Of the decades of 16-hour days fighting damnedly impractical machines, of battles with local authorities over fire safety and with his landlords over rent, of the constant scramble for funds and a space in which to produce his work — those 20 or 30 or 40 fleeting minutes — he says, “It seems like the only way, but it doesn’t make much sense. For someone looking for a good time, I don’t recommend it.”
It is not fun, what he does. Mark Pauline is fighting a war — an all-consuming, unrelenting war on the mundane, pursued through the creation of machines of vast and terrifying power. It is a war of his choosing, conducted on his terms, not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world.
Or maybe not.
Poster for "Extremely Cruel Practices." Los Angeles, CA 1985.
“I think it’s important that there are professional people working to inject a sense of anarchy into our lives.”
Maybe it’s not a war. “I consider myself sort of a comedian,” he says, “On the darker side maybe, but a comedian nevertheless.” And maybe it’s more like a decades-long prank, one executed with an unfathomable degree of meticulousness and precision, the uncompromising pointlessness of it revealing the banality of most everything with a “point,” i.e. large swathes of everyday experience. Thirty years of slapstick comedy enacted by flame-throwing, metal-crushing, window-shattering machines. A prank so carefully constructed as to become, finally, “art.”
“I think it’s important that there are professional people working to inject a sense of anarchy into our day-to-day lives,” he says, “I think it’s more important than it used to be.” And he might also be saying — showing — something like this: there are fewer open spaces than ever in which to forge a life on one’s own terms. The world is closing down, becoming safer, more corporate. It’s harder now, but it’s never been easy, because the forces of the status quo have always been powerful, and because the benefits of signing up and toeing the line remain so seductive.
Refusing the easy option: this is how a man can stand in his workshop, surrounded by the creations of his past and the materials of his future, at 58 years old, at an age when others might be slowing down, taking stock, tallying an account — this man can stand and say that he has no regrets. He has constructed his own framework in which to live, honestly and outside the law.
“Machine Sex is a bore.”
You wonder how he’s done it. You want particulars. A guide, even.
The first SRL show opened Sunday, February 25, 1979, at Alex’s Service Station in North Beach, California. Pauline didn’t bother asking permission from eponymous Alex, or from anyone. Having found a gas station with accessible power outlets, one closed on Sundays, he set to work. He’d put up posters and invited friends. A crowd of about 30 gathered as he unloaded the De-Manufacturing Machine, the first SRL creation; he’d liberated its components from a brewery, suturing a conveyor belt to a high-speed fan topped with a Plexiglas bubble. Anything conveyed into the spinning blades would be “de-manufactured” to pieces, briefly whirling up and around the transparent dome before falling back to earth. The remnants collected on a platform below before being ejected violently out of the machine.
As Pauline assembled his performance, the station’s proprietor arrived. He asked just what the stranger with the machine thought he was doing, and what was the meaning of these dead pigeons? Why, the trespasser was putting on a show. “I said, ‘Look, here’s twenty bucks, you should just watch it. It’ll be really cool and you’ll really enjoy it.’ So he went into the audience and just watched.”
It was called Machine Sex, a title Pauline owed to his then-girlfriend. Frustrated that he spent too much time working on his machines and not enough with her, she postered the town with signs saying, “Machine sex is a bore.” Pauline liked the phrase and appropriated it — just as he'd taken the name Survival Research Laboratories from a dubious ad in Soldier of Fortune, the right-wing mercenary magazine.
With the owner turned spectator, the show began. Tinny PA speakers played a slowed down, tape-distorted version of The Cure’s “Killing an Arab” at an uncomfortable volume. The De-Manufacturing Machine spun to life. One by one, eight dead pigeons journeyed down the conveyor belt. Pauline had killed them himself, using his slingshot in an abandoned warehouse; he’d also dressed them in Arab doll costumes. It was 1979, and in the American imagination the traditional white robes evoked the Shah of Iran, OPEC, and the energy crisis. The octet of dead, costumed poultry proceeded into the blades, transmogrified into a pulp of flesh, blood, and cloth that the De-Manufacturing Machine then spat at the audience.
When it finished, Pauline ignited a birthday-cake sized column of black snake fireworks — thousands of the little black pellets you see children playing with around the Fourth of July, squealing as the ashy “snakes” uncoil out of smoke and fire. Pauline’s mega-pellet birthed a nest of sooty vipers six feet across. “And there was a wind blowing, and it just blew away,” he says. “That was the end of it. Then the guy who owned the gas station just walked away. We loaded everything up and left. There were no repercussions, nobody tried to beat me up, no police. And that was the first show.”
A single unique moment, then ashes in the wind.
A single unique moment, then ashes in the wind
Poster for "Machine Sex." San Francisco, CA. February 1979.
The De-Manufacturing Machine, 1979.
“In Florida we call it fraud, not art, and we put them in jail.”
“When I grew up I wanted to be a terrorist.”
You could search farther back. Examine origins.
Born in 1953 in the deceptively prosperous afterglow of World War II, Pauline grew up in conservative Sarasota, Florida. His father, Rick, had a history of run-ins with the law, from assault to operating a house of prostitution. When Pauline was three his father abandoned the family, leaving his mother to raise four sons. They weren’t rich, and she worked a lot, leaving the boys a freer-than-average rein.
The real estate boom-and-bust a generation earlier left them acres of exotic and abandoned buildings to explore. They had a garage full of pets, snakes and iguanas and turtles, and they bred hamsters to sell to the pet store; they’d steal baby birds from their nests and try to raise them, too. Sometimes they’d see how many birds they could shoot in a day. Or build homemade M-80s with black powder and scavenged cardboard tubes, then go looking for something to blow up. He grew up with monster movies and demolition derbies.
When he was ten, Pauline and a friend used a propane torch to melt the impact-resistant plastic of a gumball machine. After several hours of chasing, the cops finally nabbed the two — one of the few times Pauline would actually be caught breaking the law. The whole performance left his mother less angry than perplexed. What kind of 10-year-old uses a propane torch to steal gum?
By junior high he’d joined the Fuckers Island Gang, a cadre of fellow delinquents who terrorized the neighborhood, breaking windows and getting into fights. Just a notch above standard adolescent shit-stirring, sure, but along the way Pauline started thinking more about his place in the world. Or more precisely, the place the world wanted him to occupy. Catholic grade school left him seeing religion as a lie, a system of control. Angry at both the lie and his own willingness to believe it, he started noticing other systems of control. Vast, invisible machines presuming to tell him how to live. His destructiveness became a form of monkeywrenching, the beginning of a long-running, low-intensity war against the status quo.
He didn’t know what his politics were yet, but he knew what they weren’t: that hippie-dippy, flowers-in-your-hair being that put a psychedelic spin on the same old apathy. Within his circle of friends, the talk went that the CIA had unleashed LSD on the U.S. of A. to sap any true revolutionary will among his generation, turning it into something weak and lazy. He’d done his drugs, but realized tuning out just meant leaving the levers of society to the next batch of fortunate sons. The real victory was to tune in, work harder, act as though you were already outside it all.
He later had another group of friends, a kind of of 1960’s Trenchcoat Mafia of self-described misfits and weirdos who took pleasure in antagonizing their conservative peers. They favored punk over psychedelia, the leather-clad look of motorcycle gangs over the tie-dyed fantasia then coalescing in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury. They shared a dark outlook on life. “We all figured we were gonna die,” he says, “We just figured what the heck. We had a lot of fun, though. It was a very gloomy, harsh set of assumptions.” (This could be the first axiom in the Book of Mark Pauline: Assume death. What follows?)
The gloomy worldview and wish for ruins augured his future in Survival Research Labs. It also reflected the zeitgeist, particularly the seductive idea then in the air that revolutionary violence truly could move the world. In the late 1960's, after all, radical leftist guerrillas such as the Weather Underground and the Baader-Meinhof Gang began symbolically detonating government buildings and, in the latter case, conducting assassinations. They were staging provocations. They wanted to bring the walls down. And they got attention. He liked that. “When I grew up I wanted to be a terrorist. When I was a teenager, that’s what I wanted to do. That’s what was going on back in the sixties,” he says, “I wanted to blow up buildings, all that stuff.”
Meanwhile, he was making machines. Throughout high school he built motorcycles, stripping them down, increasing their power, crashing them — and then starting over again. He learned how to build things, how to work with his hands, how to read a blueprint.
After graduation he worked in machine shops, learning from the old hands. He got a job as a subcontractor at Eglin Air Force Base maintaining target robots. As fascinating as he found the technical challenges, the telos of the machines gnawed at him. “It’s so cool that I’m building this thing that weighs 30 tons and goes down the railroad tracks and someone’s going to shoot at it,” he began to think, “but ultimately people are killing people with it. That’s the purpose of it. The purpose is to exterminate people with it.” He didn’t believe the story he kept hearing, the story that technology represented an unalloyed good. Beneath that surface he heard another story: “Someone’s just making a bunch of money off my work. And they’re exploiting me and they’re exploiting all these other people.”
Dropping out of the corpocracy and the military-industrial complex sent him to art school: Eckerd College, in St. Petersburg, Florida. He’d always liked school, always thought of himself as a creative person. But he hated the stereotype of the starving artist, the effete creature always needing a handout. He’d met one of those in high school. The man asked him what he’d do when he left school. Pauline replied that he’d go out and learn a trade, learn to make money, then come back and be an artist. “And he looked and me and he goes, ‘You know, you’re gonna get a job and you’re never gonna do any art again in your life,’” he says, “And I said, ‘You know what? You’re gonna be an artist and you’re never gonna have any money and you’re never gonna be able to do your art.’”
Art (whatever that was) mattered, but so did money. So did working. He saw a lot of artists talking about their work, but they never seemed to do much of it. “I always imagined myself as more working class,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a helpless artist, but I wanted to be an artistic person, a creative person. I decided I needed to learn how to do things to make money.” He’d done that: he could do freelance welding and live cheaply off the income. At Eckerd he made detailed line-drawings and lithographs; he was probably the best draftsman in his class. But that kind of work wound up in quiet, white-walled galleries. It went home with rich collectors and served as decoration. He wanted something more intense.
Excerpts from SRL leaflets. These were originally wrapped around bombs and launched 100 feet into the air via catapult, exploding over the audience.
Ad in "Boulevards Magazine", November 1979.
Eckerd gave him the opportunity to study abroad, which he did, spending half a year in a squatter community near London’s Regent’s Park. It was 1976, and Pauline saw punk icons the New York Dolls and John Cale pass through. His schoolmates included Arto Lindsay, who with Robin Crutchfield later formed the No Wave band DNA, and Gordon Stevenson, bass player for Lydia Lunch’s band, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. The Florida college had become fertile ground for an anti-establishment, aesthetically experimental group of musicians. “We just didn’t know what to call it,” Pauline says, “We were just weirdos.”
But he took more inspiration from movies and literature than from music. In London he’d spend hours a day watching experimental films. He became a fan of JG Ballard and William S. Burroughs. And if he liked the music of his fellow weirdos but didn’t see the point, he was even more blasé about his visual-art contemporaries. It was all too cute; again, too hippie-dippy. “I was into the more into the extreme variants of the Surrealists and the Dadaists and the Situationists” — artists as revolutionary pranksters, he says. “Those were the people who were really influential artists.”
He graduated in 1977, despite showing up for the commencement ceremony in a shredded gown and cowboy boots, wearing a black g-string and with his hair slicked back with fluorescent pink grease. Invited by his professor to stage a post-graduation show, Pauline described his project: defacing local billboards (“I just wanted to look at billboards that I thought were about more than face value, and fill in the blanks”), documenting the results, and displaying them in a gallery. The professor’s wife suggested that would be illegal. Pauline didn’t get his show.
SRL billboard modification experiment.
Instead he moved to San Francisco. He chose it over New York City in part because, as he puts it, “in San Francisco, the only reason you’d do art is if you were a loser.” SF meant less competition, more camaraderie, and a growing and influential punk scene. And as Pauline came to realize, the city had acres of abandoned machinery, the heavy metal flotsam of post-war deindustrialization.
And he brought his billboard liberation project with him. In one, Telly Savalas hawking Black Velvet whiskey sprouted a third eye and a gaping mouth of misshapen teeth, his words morphing from “Feel the Velvet, baby” to “Feel the pain, baby.” A billboard for frozen pizza became an image of Pauline’s own severed head beside the caption, “Dead.” He postered banks with large pictures of coupling cats, informing viewers that “in the domesticated cat, as well as among the larger feline predators, the ‘neck bite’ during copulation is a common occurrence.” He often included threats of retaliation if authorities removed his work.
The billboards felt to him like a beginning, but they didn’t draw on all his talents. They got attention, sure, with provocative if oblique satire, but they were only images. Pauline wanted something more. “What going to college taught me was what a great idea it was not to have a regular job,” he says, “That was the most important thing I learned: that you don’t have to go to work every day to live.” He didn’t want just a series of diversions. He wanted something to order his works and days. He wanted a way to live.
He wanted a long-term project combining his interests in theater and technology, something that would keep his attention and not tempt him into repeating himself like he’d seen other artists do. It would be something deeply impractical, something that would never involve an actual product — nothing that could be commodified by the art world. No one would ever make money from it, including himself. He wanted something truly original. “That's the holy grail of the art world: that you can do something that no one else has ever done before,” he says. “That’s what all the artists fantasize about. Good ones, bad ones. They all want to be the one who thought up something new and did it. The game of it was to see if I could do that.”
After several weeks of sitting and thinking in the dim corners of SF’s coffee shops, he had his plan. He knew the thing he could spend his life doing. He’d form a corporation. He even had a name for it, stolen from the kind of conservative right-wingers he’d loved to torment in Sarasota. He called it Survival Research Laboratories.
“You have to bite the hand that feeds you.”
In SRL, Mark Pauline had constructed his own possibility engine. It gave him a structure, but one infinitely expandable. He would simply work with whatever was cutting edge and potentially entertaining. And forming a corporation put him on equal footing, conceptually, with the institutions he wanted to critique. (It turns out people will pay you an entirely different kind of attention once you have official letterhead.) Being a company also diffused responsibility, muddied the fact that SRL was a solitary guy obsessively remaking cast-off industrial technology.
After Machine Sex, his shows grew in complexity. He added more machines: a guitar-playing cat, a stabber, miscellaneous projectile-launchers and noisemakers. He commandeered parking lots. And he gathered volunteers. In the early 80s, he was joined by Eric Werner and Matt Heckert.
Heckert built the Chain Thing, Centaur, and the Tank with Horsehead. He also wanted to create soundtracks that gave each machine a voice. But quite often his work was drowned out by explosions. His desire for a more controlled environment led to the group’s only non-performance film, A Bitter Message of Hopeless Grief, directed by longtime SRL videographer Jon Reiss. Heckert later founded the Machine Sound Orchestra.
Heckert was in the workshop in 1982 for what would become a crucial element of the Survival Research Labs mythos: The Birth of the Gimp Hand. Pauline had decided that for his next project he needed the kind of thrust only solid rocket fuel could provide. So through unnamed means he obtained a manual from Morton-Thiokol, the NASA contractor and rocket fuel pioneer. “And it was the real thing,” he says, “real Space Shuttle fuel, like the chemicals you need, how to test it, how to test the sensitivity. I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool.’”
Government contractors have large, specialized labs in which to test rocket fuel. Pauline had his workshop in a burned-out section of San Francisco. But he went ahead: “I made the rocket motors; I cooked them for three days at about 160 degrees, right under the temperature where they just explode spontaneously — I did it outside.” When the cooking finished, he realized the fuel was stuck in its ceramic container. He began tapping it with a hammer —
The resulting explosion launched him into the air and blew off most of his clothes. He lay on his back with blood streaming down his face, obscuring his vision. “And then I looked at my hand and it was just bones. I couldn’t see because my face was covered with blood. I almost died,” he says, “I almost got killed from the resulting chaos — but I didn’t.” Heckert ran over to help, found the pile of meat that had previously been Pauline’s hand, and got him to the hospital.
Big Arm at the "A Calculated Forecast of Ultimate Doom" show, 1994.
Inchworm and Kevin Bikert's Flame Tornado at the "A Calculated Forecast of Ultimate Doom" show, 1994.
Doctors saved his life. They even made him a deal. Working on a new kind of microsurgery, they needed a patient who’d diligently participate in rehabilitation. Pauline agreed, and they put a flap of skin harvested from his back over the hand, which was then just a stump with a middle finger. Five or six months later, the surgeons removed two of his toes and attached them to his stump. Like many SRL machines, the result is functional if not pretty.
The Gimp Hand is the kind of found symbol irresistible to writers. That it was the right hand blown off, the hand long associated with rationality. That it lent him an even greater mad-scientist aura, the gnarled mass of flesh a permanently installed SRL project, the two incongruous toes a perfect example of “obtainium” — that all-purpose material defined in Paulinian parlance as, roughly, “that which you can obtain, by whatever means necessary.” Or that after the blast it was his middle finger that remained, the “fuck you” that not even a rocket fuel explosion could erase. Perhaps the most evocative interpretation came from an anonymous, near-literate correspondent who wrote to him after a show in Seattle. Typewritten, it began, “This man left his right hand in hell.” The quote was attributed to the Pope.
For Pauline, the incident revealed a blind spot. "When I examined the situation,” he told The New York Times in 1988, “I realized I was just another white male who had lived a life of privilege. Nothing bad had ever happened to me, and I'd gotten a sense of hubris. It becomes destructive when you think you can do anything and get away with it."
By 2000, watered down versions began appearing on television, with names like BattleBots and Robot Wars
Today he says, “I did learn one thing from that experience: I learned that there’s really dangerous things, and things that are really, really dangerous — and I’m not the kind of person that can do the really, really dangerous things. I can only do the really dangerous things and still be safe to myself and others. So far I’ve been able to do the really dangerous things, but not the other stuff.”
But perhaps the most important point is that de-manufacturing his hand didn’t stop him. It was another addition to the world’s annoyances or, at best, a marginally interesting experimental result. It taught him something about himself and thus had its own value. And who knew — maybe one day he’d have it replaced with a genuine robotic hand.
His determination and increasingly grandiose shows earned him a reputation among artists and writers. Andy Warhol was a fan, with reservations. “He came up to me after the show and said, ‘I really liked your show, but it scared me.’ And his hand felt like wet spaghetti. He was always really friendly,” Pauline says.
William Gibson described both the essentially adolescent nature of SRL’s work and the obsessive drive behind it. "Pauline's art feels to me like an extension of screwing around with dangerous things in your backyard when you're sixteen, loading empty CO2 cartridges with the heads of kitchen matches… I like that,” he said in an interview. Mona Lisa Overdrive included a Pauline stand-in: Slick Henry, an ex-convict artist building machines in an abandoned toxic wasteland called the Dog Solitude. He built machines with names like the Witch, the Corpsegrinder, the Investigators and the Judge. “Slick Henry hated the Judge. That was what the art people never understood,” Gibson wrote, “That didn’t mean it didn’t give him pleasure to have built the thing, to have gotten the Judge out, out where he could see him and keep track of him and finally, sort of, be free of the idea of him, but that sure wasn’t the same as liking him.”
William T. Vollmann, famous for chronicling SF’s underbelly, called SRL the Indigo Engineers because “they operate in the Beyond.” In his journalism-fiction (the line always blurs with Vollmann), he asks Pauline whether one can escape becoming the kind of violent, grubbing automata programmed only for Survival. He asks, "Do you have any recipe for a life that would avoid what those machines represent?"
"Well, I don't think there's any way to really avoid the bad things in the world,” the Pauline-character replies. “What you can do is, you can either choose to mete those sorta horrible things out to yourself, or you can have someone else do them to you. You can control your fate as it relates to the limited possibilities of people on earth, or you can let someone else control it. I just chose to be able to control it myself. And towards that end I had to come up with this system. That's the only way that my life would be worth living, enclosed by that world. Punishment is never so bad when you mete it out to yourself. When you let other people do it to you, then you lose your pride."
He’d followed that belief, meting out his own punishment. It attracted attention. The work inspired others, who came to learn at SRL. Often they left to do their own work, as Heckert had with Machine Sound Orchestra. Others spun off into groups such as Robochrist Industries, People Hater, and Seemen. Pauline took some glee in referring to the projects as “franchises.” By 2000, watered-down versions began appearing on television, with names like BattleBots and Robot Wars. Pauline even met with World Wrestling Federation impresario Vince McMahon and the president of the Sci Fi Channel about a series of televised SRL shows called RoboDeath.
The Screw Machine in San Jose, 2007. Photo by Lilia Ahner.
He also gained a less-positive kind of attention. Years earlier, at the beginning of his career, he’d told RE/Search magazine, “You have to know that society’s not really your enemy but your friend — it just wants to play really rough. And, you have to know how rough society wants to play, because if you play too rough, the game’s over — you’re out.” He’d spent years playing rough, particularly with the San Francisco Fire Department, which took umbrage at his improvised pyrotechnics. He’d gotten away with it for decades, but you don’t have to be Cool Hand Luke to know that if you spend your life poking The Man in the eye, eventually The Man pokes back.
The SFFD cracked down, making it nearly impossible to stage a show in his home city. “I’m really banned from San Francisco,” he says. (Add that to the list: Seattle, Phoenix, Austin, Japan, Spain.) And the fire department actively thwarted other shows by contacting authorities in other potential host cities. The SRL workshop took flak for what seemed to Pauline like trivial infractions: not having a forklift driver’s license or storing lubricating oil on the premises. The SFFD threatened a lawsuit. Finally, the building’s owners decided they’d had enough. They tripled the rent, forcing Pauline to take his work elsewhere.
So in 2008 he packed up 160 tons of his life and began the move north to Petaluma.
Portrait of the machine-artist as an older man
Remember that he has never recommended this life to anyone. But he couldn’t have chosen otherwise. In a Wired profile, Bruce Sterling wrote, “Mark Pauline is a creative force first, a human being second, and a nice guy at a very distant tenth.” As he admits (and Sterling emphasizes), he’s essentially driven by hate. A hatred of the practical, of the world bending to such practically. Of the world as it is, then.
Of course, hatred can be productive. “There are so many people who do nothing in this world,” says writer and publisher V.Vale, whose Search and Destroy zine chronicled SF’s early punk scene; he also attended Machine Sex. “So when you’re lucky enough to meet somebody like Mark Pauline,” he says, “and they actually do something, you’re just amazed.”
His new workshop is just off the main drag, a beige building with the red letters “SRL” hung high on the side. He still puts in the 16-hour days, still does things his way. Longtime collaborator Karen Marcelo compares him to the industrial alloy Stellite: “Hard but somewhat brittle, with good wear resistance. What’s different about Mark than other artists is he's self-sufficient. He doesn't rely on patrons or donations — I don’t think I've ever seen Mark beg for money.”
He’s been talking about the art world lately. The De-Manufacturing Machine appeared last year in Under The Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981, a large show at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. That gave Pauline and his friends the opportunity de-manufacture some animal-robot hybrids — a singing Billy Bass with real fish skin, a grocery-store chicken that cries and waves its arms like a baby. (Anne Hathaway showed up.) The event made him think about getting some machines in museums. He could sell off some of the old projects, getting some money and making room for new work.
He’s never been good at that, though, the art-world schmoozing, the trivial insincerities. “There’s some kind of secret code you have to break,” he says, “I always get the feeling there’s like a secret handshake. When you meet these in-people, there’s something you’re supposed to do. I never know what it is. I’ve never known what it is.” That’s the art world as he sees it: a series of codes and interactions, ultimately leading to money changing hands. Money is fuel, fuel you burn to do the next thing. And if you can obtain it — liberate it — you can put it to enlightened use. But it’s so often in the hands of the moneyed people, the people who will waste your life.
He’s remained outside that system, as opposed to it as he was at the very beginning. Not that it ever really sought to embrace him. “The art world was much more codified and conservative back then,” says Jon Reiss, who shot video of SRL’s early shows. “Mark was kind of anathema to them, whereas someone doing that kind of stuff now would be much more readily embraced. But not then. I think SRL broke a lot of ground in that regard. I don't think Mark and the people who worked with SRL have gotten enough credit for that. And they should."
"I think part of it is that Mark doesn't give a fuck. And hasn't for a long time." he adds, "I'd be curious whether he really still doesn't care."
Money is fuel, fuel you burn to do the next thing
He has little reason to care. He’s married now, with a son. He may not be quite what he once aimed for — as he put it, an artist with a CEO’s salary — but he’s got much of what he needs. He strips companies of their old or surplus technology and resells it; that funds his real work with SRL. In August he put a show on eBay: for $149,000.00 (plus proper permitting and a viable site with adequate electrical power), Survival Research Labs will bring its mechanized mayhem to your city. Thanks in part to some positive media coverage, he’s had over 7,000 views, but no one’s yet taken him up on the offer. “I just thought it would be fun. It was something I’d always wanted to do. Good for laugh. That’s why I usually do things. That’s my main motivation — I might get a laugh out of it somewhere down the line.”
Down the line. Some time in the future, where Mark Pauline has always focused. “I’m 58 and I have no regrets. Yet. I figured that my chances of having regrets are diminished because I’ve made it this far. The percentages look good.” He doesn’t look back much. “At this point I don’t really spend much time thinking about the past,” he says, “I haven’t gotten to that point. Not to say that I won’t someday.” And he’s got time, a long-lived family. “I might be doing this for another 40-50 years. It’s reasonable to assume that,” he says.
And what would make all those long days and nights worth it? What has he been trying to do with this long project he’s made of his life?
“I do this stuff cause I like to do it,” he says, “not because I think I’m going to make any money at it. I’ve been doing it for 30-some years and I still haven’t made any money at it. So that’s good. That means I’ve succeeded. That measure of success has been achieved.”
The point is to make an impression, to shake people out of their default modes, if only for a moment. “My ultimate fantasy about what people should take away from these shows,” he says, “is that when someone who’s been to a show is on their deathbed, the images from an SRL show are some of the last things that are crossing the path of their mind before they expire.”
He can’t prove it’s ever happened. But he does remember a moment from one recent show. He was using the Spine Robot to pluck dead coyotes from another machine. “I was operating that for most of the show, and I grabbed a coyote and threw it toward the audience,” he says. “I saw it land in a puddle and splash this 13-year-old girl, splashed this muddy water all over her. And she just looked horrified at first, then she just started laughing.” Then he imagines her thinking back to that muddy water and that dead coyote in front of her. As she herself dies. The 13-year-old on the cusp of adolescence, trying to figure out the world, and a message as comically inscrutable as physics and an airborne coyote, mummified and suddenly splashing down at her feet, the work of some benevolent prankster-artist. What else could she do but laugh?
Maker Faire footage courtesy of Dylan Tweney.
SRL show image above:
Walker vs Inchworm at the "Illusions of Shameless Abundance" show, San Francisco May 28, 1989. Photo by Sixth Street Studios.