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Apocalyptic Robo-Art Performers Survival Research Labs Have Been Banned in San Francisco

Survival Research Laboratories, the group started by Mark Pauline and known for its apocalyptic robo-art performances, has been banned from performing in San Francisco by the SF fire department.

Derek Mead

Derek Mead

Survival Research Laboratories, the group started by Mark Pauline and known for its apocalyptic robo-art performances, has been banned from performing in San Francisco by the SF fire department, according to a post on SRL’s blog picked up by Laughing Squid. It’s a blow to the group, which has been hacking and re-purposing the the gnarly mechanical and robotic equipment used by the military-industrial complex for artistic (and destructive) purposes since it’s founding in 1978.

It’s not particularly surprising, as SRL’s work is known for being purposely destructive and chaotic — their website tagline says SRL is “producing the most dangerous shows on Earth.” But that’s the whole point. And for a group that birthed the Battle Bots/Robot Wars movement that made San Francisco’s Treasure Island famous for robo-deathmatches, it’s a disappointment, especially considering that the city had previously approved a street closure required for SRL’s latest planned (now cancelled) performance.

SRL had been asked to participate in a show, curated by SF gallery Somarts, called I Am Crime, which was meant to be a showcase of artists who’d been arrested in connection to their work. SRL was supposed to have included an installation of one of their machines, the Spine Robot, within Somarts gallery, along with an outdoor SRL event on the aforementioned closed street. The SFFD put the kibosh on that performance, citing a 1989 SRL show called Illusions of Shameless Abundance. Somarts has since called off the outdoor show.

It’s not the first time the SFFD and SRL have clashed, nor is it the first time SRL has been banned from performing somewhere. SRL has a good run-down on their site of their history in San Francisco, but suffice it to say that their live mecha-death-orgies have gotten SRL and Pauline into plenty of legal trouble before. Of course, that’s how they got into the Somarts show in the first place.

Looking at that history with the SFFD, it looks less like SRL was shut down for pure safety reasons and more like its an extension of well over a decade of clashing, including (as SRL states) the SFFD shutting them down in 1995 after the group was critical of the fire department during a segment with Connie Chung. Since the show is cancelled this time, I dug up Motherboard’s doc on Pauline and SRL to give everyone a taste of what they’re missing. It’s not all spectacle; SRL’s repurposing of the tools of the military-industrial complex for more sinister purposes is the perfect reflection of the end result of those tools toil.

Pauline’s is an jaw-dropping take on the simple observation that the tools of war and industry tend to aesthetically reflect their broader purpose. We’ve all looked at some particularly menacing piece of machinery and thought “What if that piece of logging equipment — that in reality lives a quiet, industrious life — just snapped and started wrecking shop like a multi-ton steel pit bull, like it looks designed to do?” Pauline and SRL deserve praise for taking it to the next step: They actually make it happen. So, while they won’t be performing in SF this time around, here’s to hoping their insane work goes on.