Survival Research Laboratories

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SRL Performance in Los Angeles, 2006

Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) is an American performance art group that pioneered the genre of large-scale machine performance.[1][2][3] Founded in 1978 by Mark Pauline, the group is known in particular for their performances where custom-built machines, often robotic, compete to destroy each other.[4] The performances, described by one critic as "noisy, violent and destructive",[5] are noted for the visual and aural cacophony created by the often dangerous interactions of the machinery.[6]


SRL was founded in San Francisco in 1978 by Mark Pauline.[7][8] Critics have drawn parallels between the group's founding and the punk and industrial music scenes of San Francisco at the time.[9][10][11] The group's name is a parody of corporate culture.[12] Pauline has said that "the vision for SRL was always about creepy, scary, violent and extreme performances that really captured the feeling of machines as living things".[13]

SRL's early collaborators included the machine artists including Matt Heckert and Eric Werner.[12][14] Heckert's main work in the group centered on the acoustic and musical parts of performance.[15] He left the group in 1988 to follow his musical interests.[15]

After about 30 years in San Francisco, California, SRL moved to Petaluma, California in 2008.[16][17]


As of late 2012, SRL has conducted over 50 shows throughout the world, mostly in the Western United States.[18] SRL shows are essentially performance art installations acted out by machines rather than people. The interactions between the machines have been characterized as "noisy, violent, and destructive".[5] A frequent tag-line on SRL literature is "Producing the most dangerous shows on Earth."[19] A side-effect of the group's activities is frequent interactions with governmental and legal authorities.

Their performances are also given colorfully elaborate names as a comment on bureaucratically generated research projects & papers, such as A Calculated Forecast of Ultimate Doom: Sickening Episodes of Widespread Devastation Accompanied by Sensations of Pleasurable Excitement.[20]

The first SRL show was Machine Sex on February 25, 1979.[21][22]

The 1982 show A Cruel and Relentless Plot to Pervert the Flesh of beasts to Unholy Uses integrated machines with objects such as mummified and dissected animals and a robot that was part metallic dog, part cadaver.[22][23][24]

The group performed The Misfortunes of Desire (Acted Out at an Imaginary Location Symbolizing Everything Worth Having) in 1988 in the parking lot of Shea Stadium.[25][26] Using 22 tons of equipment, the show included a shock wave cannon, a 4-legged walking machine, a high power flame thrower, a radio-controlled tank and a 1,200-pound catapult.[25][27] The show was sponsored by the New York City arts groups The New Museum, Creative Time, and The Kitchen.[27]

In 1989 the group presented Illusions of Shameless Abundance in San Francisco. The show, staged in the SOMA area under an on-ramp to the Bay Bridge, featured stacks of burning pianos, vats of spoiled food and flame-breathing robots.[28] The show's use of fake sculptures that resembled high explosive devices led to beach closures and the involvement of the city's bomb squad the next day.[28][29]

The group produced the 1995 show Crime Wave in San Francisco.[14]

Their 1996 show in Phoenix, Arizona, titled Survival Research Laboratories Contemplates a Million Inconsiderate Experiments, featured robots, flame throwers and a V-1 jet engine.[30][31]

In 1997 SRL staged The Unexpected Destruction of Elaborately Engineered Artifacts in Austin, Texas.[32][33]

In 2006 they performed Ghostly Scenes of Infernal Desecration in San Jose, California.[13] The performance featured an air launcher, a hovercraft and a shockwave cannon.[34]


SRL has received serious consideration as not only a pioneer of industrial performance art,[35] but also as a legitimate heir to the traditions of Dada and the art of Jean Tinguely, in which paradoxical creations are used to call into question the state and direction of technological society.[36]

In addition, many SRL members have gone on to be involved in other avant-garde artistic projects such as the Cacophony Society, the Suicide Club, The Haters, Robochrist Industries, People Hater, Seemen, Burning Man, and robotics projects such as Battlebots and Robot Wars.

SRL has also been praised as being one place where many women[37][38][39] have had access to machine workshop tools.

List of SRL devices[edit]

See also Survival Research Laboratories' own list of machines
  • 1979 Assured Destructive Capability – a robot that defecated on photographs of Soviet premier at the time.[40]
  • Flame Hurricane – five Pulsejet engines and louvers arranged in a circle to produce a rapidly rotating column of hot wind, plus flames[41]
  • Hand-O'-God - a giant spring-loaded hand, cocked by an air cylinder
  • High Pressure Air Launcher – originally developed by NASA for use in avalanche control; fires beer cans filled with plaster using a CO2 charge. A parody of warfare technologies, with the device's operator wearing a head-mounted display.[42]
  • The Pitching Machine – a device which fires 2x4 pieces of lumber
  • Shockwave Cannon – a device which fires a shockwave of air, shattering glass remotely with the force, constructed similarly to the shockwave-based Wunderwaffen anti-bomber device or the so-called hail cannon.
  • Six-Legged "Running" Machine – a gas-engine powered tripedal device featuring three pairs of legs which reciprocate using a chain-driven tank-tread-like actuator, alternately extending to provide locomotion. The front pair of legs pivots, providing steering, while the rear two pairs provide forward motion.
  • Square Wheeled Car – industrial vehicle equipped with square wheels and no brakes or external control.
  • 1984 Stu Walker – a spider-like[43] flame-shooting robot that was controlled by the motions of Mark Pauline's pet guinea pig "Stu"[44][45]
  • The V1 – a replica of the engine of a World War II V1 flying bomb pulse jet
  • Wheelocopter – a spinning machine which applies the principles of rotorcraft to a two-dimensional plane

Accidents and controversies[edit]

In 1982 Pauline lost two fingers from his right hand while attempting to make solid rocket fuel.[46][4]

On the basis of their 1989 San Francisco show Illusions of Shameless Abundance SRL was banned in 2011 from performing in the city by the San Francisco Fire Department.[19][47]

The sound of 1991 test in San Francisco of a homemade V-1 rocket engine resulted in police attention and a reported 300 calls to the city's earthquake hotline.[28][48]

In 2007 SRL crew member Todd Blair suffered a serious brain injury during the take-down of an SRL show at the Robodock Arts & Technology Festival in Amsterdam.[4][49]


  1. ^ "LA – The Art of Extreme Robotics". February 24, 2002. Archived from the original on 2007-07-06.
  2. ^ V. Vale (ed), "Industrial Culture Handbook", Re/Search Publications, 1983
  3. ^ Mark Pauline NNDB.
  4. ^ a b c Alexander Reed, S. (11 July 2013). Assimilate: A Critical History of Industrial Music. ISBN 9780199832583.
  5. ^ a b Kostelanetz, Richard (November 15, 2018). A Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes. Routledge. ISBN 9781351267106 – via Google Books.
  6. ^ "Terrorism as art: Mark Pauline's dangerous machines". The Verge. October 9, 2012.
  7. ^ Rombes, Nicholas (June 2010). A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982. ISBN 9781441105059.
  8. ^ Eggebeen, Rachel (June 1998). Interface: Art + tech in the Bay area. ISBN 9780938989189.
  9. ^ "SPIN". August 1999.
  10. ^ Molon, Dominic; Diederichsen, Diedrich; Elms, Anthony; Hell, Richard; Graham, Dan; Higgs, Matthew; Koether, Jutta; Nickas, Bob; Kelley, Mike; Tumlir, Jan (2007). Sympathy for the Devil: Art and Rock and Roll Since 1967. ISBN 978-0300134261.
  11. ^ "How to Get Away With Stealing Military-Grade Technology: An Interview With Survival Research Labs' Mark Pauline". Artspace.
  12. ^ a b Stiles, Kristine; Selz, Peter (25 September 2012). Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of ArtistsÕ Writings (Second Edition, Revised and Expanded by Kristine Stiles). ISBN 9780520253742.
  13. ^ a b Benedetto, Stephen Di (January 13, 2011). The Provocation of the Senses in Contemporary Theatre. Routledge. ISBN 9781136974083 – via Google Books.
  14. ^ a b Kac, Eduardo (April 23, 2005). Telepresence & Bio Art: Networking Humans, Rabbits, & Robots. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472068105 – via Google Books.
  15. ^ a b King, Brad (August 9, 2001). "The Big Bang Theory of Art". Wired – via
  16. ^ Petaluma. Survival Research Laboratories. Retrieved 2012-09-24.
  17. ^ "A Visit to the Survival Research Laboratories Workshop". Rhizome.
  18. ^ "SRL - Chronological Shows and Events".
  19. ^ a b Mead, Derek (February 1, 2012). "Apocalyptic Robo-Art Performers Survival Research Labs Have Been Banned in San Francisco".
  20. ^ Lucas, Adam (1995). "Mark Pauline – The Art Of War". 21-C Magazine.
  21. ^ V. Vale (ed), "Industrial Culture Handbook", Re/Search Publications, 1983, page 40.
  22. ^ a b Kroker, Arthur; Kroker, Marilouise (11 December 2013). Critical Digital Studies: A Reader, Second Edition. ISBN 9781442666719.
  23. ^ "SiteWorks - A Cruel and Relentless Plot to Pervert the Flesh of Beasts to Unholy Uses".
  24. ^ Dery, Mark (December 2007). Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. ISBN 9780802196507.
  25. ^ a b Holden, Stephen (17 May 1988). "Monster Robots Bash Paradise in Mock Battle". The New York Times.
  26. ^ "C: A Critical Visual Art Magazine". 1987.
  27. ^ a b "Exhibitions". New Museum Digital Archive.
  28. ^ a b c Stone, Brad (November 1, 2007). Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781416587323 – via Google Books.
  29. ^ Pimsleur, J.L. (May 31, 1989). "Bomb Scare traced to Performance Art". San Francisco Chronicle.
  30. ^ "Survival Research Laboratories".
  31. ^ Sterling, Bruce (July 1, 1996). "Is Phoenix Burning". Wired – via
  32. ^ "Appetite for Destruction". Texas Monthly. December 31, 1969.
  33. ^ "New Art Examiner". Chicago, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C. New Art Associations. April 23, 1998 – via Google Books.
  34. ^ "The Arts in San Jose, CA | ZeroOne San Jose + ISEA2006".
  35. ^ see e.g. Vale, "industrial Culture Handbook"
  36. ^ Ballet, Nicolas (29 January 2019). "Survival Research Laboratories: A Dystopian Industrial Performance Art". Arts. 8: 17. doi:10.3390/arts8010017.
  37. ^ "Tentacle Session #35: The Women of Survival Research Labs".
  38. ^ "Women in SRL".
  39. ^ "Java goes to the extreme". August 1998.
  40. ^ Herath, Damith; Kroos, Christian; Stelarc (4 May 2016). Robots and Art: Exploring an Unlikely Symbiosis. ISBN 9789811003219.
  41. ^ "Flame Hurricane". Survival Research Laboratories. 2001. Retrieved February 23, 2022.
  42. ^ Flichy, Patrice (2007). The Internet Imaginaire. ISBN 9780262062619.
  43. ^ "Stu Walker (Guinea Pig Controlled Robot)". Survival Research Laboratories. 2010. Archived from the original on July 31, 2010. Retrieved February 23, 2022.
  44. ^ Indrisek, Scott (January 8, 2018). "This Artist Builds High-Tech Robots—Then Has Them Attack Each Other". Artsy. Retrieved February 23, 2022.
  45. ^ Moss, Ceci (January 21, 2017). "De-Manufactured Machines: A Profile of Survival Research Laboratories". SFAQ. Retrieved February 23, 2022.
  46. ^ "How Mark Pauline critiques corporate power with an army of otherworldly machines".
  47. ^ "Survival Research Labs Gets Banned in San Francisco". January 31, 2012.
  48. ^ "PRANKS 2 Excerpt: Survival Research Laboratories". 19 July 2012.
  49. ^ Terdiman, Daniel. "Benefit Saturday for stricken Survival Research Labs crew member". CNET.

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