Appetite for Destruction

Pableaux Johnson went to the Longhorn Speedway to see Survival Research Laboratories.
Wed December 31, 1969 6:00 am

Rivers of fire. Gnashing metal claws. Burning buildings. Army surplus rocket engines and abstract mechanical dinosaurs. Lumbering steel insects armed with flamethrowers and rotating cow skulls.

A capacity crowd of 5,000 Texans packed Longhorn Speedway to witness the spectacle—a chaotic evening of well-managed explosions, choreographed pyromania and all-purpose destruction—courtesy of Survival Research Laboratories ( SRL).

This past weekend, SRL, a San-Francisco based industrial arts group, brought its own brand of high-impact social commentary to Austin. In its first Texas performance—aptly titled “The Unexpected Destruction of Elaborately Engineered Artifacts”—the group demonstrated the darker side of technology through an trademark “machine show” at a rural motor sports arena.

Artistic Mayhem

Who are SRL and why did they come to Texas?


For nearly twenty years, Survival Research Laboratories has staged elaborate mechanized spectacles in the name of theatre—conceptual art played out by lovingly-created mechanical mutants. The main players—the machines of SRL—combine heavy industrial machinery and “reappropriated” military machinery with cutting-edge robotics technology. Weapons of war and industrial production are disassembled and remade into primal nightmares of the Industrial Revolution.

Currently a loose conglomeration of technological artists and craftspeople, SRL started out as the brainchild of Mark Pauline, the artistic director and ringleader of the group. Since his first machine show in 1979, Pauline and his SRL compatriots—a creative band of machinists, mechanics, welders, and other technical specialists—have used their elaborate creations to critique American consumer and military culture in over 50 shows worldwide.

Understandably, the scale and explosive nature of the group’s art has earned them a reputation among counterculture artists and local fire officials alike. Previous spectacles—including the secretly-hatched 1995 “ Crime Wave” show—have resulted in legal action against the group and a de facto moratorium of SRL shows in their home base of San Francisco.

But a like-minded group of artists, the Austin-based Robot Group, lobbied SRL to stage a show in Texas. After months of negotiations, SRL finally worked out the logistics—including shipping 50 tons of tools and equipment—and scheduled a show for March 28th at the Longhorn Speedway outside Austin. The invasion had begun.

Pit Stop Village

Pit Stop

The Austin Compound: The Texans and machines involved plus preparation for the show.

Roughly two weeks before the show, an impromptu township developed in the pit area of the Speedway. Trailers and tents sprang up along the packed gravel road—a travelling version of SRL’s San Francisco compound. SRL regulars from California and volunteers from all over Texas took up temporary residence and tuned, built, and welded around the clock to prepare the speedway for an evening of destruction as the infield of the quarter-mile sprint track gradually filled with machines of every description.

The Machines

V1 Rocket

V1 Rocket

V1 Rocket

Mark Pauline built SRL’s infamous fire-belching V1 rocket from WWII-vintage German blueprints. Essentially a thundering rocket engine on a radio-controlled cart, the V1 was originally designed to send unmanned bombs from the European mainland to London during the Battle of Britain.

The Running Machine

The Running Machine

The Running Machine

The Running Machine speeds around the field like a huge lumbering insect looking for food. Armed with hydraulic bolt cutters for pincers, the running machine cuts through its prey’s vital control lines. Whatever happens next is up to chance.

Tesla Coil

Tesla Coil

Tesla Coil

A giant Tesla Coil creates its own intense, localized lighting storm—a big crowd pleaser for nighttime shows. When fully fired up, the Coil sends unpredictable arcs of electricity onto colu mns of florescent lightbulbs and whatever robots wander into its area.

The Subjugator

The Subjugator

The Subjugator

The Subjugator combines the worst visions of the late Jurassic period and turn-of-the-last-century farming accidents. A gruesome three-pronged claw at the end of an articulated crane arm cruises the field atop a small bulldozer. Anything unfortunate enou gh to be “subjugated” can also be blasted by the machine’s front-mounted flamethrower.

The Shockwave Cannon

Shockwave Cannon

The Shockwave Cannon

The Shockwave Cannon launches a sonic assault by aiming the power of an acetylene explosion at different parts of the field and frequently into the audience. Controlled by an operator at ringside, the cannon pivots on a huge tripod and delivers deafening roars complete with the concussion emanating from the controlled detonation. All the blast with none of the flame …

Rita the Meter Maid

Rita the Meter Maid

Rita the Meter Maid

Rita the Meter Maid, a radio-controlled meter maid cart, rides the stage on steel wheels and comes equipped with a set of flameballs—fire extinguisher tanks filled with flammable gas. A hollow steel wrecking ball filled with burning materials and crown ed with miscellaneous pig parts swings like a medieval mace.

The People

Flynn Mauthe

Flynn Mauthe

Flynn Mauthe worked as lead carpenter and logistics contact for the “Unexpected Destruction.” Formerly a realtor in Austin, Mauthe negotiated the Speedway rental and cruised the city searching for the crew’s portable housing. After brokering property for such local music luminaries as the Butthole Surfers, James MacMurtry, and Bob Mould, Flynn relocated to the San Francisco’s Mission District to live in the SRL compound.

Sabrina Merlo

Sabrina Merlo

Sabrina Merlo (shown here with the Clown Box) came down from San Francisco to help create various elaborate contraptions. A metal fabricator by trade, Merlo spent over two weeks in the super-heated pits and managed to maintain her sense of humor when the temperatures soared. Sabrina and the other women of SRL have been featured in the online magazine Brillo.

Rob Browning

Rob Browning

Rob Browning hails from Dallas and is currently a doctoral student in UT’s Computer Science department, where he specializes in robotics and “computer vision.” As a local volunteer, Browning helped establish the microwave link essential to the event’s in ternet broadcast and got to drive a bucket crane in the process. In the wake of the show, he was sorely tempted to run away and join the exploding circus.

Chip Flynn

Chip Flynn

Chip Flynn designs robots for the People Haters— SRL’s shop neighbors and partners in crime. (The People Haters work independently of SRL, but accompanied the group for the Austin show.) Originally from Detroit, Flynn started working with assembly line robots at age fourteen, and now uses this experience for more artistic endeavors. He designed the “Randy Weaver” machine—an articulated h uman robot that


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