Appetite for Destruction
Pableaux Johnson went to the Longhorn Speedway to see Survival Research Laboratories.
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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.
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
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.
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 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.
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 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
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, 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.
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 (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 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 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 realistically fires a makeshift shotgun from the top of a replica of the UT Tower.
Two days before the show, the SRL crew invited local media to a demonstration of the larger machines. By this time, the infield of the quarter-mile track was littered with all manner of machine and elaborate props —expendible dioramas to be destroyed by the starring machines. A muliticolored steel carousel (donated by the Austin-based arts group “Carnival of Fools”) sat behind a life-sized fireworks stand. Three 35-foot telephone poles were laced together to form a huge tripod; on show night, it would be draped with human mannequins and other flammables. In the shadow of a huge replica of the UT Tower, a 28-foot wooden pleasure craft (christened the HMS Entropy) awaited its impending doom.
Photographers and video crews wandered the field as various machines swung to life. Smoke machines covered the field in sulfurous fog as the Shockwave Cannon pivoted menacingly on its tripod and took playful potshots at the visitors. Somewhere downfield, the V1 started its booming test run.
In a prelude to Friday’s show, Mark Pauline stalked the staging area and demonstrated a radio-controlled robot arm for eager camera crews. Strapped into a one-armed electronic harness, Pauline used the cranelike jaws of the Little Arm to crush concrete and wrestle with various props.
The Greatest Show on Fire
An overview of the big event including audience reviews and the aftermath.
Headed south on Highway 183, you could spot the Speedway from a mile up the road. The 70-foot UT tower, an everyday sight closer to the city center, rose above the speedway bleachers, glowing in traditional orange victory lights.
In three hours before the show, a two-mile line of cars parked beside the highway shoulder and dumped roughly 5,000 observers outside the speedway gates. It was a thoroughly mixed crowd—new primitives with Armageddon tattoos and pierced foreheads stood in line alongside suburban families revved up for an evening of slightly demented group entertainment. Groups were dressed both up and down in everything from evening wear to paramilitary fatigues, drawn by outlandish rumors and promises of flaming destruction—all for the low price of twenty American dollars.
Originally scheduled for 10PM, the show started late as mysterious logistical problems delayed the line’s progress. Backlit SRL “crowd control” volunteers paced along the track’s ridge, visible only as silhouettes behind the caution-taped hurricane fence. Gradually, the crowd crept forward—along the caution fence, through a septic field, and finally into the speedway.
Once inside the gates, the edgy mob settled into three sets of bleachers strategically placed around the asphalt oval, inserted their complimentary earplugs and listened to the evening’s soundtrack—recordings of high-performance engines grinding through a 500-mile endurance race.
The warped plank stands offered a commanding view of the evening’s combatants and the soon-to-be-battlefield. About twenty evil-looking machines sat on the banked track, tended by about sixty roving volunteers clad in all manner of ear, eye, and lung protection. Mark Pauline paced around purposefully, overseeing last-minute testing and tinkering.
At 11:30, just as a three-quarter moon rose red through distant cloud cover, the preparations were completed. Within minutes, the crew had taken “ready” positions as diesel engines roared and turbines whined into the night.
The loudspeakers fell dead. A single parachute flare streaked above the track and slowly drifted to the earth. A rocket-powered go cart with tailpipe glowing orange in the night howled around the track.
In the next few seconds, the entire infield exploded to life as the machines launched into a bizarre industrial feeding frenzy. The V1 rocket shook the stands with a roar before attacking various props. Rita the Meter Maid rattled around looking for trouble—her flaming mace swinging at anything standing. The diesel-powered FlameBlower sent huge plumes of fire into the night sky, while the monst rous Tesla Coil happily crackled and hissed away. Intermittent flare barrages criss-crossed the field, adding an airborne dimension to the show and keeping the audience guessing.
Audience members expecting an orderly series of machine battles soon became aquainted with SRL’s anarchic performance style, akin to a five-ring circus with no center stage. The action at SRL performances happens ALL AT ONCE, with no separation between events. Interactions, confrontations, and battles among machines and props occur spontaneously, generated by the whim of the operators and preceding events. Each spectator’s experience depends on where they focus their attention; it’s impossible to catch ALL the action. Those wanting a more structured “Transformers on Ice” show were bound to be a bit disappointed.
The three-clawed Subjugator wasted little time before tearing apart the good ship Entropy. With a few deft snaps and well-placed bursts of fire, the boat had been disemboweled, reduced to planks and fiberglass shards, and finally set aflame. In between sonic blasts from the Shockwave Cannon, the Subjugator twirled its claw over the wreckage in a maniacal victory dance.
Several of the machines only lasted a short time before malfunctioning or being taken out of the action. The Walking Machine, a metal mastodon on four heavy feet, crashed into the demonic Clown Box and became entangled before toppling over for the night.
For the first part of the show, most of the audience kept at least one eye glued to the an imposing replica of the UT tower. SRL catered the show to the Austin audience by reenacting the Charles Whitman shooting of 1966. The “Randy Weaver” robot perched on the structure’s upper rim, playing the part of Charles Whitman by repeatedly firing faux gun blasts onto the field. Meanwhile, the V1 slowly danced around the tower, blowing smaller props downfield before turning its attention to the plywood-and-steel foundation. Blasts of fire rattled the audience’s dental work as the rocket pointed its snout into the tower.
Continuous rocket blasts quickly ignited the wood at ground level, and the audience cheered as sparks rose through the replica’s inner cavity. This was the logical climax of the evening for many in the stands, and the V1 seemed the perfect tool for the job. Throaty booms from the rocket set more flame and a steady spring wind soon turned the tower into a 70-foot inferno of blazing wood, twisting metal, and liquefied robot parts.
As the structure became engulfed with bright flame, the crowd’s reaction turned from loudly triumphant to strangely silent. Rather than cheering the Tower’s demise, they quietly watched embers shoot upward as more combustibles burned to ash. With a series of creaks, the tower slowly twisted and crashed to the ground, and after a short cheer, some searched for the next spectacle while others quietly stared into the crumpled pyre.
Forty-five minutes into the performance, the infield was fully transformed into SRL’s trademark war zone. Chaos ruled as the props burned, machines lay wounded on the track, and standing robots went after anything still standing. The rocket go cart sped through the obstacle course left by the wounded and dead mechanical participants.
The smell of smoke, burning petroleum, and bleeding machines filled the air as parts of the stands began to empty. Families were generally the first to leave, followed by the sound-sensitive, and then those racing Austin’s 2AM bar curfew. Whether the audience left disturbed, disgruntled, or delirious with joy, they’d have plenty to discuss over breakfast the next day.
Back inside, the FlameBlower inched toward the huge tripod as the SRL crew kept looking for one last thing to burn. . . .
Like any ambitious artistic performance, the SRL show managed to elicit its share of strong opinions from the diverse audience. The wide shoulder along Highway 183—a single-file parking lot by the end of the show—played host to hundreds of meandering debates about the show. From insanely enthused pyromaniacs reliving the larger explosions to shell-shocked school kids up way past their bedtimes, the crowd collectively expressed dismay or approval as they dodged traffic and searched for their cars beside the road.
In the days since the performance, discussions with various spectators have yielded a few insights into the audience’s expectations and the resulting reactions:
• Those looking for “great balls of fire” left the show thoroughly satisfied. The chaos of the SRL warzone appealed to their often-inebriated lust for combustion.
• Families looking for an amusing—if a bit twisted—night of industrial “movie effects” were invariably disappointed and/or terrified by the spectacle.
• Upper-middlebrow art lovers were apparently caught off guard by the pure anarchy of the evening’s performance. Most members in this category were expecting more of an automotive opera; something with a linear plot climaxing in a powerful finale. Having had the highest expectations for the mutant marriage of war and art, these art lovers seemed to leave the most disappointed. They were also the most likely to want their money back.
But whatever the individual’s reaction, the crew from Survival Research Labs gave its collective audience plenty to think about. Weeks later, Austinites and other Texans will still be talking about the flames.
As for the audience, whether they loved or hated the show, they’d never look at their lawnmower in quite the same way ever again.
The following morning—ten hours after the show’s end—Longhorn Speedway looked like the target of a surgical strike or a massive train derailment. The tower’s contorted metal superstructure lay in a pile of ashes. The show’s mechanical actors sat scattered across the field, resting up from a particularly strenuous performance. Claws and arms were streaked with residual carbon from the evening’s little firestorms. The grass inside the track’s perimeter was scorched black from rocket fire, burning debris cannons, and the occasional road flare.
Still-smoldering tires and creosote poles let off an AMAZING stench. The vapor mixed with other aromas of industrial warfare (melted plastic, gunpowder smoke, and diesel fumes). For the crew at SRL—sleeping late after the post-show victory party—it was the smell of victory.
But among the smoldering hulks and charred debris, it was obvious that the crew had tended to its wounded machines before turning in. The ill-fated Walking Machine (which had an indestructible reputation) had been put up on jack stands until further repairs could be attempted. The props had been destroyed, but the machines would be trucked back home to be reworked and used in the next show.
Close to the infield’s center, the Carnival of Fools were busy cutting apart their donated carousel—trying to salvage debris for use in future installations. The cleanup had begun, and parts of the art recycled.