San Francisco

Mark Pauline

Susan Cummins Gallery

Over the last ten years, Mark Pauline and his collaborators have built the San Francisco-based Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) into a remarkably successful outlaw R&D company within the Consciousness Industry, producing over 30 spectacular industrial-scale shows at various sites around the country and abroad.

SRL was born out of the ruins of San Francisco’s industrial sector, and continues to feed on military/ industrial technical obsolescence. But to this has recently been added talent fallout from the Silicon Valley shakedown. As smaller, more independent software and robotics companies are picked up by the big corporations, their more creative people step out. SRL’s outdoor shows, with mock-Renaissance titles such as “Delusions of Expediency: How to Avoid Responsibility for Social Disintegration by Acting Without Principle Under the Pretence of Utility” and “Extremely Cruel Practices: A Series of Events Designed to Instruct Those Interested in Policies That Correct or Punish,” feature magnificently destructive machines as mechanico-dinosaurs fighting to the death over scant food/ fuel sources. They are cathartic mass rituals of catastrophe and excess, involving wanton mutual destruction of noisy, stinking, fire-belching id monsters.

The current show at Artspace is a rare opportunity to see Pauline’s machines inside, up close, and over time. The grand sweep and spectacle of the outdoor shows is here replaced by a more focused, claustrophobic menace. The gallery has been transformed into a working laboratory for experiments in human/ machine interaction and response. Spectators line up outside and file in expectantly. At the door, they sign pledges of complicity disguised as damage waivers. (“I acknowledge and understand that my entering and participating in the Mark Pauline exhibition at San Francisco Artspace is entirely and strictly voluntary. I have entered and participated in the exhibition solely at my own instance.”) They are issued safety goggles and earplugs before slowly ascending a metal staircase and proceeding out onto a gated walkway, where they are trapped like rats in a cage. A cut-away section of the walkway (holding up to eight spectators) hydraulically descends into the pit, as the machines awake and begin to interact with their visitors. A squat crane jerks its derrick up and down, swinging two !50-pound “clackerballs” wildly toward the walkway. Above the crane, a shock-wave cannon mounted on a column tilts and fires ear-shattering blasts of compressed air at the spectators, while a giant, articulated, skeletal “finger” ending in a sharpened scythe-like “fingernail” moves along a 30-foot track, gesturing toward the walkway and banging insistently on the metal railing behind which the spectators cower. A servile crawling machine scours the floor below for victims, bang- ing its limbs ineffectually into the concrete. For spectators, the experience is a little like slam-dancing, where no one gets mad at the other dancers. So far, at least, the only participants to turn in anger on the machines have been the machines themselves.

Around the edges of the blackened chamber lurk the human keepers of the machines—brilliant cyber-punk robotics programmers, crack mechanics and engineers of the SRL guild’s future. One of the Pauline-designed machines sports an on-board microprocessor; all of them are computer-controlled. The grease-smeared PCs in the entryway are the undisputed brains behind the heavy-metal brawn.

David Levi-Strauss