New York

Survival Research Laboratories, Fanuc Robot Arm, 1992, steel, aluminum, HD television, Fanuc RT3 robot, electronics, dimensions variable.

Survival Research Laboratories, Fanuc Robot Arm, 1992, steel, aluminum, HD television, Fanuc RT3 robot, electronics, dimensions variable.

Survival Research Laboratories

Survival Research Laboratories, Fanuc Robot Arm, 1992, steel, aluminum, HD television, Fanuc RT3 robot, electronics, dimensions variable.

It was a brutally frigid Saturday afternoon in early January, but a few hundred people were nevertheless gathered on a blocked-off stretch of West Twenty-Fifth Street in New York’s Chelsea. They were huddled against the cold in front of Marlborough Contemporary’s story-high garage door like a class at recess ringing a pair of schoolyard combatants, their focus on a gaggle of jerry-rigged machines that had been let loose to brawl between the dirty curbside snowbanks. The contraptions—including a tall wheeled carriage with a swinging articulated arm that terminated in a grasping claw and a low-slung four-legged walker that moved with juddering unpredictability—were the unruly brainchildren of Mark Pauline, the founder and prime mover of the legendary San Francisco collective Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), and their clash was a special event for the opening of SRL’s first-ever solo commercial gallery show.

Pauline was operating a remote-control unit as he moved inside a cordon of yellow caution tape with several of his coconspirators. A sort of anarchic punk-rock mechanic, he began SRL in 1978, when he was in his mid-twenties, and it wasn’t hard to see in it both a fretful, snarling riposte to the military-industrial complex (Pauline worked for a time at an air force base in Florida) and a kind of resolutely analog fuck-you to the mellow hippie vibe and burgeoning ethos of frictionless technology in the Bay Area, where he’d moved after art school. Over the past forty years, Pauline has used his wicked sense of humor, his considerable engineering skills, and his nose for what is known in the collective as obtanium (useful things gotten on the cheap or for free) to build his rough beasts and then orchestrate violently chaotic, Ballardian ballets mécaniques that pit the brutes against one another with sometimes genuinely terrifying results. On this day, however, the battle was relatively short and, by SRL standards, pretty tame. One of the machines, with a face that looked to me like Donald Trump’s but turned out to be Satan’s, perhaps predictably malfunctioned. It wasn’t long before the crowd gratefully adjourned to the warm gallery space, where another apparatus was busy hurling two-by-fours into a transparent box at around two hundred miles per hour, obliterating them like takeout chopsticks.

A few days later, the scene at Marlborough was significantly less energetic. In fact, it was eerily quiet, since all the machines had been deactivated for the remainder of the run, save for the anodyne Fanuc Robot Arm, 1992, on which a flat screen playing footage of old SRL conflagrations slowly gyrated. Though the press release described the show—which, with Pauline’s characteristically menacing loquaciousness, was titled “Inconsiderate Fantasies of Negative Acceleration Characterized by Sacrifices of a Non-Consensual Nature”—as featuring “kinetic” sculptures, what was left after the brief opening-day street exposition was anything but. Instead, what remained had the antiseptic and slightly sad feel of a natural history diorama in which once wild and powerful creatures had been taxidermied and set in an alien environment for the delectation of the viewing public.

There is certainly much to admire in Pauline’s resourcefulness, and his inventions do have an undeniable sort of rude beauty even when sitting still: the elegantly constructed vertebral arm of Spine Robot, 2012–14, which, for my money, emerged victorious from the opening day’s combat; the maniacally cartoonish Rotary Jaws with Squirrel Eyes, 1987, with its pair of stuffed rodents encased in Plexiglas bulbs above a fearsome spinning toothed structure like a bear trap reimagined by Tobe Hooper. It’s hard to blame the gallery for not having the machines on—they are, after all, big dangerous things expressly designed to wreak havoc—just as it’s hard to begrudge Pauline’s decision to take a shot at bringing his obsessive life’s work into these refined, and potentially remunerative, precincts. As a showcase for the artifacts of SRL’s ingenious lo-fi makeshiftery, the show did its limited job. But anyone looking for a real sense of the hazardous fun that is Pauline’s true stock-in-trade would be better off watching YouTube videos of old performances, where crowds duck for cover amid flying objects and walls of flame. There, at least, you get a sense of what seems to excite Pauline most about his machines, as it would any engineer worth his salt: not so much how they look, but what they can do.

Jeffrey Kastner