Mark Pauline created Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) in 1978, to create art that has a “unique set of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices, employed in developing themes of socio-political satire” (SRL). Pauline attended the San Francisco Art Institute and idolized late 1960’s far-left revolutionary group the Weather Underground, which sought financial and racial equality—which in sum meant “world communism.” Taking a page from the Black Panthers, the Weather Underground justified violence as opposition to the Vietnam War, and blew up police headquarters, a bathroom in the Pentagon, and themselves accidentally. In the 1970’s, the former Industrial City, San Francisco, had uninhabited warehouses full of abandoned machinery and Pauline stole it, tore it apart, and built new machines to perform his own acts of radicalism.


Survival Research Laboratories, "Machine Sex", 1979.


He staged his first show, “Machine Sex”, at a gas station (at which he did not seek permission) and operated a conveyer belt that led into a Plexiglas dome filled with spinning blades. The song “Killing an Arab” by The Cure played loudly and in a slower tempo, and Pauline fed eight dead pigeons in Arab doll costumes down the conveyor belt that were sawed into chunks and spit out of the machine. As “The Verge’s” Jesse Hicks notes, “It was 1979, and in the American imagination the traditional white robes evoked the Shah of Iran, OPEC, and the energy crisis.” As SRL put on more shows, Pauline’s political messages became more experiential for the viewer; there was no guarantee that SRL’s robots wouldn’t maim you during a performance in a gas station parking lot, throwing off fire and losing parts. The point is to make the viewer alive with fear. It’s like being in a war, or a punk show. “It’s about bring a sense of anarchy into people’s everyday lives,” Pauline said in an interview with “The Verge.” Lots of visual art focuses on showing subjects vividly alive with terror, (“Guernica”, James Nachtway’s photographs), but nothing is genuinely hazardous like Pauline’s work.



Mark Pauline’s been building terrifying and beautiful robots for over 30 years. Along the way he has lost most of his right hand to a rocket fuel accident, plead guilty to terrorism, and the SRL is banned from Japan. As technology has refined, so has Pauline’s art. The SRL’s machines in the 1980’s were scary because they were engaged in obviously dangerous war games, and technophobia of evil or out-of-control machines was omnipresent in popular culture. The presence of machines in popular culture is still influential in SRL’s current projects, like the fully articulated “Spine Robot” that resembles Dr. Octopus’s arms, but they are unnerving because they move so organically. Either way, SRL’s nightmarish robots are a metaphor for the truly scary, though less visible, things going on in the world.


Mark Pauline will give his fabulously titled lecture, “Trick Others into Accepting Your Sick Schemes as an Exciting Source for Personal Success and Acceptance,” at the San Francisco Art Institute on Friday night at 4:30 pm. The lecture is free an open to the public.



-Kendall George





Hicks, Jesse. “Terrorism as art: Mark Pauline’s dangerous machines,” The Verge. 9 October 2012. Web 16 October 2012.


Survival Research Laboratories. “About Survival Research Laboratories,” Survival Research Laboratories. 2012. Web 16 October 2012.


Videos and Images, in order of appearance:


Mark Pauline. “Mark Pauline at George Olson Cadillac,” YouTube, tikitom9. 11 June 2009. Web 17 October 2012.


Survival Research Laboratories. “Machine Sex, 1979, Survival Research Laboratories in Los Angeles, 10/1,” Boing Boing. 8 September 2011. Web 17 October 2012.


The Verge. “Terrorism as art: Mark Pauline’s dangerous machines,” The Verge. 9 October 2012. Web 16 October 2012.