“Extremely Cruel Practices”: Mark Pauline’s colliding metal behemoths as machine performance art

By on May 3, 2017

In 1989, Night Flight creator and founder Stuart S. Shapiro produced IMPACT VIDEO MAGAZINE, a magazine-style home video that featured stories about — among other things — rap music, political humor and underground artists, including performance artist and inventor Mark Pauline and his Survival Research Laboratories (purveyors of “Dangerous and Disturbing Mechanical Productions Since 1979″).

Pauline’s segment on this first edition of IMPACT, titled “Extremely Cruel Practices,” featured the downtown L.A. 1985 performance of industrial-sized killer robots and occasionally fire-breathing monstrosities, all equipped with unique destructive capacities. It was filmed by Target Video‘s Joe Rees.

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That August 11, 1985, public performance — the full title was actually “Extremely Cruel Practices: A Series of Events Designed to Instruct Those interested in Policies That Correct or Punish” — featured incredible post-apocalyptic death machines built by Pauline and Matt Heckert, with assistance from Eric Werner, Neal Pauline and Monte Cazazza, not to mention a team divided into groups who specialized in computer and electronics work, props and mechanical operations.

These events, witnessed by a crowd of some three hundred lucky souls, took place near the 4th Street bridge at 330 Santa Fe Avenue in downtown L.A.’s arts district.

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Poster for “Extremely Cruel Practices,” Los Angeles, CA 1985

Those present — your humble author attended this actual performance back in ’85, walking over with some of his friends during a night of drinking at nearby Al’s Bar — witnessed a primordial combat between flame-throwing, metal-crushing, window-shattering man-built machines to a soundtrack of both eardrum-shattering explosions of glass and crushed metal and an industrial white noise soundtrack that left everyone cheering loudly while the ruins smoldered (the occasional loud booms setting off car alarms in the area too).

Imagine an operatic outdoor display of choreographed but seemingly out-of-control kinetic-hydraulic junkyard metal dinosaurs bent on savage displays of pyrotechnical heaviosity, and then multiply that by at least a hundred times of awesomeness.

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SRL’s Air Launcher (photo by Survival Research Labs)

Here’s an incredibly specific description of the performance that we found online, which called it:

“[an] SRL epic of cruel, incomprehensible and unexplained acts, a Walk and Peck Machine performed delicate cat mummy drops and burns; the Screw Machine tore at, picked up, pursued and pulverized helpless Sneaky Soldier; a catapult lobbed steel dart, gasoline bombs, and exploding missiles; an oversized Flip Book repeatedly presented 3 scenes of doom; and the Tower of Power finally focused its threatening arms on an undulating Bottle Man, later meeting its match in a flaming confrontation with The Big Man. On the sidelines was the Pig Pull, a carousing Spiky Roller Machine that completely flipped over, and the rolling Buzz Saw. The conclusion of festivities was marked by the release of several parachute flares, which attracted an LAPD helicopter to the scene.”

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The Pig Pull (photo by Survival Research Labs)

According to Pauline’s own website, “Each performance consists of a unique set of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special effects devices, employed in developing themes of socio-political satire. Humans are present only as audience or operators.”

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Mark Pauline (photo by Karen Marcelo)

Mark Pauline was born, in 1953, in conservative Sarasota, Florida, on the western side of the state, where he and his three brothers were raised by an overwhelmed mother (their criminally-inclined dad split from the family when Mark was three).

The lack of supervision led to the latch-key kids having all kinds of wild adventures, doing stuff that sounds to us like what might have happened on the most awesome episode of The Wonderful World of Disney ever filmed…if Disney had wanted to really show what wild boys liked to do for fun.

They made homemade M-80 bombs and blew up all kinds of shit, explored abandoned buildings, smashed into eachother during demolition derbies and did all kinds of things with animals, wild and otherwise: trapping snakes and iguanas and turtles, and breeding hamsters that they later turned around and sold at the local pet store.

They also stole baby birds from their nests and tried to raise them, and, sometimes, they’d see how many birds they could shoot in a day.

At age ten, Pauline and a friend used a propane torch to melt a gumball machine, and when cops showed up on the scene they ran off, with the cops giving chase.  Several hours later, after the cops that had cornered them, they ended up in the police station, waiting for their mom to pick them up (it was one of the few times Mark Pauline would actually get caught).

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Mark Pauline at the old SF SRL shop with Mean Madonna in the background (photo by Survival Research Labs)

When he was a little older, Pauline joined a group of fellow juvenile delinquents, misfits and weirdos in junior high — they called themselves the Fuckers Island Gang — who broke windows and terrorized the local neighborhood, but mostly Pauline enjoying building machines, taking motorcycles apart, re-building them, smashing them up in shrieking metallic wrecks, and then starting over again.

Pauline was always good with his hands.

If you’ve ever had a metal shop or wood shop class in junior high or high school, you probably remember that there was one guy in the class who excelled but who also seemed a little dangerous, creating all kinds of fascinating projects that could possibly maim a fellow student or scare the hell out of his teachers (not the metal shop instructor, though, those guys also seemed a little insane in the membrane).

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Mark Pauline and Matt Heckert operating the Inchworm, Inspector, Big Walker at the SRL yard (photo by Survival Research Labs)

Pauline graduated from high school and began working in machine shops. One of his jobs involved building target robots — he was working as a subcontractor at Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida panhandle, due east from Pensacola — which ultimately made him realize that he was being exploited by the government, who were going to purposely use his cool inventions to ultimately kill people. He wasn’t cool with that.

Pauline decided to leave the military industrial complex world behind, and enrolled at Eckerd College, an art school located in St. Petersburg, which ended up giving him the very cool opportunity to study abroad.

In 1976, he spent six months in London, living in a squatter’s community near Regent Park, which was pretty much ground zero for the UK punk rock explosion.

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SRL truck from the early days (photo by Survival Research Labs)

Pauline thrived in London, seeing the NY Dolls and John Cale in concert during his short time abroad, but when he was back in St. Pete, he found that the art school scene in and around Eckerd College was just as interesting, fostering an anti-establishment, aesthetically experimental music scene that would eventually connect with the New York City based “No Wave” scene.

Several Eckerd grads, including Arto Lindsay, would leave Florida after graduation and end up in the pre-gentrified lower Manhattan loft community in NYC, starting No Wave bands that were confrontational and cacophonous while also having the immediacy with modern art sensibilities.

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Pauline graduated from Eckerd in 1977, showing up for the graduation ceremony wearing a shredded gown, a black g-string and cowboy boots, his hair pomaded with florescent pink grease.

When he was invited to stage a post-grad art project at the school’s gallery, he went out and defaced a bunch of billboards in what Pauline later called “creative vandalism.”

He took photos of his art, but his professor’s wife thought it might be illegal and so the show was canceled.

He wanted out of Florida, but instead of moving to NYC, he flung himself to the west coast, to San Francisco, where he says “in San Francisco, the only reason you’d do art is if you were a loser.”

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San Francisco in the late 70s had its own influential punk scene, and not only that, there were also a lot of abandoned machines, left behind after the post-war de-industrialization.

Pauline immersed himself in creating art, finally staging his billboard liberation project, but also creating provocative posters (which included threats of retaliation if authorities removed his work).

He affixed them to bank buildings and other surfaces, treating SF as if it was one big blank canvas.

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Mark Pauline at the old shop on San Bruno Ave (photo by Survival Research Labs)

Pauline realized that these acts of creative vandalism weren’t satisfying his other interests, and so, in November of 1978, after giving it some serious thought, he officially came up the idea to form a new company which combined all of his interests, artistic, creative and otherwise (that would include blowing things up).

Deciding that he needed to call his company something that had an official corporate ring to it, but also provided him with some anonymity (at least at first).

The name he came up with — Survival Research Laboratories, SRL for short and sometimes “Labs” for short too — came from an advertisement placed by a survivalist organization in Soldier of Fortune, the right-wing mercenary magazine.

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The name — which also reminded him of the kind of conservative right-wing assholes he liked to hassle when he was living in Florida — recalled those of many ultra-radical fringe political groups, military organizations and cults that camouflage their extremist positions behind titles that appear, on the surface, to be actual businesses but are essentially secretive, harmful societies espousing paranoid conspiracy theories. So, perfect name, right?

Pauline began by collecting machine parts from defunct factories and began building large-scale heavy metal monsters — described awesomely by writer Jesse Hicks in 2012 as “multi-ton monstrosities, feral machines of metal and fire birthed from his idiosyncratic imagination” — and, all apologies to Richard Brautigan, these weren’t exactly “machines of loving grace.”

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Eric Werner, Mark Pauline, Matt Heckert (photo by Survival Research Labs)

Pauline then rented out wide-open spaces — parking lots, for instance — and staged his wild and dangerous performance art shows that seemed like parodies of demolition derbies and other familiar forms of cultural violence.

He began charging crowds of onlookers to watch the machines try to kill eachother, which were likely influential on lame, watered-down TV shows based around popular competitions pitting remote-controlled robots and machines against each other, such as Comedy Central’s “BattleBots” and its British precursor, “Robot Wars.”

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25-year old Mark Pauline at the old shop in SF (photo by Survival Research Labs)

Pauline has written of SRL, “Since its inception SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product or warfare.”

For the first SRL show — staged without any permits whatsoever on Sunday, February 25, 1979, at Alex’s Chevron gas station in San Francisco’s North Beach — Pauline thrilled a crowd of some thirty people with something he dubbed the “De-Manufacturing Machine,” built from parts he’d obtained from a brewery.

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The De-Manufacturing Machine

While a distorted, slowed-down version of Cure’s “Killing an Arab” blasted from PA speakers, Pauline’s machine — with spinning blades that would “de-manufacture” anything that got in its path — began chopping up eight dead pigeons wearing little Arab doll costumes (he’d killed them himself, with a slingshot).

The De-Manufacturing Machine then sent their chopped-up little pigeon bodies down a conveyor belt before it obbed them at the audience, who shrieked in horror.

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Pauline had given the show a title, “Machine Sex,” which was inspired by posters that his girlfriend had plastered around (since he was not paying enough attention to her) that said “Machine sex is a bore.”

There were numerous other performances that followed, involving more and more complex killing machines, various exploding projectile-launchers, noisemakers and stabbers.

Even a guitar-playing cat.

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One of the early machines: Guitar-Playing Cat Machine (photo by Survival Research Labs)

Here are just a handful of the titles Pauline gave to some of the SRL performances:

“An Epidemic of Fear: The Relief of Mass Hysteria Throught Expression of Senseless Jungle Hate”; “Failure to Discriminate Determining the Degree to which Attractive Delusions Can Operate as a Substitute for Confirmation by Evidence”; “A Plan for Social Improvement Based on Achieving Complete Freedom from the Constraints of Civilization”; “An Explosion of Ungovernable Rage”; “Ghostly Scenes of Infernal Desecration”; “Further Explorations in Lethal Experimentation”; ”The Misfortunes of Desire (Acted Out at an Imaginary Location Symbolizing Everything Worth Having)”; and, “A Calculated Forecast of Ultimate Doom: Sickening Episodes of Widespread Devastation Accompanied by Sensations of Pleasurable Excitement.”

Some of the names Pauline has given to his machines include his six-legged Running Machine, the forever-conjoined Dual Mules, and the Spine Robot, which serves many functions in his workshop (including that time he used it to pluck dead coyotes from another machine).

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The Spine Robot

Pauline’s company grew, adding volunteers and assistants, including Matt Heckert, who built the Chain Thing, Centaur and the Tank with Horsehead — he also designs the sounds for the performances and later formed the Machine Sound Orchestra — and Eric Werner, not to mention a behind-the-scenes collective of people working on projects: machinists, mechanics, welders, and other technical specialists.

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Matt Heckert and Mark Pauline at the SRL yard (photo by Survival Research Labs)

Longtime SRL videographer Joe Rees began filming each and every performance for Target Video early on.

As you might expect, there was always a lot of danger involved, where Pauline could end up dead or at least maimed, and that’s exactly what happened, in the summer of 1982.

Pauline was hammering away at a ceramic container that had contained incredibly combustive rocket fuel — government contractors and people at NASA work with the stuff in highly-specialized labs — when it exploded, blowing off most of his clothes and severely damaging his right hand, leaving him with just a stump and a middle finger.

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Six months later, surgeons removed one of his toes and attached it to the stump so that he had at least a functional two-fingered hand to continue to work with. Pauline now refers to it as his Gimp Hand.

One fan anonymously sent Pauline a note (which he later attributed to the Pope) which more than one writer has used occasionally to describe Pauline: “This man left his right hand in hell.”

Luckily, because he is left-handed, he was able to continue developing his art.

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Mark at SF General right after blowing up his hand in an accident involving rocket fuel (photo by Survival Research Labs)

As you might expect, the San Francisco Fire Department began to crack down, making it virtually impossible for him to stage any more shows in his hometown, effectively banning him.

In addition to battles with local authorities over fire safety, Pauline battled with the owners of the building that housed his workshop — a 6,000 sq. ft. machine shop on the edge of the Mission District — after they tripled his monthly rent.

The SFFD ultimately threatened a lawsuit too, which led to him taking his SRL shows on the road (many other cities, including Seattle, Phoenix, Austin, and the countries of Japan and Spain have also banned him from putting on any performances).

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Mark Pauline’s art show during the Museum of Modern Art ground-breaking got a little out of hand, as a fire broke out that was extinguished by the SFFD (Frederic Larson, SF Chronicle)

The SFFD, taking umbrage at his improvised pyrotechnics, also began contacting the appropriate authorities in other potential host cities, who would then send people out who would then try to shut down any SRL performance, sometimes trying to simply hassle Pauline by handing out tickets for not having a forklift driver’s license or not properly storing lubricating oil on the premises.

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In 1987, SRL began work on their only non-performance film, A Bitter Message of Hopeless Grief, which the New York Times described as ” an imaginary world where machines acted out their own mechanical wills.”

The film — directed and edited by Jon Reiss, and the machines and fictional worlds created by Mark Pauline and Matt Heckert — was shot on 16mm for around $15,000.

Today, Pauline’s website says: “Since its inception SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product or warfare.”

After nearly four decades, Mark Pauline — who has since moved his workshop to Petaluma, California, north of San Francisco, while seeing his SRL company fracturing into a number of similar-minded “franchises” — continues to occasional stage performances around the world (there have been over 70 mechanized presentations thus far, mostly in the United States and Europe).

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More recently, Survival Research Labs has offered up performances on eBay, with a “Buy it Now” price of $149,000* (*plus proper permitting and a viable site with adequate electrical power).

Much of Pauline’s past work is now displayed in museum settings, including a very large show — Under The Big Black Sun: California Art 1974-1981 — which was hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in 2011, housed in the Geffen Contemporary, located at 152 N. Central Avenue in Little Tokyo, not too many blocks away from where “Extremely Cruel Practices” was first performed.

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As for 1989’s Impact Video Magazine the press release sent out to the media quoted Stuart Shapiro as saying the VHS tapes were an attempt “… to capture the exciting, streetwise texture Rolling Stone used to have, only this time around, it will be on video instead of paper.”

Here’s what it says on the back of the VHS tape box (“It’s so good… we can’t show it to our Mom!”):

“Bored with clueless music magazines? Fed up with tame, predictable TV programming? Here’s an explosive new video magazine that you can sink your teeth into. Fresh, uncensored and always entertaining, IMPACT delivers hard-hitting coverage of the cutting edge in music, news, art and political satire. The stuff you’re hungry for. The stuff you can’t see anywhere else.”

The first edition of Impact Video Magazine was hosted by actor-director Alex Winter, who had just found international success when he co-starred with Keanu Reaves as Bill S. Preston in the smash-hit comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. (Read more about Winter’s directorial debut here).

The video included Winter’s 1988 11-minute Super 8mm film, Bar-B-Que Movie — also briefly known as Entering Texas — which is described on the VHS box as “a cannibalistic black comedy and demonic stage show from the legendary off-beat rockers Butthole Surfers,” spoofing the 1974 horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

The tape box also promised us that IMPACTflexes its First Amendment Muscle and digs deep into the counterculture to unearth exclusive rock footage, shocking performers, vicious political satire, outrageous films, razor-sharp comedy, on-the-edge animation, and much more!”

Also featured in this first edition of IMPACT were: SNUB TV’s look at “House Music”; a rare in-depth interview with “controversial rap group” Public Enemy; an exclusive homecoming concert performance by L.A.’s Jane’s Addiction; incredible footage of “America’s foremost underground painter” Robert Williams (discussing Zap Comic and Gary Panter’s The Asshole underground comic book, among other topics); “scandalous humor” from comedian Bill Hicks; celebrated Village Voice columnist Michael Musto, looking at “depravity in New York City at The World”; and assorted animation shorts, including Bambi Meets Godzilla, “Twist and Shout” animation by Joe Horne, Charles Schneider’s “Sans Amour” and something that sounds awesome called “Home Video From Hell.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
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