“Chaos, uncomfortability and a little danger.” Mark Pauline, from his redoubt in Petaluma, California, sounds as directed as when we first met him back in 1985 in San Francisco. Then as now, his shows with Survival Research Labs (SRL) feature spiked, steam-belching and sonic cannons, tri-wheeled cars, articulated robotic arms, and a wide variety of machinery that’s easily marked as coming from the crush-kill-destroy category. Which, when they’re all going at the same time and full speed ahead, you believe without question.
“You know, with these Maker Faires, Burning Man and Robot Wars, they’re really working very hard to make machines warm and comfortable and fun-loving — and that’s really the last thing we’re interested in.” Hailing from Florida originally, Pauline’s accent bears no trace of the South, outside of, perhaps, his plainspoken descriptions of his long-held interests.
Law enforcement asks, “You guys have a permit for all of this?”
Which were crystallizing after his post-college move to San Francisco, where Pauline started establishing his parking lot art “installations” by bribing the lot owners with beer. Beer, because he had no permits, and had to keep a steady eye out for fire marshalls and cops. By his count, he’s probably been banned from more places than those he’s “performed” at.
In fact, for years, this liminal status was a standing feature of his shows, shows that frequently sported prolix titles like An Epidemic of Fear: The Relief of Mass Hysteria Through Expressions of Senseless Jungle Hate, or the one that’s relatively succinct and our current favorite: Survival Research Laboratories Contemplates a Million Inconsiderate Experiments.
Law enforcement shows up amidst the flames, breaking glass and stink of various fuels that comprise SRL’s shows and asks, “You guys have a permit for all of this?” To which Pauline’s studied reply is, “Well, you see, these are not pyrotechnics, so we thought…”
And we might almost be able to cotton to Pauline’s claim that all of what he’s doing is, in general, harmless, if not for the Frankenstein’d but functional stump that is his right hand. An explosion took it, blowing it off while he screwed around with some jet fuel he “found.” Much like his own machine handiwork, Pauline’s hand was reconstructed from a toe and skin from his foot. So let’s agree that his experimental art shows are a little edgy, but in no way are they fooling around. At all.
Most people are perfectly OK being like tissues. We’re much more like sandpaper.
Banned or not, dangerous or not, his art is definitely on the radar: He’s in talks with Google for some sort of co-branded bit of lunacy, and he’s spent time at the White House hanging out with Barack. “Being called a ‘terrorist’ these days is not as cool as it used to be,” Pauline says, nodding to his art’s hazardous reputation, the clank of machinery still ringing around him.
“But I grew up hearing about the Red Brigade, the Baader-Meinhof Gang. So my approach is going to be different.” His own form of insurgency isn’t based on taking up arms like the infamous West German guerilla group. Instead, it explores the possibility of militarized and mechanized materials being repurposed to resist the forces that might encroach on the most vital element of his art: freedom.
As Matt Heckert, a chief engineer at a chocolate company who was an early partner of Pauline’s, puts it, “Most people are perfectly OK being like tissues. You can yank them around, wipe them on your face, drop them in the garbage,” he said, describing the cycle of unchallenging lives and unexamined living. “We’re much more like sandpaper.”
Which is exactly the mind-set that helps it all makes sense.
Why you should care
Because sometimes the elements that most aggressively resist absorption into the mainstream are the ones most deserving of your attention.