Large Scale Machine Art in the San
Francisco Bay Area
Survival Research Lab
Thank you for that kind introduction.
Thank you Hubert Burda and Yossi
Vardi for inviting us to speak at DLD.
We are very pleased to be here with
In November 1978 Mark Pauline conceived of and founded Survival
Research Laboratories, 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
Since 1979, SRL has staged over 45 mechanized presentations in the
United States and Europe.
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. (Mark, slightly
rephrased, from his website)
SRL is a machine art performance group. In an SRL show machines are
the actors on a stage of elaborate props. SRL builds and maintains a
large stable of machines, some of which go back to the earliest days of
Although construction and maintenance work is done year-round, most
activity occurs in the months and weeks prior to a show, when most of
the props are built and work in progress is accelerated to be completed
before the show.
SRL is very deliberately not a collective. Mark is the director and owner,
and all the rest of us are considered volunteers. I have been working with
SRL for about 15 years.
When a show is imminent, particularly a local show, SRL might grow to
well over 100 volunteers. Perhaps some 30 of us might be considered
permanent crew members, although there are no formal titles, and the
only distinction really is how long you've been around.
SRL shows are loud. In addition to dozens of internal combustion engines
(both diesel and gasoline), we emply a number of pulse jet engines and
The loudest SRL machine is either the V1, which is a wheeled version of
the V1 rocket, or the hovercraft, which is driven by 4 smaller pulse jet
engines. (Audiences are handed earplugs at the start of shows, which
they are highly recommended to wear.)
SRL shows are large and heavy. Almost 27 metric tons were shipped to
amsterdam for the 2007 Robodock festival.
The stage was 40 x 130 meter; the on-site crew of about 20 people used
a workshop of about the same size as the stage and were on-site for
about 3 weeks prior to the show. This was in addtion to the months spent
preparing for the show in San Francisco by a crew of about 60-70.
SRL shows are violent and are staged only once. Most of the set and
props are destroyed during the show, making repeat performances
Many of the machines are damaged, requiring substantial rebuilding and
repair before they can be used again.
This gives many people the misconception that SRL shows are merely
about violence and destruction. This is not true.
All SRL shows are carefully scripted acts, in which the interactions of the
machines, the props, and the set tell a story. However, it is true that most
of the stories end with utter destruction of the props and set.
SRL machines are rather large and heavy, requiring sufficiently powerful
motors and engines. Most SRL machines do not move on simple wheels.
The Big Walker, for example, moves on large gear-and-chain driven legs
The Running Machine also uses gear driven legs, but in contrast is very
fast and nimble. The Big Arm moves by planting the arm down on the
ground and dragging itself along.
Perhaps one of the most unusual moments is used by the screw
machine, which consists of large augers or screws with ball bearings
along the edge.
This machine moves from side to side more or less as one might expect,
but to advance forwards or backwards the screws are counter-intuitively
driven against each, causing quite a bit of confusion to the onlookers.
SRL makes use of every possible method for transferring and converting
hydraulics, pneumatics, mechanics, electricity, internal combustion,
diesel, gas turbine, and pulse jets, with most machines employing
combinations of many of these.
Since humans are never part of an SRL performance, machine operators
must be off-state, requiring remote control.
Most remote control is accomplished with a model aircraft style "Radio
Instead of the servo motors normally used to control model airplanes,
boats, or cars, the signals from the receiver are used to control valves,
relays, and solenoids which in turn control the hydraulic, pneumatic,
electric, and mechanical systems.
Interfacing the radio receiver to this unusual system is accomplished by a
custom controller, designed and built for the machine by one of the skilled
volunteers with the necessary skills.
SRL machines, some of which contain quite advanced control systems,
are not autonomous, and therefore we don't consider them robots.
We are careful to make this distinction, although some of the audience,
press, and other fans sometimes call these machines "robots".
SRL supplies often come from discarded, obsolete, or surplus military
and high-tech equipment.
Thus, over time, different equipment might be available, and a device that
once may have been expensive and rare we later find in abundance.
Similarly, the skills of the volunteer pool vary over time. Perhaps at one
time embedded systems engineers were unavailable, and so mechanical
control systems may have been preferred.
Now there are plenty of us, and micro-controllers are abundant and
This brings up an interesting problem during repairs:
Materials and skills available when the machine was built may not be
available when repairs are needed.
Sometimes this necessitates painstaking hand-making of irreplaceable
damaged parts, other times various systems are replaced with an
Those of us who work on the embedded control systems have discovered
made an interesting observation:
The features or price of a control system do not really indicate the
suitability of the system - it is the difficulty of a newcomer understanding
the system that determines whether a system will be kept or discarded
Thus, we strive to create systems that above all are easily understood
with little or no training or documentation.
Ideas for machines come from a variety of sources.
Sometimes Mark acquires unusual contraptions which inspires a design
for a new machine.
The Bomb Loader, Shaker, and Dual Mule are some examples of this.
Other ideas come from commercial products, which are then scaled and
The Pitching Machine, invented by Mark and Kimric, is based on a
machine used to throw (pitch) balls for baseball practice.
Mark is a voracios reader of great curiosity, and many ideas come from
his research. The V1 is an example of this.
Other ideas come from trying to create a desirved effect.
Shock Wave Cannon was designed to create and propel high-pressure
"donuts" of compressed air towards the audience, allowing us to push
around the audience with an invisible hand.
The logistics of putting on an SRL show are incredibly complicated and
Heavy equipment must be packed and transported. Large crews must be
transported, housed, clothed, and fed.
Permits from the local police, fire, and other agencies must be obtained,
sometimes requiring delivery of detailed engineering documents for all
Noise, fire, and possible damage to property must be dealt with.
Gasoline, diesel, propane, jet fuel, and large electric generators must be
provided. For this reason SRL shows are not commonplace.
SRL enjoys quite a large following - so large that for at least the 15 years
that I've been involved, shows have not been advertised and in fact are
often shrouded in secrecy,
and yet the crowd is always larger than the capacity of the venue.
According to wikipedia, SRL is considered to be the pioneer of industrial
Most SRL members are also involved in other avant garde artistic
projects such as the Cacophony Society, the Suicide Club, The Haters,
GX Jupitter-Larsen, Robochrist Industries, People Hater, Seemen,
Burning Man, robotics projects like Battlebots and Robot Wars.
Why here? "California has been the launch pad for the creation and
innovation of machine art and robot performance.
With talents from Silicon Valley and Hollywood, the presence of
de-commissioned military bases, access to discarded equipment and the
availability of a technically-skilled volunteer pool,
the region has become a fertile breeding ground for a virulent
mechanical performance and art scene with a hacker ethic," (Karen
Marcelo, The Art of Extreme Robotics, Los Angeles, February 24, 2002)
It is probably due to influence of SRL, and the crossover people and
groups such as Seemen, Robochrist Industries, Jim Mason, and Kimric
Smyth, that industrial art is so well represented at Burning Man.One
might argue that large, and especially dangerous, industrial art would
naturally find a receptive audience in such an unusual and remote
setting, but the influences of SRL can not be ignored.
Similarly, although not confirmed, it seems likely that Robot Wars and
Battle Bots were motivated by SRL. At least one of the founders of these
events admits to strongly being influenced by SRL. Robot Wars has been
both a blessing and a curse to the robotics community. On the one hand,
my robotics classes for children are always filled with. On the other hand,
almost every child wants to build a fighting machine capable of destroying
Large Scale Machine Art in the San
Francisco Bay Area
Survival Research Lab