F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.07 - July 1996


By Bruce Sterling

I'm in Phoenix, Arizona - not for the Superbowl, like the 100,000 other people who flew in this weekend, but I've got my reasons - and I'm paging through The Arizona Republic. The paper's a lot like the community it serves: glossy, nuttily conservative and oddly punch-drunk.

Friday, January 26th, 1996, an article on page B2:

Culprits in Rock Barrage Elude Chandler Police Surveillance

Rocks and chunks of concrete larger than softballs have been raining on a Chandler neighbourhood, pounding roofs and smashing into cars. Police have posted surveillance and have increased patrols, but the rain of rocks continues. Neighbourhood Block Watches have been able to do nothing more than collect the rocks - as many as 30 after an attack Tuesday night. Residents believe some device is being used to hurl the missiles.

But here's the coverage I'm looking for, on page D7:

Rampaging Robots Ready to Wreak Havoc Downtown

Some 30 tons of crashing, fire-spitting robotic machinery will perform at 11 PM Saturday at the Icehouse, 429 West Jackson Street, Phoenix. Survival Research Laboratories (SRL) of San Francisco will present its "Million Inconsiderate Experiments", with machine art tromping, stomping and shooting flames. The show, under the direction of artist Mark Pauline, has toured Europe and has been performed in Los Angeles, New York and Seattle.

I'm pretty sure I can solve this mystery in Chandler, if the authorities are interested. Put out an all-points bulletin for a scruffy male adolescent, a bright kid who sits at the family table sullenly radiating poltergeist vibrations and bending fork tines with his molars. He has a deep, secret interest in junk-yards, whence he found those hinges, bolts, one-by-twelves, bungee cords and powerful springs. Look for this kid, and while you're at it, look for his prankster friends.

In the meantime, SRL capo Mark Pauline, the 42-year-old adult upgrade of a deeply alienated teenage techie, stands in an abandoned Phoenix railway yard. I watch as Pauline checks a soldered connection, taps a pressure gauge, steps back, confers with an associate in a set of overalls even filthier and more tattered than his own, then presses a hand-held switch.

A couple of feet away, one of the few V-1 jet engines in private ownership comes to sudden life. FWOOOOOOM! A dragon tongue of misappropriated Nazi vengeance licks the desert sky. A pause, a few words of consultation, Mark couldn't be more blasé.

FWOOOM!!! BLADDABLODDABLADDABLODDA - KA-BLAM! Waves of heat kick up spinning torrents of yellow dust. Half-combusted fuel explodes deep within the iron throat of the jet, producing a fiery belch that is not merely loud but insanely loud, industrial-accident loud. The temperature in the yard, somewhere in the low 40s, soars at once to a toasty 35°C.

The SRL crew reacts with polite interest. Polite interest is the mental default-register of SRL roadies. Nearly 50 of these wonderfully odd people are roaming with purposeful step in and out of a forlorn warehouse, going about their individual businesses in their distributive, non-hierarchical, swarming fire-ant fashion. They're adjusting fan belts, greasing drive chains, topping fuel tanks and clamping pneumatic hoses.

Mark's jet vomits another massive gush of pyrotechnic hell. The crew looks up at the skull-splitting racket with limpid smiles of unfeigned appreciation. Watching Mark work his rocket is clearly giving them some deep arts-and-craftsy frisson. It's as if they're watching Gustav Stickley assemble a classic hardwood settee. Four lads and lasses are skewering plaster corpses onto iron spears for the giant SRL catapult. They stop their work to cover their ears. KABABLOOM! WHOMP! BLUDDA BLUDDA BLUDDA BLAM! The jet begins to glow a cheerful cherry red around the seams. Mark manoeuvres the V-1 on its self-propelled, radio-controlled platform. Many of SRL's engines of destruction are self-propelled, on legs, or wheels, or tracks, or foul-looking helical screws. Then there are the emplacements, such as the Flame-thrower; the giant tooth-and-tailed wooden Ark; and the Air Launcher, a laser-sighted monster gas gun that fires concrete-filled root beer cans.

An impromptu convention of 20 Phoenix police officers has assembled outside the chain- link. They've swarmed up from all directions, on bicycles and in prowl cars, in full expectation of some kind of mortar attack. Phoenix's finest watch the goings-on with jaws agape. Machines on thick metal legs with big jangling teeth. Giant hideous billboards of rubber-necked starving children with eyeballs like hot black marbles. It's a bunch of weird dirty hippies, and they've got a jet engine!

An SRL crew member ambles over to meet the cops. He mentions the time SRL appeared on network television. With this casual revelation, the attitude of the cops changes at once, and permanently. Television, huh ? TV coverage absolves absolutely anything in America. If these guys have been on 20/20, then they must know what they're doing, right? They're not insane, they're artists. Artists ? Not a problem ! These cops have Superbowl crowds to worry about. Besides, five nuts with a rocket might be arrested. A small army of 50 nuts methodically deploying 30 tons of rampaging machinery are a problem on a scale for the National Guard. Better just to let them be.

The area around us, Jackson Street in downtown Phoenix, defines industrial decline. Mechanical performance artist, producer and local entrepreneur David Therrien, the man who brought SRL to Arizona, has a Jackson Street performance space he calls the Icehouse. The club was an icehouse once, built to store, among other things, frozen beef carcasses for the railroad. Today, it's an almost windowless three-story bunker with scary, hermetically sealed refrigerator doors.

Therrien also leased the derelict warehouse next door. It holds several tons of SRL's buzzing, whining, and sparking heavy machinery, trucked in from San Francisco by bus and flatbed. The old warehouse might make a fine set of artists studios someday, Therrien tells me optimistically. Therrien has a goatee, wire-rims, a radio headset and a visionary eye. He's a living exemplar of the urban principle that real estate of absolutely negative value can always be given to artists. Let Art play the phoenix here. Artists are dying for studios, and they'll do anything to be left alone by the authorities. There's nothing wrong with this shattered, pockmarked, ruinous property that electricity, insulation, telephones, cleaning, heating, cooling, painting, furnishing and rudimentary sanitation can't cure.

The SRL crew members work inside the warehouse, pretty much around the clock. When they do sleep, it's in yet another Therrien potential property, an abandoned, broken-glass, utterly forgotten industrial cavern humourously known to SRL as "Hyster Heights, A Planned Community". Getting the querulous city authorities to approve the resurrection of this building may be tougher, since the Hyster machine shop still reeks of '50s-era environmental contaminants. The alleged health risk hasn't stopped the local vagrants from starting a swarming tent-and-grocery-cart encampment nearby, right under the ceaseless traffic noise of the local overpass. Throw in the nigh-constant earsplitting racket of the Phoenix Sky Harbour flight path, and the Pauline aesthetic makes perfect sense here.

Mark Pauline has a good line of gab, in his elliptical, left-handed fashion. He's at relative rhetorical ease with classy theoretical jabber such as emergent behaviour, cyborganics, chaos theory, transparent interfaces, artificial life and the machinic phylum. However, the machinic phylum and 45 cents will get you a cup of coffee. They won't get you a "Spectacular Mechanical Performance", and Mark Pauline is a hardened 17-year veteran of more than 50 such shows. His performances always boast very apt titles such as the recent A Calculated Forecast of Ultimate Doom - Sickening Episodes of Wide- spread Devastation Accompanied by Sensations of Pleasurable Excitement, and the early but classic A Cruel and Relentless Plot to Pervert the Flesh of Beasts to Unholy Uses.

Lately, lots of chipware and digital robotics gizmology have been working their way into the SRL act. Still, the mainstay of SRL's dramatic craft was, and remains, not the microchip but the motorcycle drive chain. Long, rattly, oily chains on big, brutish, army-surplus gear are omnipresent on SRL creations. Drive chains are tough, they're cheap, they work just great, and if you get anywhere near them they cover you with indelible gunk. Drive chains are very Mark Pauline.

Most of the SRL crew members have been in residence here for almost a week, sucking jet exhaust, chain-smoking, eating from big black tubs of tasty potato salad and spattering themselves with tiny bits of flying solder. Over at the contaminated squat, they have one "shower", a water-spitting wall-mounted tap in a blank concrete cell lined with blue plastic sheeting. They sleep in bags on green canvas cots, in a vast echoing concrete hall where the least cough, sneeze, or snore sounds like a gunshot. Here, the strongest difference between the urban vagabonds at the local Saint Vincent's and the SRL crew is that SRL is much, much dirtier.

These people are setting entire new standards for nightmarish postindustrial anti-chic. Only heavy-duty cosmopolitan San Francisco Bay area performance artists, who double as the Dilberts from Hell, could dress with such miraculous anti-fashion sense. There are women with nice hipster tattoos and creative haircuts, women who would obviously know how to dress if they put their minds to it. They have a positive genius for hideous sleeve-ripped men's work shirts, cutoff male suit-trousers over beat-to-shit leotards, filthy ponytails knotted in place with the plastic cords of industrial ear-protection plugs. There are men wearing Illinois state cop T-shirts, duck-hunter's vests, stripey Can't-Bust-Em overalls full of burn holes and grease stains, red industrial jump suits with the flaccid arms cinched around the waist and, most important, tools. Tools are the primal SRL fashion accessory. Ratchets, mauls, screwdrivers, soldering irons, shopworn leather tool belts, lanyards, engineer's boots, chipped-up safety glasses. But the premier gesture of SRL roadie cachet is a robotically blank welder's mask propped onto the forehead.

Everybody at SRL welds. They consume welding rods the way other artists use charcoal sticks. The machines are all violently coming apart during the show anyhow, so when in doubt, just weld it. Failing that, bore a massive thumb-sized hole through it with the drill press and bolt it on. If that doesn't work, fetch the bungee cords, the C-clamps and the metal epoxy. Don't worry if you use too much; you can trim it back later with the metal saw.

Fifty people who can weld, glue, saw and clamp will get a lot of results. Mark and his longtime major-domo Mike Dingle are very results-oriented guys. Dingle bellows at the crew, reading from a filthy yellow note-pad. "Home Depot's open till midnight! Whaddya need ?" People raise their hands and ask cordially for duct tape. "Who's gonna fix that Allen bolt on the winch ?" Two people volunteer at once. "We need more coffee grinders!" another shouts.

They all know each other. It's Scott the pyro guy, Kevin the powder maker, Phil who's working the Flame Balls today, Todd and Lisa, Warren and Lance, Greg the neatly trimmed fed from the Stanford linear accelerator, Debbie and Christian and Mike, Brian and Amy and Lisa and Lauren. It's a tribe. The situation has the vibe of a cyberpunk Amish barn-raising.

Lunch is over, and Mark's among the last to leave. He's explaining to the air gun guys how to "bake the liquid out of the rounds" without any sudden untoward detonations. Then Mark gets back to his work, beetle-browed, hunched, persistent, focused. He and Dingle have the same cast of features. They look like anything but a pair of ultraviolet hipsters from the crispiest edge of the contemporary art world. Mark and Mike have the careworn look of country vets about to lose a sick cow.

Mark, though very obviously the leader of SRL, doesn't waste much time fostering the Pauline personality cult. He doesn't offer praise or criticism, he doesn't give any rousing speeches to the troops. You don't get a lot of touchy-feely and back patting hanging out with Mark Pauline. But when he's around, stuff happens.

The show officially starts at 11. I go out to join the line at the ticket door and eavesdrop. The clean-cut college kid in front of me is talking to his friend. "Yeah, he blew his hand off and had some toes sewn on for fingers!" I've never read an article on SRL that failed to take note of Pauline's injured hand. His uninjured left hand is also quite remarkable, very sinewy and dexterous, a real craftsman's hand. His left hand is probably the best-looking thing about the guy.

Not much happens till midnight. The audience filters in to stare in disgusted awe at the dozen inert machines and the truly vile backdrop of billboards with graphic images of such gooey and revolting hideousness that the eye can scarcely absorb them: a nude man absently hugging a withered starving child; a nude and hugely pregnant blond ostentatiously enjoying a tall beer and a cig; a wailing fetal head perched on a rubbery neck 6 feet long between a pair of devil-children sporting tridents. Mark used to deface other people's billboards as "pranks", but he's too famous for that amusement anymore. Now he can make his own billboards and set them on fire. Hundreds of people stand patiently on a ramp of yellow dirt while the SRL crew confers over their silent machines. You'd think that people who tear animal carcasses apart with power machinery would be wild party animals, screaming drug-soaked Visigoths, utter no-brakes destructo psychopaths, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their meals are vegetarian, their manners soft-spoken and until the gig is over they don't even drink. Now they're clustered about, muttering quietly and making various last-minute hardware checks.

Fourteen hundred people is not a huge crowd for an SRL gig, but it fills the Phoenix venue. Pauline, quoted in The Arizona Republic, said, "SRL is on a public service mission to spread San Francisco's careless attitude toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of intensity across America." Ironically, Mark Pauline has been all but banished from San Francisco, where legal wrangles prevent him and his mighty robots from performing in their home town without purchasing the required - and exorbitantly expensive - fire permits, which Pauline says "won't happen."

Earplugs are distributed, which help, a bit, with the "music". Mark usually plays at least an hour of impossibly inane or relentlessly irritating soundtrack to work the crowd into a properly destructive mood. Shortly after midnight, the sirens go off and the fun starts.

The BombLoader, a previously inert piece of army-green machinery, lurches into a nasty parody of life. More than life, really - the thing assumes actual character. BombLoader becomes a great horny galoot, his aluminum "bomb" thrusting and wiggling rudely. He stumbles drunkenly across the dirt. Eventually it becomes clear that the vile beast is heading for the appealing ventral orifice of the V-1.

V-1 isn't having any of this. She waggles coyly and spins aside repeatedly, perhaps taken aback by BombLoader's insistent aluminum organ. Now a few of the billboards begin to spin in place, thankfully diverting some attention from this unbearably obscene display.

BombLoader gets his way with a nasty series of jerks, humps and screeches. He then backs off, apparently satisfied. V-1, scorned and furious, suddenly cuts loose on BombLoader with a withering blast of jet flame. The stink, dust and shock are indescribable. Screams of disgusted glee explode from the audience, audible even over the sirens and the earplugs.

The angry and baffled BombLoader turns to vent his stupid fury on the Ark. The Ark, a skeletal ship-like device made mostly of leftover rafters from Therrien's Icehouse, is slow to anger. When it wakes, however, its eerie rage is made nastily manifest. It thrashes a long knuckly flower stalk of steel and cabling, and opens a spinning tub-sized blossom with a stamen that's a mummified dog's head. Triple teeth of axe-like butcher's steel spin and gnash at the Ark's prow.

Screw Machine rattles over gamely to pick a fight with Bomb-Loader. Screw Machine, a veteran SRL device, has a long phallic metal nose for this performance, and it sidles crab-like toward Bomb-Loader, radiating sibling menace and sinister intent. Its penile crown is a slaughtered and skin-ned cow's head, its raw blind eye sockets thoughtfully decorated with long metal skewers.

V-1 decides to roast one of the billboards.

Roman candles are launching flaming balls off the roof of the warehouse. They explode mere feet above the heads of the audience, loading our hair with stinking airbursts of chemical cinders. Spark Shooter is emitting long flaming streams. Air Launcher apparently isn't working for the moment, but nobody's missing it much. Dummy after flaming dummy catapults from stage left. Running Machine has clomped into the picture, on six insectile legs with crazily ingenious plastic feet. It brandishes an enormous Rambo III knife at BombLoader.

The audience direly wants the absurd and disgusting machines to kill one another harder and faster. Their febrile, fitful, vicious efforts clearly emanate from some unspeakable mental state of mechanical fury, a level of verminous degradation so vile, so low on the scale of cosmic organisation that it's denied even to rats, tapeworms and roaches. But the hideous bastard things won't kill each other fast enough; it's all one can do not to jump out there and help.

When the V-1 attacks the House, the innards of the little stage shack, stuffed with fuel-oil-soaked rags and stacked lumber, go up in a tornado of flame. A twister of fire four stories tall dominates the neighbourhood, and one wonders what the can-loads of involuntary audience in the incessant aircraft make of all this. At last the entire nexus of billboards collapses in entropic Götterdämmerung. When the crew comes out with fire extinguishers, it's all over. There are cheers and whistles. Nobody asks for more. The crowd leaves as if damned glad to go.

Mark Pauline is not a great dramatist. If he were, he'd have a much wider emotional palette. He is, however, a very strong artist. It's impossible to spend any time in Mark's company without coming to respect his commitment and the power of his vision.

The astonishing thing about Pauline's art is that it obeys no logic, no shibboleths and no rules other than the inherent nature of Mark Pauline. He calls it "spectacular machine performance", but what does that coinage mean ? It isn't drama; there are no human beings, no dialogue, scarcely a script. It isn't "destruction derby for the dressed-in-black crowd", because destruction derby, for all its many merits, does not confront you with the very worst feelings you have ever had. It's not "satire", unless a chunk of concrete dropping from a clear blue sky onto somebody's yuppie Saab-mobile also counts as satire. It isn't sculpture, because it won't sit still on a pedestal. If SRL were just some shallow attempt to grandstand and outrage the bourgeoisie, then the effort would have lasted about as long as the average rock band. But Pauline's hair is shot with grey: he's given this effort the best years of his life. It is his life, he has no other.

Take some gravel-hearted techie kid from Florida who knows how to weld boilers, put him in art school and teach him about graphic design and experimental theatre, let him hang out with punk musicians even though he doesn't like music, and he finds his life's work. He gets a savage, brutal hammerlock on his Muse.

Mark doesn't care if it's "art" or if it's "technology". He never looks for reviews in the art press or drama press (though he's quite expert at attracting attention). He rarely teaches or asks for grants or for federal, state, or local art support. He doesn't care if it's "theatre" and doesn't crap out to build special-effects gadgets for Hollywood, where the big money and big audiences are. What Mark Pauline wants (and will have, and has got, despite all odds) is a space to breathe, where he can be a spectacular boilermaker dramatist punk social critic who builds jet engines and rips animal carcasses apart, all at once, all the time, and the rest of the planet will have to accept him on his own terms and no other terms, at all, ever.

He's bent the magnetic lines of postmodern culture into a kind of superconductive arc where he can levitate indefinitely. People sense this about Mark Pauline. This ability is a rare thing, a big thing. The appeal is very strong.

None of this denies the deeply problematic aspects of SRL. SRL's art is ugly, nasty and brutal. Mark has been very honest and straightforward about this. People should take him at his word when he says (as he told New Times, the Phoenix counterculture paper) that he is basically driven by hatred. "I hate the practical world. I hate the way things work. But I don't want to just sit around and be a vegetable. Doing SRL is the best solution I've been able to find because it relieves the pain without causing death." Or when he states bluntly that "all technology is military technology; no technology is civilian technology." Or when he compares his theatre to a military campaign. He isn't kid-ding about any of this.

One might be tempted to think that Mark Pauline is merely promoting his show in the P. T. Barnum tradition, or playing the ever-popular tortured artist. This just isn't the case. Mark Pauline is a creative force first, a human being second, and a nice guy at a very distant tenth.

Mark's work can be shoehorned into the "art" ghetto if you work at it. But it looks and smells very much like certain other kinds of contemporary cultural activity. The holocausts of flaming oil are little versions of the machine dramatics of Saddam Hussein, who set fire to Kuwait just to produce a nice tank-war stage set for a personal attack of megalomania. The sight of machines macerating cattle flesh is an evil but accurate echo of mining machinery in Serb-held Bosnia clumsily obliterating the dead meat of the vanished. Turn up the amps on SRL, adjust your set, and you suddenly have Aum Shinrikyo, gentle New Age vegetarian Pacific Rimsters, many from technical backgrounds, breaking out in a murderous collector's frenzy for neato, high-tech, extremely dangerous stuff. Not just the homemade bottle-rocket sarin-dispensers that got them so much press, but all the other cool Shinrikyo gear: the electronic neuron hats, the stainless steel basements full of giant microwaves, the ninja enforcers buying junked Russian tanks, the big and bouncy botulism breweries, the Ebola virus hunters, the giant chip factories.

None of this happened because a half-blind master criminal in white pyjamas needs his own microchip factory. It happened because the whole deadly clutter of postmodern tech is inherently fascinating in a particularly sickening and dangerous way that most of us cannot rationally sense. It's fascinating and evil, with the same imp-of-the-perverse element that makes humanity's automatic rifles look as lovely as a sonnet while the buildings and cities where we live and work and sleep and love tend to look like the crappy cartons those rifles came in.

This is what Mark's work is about, what Mark Pauline really understands. The invisible becomes visible, everything that is repressed in the sterile prison of so-called rational engineering returns in a hideous and terribly authentic guise of claws and spikes and fangs. Everything that industrial society would prefer to forget and ignore and neglect takes on a pitiless Frankenstein vitality. It isn't beautiful, it isn't nice, it isn't spiritually elevating. It casts the darkest kind of suspicion on the lives we lead and the twisted ingenuity that supports those lives. And it offers us no answers at all.

Bruce Sterling (bruces@well .com), a regular Wired contributor, is author of The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, and editor of Mirror-shades, the definitive document of the cyberpunk movement.