If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
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Mark Pauline and Survival Research Laboratories are leading exponents of machine performance. Since 1979, they have staged a unique series of performance events, that often times come closer to dangerous spectator sport than theatre. Their shows feature absolutely no human performers, but are centered around the violent interactions of menacingly reconstructed industrial equipment, plus a variety of weapons and special effects devices. In each piece, a group of these machines are activated by the artist through a central control panel and automatic signal generators, to develop various themes of socio-political satire.
This interview was conducted with Pauline at his San Francisco junkyard home preceding his latest show, A Cruel and Relentless Plot to Pervert the Flesh of Beasts to Un-Holy Uses.
Bill Edmondson You first became known on the West Coast through a series of violent and sexually explicit billboard alterations you did in 1978. When did you get the idea for machine performance?
Mark Pauline I’ve always been into machines; when I was a teenager I had a bunch of motorcycles, and when I got older I worked as a mechanic. So when the billboard thing exhausted itself, I decided to do it. I had many ideas—violent fantasies I’ve had all my life—that could best be worked out in that way.
Also, at the time I was making a lot of money by breaking into abandoned factories and stealing brass and other kinds of scrap metal, and selling it. I’d go into these factories and see all this great industrial equipment, and I just started collecting it in large quantities and working with it.
BE I think machines were a very logical continuation of the billboards, because …
MP I did the billboards because I wanted to give my ideas some amplification and voltage, by being as public and shocking as possible; with machines I take the same themes—violence, sex, and politics—and I amplify them even more. Machines force the audience to feel the idea—to feel the discomfort and fear my satires create; it’s a thrill, a sensation, but a sensation with an idea, and people can’t help but take notice, and absorb it. A machine is much more powerful and dangerous than any human and when they interact violently, it creates something too powerful to forget.
BE When you first started making machines, did you see them as a form of kinetic sculpture, as well as an element you could incorporate into theater?
MP No, they were always intended to be used as tools in performance; the idea of them as sculpture or some kind of artifact never occurred to me at that time … I never made them to sell or sit idly in some gallery and collect dust.
BE Describe Machine Sex, the first machine piece you did in February of 1979.
MP Machine Sex was done at a Chevron gas station, shortly after an OPEC price rise. I had built this de-manufacturing machine that was like a giant food processor, called The Shredder, It was made out of a big triangular shaped drum, with a plexi-gears dome over it, and a conveyer belt you can tie objects to, leading into it, So I tied on a bunch of pigeons I’d killed with a wrist rocket slingshot I made, and dressed them up in little paper Arab doll costumes. Then I activated the machine, and fed in the pigeons, where they were chopped up by a succession of very sharp blades. After that, their remains were ejected out the sides—blown out about 15 or 20 feet, so the audience got hit with globs of feathers, blood, guts, and bone. And for the soundtrack, I used that song that’s based on The Stranger by Albert Camus—you know, “I am the stranger killing an Arab.”
BE Not long after “Machine Sex,” you did a piece called Assured Destructive Capability, where you used a machine called The Stabber, to mutilate a life-size image of Leonid Brezhnev.
MP Yeah, The Stabber is a machine with this mechanical arm and hand that can grasp different objects. It’s got different speed settings, and rollers that can pull a long length of two-dimensional images along, and expose them for striking, usually by a blade that’s held in the hand of the mechanical arm. In that show we not only smashed Brezhnev up—God rest his soul—but we had explosives wired up in back of the old boy’s eyes, which we eventually blew out; that was followed by big, long, spurts of green slime, that looked like pus! We also sent an engraved invitation to the Consulate General of the Peoples Republic of China; I don’t know if he came or not, but I hope he did.
BE Have you ever considered incorporating any human elements in your work?
MP That would undermine the whole concept. However, I did use human performers in a piece called A Fiery Presentation of a Dangerous and Disturbing Stunt Persona but only in a very cruel and destructive way. In that one, my assistants and I had bombs and rockets attached to our backs—with protective metal plates worn underneath—which we would detonate intermittently, knocking us down; one guy even had a rocket wired to his leg that shot off. And I had my assistant, Mattie Heckert, drive this real weird looking go-cart I made, through flaming and exploding troughs of gasoline,
In that show we also used the audience; but not so much as performers, but as targets! Yeah! Like Mattie had this flame thrower he kept on shooting toward the audience, and I had my radio control oar (a seven hundred pound life-size car that’s run by radio control with no driver) with a giant buzz saw attached to the front of it, go berserk. I made it careen completely out of control, break through this plexiglass protection barrier, and run out into the audience, knocking people over! Yeah, we used people in that show, but purely as targets to be threatened with destruction!
BE Was that one, on An Unfortunate Spectacle of Violent Self-Destruction, your most violent piece to date?
MP They were both extremely violent—like all my stuff—but An Unfortunate Spectacle of Violent Self-Destruction was more intense, and very, very, dangerous. Besides using a lot of different machines, I employed a wide variety of weapons, and the most extreme array of explosives I could think of, or at least get my hands. I used my laser—a high-powered carbon dioxide laser, that’s about six feet long and can burn a hole through a ? inch metal plate a few hundred feet away; my exploding dart guns, which are giant automatic air guns—with about four hundred pounds of compressed air—that shoot exploding dart-like shells; a huge catapult that was manned by four guys at once, that shot rocks and iron spears at a target—a giant image of this guy’s face—plus a lot of rockets and high-explosive land mines.
BE You incorporate a lot of humor in your work—you make violence funny.
MP By making people laugh, I break down a lot of the barriers I’ve set up by creating uncomfortable and frightening situations. My work creates feelings of tension and anxiety; laughter relaxes people, so it makes it easier for them to absorb an idea. It’s a lot like your typical comic relief in a horror movie, only my shows are funny from beginning to end.
BE I think perhaps the most interesting element you work with is the Organic Robot (parts of dead animals grafted onto machines). How did you arrive at this particular concept?
MP Well, the first one—the first one I know of at least—was made by my friend, Monte Cazzaza, and I thought it was great. I’ve always liked the idea of raising the dead, and the whole concept of raising the dead by reanimating their flesh and making them machines, really appealed to me. The first one we made was named “Piggley Wiggley.” Monte and I made him out of a pig’s carcass and a cow’s head we cut off; he had little pig’s feet, and a little arm that had parts in it so he could paw out like a wounded animal. On the inside, he had a motor that would make him vibrate, so his head would shake back and forth real violently. Since then, I’ve made them out of rabbits, dogs and several other animals.
BE Of course we all know what the ultimate organic robot would have to be. Have you ever …
MP Thought of using human parts? I think about it all the time. But the only way I could get away with it, would be for someone to legally will me their body after they die, and specify it’s for that reason.
BE Your most recent piece, A Cruel and Relentless Plot to Pervert the Flesh of Beasts to Un-Holy Uses, employed many organic robots. Explain the part they played.
MP Well, the whole show was centered around the concept of the organic robot—of bringing back the dead. What we did is there in the title: Pervert the Flesh of Beasts to Un-Holy Uses. We got these old, dead mummified dogs, that we found in the train tunnels, brought them back to life and taught them to do tricks—you can teach a dead dog new tricks—which is something many people would think to be unholy. My assistants and I trained these dead dogs to do unholy tricks, through the servants of both God and Satan, who to me are one and the same. That’s the unholy part; now, some of the tricks were … were like what Stink Dog did! Stink Dog was this dog we found that had only been dead for a few days, that stunk really bad and was covered with maggots. We put him up on top of this wooden platform with a rope tied around his collar, that was hooked up to this pulley device. At a certain point in the show, we pulled him down onto this bed of nails, and dragged him across, ripping him to shreds.
BE What role did the image of Billy Graham play?
MP We had Billy—this enormous image of Billy Graham, with flapping, mechanical arms, that held two mummified dogs—up there because he’s a real “barker”—a con man—who’s much more convincing than your average ol’ devil. He was there acting as a servant of Satan, to instruct the training, and to convince people of our sincerity about the use of these dogs. After his mission was completed, we sent him back to hell by torching him with a flame thrower. And of course Satan himself was there in the form of the radio car, that had this mechanical mummy dog on it, whose head spun around real fast like in The Exorcist. And then we also had the Mummy-Go-Round, which was this round, motorized cylinder type thing, with dog carcasses attached to it, that spun around while I used my laser to burn holes in their decayed flesh … It looked like a bunch of dogs chasing eachother’s tails, while they were engulfed by flames.
BE That show was originally scheduled for last July, but was postponed until November because you had a bit of an accident. Explain what happened.
MP I blew my fuckin’ hand off! I was working on this rocket I’d built that was propelled by a highly combustible NASA rocket fuel, that has roughly the same components as the stuff they used for the Space Shuttle … I was in the process of taking the engine out, when I accidentally bumped it on the side. After that, all I remember is seeing this giant flash of white light, and then waking up on the ground about 50 feet away, and looking at my hand and seeing only this bloody stump.
BE I imagine this has affected your ability to work quite a bit.
MP (laughter) It’s affected my work in that I don’t use that type of fuel for my rockets anymore—instead, I use the stuff they use for the MX80 missile! No, just kidding! Seriously, it really hasn’t affected me all that much because I’m left-handed, and it was my right one I lost. I’ve adjusted to it very well because I’ve had to, and it hasn’t been all that difficult.
BE Where did you get the name Survival Research Laboratories?
MP I stole it from an ad some fly-by-night arms dealing company put in Soldier of Fortune magazine a few years back.
BE Do you identify yourself in any way with the growing hard-core survivalist movement?
MP In many ways, yeah.
BE How do you incorporate your survivalist philosophy in your work?
MP Our whole covert operation. How we gather our supplies and materials. I mean, just the idea that we salvage these materials—complete junk—and can assemble these machines that can function in more than one way, and can be taken apart and rebuilt into something different, sets us up as an example. This knowledge gives us a definite edge over your average pencil pusher who’ll be completely helpless once the shit hits the fan, and the hard times come.
BE Is “Performance Art” a label you relate to?
MP No, I mean, it’s alright if someone wants to call me that, but I don’t think of myself as that, nor do most people. I think most people view me as a maniac. Like whenever I do a show, I always make the paper and the ten o’clock news, but it’s always treated as a media event, rather than art. They always have me on with all the murderers and sex offenders … I act on my animal instincts like any other maniac or criminal, but I also act on my creative ones, which makes me more legitimate.
BE I get the impression that you really haven’t been influenced much by the work of other artists.
MP No, not really … of course there’s always been people whose work I’ve liked and respected, but they really haven’t had a strong influence on the stuff I’m doing now.
BE However, I do detect a very strong literary influence: Burroughs, Colin Wilson, and of course, J. G. Ballard.
MP Yeah, literature—fiction—and horror films, have always been a good source for me as far as ideas and images go.
BE You knew, a lot of people I know that have only read about you, or have seen your video tapes, have automatically compared you with Jean Tinguely or Dennis Oppenheim, of course.
MP I’m similar to these guys only in that I use machines and explosives. I think my intentions are much different than theirs; I don’t think they want to shock and amaze people one hundred percent—if they did, they’d go about what they do in a completely different fashion. Now, when I say this, I’m actually talking about Oppenheim—I don’t really know that much about Tinguely to comment. My machines are big, manical instruments of violent brute force and murder, and the way I use them coincides with the way they look. The images I try to create are crowded and chaotic. I like imagery like … like a million sick and dying people thrown into the Black Hole of Calcutta when it’s 120 degrees and no sun … Oppenheim’s approach is also a lot more academic than mine and as a result, attracts mostly sophisticates; I get them too, but I also get people like the Hell’s Angels and some of the guys from the local VFW post. But what I think it really comes down to, is that I’m bad and the people I work with are bad.
Bill Edmondsen is a journalist living and working in Chicago.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.