"Producing the most dangerous shows on earth", as SRL (Survival Research Laboratories) state their motto on the official website really says it all. Just by looking at the pictures of their events, you start feeling a certain degree of unease as you look at the dramatic and war-like scenarios they create.
SRL has already staged more than 50 shows, most of them in the United States, but also in Europe, and Japan (Tokyo 1997 & 1999). After their infamous show in Downtown Los Angeles in July 2002, they returned to stage the most insane spectacle I have ever witnessed in LA's Chinatown. This must have been the closest I ever came to experiencing a true war-like situation.
There had not been any advertisement in the city or the magazines, and it was not before the day of the show that I found out through a friend who subscribes to SRL's mailing list that it was going to happen again, this night on January 21, 2006 at the Chung King Court in LA's Chinatown.
It was the opening night of the exhibition at the Fringe Gallery in Chinatown. Next to various pictures and sculptures/machines of previous shows, they had the screening of a documentary film on SRL and its founder Mark Pauline in the basement. He founded SRL in 1978 as an organiziation of creative technicians dedicated to find new ways of employing and combining various techniques, tools and industrial machines to create an interaction of fighting machines and robots. The fact that Pauline own hand was mangled in an explosion in 1982 shows the experimental approach and the degree of danger that Pauline exposed himself to when starting the group.
After several confrontations with the police in the group's hometown San Francisco, SRL was used to being in trouble and the local newspaper even described them as "a local team of guerrilla inventors...They specialize in public spectacles in which remote-controlled machines clash violently, with uncertain risks to audience and crew alike..." (San Francisco Chronicle April 09, 1992).
This being my first encounter with the unique concept of SRL, I was at first a bit shocked to see the footage of an event, being commented by Pauline by stating that he thinks no one should be trusted and that he does not want anybody to trust what SRL is doing. That certainly made me think and it was not much later at the show that I found out what he meant.
The performance was staged on a nearby parking lot, featuring various of SRL's machines and robots. We saw a large Godzilla like alligator head and two paws suspended in the middle of the stage, surrounded by the various inventions of Pauline's genius mind. There was only a thin wooden fence to protect the audience from the machines. As we looked around we noticed someone standing on the balcony of a nearby building and decided to give it a try. So we sneaked around the back alley to get access to the perfect view point for the show that was just about to begin.
Although the theme of the performance was called "The Fish Boy's Dream", it seemed that the puppet of the boy was having more of a nightmare than a dream, as he was continuously being stabbed in the head. The puppet was sitting at a desk beneath the left paw of the alligator figure and a sharp rod kept piercing the head and back of the puppet, pulling it ouf the chair. Meanwhile the crew ran around with their radio remote controls to choerograph the fights of the machines and robots as they were battling each other and the flame thrower mounted to a forklift torched the alligator.
However, the robots did not only fight each other, but they also kept banging against the thin wooden fence, driving the audience back and leaving a lasting memory. The show featured various robots such as the "Running Machine" and an improved version of the "Sneaky Soldiers", a near life sized army of revolutionaries. (For more information see srl.org).
Most noteably of all the machines might have been the "Hovercraft" which was racing around and making insane noise at a level of 150 decibels which is louder than a cruise missile before its explosion.
It is through the spectacular performance and the special effects that the socio-political satire that SRL is enacting, might easily be overlooked. Again Pauline's words ring in my head: "...we do not want you to trust us..." Then suddenly another explosion and dozens of small white human puppets are hurled into the air and cover the area. One member of the crew sees us standing on the balcony and starts throwing the puppets at us. One eventually hits me on my chest, leaving a black & wet spot as the puppets had been soaked in some liquid.
After the fire and the noise has died down, a strange feeling of happiness starts to dwell inside of me. A feeling of relief to have survived the war between the machines: I take my small little white human puppet friend home with me. After washing the black dirt from the puppet, I take pleasure in looking at the innocent white of my little human.
SRL at Fringe Exhibition
Date : 21st January - 25th February, 2006
Address : 504 Chung King Court, Los Angeles, CA 90012
Text and Photos: Christopher Lenz