Since 1978, Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), a controversial San Francisco coalition of maverick artists and intelligentsia, has been testing the boundaries of publicly acceptable performance with their thunderous, fiery spectacles utilizing one-of-a-kind machines to articulate philosophical and socially-critical metaphors. In earlier days, founder Mark Pauline engineered billboard ‘improvements’ and transformed the streets of San Francisco into a gallery for his poster art dissemination. Here SRL cohorts John Law, Karen Marcelo and Babalou describe an outdoor performance prank done Halloween, October 31, 1996, at the Roxie Theater.
BABALOU: A new gallery, 111 Minna Street, was opening up and they offered SRL a show in the alley outside. It was gonna be a busy night, Halloween, when there are a lot of people out on the street.
KAREN MARCELO: This was the first show I helped on. We had the running machine and the inchworm—not many machines, because the alley was small. Plus we had some props: a coffin, and a box with a head coming out of it, we reused that for the Austin show.
JOHN LAW: By coincidence, a documentary, Pandemonium, featuring SRL and other performance artists, was premiering at the Roxie Theater. Mark Pauline decided it would be fun to drive the V-1, which looks like a huge rusty cannon, and park it in front. The idea was to turn the thing on, run it a minute, and then get the hell out of there before the cops show up.
B: Mark thought it would be great if the audience watching SRL on the screen would suddenly hear one of the real machines outside. It would be kind of a special event just for them. When Mark pulled up at the Roxie, it was Halloween night and the streets were just jammed and teeming with people some in costume, others not.
JL: About fifteen of us went along to block traffic and prevent cars from being hit by an eighty-foot flame. Mark pulls up, we block the street, he turns the fucking thing on, and it makes this enormous insane noise — windows are vibrating ten blocks away, cars are screeching to a halt, and people on the sidewalk are stopped in their tracks in amazement.
B: Everyone on the street just froze and stared.
JL: Unfortunately, there was a police drug stakeout a block away, and when the cops heard this huge sound, they dropped what they were doing and showed up within a minute. Before Mark could turn the engine off, we were surrounded by cops. Immediately we tried to explain that this was just ‘art.’
B: They asked for a permit, and Mark pulled out a V-1 bomber permit he had made, and they looked at it and went, ‘mmm.’
JL: By this time, the audience was pouring out of the Roxie.
B: A huge crowd assembled immediately. Many of the people were Latinos from the neighborhood. Everyone started chanting, ‘Let him go! Let him go!’ and a bunch of Latinos jumped on the flatbed and were chanting [accent], ‘Let heem go! Let heem go!’
JL: The cops didn’t know what to do. They looked at the crowd, and then they told Mark to haul the V-1 to the police station just around the corner. He drove there followed by the cops, and parked with the tail end of the V1 pointing right into the intersection of Valencia and 17th Streets.
The station lieutenant came out to see what was happening. Immediately, Mark begins explaining the technical minutiae of the V-1 which the cops are puzzled by, wondering what it is. He goes into great detail, and the cops love it, because they want to understand what this apparatus is. The lieutenant’s looking at this huge piece of machinery, and he finally asks, ‘Well, what does it DO?’ Mark goes, ‘Well, I could turn it on.’ And the lieutenant goes, ‘Yeah, go ahead and turn it on!’
So the rest of us, shaking our heads in amazement, go to the intersection and block it, because if a car drives through the flame it might be incinerated. We wait. The V-1 makes this huge, whirring, monstrous noise and we could see (but not hear) the lieutenant jumping up and down, waving his arms and screaming, ‘Shut it off! Shut it off!’ It was a mime.
Mark turns the V-1 off, and the lieutenant is shaken to the core. He realizes that he doesn’t want to file a report on this; he doesn’t want anybody to know that he had anything to do with this event. He says, ‘Look, get in your truck, take this thing out of my precinct and don’t ever come back here, ever again! Just get the fuck out of here!’ Mark got in his truck and drove off.
The lieutenant didn’t want to do any paperwork on this; he didn’t want anyone to know this had happened in his precinct, because then he would have to explain it. ‘Now let me understand this, Lieutenant Jones. You instructed this artist to turn on his V-1 rocket engine which spit out eighty-foot flames into the middle of Valencia Street you instructed him to turn this machine on? Is that correct?’ It could have ruined his career. That’s the beauty of this. And there’s no evil intent here; Mark’s just having fun doing his art. And no one was hurt.
The thing about cops is: they’re working class guys and they don’t want to get into any trouble. They don’t want to rock the boat (but the younger, gung-ho cops are more dangerous). You never want to lie to them, because they’re trained to know when you’re lying. You don’t offer information. And when you answer questions, you couch your answers in the best possible light. Every cop, regardless of how intelligent or stupid he is, has been trained to know when people lie to them. If you’re lying, they know you’re lying’ they can tell. So don’t ever lie to them.
If what you’re doing isn’t overtly destructive or criminal (theft, or assaulting someone), if they look at the situation and go, ‘Nobody’s really hurt by this. And there’s thirty people here dressed up as clowns, if I arrest these guys, I gotta do the paperwork. And it’s a bullshit charge that’s gonna get thrown out.’ So if your group of a hundred people is polite to the police, doesn’t give ’em a hard time, and doesn’t lie to them, the cops will probably let you go. So don’t piss them off by saying, ‘Fuck the pigs!’ or make them feel small or stupid.
The other thing about cops: they sense fear. If you’re afraid of them, they know it. They’re trained to sense fear, and they’re trained to know if you’re lying. So don’t be afraid of them, don’t lie to them, and you’ll have a much better interchange with them. These aren’t the guys running the world, they’re just getting a paycheck, and their job is to protect rich people’s property, because that’s what they get paid to do.
So, be real friendly, helpful, forthcoming. Describe in minute detail all the art, history, and literary and filmic connections that inspire you’ do it until they’re pulling their hair out, wishing you’d shut up. You tell the truth! Mark can talk for hours about the mechanical, technical and computer aspects of his machines, and it’s brilliant. And the cops know it’s true, and often they get really into it. They’re interested in learning things, just like anyone, and they know he’s telling the truth . . .