A day with Survival Research Labs

News.com reporter risks life and ego at a post-industrial robot and fire art show. Photos: SRL fires up

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--It's Friday morning and I'm standing in a cement lot just south of the San Jose Convention Center brandishing a fire extinguisher.

I'm spending the day as a volunteer gofer for the first full-scale Survival Research Labs show in the Bay Area in 10 years. And while I'm pretty much low man on the totem pole, I've discovered that by simply holding onto this big red metal tank I'm doing ultra-crucial duty.

That's because, I'm informed, the fire marshal has just arrived to check on the safety procedures for this show. Thus, it's clear that having someone looking ready to pounce on any wayward flames--should they suddenly appear as gas tanks are filled, fuel is pushed through hoses at high pressure and sparks are flying here and there--would probably be a good idea.

"What you're doing is the most important job on the site," I'm told by a Survival Research Labs crew member.

SRL's fire machines

SRL, as the group is known, is on hand here for one of its trademark shows of fire breathing, metal crunching, electricity shooting, high-speed wood tossing and very, very loud machinery.

"Since its inception SRL has operated as 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 or warfare," the collective's Web site states. "Each (SRL) 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."


The truth is that the humans are very much present, even if they are dwarfed by the size of some of the post-apocalyptic, industrial gear-gnashing equipment that makes up an SRL show. And, never having gotten to see one of their performances before, I was eager to see first-hand what putting on such a production entails.

And that's why I've come here, to work for a day inside the belly of SRL.

Seat-of-the-pants procedures
It's clear that while these are people who are very skilled at what they do, there is more than a lot of the kind of seat-of-the-pants operational procedures that some municipalities might well be scared of.

For example, minutes after I arrive for my shift, one crew member asks if I can call his cell phone so that he can find it where it lies buried in a heap of sleeping bags and other random stuff in the back of his car, where he'd grabbed a few winks in the middle of more than 30 hours of solid preparation.

An SRL show is not something that happens overnight. This show, titled "Ghostly Scenes of Infernal Desecration," was not only granted permits by the city of San Jose, it was in fact highly touted in the city's weeklong interactive technology festival, ZeroOne.

And therefore, the SRL crew, or many members of it, have been working here for about a week--and this after several weeks of machine construction at its headquarters in San Francisco.

In any case, after saving the day with my special brand of fire extinguisher brandishment--read: making sure I'm pointing it roughly in the direction of something that might explode or catch on fire--I am instructed to head off to the hardware store in search of what turns out to be a very long list of random hose clamps, pipe fittings, earmuffs, aluminum sheeting and more.

But just as I am getting ready to do so, they tell me to go get four giant propane tanks filled. And let me tell you, there is little that fills me with more excitement than the prospect of carting around in my own car enough propane to take out a small building.

At the propane shop, though, I discover that there's a wee problem: The technician there won't touch two of the tanks, as they're covered in grease and oil and he fears they could ignite.

So a few harried cell phone calls back to the SRL site later, a friend arrives in her car to clean the tanks and attempt to sweet-talk the nice propane shop gentleman into giving us the fuel. She does. And he does.

In the meantime, the friend and I switch cars, and now I'm entrusting her to drive those four tanks of propane back to the SRL site in my car while I take hers to the hardware store. As I'm driving--she informs me, by the way, that her brakes aren't working too well--I'm trying to decide if anyone's insurance would cover my car if for some reason it suddenly exploded in the middle of downtown San Jose. Probably not, I guess.

At the hardware store, I weave a shopping cart up and down the aisles, in desperate search of all the right parts and pieces that the SRL crew has asked me to get. And I have to admit that it's not as easy as it should be, as I really don't know that much about this stuff. So eventually, I check out, $400 lighter and 600 feet of orange construction site fencing heavier.

A gofer's world
When I make it back to the site, I find out once again why my job is clearly the most important of anyone's.

I return and go up to one of the SRL artists--who is building a machine whose destructive powers come from a jerry-rigged Boeing engine--and tell him I couldn't find the particular pipe fittings he had asked for. He huffily informs me that he might as well stop working because he can't proceed without them.

Ah, power.

Needless to say, I want to see the show go off, so I return to the hardware store and find the pieces.

Later, as the evening staff-meeting approaches, someone suggests I head off to get coffee for the crew.

So a fellow gofer and I navigate the streets of downtown San Jose in search of a Starbucks, and I'm lamenting missing the meeting and the fascinating information that will be discussed. I'm thinking that fetching coffee isn't really what I signed up for.

But then I realize that yet again, the fate of the show is in my hands, since who wouldn't feel important providing the caffeine that could be the difference between crew members falling asleep at the wheel of a dangerous machine and, well, not doing so.

At 10:46 p.m. the show finally begins, just a tad late, but not so much so that the sold-out crowd of 2,000 is restless. And what a show it is.

Afterward, long after the paying public has left, the crew and many hangers-on are still partying. It looks a little bit like I imagine a bombed out city would look: huge char marks and broken, twisted wood everywhere.

But this is not a disaster zone. It's a party, and the SRL crew is letting off weeks' worth of steam as they continue playing with their "toys" late into the evening.

At one point, I join several others who are lying down on the ground directly underneath a trio of very large propane-belching fire cannons.

And as they blast huge plumes of fire into the air above us, cooking us briefly in intense heat, the only sounds I hear are the squeals of delight of everyone around me.

And all I could think, as I squealed along with them, was, only two weeks until Burning Man.