Mechanical hulks bring the flame to the party

Survival Research Labs' fiery ritual pits remote-controlled mechs against flammable sculptures at an arts fest. Reporter's notebook: A day with Survival Research Labs

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
SAN JOSE, Calif.--Remote-controlled mechanical creations belched flame, torched flammable sculptures and shot sparks high into the sky before some 2,000 spectators here late Friday night.

The hour-long ritual was put on by Survival Research Labs, a Northern California performance arts group populated by mad hardware hackers armed with welding torches and copious quantities of flammable liquids.

Before Robot Wars, before Monster Garage, before BattleBots, there was SRL, which traces its history to the late 1970s and can credibly claim to be the granddaddy of live shows involving violence between monstrous steel creations.

SRL's fire machines

SRL founder Mark Pauline has complained that imitators--including the competitions that became moderately successful television shows--have "no content." SRL describes its shows as unique because machines are "employed in developing themes of socio-political satire."

It is that and more. A Los Angeles show earlier this year featured an 18-foot-tall wooden Trojan horse. A 1992 show in Austria (when Serbs and Croat forces were battling about 45 miles away) featured military-inspired hardware including a V-1 jet engine, an electromagnetic rail gun, and a remotely operated gun that fired exploding projecticles.

"SRL enjoys nearly unlimited freedom to engage in both decadent technical extravagance, and unapologetically acerbic social commentary," Pauline wrote after the show in Austria, which was held in an abandoned toilet paper factory.

Central to Pauline's efforts is a collection of animated machinery that are primarily remote-controlled by SRL members standing on the sidelines, though the group has experimented in with allowing some of the mechanical contraptions to be controlled through the Internet.

Those beasts--SRL's guidelines say they should weigh at least 1,000 pounds, breathe fire, and preferably be "lethal to humans"--go by names like Air Launcher, the Pitching Machine and the Track Robot. Some use jet engines, and some are principally flamethrowers on wheels.

On Friday, SRL's Shockwave Cannon rattled windows for at least half a mile around the show's location in the parking lot of the convention center here. Its monstrous Tesla Coil emitted 10-foot sparks that caused nervous audience members to scurry backward more than once.

Pauline has personally experienced how dangerous SRL's contraptions can be. When preparing rocket fuel for a show, Pauline struck a wooden rod wedged in the propellant with a hammer and lost most of the fingers of his right hand in the explosion. Doctors grafted his big toe where his thumb had been so the hand could still be used for grasping. (No wonder SRL calls its performances the "most dangerous shows on Earth.")

That frisson of danger, made real by self-propelled and not always well-controlled mechanical hulks spewing geysers of flame, is what lures both spectators and local fire and police authorities. SRL proudly posts Pauline's 1995 arrest warrant on its Web site on charges of holding an unlicensed event called "Crime Wave" on Beale Street in San Francisco, and the group reportedly has been banned from holding events in San Francisco, Seattle, Phoenix and Austin, Texas. (Animal-rights activists are another threat: SRL performances occasionally include large bovine carcasses.)

To secure permission to hold Friday's event in San Jose, SRL piggybacked onto the ZeroOne electronic arts festival, which is sponsored by the city and Bay Area companies such as Adobe Systems, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems.

It almost didn't work. About 90 minutes before the show, the San Jose fire marshal showed up for an evening inspection and announced that he was hardly happy with what he saw.

In a tense meeting with SRL members, the fire marshal informed them he was upset because he felt he hadn't been told in earlier meetings how many of the SRL machines were intended for shooting fire.

"I'm going to make a decision right now," the marshal said. "If you want flame, you're going to have to restrict it to one fire machine (at a time)...If you can have one at a time, I can live with that." But, he said, "I'm not going to have" multiple machines belching fire simultaneously.

To some SRL veterans, this evoked memories of previous shows. For example, one said, at a show in 1998, the crew was informed with just minutes to go that they couldn't use fire at all. Rather than cancel that show with thousands of ticket buyers already present, SRL held a rare fire-free event.

During the show, however, at least four or five machines were either on fire or shooting flames at each other. It wasn't clear whether a compromise had been reached, the fire marshal had backed down, or SRL had simply ignored the request.

Another unusual feature of Friday's show is that SRL representatives sent out last-minute e-mail messages to photographers claiming that images and video of the event could not legally be used "in books, newspapers, magazines" or news Web sites.

But because the event was held on city property, because it was visible from the street and nearby homes, and because the tickets sold through Ticketmaster contained no restrictions on photography, SRL's request did not appear to be legally enforceable. It was also being widely ignored: Hundreds of glowing LCD screens lit up the night as audience members recorded the mechanical carnage in front of them.

CNET News.com's Daniel Terdiman contributed to this report.