Ready for Prime Time

X-treme Performance Art Moves From the Margin to the Mainstream

Meanwhile, over on Comedy Central, remote-controlled robots fight weekly in BattleBots, and Mark Pauline, who founded Survival Research Laboratories in 1978, says, "It's great because I get arbitrary amounts of publicity. I have like four or five TV spots I could do every month, literally." He just loves turning them down.

An aura of transgression and apocalypse has always surrounded SRL. Their "choreographed rituals of destruction" feature menacingly reimagined machines built from industrial detritus—a Square-Wheeled Car, a sprinkler from hell,plus missile launchers, flamethrowers, and mechanically reanimated animal carcasses.

While SRL has not performed on the East Coast since their 1988 show in the Shea Stadium parking lot, they are still going strong. Eighty or 90 "super-skilled" people are currently involved, says Pauline. The tech boom brought lots of expertise to the Bay Area, where he lives. "Tonight I'm working on the world's first jet-powered remote-controlled hovercraft," he announces on the phone. SRL has also pioneered a way to control their lethal machines over the Internet.

BattleBots, with robots like The Mauler and Vlad the Impaler, tries to cop an SRL attitude. But Pauline says, "Everyone looks at BattleBots, and they go, 'Oh, this is like popcorn machines.' I mean, we get 8000 hits a day on our Web site []. And they just see, 'Oh, SRL is the king.' "

Pauline makes a living buying and selling hi-tech equipment. He says BattleBots contacted him when they started, but, "I'd rather not be associated with them."

Couldn't he make more money working with them, though? Or with Robot Wars on MTV? "Why would I ever want to do that?" Pauline asks. "My reputation would be ruined. And you can't ever buy your reputation back. I have an example to set of being ungovernable."

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