Every era has its heroes, every gallery, its artists; and everyone between New York and California was excited to see a collision of the two at Marlborough Contemporary in January 2018. Anarchists, builders, and inventors of ritualistic technological warfare turned satiric spectacle, Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), launched their first ever commercial gallery exhibition in Manhattan titled: Inconsiderate fantasies of negative acceleration characterized by sacrifices of a non-consensual nature. Established in San Francisco in 1978 by Mark Pauline, SRL quickly became an oversized, and in a way, under-appreciated staple of the Bay Area, known best for their boundary-pushing industrial nihilist public acts of mayhem.
How did a group so controversial end up in a blue chip international art gallery in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood? On the one hand, the gallery showing felt like a confirmation that the glory days of SRL’s bold performances were over. Some might say those days had ended as far back as 1995 when they were banned entirely from executing their radical events in San Francisco. Whispers of, “I remember when,” filled the gallery, along with head shakes and talk of SRL finally selling out. This was the first time work was for sale in a gallery, including fire-breathing robots like Mr. Satan and large format kinetic sculptures like Spine Robot. An explosion of wood lies contained inside the iconic Pitching Machine, as evidence of Marlborough’s opening night street rally where SRL shot 6 foot 2x4’s at a velocity of 120 miles per hour at dummies inside a fiberglass chamber, their most dangerous creation.
It would be premature to see the white cube of the gallery as robotic graveyard for SRL. The number of New Yorkers and transient gallery-hoppers who attended the opening – which amounted to a child’s play scale demonstration of SRL mechanics – signified the absolute importance of the cultural contribution of the group and their residual curiosities. In turn, the possible tombstone tagline “here lies…” was revived as simply, “listen,” to its human audience. In listening for the echoes of past performances on video screens held by sculptures like Fanuc Robot Arm, one could feel the palpable tension of the post-apocalyptic machine art wreaking necessary havoc on the streets of San Francisco in the 70’s and 80’s. The gallery provided a new way to engage with the machines and appreciate their engineering and rawness. Removed from their regular chaotic context into a macro stillness, their battle scars were shown proudly.
SRL’s argument is not the vitality of art but its absurdity. The revered group has formulated extensive questions of political activism and gone beyond any previous explorations in much of their work, modifying old military components into futile yet beautiful machines in a mockery of budgeting. What makes SRL so unique is their confrontational method, their materials, their inclusiveness, their style of openness and most importantly their self-cultivated history. No other collective has left such an impression, on or off the gallery scene.