For those who haven't heard of SRL, how would you describe the lab, its performances, and its goals?
It's something I started back in '79. I had a certain skill background -- I liked using skills that I had, but I didn't like having "jobs" very much. So, I figured out something where I could use what I had previously learned -- like fabrication skills, 'propaganda' skills from college -- and applied them and came up with the SRL system. I basically thought it up over a period of a couple weeks.
I started as an organization. I formed my activities under the auspices of a company, the corporate auspices of SRL -- Survival Research Laboratories. For a couple of years I did it on my own, and it's now turned into a thing where a lot of other people are involved. It is more or less an organization, although it is a very loose association until there is a show on the horizon.
It's a pretty interesting and intense integration of all sorts of different people from different skill backgrounds and cultural backgrounds while setting up the shows. I, as the 'art director', develop the theme of how it is going to be implemented. I co-ordinate all of the activities that have gone on in the months leading up to that into an event that hopefully represents in some way the work that has been done -- the conclusion of all that work. Presenting it to the public is always a part of that.
...and the machines?
We build machines of a fairly large size -- they are very extreme. Basically they are constructed by a basic plan which is the basic cry of physicists everywhere: you want to release the most energy in the shortest period of time. SRL machines are pretty much modeled after that creed. Basically we make these devices very extreme -- some of the machines are very large and weigh up to a couple of tons. We build very elaborate sets that stage performances where there is a theme, and the machines have sequences of interactions, and these last about an hour. Ever since 1980, the audiences have been between one and five thousand people. We've done about 47 of these shows since I started doing it in '79.
How does technology and art interact at SRL?
At SRL the lines are very blurred. The kind of skills ideas that go into the machines at SRL and the way that technology is portrayed is similar to the way that technology is portrayed in the schemes of the military. The similarities between SRL and the military's use of technology is that we're both trying to extract the most extreme performances out of the devices that we are dealing with, and trying to make a deep impression on people. In our case, we are trying to get an audience to sit still for an hour while trying to present a narrative production with machines as the actors. You've got to have all sorts of extreme devices to hypnotize people into seeing it as a connected sequence of events, instead of discrete elements or just machines moving around.
We employ a lot of the same techniques to get in the military -- it's a suspension of belief. In the military the suspension of belief is that you can win when you're up against technology. In our case, the suspension of belief is to try to get beyond the normality of everyday life -- to get beyond that and put the audience in a different state.
How would you best describe your narrative?
There is a sequence of events: a script for each show. The intention is to maximize the effects of all the devices there -- to present them in an order that allows the set to be used most efficiently. Of course, things happen during the show that often provide opportunities that you couldn't have imagined and so there is a lot of improvisation.
For instance, during the shows we're all on headsets. I direct the actions on almost a second by second basis, trying and maximize the effects. I try to drive the whole show, while the other people try to drive the devices. We try to co-ordinate everything and yet not narrate it as something with a language is narrated, like a book or a play. It's more like a connected series of events.
The reason you want to have a narrative sense to it is because the ultimate goal of the show is to make it look like it is a real world, like a habitat for these devices -- that they belong here and this is what the machines do here. The aesthetics pretty much revolve around that.
Do you see SRL as having a goal -- influencing the audience into considering things they wouldn't have considered before the show?
Well, I think that the relationship that most people have with technology is very formal. In fact most people have no relationship with technology except through their work: to make money at their jobs. At SRL, we try to take these kinds of things, and use those kinds of cliches and the way they are usually analyzed. We take them, pick them apart and re-combine them into the images and ideas that we present at the shows. I think for some people it calls into question -- reminds or even haunts them -- of the things that connect with their day to day relationship with technology.
Also, SRL combines the technology in a way so that the machines form a show. Not a just show, but a S-H-O-W. There aren't too many specifics about it. I'm accused of having all sorts of political stripes from Neo-nazi to far left. Just because we're not specific about our shows, we get accused of being everything.
I was under the impression that SRL was meant to probe into the misuses and the scary possibilities of technology -- 'the paradise of technology gained is soon lost'.
Well, we're just a bunch of pokey kind of people. We go around and make fun of things. The attitude pervades this place, I mean, most of the people here are skeptical, too. Anything that goes up is for grabs: any kind of cultural image or icon. The common thing around here is playing that role, doing the things that you're not supposed to do -- jumping of the cliff instead of just looking off the edge. I really don't know what kind of effect we have on other people.
I mean certainly just the idea that you can do something like this is a statement. SRL is the only organization in the U.S. that does big experimental shows. There's no one else in the country -- there's really nothing like it in the world. The fact that we even exist is something, we are showing that it's not an impossible task... even to just do big shows is a political statement...
I mean, there's so much lame performance art that rich people are into. If the artist wants to get out of the ghetto, they have to be more traditional. My approach is more the opposite -- I try to be more out of control.
In a lot of ways it's made it hard for us to do things. I just got a show banned last month, after working on it 5 or 6 weeks. We have a horrible reputation with the regulatory people because we do crazy shows. We've been doing it for years -- instead of telling the traditional lies -- so there's a lot of 'penalties' to be paid. We definitely can't do as many shows as often because 9 times out of 10 the shows get stopped by the regulatory people before they even happen.
Does it add something to the shows when they do happen?
Well, no... It's just a drag, it's stupid. People get in your way because they think you're making fun of them. It's strictly a power struggle. That's certainly the case with the fire department. It's sort of bizarre to think that you're threatening the fire departments of the world. Obviously we are because they know of us in an awful amount of cities.
Even though it's difficult for us to get shows, we always eventually do them. The fact that people seek to interfere with us is only a measure of how threatening it is -- which is a measure of how important it is. That's just the way it goes: it comes with the territory. I could obviously organize myself so that I didn't pose a threat. I would be able to get shows left and right and probably be rich and living in a nice house. But to me, that's not my role.
I have a quote here from your FTP site ... it says: "The fact of the matter is that if artists don't become conversant with technology then they will just be left out of the culture more than they are now." What do you see as a good combination between art and technology?
Well, I think that with any kind of use with technology you have to be aware of what you are doing -- you have to be aware that you are using a tool and aware that that's not the goal in itself -- you are trying to do something with this thing. I think that with normal uses of technology -- like when you're trying to make a product or you're doing R & D -- there is always a serious goal that cuts through all the bullshit. Usually in this case, you're trying to make money for your company. Most people making technology are just cranking stuff out.
In the arts it's different because there really isn't any specific goal. I think that a lot of people who start getting into technology just to get into it for its own sake. You have to be very careful of that. But on the other hand, you can do stuff with technology that you can't do in any other way -- and that's the only reason to use it. It's the whole thing that this society respects.
I think that if I don't know the technology it's worse than getting caught up in it for its own sake. I mean, I'm sorry, but you're just not going to be taken seriously if you are a painter. Rich people will take you seriously, but what you do will never mean anything in this society. Your only alternative is to take on some kind of mantle of technology and learn ways to use it -- or you'll never get anyone's attention.
It takes an enormous amount of time to build these machines. I'm now working on a machine which is the most complicated thing I've ever done. And normally it would have taken me a couple of years of screwing around with it to get it working. But compressing that into seven or eight months -- its a drag to work so hard on one stupid machine, but nobody else would ever make anything that complicated. I mean, you can do things here that you can't do any other way.
If it's your ultimate goal as a creative person to do something original then it takes ten times more time. You have to use technology, or you just aren't going to do anything original. You just will be doing shit that's been done already. That what it means to be doing something creative -- it's to be doing something that no one has figured out yet.
How do you go about recruiting people for the lab?
People just come around -- it's pretty informal. People just come by, and if they like what's going on here, they usually stick around. And when there's a show, they just kind of coalesce on the place. Usually we have about a hundred people working on the shows in the last couple of weeks. But normally, there are about twenty or thirty people that are the "core" SRL people.
There are people that come by here everyday. Sometimes they do stuff, sometimes they don't.
So there's no money involved...
There's no money, honey.
People come in and you just let them use the lab?
People come in all the time and work on stuff, and I figure out work for them to do and they just do it. There's also people that I help facilitate making their own machines, and I do whatever I can to make sure they get machine parts or tools. I have pretty good connections for all sorts of weird stuff. As a result, a lot of stuff comes my way that I don't always want. So, I distribute it to other people who I think are gonna use it to make machines or stuff with.
I have read about SRL using the concept of destruction as a metaphor for natural forces. Can you expand on the concept of the machine and how it relates to nature?
There is this book where Neitzsche basically expounded the idea that technology was the will to power -- where we basically will ourselves to be our own gods. We remake ourselves as god, and that's part of technology. You can use it to create forces on a level that can't be explained within the historical realm of the power of individuals like atomic weapons and rockets -- things that could not have been imagined as being the domain of humans. Basically, its about the harnessing of natural forces and re-doing them in a more useful image. I think that's what we do at SRL: that's part of the extreme angle that the machines are developed with.
The idea in a performance is that the machines become like natural forces in a very contained setting. Running the V-1 in a closed building -- that's pretty intense, like being in the middle of a storm or war zone. There's something to be said for that. Those are the kinds of things that get people's attention. Natural forces are amazing, but they are even more amazing when they are unnaturally generated.
Survival Research Laboratories
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SRL ftp site :
Interview date: 1995
© 1995 Garnet Hertz conceptlab.com