We were still a block away when we saw the line for the show. Two young guys sat at the gate of an empty parking lot, sipping brewskis as they watched the crowd gather. They asked us what was going on. "There's a guy who builds giant robots out of abandoned machines, and then he makes them fight
each other," Jane said. "I don't know if I'd call it art, but
it certainly looks neat."
The person at COCA (Council on Contemporary Art, the major sponsors of the
show) had told me that afternoon that plenty of tickets were still available,
and she didn't think there was any danger of selling out. Apparently, a
lot of people had held off buying advance tickets, then decided to go at
the last minute. We joined the crowd.
We shared a cigarette as the line moved forward. I started to feel nervous.
SRL shows were infamous for the near-danger, the calculated risk. Mark Pauline,
the mastermind of SRL, just brought the danger ten times nearer than anyone
else. Pauline himself lost a couple fingers when he was making some explosives
one time (he mentioned this in a RE/ Search interview). Flame throwers,
bazookas, machines the size of garbage trucks eating each other. Explosions,
fire, clouds of smoke blanketing the crowd. Many of the people at a party
the night before had quipped about the "waiver against indemnification"
on the tickets they had bought in an "aren't we nervy" manner.
The line stood still. After a while, we noticed a woman with a commanding
presence at the front of the line. She spoke to the line briefly, and it
dispersed. Working her way down to us, she said, "we aren't selling
any more tickets, we're sorry but it's too crowded in there. If you have
tickets, we'll give you a refund." People scattered from the line.
Most people went back to their cars, but a good number began walking around.
Maybe there'd be a place to get a good partial view, worth craning a neck
to catch a glimpse. We saw some people up on Alaskan Way, a two-level state
highway that was the western border of the area set up for the show. They
were practically on top of the whole thing. By the time we got to where
we might find a way to get up there, though, cops had already arrived to
shoo them away. The cops stuck around to watch the show, of course.
The show was in a loading zone/railroad yard that had a couple tracks running
through it. Alaskan Way was west of the set-up area, and the audience bleachers
were to the east. Behind the audience bleachers was a warehouse. East of
the warehouse was another parking lot, then a barbed wire fence, then the
alley we walked through. People swarmed through the alley, climbing fences
and standing on piles of scrap metal to get a view.
The title of the show said it was "calculated to arouse resentment
against the forces of order." With a come-on like that, why not try
to see it standing on a pile of scrap metal? It's not worth bitching at
the poor soul who breaks the bad news. But it might be worthwhile trying
to see what you can get. That's what Jane and I and a couple hundred other
folks were doing.
One of the "forces of order" that people got resentful of was
the long wait. The gates opened at seven, and the show was scheduled to
start at dusk. But SRL maybe hadn't realized that dusk at that time of year
in Seattle is well after 10, which meant a lot of the people inside (what
with arriving early to "get a good seat") had been standing for
more than four hours when the show finally started (NB: we heard later from
a friend inside that at the last minute a large group of people were let
in in front of everyone else).
We found a large group waiting by a gate at the south end of the lot, behind
the work area where the SRL group had built the machines. The fence crossed
over some tracks; a couple of railroad ties and a smashed and burned Vespa
blocked people from crawling under. "Look, that's from the dress rehearsal,"
I said. Sometime while we were in the alley, the pre-show tape had started
blasting calliope music out of giant speaker columns.
"Just stay here, and Moses will arrive to part the red seas,"
a guy with beer bottle caps in his dreadlocks said. There were humongous
padlocks and chains on the fence, but the only thing that actually connected
both gates was a frayed bit of yellow nylon cord.
What with the crowd shifting and people leaving as they got bored waiting
, Jane and I pretty soon ended up against the fence, standing on the rails.
The only thing we could see in the show area was a twenty-foot tall Medusa
head, a look of fright on her face and her snakes coiling back in horror.
Her mouth was curled in an "O", which we found out later was a
two-foot diameter gas turbine. Other things were hidden in frames made of
slats and black plastic. The scale was large, the frames looked to be twenty
or thirty feet on a side. Mysterious and deadly? We also had a side-view
of what looked like a candy-cane barberpole, with giant, rotund, happy carnival
boys climbing or riding it.
After a while, the crowd started getting a little restless. Everybody inside
was standing, and most people had no better a view than we did. Between
songs on the tape we heard shouts of "do something!"
But we hadn't paid, so everything was gravy. The guy with the bottle cap
dreadlocks was the worst of it, I almost wished they'd let him in just so
we didn't have to hear him anymore. Gay baiting, "hey Marcus we wanna
see you blow up some cows you faggot." This guy was a ditch digger
of cool. (Early SRL shows had used animals and their parts, but the SPCA
had complained. Androids will picket him in 2021.)
The rinky-dink calliope versions of American standards ("Swanee River",
"Dixie") had creeped me out and made me feel tense at first. What
an odd juxtaposition: happy, bouncy, innocent calliope music when you know
the whole point of the show was to blow things up. It's like the way clowns
are changing from entertainment for kids into serious creeps like John Wayne
Gacy. Well, let's see what we can do to speed the process.
The only machine we could see looked like a paraplegic backhoe. Every now
and then someone would crank it up, and it looked to us like it was trying
to hop. Jane cheered it on, but it just bounced in place like it couldn't
remember which leg to move first. We couldn't tell if someone was working
on it or not. (A week later, Jane met someone in the Bay Area who told her
that the problem had been that the computer programming hadn't worked; they
were switching it back to radio control.)
It got darker, the lights came on, the crowd started yelling more loudly
between songs. There was a brief moment during which the air was all red
from the sunset, and the orange streetlights had come on; everything glowed
like it was on fire inside, and I could see the pattern of the chain link
fence on Jane's face like a stencil tan.
Finally the beast moved. For a second it was like the disjunction between
dream and nightmare: we had imagined a rather silly, dumb looking hop. But
the beast really moved by shoving its nose into the pavement and dragging
itself along. Now it looked like a dinosaur. There was a guy with a radio
control device telling it what to do, figuring out how to move it. Somewhere
in that monster was a rewired Formula One racer, like the one I had seen
bumping through the grass at Gasworks Park that afternoon. And I hope it
was as happy as Stu, the guinea pig that once ran the hopping machine (another
thing the SPCA complained about, although Pauline maintains that Stu got
a real kick out of it all).
We noticed that a few people were on the roof of the warehouse mentioned
earlier. We talked about trying to get up, but figured that maybe these
couple people worked there. I thought, geeze, they should have invited all
their friends, made it a barbecue.
We saw a couple more people appear, but then thought, well, the nose-walking
tyrannosaur was getting close to the show, and we didn't want to risk a
partial view for maybe missing everything while trying to get a better view.
I had heard that SRL shows, when they finally goldang started, went quick.
A few more people appeared on the rooftop, nothing seemed to be happening
in the show, so we decided to go for it.
We scouted out the alley. Somebody sitting on a plank stretched between
a corner of two fences told us he had seen other people pull apart a sliding
gate. Jane found the gap and I opened it enough for her to get through.
I pushed our backpacks after her, and she held it open for me. We decided
to stash the packs, taking only wallets and keys with us. Hah! A couple
of foresightful people. The idea was that we might need just that extra
bit of upper arm motion in order to make it. Another guy got his videocam
onto the roof (thank God for Anvil cases). "I got it all pretty good,"
he said after the show, "until my battery ran out."
To get to the roof, we climbed onto the loading dock. That part was easy:
we used the stairs. There was a semi-trailer parked about halfway down.
We climbed on top of the trailer using the hinge for its door, then wormed
our way a couple feet through the gap between the top of the trailer and
the awning of the loading dock. As I climbed up the back of the truck, the
carnival music was playing "Oh Susanna" at 110 decibels. There
were enough people trying to get onto the roof by now that people ahead
would reach back to give a hand, which we all did in turn. Nobody had to
tell anyone anything. We all wanted to see the show so we all helped each
other, like a post-holocaust barn raising. When I came out from the gap
between the truck and the awning, the music had changed. It was now metal
machine music, grinding howling feedback. From the top of the truck to the
loading dock awning was just a step.
The way to get onto the warehouse roof from the loading dock awning was
to clamber onto a support strut and leap the last foot or so to catch the
ledge. I got onto the roof, then helped Jane up, then we turned around and
helped the next person up. I was kind of clumsy, though, but she got onto
the roof without breaking anything. It's nice to be thanked by someone for
practically ripping her arms off.
The roof was at about second-story height, and gave us a perfect view of
the whole set-up: the Medusa head, the candy-cane barberpole, the mysterious
covered objects. We could also see the audience, and between it and our
warehouse, the snaking cables, the video control van, the sonic cannon that
fired at the backs of the crowd. Even though we could see everything that
was down there, I had a problem with resolving it, figuring out exactly
what I was looking at. Things didn't look like what they were "meant
to be;" in fact, there was no "meant to be" involved. What
I saw as a tyrannosaur might have appeared as something completely different
to someone else. Jane and I had talked about the Medusa head for quite a
while before I figured out it wasn't Jesus Christ with a crown of thorns
When we got to the edge of the roof facing the show, the nose-walking tyrannosaur
was just entering the audience's view. I thought I heard some cheers, but
the music was too loud to tell. At first I thought the soundtrack was the
amplified sounds of the machines themselves, but then I realized it was
just another tape. Occasionally there were voices in the sounds, obscured
past recognition, like windblown arguments half a block away (or in this
environment, someone next to you).
But really, it was too much of what you might expect. The bouncy calliope
music when you know it's safe to be superior, hah hah, what an odd juxtaposition,
we know what's coming next. Why not the metal machine music first, get the
ears acquainted to the noise, then lay on the bouncy calliope music when
the monsters eat each other. Or heckfire, Mozart string quartets. Someone
in a cherry picker reading an article from Scientific American about wind-distribution
of meltdown fallout like it was a love poem or a Hitler speech (I volunteer).
More beasties were moving. Jane really liked the one that used tiller wheels
to move. It could move sideways, back, forth, turn in its own radius. It
skittered along like a trilobite on the ocean floor.
There was something primitive about the whole show, in fact. All the rusty
equipment, the recycled, cast-off, or stolen aspect of it. SRL used to get
a majority of the stuff for its shows by stealing it. I think they're a
little too high profile to do that anymore, but I could be wrong. I heard
a rumor that one of the more prominent pieces in the show, a golden calf,
was stolen from a Bay Area restaurant.
On the other hand, there was all the radio control equipment, the video
crew running around taping the show, the guy in the cherry picker directing
the monsters. There was nothing primitive in the video control van. The
guy in the cherry picker (Pauline?) wasn't using old equipment.
Half the shows staging area looked like rusty monsters, the other half like
a rusty carnival. The nose-walking tyrannosaur went bobbing for apples in
a vat of gasoline and came up with a head. The praying mantis flame-thrower
came along and incinerated the head. The tyrannosaur clicked its jaws in
glee. The trilobite picked up a couple dozen balloons from a carnival object,
then danced with the mantis until they were all gone. A few balloons popped
loud as dynamite but most just withered.
The twenty-foot tall Medusa head started rolling, and when its jet engine
cranked it made a thundering noise that was a wave of heat and a physical
sensation all the way up on the roof. People close to it must have been
pissing their pants. Jane said that the turbulence in the gas flow was making
the sound, and that the first reaction of anybody hearing that on the job
would be to hit the disconnect switch. Yeah! Let's pay a couple hour's wages
to go stand in front of jet engines and dangerous machinery. Gads, it's
great to be grown up and in love at the end of the world as we know it.
Things rolled back and forth, and some of the things occasionally chewed
each other or spat flames. The giant Tesla coil was really cool, it was
directly in front of us and tall enough (two stories) to be at our eye level.
That was our favorite. The arcs coming from it were so bright and unnatural
looking that as Jane pointed out it almost looked like a scratch in the
film. Another case of reality getting hyper enough to be a special effect
(although I bet the waiting part got edited out of the video).
But through it all, something didn't connect for me. Even when the Medusa-head
and another wicker-covered flame-thrower incinerated each other, there wasn't
enough. I've read interviews of Pauline a few times, in Pranks, Industrial
Culture, and the first couple newsprint issues of RE/Search. There was a
review of a New York show in SF Eye, and there are a whole crop of sci fi
writers who would love to be as dangerous in their nightmares as Pauline
is on a sunny Sunday morning. But although there's a possibility I was just
expecting too much, I also think there was a good chance the show was beset
with technical difficulties that prevented it from coming to the climax
it otherwise might have had.
For example, the cricket machine didn't work: the idea was to spew crickets
all over the audience, and after all the noise and hurly-burly people would
see their totem phobic insect (roaches, centipedes, spiders, whatever) coming
at them. Alas, the neck of the funnel just turned into mashed cricket and
it couldn't get going. We could see from the roof a guy frantically shoving
a ramrod down the tube, knocking it to get the crickets loose. All he did
was make it worse, I bet.
If there hadn't been the surrounding adventure, of trespassing, and climbing
onto the roof (there were a couple hundred people up there by the end of
the show), I'd have been disappointed. Every now and then, we'd stop to
look at our panoramic view of downtown Seattle, the buildings a glimmering
and brilliant wall; or the buses going by on Alaskan Way; or to make out;
or to watch a ferry chugga-chugga across Puget Sound, its lights in the
water like a toy on a black mirror. If I had been in the bleachers, someone
taller than me would have blocked my view, or I would have felt so crowded
that I might as well have stayed home and waited for the video.
Frankly, once you've seen hydraulic monsters stalk and spit flame at each
other five or six times, you've seen all there is to see. This is the problem
of such a spectacle: you have to increase the noise and onslaught by geometric
proportions just to maintain interest. We're addicted to spectacle by our
passive absorption of intrusive media. Something apparently simpler but
ultimately more challenging is really more dangerous; a writer like Jim
Thompson at his best, for instance.
Jane, who had fewer preconceptions, felt an immense exhilaration at the
gouting flames and explosions. Like seeing another kid get away with something
forbidden. Her engineering background gave her a good idea what it took
to make the machines act the way they did, and she appreciated that in the
same way a painter might appreciate the brushstrokes on an otherwise failed
There's also the improvisational nature of the whole spectacle to keep in
mind: nobody knows what's going to happen. Pauline says he liberates machines
from their human-determined roles. Once the basic set-up is reached, and
everything is turned on, no one really knows exactly what will happen next,
or if it will remain in control. Pauline's done this often enough that he
has a good idea, but he still doesn't know the way a symphony conductor
might. A few different rolls of the dice, and the show might have gone far
beyond my preconceptions.
There was one last explosion, the announcer said thanks for coming, you're
welcome to linger, but don't get too close to the open flames. Somebody
said "it's eleven," like they were proving a point. The show had
lasted exactly an hour. We streamed for the ledges, once again helping a
few others down before moving on.
Jane and I ran around to the front gate to see if we would run into anyone
we knew. I left her by a flatbed truck to go farther into the crowd. As
soon as I saw someone else coming out with a pilfered souvenir, I went into
the show looking for something to scavenge. I wrenched the painted bozo
head, about the size of a highway exit sign, off the trilobite. Even though
it had taken a direct hit from a flame-thrower it was in perfect shape.
It was covered with oil, but there was some handy toilet paper in one of
my pockets. And yes, I even littered.
Then I noticed there were shreds of measuring tape all over the ground so
I started gathering a bunch for a bouquet for Jane. (A guy walked past and
said, "Isn't six inches enough?" and I said "Hey, my girlfriend's
good at math.")
Getting home was almost as much of an adventure as the show itself, but
one of those tedious too-long ones. The only thing I can say is that the
next time SRL's in town, they should send one of those flame throwing dinosaurs
unannounced through F.X. McRory's (a downtown yuppie meet market). I'd pay
to see that!
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