says. “But there were people in those labs who
also worked at SRL, so they cut the red tape and
steered the contracts to me.”
In more than 25 years, SRL has harbored
hundreds of engineers, physicists, artists, bathroom chemists, gearheads, and hackers who all
find joy in the social commentary disguised as
“SRL has always attracted the interests of
people who really are on the cutting edge of
technology, and they volunteer assistance and
materials that we wouldn’t otherwise have
access to,” Pauline says.
Even with friends in the right places, the
contract work couldn’t cover the increasing cost
of the intricate machine designs Pauline had in
his mind’s eye and scribbled on scraps of paper.
At the end of the tech boom, Pauline identified a
new market for his technical knowledge. He buys
specialty tech gear — server components, tape
drives, scanners — on the cheap, tests them,
makes any necessary repairs, and then auctions
them off on eBay. Essentially, he has learned
to identify the treasures in the tech “trash”
that companies cast off due to downscaling or
“I’m a vulture capitalist,” he says.
While most people lost their shirts on the
dot-com bust, Pauline paid off his debt, bought a
house, and funded several large shows out of his
“I might take a $40,000 loss on a show, but it’s
just a taxable expense for me and it’s considered
promotion for the company,” he says.
The Fish Boy’s Dream
Along with enabling Pauline to move out of his
bunker bedroom-cum-office, his vulture-capital
career has afforded SRL the luxury of upgrading
its tool arsenal. Most of the early machines were
assembled from parts that were scavenged from
junkyards or obtained “surreptitiously,” Pauline
says. Items taken without, er, proper approval
are known around the shop as “obtainium.”
Custom components were hand-tooled from
raw materials — an incredibly time-consuming
process, especially when the machines could
take years to build. For example, Pauline spent
five years on and off (mostly on) bringing the
six-legged walking machine to life. Times have
changed. At the center of the SRL shop is a shiny
new CNC (computer numerical control) milling
machine that automatically fabricates parts
based on a digital design file.
“Our cycle of production mirrors recent
changes in industrial manufacturing,” Pauline
says. “You can think more about the design of
something because the time it takes to go from
bare metal to a finished project is much shorter.
All the hundreds of hours you’d spend in front of
a manual machine making duplicate parts are
condensed way down.”
The first maniacal machines to roll off the
CNC-powered assembly line were a battalion of
Sneaky Soldiers. The remote-controlled androids
contain a battery-powered chain-drive mechanism
so powerful that they can pull themselves along
on their steel bellies. Ten soldiers debuted in The
Fish Boy’s Dream, a performance held outside
a Los Angeles Chinatown art gallery earlier this
year. Of those ten, only two will ever walk — or
rather, crawl — again.
The Sneaky Soldiers will have to wait for Pauline
to tend to their injuries. His attention is now on
the Snot Gun, a large tube outfitted with a gas
mixer and ignition plug. The bottom of the tube
is filled with a stinky stew of wallpaper paste and
bait fish. When ignited, balls of the gooey “snot”
are propelled 200 feet out of the end of the
tube. “It’s like what happens when you cover one
nostril and blow really hard,” Pauline explains.
The Snot Gun and other machines are being
overhauled in preparation for SRL’s first large-scale Bay Area show in nearly a decade. This
month, the group will perform in San Jose as
part of the 13th International Symposium for
Electronic Arts. This is one of the rare instances
where a city government has given its stamp of
approval to Pauline’s band of maverick machinists.
Maybe they don’t know what to expect.
“This show will have an apocalyptic theme
loosely based on Dante’s Inferno,” Pauline says.
“Think of it as Six Flags over hell.”