Survival Research

I turned in my seventh book two weeks ago — and the very next day went into two weeks of production on a sneaky surprise SRL show. Day after day of 12- to 15-hour stints at the machine shop led to a cathartic 30 minutes of explosions, machine mayhem, chilling zaps from a giant Tesla coil and then it was over. Well, for the audience and lightweight volunteers, anyway — then there was cleanup and load out. I’m tired, bruised and happy.

It was a very different show for us — no fire allowed, not open to the public. It felt quite odd. We knew it from the start, that we couldn’t invite the public, and were warned that any gathering crowds would shut down the show, so we had to be especially tight-lipped about the whole thing, which is tough in a sprawling volunteer organization and one where a few members have huge egos and like to brag — and like to make others feel excluded. Not all, but a few, and while SRL is a close-knit family, after eight years I’ve grown irritated with a couple of those family members who act like it’s a high school click — and if you visit the SRL "tribe" Tribe.net, you know who I mean.

What kind of people are we, those of us who like to create big machines and run them in events that come across like a major car accident — scary, loud, compellingly beautiful, dangerous and fearful, sexual and exciting like the shock of finding thick scars in intimate places, and then everyone has a different version of what happened afterward. I find the shows and the people behind them most interesting of all the many components that comprise SRL. Mind you, I love to learn; especially considering who my tutor is in everything machine and machine shop (Mark Pauline). But in SRL, there is always another layer.

In SRL, compared to other machine organizations, we have a large number of women engineers, structural welders, forklift drivers, and women in general — having worked for other international machine arts organizations and had horrifying sexist experiences, I can tell you that SRL is the only place that gender does not matter, only ability. In SRL, we have a number of Canadians (you know Canada, our largest national park). I don’t know why this is, but their heads flop around when they talk. Also, we have few card-carrying lesbians and gays, but the largest number of bisexual women and men in one organization I’ve seen outside a bi conference. Also a large number of vegetarians and motorcycle riders. And everyone is brilliant in their own field — women who weld the Golden Gate Bridge, men who collide atoms at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, stagehands at the top of their game, sign makers, programmers, inventors, an author, teachers, women and men who race motorcycles. Try to pin us down, and we blur your categories.

It’s an essential part of my being to escape back-to-back sex writing gigs and completely lose myself in mechanics, fabrication and the world of SRL that I know so well. This past show was a fascinating object lesson in who we are, as we struggled to keep the show under wraps it drew into focus who you can really trust, and how to explain SRL to newcomers. No, we don’t have a "group masseuse," we’re not a party, everything we do has a reason (and if you think otherwise, you’re missing something), and it’s not a pickup situation. If you’re a guy and you act macho, people will make fun of you. Yet in our shows we savor the joy of savagely twisting cultural icons, be they hippies, Martha Stewart, or political correctness.

But it always happens. I’ll be working, and some guy — only around for the day before the show so he can see the show, tell chicks he’s "in SRL" and then leave before cleanup — tries to establish his dominance with me. It happens most frequently with me because I work long days and nights, know much about the machines and shows, and Mark puts me in charge of many tasks. And I’m pretty low-key about it. We were laying a large plywood floor for the machines to drive over, to compensate for a grade and a spongy lawn that would tip machines. The crew ran out of sandbags, and used scrap wood and palates to support some — but not all — areas of the flooring. I asked where the weak points were so I could spray paint the areas and the huge, multi-ton machines could then avoid the areas and not punch through the wood. One macho man, a notorious SF scene leech, argued with me as to whether I need to know this information, and when I persisted, he raised his voice, yelled, and kept talking, drowning me out. He insisted the machines weren’t heavy enough to punch through the flooring. I didn’t even get a chance to explain to him that one machine in the show, the Inchworm, takes *two* forklifts to move, and in fact when I did it two days later, my forklift’s back wheels came dangerously off the ground (it was an 8,000 lb. forklift). And yes, the V-1 rocket engine punched a hole through the wooden flooring.

The V-1 in a pre-show test. (Video and above show photos by Amacker)

I do get sick of guys like that. But not of the rest of the crew, who squeezed me and teased me in front of him, laughing, calling me "little lady," effortlessly going back to work with me around him, ignoring him. The new female volunteers were supportive and humorous, excited at how the interaction unfolded.

What did I do for the show besides work my little butt off? I ran the Air Launcher, a machine I ran in Tokyo. (Air Launcher photo of me on left from ’99 Tokyo show.) Speaking of Tokyo, did you know I am probably the only sex writer in the world detained at an airport as a suspect of acts of international terrorism? It’s kinda sexy. Anyway, the Air Launcher is an extremely exciting machine, modeled on the air cannons used by Canadians to start avalanches. It’s a person-sized, air-powered, mounted gun that shoots soda cans at 300-500 mph, operated by a person suited up in a telerobotic headset. The headset is very cyber — the movements of the wearer move and aim the launcher, and you see what the launcher sees through two small cameras. It feels very cool to move something like this with your body, and takes a moment to adjust to — at first you want to look all cool, but then you realize that the best way to aim the launcher is to forget completely what you look like or what your body is doing, and mimic the abilities of the machine. Interesting human-machine relationship, no? The machine is twitchy, too, running on a system of cranky-pants relay switches and a quirky motherboard. Being in the rig is a bit claustrophobic, because you can only see through the b&w cameras and you need a spotter to make sure nothing falls on your head or a machine runs you over, but it definitely takes someone calm and sensible to run it during the car wreck of an SRL show. And might I add that the claustrophobic feeling of the suit and camera is in direct contradiction to the chaos of the show.

I guess what got me going on this rant was the posts by a couple of SRL volunteers on Tribe that were very exclusionary, bragging about being "in," and about how much work they do (where were they when we needed help with cleanup and unloading, for five full days after the show?). I had hopes in joining the SRl tribe thingie that it could be a cool discussion forum where fans and friends talked about SRL and found out more — not made to feel like they’re not cool enough. Then again, it’s just two idiots being really loud, and they’re never around SRL anyway. It’s not a perfect family, but it’s home.

(pre-show photo by Kevin Mathieu)

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