August 12, 2006 2:00 PM PDT

A day with Survival Research Labs

SAN JOSE, Calif.--It's Friday morning and I'm standing in a cement lot just south of the San Jose Convention Center brandishing a fire extinguisher.

I'm spending the day as a volunteer gofer for the first full-scale Survival Research Labs show in the Bay Area in 10 years. And while I'm pretty much low man on the totem pole, I've discovered that by simply holding onto this big red metal tank I'm doing ultra-crucial duty.

That's because, I'm informed, the fire marshal has just arrived to check on the safety procedures for this show. Thus, it's clear that having someone looking ready to pounce on any wayward flames--should they suddenly appear as gas tanks are filled, fuel is pushed through hoses at high pressure and sparks are flying here and there--would probably be a good idea.

"What you're doing is the most important job on the site," I'm told by a Survival Research Labs crew member.

SRL's fire machines

SRL, as the group is known, is on hand here for one of its trademark shows of fire breathing, metal crunching, electricity shooting, high-speed wood tossing and very, very loud machinery.

"Since its inception SRL has operated as an organization of creative technicians dedicated to re-directing the techniques, tools, and tenets of industry, science, and the military away from their typical manifestations in practicality, product or warfare," the collective's Web site states. "Each (SRL) performance consists of a unique set of ritualized interactions between machines, robots, and special-effects devices, employed in developing themes of socio-political satire. Humans are present only as audience or operators."

Indeed.

The truth is that the humans are very much present, even if they are dwarfed by the size of some of the post-apocalyptic, industrial gear-gnashing equipment that makes up an SRL show. And, never having gotten to see one of their performances before, I was eager to see first-hand what putting on such a production entails.

And that's why I've come here, to work for a day inside the belly of SRL.

Seat-of-the-pants procedures
It's clear that while these are people who are very skilled at what they do, there is more than a lot of the kind of seat-of-the-pants operational procedures that some municipalities might well be scared of.

For example, minutes after I arrive for my shift, one crew member asks if I can call his cell phone so that he can find it where it lies buried in a heap of sleeping bags and other random stuff in the back of his car, where he'd grabbed a few winks in the middle of more than 30 hours of solid preparation.

An SRL show is not something that happens overnight. This show, titled "Ghostly Scenes of Infernal Desecration," was not only granted permits by the city of San Jose, it was in fact highly touted in the city's weeklong interactive technology festival, ZeroOne.

And therefore, the SRL crew, or many members of it, have been working here for about a week--and this after several weeks of machine construction at its headquarters in San Francisco.

In any case, after saving the day with my special brand of fire extinguisher brandishment--read: making sure I'm pointing it roughly in the direction of something that might explode or catch on fire--I am instructed to head off to the hardware store in search of what turns out to be a very long list of random hose clamps, pipe fittings, earmuffs, aluminum sheeting and more.

But just as I am getting ready to do so, they tell me to go get four giant propane tanks filled. And let me tell you, there is little that fills me with more excitement than the prospect of carting around in my own car enough propane to take out a small building.

CONTINUED: A problem at the propane shop…
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