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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Nov 29 1995
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Great pillars of smoke shoot into the night air, blanketing a two-block radius near Folsom and Main with an ominous cloud of gray-black soot. For those of us not hip (or square) enough to get our directions on-line Sunday night, the smoke acts as a makeshift usher, guiding us to the site of the latest constructive mayhem from the folks at Survival Research Laboratories. Since Mark Pauline started the organization in 1979, it has staged nearly 50 events, to the delight of thrill-seekers and industrial pagans worldwide.

From half a block away you can see 10-foot columns of flame blaze through the darkness, illuminating the corrugated underbelly of the Bay Bridge and washing nearby buildings with a blood-red glow. Piercing air-raid sirens squeal repetitively, complementing the industrial chorus of metal-on-metal screeching and generator hum.

Though the conceptual artists of SRL have chosen an isolated, deserted lot for "Crime Wave" (described on the Internet as "the humorous aspects of violent human interaction"), nearly 1,000 people have shelled out $10 each to stand on the temporary bleachers inside the fenced-in arena, while hundreds of others climb the surrounding hills or stand on car hoods, dumpsters, and balconies for a better view. Most everyone has brought camera equipment and earplugs.

"Never, I mean never, get anywhere near SRL without plugs," warns a middle-aged skater. As if to chase his point home, a flare gun shoots off nearby. Under the stark glare of the floodlights, the scene is a model of calculated anarchy. Dozens of men and women clad in Army-green jumpsuits, industrial goggles, and protective earwear thread their way in between exploding flamethrowers, whirling helicopter blades, self-destructing robots, reanimated roadkill, and colliding vehicles. Their headset-wearing, walkie-talkie-carrying counterparts move authoritatively through the crowd, lending the only semblance of control to the spectacle.

"It's an example of contained chaos," says an older spectator whose friend is on tonight's SRL crew. "I've seen videos, but live it's something completely different. On tape you see the overall theme, the concept of mechanized chaos. Live, it's dangerous. You feel the heat of the flame. You feel the music in your bones. There's the sense that something could go wrong at any time."

Despite the palpable threat of disaster, the rapt crowd seems fairly relaxed, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Standing on the back windshield of a burned-out Corolla, Matt, an ecstatic 19-year-old, oohs and aahs. "Man, I wish I was on 'shrooms," he says. "I just didn't have time to get it together." Like the majority of the assembled, Matt only found out about the show a few hours ago. "Most of it's word-of-mouth," says a helpful man named Kimo. "It was released on the Net less than 20 hours ago." SRL generally keeps things under wraps until the last minute; not only does it keep the crowd size manageable, it keeps the cops away -- until the explosions start, at least.

Suddenly, the "Party" house, a small, colorfully painted structure built on an adjacent hillside, bursts into flame and slides down the incline onto the pavement below, crushing the copulating robots within.

"It's a modern-day version of an ancient New Guinea custom," Kimo explains. "A chosen virgin has sex with each male of the village. During the last act, the house is lit on fire and the supports pulled out with both the man and woman still inside." He beams. "It's very tribalistic. The whole thing is, really. A good release, don't you think?"

The searing heat from a 15-foot tornado of flame pushes me to the back of the crowd. Several veterans of the Police and Fire Departments stand glancing casually at the action and chatting. "We weren't given any advance notice," says Officer Patrick Driscoll. "I responded to a reported explosion, but so far, so good. They've been pretty cooperative." He points to the couple dozen SRL personnel working crowd control.

A final shot rings out as the last of the metal monsters is consumed in flame.

"Thank you very much for coming to our concert," booms the first human voice of the evening. "Please depart in an orderly and safe fashion." Surprisingly, most of the crowd obeys, leaving only a few souvenir-hunters to loiter around.

"I've sold six of these," yells John, a young machinist who contributed to the show. He's holding an enormous smoking spear in his gloved hand. "I asked Mark [Pauline] if we could sell them, and he said, 'Why not?' I made these." Never one to pass up a work of art, David Duprey, Night Crawler's photographer, barters John down from 20 to 13 bucks.

"Thirteen's a lucky number," says John as he leans the piece against a fence. "Be careful -- it's hot," he warns. "It'll get you babes!" a spectator yells in support. Shouldering the monstrosity, Duprey heads for his motorcycle, blending into the smoldering backdrop of twisted, broken machines and charred pavement.

By Silke Tudor

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Silke Tudor

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