Machines of Critique

Locating Technology

Machines of Critique

By Genevieve Quick November 14, 2013

Locating Technology considers technology and artworks in rather broad terms, such as: mechanical objects, analog and digital photography and video, and computer and web-based work. Through these types of works, writers explore the evolution of technology and its effects on artists’ processes, disciplinarity, and the larger social context of media creation, dispersal, access and interactivity.

At the interface of art and technology, utility and efficiency are not necessarily metrics of success, or even desirable. For instance, Survival Research Laboratories’ (SRL) destructive, threatening robots (1979–present) and Wim Delvoye’s feces-producing machines, Cloaca (2000–2007), challenge the orthodoxy that technology is utilitarian. In addition to producing their machines, SRL and Delvoye extend their practices beyond traditional artist studio production: SRL acts as a renegade research organization and Delvoye as a branded manufacturer. While SRL and Delvoye engage in opposing strategies, the former employing antagonism and the latter complicity, they both critique art production and commodification.

Wim Delvoye. Personal Cloaca, 2006; mixed media , 100 x 68.5 x 105 cm. Courtesy of  Paolo Tonon via Flickr under Creative Commons.

In 1978, founder Mark Pauline appropriated SRL’s name from a fraudulent right-wing organization advertised in Soldier of Fortune magazine. Modeled as a research organization, Pauline and his various cohorts repurpose old military, industrial, and high-tech machinery to construct apparatuses that spout flames, spin massive corkscrews, grind up animal parts, and blast shockwaves at audience members and targeted objects.1 With SRL finding, “receiving,” or stealing their materials, the early SRL contraptions mined the technological revolution that was occurring in the late ’70s and early ’80s, during which San Francisco’s economy was transitioning from industrial manufacturing to high tech.

Like the makeshift machinery of underground resistance groups in post-apocalyptic fictions, SRL’s contraptions and performances have an anti-aesthetic sensibility. With exposed gears, belts, wires, and gadgetry, the SRL aesthetic represents a strategy of transparency, in which the machinery is intentionally left exposed and live events are subject to the chaos or serendipity of “real” time and life. Mike Kelley explains that SRL events had a

Cagean randomness and dynamic evenness of their performances. Despite all the shocking imagery, noise, and destruction, the events are quite boring. The shows begin when the machines are turned on and end when the machines break down... There is much dead time, and many technical failures and accidents, all of which add to the feeling of designed anticontrol.2

Rather than being a point of criticism, Kelley’s observations attest to SRL rejecting the convention that performance and objects should be always entertaining and aesthetically pleasing. Traditionally, well-rehearsed theatrics and sleek consumer electronics hide the crux of their corresponding disciplines: In the case of theater, performers attempt to lure viewers into forgetting they are witnessing a staged event, and in manufactured electronics, plastic boxes with tidy interfaces of buttons and screen conceal the complex mechanical units housed inside. SRL may even suggest that beyond the formal contrivances of electronics and theater, the powers that control economic and cultural production are obfuscating even more sinister dynamics.

As “charlatans” or “jokesters,” SRL engage in decidedly provocative gestures with their physically imposing, and sometimes dangerous, machines.3,4 Perhaps one of their most well-known and confrontational performances, Machine Sex (1979), was sited at a Chevron station during the Middle East oil embargo. In the piece, SRL fed dead pigeons, dressed in traditional Middle Eastern costumes, into the Demanufacturing Machine, which ground them up and flung their remains at the audience as the Cure’s song “Killing an Arab” (1979) played in the background. While the politics of Machine Sex are explicit, many of SRL’s performances, like Failure to Discriminate (1986), have more nebulous messages, focusing more on destruction and chaos.5

In contrast to SRL’s aggressive machines, Delvoye’s Cloaca uses mainstream commercial methods to critique commodification. Delvoye’s critique begins most directly with the title of his project, which draws upon two base references: one biological—the end of the digestive tract—and the other engineered—an archaic reference to the Roman sewer system. Cloaca consists of multiple iterations of highly engineered machines that mimic the human digestive tract's functionality, but not its appearance. For each installation, attendants feed Cloaca, sometimes with catered meals and at other times with food scraps. With laboratory stainless steel and glass equipment, Cloaca grinds up the food and breaks it down using acids and enzymes. In a 22-hour digestion cycle, Cloaca produces feces, which is then vacuum-packed, signed by the artist, and sold. Cloaca is both a performative machine, installed in galleries and museums and attended to by its team of technicians, and a commodity-producing machine, which in this case manufactures art—an approximation of human feces.

With the polish and professionalism of major multinational brands such as Coca-Cola and Ford, Delvoye critiques consumerism and global branding. After producing the original Cloaca in 2000, Delvoye expanded the project to include Cloaca New and Improved (2001), Cloaca Turbo (2003), Personal Cloaca (2006), Mini Cloaca (2007), and more. Like a product line, each version is designed for a specific market segment, with a logo analogous to a real world brand; Cloaca Original’s logo references Ford, while Personal Cloaca references the Italian home-appliance manufacturer De’Longhi, and Cloaca Turbo references Harley Davidson. With Cloaca’s models satisfying the desires for home use or extreme speed, Delvoye’s strategy is more akin to a business plan than an artist unraveling formal or conceptual ideas through variation and experimentation. As the ultimate prankster, Delvoye has exalted one of the basest and plentiful materials to a coveted commodity with cultural, financial, and social interest. With multinational corporate strategies, Delvoye creates and satisfies false demand for luxury goods, like art.

Delvoye’s practice not only appropriates the aesthetics of international branding, but also engages in its economics. During his exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Antwerp (2000), Delvoye sold the feces for $1,000 each, and similar elements of Cloaca have sold at auction for $8,985.6,7 Delvoye also sells drawings, self-portrait action figures, rolls of toilet paper, View-Master viewers, and logoed T-shirts.8,9 Additionally, Delvoye is selling convertible debentures on the Belgian Stock Exchange and at one point planned to approach the Toronto Stock Exchange.10,11 While SRL made very little money on their performances, Delvoye has engaged the standard art-market process of selling work to collectors to generate revenue for himself and galleries, which is then resold in the secondary market. Moreover, with his business-plan-like approach to variation, stocks, and logoed merchandise, Delvoye unapologetically engages in corporate processes that transform business models into art practice.

In contrast to SRL’s resistance, Delvoye uses mainstream corporate strategies while remaining critical. Theorist and critic Johanna Drucker believes this phenomenon in the art world began in the 1990s and explains that,

[f]orm making, facture, the structure and iconography of images, means of production, circumstance of making and reception, critical and technical training, as well as underlying assumptions—all of these are facets of complicity, of the embedded condition of meaning and effect accessed through response to formal properties. The term “complicity” is deliberately provocative, since it implies a knowing compromise between motives of opportunism and circumstantial conditions—whether on the place of production, or reference, or within institutional and social situations.12

Complicity sits in opposition to previous avant-garde strategies of resistance, which considered it possible to be separate from, or outside, mainstream culture. Because we inscribe and reflect our culture in the way we speak, see, and perform, many of us now acknowledge that true objectivity or self-exile is impossible. Moreover, with mass media’s ravenous appetite for the novel, resistance to cooptation by mainstream culture is futile. Complicit artwork acknowledges its role within the marketplace or mainstream culture, while asserting its place in the art world, such that artists may benefit financially and at the same time pursue conceptual explorations, formal concerns, or social critique. Moreover, complicity makes impassioned and radical gestures more difficult. Historically, extremism has at times resulted in great personal and social damage, but it has also shocked society into reexamining abhorrent but previously accepted practices.

As different as Delvoye and Pauline may appear, they seem to draw the same conclusions regarding the art world and its economic demands. Pauline explains that what SRL does is

not tied to […] reproducibility which is what the art world is tied to. It’s really unfortunate, but most of what the art world is geared towards is figuring out something, solving a problem, and marketing it, and selling it over and over and over again. [. . . .] if you realize that, it really calls into question what’s the difference between the art world and the business world. Ultimately there is no difference between it. . .13

While SRL has staged events nationally and internationally, notably through the collaborative efforts of the New Museum, Creative Time, and The Kitchen, SRL has had little economic success and faced issues with police and/or fire departments in New York, Amsterdam, and San Francisco, to name a few. As the world—and San Francisco in particular—has changed, places for Pauline and SRL to operate are becoming elusive; regrettably, Pauline has left his base of San Francisco. In contrast, Delvoye has been extremely commercially and critically successful with his various monographs, museum exhibitions, and gallery representation.14 While positing a critique of commercial interests and strategies, Delvoye’s complicity in the context of escalating commodification in the art world is also troubling. It remains unclear where Delvoye, or any artist, is willing to draw the line regarding the possible breach of their value system or artistic principles for economic gain.  


  1. The members have changed through the years, but during its heyday in the ’80s, SRL members included Matt Heckert, Eric Werner, and others.
  2. Mike Kelley, “Mekanïk Destruktïw Kommandöh: Survival Research Laboratories and Popular Spectacle,” Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism, ed. John C. Welchman (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003) 129.
  3. Mark Pauline, “Graduate Lecture Series” (lecture presented at San Francisco Art Institute, San Francisco, CA, October 19, 2012).
  4. Mark Pauline lost his hand in an accidental explosion in 1982, and crew member Todd Blaire was seriously injured in Amsterdam in 2007 during a SRL event.
  5. This performance bills itself as “Determining the degree to which attractive delusions can operate as substitute for confirmation by evidence.” Ultimately, the performance features robots in combat with each other, the destruction of a wooden structure, and a rocket that, failing to launch, ends up sputtering in the center of the performance area.
  6.  Els Fiers, “A Human Masterpiece,” Artnet,
  7. Christie’s Auction, “Sale 2844 Post-War and Contemporary Art,” Christie’s Auction, in Amsterdam, June 8, 2010, Lot 152 Wim Delvoye Cloaca (with an estimated price $6,700–$9,400)
  9. and
  10. “A convertible debenture is a debt that can be changed or converted, at the option of its holder, into shares of stock, usually common stock, at a fixed ratio as stated in the indenture.” The Free Dictionary, “Debenture,” The Free Dictionary,
  11. Thomas Hirschmann, “Poop scoop,” Now Magzine,
  12. Johanna Drucker, Sweet Dreams: Contemporary Art and Complicity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005), xvi.
  13. Mark Pauline in Jon Reiss, Survival Research Laboratories: Ten Years of Robotic Mayhem, 2004, DVD, Eclectic DVD Dist., 1:08-1:09.
  14. Delvoye is represented by Sperone Westwater, Galerie Perrotin, Galerie Rodolphe Janssen, and has been exhibited by the Guggenheim Collection, Venice, Italy, etc.

Comments ShowHide

Related Content