NEW YORK, AUG. 14 -- In a bizarre episode in the explosive arena of artistic expression, an arts festival in a state park at Lewiston, N.Y., canceled the Sept. 1 "Machine Performance" by Survival Research Laboratories after organizers learned the group planned to incinerate Bibles onstage.

"It's being billed on the West Coast as a Bible burning," said Artpark President David P. Midland, "and this is not the performance we contracted for. We do not condone the burning of the Bible or, in fact, any book. This is an abhorrent act, even if it is symbolic. ... While Artpark does not shy away from controversy, this is not what we expected."

Midland said he heard of the impending Bible burn from Lewiston's town supervisor, Robert Wadlinger. "He asked me if I was aware of the poster and to check it out. But I absolutely wasn't pressured into it."

Artpark received $20,000 this year from the National Endowment for the Arts as part of its $5.5 million annual budget, but this project was not slated to receive any federal funds, according to Midland.

The SRL poster asks for public Bible donations and offers donors a free "Certificate of Participation" featuring selected photos from the performance. Listing Artpark's address, it urges, "Send your Bible contributions to Bible Burn!" The poster, distributed to art galleries in San Francisco, where the performance group is based, contains doctored photos of nude white men being burned on stakes, which surround a Bible with a pitchfork piercing its cover.

It goes on to say: "SRL will create large sexually explicit props covered with a generous layer of requisitioned Bibles. After employing these props in a wide variety of unholy rituals, SRL machines will proceed to burn them to ashes."

But even more incendiary was the poster's suggestion, "Bibles can always be obtained for free from hotels, churches ... and your parents' house. Be advised that in certain instances theft is a moral obligation."

"Suddenly, out of the blue I get this very terse call from David Midland," said Mark Pauline, the artistic director of SRL. Pauline said that Artpark officials had been aware of his plan and charged that they caved in to pressure from right-wing religious organizations. "Midland told me that what we were doing was totally unacceptable and too controversial. I'm still in shock. They knew full well that something controversial was going to happen and their attempts to pass it off as something that's my fault are really disgraceful. He's caving in to right-wing zealots."

Pauline said that Artpark had "seized" the group's equipment at the 200-acre site above the Niagara River gorge. He said the shipment consists of "23 tons of extremely complex and very functional robotics." Artpark was seeking the return of some the $30,000 it paid SRL for the 45-minute performance. Late this afternoon, Midland said the equipment would be released to SRL, without any funds being returned. Pauline estimated it will cost $3,000 to ship the equipment back to San Francisco.

"I believe art should always be extreme," said Pauline. "I warned them ahead of time, but they invited us up there anyway. There was no agreement on what kind of performance SRL was going to produce other than a 'machine performance.' "

SRL was part of Artpark's annual Project Artists series. A news release described the group's upcoming event as a "climactic evening performance of machine violence, romance, drama and pathos."

"I'm very unhappy about this," said David Katzive, guest curator of Artpark's visual arts program, who selected the artists for the Project Artists series. "We advertise the park as a place where artists can experiment, where they can exercise their fantasies and risk failure. I wanted very much to see this thing happen at the park. But {SRL} sandbagged us by introducing these changes so late and not telling us about them.

"It's true Pauline told me his group was controversial and we knew they were. That's why we wanted them there. But the Bibles weren't part of it."

Pauline described the controversial robotic sculpture as a 20-foot-high earth mother figure covered in donated Bibles like the "tiles on the shuttle." A replica of a World War II radio-controlled V1 Buzz Bomb would ignite the sculpture.

Back at Artpark, Midland said the park had so far received three Bibles.