The members of the industrial performance-art collective Survival Research Laboratories are used to trouble. Fire marshals try to cancel their performances, activists charge them with cruelty to animals and mutilation of their carcasses, and spectators sometimes suffer minor shrapnel injuries at their shows. And now they are conservative commentator Pat Buchanan's "Outrage of the Week."

The latest bout of trouble started earlier this month, when David P. Midland, president of Artpark, canceled an SRL show scheduled to take place in the Lewiston, N.Y., state park on Sept. 1. Midland said Robert Wadlinger, the Lewiston town supervisor, had alerted him to a provocative SRL poster that requested the donation of Bibles to be burned as part of the show and that suggested donors steal them from hotels or churches. The Bibles were to cover a "love goddess machine," like tiles on a space shuttle, and the goddess machine would be involved in fiery battles.

Mark Pauline, SRL's artistic director and founder, says Midland knew all along that SRL shows were controversial, and that Artpark staff members were aware more than three weeks before the cancellation that Bibles covering one machine would be incinerated as part of the show. Midland had denied this earlier in announcing the cancellation. Because SRL designed its event specifically to "create the ultimate nightmare for the religious right wing," Pauline charges, Midland succumbed to the intolerance of local right-wing religious groups rather than back SRL's artists in making what Pauline calls their "collaborative mischief."

SRL intended the Artpark event -- like previous shows -- to make the audience rethink its relationship to the commonplace, especially technology. SRL's small installations and its large shows, in which remote-controlled robotic machines engage in epic battles while menacing the audience, are the real world as Pauline sees it: a menacing place where commonly accepted technologies enforce terror, familiar symbols inspire strife and machines are the masters, with humans their subjects.

Pauline has several answers to questions of the "Why do you do what you do?" variety: Because he wants to challenge audience's view of technology and to society's symbols. Because no one else is. And because he thinks they should.

"I like to take pieces of technology and twist them to other uses," Pauline says. "It makes me happy to realize that what I'm doing with expensive electronics and aerospace components is exactly the opposite of what they were designed to do."

But with the increasing scrutiny of publicly funded art, Pauline deliberately set out to "really stir things up this summer," as he says he told Artpark. He says he feels his duty is to "create situations where people see things that are radically at odds with the status quo." The canceled show, he says, was an attempt to "go on the offensive and get at the hypocrisy of {those in power} by making mischief on a mass scale."

In 1978, Sarasota, Fla.-raised Pauline came out of art school, worked for the military as a machinist for a while and then moved to San Francisco, where he started vandalizing billboards as a means of social commentary. The most noticed was a U.S. Army recruiting sign whose slogan, "We'll pay you to learn a skill," Pauline had changed to "We'll pay you to kill."

SRL's first show, "Machine Sex," was performed in February 1979 at a Chevron gas station. It involved a handful of pigeon corpses, a few small machines and accompanying music based on Camus's "The Stranger."

The shows gradually got bigger, and Pauline was joined for several years by collaborators Matt Heckert, beginning in 1981, and Eric Werner, beginning in 1982. The group videotaped its performances to document and advertise them. The tapes were carefully edited, but nothing that happened during shows was censored. This tended to preclude funding from mainstream arts organizations, which were often repulsed or baffled by what they saw. Even when SRL did get grants, curators were understandly apprehensive.

Last year, for instance, visitors to a small SRL installation at San Francisco's ArtSpace passed through Pauline's vision of an "interactive hell." He designed it, he said, as "a very unpleasant place for humans to be." Viewers walked into an environment of industrial noise, concussive shock waves and randomly flashing lights and images. A 50-foot section of the catwalk on which they stood separated, pitching and rolling, and moving its occupants toward a huge carriage rolling on a parallel track. A baton at the end of a single, articulated metal finger reached to within inches of viewers' faces. Throughout the performance the machines moved in response to random computer commands triggered by sensors in the space. One woman was slightly hurt by the baton (although Pauline notes no injured spectator has ever sued SRL).

SRL appropriated its name from an ad that Pauline saw once in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine. Based in a huge machine shop in a grungy industrial section of San Francisco (the shop is also Pauline's home), SRL's most common works are enormous shows in which a variety of automated robotic machines interact, usually among flames, explosions and the destruction of elaborate sets.

For instance, a May 1989 show in San Francisco, "Illusions of Shameless Abundance Degenerating Into an Uninterrupted Sequence of Hostile Encounters" -- a typical SRL title -- lasted an hour and attracted a paid audience of 2,500, as well as 1,500 onlookers beyond a cyclone fence.

Disconcertingly cheerful Sousa marches set the mood, interspersed with fragments of actual cellular telephone conversations, both recorded and intercepted live, blaring over a dozen speakers. The sound of V-8 motors starting up drew cheers, but audience noise was soon lost in the din.

In the distance, a four-legged form slowly lurched forward, exuding bursts of flame. Wheeled and legged machines came to life, engines roaring or electric motors whining.

The machines rumbled among hanging cornucopias of rotting fish and vegetables, huge platters of foodstuffs, and animal carcasses attached to pillars. Eventually they turned on each other, enacting mechanical dramas of greed, conflict and combat. By the end of the performance, the asphalt was strewed with wasted "food," smoking ruins and the burned, skeletal figures of the machines that had "lived" there.

Onlookers drifted past to stare at the wreckage, their ears ringing from the roar of unmuffled engines and the hundreds of shock waves emitted by a six-barreled electric cannon. Some compared notes on what they'd just seen. Others just looked stunned.

Like many SRL shows, the event caused an uproar. San Francisco authorities -- by then familiar with SRL -- anticipated the explosions, the flamethrower and the animal carcasses. And they ignored the burning tower of pianos, the machine that sprayed the crowd with pulverized fish and the huge spiked claw that menaced the audience while it tore down the scenery.

The TNT was the trouble: hundreds of olive-green cardboard cylinders about 5 inches by 3 inches, with printed messages saying, "High Explosive -- 1/2 pound of TNT." During the show, a machine was supposed to drop them near the crowd into a pool of fire where they would be destroyed. Instead, the cylinders were scattered over the ground. Afterward, crowd members ventured onto the charred site and picked up the cardboard cylinders.

The next day, the cylinders showed up all over the Bay Area: alongside major highways, under bridges, in automated-teller machines. The San Francisco police closed the Great Highway next to Ocean Beach after some were seen on the shoulder. More were found at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge and near the Interstate-80 overpass where the show was held.

The little canisters, however, were not TNT. Despite the realistic fuses sticking out the end, they were filled with plaster.

The group has also been frequently criticized for its use of animal carcasses in some shows. An Arizona newspaper once headlined a story about one of SRL's videos "Animal Mutilation Show." Actually, the carcasses SRL uses come from slaughterhouses, the mummified animals from train tunnels.

Dozens of volunteers collectively execute Pauline's visions through dirty, exhausting and sometimes hazardous work. The eclectic group ranges from leather-clad punks to Silicon Valley engineers in running shoes. All are united by the shared excitement of creating events that -- to say the least -- make most of the rest of the world very nervous.

Their size, complexity and danger make SRL events expensive to stage. SRL members are volunteers who work on individual shows and admission fees of $6 or $8 per person cover only some of the costs. Pauline and his associates support themselves by doing custom machine fabrication work, accepting lecture fees they are offered and improvising for materials and living expenses. SRL has been rejected numerous times for NEA grants. And fees they receive go toward rent for the shop, food for volunteers and expenses associated with construction -- although Pauline admits that SRL does pay for one $10 dinner a week for him. Often, even paying for the crew's food is a problem, and volunteers bring their own tools -- and sleep under SRL shipping trailers.

Then where do all those electronics and aircraft-quality components come from? Pauline and the rest of the group just smile. "We have friends," he says, adding the group also practices "aggressive scrounging."

Volunteers' motivations differ. Jonathan Levine, a freelance computer engineer from Calgary, Alberta, travels to San Francisco and lives with the group for several weeks before each show. He says SRL is the best application of the technology he spends his life with.

"Look at the current state of the electronics industry," Levine says. "The ones who make the most money are largely defense-driven. To me, it's highly unethical to use this technology in that manner. I want to make people think about {the technology} they're seeing and what it's doing to them.

"Also there's the collective nature of the shows. It's a loosely driven group of volunteers, and that affects the way people work -- I can have a significant input into the design and the final outcome of the show.

"People call the shows militaristic, but that's the furthest thing from the truth. We may put on a pretense of a threat, but we have no intention of hurting people. We just want to see how far they'll go to protect themselves."

For Rick Rees, formerly a software engineer at Bell Northern Research, a Palo Alto, Calif., research and development facility, "the shows make people take responsibility for themselves. At a certain point, the show gets completely out of control, or people think it has. Someone who expected to be entertained, the next thing they know, they're just trying to save themselves from a machine that seems like it's about to decapitate them.

"It makes people view the world differently."

Pauline himself thinks "SRL fills a very apparent lack, by fighting what seems like a conspiracy to make this world less interesting. Society seems determined to stamp out unusual experiences on every level, but we're a way to keep people vigorous, by providing experiences they can't get anywhere else. Interesting things are proscribed all over; they're disappearing so fast that the whole world seems like it's one big corporate buyout.

"We're not corporate," he adds unnecessarily.

Is it art? That depends whom you ask. To Bob Riley, curator of media arts at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the answer is unequivocally yes.

"SRL has inherited a serious mission and contributes significantly to issues of 'authorized' and 'unauthorized' art," he says. "These are not housebroken artists, and their refusal to be 'paper-trained' points up the oppressive attitudes of the Establishment {art world}."

Politics, theater, technology, ideology and engineering, says Riley, have always intersected in performance art. SRL predecessors, Riley says, include Provo, an anarchist-performance group centered in Amsterdam. In the 1960s, Provo presented street theater that dissolved any distinction between performers and ordinary citizens. Its spontaneous pieces, including mock assassinations, got performance art banned from Amsterdam for years.

Surprisingly, the Artpark controversy seems to have invigorated Pauline at the same time it has exasperated him. SRL has filed for a federal court injunction in Albany, N.Y., to force Artpark to reinstate the canceled show, he says. He is receiving letters of support from artists all over the country, and he intends to continue confronting "the right-wingers in power" who have mounted what he terms a broad-scale attack on artists.

"I had an idea for the next show," he muses. "We could invited every major right-wing organization, give them a sound system that'd punch through everything else, and let them say anything they wanted, from this obscenely ornate pedestal or podium. I think it'd be great to have those words, those positions, those arguments booming out during an SRL show."

More generally, Pauline says, SRL will continue its quest for "mischief on a mass scale" simply because "it's important to ridicule" society's assumptions and the attitudes of those in power.

"Any artist worth their salt should be doing that today, more than ever," he says quietly. "If they're not, then they're not functioning in society in the way that artists should function."

John Voelcker is a writer who lives in New York City. He has worked in two Survival Research Laboratories shows, one there and one in San Francisco.