He has caused a national security alert in Austria. He risks life and limb in order to create massive industrial warscapes. But for Mark Pauline, art terrorist, if a job is worth doing, it's worth blowing to smithereens.
"What a beauty!" cries Mark Pauline gleefully as we screech to a halt by a brambly old patch of Docklands waste ground. Perched on a rubbly bed of burnt tyres and used condoms, a venerable 1930s Rutters Brothers crane creaks winsomely in the wind. To many, it's just an ugly tangle of snapped hawsers and twisted meshing, but Mark Pauline is a man who's in love with machines."I have a weakness for cranes," he confides as we wiggle through a loose section of defensive Re-Usa-Fence towards our warped and rusted prize.

A big brass angle pointer dangles tantalisingly above us, and Pauline wants it. Snapping open his briefcase, he fishes out a Swiss Army Knife, considers it for a moment, then discards it in favour of a nifty little pointy instrument. "You seen a leatherman before?" he asks proudly, snippering his pincers, "they can do anything. Watch this." And with a bit of precision twiddling and a lot of determined yanking, the pointer succumbs. "I always like to take a souvenir home with me from a trip," he smiles triumphantly, pocketing his trophy.

Liberating machinery is a way of life for Pauline. Every piece of scrap is potentially raw material for a new invention. Founder of the San Francisco performance phenomenon Survival Research Laboratories (SRL), art terrorist Mark Pauline has been staging some of the world's most extraordinary mechanical mega-spectacles since 1979.

From Phoenix to Amsterdam, Oakland to Barcelona, he has created over a hundred apocalyptic shows: A Short Excursion into the Bottomless Pit of Everlasting Fire; A Cruel and Relentless Plot to Pervert the Flesh of Beasts to Unholy Uses; The Unrestrained Use of Excessive Force - as the names suggest, they're not for the faint-hearted.

Pauline and his roving network of around 150 SRL helpers can work 16 hours a day for up to six months to build the dozens of crazy machines needed for a single 40-minute performance. Then it's all gone in a puff of smoke. A very, very big puff of smoke.

Molten shrapnel flies off in every direction, as 150 tons of demonic machinery locks in vicious, but humorous and highly choreographed, combat. Steel jaws snapping, bayonet arms scything the air, wave after wave of chomping, scuttling and lurching creatures lunge at each other through billowing clouds of acrid smoke. V-1 rockets boom out amid the scorching roar of military flame-throwers, howling jet engines, whirring chainsaws, breaking glass and splintering steel.

Huge replicas of cultural icons (Billy Graham, say, or the Unabomber) are mown down in their path, then the machines turn and advance on a new quarry, cowering in abject horror against the railings: the audience. "It's like being in a huge car crash," says Richard Curson Smith, director of Pandaemonium, a recent BBC2 film featuring SRL. "Mark's shows are the most dramatic, exhilarating things I've ever experienced - a complete assault on all the senses. The rockets give off a kind of huge subsonic boom which moves you involuntarily. It stinks and you're sure that you're going to go deaf."

"The first-hand misery the audience could potentially suffer is a significant part of the creative statement," Pauline declared, back in SRL's audience- injuring early days. Nowadays he's a bit more mellow. "It's not designed for the audience's convenience," he says. "People say the audience is attacked and tortured, but really that's only occasionally. Machines don't care about people, that's what makes working with technology so disturbing and disruptive."

Although audience-members have sustained injuries from flying rocks and orbiting sheep carcasses (and one individual tried to upstage a show by committing suicide), the person who has suffered most from his contraptions is Pauline himself. Brewing his own military rocket fuel in his workshop one day back in 1982, Pauline blew off his right hand. "I was blown 10ft in the air," he remembers, "and when I looked down there was just bare shards of bone. It was quite grim."

Surgeons managed to save one finger, then patch together a lumpy handlet, using swathes of flesh from his back and three of his toes. Elegant it is not.Pauline loves testing people's reaction to his handshake, wrong- footing the tentative introducee with an unflinching stare. Grasp the nettle and you're in, evade gaze and grip and you'll probably be dismissed. "I sustained a lot of other collateral damage," he adds wryly as further fuel to the imagination, which is already struggling to visualise his deconstructed feet.

Later that evening, we sit in the ICA watching Australian performance artist Stelarc dance around with his electronic third arm. Pauline is busy prodding me with his stump throughout, whispering wicked Stelarc anecdotes. The limb allocation in the room is surreally misbalanced. Why doesn't Stelarc just give the third arm to Mark? "What, that moth-eaten old thing?" scoffs Pauline. "No, when it comes to hands, bio is best."

Nature, on the whole, fails to impress Mr Pauline. "When I go out into nature I bring guns and light fires," he says. "I really can't find trees very inspiring, unless you think of them as machines. I can relate more to natural forces - hurricanes, tornados, big waves, huge floods."

A driven workaholic, little can tear Pauline from the security of his San Franciscan scrapyard home and the embrace of favourite devices like the WheeloCopter, Stabbing Finger or Flippy Man. He doesn't take holidays. "Taking vacations is like smoking cigarettes. I find no mental purchase there. I see other people doing it, but I don't care to try it myself."

Pauline was doodling with animal parts before formaldehyde sheep were even a twinkle in Damien Hirst's eye; mating meat with machinery, to make quivering articulated corpse mechanisms like the Rabot or the spinning carousel of bounding cadavers, the Mummy-Go-Round. Recently acquired was a full human skin, currently being tattooed.

It's not surprising, perhaps, that SRL have never managed to mount a show in Britain. "You have laws against people like me," shrugs Pauline. "England has a very comprehensive set of regulatory issues we've never managed to overcome." Making a rather incongruous lecture visit to the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford University last week, Pauline found mere videos of SRL were enough to set hackles rising. The art historians loved Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, his fellow lecturer from Switzerland, who documents mutant bugs - "Such constructive use of art and technology," the professor purred. SRL, however - "Hmm, thank you Mr Pauline, very ... er ... destructive."

In Europe it's a different story. "In Copenhagen, the military actually came in and gave us explosives. The firemen all dressed up and started spraying their fire hoses everywhere. They got too excited and smashed up some guy's boat. In Europe, the art mafia is all centred around these big public spectacles and festivals, so they need people to do more extreme kinds of things."

Even so, the authorities in Barcelona tried to close SRL down once they realised that if something went wrong they might lose the election; while in Graz, Austria, the severity of Pauline's explosions caused the entire country to be put on military alert, convincing the Defence Staff that the Serbs were attacking.

An all-American cleancut boy, Pauline started off in the military himself, making target robots for the airforce before abandoning it for art school. "I was suddenly struck by the absurdity of warfare, and knew I'd become absurd if I continued to be part of it," he explains. Equally contemptuous of the art world, he dreamed up a career which would allow him to use all his favourite skills, and founded SRL as his own subversive corporation.

So is he some kind of rogue male survivalist, retreating into the protective shell of a macho misanthropic militia? Far from it. Beneath the prankster's deadpan carapace, a mischievous twinkle betrays a generous spirit. An outsider, sure, but a warmly sociable one. "We've got a different attitude at SRL," he admits in his inscrutable drawl, "but I don't consider that I don't belong to American culture. It's my right to be part of it."

Every evening, he's joined by teams of volunteers, many of them company men and women on $100,000 salaries, working in the defence industries, toy manufacturers and NASA, who assuage their corporate guilt by pouring their skills into SRL shows. Bristling networks of informants throughout the country then feed him with two tons of decommissioned tanks and computers a week.

Although SRL does mount some small-scale events, Pauline equates these to "big-game hunting in a safari park". "It's a mark of power in the culture to be able to do big things - to build a skyscraper as opposed to a shack. If you're working by yourself then ultimately that's what you're gonna be condemned to do. Most artists are out there building shacks and pretty shoddy ones at that."

Pauline takes great pleasure in turning down the many megabuck offers which pour in weekly from the likes of Marlboro, Alice Cooper's record company and the Disney Corporation. "They just don't comprehend the concept of someone who can't be bought off," he smirks. "I like being in a position where I can make people I don't respect feel bad about what they do - a big corporation debased by an individual."

So is there any hope for Britain? "You gotta be sneaky to put on an SRL show," admits Pauline. "I'm currently working on an idea for a kind of Trojan Horse to get into Britain. Some kind of machine that looks innocuous but unfolds like one of those transformer toys into lots of other smaller machines." I feel like Penelope Pitstop overhearing some Dastardly and Muttley strategy meeting. Isn't this rather giving the game away? "No," he sniggers, "I'm far too sneaky for that."

Internet site: www.srl.org

Details of SRL videos and performances: