…For the Scene Needs Changing:
Notes on Paul Segers’ Comradeship with Time
1. A Comrade of Time
In an interesting intervention, entitled “Comrades of Time”, the Russian art theorist Boris Groys points out that the “con-temporary” in contemporary art translates into German as zeitgenössisch, a combination of Zeit (time) and Genosse (comrade). This leads Groys to the clever pun that to be a con-temporary artist could also be understood in terms of being a comrade of time (a Genosse der Zeit rather than a simple Zeitgenosse, a contemporary). A con-temporary artist in this sense should be understood as someone who is “collaborating with time, helping time when it has problems, when it has difficulties.”
Being a comrade of time does not mean marching along with the zeitgeist. The contemporary artist as comrade of time is someone who aesthetically explores temporalities – rhythms, velocities or even blockages of time – that otherwise would remain hidden from the social sensorium. “The present”, Groys says, “is a moment in time when we decide to lower our expectations of the future or to abandon some of the dear traditions of the past in order to pass through the narrow gate of the here-and-now.” This may be so for most of us but it is certainly not the case for comrades of time. They go to work at the “narrow gate of the here-and-now” as they simply cannot bear the squeeze of the present. For the contemporary artist who aspires to be a comrade of time, there is a constant urgency to push and kick against the always too narrow gate of the present.
Paul Segers’ work provides us with a splendid opportunity to explore and substantiate the notion of the artist as comrade of time. There is quite a bit of pushing and kicking in the works presented in this catalogue but they also offer more subtle and complex ways of challenging the contractions of our present time. Comradeship with time in the work of Paul Segers begins with a healthy obsession with the contemporary, i.e., with those material and immaterial phenomena that define the present as present. However, the scenes that translate this obsession into works of art don’t conform at all with the normal flow of objects, technologies, ideologies, habits, rituals etc. There is a paradoxical force at work in the way Paul Segers relates to the contemporary, expressed by the recurring contradiction between affirmation and rejection, fascination and disgust, creation and destruction. And this paradoxical force is worth exploring as it gives us a number of concrete clues on what it means for a contemporary artist to be a comrade of time.
2. From Medium to Composition
In order to do this, we first need to leave behind a certain limitation of Groys’ intervention. He argues that comradeship with time requires the specific medium of time-based or digital art. Groys’ approach, I think, is inspired here by Maurizio Lazzarato’s notion of “machines to crystallize time” that the Italian philosopher used in the 1990s to understand the potential of video and digital technology in terms of their capacity to directly intervene in (and work on) the flow of time. The problem is that in doing so, Groys seems to miss one of Lazzarato’s crucial points: that video and digital technology are merely the latest articulations of the specifically human mode of creativity, i.e., the composition of organic and inorganic matter for the purpose of manipulating the flow of time. Like his French colleague Bernard Stiegler, Lazzarato understands the human being as an essentially technological being that evolves by constantly creating man-machine interfaces. Video and digital technology represent specific constellations of such interfaces but cannot in any way claim superiority with regard to their relation to time. Time is understood here in Bergsonian fashion, as that which brings qualitative change, that which doesn’t just extend what is but gives birth to difference in kind. For Bergson, time is not simply the linear succession of instances; time is creativity or it is nothing at all. This means that the question of creativity is synonymous with the question of comradeship with time. And this question can never be answered by a specific medium alone. There is no “time-based” media in the strict, qualitative sense of the term. Rather, the creative quality of an artistic work depends on the particular composition of human and non-human elements and the impact it thus affords on the narrow gate of the present.
3. On Composition: Making a Scene
Which brings us back to the compositions – the scenes – presented in this publication. These are aesthetic assemblages composing organic and inorganic matter in such a way as to form machines that in one way or another launch into the narrow gate of the present. They are machines but not in the usual sense of the term. And they are also not machines in a purely aesthetic sense, which is to say that they are not sculptures. “At first”, Segers says, “I thought my work was about sculptures but it’s not; it’s about scenes.” His peculiar machines are scenes. They often include classical machine elements such as boats, robots, cars and so on but it isn’t the presence of these elements that defines the scenes’ machinic character. Rather, it’s the manner in which these elements are arranged, their composition within a multiplicity of additional and rather heterogeneous organic and inorganic elements (tents, humans, aliens, writers etc). What Segers achieves as a creator of scenery – as, if you will, a weird landscaper – are peculiar modes of arrangement that afford (mostly ephemeral) machines that either relentlessly register illegitimate contractions at the gate of the present or, indeed, try to punch holes into it.
To repeat the obvious, Paul Segers’ method is the scene. He is clearly fond of making a scene. Yet, for him, making a scene doesn’t mean to draw attention to himself. It is much more a matter of disrupting the usual course of things. This might even be the common denominator of the scenes collected in this publication. The scene changes, the scene disrupts. Scenes of disruption. Again, this is an extremely contemporary trait of Paul Segers’ work given the ubiquitous reference to disruption in the current discourses and practices of innovation. Disruption is as fundamental to Paul Segers as it is to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. However, he intends disruption in a strictly non-Californian sense of the term. He is anything but the wet dream of a creative industries policy maker. In fact, his scenes seem to aspire to the very opposite of innovation. They sabotage the flow of constant improvement and perpetual progress by turning it against itself. Walking the Dog (2016), for instance, is a replica of Boston Dynamics’ beloved icon of our robotic (military) future turned into a dysfunctional entertainment gadget. 21st Century Mirage (2016) stages as a spectacular performance the baroque nightmare that haunts every Segway Personal Transporter in its sleep as a spectacular performance. The Unlimited Dream Company (2015) brilliantly deflates the “out-of-the-box” solutionism of creative city strategies by pushing their inherent mixture of infantilism and hyperbole to its logical extreme. In a similar vein, Another Time, Another Place (2014) reveals the superficiality of seemingly well-intentioned social design interventions by following the bottom-up rulebook to the letter and installing the artist in a Roma-settlement at the outskirts of Belgrade. The thus radicalised social innovation safari ends abruptly when the violence of the social conditions it is normally supposed to conceal manifest in a veritable death threat to the artist.
4. Creative Anti-Innovation
Paul Segers’ art is anti-innovative. His scenes are machines of anti-innovation. And yet, they are highly creative. Creative anti-innovation! There is no contradiction here. In fact, one of the great achievements of his work is to remind the present of the crucial yet currently neglected difference between creativity and innovation. In this respect, Paul Segers’ art resonates in a strange and exciting way with the thought of the nearly forgotten Swiss writer and visionary Adrien Turel (1890-1957). In the beginning of the twentieth century, Turel introduced a distinction in the generative logic of life (natural as well as social life) that our contemporary zeitgeist appears to ignore: the dynamic versus the genetic. The dynamic refers to the will to move forward, grow, expand, etc. – in short, to conquer the external world while staying internally unchanged. The genetic, by contrast, rests and turns inward in order to create the interior conditions for the next round of dynamic expansion. Pregnancy brings the outward dynamism of the mother’s life to a halt so that her body can create new life. The inventor or discoverer renounces worldly riches, pleasures and power as he or she obsessively explores the unlikely path to novelty. The businessman then takes the fruits of the painfully concentrated work and turns them into innovative products to be dynamically rolled out onto the market. Innovation is dynamic but the new is genetic. The difference is that between doing and becoming, between action and metamorphosis.
Even if this brief sketch can’t do proper justice to Turel’s important distinction, it helps us understand the predicament a comrade of time such as Paul Segers finds himself in. In order to help “time when it has problems”, as Groys puts it, he has to defiantly confront the dynamic currents of the present as they threaten to swallow up the genetic. What makes Paul Segers such a fabulous comrade of time is that he clearly recognises the severity of the problem caused by the present hegemony of the dynamic. He composes his scenes in such a way as to make them cunning machines of entrapment, folding the dynamic flow of time back onto itself. From a dynamic point of view this looks like aesthetic sabotage because it blocks the dynamic flow of time. The effect of this method, however, is a highly creative one as it points to the necessity of reopening the narrow gate of the here-and-now to the genetic.
This is perhaps nowhere as obvious as in Future Artifacts, a collaboration with the Norwegian artist Ajla R. Steinvåg. One could call it an exercise in tough love directed at our false belief in the unprecedented creativity of the digital age. Segers and Steinvåg brilliantly articulate the Gegenwartseitelkeit or presentist vanity that confuses the search for the new with the dynamic projection of its own image into the future. The future is degraded to an update of the present thus losing its genetic potential. Future Artifacts short-circuits this dynamic reductionism by robbing the distant future of its genuine past (i.e., our near future). By faking the future’s past, the artists point towards a dystopia that is as unable to reach into its past as our present, thanks to its vanity, is unable to reach into the future. Time, they suggest, can indeed be broken.
The scenes created in High Tech Man In Nowhere Land (2012) approach the same problem from a different angle. They come across as re-enactment of the 1960s Sahara project by ZERO cofounder Heinz Mack but are radically emptied out of its utopian impetus. Indeed, they move Mack’s techno-enthusiasm from ZERO to ONE, to quip on the title of Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel’s latest pamphlet, with ONE being the state of absolute stasis where the present has successfully disrupted time, absorbing it into the dynamic monopoly of the eternal here-and-now.
5. The Unlimited Scene Company
What this collection presents are scenes that stage an aesthetic rebellion against the dynamic follies inherent to our present. They debunk, denounce and deconstruct but they never do so in a fashion that would smack of aesthetic education in a sentimental Schillerian sense. By building machines that fold the dynamic flow of time back onto itself, they invite us to imagine loopholes in the narrow gate of the here-and-now through which a different time, a time of difference, can escape toward a future worthy of its name. “There are things coming out of your head that frighten me, you’re crossing space and time at some kind of angle to the rest of us.” Such is the charge brought forward against the protagonist in J.G. Ballard’s novel The Unlimited Dream Company that inspired the homonymous work featured in this catalogue. It should be clear by now that the contemporary artist as comrade of time has to embrace this charge as the foundational principle of his or her work. And it should be equally clear that Paul Segers is such a comrade of time if there ever was one!
Sebastian Olma is an Amsterdam-based author and critic involved with initiatives of urban cultural activism and subcultural innovation. He is Professor of Autonomy in Art, Design and Technology at St. Joost Art Academy and Avans University of Applied Sciences in Breda, The Netherlands. His latest book, In Defence of Serendipity: For a Radical Politics of Innovation was published by Repeater Books, London in 2016.
 Boris Groys, “Comrades of Time”, e-flux, 11, December 2009. Retrieved from: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/comrades-of-time/.
 Lazzarato uses this notion throughout his book Videofilosofia: La Percezione del Tempo Nel Postfordismo (Roma: Manifestolibri, 1996). An English translation of the first chapter of this book has been published in the journal Theory, Culture & Society (London: SAGE, Vol. 24(6), 2007, pp. 93–122).
 For an introduction to Stiegler’s philosophy see his Technics and Time, Vol 1: The Fault of Epimetheus, trans. George Collins & Richard Beardsworth (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).
 A digestible introduction to Henri Bergson’s philosophy of duration as creative time can be found in his The Creative Mind. An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Mabelle L. Andison (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2007 ).
 Turel was aware of the radical challenges of the Anthropocene as early as the 1930s, long before the notion was even invented (he spoke of the “Ultratechnoikum”). We owe the rediscovery of Turel’s visionary thinking to the brilliant work of the Dutch biologist and media theorist Arjen Mulder, published in his book De Successtaker. Adrien Turel en de Wortels van de Creativiteit (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Duizend & Een, 2016). My fragmentary reconstruction of Turel’s arguments are entirely based on Mulder’s fascinating book.
 For a detailed critique of the vacuous self-referentiality of the current discourse on creativity and innovation, please consult: Sebastian Olma, In Defence of Serendipity. For A Radical Politics of Innovation (London: Repeater Books, 2016).
 Peter Thiel, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future (London: Virgin Books, 2014).
 J.G. Ballard, The Unlimited Dream Company (London: Fourth Estate, 2014 ).
About Sebastian Olma:
Professor Dr. Sebastian Olma holds the research chair for Autonomy at the Centre of Applied Research for Art, Design and Technology (Caradt) at Avans University of Applied Sciences. Professor Olma began his academic career by pursuing interdisciplinary studies in the social sciences and humanities at universities in Germany and the US. He earned a PhD from the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 2007 with a dissertation analysing the ontology of contemporary capitalism.
He began his professional career by conducting a number of academic research projects on art and the creative industries for institutions such as Goldsmiths and the Royal Dutch Academy of Science (KNAW). Professor Olma worked as a researcher at the Institute of Network Cultures at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. As a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam, he guided PhD researchers performing critical examinations of the creative industries. His professional experience as a policy advisor and consultant led him to the publication of In Defence of Serendipity (Repeater 2016), a book critiquing creative industries policies and exploring radical strategies of social innovation that transcend conventional definitions of creativity and innovation.
As professor of Autonomy in Art, Design and Technology, Olma has built a research group working on the development of a timely notion of autonomy for contemporary art and design practice. His vision on autonomy is developed in two publications: Autonomy and Weltbezug (Avans 2016) and Art and Autonomy. Past – Present – Future (_V2 2018). Since 2018, he teaches the theory course Contemporary Thought at the Master Institute of Visual Cultures AKV | St. Joost. He’s the co-founder (with Andreas Krüger) of the Dérive Berlin Residency Programme that AKV | St. Joost master students can apply for twice a year.
Professor Olma regularly participates in public debates, highlighting the inherent contradiction between fact and fiction when it comes to creative industries, art and innovation. In 2017, he was appointed an advisor to the Dutch Council for Culture. He lives in Amsterdam, where he edits the subcultural magazine Amsterdam Alternative and serves as chairman of the board at the autonomous cultural centre OT301.