Paul Segers – The Infiltrator
No artist works in isolation from his surroundings. Artists are influenced by the society of which they are a part. Their work reflects the era in which they live. Paul Segers responds to political shifts, technological innovations that drive and overtake our environments, and the boundless consumerism that keeps us imprisoned. Developments that rapidly change the digital and analogue landscape. His work represents a new surrealism: a world in which dreams and fantasies become instant reality and in which multiple truths coexist. Science fiction turned science fact.
In essence, Paul Segers is a performance artist. Even though he regularly delegates his actions or ‘performances’ to others, such as the avatars or robots that rapidly populate our world. And are evolving in ways we can barely imagine. The ambition of 21st. century robotics goes far beyond simply mimicking humans and their actions in half physical and half digital form. Future robots will no longer be walking and talking androids, barely distinguishable from humans, but swarms of super powers that manifest in our physical and digital environment. Embedded in our physical space, they will go where we may not and cannot, make their own judgements and take independent decisions. This reality forms the playing field of Paul Segers.
In this real virtuality, Segers makes his performances and interventions around the themes of the 21st Century: acceleration, polarisation, technological extravagance. The rapid progress in these areas blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction. Segers penetrates high-tech systems, becomes familiar and friendly with man and machine, and then gives his own interpretation. He is fascinated by contradictions or inconsistencies and gives them meaning: visual and conceptual. Contrasts between admission and denial, inclusion and exclusion, democracy and state control are pushed to the edge and played off against each other. Paul Segers is an infiltrator pur sang.
Infiltrator, intruder, deceiver, hacker. In a narrow sense, an infiltrator- trickster - is someone who is out for personal gain. But just as not all hackers are thieves – ethical hackers win in popularity – so the infiltrator needs to be seen in a broader sense than just a self-centred personality. The artist as infiltrator doesn’t search for individual but for collective renewal. Paul Segers neither personifies nor illustrates the character of the infiltrator in the strict sense of the word. He doesn’t seek individual but rather collective renewal and is in that way related to the ethical hacker. As a bricoleur, he reveals how the available material – environment, images, objects - can be re-articulated. Just as hackers use tools in other ways than intended, Paul Segers interrogates the dominant position of things and events around us.
Seger’s performance/installation Mark the Points of No Return from 2015 for the exhibition Non-Fiction in Helmond was a response to the harrowing reality of Europe: a growing influx of refugees who are facing increasingly stringent borders. Fragments of old artworks from his studio were placed on an open terrain opposite – rather than inside of – the exhibition. He spent 13 days and nights on the property building a hut with the available material. A shack. Water, rice, canned food he brought with him, so that he wouldn’t have to leave the field. The fashionable suit worn for the opening night was his only clothing. His shabby surroundings stood in sharp contrast to the recently renovated art centre. The area, surrounded by the art space De Cacaofabriek, parking, road, canal and railways tracks, generated both positive and negative attention. Inquisitive visitors questioned him about his intentions, whether his hut was allowed to be there, to what extent his situation resembled that of refugees and the homeless. But there was much irritation about the mess created by Segers. A daring intervention that highlighted the failure of the art world, but also the lack of a political response to the refugee crisis. People no longer receive hospitality and compassion, all borders are closed: physical borders, digital borders, the borders in our heads. After 70 years of peace in Europe, leading to a gradual abolition of borders between states, the refugee crisis mercilessly lays bare the hypocrisy of new selection-mechanisms between the haves and the have-nots.
For the international exhibition HACKING HABITAT – on how we are held hostage by complex, interconnected high-tech systems and how we can hack back our lives – Paul Segers developed his first ‘stand-in’: Big Dog. A precisely replicated robot dog interacted with the public in his place. The robot is a ‘replica’ of a military robot that the company Boston Dynamics was developing, commissioned by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) in the United States. On the battlefield the robot must follow a soldier like a faithful dog in order to, for example, transport equipment over terrain that is impassable for vehicles. The transition from performance to object seems like a big step, but fits seamlessly within the repertoire of the infiltrator. As protagonist, the robot dog, comprised of hard- and software, fulfils a clear performative role in the sense of an action aimed at change.
The robot dog is robust and intimidating, but also cuddly – in the way he is theatrically placed against a palm tree. For the artist, Walking the Dog features an iconographic object that carries many (visible and invisible) military technological innovations within itself. His version is consciously placed in a somewhat clumsy entertainment situation. A placement that is consistent with the jolly movies that Boston Dynamics puts on Youtube in commendation of the capabilities of their machines, such as three robotic dogs that, to the tune of Jingle Bells, pull a Christmas sleigh past the Boston Dynamics head office. Representation is essential in this performative re-enactment. Consumers are faced with the physical reality of a military machine, modelled and named ‘man’s best friend’. At the same time, they are seduced by the innocent way the robot dog is offered to them as a new gadget. A spectacular, cute, funny or interesting innovation without defining the actual goal, let alone going into the dark side of these developments. This form of representation, described by Baudrillard as “Disneyfication” might in the current era be even better served by the term “Gamification”. The shift from Disney to the “first-person shooter” blends violence, entertainment, humour and spectacle in such a way that the line between reality and fiction is hard to find. The two mutually influence each other.
A motion sensor makes Seger’s modified version of Big Dog aware of our presence, which is the moment in which the robot dog begins to sensually dance to the track Walking the Dog by Rufus Thomas. As a viewer, you react simultaneously to the militant aggression of the apparatus and its attempts to seduce you with its bold moves. Copying certain characteristics of an animal to a machine – biomimicry – gives the robot an uncanny appearance that makes us feel how closely technology manages to approximate real lifeforms. In his work, the artist searches for a balance between spectacular / fascinating / funny / frightening. Therefore, as infiltrator, Segers uses the proven tactic of over-identification. Through the strategy of copying a company or power holder and undermining their credibility by exaggerating their behaviour, the infiltrator reaches a tipping point. Suddenly, the presentation of this new land drone becomes transparent and as a viewer you gain insight into the deception that has turned your attention away from its violent purpose and potential.
Besides Walking the Dog , Paul Segers also created a second performance this year which, despite its apparent stand-up character, is closely related to an installation such as Walking the Dog even though the latter requires a long preparation time. The signature of Segers as infiltrator is clearly visible. At the beginning of 2016, for the 10 Year anniversary of the New Brabants Front (Segers is founding member) he developed the intervention 21st Century Mirage. A white clad, illuminated cowboy riding a camel – ‘the ship of the desert’ – dragging along a plastic palmtree. A performance that, by deploying the complete arsenal of guerrilla tactics – improvisation, maker-mindset, humour and realism – makes Paul Segers and the New Brabants Front converge in one image.
New Heroes for the Plastic Age is his most recent project that originated during an artist-in-residency in Guangzhou, China. The project is a public intervention in the trade and industry centre of China, undertaken with his colleague Hong Rongman. Two soldiers, equipped with armour and a feather plumes, made from all kinds of brightly coloured plastic objects such as funnels, buckets, brushes, trays, lids and watering-cans/jugs, meet at the quay on a river. A ceremonial exchange of gifts takes place. Then they go on patrol. They pass through shopping streets and busy stalls full of plastic bathroom objects, toys and utensils. A colourful and cheerful scene that not only attracts onlookers but even generates a parade. Children and adults follow the heroes in a Pied-Pieper of Hamelin parade that easily brings smiles. However, the performance is deadly serious. Perhaps the warriors are inspectors who are making their rounds to approve all those colourful plastic products. The performance also forces you to reflect. What’s so special about plastic? What role does this material have in China? In Europe? How has it changed our lives while we shove it aside as an unimportant by-product? Plastics are almost indestructible and yet at the same time the ultimate disposables. Once broken, it cannot be fixed, not to mention the damage to the environment when it arrives in the garbage dump. Plastic is the symbol of our throwaway society but also of the decades-long shaping of citizens into consumers. Consumers that no longer have any relationship with their environment, let alone maintain it. By contrast, the new heroes do enter into a relationship: with each other and with the articles. This gives their patrol a new meaning. Is there a different, higher status reserved for plastic? If so, then does it create a new role for the conscious and responsible consumer?
The infiltrator is like a fish that explains the water. Water that frequently changes composition in our complex society. Condition, flow, sustainability are tested, tried and held up against the light. It is our environment. Fluid but also irreplaceable and therefore precarious. Paul Segers bridges the trickster mentality of a maker/hacker and the concerned global citizen who reflects critically on the rapidly changing world. Such infiltrators are crucial. They are the new shamans.
The New Brabants Front (2006-2016) was an international collective of visual artists, designers, film makers, furniture makers, free culinarists, semi-managers and other entrepreneurs who, where possible and in ever-changing combinations, collaborated on projects, exhibitions, performances, actions and other interventions in the Netherlands and abroad. Their shared attitude towards art was able to connect the members together for a long time. The founders, Pauls Segers and Stan Wannet, annulated the NBF at the beginning of 2016 at its 10-year anniversary celebration. The last happening took place in De Fabriek in Eindhoven, home-base of the New Brabants Front.
Text: Ine Gevers, curator, writer, activist
Artistic Director – Niet Normaal Foundation
Curator – HACKING HABITAT Art of Control. 2016
About Ine Gevers:
Ine Gevers is tentoonstellingsmaker, schrijver en activist. Sinds 2007 is zij artistiek directeur van de Niet Normaal INT Foundation met als doel grootschalige ervaringstentoonstellingen met betrekking tot actuele onderwerpen voor een breed publiek te realiseren: Ik + De Ander, Art and the Human Condition (Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, 1994), Niet Normaal · Difference on Display (Beurs van Berlage, Amsterdam, 2009-2010), Ja Natuurlijk · How Art saves the World (Gemeentemuseum, Den Haag, 2013), Hacking Habitat · Art of Control (voormalige gevangenis, Utrecht, 2016), Robot Love (Campina Milk Factory/Dutch Design Week, Eindhoven, 2018), (IM)POSSIBLE BODIES (‘s-Hertogenbosch, 2020).
Ze is redacteur en auteur van Engelse en Nederlandse publicaties, zoals: Place, Position, Presentation, Public (1992); Ik + De Ander (Stichting Artimo, 1994); Voorbij ethiek en esthetiek (SUN, 1997); ‘Beelden die om Voltooiing vragen’, Documentary Now (2005); Niet Normaal · Difference on Display (NAi Publishers, 2009); Yes Naturally (NAi Publishers, 2013); Hacking Habitat (NAi010, 2016), Robot Love (Terra, 2018).