Jan Robert Leegte on Pushing the Boundaries of Net Art Since the late 90s

May 22, 2023
Jan Robert Leegte, Dumpster, 2016

Leyla Fakhr: In the past you discussed how Bruce Nauman influenced your early artistic practice. Specifically, you once mentioned a statement that resonated with you: The most difficult thing about the whole piece for me was the statement. Could you provide further elaboration on this?

Jan Robert Leegte: The statement is part of a larger one that responds to his seminal piece The True Artist Helps the World by Revealing Mystic Truths in which he explained the ambivalence he felt with these words.

On one side he saw the silliness, probably even infantility in this, but on the other he truly believed it. I have a lot of this happening in my work also. On the one hand I try to probe as deep as possible into the matter of the networked computer and its software, treating it as a source of contemplation, on the other hand people encounter these colorful buttons that you can click on, without any result. This dichotomy is central in my work and life, that these touching moments of insight circle around the ordinary and banal.

I made a tribute to The True Artist to rephrase it in the context of my work. A diptych consisting of a laser cut print on dibond and a website, The Immaterial Materialised, 2014. In this work the idea of the materiality of software is put forward as these opposing forces that seem unable to unite pretty much like a koan.

Jan Robert Leegte, The Immaterial Materialised, 2014

Leyla Fakhr: I learned that you come from an architectural and sculptural background. What made you transition into the visual art scene?

Jan Robert Leegte: During studying architecture I discovered I wanted to make art. The slow pace and appliedness of architecture was not for me. I loved working with the body related to space, but how they essentially related was a mystery to me, so I wanted to investigate in rapid experiments.

This resulted in large sculptures and installations that I often performed or spent time in. You might recognise Nauman in this as well, and I also felt though I loved doing the work and found it personally useful, it had been covered by many.

It was when I encountered the browser as a unique space, uploading my first HTML/JavaScript experiment in 1997 to a server and seeing it in the public domain, I knew this was what I had been looking for. An interactive public space, in which the relation between body and space was totally new. I never looked back.

Jan Robert Leegte, Scrollbar Composition, 2017

Leyla Fakhr: You have been engrossed in net art since the late 90s, with your works predominantly focused on interface culture. You have mentioned that one aspect that fascinates you is how quickly the materiality of interfaces changes over time. Is it solely about the digital materiality or is it about the conceptual potential of the non physical space?

Jan Robert Leegte: The computer and its software is unlike any medium before that. It is a procedural, live, interactive, multiuser environment. If you just consider that for a second in relation to the invention of book printing, photography or film, you realise how completely different and unique it is.

For 25 years I have been trying to wrap my head around what it is we are dealing with as a reality, phonenemon. The digital materiality comes forth from my early starting point as a trained sculptor. I wanted to understand for instance, what the similarities and differences between the experience of a button and a bit of wood would be.

I have continuously thrown art historical methods and disciplines at it, to see what sticks and what falls off. Minimalism, Land art, Impressionism, Conceptual art, Performance art, drawing, etc, etc. For me this is a way to anchor my work within this terra incognita.

NO CONTENT: CONTEMPLATIONS ON SOFTWARE, Upstream Gallery, Amsterdam, 6 May - 17 Jun 2023, Photos by Gert Jan van Rooij, Courtesy of Upstream Gallery Amsterdam.

Leyla Fakhr: You have exhibited your work in museums, galleries, and even as public art in international locations. While net art is a movement that sees itself freed from physical space, it seems that many artists still find ways to represent their work as a physical medium. Where do you see your work in the virtual realm, and when do you feel it needs to be in the physical realm?

Jan Robert Leegte: As I see the experience of software as just a part of our total experience, I confront them to understand the differences and similarities better. As I relate on-screen work to physical art traditions, I also take work from the screen into space to see how they operate as sculpture, painting, installation, mural, video, drawing, etc. This going in and out of the computer helps me get to know it better.

Leyla Fakhr: Amongst many of your incredible works Performing a Landscape, is another visually and conceptually stunning piece. I understand a variation of it will be shown later this summer at the Akzonobel Art Foundation. Could you tell me more about this work?

Jan Robert Leegte: Yes! The work is a 9-channel video installation, in which you can see observations of a simulated island made within a game engine (Unity).

I made an island based on the interface of the software that I used to transfer my first file to a server in 1997. This essential moment in my artist career is symbolic of the impact the networked computer has and will have on this planet and its civilizations. I added tens of thousands of years of erosion to the island. After this I wandered around the location for a couple of weeks to make video recordings.

The result in the gallery space is randomly placed screens on the floor and walls with projections blasting all over the place. The sound of one of the videos showing a brute storm is thundering over the speakers. The work is very immersive and intimidating leaving viewers in tears on many occasions. The work is relating the ephemerality of the transforming interfaces over the last decades with deep time and the Anthropocene, showing an abandoned simulated landscape in a far future featuring an eroded massive ruin of a 90's interface.

Jan Robert Leegte, Performing a Landscape, 2020

Leyla Fakhr: Buttons seems like a brilliant continuation of Ornament,  JPEG and Window. Could you elaborate on how the work came about, and how long have you been working on it?

Jan Robert Leegte: I started Buttons in December. It started with an idea I had that continued with my genesis drop Ornament. I imagined endless generative buttons, just one in the middle, shapeshifting with each iteration, just like an Ornament. This just didn't work, and it got shelved for some time.

Then I looked at it again, and changed it to a large collection of Buttons on one page, with the shapeshifting happening from one to the next. This I liked much more, as it resembled text, which I found a very exciting premise to tackle the problem of composition within generative art plus that by showing many buttons as a field, you really got to feel a history and abundance of the button's presence.

I wanted to make a work that was over the top and profound at the same time. Sometimes very loud and blunt, sometimes beautifully quiet and subtle. Being it a tribute, they had to be actual HTML buttons, styled in CSS. By far the most generative artists don't go this way, with good reason, but for me it is the story I want to tell.

Jan Robert Leegte, Ornament, 2021

Leyla Fakhr: What was the reason for implementing an 'easter egg' into the work, and what exactly does it do?

Jan Robert Leegte: Naturally as the work was about buttons and nothing else, I wanted clicking interaction, but no functionality. But later I decided I would add one seeded random button that does have functionality, to be able to upload an image of choice from your desktop or phone as a background image to the piece.

As the button is fundamentally about user computer interaction, I thought this would be the perfect hidden gesture for the user to interact with the NFT. So first you will have to find the active button from all the 256, good news. It will always be the same one. Your little secret. Then you can add background images. They will have a level of blurring depending on your NFT. Play with it, make screenshots, but it is only temporary, if you refresh the work, the NFT is as it was again.

Jan Robert Leegte, Buttons, 2023

Leyla Fakhr: Where would you like your practice to go from here? Any dream projects you’d like to take on?

Jan Robert Leegte: Just like the Internet my work will just flow and change in time, there is no way to know what will come next concerning the net. But I'm pretty sure my work will continue as a multi disciplinary exploratory expanding world. I can't imagine there is a medium or discipline that could not suddenly become something I will dive onto.

A good example is the audio piece in my current solo at Upstream Gallery Amsterdam, a 12 channel directional generative simulation of a wave crashing on a beach. I would love to scale up, present this in a huge space, thundering over the visitors down below. A dramatic experience built from layers of empty white noise, undocumentable. You had to be there. This and in the most extreme contrast on-chain NFTs, visible and self-documenting for the unforeseeable future of the net. I enjoy telling bigger stories in larger shows, and would like to develop more towards that in the future as well.

Leyla Fakhr: Any ideas on where the future of art lies?

Jan Robert Leegte: I like to cherish the thought that just like the early pioneers of digital art, and myself and others with internet art, almost no one saw what we were doing decades ago. And now more and more people are seeing the value and recognising it.

I assume the next steps are happening right now in plain sight, but we just can't see them yet. I raise my glass to the pioneers of today!

But even if digital art has been around for half a century, there is still a lot of work to be done...

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