Jan Robert Leegte: A quest for silence and bewilderment in Minecraft’s vast expanses

Published on December 8th, 2013

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A quest for silence and bewilderment in Minecraft’s vast expanses. Jan Robert Leegte interviewed by Annet Dekker.

A shorter version of this interview is published in Metropolis M, no. 6, December 2013/January 2014 (in Dutch).

With a background in architecture and fine arts Jan Robert Leegte has been experimenting in the Web since the mid-1990s. He soon became known for his physical translations of specific computer elements: buttons, scrollbars and Photoshop selections. He is still deeply immersed in searching for ways to convert the digital medium into new experiences, but nowadays he finds his inspiration online instead of offline. Leegte is trying to penetrate digital materiality to view old concepts such as ‘original work’ and ‘authorship’ from other perspectives. He uses his project Remake of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Minecraft (2013) to demonstrate shows that land art can also be digital.

Annet Dekker [AD]: Minecraft is known for being a type of digital Lego, and isn’t necessarily the most obvious environment for land art, let alone a remake of Spiral Jetty. Why did you decide to make this digital version?

Jan Robert Leegte [JRL]: Remake of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in Minecraft is a tribute to Minecraft’s specific software and the land art tradition. I was pretty impressed by the scenery generator in Minecraft when I saw the game for the first time, and in fact the game is nothing more than that. When I started playing it the only thing I wanted to do was run. Sometimes you have to hide somewhere from passing monsters, but then you just carry on going. It’s a classic romantic scenario. The game generates endless mountains, plains, forests and seas, but strangely enough, people in the online version are all busy making huge constructions. I think it’s a perfect place to make land art; much more than, for example, Second Life where the landscape is not automatically generated and the experience revolves around ‘human’ interactions and the building of structures. Smithson’s Spiral Jetty is, of course, the archetype for land art. The myths surrounding this work are in some way also reflected in Minecraft because you while you’re building, you have to constantly eliminate monsters so you can continue with your sculpture – and just doing this can take an entire day. In fact, slaughtering monsters and building camera towers so you can eventually film the land art forms a large part of the final project. You have to do a great deal more in this environment than you would do merely designing something in Photoshop.

AD: It certainly does sound similar to the processes involved in producing land art: battling bureaucracy, the forces of nature, or any visitors – invited or not – who might come along.

JRL: Yes, exactly, it is a wonderful interpretation for our times. I was pretty naive when I began the project. I just started in ‘adventure mode’, and went to work. Later it turned out that you can turn loads of things off or use modes that help you escape the monsters. But I wasn’t interested in those – I regard them as aspects of that world and you have to learn to deal with them. So you do have to learn to play the game. It’s much more complicated than Lego where you build something from various blocks: you also have to figure out how to make swords to hack the monsters to bits. In fact, you’re primarily concerned with the production of your own construction project.

AD: So the process determines the outcome, but the process isn’t visible to the general public who only sees the video that you made.

JRL: Insiders understand it immediately, but others don’t get it at first. Besides, it isn’t necessary, and perhaps that aspect is only interesting for enthusiasts. By eventually filming the work I wanted on the one hand to follow the tradition of land art, which can often only be seen in photographs or films, but at the same time I also wanted to create some distance. I didn’t want people to walk around it. I refer in particular to the reproducible aspect of land art. For instance, many of Richard Long’s works have never actually been seen by others; they were merely intimate experience for him alone, or they served as models for his photographs. If you download and start Minecraft, it begins by generating an infinite world where everything is made just for you. You enter the world as a lonely soul, and that’s what makes it special and also overwhelming, were it not for the fact that most people engage with the game in multiplayer mode and scurry about building things. But if you play it on your own, you experience an overwhelming feeling similar to the one you have when you walk in nature or climb a mountain. In this I see a great similarity with early land art; I thought therefore that video was also the correct way to reproduce the silence and the vastness

AD: That stillness that you’re looking for is almost diametrically opposed to today’s online trends of gif-art or remixing experiments on Tumblr. How do you look at these rapid, successive trends on the Internet?

JRL: The turnover rate is very high. And although I do not find everything to be equally good, there are important moments in the history of Internet art. At the moment bridges are being built to fine art institutes through what is often called post-Internet art, but sometimes it lacks a critical eye. This results in quite a lot of conservative solutions that conform to standard presentations in the art world. Artists on the Internet seem blinded by the authority of the visual arts world: galleries, large art fairs and institutes. It’s good that objects are made from the Internet, but to exhibit these at eye-level or in display cases is very odd. It’s very important that you deal critically with the white cube and the Internet, especially if you come from that world. Fortunately, there are plenty of interesting examples in ‘surf art’, where truly new steps are being taken. The potency of the material was exploited by, for example, harvesting images and making references to art historical examples whereby new compositions were created. Interactions such as these are technically and conceptually interesting.

AD: The confrontation with the materiality of the landscape, the structures of sand, stone and water and the influence of wind, rain and sun are important components for artists who make land art. You also talk about the potential of the material. Can you say something more about this?

JRL: I mean the physical experience of the medium: something physical happens when you press a button on a Web page or slide the scroll bar. There’s a difference between the front and back of the medium – what you do is not the same as what you see. Specific to a computer is that there is a distinction between the instruction and the execution. You also see this relationship in conceptual art of the 1970s, for example, in the instructions of Robert Morris or Art & Language. But these processes occur automatically with a computer. That’s one of the aspects that makes software material, and why it’s interesting to use. I use the term ‘post-medium’ because a computer isn’t really a medium, but a workshop or an empty space filled with tools that can be used to build a new medium for any concept or idea. I call the material I work with ‘hyper-material’, because of its specific characteristics of interaction, networking opportunities and the ability to interpret information through algorithms. An example is Google Maps, in which various interactive, networked and algorithmic elements form a composite that is satisfying to work with. Basically, you can combine a palette with a range of features, almost like a blacksmith forging new materials. This means that entirely new properties arise in composites like this that sometimes result in things you would not normally think of yourself. For example, linking a map to a Twitter API (application programming interface) changes its properties in ways you hadn’t anticipated. Such a process is unique. It might best be compared to the work of a chemist who develops a new compound by combining different elements. The essence of my work is to find out what such a process does in a phenomenological sense. I try to isolate various aspects to see what happens. In this way I attempt to transcend the purely technical or rational aspects. I’m less inclined towards the solutions suggested by Carl Andre, and see myself more in the tradition of Bruce Naumann. I’m not interested in pure formalistic structures. I want people to be bewildered.

AD: You recently had an exhibition in a commercial gallery. How do you deal with the offline presentation of your online work?

JRL: On the one hand it was a way for me to agitate against these movements. But on the other hand I wanted to initiate a discussion on the idea of an ‘original’ work by trying several layers of translation. One solution is, for example (in the line of Artie Vierkant), to see the online work as a clustering activity, or a rhizome, that together are presented as a single work. I have chosen to approach different manifestations of a work as echoes. To give an example, I projected my own website and sold an edition of thumbnails of my works that appeared on it. Because of the live ‘liking’ that happened on the site, the commercial concerns of the gallery coincided with the continuously changing ‘object’ of the Internet. Some people on the Web saw through the system and started ‘liking’ everything. In the gallery, people saw these changes, which resulted in the work gaining a different meaning in other ways. I’ve also made derivatives of other things that were exhibited in a gallery, such as Selection as an Object as a Wallpaper (2013) that people could also buy as thumbnails, which was another a dual reference to the network. It took a lot of puzzling and if it worked properly, people at some point became completely lost.

AD: What do you regard as an ‘original’, and can you tell us more about that?

JRL: That’s a tricky question. Basically the online work is the original, but it’s slightly more complicated with a work like Random Selection in Random Image (2012), which is realised with an automaton that uses other people’s images. Although I programmed it to use images not of my own making, it means that the result is therefore further away from me. I don’t have control over the final result, only over the process. Thus, the positioning of an original is different, but I find it exciting. Now I try to create automatons or entities that do the work themselves, thereby retaining ownership. I want less control or influence. Random Selection in Random Image does this by grabbing a random image off the Internet, thereby highlighting a random selection I want to more emphatically present the composite, the hyper-material as the final medium. It’s a separate unit, a generator, and thus originality is more difficult to define. If you use an API for a work, the results have a different status – it’s a system that seeks out certain things itself, and that is quite different from me making the choices. This could also raise copyright issues, but for me that’s less important because the process turns the image into something else. It’s a different case if I go searching for a specific image on Flickr, or use images that I have coincidentally encountered and then process them and display them in a gallery. That’s a more conscious hijacking of someone else’s work. I’m more interested in the automation process and what happens while its taking place, and less concerned with a particular image. Both are feasible, of course, but they are definitely two different approaches and you have to be aware of this.

AD: Is it about discovering the best way to apply an existing process?

JRL: I focus on creating new images and that can be done with APIs. A major drawback is that APIs constantly change. And they’re quite conservative: in the beginning they’re very open but they are changed quite quickly which means they often have limitations.

AD: How do you deal with that variability?

JRL: You already anticipate this when you get started or find another way to capture it.

AD: How?

JRL: I’ve no idea, that’s for others to think about☺. There are artists who only work with these types of materials, for example, linking several APIs, but actually they’re constantly busy adjusting the work, certainly every few months. Of course, if you write your own bots – do what Google does, in other words – then you can be fairly certain things will continue to work.

AD: Or view them as performances or as temporary installations?

JRL: Yes, exactly, and then you had to have been there… it certainly is of its time.

More information about Jan Robert Leegte: http://www.leegte.org/

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