Compressed Landscapes is a series of websites designed by Dutch artist Jan Robert Leegte currently on display at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The websites show the results of the calculations of an algorithm scripted by Leegte which scans online photography databases and randomly selects images with queries like “mountains,” “forests, or “sunsets.” Having found an image, the algorithm then compresses the file to create a raw computational impression of a delocalized landscape. The resulting low-resolution images generated by this process are beautiful in a way that challenges preconceptions regarding what makes a digital picture enjoyable. The blocky squares of colors that make the pictures look raw, untamed when displayed on a clean, smooth digital screen in a way that reminds me of the thick brushwork present in Vincent van Gogh’s late paintings.
The exhibition draws parallels between low-res digital content in particular images and plein-air painting, an approach to art making which poses specific problems and opportunities to both the artist and the viewer. First and foremost, the painter who works in plein-air usually tries to have the least possible mediated experience of the surroundings, whether a nature scape or an urban environment. To see Leegte’s websites on display under the same roof with van Gogh’s paintings means to be drawn into finding a direct connection between the contemporary consumption of visual content and the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist approach to depicting the sensible world. The images generated by Leegte demand the active participation of the viewer to fill in the lack of details removed by the algorithm in the same way as “Trees and Undergrowth” (1887) by van Gogh presents just enough details to let the eyes of the viewer detect the subject of the work. In both Leegte’s compressed images and van Gogh’s paintings nature is compressed, mediated, in a way that allows the viewer to understand what has been depicted no matter how many details are removed.
Impressionism leaves behind the static worldview of the Middle Ages — which was still playing an important role in the understanding and enjoyment of art at the time — to open new, dynamic possibilities. According to art historian Arnold Hauser, “Every impressionistic picture is the deposit of a moment in the perpetuum mobile of existence, the representation of a precarious, unstable balance in the play of contending forces.” The Impressionist painter reduced the artistic representation to the mood of a moment with a detached spirit; to a certain degree, it wasn’t important what was depicted, but rather the light effects the painting produced.
This is one of the main reasons why Impressionist painters were so fascinated by rivers, crowds in the streets, and the way the sun lit the world at different times of the day. The chief question regarded how they, the painters, transferred those moving light effects onto canvas. Leegte’s algorithm looks at its surroundings with a similar detached approach, trained to not take in consideration the cultural values carried by the pictures of forests and mountains it randomly finds online. It is not important whether it is a city park, a 100-year-old forest, or a brand new garden; what matters to Leegte is that the image contains specific elements.
Furthermore, there is another aspect that connects Impressionist and Post-Impressionist attitudes to the representation of reality in contemporary digital culture. Hauser suggested that modern technology introduced “an unprecedented dynamism in the whole attitude to life, and it is above all this new feeling of speed and change that finds expression in Impressionism.” Impressionism is an urban art form not just because it uncovers the landscape quality of the cityscape, but first and foremost because, as Hauser says, “It sees the world through the eyes of the townsman and reacts to external impressions with the overstrained nerves of modern technical man.” The shock experienced over and over by the inhabitants of the first industrial cities paved the way for the early experiments carried out by artists such as Édouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Such a perpetual state of shock shares relevant traits with what constitutes the typical experience of seeing images on the internet — in particular online platforms.
Watching the never-ending stream of pictures, texts, and sounds that can be accessed 24/7 from any device connected to the internet can feel overwhelming. TikTok, Instagram stories, and even Twitter are instruments of the same process of acceleration and stimulation exerted on online users who must always be kept entertained, engaged, and interested. That a detached response to these stimuli constituted an act of defense against sensory overstimulation was already commented upon by poets and artists living in modern cities across the 19th and 20th centuries.
Among the most famous examples is the figure of the flâneur described by Charles Baudelaire in the 1860s and analyzed by Walter Benjamin in the late 1920s. One of the most discussed and scrutinized figures who have come into being within the new urban landscape, the flâneur is the model of a detached viewer, according to Baudelaire, who described the person’s desires in this way: “To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world.” According to Walter Benjamin, the flâneur is the most peculiar creature born out of the alienating, modern capitalist urban scape; in a world where everything has a price and has become a commodity, the city stroller is the one who, detached from what surrounds him, follows the flow of the urban environment by getting lost in the crowd.
Leegte’s algorithm explores the flux of contents uploaded online with a similar detached joy; it doesn’t just look at what is shared online, but it contributes by selecting and compressing what is already at its disposal. The performance operated by the script mirrors the way we, the public, experience and consume media, in particular digital content, nowadays. The algorithm reveals a historical trajectory, from the early nonstop, industrial life to the contemporary resistance to experiencing complex artefacts carrying multi-layered meanings. Leegte’s work demonstrates how today, as 150 years ago, low-res messages that are meant to be experienced and enjoyed in the least amount of time and with the minimum attention span are both the effect and the cause of an accelerating deterioration of our perception of what art is and, more importantly, what it may become in the future.