STEPHANIE WILES: Good afternoon. Thank you all for coming today. My name is Stephanie Wiles, and I'm the director of the Johnson Museum of Art. And it's wonderful to be in Millstein Hall's auditorium today, and I'd like to thank Kent Kleinman, the Dean of Architecture, Art, and Planning for hosting Leo Villareal's lecture.
Today we're thrilled to highlight a spectacular new site specific work that was just completed for the Johnson Museum of Art by Leo Villareal. Leo calls the artwork Cosmos, partly an homage to the late Cornell professor Carl Sagan. And if you look at it for any length of time, I think you'll agree with me that it's well named.
A sculptor by training and inclination, Leo has created enthralling works of art installed on public buildings and held in museum collections across the United States and abroad. I'd like to mention two in particular. First is Multiverse, designed in 2008 for the concourse walkway between the East and the West buildings of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. And like the Johnson Museum's piece, Multiverse engages with the building by IM Pei. And I think because of this, it has a special resonance with Cornell and Ithaca audiences.
His forthcoming work The Bay Lights-- and for me and for everyone, I think this is truly a mind boggling installation-- is planned to open in 2013, and will illuminate the western span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge.
In Ithaca, when scaffolding was installed on the south side of the museum in early September, our audiences may have wondered whether the museum was under construction again. We assured people that it was not another new wing, but an extraordinary artwork that will be unveiled in October. In fact the project's origins date back to November 2010 when Leo first visited the Johnson Museum with project architect Walter Smith and Lisa and Richard Baker to discuss the commission for Cornell with my predecessor, director Frank Robinson.
As Leo and the Bakers works with museum staff and our curator of modern contemporary art, Andrea Inselmann, everyone's attention was captured by the towering monumentality of IM Pei's outdoor [? melon ?] sculpture court. This space, I think it became apparent pretty quickly, was the perfect site for an equally commanding public artwork.
Excitement for the project grew, and by spring 2012 Leo and his team returned to experiment with a mock up panel of lights to see how the work blended with the surrounding natural environment. And over the past few months, Walter Baker and the design firm Dash 7 installed the ceiling grid and almost 12,000 LED lights. Student curiosity was high as you can imagine, and we were all impressed with the team's openness to answering questions.
When Leo was on site, he had many complex aesthetic and technological decisions to make. Nonetheless, he was incredibly generous with his time, engaging with inquisitive students and talking about current projects he's working on, including Buckyball that opens next week in Madison Square Park
So many of us at the museum and on and off campus were involved in one way or another in making this project happen. And although I can't thank everyone tonight, I do want to have a special thanks for Deputy Director Pete Gould, who worked closely with Walter to figure out the complex installation logistics to smooth the way on the Cornell campus to our curator Andrea Inselmann, our preparators, Cornell's facilities office, electricians.
I can say that all of us will miss Leo, and Walter, and their team, who hung out in the museum lobby, having lunch, having coffee, working out technical difficulties, and most of all talking to us about the piece, and even letting us climb the scaffolding to see their project. It's been a unique and wonderful experience for all of us.
And none of this would have happened without the vision and the extraordinary generosity of Lisa and Richard Baker. They've been engaged with this project from the very start and all the way to the finish. And all of us at Cornell are deeply indebted to them for making this ambitious project possible, and for their creative approach in thinking about how art can change and enhance the world we live in. Thank you, Lisa and Richard.
And Leo, thank you for all you've done in creating such a spectacular work. We're very excited about the transformative power of Cosmos, which we know, and which already has become a major attraction for all visitors to Ithaca. It's a kind of visual bonding between the campus and the city, and it will be a unique part of everyone's experience from now on at Cornell. Thank you, and welcome.
LEO VILLAREAL: So I'm really thrilled to be here. Thank you for that amazing introduction, and I'm going to talk a bit about the history of my work, and as it leads up into how I got here. I'll begin way back when at Yale as an undergraduate. I started out there doing a lot of set design, and trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do. And then I found installation sculpture, in which I could create environments with objects, and light, and sound, and video.
This is my thesis installation, which I did at the medical center using a lot of video and found environments. Is the volume OK?
STEPHANIE WILES: Yeah.
LEO VILLAREAL: Yeah? OK, great. So after Yale, I went off to Europe on a long two year journey of discovery, and I ended up in Venice. I spent a lot of time there, and I went out to visit Count Panza's collection in Varese. And that introduced me to a whole other type of art. I saw for the first time the work of Dan Flavin, James Terell, Bruce Nauman, and I realized that art could be really stripped down, and much less.
I had the wonderful opportunity to go out and see Roden Crater with James Terell a few years ago. Here's one of the tunnels, the passageways, and some of the spaces. So I became familiar with the use of architecture light and the way that he would have the ability to bring the sky down and literally change people's position. This is in the crater looking back at the edge. It was a good thing I brought my fisheye camera. It was kind of ideal, and James got a kick out of it, as well.
So after that experience in Europe, I ended up-- I was trying to figure out where I should go to graduate school. I was interested in art school, film school. But I found a program at NYU called the Interactive Telecommunications Program that had been around since the '70s. And that gave me access to all sorts of amazing technology.
Things like Photoshop had come out in the early '90s, there was this buzz about virtual reality, and it drew me to-- I really wanted to get access to these tools. And at that point it wasn't like it is today. It was very expensive and difficult to find some of these machines that were half million dollar Silicon Graphics workstations.
So I started working with programming, video editing, manipulating television, recombining. I did some work at the medical center at NYU doing laparoscopic surgery simulators, and that got me working with 3D graphics, and modeling gallbladders, and doing all sorts of things. But what I was really interested in was access to the equipment, and particularly to sensors.
After NYU, I approached all of this as an artist primarily, but very interested in technological tools. After NYU in '94, in the summer I had an opportunity to go out and work at a research lab called Interval Research in Palo Alto. And this is an artist named Michael Naimark who brought me out to work with him for the summer.
And this lab was an amazing place in that it was Paul Allen's kind of private Xerox park with no Xerox. So we spent several million dollars looking into the future, and it was a somewhat utopian idea to mix artists, and designers, and musicians with engineers and see what would emerge. So it was a very thrilling place to be for me. It was like a whole other graduate school.
So Michael had spent the summer working with this camera rig which he had built with two stereoscopic film cameras and an encoder on the wheel. And he rode this apparatus around the trails of Banff, Canada, and he captured a whole series of stereoscopic stills. And our mission over the summer was to work with this material and see what we could do.
And this is some of the work we did. We're creating models from these stereoscopic photographs. So turning two-dimensional photographs into three-dimensional models. And we were able to move the viewpoint of the camera and see all these places the camera couldn't see. So these dark areas where there's no data. But it got me thinking a lot about fragmentation, and data, and viewpoint.
The other amazing thing that happened to me in 1994 was my first visit to the Black Rock Desert for the Burning Man Festival. So this is the big blank area north of Reno, Nevada. Nothing growing. Arched earth for hundreds of square miles where a city of-- it's grown now from my first time it was about 1,000 people, and now it's up to about 60,000 people. This is an aerial view. It's the fifth largest city in Nevada for that week.
And what struck me was its connection to virtual reality and all the things I've been doing back at this research lab. And it looked like this OpenGL demo, with this blank space in a plane in this fog. So my first experience out there at Burning Man was getting profoundly lost, because it was only the Burning Man sculpture. There are no streets, at least at that point. So orientation became a major concern.
So by my third year out there, I created this piece, which is called Strobe Matrix, and it's 16 strobe lights controlled by a simple microcontroller with zero off and one is on. And I mounted it on top of my mobile home so that I would be able to get back at night. So there it is. The mobile home is covered in mylar to bounce heat away.
But this was a very unique set of circumstances that led me to create this utilitarian object. But it turns out it was visible from miles away, and I needed to sequence it so that I could identify it. But I had no idea that this piece would turn out to be a really major epiphany for me. I took it back to New York and put it on the wall of my studio, and I put an acrylic box on it to soften some of the light, and was really thrilled at having made my first light sculpture.
So I'd managed to create software with light. And I'd always had a problem with digital art, and the computer as an object, and I wasn't really interested in how things looked on the computer screen, or really as projections. I wanted to make digital work, but work that was impactful, and connected back to all the things I'd studied at Yale, and my love of art.
So pretty quickly I began working with architecture, and this was the first large scale piece I did out at PS1. This was in 2003. They were doing a renovation project, and doing a show called Signatures of the Invisible, which was a collaboration with CERN. So artists working with CERN, which was very exciting to me.
So this is a piece called Super Cluster. And just to give you a sense of the behind the scenes, we custom made every part of that piece, which was a grid of 640 LED nodes. This is my studio back in New York, where we're soldering. We made these circuit boards ourselves, made the software, made every part. So I was deeply involved in the nitty gritty of this technology, while at the same time being able to use it as an art material.
This is what the piece looked like at a distance. And what was really thrilling for me was the inserting this into the landscape around PS1, which is a bit of a wasteland. It's improving, but there's a real rawness to it. That's right near the LIE with big billboards, and a lot of pretty aggressive advertising.
And my piece, I was thinking of it in response to that, something that used the same material, LED's, and a very material. But then taking the advertising message away and leaving you with this abstraction. And all the inspiration for the patterning came from the site from the movement of traffic and the activity around it.
And what also struck me was the way that even the gas station attendant-- there's a gas station directly in front of the piece-- or the security guard, they were very aware when I would change a pattern or a sequence. And so I was very happy with the way that the piece was a public work, and connected with all kinds of people, and it had this universal quality whether you knew anything about the history of art or not.
This is a piece at the Allbright Knox which is permanently installed, called Light Matrix from 2005. The structure I was able to mount my work on evolved to this beautiful [? garden ?] bunch up building, and I loved the building, and I really wanted to treat it with a lot of respect. I didn't want to plop my piece on top of it, or use it as some sort of pedestal.
But I was interested in the neoclassical building which you can see reflected in the dark glass, which is about 100 years old. The Buncheff building, which is about 50 years, old and then adding this very contemporary layer, which is this light sculpture. Which each has its own underlying structure and vocabulary, but they all work together. And this piece is there if you all make it up to Buffalo, can certainly see this. See if I can advance. There we go.
So this is a piece in the evolution that 2007 at the Nerman Museum, which is somewhat connected to the piece here at Cornell. It's called Microcosm, and this was the first time I was able to use a much larger array of LED lights. So the density increased, and again, it's a college, and it's the entrance to the art museum.
What was exciting here was the collaboration with Kyu Sung Woo, who's the architect of the building, and he wanted to have light in the space and wasn't quite sure what that meant. But he was incredibly generous in his work with me in offering up this major part of his building.
What this gesture did is it really brought the building to life. It brought energy to it, and it was visible at multiple scales. I mean, you could get right below it and have one experience, or see it from major boulevards close by. But it really activated this plane. And the light is exactly the same color as the limestone, and there were lots of things that really resonated, and it was incredibly integrated.
One thing I should mention is the sequencing. As I said with Strobe Matrix, I started out writing simple programs with zeros and ones. At a certain point, I wanted to do more than I could as a programmer, and I began working with a whole series of programmers who have helped me to create custom tools that I use to make these sequences. And with this piece we really started using a lot of physics, and getting into Newton's laws.
And I'm not a mathematician or a physicist, but my interest is in using these rules as an artist, and we're able to create tools in which I can get in there and start to play, and experiment, and try things. So there's a lot of discovery in the process.
It starts out with very simple rules as you can see here, a pixel going across the screen, and then it encounters a boundary, and then something happens. So I'm interested in emergent behavior and things that are very simple rules, but then when you multiply it by thousands or millions, this complexity emerges, and somehow this intelligence comes out of it. Or I'm hoping that that moment happens in which I can capture that moment, and that's what becomes part of the material I use for the sequences.
This is an installation out at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. So this is from 2007. These are 12 foot diameter circles, and there are five of them. And again, it was a interaction with the building, with respecting the building, but wanting to add something to it.
But in this case, we made these radio pieces in each window. And initially I'd had a completely different programming for each of these circles, but then it felt very disjunctive. So I started thinking about orchestration, and music, and ways of creating relationships between them, although they're offset. So the pieces almost became like instruments.
And I think my work does have a strong connection to music, and musical composition in my methods, although these are not responding to sound or driven by sound. But I think a lot of the techniques I use are similar to the way a musician would work. And I think that's the reason I was in a show called Visual Music at the [? Herschwen ?] in LA [? Moka, ?] which traced this history of abstraction. Here you can see a closer detail.
So this brings us to Multiverse and 2008, and another IM Pei building. Molly Donovan, who's a curator at the National Gallery, saw my work up in Buffalo-- she's from Buffalo-- and thought of this space at the National Gallery, which is this connecting link between the two buildings, so a 200 foot long space. And even according to Pei's office was somewhat unresolved. It had always been very dark, and it was using these metallic slats. But when I saw this space, I knew it was optically very potent, and proposed installing LED's in the gaps between these metal slats.
So we ended up putting 41,000 white LED's into the space and inventing a custom clip, because we didn't want to disturb any of the architecture or anything that was existing. So they're held in there, and then I sat down in the museum for weeks programming after hours.
And the other thing I should say is that these works are very site specific. It's not something I can create back in my studio and just send it in, I have to be there in the space and get a feel for the timing, and obviously there was a lot of concern at the National Gallery when they heard 41,000 lights would be installed in this hallway. And will people have seizures? And there were a lot of concerns.
But I think when they saw the way the light could be used, this is a very new way of using light, and it's something that you normally wouldn't see in a museum. But I think that through the sensitivity of sequencing and programming, it's able to function in this space and really turn it into something certainly more exciting. And it becomes a journey, because you are already traveling through the space, there are already these moving walkways which are taking you through.
So what I started to see was this connection back to the virtual reality work I'd done in the past. But instead of needing all of this equipment, and goggles, and all these devices, I found a way through light and through this intervention to take groups of people on these very abstract and open ended journeys where it's up to them to make up their minds about what it is. It's highly subjective. The work does not repeat. There's no beginning, middle, or end, so it's always randomized. The sequences play in random order and for a random amount of time.
So all these things that encourage a viewer to really be able to enjoy the piece and not feel anxiety about having missed something, or what is it? But really just to be able to experience it. And I'm interested in the idea of pattern recognition, the brain's hard coded desire to recognize and make meaning. Which you're getting this fragmented information that isn't triggering like a recognition of a word, but still somehow it's very engaging for viewers.
This is another public installation I did in Washington in a lobby that was designed by Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill. And this piece was inspired original and by piece called Field, which Lisa and Richard Baker generously donated to MoMA. And it's a completely different type of work. It's diffused, so it's not using points of light. There's color LED's behind panels of glass, and it has a very atmospheric feeling. It's much slower.
I mean, each piece I do tends to have its own personality. Some have more energy, others are more contemplative, but they really go in cycles. And this certainly brought the lobby to life. And I'm interested in organic systems boiling things down to their rules.
But the other thing to note is that this is a very small amount of information relatively. When we're taking digital pictures we're dealing with megapixels, which are millions of pixels. I'm dealing with a tiny amount of information. And these works are made from the ground up using rules. I'm not sampling from nature, I'm not taking video and then using that as material, I'm recreating it using rules.
So that distinguishes it and makes it something that's-- I think starting out with 16 pixels was good practice for me and gave me a unique way of working with data. Jump forward here. Here's some of the other sequences.
This is another installation in Istanbul, at the Borusan Music House. And this building's on [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH], and it's a historic building that was renovated as a music rehearsal space. But they wanted to somehow evoke what the building's about with music, and they asked me to do a light installation.
So I ended up using LED tubes and was able to activate the entire facade of the building, and really the space between where the tubes are and the glass windows became this volume which I was able to create color and life. But again, it was a very public installation and dialogue with the street. The pieces tended to become iconic, and to be talking to the street, and tell people something about what the buildings are about.
This is another installation in Tampa, at the Tampa Museum, and this is a San Francisco architect Stanley Saitowitz, who again, is you great to work with, very generous. This is a perforated metal facade that's 300 feet long by 45 feet tall with LED's at the top and bottoms of the perforated metal so it's shooting light towards the center of the building. And it was very nicely positioned on a beautiful new park, and on the Tampa river, and across from the University.
So it had a lot of unique ability to activate the space and bring it to life. And again, you can see the piece without actually having to go into the museum. So it's accessible to anybody, anyone can see it and have some sort of response.
So jump forward to a little more recent work. This is a piece called Firmament which is, again, exploring the radial. This was installed at the Norton Museum down in Palm Beach. And it's, again, a ceiling mounted piece, and it's presented in a completely dark room. And what was exciting about this was the ability to make the environment and the mechanism disappear completely, and to start really making things that had dimensionality. So with this, really playing with perception, and starting to push and pull things in space.
This is my last show in New York, Gering and Lopez Gallery. This is a piece called Cylinder, which is kind of a departure for me in that work has become more three dimensional. So these are stainless steel rods which are 12 feet tall, and they're hung in concentric circles. So instead of being 2D, I'm actually getting out into space and exploring the z-axis, and also creating these kind of volumetric renderings, as well. And this has all been enabled through my software, which we're able to create these things and model them.
The strips themselves are stainless steel, and they have these tiny LEDs which are about the size of a grain of rice. So it has a fineness to it, and a very-- it's hanging just above the floor, it's not touching. So I was able to really activate the floor with shadows, and all these unintended effects. There's a certain amount that I do, but then I'm also thrilled to find these other things in the work and the pieces.
But the cylinder feels very solid, but at the same time, very ephemeral. It was almost disappearing, which I think happens in the best work, that it's a layer on top of. That is there, but it's not overwhelming. Get another view looking up, the top of the cylinder is all mirrored as well. So it creates really a very infinite reflection.
So this is a very recent piece. I just opened this, I guess it was last month in New York for the Bleecker Street Station. This is a piece called Hive. I'm still waiting on the video, but I thought I'd show you all a couple of the photographs. This is the number six train, and the train goes through right here. This was, I think, four or five year project. So it took a while to get this piece done, as many of these projects do. But it's wonderful to be able to engage viewers.
What's exciting is to make something that was dynamic. It has a map-like quality, and there are individual elements moving within this large matrix, very similar to the way passengers move through the transit system or the city. It goes through a very wide range of colors. And the other exciting thing about it is the ability to get below it, to really be able to explore the space, you can get two flights down from it and see fragments of it. So if you find yourself in New York, you can just check it out.
This is a bridge which I'm working on, been working on for two years. And this is a project that will actually launch in March, we've begun doing the installation for this project. So what we're looking at is 25,000 white LED lights, and they're mounted on the suspender cables of the bridge. It's been a incredibly challenging project to get the permits to do something like this, but it's really due to this video. This one minute video you're looking at has inspired so many people to get behind it, to really be excited about what could be possible.
The other challenge has been finding ways of doing this, fundraising. The third challenge is actually getting it installed. So I've done several cable walks up to the top of the bridge, which is way higher than the scaffold we had here. But very thrilling. So that should be coming up in March.
So I'm not going to show you all images of the piece here, I think I really am not interested so much in documentation, although it's necessary. But the piece is here, and I think it's best experienced with our own eyes. I'm incredibly grateful to the Bakers, and everyone at the museum, to Walter and our team for having helped me to realize this project. It's really something that in, my mind to go to work with Pei's architecture, which is so extraordinary, it's been a real thrill. And I think there's a real exuberance to the piece, and to bringing it to life. And I think there's a dialogue between the two.
I also wanted to talk a little bit about some of my inspirations for this piece. In particular, I wanted to mention Bill Boynton who's here tonight. He's Dr. Boynton from the Planetary Sciences department at the University of Arizona. And Bill worked with Jerry Droege, who is a dear friend, and they worked together on the Mars Phoenix Lander.
And Jerry unfortunately passed away from leukemia earlier this year, and I just wanted to say that this piece is dedicated to Jerry. And he's a extraordinary guy. I'm happy to have his sister here, as well. So I can't wait for you all to go out and be able to see this piece and experience it for yourselves shortly. But I think we have some time for questions if anybody we like to say anything.
SPEAKER 1: Hi, thank you so much for presenting your work. I don't know if you can hear me, but I was really interested in the comment that you made about music, and whether or not you've actually respond to using when you make your work [INAUDIBLE] looking at closer to video that you showed, I had-- oh, thank you.
Hello. This is a question about music, and sound, and responding to music. And whenever I looked at any of the videos that you showed of the work, I had different sounds in my mind that were-- whether or not they were actual music being played by specific performers, or even just sounds that I might hear in the natural environment. And so the question is about sound, and how and when you consider it when you make your work, but also if you've collaborated with musicians or others to activate your work in other kinds of ways, or if they haven't been inspired by some of your installations to actually create works of art so that perhaps during public programming when one of your installations is up, if there might be a piece where a musician is invited to compose or respond to your work.
LEO VILLAREAL: There have been several-- I have many musician friends, and we have done some collaboration for it, like creating soundtracks for exhibitions. And I think there is absolutely a very strong synesthetic aspect to the pieces. And I love the idea of it inspiring, and we have done some things like that. I look forward to hearing what Cosmos sounds like. That's one of my big questions, and I'm always asking, what could that be?
So well, one thing that's interesting about the sequencing is that it seems to synchronize with no matter what music you're playing, which I find fascinating. That your brain just can't help but try and synchronize and put things together. So that's one of the things that I find fascinating.
SPEAKER 2: Without giving away any secrets, Leo, I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the natural patterns, or the mathematics and physics that goes into your programming. Is it based on formula, or natural things? And specifically for this piece.
LEO VILLAREAL: Well I started out, the second piece I ever made was a portrait of John Conway's Game of Life, which is kind of one of the first cellular automata programs. And it's kind of one of the cliches of computing and computer graphics, but I've always found it fascinating that it's a very simple set of rules. But from those rules this incredibly complex system emerges, it feels like it's alive. So that fascinated me early on, and that became my goal, is to find other rules that could create lifelike behaviors. So that's kind of what I'm after.
And I use a range of tools, and a lot of them are really simple programs, but lots of simple things doing something that then somehow becomes complex or emergent. I then started adding physics into working with Processing is one of the tools that I use. So it's a very simple programming language geared towards artists, it was developed at MIT. And that's really been a wonderful way to play around with physics.
And my interest is in-- even though I may not know exactly how these systems work, if I can get a handle in there and start playing with it, then I can start creating. So our software has been through many iterations. And one of the challenges is talking to this many lights. So we've had to write some custom C code to do that. But the big breakthrough that we had on this piece, with Cosmos, was getting Processing to work with our current sequencer software.
So I had a really incredible time here working with this new breakthrough and the ability to layer multiple Processing systems together. And so you never know when these breakthroughs are going to happen, and this project was incredibly fruitful in that regard.
SPEAKER 3: I'm curious about the cost of the electricity for the bridge in San Francisco. Do you have a long term contract that they're going continue to plug it in?
LEO VILLAREAL: Well, it turns out the LED is incredibly energy efficient, and the power calculations we've done is that it would cost something like $15 a night to run the installation, and that's for about 25,000 lights. So we actually got a company to give us some solar offsets for even that cost, which was very small. But I'm always concerned with efficiency, and not doing things that are-- I want to know why, and getting the biggest bang for the buck. So the LED is a wonderful invention, and hopefully we're really adding something through the use of these resources.
SPEAKER 4: Are there epileptics for whom this constitutes a problem?
LEO VILLAREAL: I've never had an issue. With some of the strobe pieces we do put a sign up. Some of my early work was strobe lights. But with these pieces, we're not pulsing the light at a certain rate that would trigger that. And I also think that there's so many discrete points, and they're so far away that, from my understanding, that hasn't been an issue. Absolutely it's not my intention or interest in triggering anything like that.
SPEAKER 5: How's it going? Great stuff. Do you have any plans in the future to have your lights react to people's presence around them, like static electricity or anything like that would potentially cause the lights to shift, or move, or stuff like that? Do you have any plans for that?
LEO VILLAREAL: A lot of my early pieces used sensing, and certainly with the virtual reality stuff I was doing, we had all sorts of sensors, and I did some sound pieces. But what I realized was making it an interactive piece was very, very challenging, and I think it turned out when I discovered light sculpture that I want to just make the lights do their thing. And I got so involved in that that I haven't found the right moment in which to connect it to a sensor, although it is certainly possible to do that.
Often I describe myself as being the sensor. I am the sensor, and you can think of, from a technological perspective as artists as being sensors, is attuned to certain things. So in that way I feel like the pieces are interactive, and they're site specific, because I sat here and I felt it, and channeled it. And that's what made the pieces. So that's kind of the way I approach that. But you never know, I'm not ruling it out. Yes?
SPEAKER 6: [INAUDIBLE] Because you mentioned cellular automata, and I would imagine you're doing some kind of genetic algorithm for your pieces, and I was wondering if you found any parallels in sound art.
LEO VILLAREAL: Certainly many artists that I've been in exhibitions with, particularly at the Brooklyn Anchorage, it was an amazing space to show light and sound work. And I think it's a artist working with technology, I think it resonates, and I think it makes for great group shows. In particular. Marina Rosenfeld, she's done some really great work in New York. So many different artists.
I find myself probably more connected with artists like John Simon Jr, or Irwin Redl, or Ben Rubin, or Jim Campbell, other artists working with LED and light. But I think there's a few of us who are starting to form a nice little group.
SPEAKER 7: Hi, it's beautiful. It's such a kind of left brain experience, all the mathematics, and calculations, and logistics. When it's done, what is it like for you to have that right brain moment of just pull back from it and experience it? Do you get that, or that's for us and not for you?
LEO VILLAREAL: It's really a hybrid thing, because there is a lot of tech stuff to deal with and these pieces couldn't be made without a lot of things going right, and debugging, and why isn't this working, and tweaking the software. But the end product is, how does it feel, and when is it right, and what's interesting? And so there's a lot of those sorts of selections which are being made.
I mean, what's exciting for me is certainly the initial idea and coming up with simulation, and there's the whole in-between part of how are going to realize this? And then finally the programming, which is the biggest thrill for me. And then seeing people interact with the work. Because for me it's about creating a communal experience. Everyone, whatever the chance interactions, and hearing people talk about it, or overhearing them, I find that very thrilling.
Of course, I love to sit and spend time with Cosmos, and not have to worry about the opening, and the deadline, and all the rest of it. So I definitely look forward to coming and having a picnic here on the lawn, and enjoying it. But I think for me it's about generosity, and just being able to create something that a lot of people can connect with and enjoy.
SPEAKER 7: And I want to thank you for picking the Bleecker Street Station because that's my hometown station in New York before I moved up here, so it's been great seeing it going. Thank you.
LEO VILLAREAL: Sure.
SPEAKER 8: I have a question about before the beginning of your talk, you started with graduate school. But when you were a kid, did you lie out and look at the stars, or what kinds of things did you do way back that you think inspired this, or connect, or even continue to drive your questions?
LEO VILLAREAL: I think I was always definitely curious, and breaking things apart, and how did they work? A lot of that. Lot of building things, like LEGO, and those types of things. Like I was always interested in pixels, and what things are made of, and think the underlying structure and the rules, figuring out those things.
I did have a computer when I was Apple II plus computer, and geeked out with that. And I think also, I grew up right on the border in El Paso and Juarez out in the southwest. So I always had a big-- I mean, the sky was open, and very beautiful. So I'm sure that that has somehow filtered into the work, although it's not directly about that. But that's something I did experience. And I think I try and distill that, and bring that back.
SPEAKER 9: Hi, I have the practical question for you up here. I think you said that there are 12,000 lights installed here at the Johnson, 40,000 at the tunnel in between the two buildings of the National Gallery, and for the Bay Bridge you have 25,000 planned. Is that something that has advanced in your systems, or is it just a practical issue of trying to climb out on the Bay Bridge and hang LED lights is very difficult? That seems proportionately so much fewer than you'd expect for such a large area.
LEO VILLAREAL: I don't think more LEDs is better. I mean, that's one thing that-- I like 16 a lot, and I like constraints. But with the Bay Bridge, one of the effects I'm working with is the suspender cables are 30 feet apart, and most of the viewing will be done from the shore from the Embarcadero, or from Treasure Island. So that 30 feet is going to disappear, just like at the National Gallery there's six inches between each of those LEDs, which is a pretty large amount of space. But from the viewing angles, all that in-between space disappears and they become almost solid lines.
And the other part with the Bay Bridge is the contrast. There's no other light behind it. And it's a very unique color temperature, and also the brain puts these things together. When you see a grid, and it's moving, your brain just starts to engage with that, and all the in between space kind of disappears. So that's kind of what we've come up with for the Bay Bridge.
I mean, I'm starting to work with more public commissions and different pieces where I'm using many more LED's, like 100,000 LED's, but that's been something that I've had to engineer myself and with my team to make our own custom circuit boards. And that's exciting, because obviously, I mean, that LED's are an expensive material. That's one of my other challenges is working the spreadsheet, making sure that these things don't go wildly out of budget, et cetera.
So it's a unique role as an artist to be doing public projects, and it requires a lot of things you normally think wouldn't be associated with being an artist.
STEPHANIE WILES: We can get two more questions.
SPEAKER 10: Hi, you mentioned how site specific--
LEO VILLAREAL: Not sure where you are, so-- OK.
SPEAKER 10: How site specific your projects are, and I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about your process of even selecting a site. Because what I thought was very interesting, it seemed that a lot of the locations that you chose had to do with transportation, or even a viewer that might be in motion, whether it was a walkway, or a bridge, or something, and it can be seen from a street. Is this something that, I guess, began even when you were doing the light grid on the mobile home, or how did that come about?
LEO VILLAREAL: Well, I mean, there's something very urban about the pieces, absolutely, and living in New York, and being around grids, and movement, and layers, and all of that, which has really fed into the pieces. So I think you could definitely make a connection to Broadway boogie woogie, or something like that. Or that whole urban quality.
But I'm also interested in the idea of transporting people, taking people places, and having the artwork become vehicular. Like where can it take you? And I think that ties back to this idea of virtual reality, and what world would you make, and how could you take people somewhere?
So the idea of engaging with something and then getting lost in it, and letting it take you I find fascinating. One thing I'm interested in is the open ended quality of it. It's like, where are we going? Which is the opposite of what an advertising message would be, where you're on rails, and you're meant to get this message, and this is what we're taking you, and there's a very direct idea about where we're headed.
But I think what excites people is the ability to use all the technology we're surrounded with all the time from computers, web, TV, all of it, but in a new way which is open ended, and playful, and just allows you to kind of just be with it, and to explore. So I think it's a really new kind of forum. Yeah, I guess there are a lot of connections to infrastructure and transportation.
So I don't know if that's just because people have seen one piece and they said, oh, it would be great if we did another piece, and those kinds of projects keep coming. But it's a lot about being in public spaces, as well.
STEPHANIE WILES: This will be the last question.
SPEAKER 11: I had a question about what we're actually seeing, you're talking about the choices made in executing certain computer programs. But I'm wondering if there's a lot of choices in terms of editing. In other words, are we really seeing something that's more like playback where you've made a whole series of aesthetic decisions to show us something in particular, or is there really an acceptance of the accident as certain computer programs are executed sometimes seemingly over on top of one another?
LEO VILLAREAL: I mean, there is a lot of randomness in the creation process, and I'm hoping something will emerge, and surprise me, and that's what I capture. But there is a capturing process, then I'm bringing that back, and then further refining it, layering it in a very kind of painterly process. So there's an incredible amount of refinement.
And then in the end, the sequences are played back in a random order and for a random amount of time. So it's kind of an elaborate shuffle scheme to keep it from being this repetitive loop. I'm moving more towards doing generative work, things that are being made on the fly. I don't really trust the computer enough yet, or my program, to look good.
So at this point I'm kind of pre-selecting everything, like everything it's done I've seen before because I don't really trust it. But I'm starting to do things like have multiple layers of these randomized sequences blending together, which is what's happening here at the Johnson. There are, I think, three or four different layers all being dynamically recombined.
So I'm almost on the edge of having something actually run, but I'm still working out the details of making sure I have enough control over it to put my name on it and say, yes, this is my work. Because I think it's important, and I really think that I've had to fight really hard as the author to make these pieces. And certainly with pieces like the Bay Bridge, everyone wants to make it a collaboration, and everyone will upload sequences. And I think that's all great.
But I think that that would not be visually satisfying, and that's not why I got permission to do the piece. So I really have had to say, well, I'm the artist, and all these things are great, but at a certain point when you've spent years and years playing with LED's, and sequencing, and figuring these things out, that you kind of know how it should be. And I've been able to fortunately have people get behind me and trust me to be able to pull it off.
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Artist Leo Villareal said he learned that art could be stripped down and be much less than he had previously conceived, during a lecture about creating sculptures from light October 22 in Milstein Auditorium.
Villareal also discussed "Cosmos," his new LED installation at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, installed above the museum's Mallin Sculpture Court.
Villareal grew up interested in structure and how things worked. He went on to earn a B.A. from Yale University and a graduate degree at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in the Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he learned to use then-high-tech graphics programs.