Sequence of Light: A Conversation with Leo Villareal

Leo Villareal is an artist with unusual skill. His light sculptures blend artistry with science, simplicity with complexity, and technology with beauty and communal experience. He plays with pattern, color, geometry, and time to create captivating LED installations driven by software he has been developing for years. Villareal studied sculpture at Yale and then attended NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), where he began to pair his artistic inquiries with increasingly powerful computational tools. Often finding inspiration from mathematics and sciences (nanotechnology, physics, geometry, biology), his work is rooted in the use of information to create compelling, beautiful physical objects that invite viewers to engage and interact.

As of this month, New York City is home to two new Villareal installations, one permanent, one temporary. (Villareal’s NYC repertoire also includes Stars, an installation in the windows of the Brooklyn Academy of Music; and Line, a permanent installation at MoMA PS1, where he previously exhibited Supercluster in 2003.) Earlier this month, the MTA unveiled Villareal’s Hive (Bleecker Street), a ceiling-mounted installation at the site of the new connection between the B/D/F/M lines and the uptown 6, commissioned as part of the agency’s Arts for Transit initiative. Tomorrow, Buckyball formally opens to the public in Madison Square Park, the latest installment of the Madison Square Park Conservancy’s Mad. Sq. Art program. Inspired by a carbon molecule honorifically named “buckminsterfullerine” by its discovering scientists (known informally as the Buckyball), the spherical / hexagonal / pentagonal sculpture will float above the park through February 1, 2013. Last Friday, we had a chance to visit Villareal on site during installation. He took time out from fine-tuning the programming for Buckyball to talk to us about his process, his latest projects, the opportunities afforded by unexpected collaborations, and the universal power of light.


Buckyball, 2012 | Left: Photo by James Ewing Photography. Courtesy of Gering & López Gallery | Right: Leo Villareal and his programmer Jason Cipriani at work in Madison Square Park. Photo by Varick Shute.

Tell us a little about Buckyball, your new installation in Madison Square Park, and what the public should expect when they visit.
Buckyball came out of a long interest in geometry and underlying structures. I started working with hexagons — first one, then three, and eventually I did Hive, which is an array of hexagons, now ceiling-mounted in the Bleecker Street subway station. When I ran across the form of the Buckyball, which is a combination of hexagons and pentagons, it seemed logical to work with it. The Buckyball is a Carbon 60 molecule — named after Buckminster Fuller, not discovered by Fuller, as some people think — that is a universal building block. I wanted to create a monument to that, taking something that is very small and making it very large, and putting it on a pedestal.

There will be six zero-gravity benches surrounding the piece. They are reclining chaise longue forms that equally distribute body weight and allow you to focus your attention upwards. The placement gives a sense of how I think the piece should be viewed, and makes a space for the visitors. They are made in the style of park benches, using the vocabulary of the park, but I’ve never seen a park bench quite like these.

You do work of an architectural or building scale, as well as gallery shows. Do you approach the architectural work and the gallery pieces differently? Or is there no real distinction in your mind?
I did my first building-scale piece at PS1 in 2003. It was part of a show called The Signatures of the Invisible, which was a collaboration between artists and physicists from CERN to explore scientific phenomena. Through that work I got to engage with all kinds of people. Jackson Avenue was a bit of a wasteland, but everyone — museum security guards, local gas station attendants — was aware of the piece and would notice if it changed. I thought it was amazing to be able to bring that out into the world. Public art, making work that people can see without having to go into a museum or gallery, really is thrilling.

Supercluster, 2004, temporary installation MOMA PS1, Long Island City, NY. | Photo by James Ewing Photography. Courtesy of Gering & López Gallery

The five-year or eight-year projects can require a certain tenacity. Working alone in a studio is very different. There, it’s up to you when and how you work, and when it’s done. But you can’t do the large-scale work as an individual. I also really enjoy working with teams. The projects become a communal effort and people take ownership, and that’s exciting for me. But ultimately all of the different types of projects happen simultaneously. I might learn something doing a big architectural piece that can apply to a smaller work or vice versa.

When you work on architectural installations, do you tend to work with the architects while the building is in progress, or do you come in after completion and create a work that fits the structure?
In Kansas City, at the Nerman Museum, I worked with the architect, Kyu Sung Woo. He wanted light at the entrance of the building, but he didn’t quite know what that meant. He was amazingly generous and very open to having an artist be involved, and to have the art be integrated, which can be unusual. I like working with architects and I think that, more and more, there are a lot of opportunities for collaboration.

We interviewed Sandra Bloodworth from Arts for Transit last year, who pointed out that your new installation of Hive in the Bleecker Street Station is considered highly experimental for the MTA, in terms of maintenance needs and public interaction. Did you approach that installation differently knowing that it would be in the context it is, a highly-trafficked transit hub?
I’ve had very good experiences with public work. People tend to respect it. I like putting things out there and seeing what happens. But the MTA piece was extremely challenging, just because of the variability of the environment down there. The piece was supposed to be one solid 900-square-foot ceiling area, but when we considered the complexity and precision of the installation, I started to feel uncomfortable. So I decided to break it into three pieces. It still connects. The hexagons that aren’t there are implied, and the sequencing moves from one part of it to the next, so there is a flow that ties it together.

The station sees a lot of people every day. During installation, it was very difficult to get a real sense of the environment. I didn’t quite realize how many ways you would be able to approach the piece — from the train, from two floors below, watching it unfold from the escalator. From each vantage point, you see little bits and pieces and fragments of it. I couldn’t have fully planned that.

Hive (Bleecker Street), 2012 © Leo Villareal, Bleecker Street/Lafayette Street Subway Station. Commissioned and owned by Metropolitan Transportation Authority Arts for Transit and Urban Design. Photo: Rob Wilson.

How does the city – New York City, or any urban environment — influence your work? In the past you’ve talked about media, digital media, and advertising as an influence, and cities are increasingly coated with visual media. What about that do you look to or play off of?
Well, I have spent a lot of time in Times Square looking at different displays. Though it has become less interesting to me since it has turned into one giant TV. My favorite thing is when the signs are broken and are doing some really crazy patterns that are completely unintended. That’s when I think they look their best.

I’m interested in using those types of materials but then removing the commercial message from them — take the logo away, and you’re left with an amazing, pop material that can be used in an open ended way. There’s so much targeting in the media; it’s pretty coercive. We’re all surrounded by it, and it’s hard to not engage, even more so now with the web. So with my work I’m interested in dealing with abstraction, opening it up and saying that there’s no one message. There’s no beginning, middle or end. When you approach it, you don’t feel like you’re watching for something you’ve missed. It’s never going to repeat the same progression of sequences again.

Never?  Your pieces never repeat?
No. It’s all composed, and then it’s like an elaborate shuffle scheme, where you’re seeing this bit and that bit and then this bit. It’s being reassembled dynamically, which keeps it really fresh. It’s not the constant repetition of a one- or five-minute loop, which is what all this advertising is about. I’m trying to get away from that and create a space for people to have a different experience. There’s a freedom to it.

During the installation of Buckyball in Madison Square Park in October 2012, artist Leo Villareal demonstrated the capabilities of his software and showed us some of the sequencing tests he applies to his light sculptures.

Your work also has a mesmerizing quality, one you can get lost in a little bit.
The brain can’t help but want to decode patterns that are presented to it. You start to try and understand what you’re looking at, even if it’s abstract. You start to build a model in your head, but then the pattern shifts. We’re attracted to light to begin with, and light that has some information in it or that is controlled by something is even more attractive. It’s like those dumb little chaser lights on bodegas — there’s something about that sequence that our brains find satisfying. I just add more intelligence to the sequencing, make it more complex. It’s like poking at a campfire. There’s a hypnotic quality that deals not with text or image but with pattern and time.

In her essay for your 2010 San Jose Museum of Art exhibition, Sara Douglas Hart writes that your work is representative of a “paradigm shift in the way art and architecture interact,” in a time of significant advances in digital technology and material science. The title of her essay invokes the lighting designer Richard Kelly’s notion of the “Play of Brilliants” and Kelly’s belief that light, whether natural or manufactured, is the essence of all architectural experiences: perception of distance, proportion, scale, movement, even time. How do you perceive the relationship between art and architecture? And how do you think that your work contributes to those dynamics?
That statement is a lot to live up to. As an undergrad, I loved Louis Kahn, and his work was a lot about light. What I see my work doing is activating spaces and bringing life to them in a way that architecture can’t do on its own. But that might become more a part of the vocabulary of architecture as what we can do with light advances, whether that means we’re creating planes with lights or integrating LEDs into buildings or using media facades. Hopefully we don’t just end up with giant TV screens. All of these fields are converging in certain ways, which is exciting. I like the idea of sharing, responding to things, being inspired by things. I like the dialogue.

Multiverse, 2008, permanent installation, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC | Photo by James Ewing Photography. Courtesy of Gering & López Gallery

Speaking of light activating space – at the end of last year, the NYC EDC issued a call for proposals for creative and eye-catching light installations for the Financial District. Part of it was to activate the streets at night, but the other component was to create neighborhood identity through creative use of light. What lessons can art, and light sculpture like yours in particular, offer architects, designers, planners or others who are trying to establish the identity of a space? How can public art open new pathways for that kind of creative development?
I think it’s about how you can take something and re-imagine it, and how to use monumental light installations to express that there’s something different here. It’s attractive, it’s unique, and people want to come and spend time with it. Multiverse, my piece at the National Gallery, has become part of visitors’ experience of the space. When it’s off, something feels wrong. And my Bay Bridge project in San Francisco, which is coming up, has been embraced at the highest levels of the city. People are astounded that I actually got permission to do that project, and I never would have without the involvement of the mayor, the governor, Caltrans, and many other agencies.

The Bay Lights will open in March of 2013 and is scheduled to be up for two years, which is a long time for a monumental public art project. We have already begun installing on the 1.8 mile span of the bridge and we’ve raised a huge amount of money. People are really excited to make the project happen. They’re thinking of it as something iconic that will become part of the identity of San Francisco.

Rendering of Bay Lights, 2013, Bay Bridge, San Francisco, CA | Courtesy of Gering & López Gallery

Tell me about the software you have developed to create your work.
We’ve been working on the software for years, and we advance it a bit with each piece. It’s great to be able make your own tools. I think what distinguishes my work is the sequencing, the care that goes into it, and the amount and depth of the content. I’m bringing something that’s digital out of the computer and into the world as an object.

The software allows me to play with different gradients and layers, and has the ability to translate between 3D data and 2D data. I can add multiple layers together, turn layers off, or make light move across the form in different ways. Then I can generate patterns. I can decide how wide they are, how often they come. Do they pulse? Do they fade? How long do they live? Which way can they move? I can dial down the speed. I can add a blur, and soften the whole thing up. Or I can use a particle generator, and then adjust the width of it, the speed of it. We have a whole other tool that is specifically made to work with these hexagonal forms —it knows that the piece is made up of hexagons and pentagons, and how to move across the form.

Time is really essential, as is the mixing of the layers. It’s an additive process, but I can also subtract. Shadows and negative space are as important as where you put light. I also have the ability to add color to each layer. It’s kind of like Photoshop in real time, but for LEDs. I have precise control over the hue and palette, and I have literally millions of colors to choose from. It’s painterly, in a way. Finding the right combinations is the trick.

A glimpse of the software developed by Leo Villareal during the installation of Buckyball. | Photo by Varick Shute

Do you plan out the final sequencing before you install, or is this really an on-site composition?
We do a lot of work beforehand. But there’s a lot of randomness in the creation process. Instead of knowing in advance exactly what it will be, I set up the conditions for something to happen, and then wait for the moments that are compelling. 99 percent of the time it doesn’t look interesting, but I’m here as an editor to capture when something exciting happens. It’s very much site-specific.

Do you do all of the programming yourself?
No. I work with a programmer, Jason Cipriani. It’s hard to find someone who has the ability to do these things and whom you can actually have a good dialogue with. I programmed some of my early pieces, but at a certain point it got beyond what I could do myself.

I made my first light piece in 1997. I had an epiphany moment where I realized I could make work with a small amount of information that was visually potent. I didn’t need head-mounted displays and big computers to transport people somewhere. I could make work that wasn’t on a screen or as a projection, but was digital and had an impact like the art I had studied in college that I loved. I don’t like the baggage of those devices, the computer or the projection; they’re not that compelling. It’s really about scale and the body, and seeing things with your own eyes. I don’t really like documentation of my work either. It should be about experiencing it, creating communal experience, and all the interactions that this thing inspires.

Light is universal. Almost anyone can look at it and have some response, which I enjoy. It is a seductive material. This is something that would normally be used in a place like Las Vegas or Times Square, but what I’m doing is removing the commercial vestige from it, and using it as an artistic material.

Stars, 2007, Brooklyn Academy of Music | Photo by James Ewing Photography. Courtesy of Gering & López Gallery


Leo Villareal received a BA in sculpture from Yale University in 1990, and a graduate degree from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Interactive Telecommunications Program. Recent exhibitions include a survey show organized by the San Jose Museum of Art, San Jose, CA, which continues to tour several museums in the United States. He has completed many site-specific works including Radiant Pathway, Rice University, Houston, Texas; Mulitverse, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Diagonal Grid, Borusan Center for Culture and Arts, Istanbul, Turkey; Stars, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, New York; and the recently installed Hive, for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority at the Bleecker Lafayette Street subway station in Manhattan. Among the projects Villareal is currently working on, Bay Lights for the Bay Bridge in San Francisco will spectacularly light the bridge and glisten throughout the city. Villareal is also a focal point of the James Corner Field Operations design team that will renew Chicago’s Navy Pier. He has also been commissioned for installations at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, and The Durst Organization in New York City. Villareal’s work is in the permanent collections of prestigious museums including the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY; The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY; Naoshima Contemporary Art Museum, Kagawa, Japan; Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Overland Park, KS; and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Villareal is a vice president of the Architectural League’s board of directors.

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