We just learned that Leo Villareal’s lighted sculpture Buckyball has now become a permanent part of the Crystal Bridges collection! This dynamic artwork is a visitor favorite, and we are delighted to be able to keep it here on the Museum grounds. Buckyball made its debut on the Crystal Bridges grounds on May 1, 2013, and the artist visited the Museum to help with the installation of the work. Villareal is known worldwide for his dynamic light sculptures, including the spectacular Bay Lights project in which 25,000 white LED lights programmed to create moving sequences across 1.8 miles of the west span of the Oakland Bay Bridge in San Francisco. While he was at Crystal Bridges, we took the opportunity to talk with Villareal and learn more about his unique process of combining computer programming and light to create fascinating works of art.
LD: Can you tell us about the structure of Buckyball itself, and why you chose it? LV: I saw my first Buckyball in an article in the Science Times in the New York Times and I was intrigued by the form. From the very beginning of my work, I’d been using geometry in different arrangements, particularly the hexagon. So when I saw the Buckyball, it was exciting to me in that it was dimensional—it wasn’t just an array that was flat on a wall, it was really a sculpture—and it combined hexagons and pentagons. I’m always looking for these building blocks and common denominators, and so the Buckyball really resonated with that kind of thinking.
LD: Can you talk a little about the effect the work has on viewers? LV: I know that light has a very powerful effect. It’s something that is deeply, deeply ingrained in us. I think my pieces are operating on a level that looking at a fire would. It’s harnessing that same whatever’s happening with the fire… the way it’s pleasant to be near that. Somehow it causes a response in viewers that brings out all these feelings that we have about things that we see in nature: our response to a sunset, or to the surface of water, or a fire. There’s something happening that is hard to describe.
LD: Your work is very public in nature, and I know you’ve said you really enjoy watching people react to your work in the public setting. Can you talk about the purpose and value of public art? LV: I really love making public art. I think it’s very important to get art out into the world. As much as I love galleries and museums—and they’re wonderful places—there’s a much bigger role for art to play in many more people’s lives. That’s certainly part of the DNA of what’s happening at Crystal Bridges: that universal quality, really opening things up and making them accessible and de-mystifying the museum and the whole experience. I think that my work has an ability to engage with all kinds of people. Light has a universal quality. Anyone can look at it and have some sort of response. I think public art is about having a space in which to enjoy this technology in an open-ended way that’s about you having an experience or sharing it with a group of people. It’s this ability to create community.
You’ve said that it took you a long time to discover your medium. Can you describe that path? In college I started at Yale as an undergrad thinking I would probably be an art history major. But then I realized, after taking an installation sculpture class, that’s what I wanted to do. Then around 1989, 1990, computers started having color screens and there were programs like Photoshop that allowed for digital editing of images and there was a buzz about virtual reality and things happening out in California that got my attention and drew me to the interactive telecom program at NYU. I ended up finishing my graduate program at NYU and had an opportunity to go out to California to do a summer internship at a company called Interval Research which was a think tank founded by Paul Allen who had co-founded Microsoft. It was a very exciting place to be because the idea was that they would combine engineers and programmers with artists and designers and musicians and see what would come of this. I ended up staying not just three months, it became three years. I was exposed to so much amazing thinking from people around the world. It really gave me many things to think about.
So were you still thinking of yourself as an artist at that point? I was, but I was not really sure how I was going to express that. It wasn’t until 1997 that I made my first light sculpture. I came back to New York and I was teaching at NYU, and the exciting moment for me was connecting software and light. A lot of new media artwork involved screens or projections, which I found not to be compelling, visually. It didn’t connect back to what I’d seen as a student and loved in art history. It didn’t have the impact that art had, the impact of a Rothko painting or a sculpture. But when I made the first light piece, I realized that light had this power to be very impactful and engaged and sensorial, but also was a way to visually manifest the code that I was using. So I found that connection, and that was really an essential moment for me.
You said when you started working with light, you were suspicious of “too much.” And yet many of your works are monumental in scale: the Bay Lights, for example, has 25,000 LEDs! How do you avoide “too much” light when you’re working with monumental pieces? You consider something like the Bay Lights, which uses 25,000 white LED lights—it sounds like a lot of lights, but compared to the mega pixels we’re shooting with our phones all the time—a megapixel is a million pixels, so that’s a huge amount of data. In that context, the pieces I’m doing are very low resolution. I don’t think of them as displays, they’re not television, or anything like that—they’re unique. My goal is really to engage with abstraction, and for that reason I can’t use video imagery. For instance, you could take video of water and display that on an array of LEDs. But what I have to do, because of the uniqueness of the displays, is to recreate the effects that water may have, using rules. I’m interested in algorithms and structures and looking at things and trying to figure out how they work, sort of boiling them down.
Talk about the structure of Buckyball itself, and why you chose it. I saw my first Buckyball in an article in the Science Times in the New York Times and I was intrigued by the form. From the very beginning of my work, I’d been using geometry in different arrangements, particularly the hexagon. So when I saw the Buckyball, it was exciting to me in that it was dimensional—it wasn’t just an array that was flat on a wall, it was really a sculpture—and it combined hexagons and pentagons. The other thing that caught my attention was that the Buckyball was something that was discovered at Rice University by some nanotechnology researchers. They saw this form, and they saw it as a building block. I’m always looking for these building blocks and common denominators, and so the Buckyball really resonated with that kind of thinking.
You’ve mentioned your interest in trying to find the essences of things: the rules that govern the world around us. You talked about the rules for the Bay Lights project , for example, coming from the kinetic activity surrounding the bridge: traffic patterns, waves, birds… how is that information collected and how do you put it to use? Generally my approach with a site specific commission is to take cues from what’s happening around it. I like making things that are very integrated into their environments and they feel appropriate. So for my very first large-scale outdoor piece I was taking inspiration from traffic and movement of the city. I don’t use any kind of sensors: I am the sensor, the artist is the sensor. You can think of artists as sensors because we are highly attuned to certain things, certain things are attractive and we gravitate toward them; certain things get filtered out and don’t make it. So that’s one of the ways in which I’ve described what I do. I’m interested in emergent behavior and the field of artificial life. That sounds complicated but it’s really not. What it means is that you don’t know in advance what’s going to happen, you set up certain parameters and a certain framework and then let a system run within that framework . And I wait for something compelling to happen. I’m very interested in surprises, interested in engaging chance. I’m there to capture the one percent of the time when it looks compelling, and I’m harvesting those moments and bringing them back. That’s one part of my process. Another part is to further refine those sequences through a process that’s almost painterly. I can control the time, the speed, the brightness, the saturation, all these factors I can manipulate in real time—and I can add multiple layers together. Again it’s just a series of choices and then finding this moment in which it looks right. They’re not generative. The software is not creating new material on the fly. The content is drawn from those base sequences and dynamically recombining itself as it’s presented. So you’ll never see the exact same progression of sequences, but it’s been preselected and predisposed to certain behaviors.
It is a very organic process. It’s interesting: this combination of all this math and physical science that interacts with art and turns into something that’s so organic. Can you talk about that combination? I did not study math or physics, but one of my first sculpture teachers, Alice Acox, told me you can take anything and use it. That’s the magic of being an artist is that any idea is fair game. You can take something and do what you want with it in a loose way. That opened many doors for me early on. l feel like I’ve done the same thing now in my programs. You wouldn’t think you could do this kind of improvisational work with software. But I’ve found this kind of fuzzy area in which you can start to layer things, and it becomes so complex that there’s no way to really think about it in a linear way, you kind of get lost in it. But then there are these accidents that happen and these moments that are very exciting, so that’s really what I’m waiting for.
Is this the future of art? I think artists have always been interested in new technology, from the Renaissance and the use of perspective to acrylic paint, artists have always been interested in tools. That’s the way I see it. For me it’s really about making art. I’m interested in ideas and manifesting those through that combination of software and light.]
We gladly welcome Buckyball as a permanent part of our community at Crystal Bridges! If you’d like to see a video of the installation of Buckyball, check out our iTunes U site, here.