Look Up! Leo Villareal’s Astral Array at New Mexico Museum of Art Vladem Contemporary

[Opening strum of theme music]

[00:00:00] Leo Villareal: I’m very comfortable with that space of not knowing and trying and seeing what happens, and then capturing the moments that are compelling. And usually, after a few days of working on a piece, I kind of get a sense that I’m onto something. When I get to the same place from various different ways, it starts to kind of reveal itself in a way.

And for me, the most interesting thing is to kind of get lost in it and sort of not know and find the solution. And in a way, I sit back and I’m like, “Wow, I’ve been sitting here for six hours and what happened?”And that’s, I think, the kind of magic moment of art making that you kind of have to get into that flow and let it happen.

[Reflective, calming music]

[00:00:38] Emily Withnall: ¡Bienvenidos! This is Encounter Culture from the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. I’m your host, Emily Withnall.

[00:00:51] Last month, hours after New Mexico Museum of Art’s Vladem Contemporary closed its doors for the day, I walked from my house to the Railyard and into the museum’s breezeway. Above me were the lights of Astral Array, a light sculpture designed by artist Leo Villareal, commissioned by the Museum of Art. 

In Santa Fe, as in most any place in New Mexico, it is possible to see dozens of constellations every night. But as Leo will tell you himself, his light sculptures are not meant to replace the natural world. In fact, the natural world often serves as inspiration for his work. I felt that as I stood under the lights and watched the seemingly endless pattern of lights rolling off and on like ocean waves or a swarm of fireflies. Light calls humans, animals, and insects to its glow, which is something Leo understands intimately. He often calls his work a kind of “digital campfire” that brings people together. 

Leo and I talked in the week leading up to the opening of Vladem Contemporary. So, at the time of our conversation, I had not yet seen Astral Array illuminating the museum breezeway with the Rail Runner and old Santa Fe Depot visible just beyond it. But we did cover a lot of ground discussing his incredible light sculptures across the globe from his lights on nine different bridges across the River Thames in London–one of which I was lucky to walk across earlier this year–to his light sculptures in Japan, New Zealand, and Turkey, and countless cities across the United States.

[00:02:36] Born in Albuquerque, Leo Villareal now lives in New York and has done installations at the Smithsonian, MIT, on the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the MoMA and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., among many other impressive locations. I could go on, but Leo’s bio would likely fill the entire hour if I were to recite it all.

So without further ado, I bring you our conversation filled with light, custom software, AI and NFTs, impermanence, and so much more.

[Music fades]

[00:03:15] Emily: Welcome, Leo, to Encounter Culture I wanna welcome you back to New Mexico ’cause I understand that you were born in Albuquerque. I actually didn’t know a lot about your work going into this. So I’ve done some research and realized that in May of this year when I was in London, I walked across the Golden Jubilee footbridge across the Thames and it was beautiful.

I have some very bad cell phone pictures of it that I took. And then, you know, in reading about you, I realized that’s your work. That’s your light sculpture and installation there and one of nine across the river. So the first question I have for you is how do you feel about public art and what is it like to sometimes be anonymous in your work when people don’t necessarily have a plaque to read about you?

[00:04:05] Leo: Well, I am thrilled to be here, first of all. I’m really happy to be back in New Mexico and working here, and I, yeah, I’ve had a really interesting journey and I love making public art. It’s one of my passions. I love the anonymity of it, of just a pure gift because I see it as being work for everyone.

And I don’t really require the whole formality of the going into the gallery and the, you know, the name on the wall and the checklist and all those sorts of things, which I, I mean, I love my relationship with my gallery, and I love that whole side of what I do, but I also really enjoy working out in a way that really engages with people, whether they’re art lovers or not. And they might see something and they may not even realize it’s an artwork. They may think it’s who knows what it is, which I also like in that I like working in a very integrated fashion. 

With the bridges in London in particular, my goal was to reveal the beauty that was already there. It wasn’t about using the bridge as a pedestal to put my work on top of and kind of lay that on and it’s all about me.That wasn’t it at all. It was really like, what can I do to kind of enhance what’s there? 

So, I spent a lot of time studying the bridges and learning and listening and hearing people’s stories. ‘Cause I was coming to London as an outsider. I live in New York City and my studio’s in Brooklyn, and it was something I felt a bit apprehensive about, but I was part of an international competition with over a hundred teams.

And then it was this very long process of five years of doing all sorts of things behind the scenes to make that a reality. And then working there, you know, I spent probably months sitting on the banks of the Thames programming each bridge live with my computer and my code. 

We developed custom software, which I’ve been doing for 20 years. So I’m using my tools to work with the bridges and see what happens. And there’s a lot of improvisation and engaging chance in the process. I don’t know in advance, but I’m really there, literally working it out and working site specifically and taking cues from the kinetic activity around the bridges, whether it’s pedestrians or traffic or boats or things happening, and kind of pulling that in in some way.

Not literally–I’m not doing this interactive thing where there’s some kind of sensor that’s reading something and then responding. I’m not being that direct about it, but it’s more of my interpretation of the site. Then, you know, sort of working through it and finding a way to create a piece of work that I’m so happy that you got to see.

[00:06:20] Emily: Yeah, yeah. You know, you have work in Japan and New Zealand and in London and, and various locations across the United States. And so, especially if it’s a place that you are not familiar with, how do you turn that into code or lights if you’re lighting a bridge, for example?

[00:06:38] Leo: So when I’m working, I would call it more like sequencing, and then I’m using the custom tools I’ve developed.

I’m not coding. The code already works and does its thing and I’m trying things out. 

I guess just getting a feel for the place, and I may not know it, but I really like going places and seeing what they’re like energetically and learning a lot about them. In New Zealand, I was learning a lot about the Maori culture and all these sorts of things that I had no notion of, but that were so important there. And in Japan I had some ideas about, you know, I love going to the shrines there and, in this kind of Shinto architecture and whatever happens in Japan with the care and detail and really the integration of nature into people’s lives I think is so interesting. 

And I felt very aligned with that in my work, in that I’m working with code, but taking a lot of inspiration from things that we see in nature, whether it’s a movement of water or a sunset or these things that we’re all in touch with.And they’re very kind of human and universal. So, I feel like the language I’m speaking, anyone could look at whatever country they’re from and have some response ’cause we’re all hard coded to respond to these things in nature. I’m trying to sort of tap into those things and I’m not being too literal or specific about it.

[00:07:55] I really like abstraction. All my work is abstract. There’s no, no imagery and no text in my work. And what’s interesting to me about that is that it’s open to a viewer’s subjective conclusion. You can make of it what you want. I think there’s a real sense of freedom when it comes to abstraction, although some people might find it a little bit scary or intimidating. They want to know, well, what is this thing and what is it about? And that’s not the space I’m operating in. I’m like trying to get viewers to really just sort of relax and just be present. And I’m also engaging a lot of the sequencing of my pieces, there’s a lot of randomness, so you don’t see the same progression twice.

[00:08:33] And the new works are even generative, making new things that are not recorded. So, it’s quite exciting to be able to put these things out into the world and you can either engage with it or not. And if you do, great, it’s there for you. And if not, that’s fine too. 

And also, like making work that is really sort of ambient in the spirit of Brian Eno. Something that’s adding another layer to what’s there, but not demanding your attention.When there’s a television at a bar or something and it’s like a magnet that just pulls your eye and it will not release you. It like wants you and it wants you engaged full on. And that’s not interesting to me.

[00:09:08] I’m interested in a much looser coupling, and I think the tuning of them is partly related to the site specificity. So, I want to tune the pieces so that they’re the right tempo, the right brightness, so that they’re legible and they read, but they’re not overwhelming. ‘Cause light can be used badly, and it is used badly in many, many occasions and scenarios, which is unfortunate. 

So, I think it’s something I’m very sensitive to, and really trying to tune the pieces and having the opportunity to spend night after night with them is a great way to do that. Although it does make some patrons a little anxious that you can’t put a curtain over it and do your work and then reveal it. So it’s all out there for everyone to see all the glitches and the trials and errors and all the things that happened, which I’m fine with. I think it’s about the process and sort of the story and that’s part of it.

[Soft Music]

[00:09:58] Emily: So, I’m curious, when you are in these places like Japan versus London or San Francisco, do you have people who see your work in these different settings, who respond to it in very different ways? 

[00:10:13] Leo: I like sort of watching people respond to the work. That’s exciting, but it’s hard to know exactly what’s going on ever, no matter where you are because it’s very internal and people want to tell me stories about the work of where they were and who they were with, and the moon was full.

And I mean, it takes, what’s interesting is how engaged people are with some of these public works and much more than, you know, if you saw a painting on a wall in a gallery or something like that. And people may get very excited about that, some people. But it’s interesting to me how a lot of people really have these very powerful connections to these pieces and want to tell their story and they just light up.

So, that part is very exciting to me of how you can introduce elements like they’re pretty simple, these arrays of light, you know, that are controlled by software, but it’s doing something way beyond that because I’m using a very kind of artificial means, but eliciting these responses which you know, are provoking, wonder and awe, and connecting deeply to people’s humanity, or something that I find very, very interesting and, and that’s what makes it exciting for me.

[00:11:19] Emily: The thing that comes to mind when you say that is when I walked across the Golden Jubilee Bridge in London, I had just met my long-lost British cousins. So that’s like a connection for me now. So, it’s interesting for you to say that something you said previously was about how some of the newer work creates patterns that you haven’t put into the code.

I don’t know if I’m saying that right, ’cause I’m not a coder. But for people who aren’t coders, right? I mean, from the outside I would assume that it’s very mechanical and precise. So how do you allow for randomness in these codes in the lights? 

[00:11:58] Leo: No, that’s a great question. And I did my first light piece in 1997 using a simple array of strobe lights and a microcontroller, and very quickly exceeded my coding abilities and then started finding creative coders to work with.

And it’s been great to find people who have, you know, good bedside manner, which is hard in a programmer, especially to work with an artist. But I’ve been very lucky to have worked with a huge range of very talented people and that’s ongoing. And it’s really nice to be able to say, I wanted to do this or that, and I’m making these kinds of bespoke tools that then I’m using to sequence my pieces.

You know, in software, how can you improvise with code? Either it works or doesn’t work, it’s going to run or it’s going to crash. If it isn’t precisely right, it’s not going to work. But I guess I think of my tools more like instruments in a way. And I’m making kind of visual music and I’m setting up certain patterns and I have a lot of different tools that I’m using and a lot of combinations of tools and some that are almost 20 years old mixed with some things that we just developed, you know, last week.

So it’s a range of things that I’m using and a way of combining these things without a lot of pressure on myself to say, this is going to be it or not, I don’t know. But I’m very comfortable with that space of not knowing and trying and seeing what happens. And then capturing the moments that are compelling.

[00:13:16] And usually after a few days of working on a piece, I kind of get a sense that I’m onto something. When I get to the same place from various different ways, it starts to kind of reveal itself in a way. And for me, the most interesting thing is to kind of get lost in it and sort of not know and find the solution.

[00:13:34] And in a way, I sit back and I’m like, “Wow, I’ve been sitting here for six hours and what happened?” And that’s, I think, the kind of magic moment of art making. That you kind of have to get into that flow and let it happen, and I really enjoy that space. Although it is, you know, it is anxiety producing ‘cause you go to Japan and I’m there for six days and that’s the time that I have. So, I don’t really have time for, you know, writer’s block or artist’s block or whatever it is. 

So, I have a lot of different techniques and I’ve found ways of finding the solution. And it’s surprising though, and I learn all kinds of things. Feels like a big open space to me. And it’s like the, you know, Wild West in a way, in that it is this open territory, you know, to explore and expand upon a lot of what artists did in the sixties and seventies with light and space. But my interest is in adding code to the mix and computation and having this visual aspect of that, and the visual manifestation of the code, but in light.

[Light Electronic Music]

[00:14:28] Emily: Some of what you’re saying makes me think about, when I was reading about your work, just this idea of marrying beauty and function. Which is a really interesting thing to think about, and especially with regard to lighting, because as you said, so much of lighting is terrible, and I know it’s not meant to be artistic, it’s meant to just be useful. But I guess I’d love to hear a little bit from you just about your thoughts on the marriage of those two things, and maybe how you could see it being used more in our day-to-day life. 

[00:15:11] Leo: I’m not really sure how functional my pieces are. I think they do operate as art. Yeah, I would say that my goal is sort of, sort of activate things and activate surfaces. With the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, we added 25,000 lights to the suspender cables of the bridge in 2013. And it was remarkable what that did because it transformed the way people saw the bridge and it really shifted people’s perceptions in a very profound way. We got a two-year permit from Caltrans to have that piece installed, and at the end of the two years, we had to de-install it, and it was kind of an uproar in San Francisco and everyone said, “Wait, what’s happening? We miss this thing. We need it! This is my therapy and I look at it every day.” People had a real relationship with the artwork, which I found very, very interesting. And it’s almost like they felt like it was like a friend or something. And I’ve had other people say to me that they’re collectors of mine and they, they have a piece in their home and when they’re there, home alone, they’re like, “Oh, I turned the piece on and I feel like I have company.”

So somehow channeling the sense of like, being alive or having this kind of energy or presence in these things, I find very, very interesting. On the functional side, we are trying to inspire people to be more careful with the way things are illuminated. And in London in particular, we wanted to reduce the light pollution into the sky and into the water.

So when we worked with the bridges there, the lights we took down, we were generally replacing incandescent fixtures or other fixtures with much more energy efficient LED fixtures. The new lensing on the fixtures allows you to put light exactly where you want it, which is very interesting to me that you can just put it right on the bridge and not spilling in other places–and reducing glare and all these sorts of things.

[00:16:53] And Alex Lifschutz was the architect we worked with from LDS Architects, and he actually was the designer/architect of the Golden Jubilee Footbridge. So, he’s a wonderful guy. And you know, we got onto this topic of like trying to use the Illuminated River as an example. And I guess our primary goal was to reduce glare, only use the absolute minimum amount of light necessary to reduce energy consumption and to reduce light pollution into the river or into the sky or anywhere. It got a little bit separated from the art part and more into general illumination, but I thought it was pretty great. 

So, I think it’s an exciting thing that’s happening out in the world, that people are becoming much more sensitive about these things and now when you drive along a highway or something, you see the way these big lights spill light 360 degrees, when it’s not really necessary, it’s trying to illuminate a road or something.

So, I think that’s where we’re headed in terms of the future is much more of a focused use of light and careful and energy efficient and all the things that are happening. I’m very excited about and happy to be aligned in that and in the work that I’m doing. 

[00:17:57] Emily: I know there is a lot of, you know, conversation about light pollution and things like that. And you know, here in New Mexico, for the most part, we’re really lucky that we can see the night sky, for example. But I know that’s not the case, maybe in New York City quite as much. For you, what is your relationship to the night sky and how does that inspire your work? 

[00:18:20] Leo: I was born in Albuquerque and quickly moved to Juarez, south Juarez and Chihuahua. My dad is from Mexico, and then we lived in El Paso as well, so right on the border. And also spending time in Marfa, Texas, where my mother’s family’s from. So, I guess I really grew up in this landscape and seeing the sky and seeing the desert, and really having access to these things. And it was something that I spent a lot of time looking at and being inspired by as a young person.

And I think, I, you know, was super obsessed with the space shuttle when I was a kid. I was, I don’t know, 12 or 13. I was writing to NASA and they were sending me posters of the space shuttle. And so, I had this obsession with the sky and the cosmos and what was out there and, and I think that’s kind of been this kind of undercurrent throughout.

[00:19:03] And a lot of what I’m working on now, I’ve been doing this series called Nebula. These pieces, which are very much using a lot of the generative code I’ve been developing, but it’s a hundred kilobytes of code, a tiny little bit of code. But when you run the code, it produces these things that look like it could be something in the cosmos, which is quite exciting to me that you can distill these things that we see as being so complicated and vast, but it turns out in a way it isn’t that complicated. Some parts of it, or at least what I’m starting to explore when I’m trying to boil things down to their essence, which is a lot of what I do when I’m looking at things. I don’t approach things from a photographic perspective or trying to take an image of something and try to sample it.

I’m trying to remake it with code, like the movement of water. How do I make that in my software or how can I distill these things and I’ve actually been able to do in many situations and then kind of play with these parameters and rules and create my own things that are these hybrids that are connected to things we see in nature and elicit similar responses, but kind of expand into these new forms. 

[Invitation to visit Vladem Contemporary]

[00:20:04] Emily: When I found out that my friend, Cristina González was going to be the first artist to have work featured in the new Window Box exhibition at New Mexico Museum of Art, Vladem Contemporary, I was thrilled! And she’s just the first of many other local artists whose work will be showcased in that space.

In case you missed it, Vladem Contemporary is the new second location for New Mexico Museum of Art. At both the original location on the Santa Fe Plaza and at Vladem Contemporary in the Railyard, visitors can gain insight on new ideas, diverse cultures, and the human experience. 

Art is for everyone at the New Mexico Museum of ArtVisit Home – New Mexico Museum of Art (nmartmuseum.org) for tickets, events, and more.

[End Promo]

[00:20:55] Emily: So, I want to segue into talking about your work at Vladem. When listeners hear this episode, we will have already been through the grand opening of New Mexico Museum of Art’s Vladem Contemporary location in the Railyard in Santa Fe. But right now, as we’re talking, that has not yet happened, and I’m so excited to see it.

I did have the opportunity to have a site tour with some other people at the Department of Cultural Affairs, and they turned the installation on for us, but it was in the middle of the day, so it was a little bit hard to see. So, I’m really excited to see it at night. Looking forward to that. But it’s called Astral Array, right?

[00:21:39] Leo: That’s correct.

Emily: What can you tell us about how you came up with this and how you decided it was right for this location in Santa Fe? 

[00:21:48] Leo: All these are long conversations. Usually these take many, many years depending on the project. So, it usually starts out with, you know, what space is available, what surface can we activate?

And we really studied the building deeply, the renderings before it was ever even built. And started thinking about places that would make sense for light sculpture. And we ended up settling on this breezeway that connects the railyard to Guadalupe Street, which I thought was a great opportunity. It’s a very public space that I think people will pass through, even if they are not going to the museum. So it has this public engagement with the street, which I’m excited about, and I really want people to be able to see the work, even if they’re not going to the museum. And hopefully it invites people to come into the museum. I mean, that would be my hope, is that this is the gesture that brings people closer.

[00:22:35] ‘Cause people are drawn to light. So, I’ve put thousands of white LED lights on the underside of this breezeway embedded in these mirrored stainless-steel channels. And I’m actually going there tonight to see it. You know, I was here in June when it was very much a construction site and they were literally putting the bricks in the floor below it, and there were just piles of dirt and giant machinery and it was an interesting place to work because it was very much a construction site, but I’m used to wearing hard hats and hard toed shoes and doing all the stuff you have to do. So, I’m very excited to come and see how it’s come along. 

So, I’ll see that tonight and see the sequencing. And we did make a separate set of sequences for the daytime so that it would be visible because direct sun isn’t hitting it. They will be visible during the day. And in the evening, there’s another set of sequences that’s more subtle and doesn’t require as much intensity. So, we’ve timed that depending on when people are viewing the work. So, we wanted to be able to change along with the day. And there’s even a very late-night sequence that’s very subtle and quiet that’s almost barely visible, but still has a sense that something’s happening. So it has a life, you know, even continuing into the wee hours. 

[00:23:42] Emily: Nice. I’m looking forward to seeing it. I’m very excited. ’cause I live near the Railyard, so this means I can take walks at night and see it. So, I’m looking forward to that.

[Electronic Music]

[00:23:53] Leo: You know, being here in Santa Fe has been amazing. My parents have lived here off and on, so I’ve had a relationship with the city. I haven’t been here in many, many years, but it’s been really exciting to come back and get a sense of what’s happening and the love of the arts. And I went to SITE Santa Fe and Louis Grachos is an old friend and it’s so nice that he’s back here in Santa Fe again.We work together at the Albright-Knox, and just seeing the scale at which things are happening, the opera is so impressive, and the generosity of so many patrons to support the arts here in Santa Fe I think is really exciting. 

I think for me, I mean I always grew up around Native American work and the work of Mexican artists that my father had when I was growing up, and I feel very much at home here. It’s been interesting to think about the work in that context, and sometimes I feel like when I’m programming a piece, there’s some aspect that feels like weaving in a way. I’ve been thinking a lot about the history of computation and how some of these early, like, looms and machines were kind of prototypes for early computers and computation. So, I think there’s a relationship between that. So, I’ve been interested in the patterns I’m seeing in Santa Fe, and you know, I have a Navajo rug in my studio in Brooklyn hanging on the wall, which I love. I just feel very connected to this, so I, I feel like there is something that’s inspiring me in the sequencing and patterning.

Although I’m not using textiles, I’m using light and I’m using time, but there are similar patterns and motifs and repetitions and things that are occurring. So in a way it’s kind of this floating tapestry that I’m seeing and it’s also just being able to sit there night after night at the museum and, and watching the sky, it was just kind of amazing. And the clouds and the things that are just the raw natural beauty of this place are truly inspiring and I think a lot of that has informed what I’m doing. I’m excited again to see it tonight with fresh eyes ’cause I haven’t been here in a few months. And it’s always interesting when you leave things and then come back and see.

[00:26:03] It’s also a exciting moment for me and uh, just happy to be able to participate in what’s happening in Santa Fe and also the seeing that contemporary art is also something that’s important here to the community. ’cause that’s something I feel really excited about and I am particularly interested in inspiring young people to have more access to art or technology, and I distinctly remember things I saw when I was young growing up in Juárez and El Paso that really were meaningful. So, I mean, that’s my hope is that more people will see it and say, “Oh, I want to do this.” And I’ve had a lot of that. When I did a survey show in San Jose, 2010, many people came to me and said, “Oh, I decided I wanted to be a programmer when I saw your show, or I wanted to be an artist.”

[00:26:44] It’s just an exciting time to see how people can engage with these materials and to see how the materials have become much more accessible. You can buy LEDs easily on the web and find maker spaces where people are soldering things together and making code and sharing it. And so, there’s this real spirit of everyone making things and participating, which I think is very interesting.

[00:27:05] And I’m hopeful that more people will be encouraged to wanna make things and there’s an opportunity to do it. ‘Cause I see, you know, the School of Art that’s just right nearby where I’m working. So, I hope that it becomes part of this kind of energetic vortex that encourages more to happen. Yeah.

[00:27:21] Emily: Actually, I was gonna mention the New Mexico School for the Arts. It’s right there next to Vladem. My daughter’s actually a student there, so all the students that go to that school will be able to see your installation all the time, and especially the students who are gonna be in the dorm that they’re constructing right now. They’ll be able to see it right out their windows.

[Rhythmic Instrumental Music]

[00:27:40] Emily: So, in terms of the tools that you use for your work, I’m curious about, how do you feel about AI and the ways that people are getting excited about AI, making certain things more accessible to people, and how might it influence your work or not? 

[00:28:09] Leo: I’ve been very interested in what’s happening a lot in the generative art space.

I did two NFT projects. I know those are three kind of letters that are very triggering for people these days, but at its core, I think there are some very interesting work happening, and there’s a group called Art Blocks that creates generative art. What I mean by that is that, you know, an NFT could be like a single image or it could be a short video.It can also be live code. So, you take that live code and when you run it, it creates a unique iteration, which to me is much more interesting than a static still image or a short video. And there’s a whole, very fervent group of people creating generative artworks online, and it’s been very, very exciting to me to know that there’s a mechanism to be able to buy and sell purely digital work, which I’ve never been able to do until now. We have this marketplace and for people who may not necessarily be able to buy one of my physical light sculptures, they may be able to buy an NFT, which is very exciting. The other interesting part of the NFT space is that all the NFTs I’ve made are available online at full resolution and anyone can go and view them, and that’s kind of astounding.

I mean, only one person can own each of the NFTs. But if you can kind of get over this idea of ownership and you have access to it, suddenly everyone gets access to everything, which is a very different mode than happens in the art world where, you know, you might sell a piece and then it ends up in someone’s warehouse, or no one ever sees it again because it’s kind of gone.

[00:29:37] I see this parallel between what’s happening in the generative art space and public art in the way that it can access these other huge audiences, but in a different way. So, I find myself more and more wanting to connect with groups of people, and this has been a great way to do it. 

Regarding AI, that’s been pretty astounding as well to see that. And it is causing a lot of apprehension and I think with a lot of, you know, good reason. My experience is that it feels to me like it’s very good at emulating and copying and taking a lot of data and models and producing things based on that, which I think can be useful in some contexts, like, you know, help me, I have these ideas and I’m trying to think about it, and I’ve spent some time with ChatGPT, and it’s quite interesting.

I don’t see it as like a primary author, and I do feel like, you know, writers and artists and other creative people are truly the source of these creative ideas. And you know, you can find all sorts of copies and all sorts of places in the world. You know, everything is getting kind of knocked off constantly, but that’s not the real thing.

And the world that I live in, in the art world, people are very interested in authenticity. They don’t want a copy. They want the real deal. So, I think that in terms of AI, I think what’s happening in my head is way more complicated than, um, I mean, who knows? I guess we’ll see what happens over the next few years, but I feel comfortable in doing what I do and knowing that that is something that only I can do, and I’ve spent a lot of time doing that. 

Would I welcome an assistant? I think probably I would say, “Okay, yeah, sure. Show me another…” and that could be an interesting way of working with AI.

I do think that there is a lot of value to authorship, and I think people will care more and more about that. And I think people are also very sensitive to things made by AI, whether it’s a lot of synthetic voices reading, doing like, you know, a book on tape or on Audible or something like that when AI can do these things. But I was reading an interesting article that said when people are listening to it, they start to kind of drift off because it’s not an actual real person saying it.And we’re very sensitive to these things, to someone’s voice and the way they’re saying it and the conversation that’s happening, like what’s happening right now. This is not AI. This is like we are actually saying these words and we’re communicating. And I think as humans we’re connected to those things.

So, I do think we’re very, very sensitive to authenticity and authorship. It’s gonna be an interesting time and we’ll see how it shakes out. I think it’s good to think about what we’re doing and how we honor authorship, and I think that’s why there’s all these strikes and things happening because you know, there’s a lot of concern with great validity that people want their work, you know, to be valued.

[00:32:20] Emily: Yeah. As a writer, I feel that deeply about AI and how much artists and writers need to be valued and paid for our work and just this tension that AI poses to those things that are already kind of feeling out of balance.

[Light Instrumental Music]

[00:32:36] Emily: So, you’ve talked about, with your light sculptures, building these immersive experiences for people and creating this kind of world that people can experience and exist within. What happens when the deinstallation happens, and how do you feel about that when this world comes to an end? 

[00:33:09] Leo: One of the things that’s happened repeatedly with my work is that I do an installation, like at BAM, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the windows of the Opera House, and I made these five, 12-foot diameter circles covered with LED lights put in the Beaux-Arts’ facade of the building, and that was supposed to be up for I think, three months.

And that piece has been out for, I think like 15 years now or something. It became part of the fabric of the building and people wanted it to remain, and that happened at the National Gallery as well, with Multiverse, another piece from 2008 that is now–15 years it’s been up. 

The Bay Lights had a two-year permit, then was extended and it’s been up for 10 years, and now we’re doing another fundraising drive to keep it up for another 10 years.

People tend to fall in love with these things and they want them to remain, and it’s not really about me. I am very satisfied to have done my work and to have them up for the time that they’re there. If people want them to remain, I’m of course thrilled. I’m happy to do that and do everything I can in my power with my studio to do all the work we knew would need to do to archive the data, to back it up, to maintain these things well into the future, which I think is our responsibility, and then to, you know, do a lot to keep the work going. But I have been going to Burning Man–next year it’ll be 30 years. I’ve been going out there since 1994. And it’s really, that’s about building a city together with a group of people and there’s nothing there when you arrive and nothing there when you leave.

So it really is about world building. It’s building a city and building a whole immersive entire environment. But I’m very comfortable with the idea that you are there for a limited amount of time and that it goes away and it’s nice that it’s not permanent, and I love that there’s a space to experiment.

[00:34:53] This year we did an artwork out there and it was something that I made in a way that was very, um, knowing it had to function for like a week or 10 days in the desert and it didn’t have to work forever. ‘Cause a lot of the work we do when working with a museum or an institution, there’s a tremendous burden to make sure that it’s done at the highest standard and it’s going to last and all these sorts of things.

Which is great for those things. That’s the way they should be done, but there’s also kind of something that’s a real relief to be able to work in a temporary way that doesn’t have all that weight of permanence on it. Sure, those things could lead to other, other ideas, but in general, I feel pretty comfortable with being able to do the things that I do. Letting them have their lifespan and then knowing that I will do something else again somewhere else. And it becomes part of a continuum. We spend a lot of time documenting the work because if things don’t live on, we want to have a record of them, and that’s very, very important to me and my studio. So, at the highest level, working with videographers and photographers who can really capture what those spaces are like,we’re taking tremendous notes for our archive. And so, everything is very thoroughly documented. So, it’s a, it’s a balance, I guess, and you have to kind of get comfortable with putting things out into the world and letting the world do what it’s gonna do with them.

[Music Bridge into the Show Outro]

[00:36:07] Emily: Astral Array  is on permanent display on the exterior of the New Mexico Museum of Art Vladem Contemporary in the Santa Fe Railyard, where it can be seen day and night by visitors and passers by. Additional work by Leo Villareal is on view in the Shadow and Light exhibition through April 28th, 2024. You can visit Vladem Contemporary from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day of the week, except most Fridays when the museum is open until 7:00 PM. To learn more, visit nmartmuseum.org.

[00:36:55] Encounter Culture is a production of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs. 

Our producer is Andrea Klunder at The Creative Impostor Studios. Season five is produced and edited by Andrea Klunder and Alex Riegler. 
Our recording engineer is Kabby at Kabby Sound Studios in Santa Fe. 
Technical direction and post-production audio by Edwin R. Ruiz.
Our executive producer is Daniel Zillmann. 
Thank you to New Mexico artist El Brujo, D’Santi Nava, for our theme music.

For a full transcript and show notes, visit https://podcast.nmculture.org/ or click the link in the episode description in your listening app. 

I’m your host, Emily Withnall. 

Art is for everyone at the New Mexico Museum of Art. Open yourself to a fresh perspective on the human experience. Visit nmartmuseum.org for tickets, events, and more at both the original location on the Santa Fe Plaza and at Vladem Contemporary in the Railyard. 

Thank you for listening, and if you learned something new, send this episode to a friend or share it on social media.We love celebrating the culture of New Mexico together.

[Theme Music fades.]