Lightning algorithm of Leo Villareal’s works highlights the beauty of built environment

New York-based Leo Villareal speaks with STIR about his recent project Illuminated River in London, his long association with the sequence of lights, and digital programming.

by Dilpreet BhullarPublished on : Aug 23, 2021

The New York-based artist, Leo Villareal, a pioneer of LED light sculptures, is widely known for creating immersive site-specific works - a combination of both spatial and temporal resolution. The project The Bay Lights at the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge got him international recognition. The illuminated environment of the final work is the combination of LED lights and encoded computer programming. The installations take the form of a complex organism, which are inspired by English mathematician John Horton Conway’s work named Game of Life.

Villareal’s latest large-scale architectural work Illuminated River, extending across nine Thames Bridges, from London to Lambeth, is the longest public art commission in the world. Like his previous work, this installation encapsulates Villareal’s interest in pixels and binary code matrix to unravel the beauty of the nine bridges dotting the Thames River. The visionary public installation is a celebration of cosmopolitan London as both a creative and innovative city.

In an interview with STIR, Villareal walks us through his long association with the sequence of lights, digital programming, and recently installed work Illuminated River in London, the UK.

Westminster Bridge, Illuminated River | Leo Villareal | STIRworld
Westminster Bridge, Illuminated River Image: Courtesy of James Newton

Dilpreet Bhullar (DB): As an artist what triggered your interest in the light, and use it as a medium to explore human sensory awareness?

Leo Villareal (LV): My interest in light came about very organically – I first attended the Burning Man festival in the mid-90s; it takes place in the Nevada desert, and it was still quite a small event back then. It was almost pitch black at night and I kept getting profoundly lost trying to find my tent in the dark. By the third year, I decided to do something about it and created what is probably my first ‘light work’: 16 strobe lights with a microcontroller that could turn them off and on, at the lowest level of code — zero is off, one is on. I put it on top of my mobile home as a utilitarian device, but it turned out to be quite a potent thing and I realised I was on to something with the combination of software, light and space and the communal nature of it. People could see it from a distance.

Looking back, that first artwork feels very primordial – I was harnessing the power of light almost like a digital campfire. This is what started my journey of combining my experience of art with my interest in technology.

Blackfriars Bridge, Illuminated River | Leo Villareal | STIRworld
Blackfriars Bridge, Illuminated River Image: Courtesy of James Newton

DB: Do you think the onset of digital technology has eased the practice of colour selection and combination, especially when you are working on the large-scale architectural works?

LV: It has been really helpful to work with programmes like Unreal Engine, which enable me to visualise the colours and patterns in real-time. In terms of colour scheme for Illuminated River, a lot of consideration has gone into the levels of light, in a way that is respectful of the wildlife of the river Thames, but also, culturally, in line with a rich heritage of artists whom this majestic river has inspired over the centuries.  I have taken inspiration from the historical and current context of the site – for example, the palette I chose for Lambeth and Westminster bridges reflect the colours of the seats in their respective parliamentary chambers.

For Waterloo, I have enhanced either side with the stretch of light and introduced pastel washes of colour to illuminate its central spine. Blackfriars Road Bridge is now awash with warm, rosy hues that cite the remaining columns of the now removed old railway bridge. The Golden Jubilee Footbridges have now featured a kinetic, monochromatic lighting scheme that mirrors the artwork on Millennium Bridge, the only other footbridge in the body of work.

Artist Leo Villareal | STIRworld
Artist Leo Villareal Image: Courtesy of Leo Villareal Studio

DB: Could you tell us more about the different layers of ideation and execution process that define your art piece, if you could illustrate your answer by giving an example of the work Illuminated River?

LV: It depends on the type of work – for Illuminated River, the project was launched as a competition in 2016, so I worked closely with British architecture practice, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands, to submit an entry that felt respectful to the environment but also transformative and impactful.

For the first four bridges that were illuminated in 2019 (London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium), I spent months down by the Thames, observing the environment, and programming the illuminations on site. It was great to feel the energy of the Thames and the riverbank and allow that to inform my programming.

I have always admired the Impressionist and English Romantic painters who worked ‘en plein air’ and portrayed the river on their canvases all those years ago. They served as a key piece of inspiration for me with this project. I enjoy the fact that I can take a similar approach all these years later, through more of a contemporary, technological lens.

This time, because of the pandemic, I was unable to visit London and experience the artwork on site until very late in the programming stage. Instead, I was able to use LiveU streaming technology, ordinarily used for broadcast live sports or news events, to programme from my studio in Brooklyn. The great thing about this software is that it has less than a second delay – it is the closest I could have got to be there in real life.

01 min watch Illuminated River Trailer, Landscape | Leo Villareal | STIRworld
Illuminated River trailer, Landscape Video: Courtesy of Leo Villareal Studio

DB: So, after watching the colourful display of Illuminated River, what could be the final takeaway for the viewers?

LV: We really wanted to play with the compulsion of people to recognise patterns – our brains cannot help but synchronise signals that are coming in. We tried to engage with the different kinetic activity on the river, from the boat traffic to the classic red buses, to the pedestrians out for an evening stroll. That feeling of connection between the artwork and its visitors was really important to me, particularly as this is a site-specific piece, so it needs to react to its environment. I am interested in people’s connections, such as how they relate the artwork to the movement of the Thames and the tide. It is deliberate, not literal and open to interpretation.

The beautiful thing about this project is that it is so focused on connections – from the technology of individual bulbs by Signify, to the bridges themselves. Given where we are as a society at the moment, I hope people experience it as a hopeful, unifying piece of work for London.   

Illuminated River, Waterloo to Lambeth Bridges | Leo Villareal | STIRworld
Illuminated River, Waterloo to Lambeth Bridges Image: Courtesy of Jason Hawkes

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