Pace Live

Leo Villareal Talks to Anne Pasternak

Conversation recorded on Thursday, April 30

In this episode of our online conversation series, Pace artist Leo Villareal spoke with Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, about public art, new ways of working, and responding creatively to the COVID-19 crisis.

Learn more about Leo Villareal.

Leo Villareal: Hi, Anne.

Anne Pasternak: Hey, Leo.

AP: Hi, everybody! Welcome to the Pace Gallery Instagram live interview with myself, Anne Pasternak. I'm the lucky gal that gets to be the Director of the (opens in a new window) Brooklyn Museum. Leo and I, we’re going really low-tech. He was using Gaffer tape and I'm using mangoes and bananas so hold on a second, guys.

LV: All good.

AP: Nobody ever said I was good with technology, Leo, you know that. So welcome! I just want to say happy sixtieth anniversary Pace Gallery. Really excited! What an incredible legacy and history. Leo, we're going to begin, I just want to say, for those people out there who may not know exactly who you are, I don't know who those people are, but, Leo is probably most well-known for his (opens in a new window) Bay Lights project in San Francisco. His works are composed of LED arrays that are controlled by custom designed software programs that mimic emergence patterns found in nature. I really wish I was in my office right now for many reasons but including the fact that on my desk is an early piece of Leo's. Actually, in the museum, in our lobby, is also another piece of Leo's. I miss being at the Brooklyn Museum. So, Leo, where are you right now?

LV: I'm out on the North Fork of Long Island, huddled up with my wife and two kids, homeschooling and making the best of it, but it's a little bit like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Hunting and gathering and doing all these new things.

AP: Leo, who's cutting your hair?

LV: Well, I'm maybe trying to arrange a Zoom with April Barton and she's going to rain Cuatro or Yvonne on it. We'll see how that goes.

AP: So right now in your home, are you in your bedroom, in a studio, your office? Where are you?

LV: I'm here's almost like a little barn type building. It's cozy and I can see the water. I also have a converted garage space that was loaned to me as a studio, which is really great because obviously we had to shut down our studio in Brooklyn. [phone falls] There we go, Gaffer tape just gave way. I knew that would happen!

AP: Right now, mangoes are working better than Gaffer tape!

LV: Yeah. We're in Industry City. We just moved studios. We were there for five years. We were in this very expansive mode and now suddenly we're having to adjust and work remotely as a team, so it's certainly challenging.

AP: Tell me what some of those challenges are. What does it mean as a studio-based artist to work remotely with your staff?

LV: Well, my practice is creating individual artworks and light sculptures, but also doing a lot of public art. It's a combination, and I am working on a huge project in London called (opens in a new window) The Illuminated River, which encompasses up to fifteen bridges over the Thames, which is ongoing, and a lot of other projects. There's a lot of Zooming with my studio team and working remotely. And we're still doing proposals and presentations. It's a little strange certainly on one side of it. On the other, it's more me working with my canvases, which happen to be these LED arrays or OLED panels. It's nice to have that alone time in the studio, which doesn't happen very often. It's a nice combination.

AP: Well, Leo, when we first met almost thirty years ago, we were kids. The Internet was a pretty new thing then. What year was the Internet created? Around like 1986 or ‘87, something like that? Go ahead, correct me.

LV: No, the Internet is way older. I was attracted to technology after I studied sculpture as an undergrad and ended up at (opens in a new window) ITP in the very early days when you and I met, like in ‘92, ‘93.

AP: At that time, working with art and technology, I mean, again, there is a history like the Internet had its foundations earlier, but this is like the beginning of something really major happening. It's so interesting that today you're struggling with a kind of remote working environment. Talk to us a little bit about what drew you to art and technology—that's what we called it back in the day—and what has changed? Then I want to get to public art at some point and talk about London.

LV: Great. Well, I was attracted to these tools very early, in the early ‘90s. It was a very different time when computers were quite expensive and hard to access. I wanted to do virtual reality the first time around, so I was inspired by Jaron Lanier. But at that point, you needed to be an academic environment to have access to the million-dollar Silicon Graphics machine and all the head mounted displays and the things that are coming back around now.

AP: People may not know who Jaron Lanier so you might want to tell them.

LV: He's sort of the father of virtual reality. Dreadlocks, musician, amazing, brilliant mind. It was an early time. I always wanted to make art with these tools. I just wasn't quite sure which tools I was going to use. I got deeply into this stuff and there was really no job you could get. There was no industry. The Web didn't even exist when I first started it at ITP. So, it all started to unfold around that time. I ended up going out to Palo Alto to work at a research lab called (opens in a new window) Interval Research, another batch of stuff. But it took me many years to find my medium.

AP: What is the same since then and what has changed? In terms of art in this intersection with new technology.

LV: It's an exciting moment. I mean, it's continually changing but right now it's particularly interesting. This idea of VR becoming this kind of mass medium. It's not quite there yet. The iPod of VR hasn't come out yet. There were a lot of music players before the iPod, but then when the iPod came out, that defined the whole genre. That really hasn't happened. I think what's occurring now will certainly push all these technologies in a very dramatic fashion, where we're trying to figure out how to transmit these experiences and be together and not be together, which is very hard. My work is all about being present and being together and communal experience and all those things, which we can't have right now. We've been having conversations about how we do that and it's challenging for sure.

AP: Where are you at in that conversation? As you say, the communal has always been a part of your practice. Meditative experiences have always been part of your practice. And how do you translate, understanding that what we're going through right now, Covid, we may get any antiviral for, a vaccine for, but superbugs are our future? This is not going to be, sadly, an uncommon thing probably. I hope it will be, but it probably won't. How do you adapt as an artist?

LV: Well, we've been exploring a lot of new forms, and certainly that's a big initiative of Pace's, and exploring art and technology and things that sort of move on from the gallery model, which is quite exciting. I've been part of those conversations and thinking a lot about these experiences that could be created. Again, it's an extension of public art, where you have museums and galleries in certain places, but there are lots of other places that don't have those things. There's an opportunity to connect with people, which is exciting for me. All those things we're thinking about involve getting together. I work with digital things, but I drag these digital things into the real world. I put lights on the Bay Bridge, and instead of it being a representation of lights, it's actual lights. It's all about the presence and opticality and the effect on your perception. It’s about being there with it, which you can't capture with any sort of camera or video. It really is impactful and profound that people want to tell their stories of who they were with and the moon was full and all the details. Everyone has these sorts of stories so you see the power that this stuff can have to communicate and access these deep places and people. How do you do that without being present? I don't know. There are more solitary expressions. In London, we have the first four bridges up of The Illuminated River. I think it’s nice that people have something to look at.

AP: Tell us about that project. I actually didn't realize the first four are up already. Congratulations!

LV: Thank you. It's really exciting! It was a global competition that I won about three years ago, and we were selected. The idea was to activate these bridges over the Thames from Tower Bridge to Albert Bridge. It's quite an expanse and a real range of bridges. Some bridges are iconic, like Westminster, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and other bridges are more humble rail bridges, but each one is its own kind of marker in time of engineering and functionality. I've been learning a tremendous amount about London and the Thames. The Thames is a place of creativity, which is quite interesting, like learning about Handel and the composition of water music that happened to be played for the king on barges in the river or Turner or Whistler, Monet, other artists who have responded to the site and painted the river and its atmosphere. That's kind of the inspiration for it, although we're using very contemporary materials of LEDs and software. It is kind of this plein air painting that I'm doing out on boats and on the banks of the river. I’m kind of tuning this artwork to activate the bridges and create the sense of bringing them to life. I’m connecting them to one another and connecting them to the people of London.

AP: I'm glad you mentioned Monet, actually, because I was thinking about Monet a lot yesterday. People wouldn't necessarily make a link between your work and the Impressionists and certainly Monet, but it is relevant. This fascination not only with this actual site, or these sites of the bridges in London, which Monet did paint, but your deep understanding of the power of light and all of its symbolism. It seems like that's an extremely important thing for us today as we deal with this crisis, whether it’s light being a metaphor for information and knowledge, or whether it's a metaphor for a higher spiritual power—there are so many metaphors. Do you want to talk a little bit about that role of the symbol of light in your work?

LV: Absolutely. It's light, but then it's also controlled by software, so it’s dealing with time and sequencing. We didn't just put lights on the bridge, so it's not architectural lighting. What really pushes it into this other realm is the temporal quality that it has. The sequencing of it and the response, but there's so much kinetic activity. The Thames itself is almost like a living thing, it rises and falls five meters twice a day. It's pretty extraordinary. There is so much activity with people moving, and pedestrians, and traffic, and all these things. And that feeds into what I'm doing. Although my work is not literally interactive, I'm not using sensors and attaching that to the lights, I'm interpreting it myself as an artist. That's what becomes of the sequences that people see, but that makes it feel appropriate for its site. Some of the bridges are monochromatic, others are using color, which is quite exciting. We've done some really innovative things with Philips to create these new LED lights. It's a very rich palette that we're using, and I think it's something unexpected because with a lot of these bridges, people just ignored them and didn't even know they were there. Through this addition of light and this gesture, it's really activated and created these spaces and really brought people together, which is really nice.

AP: Before we go into the communal, when you were given this opportunity—this extraordinary historic once in a lifetime opportunity to activate the bridges in London—what research did you do and how did that inform the program that you actually created, the system for the lights?

LV: For me, it was a tremendous amount of listening because I'm coming from the outside and obviously people have great sensitivity about London and its bridges. It really was about hearing people's stories and understanding the site again and again. I've made countless trips to London over the last few years, taking long walks at night, observing the space, how people use it, and thinking about ways of fixing the things that needed fixing. We worked with the (opens in a new window) Millennium Bridge with Foster + Partners. Originally, Sir Norman Foster wanted to create an effective blade of light going over the river inspired by Flash Gordon, a really cool pop cultural reference. But the illumination that ended up manifesting itself was really sort of murky and not that exciting. We were able to talk to them and go back and do all these studies of the bridge and fix all these things that weren't right. I think the bridge looks amazing and between St. Paul's and the Tate Modern, it's this connecting link that people see in a new way. We received thirty planning applications. It's not for the thin-skinned and (opens in a new window) The Illuminated River Foundation has been extraordinary in its efforts to make this all happen. And we had abseilers hanging off the bridges in the middle of the night trying not to fall into the river, so a huge amount of work went into this and is ongoing. We're hoping to launch the next phase next year.

AP: Is Covid delaying significantly your installation plans?

LV: No, it's very much like the English, keep calm and carry on, which is great. I love the spirit of it. I think people see how important it is for the city. We're really thrilled that that continues, but it's going to unroll over the next maybe three, four years because this is such a massive project involving active bridges in the city and we can't shut them down. There are all kinds of things that come up. We had a bird that had built a nest right where we had wanted to put lights. We had to wait for that baby bird to be born so that we could proceed with our work. There's just the unexpected.

AP: It's always amazing how birds interfere with public art. Been there. Or how public art actually interferes with birds. What public projects do you have coming up in the United States? Do you have time to take on more?

LV: We're in a bunch of proposal phases right now. Here, I've been working on a few exhibitions. I had a show that was supposed to open in Palo Alto at Pace Gallery in April, which obviously is postponed. I was going to be in a show in Beijing about the history of computational art in February. But it is what it is, and we just have to roll with it. Everything is changing and even the projects we have underway, there's concern, obviously. We're trying to see what the reality of these things are and just keep at it.

AP: That's all you can do, right?

LV: Yeah. Resilience. It's very challenging, but I think it's a great time for gathering one's thoughts and brainstorming, of creativity, and there’s an explosion of that happening with our team despite our distance and all these other things that are happening. It's nice to not be on an airplane every week or multiple times a week. I mean, that part of it is really nice, to just stay literally grounded and connected. I think those things are good creatively.

AP: Do you think there are certain things that you're learning in this moment that will change how you live in the world moving forward?

LV: I think so. All of this comes with a lot of responsibility. I think it's easy to scare people. I think it's a lot harder to provoke wonder and access these places that connect us all. That's where my enterprise and the universality of light and my inspiration for the sequencing comes from—things in nature, whether it's the movement of water or a sunset...these things that we all connect to. I look at that and I try to think, how could I remake that with my code? How can I break that down and what's happening? People like John Conway, who just passed away, invented the (opens in a new window) Game of Life, the first cellular automata program. It's a simple set of rules and out of those rules very complex patterning emerges that you would swear was something from life, something under a microscope or in the cosmos. It's so simple, but that was kind of this amazing common denominator and set of rules that has inspired me for years and years. That's kind of the way I approach things and try to access them. Even though I’m working with code and lights, which are sort of cold and impersonal, it's creating this other thing that's going on with the audience and to build, work with audiences of tens of millions of people is quite extraordinary. I really want to draw the best out in people. I want to connect people together. I want to change the way they see. Everything that's there, it's not really about using these things as pedestals, it’s not about my work. It's really this thing that we’re all doing together. There's a sense of the communal.

AP: You are in an extraordinary position right now, because your artwork deals with themes of light, the communal, meditation, chance. In fact, we should talk about chance because who would bet that this is what's going on in our lives right now? And you have this ability to reach such huge publics through your public projects. I feel for artists who have a more isolated practice, who don't have the same kind of public practice. Very few artists in the history of the world have the kind of success you have had in the public realm. But let's talk a little bit about chance in your work. I'm just saying it's really wonderful to speak with an artist right now who can imagine the path forward.

LV: Well, there's tremendous heaviness. I did go into the city and I had to get some emergency things out of the studio and passed a (opens in a new window) FEMA site where I was behind a hearse and it was going in and there were refrigerated trucks. It's's very grim. I feel incredible gratitude for everyone who is there and keeping the city going and keeping everyone healthy. It's something that's very heavy. But I do think that art is super important, more than ever, and artists’ roles. I do think we all have an ability to communicate with people deeply on a level that is very necessary. I think you have to keep going and I think we have a responsibility to do that.

AP: And you've done that throughout your career. The first project we worked on together was almost twenty years ago, and it was in the summer of 2001. Could you talk a little bit about that?

LV: That was a really amazing time for me! It was (opens in a new window) Art in The Anchorage and I was really honored to be part of that show. I hung a piece called (opens in a new window) Firmament, it was a sixteen-foot diameter circle with eighty strobe lights attached to it. It’s the first time I ever did a zero-gravity couch. You would recline and the idea was that this position would help you leave your body and focus on these lights, which you couldn't quite see because it was in the darkness and the cavernous space of The Anchorage, which kind of obscured what the mechanism was. It was a very exciting time, and, unfortunately, right after that summer is when 9/11 happened. That summer I organized a group show at (opens in a new window) White Columns called (opens in a new window) Synth, this immersive bubble with all these other artists and technology and sound. It was the first year of my camp at (opens in a new window) Burning Man called (opens in a new window) Disorient, which is celebrating its twentieth year. A lot of amazing things happened and then suddenly I came back and there was this radical change. It feels like one of those times again, but we all continued and persevered through that and I think we'll do the same through this. But that was really special.

AP: There are a lot of similarities between this moment and now. I'm curious, Leo, because it's through your art that of course we're really going to know how it is that this moment affects you and how you respond and how you serve, in a way. I'm curious if there are other things you're doing right now in service? You mentioned driving back into the city for supplies and being behind funerary possessions. Is there something you're doing right now that you're finding gives you meaning in addition to the art, in terms of service?

LV: I feel like at this point I have to take care of myself so that I can take care of my family and take care of my team and it radiates out. Lots of yoga, which is good. A lot of nature. I've been observing the water. I've never spent this much time out on Long Island. The quiet of it, the watching of spring, there's just a lot of extraordinary beauty. I've been recording the water and the sounds of the water. I'm not sure how that will manifest itself, but I keep seeing my work in that and finding my work in all these places in nature. I'm working on a project where I would try to transmit that, what I'm hearing and what I'm seeing to others. It’s still very formative. But I find it incredibly relaxing and if I could help other people through that, that’s something I'd like to do. That's a little experimental project.

AP: I can’t wait, because I know you’re going to do something with those water sounds. It's just inevitable. I'm curious, have you picked up any bad habits during this time period?

LV: We get a little cabin fever, so, yeah, it's a little too familiar. [Anne holds up a bottle of bourbon] Yeah, exactly, people at the liquor store have my credit card and I pull up and they load up the back. So, trying to keep that in check and focus on the health part of it. There are lots of pitfalls but staying centered and grounded I think is super important. I've been trying to help with my mom in Marfa, our family home there, and trying to help the community there as much as we can. There's just so much need and you want to try and help the people that you can, so doing our small part.

AP: I see people [in the comments] asking me what it is that I'm doing, and I'll just simply say I'm trying to do yoga. I'm really bad at it. I try to do a daybreak or dance party. We have friend in common. Well, you introduced me, Donovan, who does amplified yoga, so I did that this weekend. But I picked up lots of bad habits. I started drinking again, hence my bourbon, which I never knew I liked before, and I started drinking coffee again, which is really, really bad. I'm a far worse boss when I've been caffeinated, so I have to try to stop doing it again.

LV: Yeah.

AP: Leo, let's go back to art! I'm ping-ponging all over the place. Let's talk a little bit about the role of chance in your work.

LV: Well, I'm interested in emergent behavior and artificial life, which sounds complicated, but all it really means is you set up certain conditions and they'll let something happen. So, I am deeply engaged with chance and waiting for a moment of surprise, something unexpected to occur. Then I'm capturing those moments that become the sequences that are the building blocks for my work. When you see my work, it's non-repeating. These sequences are triggered in random order and for a random amount of time. You don't feel like it's a three-minute loop and then you see it again and again and again. My interest is in preserving a sense of mystery. That's what the other important part is, the abstract part where there are no images, no text, so you're not getting a fully complete set of information. And I'm interested in the brain's compulsion to recognize pattern. You see something and you can't help but decode it. You're getting this information sort of fragmented and you're trying to figure out what it is, but once you've almost figured it out, it shifts and becomes something else. It's kind of slippery, but I think it's refreshing in that it’s open-ended and it's different from the way LEDs are normally used out in the world in advertising in Times Square, in Las Vegas, where there's very much someone selling something. They want you to do something. Go here, go there. It's open-ended in my work and people can take it or leave it and do whatever they want with it. I think it's refreshing to be off those rails and to know that, here it is, you can do what you want with it. That's sort of something that has been great for me. It's a little nerve wracking sometimes when you're trying to do an installation and you don't exactly know what it's going to be, so you have to really feel confident that you're going to figure out the solution or what it is.

AP: I suppose that's true for any artist, right?

LV: Yes, and I think I've done this enough that I feel comfortable and I'm using custom tools that we've been developing for twenty years so that's the other important part of it. My early pieces I was able to program myself with simple microcontrollers and zero is off and one is on, and I build up these sequences and I quickly hit the limits of my abilities. I started finding programmers that I could work with and describe what I wanted to do. It's kind of hard to find these programmers that have good bedside manner that can help you translate what you have in your head into the tools that you want to use. But we've been able to do that and create these bespoke things that I then use and create. That's a pretty critical part of my work. Also, Anne, I just wanted to say how much I appreciate what you're doing at the Brooklyn Museum. It's really exciting to see all the energy of the shows and it's really breathing life in and doing so much, so that's really cool. And there was a question [in the comments] about my influences. I certainly think a lot about Light and Space artists. Turrell...I love Sol LeWitt, Peter Halley. Artists dealing with rules and systems.

AP: Sol LeWitt, one of my heroes. I saw a (opens in a new window) show of Peter Halley's in Aspen at Baldwin Gallery in February and it was so great. The paintings are still so strong after all these years.

LV: Yeah, Peter's great. We've done a few studio visits together and he's just so smart and just an amazing guy. He's a great mentor, too, so it's been really nice to have a dialogue with Peter.

AP: And Sol LeWitt because of systems?

LV: I think the rules. You know, here are the rules, and follow these rules. And then there's an open-endedness to it. Someone's interpreting those rules and creating this thing. All these programmatic, systems, space things really intrigue me.

AP: I think there's something else there, too, about the fact that Sol LeWitt and other artists of his generation were looking to everyday technologies. Today, LEDs are everyday technologies. Using materials that working, everyday people use.

LV: Yeah, it's becoming more and more commonplace, certainly. It's very easy to get LEDs and it's kind of the golden age of programming and code and sharing and the maker culture, and I think that it's really great. I taught at ITP for a while after I went there and loved being connected to academia. I'm too busy now to do fourteen weeks in a row, but it's something that I think is really important to stay connected to, to youth and to inspire people to try things and do things. There's a lot to do.

AP: There's a lot to do. For the artists out there who may not have Pace Gallery as their dealer and may not have the big public trust within the world, what would your advice be to them right now? Because it seems to me that everybody's going to have to be a lot more creative about how they support themselves.

LV: I think it’s like in yoga. You're supposed to keep your eyes on your own mat. You just focus on what you're doing. It feels like in art it's the same thing. You have to put on your blinders, focus on what you're doing, and not get caught up with the noise. I think that’s something that's really important. I think it's also an exciting time to connect with new audiences. I think we're really ready for a new set of rules. Burning Man is one of the things that I'm passionate about. I've been going there since 1994, and there are these principles and the rules are very different from the day to day world. More and more, that's having an impact globally. I think it's very exciting that there can be other forms of exchange and community. It's very different from the kind of transactional things we have today.

AP: It's so interesting because, in full transparency to our audience out there, for about twenty years you and Yvonne were trying to get me to come to Burning Man and I finally went this past summer, thanks to you and Amanda and Peter. I got to stay at the Disorient camp and it was an amazing experience. I have to say, among the many things that blew me away was the gift economy. It really seems that this experimental community of Burning Man—and I know people who haven’t been often roll their eyes and they're like, oh Burning Man. In fact, it's a really creative place and a very generous place. It's interesting, the gift economy is thinking about how to work with more people. The Brooklyn Museum is in Covid central. I don't think there's a neighborhood that is as affected in the city, let alone the country, as central Brooklyn. Think about all the record unemployment, how are people going to feed themselves? It's been interesting to see gift economy taking place. Hotels and restaurants, catering companies say, you know what? We're going to step in. We have something to give. We're going to feed our hospital workers. We're going to provide healthy food for people within our community for free. It's been amazing to see the gift economy taking place in a moment of crisis.

LV: Absolutely. The idea of the gift economy is not barter. It’s not I give you something and you give me something. It's just giving in generosity. It's pretty extraordinary what that unleashes. There's even a group from Burning Man called (opens in a new window) Burners Without Borders that was formed right after Katrina and went right after Burning Man. Katrina happened and a bunch of Burners went there. FEMA was still trying to get organized, but Burners were like, oh, yeah, we can operate this heavy machinery and started doing millions of dollars' worth of demolition work, helping people distribute resources, create shade, kitchens, create artworks out of the destruction. Literally rebuilding their lives. People think you go to Burning Man and there's nothing there. You have to set up shade, bring water, bring generators, all the things which end up being pretty good training for crisis. That culture is also portable. The other really important part of what happens out there is that there's a sense that everyone should be creative. Everyone should be making. I think that's off-putting to the to the art world, but it is what it is. I think the sense of everyone making things is very beautiful and sharing those things, and it's a culture that does feel like it's very hopeful. My kids haven't been to the actual Burning Man, but they've been exposed to that culture. I think it's very important for everyone. There's a lot to learn from these principles.

AP: Yeah. One of the things that was very interesting to me as I was volunteering at the barbecue pit and tossing vegetables for hours, was that I'd be next to a brain surgeon, next to somebody who is trying to cure this disease or that disease, all these very brilliant people. And they take their rare vacation time to be surrounded by a creative community and that desire to be creative. I think that's a very hopeful thing for us in the art world and to remember that people want opportunities to participate, to be creative, and to be around creative people. I think that as we think about when we can be together again—we may have social distancing, of course, and social hesitation and we'll need to do these things safely—we'll have to think about how we really invite people in with a generous spirit so that they can join us in creation. I would say museums historically don't do that very well and I don't even know that artists do it very well. You certainly do, Leo, so that's a bright spot for all of us and I think there's a lot for artists who are out there and are tuning into the conversation to really be inspired by the practice.

LV: Yeah, and I think there are small gestures, any kind of gesture, any kind of thing that you can do. Once you are secure yourself, then you can start to extend to the next ring out. And what can you do to contribute? There are so many ways and so many small things that we can do. I think doing those things helps everyone. The giver and the recipient feel better. Those things are very healing, and we need that.

AP: The need for service is very, very healing. Leo, somebody asked, and I just want to answer for them, if Burning Man is going to happen this summer. It's not happening this summer, is that correct?

LV: Well, Burning Man is ongoing. (opens in a new window) Black Rock City in the desert is not happening. We're working on a way to create a virtual version of Burning Man, which should be quite interesting. You have 80,000 sort of mad scientist types of people who are incredibly creative and innovative and involved with a lot of technology. It's quite exciting to see what emerges from that because, again, the rules are so different and there's a sense of decommodification. There are some challenges, but I think it's pushing this culture into another realm which could access more people. I'm going to miss it. It's an important part of my life, but we're just going to do it another way.

AP: Do it another way and maybe one day we'll be able to go back. Let's hope so. So, Leo, we've been at this for forty-five minutes and I want to ask you, what is the thing that you really miss right now? When we are able to come back together at some semblance of normal...and remember, it's different for us in New York than it is in many other places around the world and in this country because we have such density. There are many cities and states within the United States that are opening for better and worse—mostly worse probably right now—and so some people tuning into this Instagram live conversation are like, oh, my museum is going to open any day now. Or I'm having a house party. That's not the reality. And so, when we do eventually get to come back together, what is it that you're looking forward to?

LV: Well, having the biggest party anyone's ever had. I think that will be great. Hugging people, physical contact. It's so, so weird to be distanced, and it's just not how we are as humans. Really, the tactile presence of all these things is so important. I hope that we come back in a way that is more thoughtful, more aware of the system of choices we're making environmentally. All these things, I think, are really, really critical. I think this is a chance to kind of reset and rethink a lot of things. I out of the ashes will come this phoenix.

AP: I've made some pledges already. First of all, I miss hugs number one. The art world is very huggy and if I saw you right now, I know we'd be hugging. I can't wait for hugs. That's number one on my list. Somebody in the feed was saying, “move out of the city.” Cities are actually, environmentally, pretty decent organisms in some ways. I have to say, I miss the subway. I never thought in a million years I'd say that, but the serendipity of seeing people from all walks of life is so exhilarating that I find myself missing the difference. How much can I look at my dog, my daughter, and my husband? I need some variety in my life. I miss the subways, but I have decided that I am going to do far less plane travel. I'm sorry airlines. The art world travels too much. We should be using Zoom or Instagram or whatever technologies we have and save the planet a little bit more. So that's one of my pledges. I'm going to be traveling on airplanes less.

LV: Yeah. The first time I went to New York, I was thirteen. I grew up in El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, and I fell in love with the city and told my dad, this is where I want to live. It's sort of been one of these love affairs and the city has given me so much energy. It’s something that I miss profoundly. Everything is still there, all the buildings are there. It's just an emptiness and there's no big burning pit. It's just this weird ghost town. You feel all the pain of all those places that are closed and all the people that can't do what they're normally doing. It's profoundly shifted. But I'm optimistic and hopeful. It's been through a lot and we've all been through a lot. It'll be different, but I can’t wait to go back.

AP: It’ll be different, it already is. Leo, before we sign off, is there anything we should have talked about that we didn't talk about? This technology is so new to me and seeing all the comments and everything coming up is a little maddening. It's not just my ADHD. So, what did I leave out that I should have asked you?

LV: I think we're really good. I think we're inspiring people to think, and connect, and focus on all the things that we can work on at this time. I think that is really important. And preparing. I think it's a great time to get things in order and plan. I hope everyone can get through this darkness and focus on the positive.

AP: I think, Leo, that like you, probably everybody who's listening in is thinking about and acting on ways in which they can be in service. I love when the creative communities get going and find all these ways to inspire people and reflect on who we are and where we've come from. This is not the first time. The Brooklyn Museum has survived the Civil War, World War II, 1918’s Spanish influenza, 9/11. We will get through this and the arts are going to be that thing that brings us together, that inspires us, helps us see our history and imagine a better path forward. I really do look forward to learning all the ways that artists are going to show us the way forward. Leo, I miss you a ton and Yvonne and the kids. I love you like crazy and I'm so glad you are in the world. I'm so glad you invited me to participate in this conversation with you. I wish you all much health and lots of meditation. I cannot wait to see you and get back in the museum and be surrounded in your art.

LV: Thank you, Anne, I feel the same way. I think what you're doing at The Brooklyn Museum is amazing. There are so many opportunities to connect and your audience is going to need you now more than ever. So, let's put our heads together and figure out what we can do for everyone and rebuild that for all of us.

AP: Thank you. I can't wait. Love you all.

LV: You too. Bye bye.

  • Pace Live — Leo Villareal Talks to Anne Pasternak, May 17, 2020