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Villareal has been exploring the interplay of technology, light, installation, and sculpture for decades—first utilizing software to create over twenty years ago. No stranger to code, the move to minting NFTs was a natural one for the artist. His first collection, “Cosmic Reef” dropped in late January on Art Blocks and sold out quickly.
Days after that launch, Whitewall spoke with Villareal about broadening his reach and the exciting possibilities of digital art.
WHITEWALL: “Cosmic Reef” was first for you, in terms of creating NFTs. What made you want to enter this space?
LEO VILLAREAL: Well, for over 20 years I’ve been using software to create light sculpture. And we’ve been developing our own custom tools for over 20 years.
I really love making sculpture. So, on the one hand, it doesn’t result in a physical thing, but on the other hand, as a purely digital work, it can access a whole other audience and do all kinds of things that it's a lot harder for the physical work to do.
WW: So how did you begin with your first NFT?
LV: Last summer, Marc Glimcher introduced me to Erick Calderon, who started Art Blocks, and we hit it off. I really liked what they were doing in the space. Their focus is on generative art. When you mint something on Art Blocks, you get a unique iteration of the code. It’s live code running and that was really fascinating to me.
WW: You create large-scale, immersive installation and sculpture—where viewers really become a part of the experience. What kind of experience, then, did you want to create in the browser?
LV: We developed a tool I could use that had 100 different parameters. I could tweak those parameters, and it started very simply. Like, let’s make a sphere or some simple geometry. And then I started to alter it, move it, play with the density, add noise, feedback, all these different things, in order to activate those forms. And when something compelling occurred I would capture that and those became the pieces that we used to develop the project. It was a process of adding more range variation. It was unlike anything I’d ever done before.
I have to say, the community we have on Discord, I was really amazed at the level of engagement and how helpful the community was. People really care deeply about this. I don't know if I’ve ever had an audience of people as engaged with my work—as into the very minute detail.
I think there’s a hunger for what we’re doing in this space because when you open one of these “Cosmic Reef” iterations, it has sort of a sculptural quality. And we added a feature that when you push “Z” on the keyboard, you go zooming into it and you start to realize it is a 3D space—almost like a world. So, there’s this level of immersion that people are really excited about. I always want to take people on a journey in my work. I found a way to do that in the browser and then to distribute it in this way that’s so unique.
WW: And even with that one click, people can feel like they have the power to engage with it in a whole new way!
LV: Yeah. And the other amazing thing about this is that those 1024 editions are out there on the Art Blocks site. They’ve been uploaded to the blockchain, and they are there forever. Anyone can go and access them at full resolution and enjoy them. Some people will actually own them and that’s fine, too. But, in a way, it’s very public and connects back to what I’m doing with public art. You’re making this work available, and I think that’s something that is incredible. It’s not locked away in someone’s home or in a museum. It’s all there.
WW: You mentioned community. What’s it like to know who owns “Cosmic Reef”?
LV: That’s the other interesting part of this world—it’s called “crypto” but it’s incredibly transparent. Anyone can go on Etherscan and figure out who owns what. That part is kind of blowing my mind, the way that the market works. It’s definitely very different from the art world.
I think there’s a big role for a lot of artists to play in this world as we become more comfortable in how to access these tools. A lot of people have been thinking about these things for a long time and creating very sophisticated art. It’s very democratic what’s happening. It’s giving people more access to artists and new audiences who are eager and excited to learn.
It sounds sort of cliché but there are some very major fundamental shifts happening in this world and I think there’s a restructuring of a lot of things. It’s exciting to be part of it. My journey so far has been exciting, and I’m interested in doing more in this space. I can’t wait to get back in there and think about what the next project could be.
WW: Are there artists that you’ve discovered in this process?
LV: I’ve really enjoyed my fellow artists on Art Blocks, getting to know their work. That’s been great. I’ve been going out to Burning Man for many years and have some friends who I’ve met through that community. Some of them have started working in this realm and are creating their work full-time. They stopped their normal job and now they are making digital art and presenting it on the blockchain. There are a lot of people who are able to now find audiences and support themselves through this type of work, which is amazing and great. Before there was no mechanism to do that and now there is.