“I’m ready when you are,” I call out into the dark. A few minutes later, Santino Reale emerges from a shadow-soaked hallway. He is a gray silhouette until he isn’t, until light graces his olive green coat and the surface of his skin, coloring him human again. Boxes of assorted chemical bottles litter the floor and cover the desk in an organized mess. Though many feet pass through this room in one day with many eyes and many minds, it is empty now but for us and ghosts of the stories its walls have seen told. We settle, not unlike the dust that gathers in forgotten corners, on either side of a desk, and it is quiet until it isn’t, until the low instrumental piece playing over the mini speakers reaches a crescendo and a train whistle cuts through the crisp December afternoon.
How are you today?
I’m okay. (Laughs.) Just okay. This is an off day. I’m not the best— I’m about 72% today, but that’s okay. That’s better than a lot of days; I have very little to complain about, compared to a lot of the world.
Do you have any current fixations? This could be music, or I know you’re into podcasts. It could be snacks.
Snacks… Any potato product, but that’s not a current thing; that’s a lifelong obsession with anything potato. I’m embarrassingly ritualistic about everything, so I don’t obsess about, usually, anything. I think I’ve liked the same things for, like, the last thirty years, and I’m very religious about those things. What about you?
Yeah, see? Now I’m going to turn it on you. Ha!
This doesn’t happen. (Laughs.) I will answer, though. I’m always fixated on something new. I went to see Nick Valensi, from The Strokes, and his new band [CRX] at Slim’s, like I told you. You don’t like Slim’s, haha, but both of the open[ing bands at the show] were pretty good. One was Dead Heavens, and the other was Streets of Laredo.
Wait… (Googles “Streets of Laredo” on laptop.)
I had already listened to Streets of Laredo before, so I already liked them, and then when I went to the show, I heard some of the songs from their newest album, which came out in October, and now I really like that album [Wild], and I’ve been playing that for the last couple of days.
If you could have witnessed any event in person, what would you have wanted to see?
Good or bad?
Natural event or human event? My brain goes to disaster for some reason. I don’t know why; that’s horrible.
There was this kind of underground event that I would have loved to go to when The Flaming Lips, in the late 90s, had lost a band member, and then they were kind of unsure of what they were doing, and they were doing these experiments that were basically like they were just having parties, I forget what it was called, but it eventually led to this album called Zaireeka, which is really cool. But basically, they would make all of these random mixes and random noises and stuff and put them on cassettes, and then they’d give a bunch of boomboxes out to everybody that was there at this event, and so the audience would basically make the concert with all of the stuff that they had recorded. I think that I would have liked to have been part of one of those parties.
In terms of natural events, I remember being in that really big earthquake in 1989 [Loma Prieta], and it was terrifying and so amazing at the same time… It was one of the most beautiful things, I think. I’d probably be saying something different if I was from, like, Wisconsin or somewhere they get tornados or something, but to be in earthquakes and then to feel the power and the magnitude. That was super frightening and amazing and totally terrible, what happened to people, but the natural aspect of it is amazing, so I think, of all tsunamis and stuff that, when you see the potential for what nature can do, gives you this crazy, dwarfish perspective of how minuscule humanity is. (Laughs.) But I also think it’s super cool, too, just the down part of it is that people get affected by it.
What is something most people do not know about you but you wish they did know?
Whoa. I feel like I talk about myself all of the time. People know everything. (Thinking sounds.) I don’t know because I probably talk way too much about myself; I’m a narcissist, ha. I don’t know. I may have to pass and come back. Is that okay? No?
You can, but another way to look at it would be if people had, like, five minutes to get to know you, and you really wanted to impart something of yourself so that they would remember you as that, what would you want that to be?
Oh my gosh. (Laughs.) This is so sad, but I feel… I don’t know, I feel like I have very little to give people. I don’t have much wisdom.
Not necessarily wisdom, but what do you want to be known as?
It’s hard because we very intentionally present different things to different people, so I don’t know if it’s a hard question because I want different people to think different things of me. I never really thought about it, and then the better answer would be like, I don’t really give a shit what people think of me (laughs) and so, to sum it up in five minutes would be a disservice to both of us. (Both laughing now.) I’ll leave it at that.
Is that terrible? Wow, see, now I’m second-guessing because, really, the only thing I want people to think is that I’m a pretty decent person.
Can you recall your fondest memory from adolescence?
I’ve asked people about their childhoods, [and] now I’ve moved on to adolescence.
Fond memory of adolescence? Is there such a thing? (Both laugh.) When does adolescence end officially?
That’s the thing. It’s kind of subjective. Into young adulthood, into… whenever.
Right. I feel like this was, honestly, my most troubled time in life, and I feel like every moment post-adolescence has been totally good or at least leads to something good… Adolescence led to something good, which was not-adolescence, I guess, so best memory of adolescence, those moments of sheer bliss…
At that time of my life, I spent a lot of time up in Yosemite with my mom, not in the valley part, but backpacking. I feel like it’s that really transitional part of your life where these things you’re exposed to have a big impact on the years that follow, so I think that was [when I was] finally at an age when I was able to understand the beauty of natural space, and I see this lack of the ability to understand when you’re younger, like when I take my daughter places. We take her to the mountains, and she just, like, wants to play in the dirt, which is totally cool, even though she’s surrounded by these fourteen-thousand-foot peaks, and [she’s] unable to process how crazy spectacular the environment is.
[Adolescence is] kind of like groundwork for thoughts and experiences later. Those are, I think, good. This is totally not good, but it led to good things: I was fishing up [in Yosemite] once, and I caught a fish, and I wanted to take the hook out of its mouth, but I couldn’t, and it pulled all of the guts out of the fish, and I felt so horrible that I soon became vegetarian. [It was] totally integral, totally a messed up memory of this thing [where] I was like, “It’s so pretty, and I just killed it.” I ate it. (Laughs.) But, needless to say, it was terrible and great. It was one of those things that you can rationally understand; one thing happens, and then it leads to another thing or the idea of a passion or sympathy, or whatever, that you don’t have before a certain age.
Is there a particular piece of art that you feel has helped shape you significantly?
There’s a photographic exhibition called the New Topographics, which, in photography, would probably be my main access point. When I’m working on art, I don’t even necessarily reference it ever, but at least, when I started working, that and Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, [and] others [with] super different-type work, that was the moment I started getting into the academics of art and film photography. Those are the people most prominent in my periphery, so those became essential.
With music albums, let’s see. Again, the Flaming Lips’ Soft Bulletin, Zaireeka, possibly the most beautiful musical experience I’ve ever had in my life, because it’s so cool; it’s like four albums that you can all play at the same exact time, and so you get four different, big— the bigger and louder, the better—[speakers], and you can surround yourself with a circle of speakers, and sound comes at you from everywhere. It’s insane. It’s the coolest thing.
Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew is a super good album. Again, most of these are [not things I necessarily listen to or look at] that much anymore, but when I think about turning points for art or culture or music or modern design…
From where do you draw inspiration in your art?
Memory, the potential for memory. It’s not even memories, but most of my work usually revolves around the idea, the notions, of memory more so than a photo album would. Because it’s photography, I think a lot of it we associate with memories, so a lot of [my work] revolves around the potential for memories to have a lack of clarity in a way and be something that is totally fluid and totally changing and then also, usually, how it relates to the photograph is that the photograph is totally flawed, it’s an instrument and tool, and how those two things link up, the photograph as memory, and the photograph as an instrument, which always leaves out and edits as much as it leaves in.
Almost every piece I’ve done for, like, ten years is based in memory, and in some ways, nostalgia, but a lot of it is based in the desire for nostalgia or the desire for an event that never occurred, so a lot of it is based in that, a memory that I want to have even though I don’t have it. It’s always fundamentally memory.
That’s interesting. I was just writing a piece about that type of nostalgia that you described that you want to have but don’t necessarily have yet. There’s this song, “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and I always say that’s my instant happy song, because, for some reason, it makes me happy, but I associate it with memories that I don’t even have or feelings that I haven’t even really experienced.
I think everybody does that, but it’s funny because [of] all these things in retrospect. Like [when] I was talking to people about art or about jobs. You work really hard to get to a point— things are never quite like you think they’re going to be, which is the same for memories or feelings or experiences. They never pan out, not in a bad way or a good way, they just aren’t how we think they’re going to be in our heads before, whether it’s like a relationship or marriage or children or whatever. We have assumptions of how things are and assumptions of how we are going to react to a place or a trip or an experience, and sometimes those assumptions and those desires for something to be really good or really bad are the things that destroy it, or at least, they destroy our potential for having a genuine experience because the experience is already jaded by something that we desire.
That is true; we don’t give it a chance sometimes.
Yeah. It’s horrible to say about expectations, but it feels like the less expectations you have for anything, the better the experience can become.
I try to do that with trips. I try to just not think about anything until it’s happening.
Yeah, it’s super important, I think. I used to have these momentous things that I would do with friends in college, and we’d think, like, “This is going to be the best thing ever!” And the first time we would do something, it was [the best], because we didn’t know what to expect, and then we’d base those expectations [for the future] on the first time, and the second time would never be as good. By the third time, it was just terrible because it wasn’t like it was the first time, even though it probably wasn’t any better or worse; it was just not the same.
Is there something you feel you always wanted to do that you haven’t done yet?
And… What is that thing?
(Laughs.) Oh, you want more?
I didn’t think I’d have to ask you to elaborate.
Ah, let’s see. The things that I want now are really silly- wow, they shouldn’t be silly, but I’ve wanted to teach college, like, forever. Yeah, [I want to] be a professor. It’s kind of a short-winded one.
If you could tell your future self anything, what would you say?
“Get outside.” That’s what my mom would always say when I was a kid, so I think that stuck with me. The older I get, [the more I realize that] I’m not more stressed than a sixteen-year-old or an eighteen-year-old applying to colleges. Things just shift, like the type of stress. Instead of college things, I have aging parents or something, so the things around us change, but how we deal with finding sanity [remains]… Sometimes, you forget the little things like being outside or whatever it is. [Outside] is my place. Everybody has a place or a thing that can hopefully reset their headspace or [help them] meditate. I need to be outside.
Going sort of off of that, are you familiar with the theory of third places? It’s the idea that you have a first place, which is home, and then a second place, which is like work [or school], and then you have a third place, which would be where you are when you’re not [in the other places], where you need to go in order to think or to process things or to get away.
What would you say is your third place?
There’s an iconic place that I see in my head, and then there’s a rational place, where I actually physically go. So those two things are different, but they’re both in the mountains, so I think, just in the broader term… (Wow, I sound like a total granola hippy.) Yeah, the general would be the mountains. There’s two distinct physical places, but both are in the Sierras. Gotta keep it local.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
Oh. (Pauses.) An age I never thought about. I think I’m at a place I never pondered I would get to, which is weird. I think, when you think about aging and experiences or things you’re looking forward to in life, then you don’t think about the physicality of age. This is a very literal interpretation for me, but I see… I don’t see my twenty-five-year-old self, that’s for sure. So physically, I see age, but not as bad. I really like age, and I’ve liked all the processes of aging, and I’ve liked all the different periods of my life, and I wouldn’t want to be stuck in one at all, like I wouldn’t want to still be in college, even though I absolutely loved college, and I wouldn’t want to be stuck in my twenties, even though I had a really, really good time in my twenties; but I see myself as an adult now physically, even though the juxtaposition is I don’t always feel myself there mentally, so then I have the physical reminder that doesn’t always line up with the emotional headspace that I thought I would have when I was this age.
What is your greatest fear?
To not make anything of value. To not have as much of a positive impact on people as I would like to have in life.
And lastly, the scary question: Can you offer any profound advice?
No. (Laughs.) I’m just kidding!
You’re not the first!
I don’t know if I have anything profound. (Pauses.) Wow, anything I say, I feel in my head, is like a Hallmark card. Then I’ll think of something else, and it also sounds like a Hallmark card.
I think, be open to relationships. I have very few iconic memories [of things] that happened alone, so I think communities don’t have to be big, but they need to be there. Communities become such an important part of both knowledge-getting [and] experience-sharing and all those things. Be aware of the importance of the people around you on top of not setting too-concrete of expectations, like we were talking about earlier, because there’s so many good things that you can’t expect, and those, I think, become more genuine.
The Dialogue project aims to capture the essences of people through their thoughts and stories, illuminating characteristics of personality that one may not recognize in a stranger at the surface. All Dialogues are published under pseudonyms chosen by those interviewed. You can find more Dialogues here.