Photo by Lucas Saugen.
Photo by Lucas Saugen, courtesy thebaylights.org

Bay Lights Ignite: One Part Business, Two Parts Pleasure

 

Perched on a bar stool at Sinbad’s Pier 2 Restaurant with a friend, I sipped a glass of white wine on a warm spring night. Sinbad’s is definitely a touristy establishment with its wonderful view of the Bay Bridge. And that is why I was there—to take in the recently ignited “Bay Lights” project on the Bridge’s Western span.

Commissioned by Illuminate the Arts and created by Leo Villareal, the “digital campfire” of 25,000 computer-controlled LED lights stretches a staggering 1.8 miles across the Bay Bridge’s western span. Touted as the world’s largest LED light sculpture, Villareal’s abstract light mural of movement and pattern pulses and glides across the span’s north-facing suspension cables. As I lingered in my chair taking in this display, the flickering lights did indeed mesmerize in a way not dissimilar to staring at the dancing flames of a fire. But what does it mean?  Is it art, and, if so, is it “good”?

 

As The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl once quipped in response to disbelievers of the celebrated Christo and Jean-Claude’s monumental installation of 2005, Gates in Central Park, “Of course, …it is art, … what else would it be?”  

 

Well, for one, it could be theatrical lighting of the sort encountered on countless civic monuments across the world. The website for the Bridge Lights project makes a comparison to the 100th anniversary lighting of the Eiffel Tower. Former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom proudly boasted that our Bay Bridge installation has more lights than the Parisian display. Touché!

 

But light up the Golden Gate Bridge and one would be hard pressed to consider it art. Pretty, yes, but in the tradition of famous architectural illuminations around the world, it would be a celebration of the monument itself—a spotlight, if you will—making more spectacular an already recognizable icon. Indeed, the top of the Trans America building has a tiny spot of light that changes color and is a constant source of personal entertainment from my balcony. I enjoy it, but I would not call it art.

 

The Golden Gate Bridge is the glamorous and adored beauty of the Bay Area’s family of bridges, as recognizable as cable cars and the Trans America pyramid. The Bay Bridge, by contrast, has always been the unappreciated child, toiling daily to get the job done with unsung pragmatism. Admittedly, the naughty Eastern span of the Bay Bridge has the future on its side, having failed miserably enough in Loma Prieta to require a seismic facelift which may raise its rank in the family beauty contest. But the Western span has simply taken us home without fanfare or complaint, and it is, perhaps this very difference that elevates the Bay Lights project beyond mere decoration.

 

Ben Davis, the founder of Illuminate the Arts and self proclaimed “catalyst” for the Bridge Lights project, has a day job as the founder of Words Pictures Ideas, a branding and communications firm whose client base includes Cal Trans, and more specifically, the Bay Bridge retrofit. In Ben Davis’ words, upon acceptance of the Webbie awards for WPI’s work for the Bridge, “Making infrastructure sexy, oh yea!” Cynics of the Bay Bridge Lights project thus might argue that it’s not art, but rather communications and branding meant to market the retrofit that Ben Davis has been hired to promote.

 

The privately funded Illuminate the Arts (the organization’s name has a definite specificity) raised a whooping 6 million dollars for this project and has 2 million more to go. By capitalizing on a blurring between art and spectacle, between art and design, and between art and investment, they have created a work that is accessible, practical and, dare I say, sexy too. The revenue generated for the city from increased tourism will be impressive, and more than one patron of the piece has used the word “investment” in describing this installation that will be on view for two years. Like the elite condominiums in Manhattan, where art is incorporated into high end developments to lend an air of caché, is it so wrong-minded to disseminate the fine arts to a broader audience by making it financially feasible? Let’s face it, what is not to love about twinkling lights over the Bay, particularly with the America’s Cup on the way? 

 

Leo Villareal testing the lights from his laptop, photo by Lucas Saugen.
Leo Villareal testing the lights from his laptop, photo by Lucas Saugen. Courtesy thebaylights.org

 

In the tradition of the public artworks of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, it is the orchestration of the event that is as important as the work itself. The grand, and often exhaustingly protracted, effort of obtaining approvals, securing funds, fabricating the work, and, ultimately, public viewing of the piece is what lends an air of social practice to the work, and is a large part of what makes it so successful and inspiring.

 

The execution of Davis’ catalyzing idea to conceive the bridge as a canvas is perhaps even more multi-dimensional than Davis could have imagined. The verticality of the suspension cables and the horizontality of the waves in the water weave together the man made and the natural, the kinetic and the static. That is what mesmerizes. The light mural itself is a means to that end, and as such is important, but secondary to the effect. This is not to undermine the beauty of Villareal’s imagery, which is most powerful when kept minimal, morphing form onto the architectural scale to create an elegant filmic abstraction.

 

What makes the Bay Lights authentic to San Francisco is not its allusions to banks of fog and schools of fish (which border on the sentimental), but the unique combination of electronic media skills, artistic vision, budget generosity, and creative entrepreneurship that are the region’s hallmarks. In this epicenter of business innovation, where traditional boundaries between creativity and commerce intertwine, the Bay Lights seem a natural manifestation of what we do well. Certainly, the project walks the precarious (and assumed-to-be-at-odds) line between art and business, but does so free of charge, every night until 2 A.M., for the next two years. Rather than questioning the project outright, go grab a slow drink at the Americano and allow yourself the time to see what it’s all about.

No Comments

> Submit

Select filter(s):
02_smaller

Ispirazione

In amber morning light I boarded a vaporetto and floated down Venice’s Grand Canal. Bit of a switch from Dallas.

 

> Read More

Opening_Night_HEADER

The Art of Assemblage

 

“Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.”

 

-Richard P. Feynman

 

We enter a fabric womb, a cave-like space of soft stalactites that brush against us, shifting and pooling us into groups. We’ve stumbled into the world that is Give, an installation by artists Bird Feliciano and Juliana Raimondi.

> Read More

391957_10151098224905378_953405842_n

Contributor Profile: Arianne Gelardin and Jacob Palmer

 

Arianne Gelardin and Jacob Palmer are co-curators for StoreFrontLab‘s Season 2: City Making Series.

> Read More

InvUrb1

Invisible Urbanism

Ian Quate at the opening of the summit. (Photo: John Parman)

How do you make yourself at home in a cauldron filled with demons? I’m quoting the founder of Soto Zen, but the question was also posed at a recent San Francisco summit. > Read More

photo_leahnichols_formatted

Contributor Profile: Leah Nichols

 

Leah Nichols is a San Francisco-based urban designer and art activist. She currently works at SITELAB urban studio, implementing public realm possibilities within a range of scales, from 28-acre mixed use developments to chain-link fence installations.

IMG_5113_copy_sm_formatted

Urban Symposium No. 1

The first Urban Symposium event, as a part of StoreFrontLab Season 2, kicked off with a full room of people, each with a party hat on and margarita in hand. > Read More

al-gs-trace

TraceSF launches City Makers salon

This month TraceSF introduces City Makers, a new salon series at StoreFrontLabHosted by Amanda Loper of David Baker Architects and Emily Gosack of Jensen Architects, City Makers grew out of a desire to hear more from the women at the forefront of City Making. John Parman, a founding editor of TraceSF, spoke with Amanda and Emily about the series, which opens on October 28 with  Laura Crescimano, a principal of SITELAB urban studio.

> Read More

MWprofile

Contributor Profile: Michael Willis

Michael Willis is a well-known Bay Area architect.

Berlin architect Professor Michael Braum led off the first day's session. Photo: Michael Willis

Knowledge City: Rethinking Heidelberg

Berlin architect Professor Michael Braum led off the first day’s session. Photo: Michael Willis

Heidelberg, one of Europe’s oldest university towns, is looking at its future. Here’s a firsthand account of what’s ahead and what it might means for university towns here. > Read More

Carlo Scarpa, Berkeley, California, 1969”, photo courtesy of the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Carlo Scarpa In Person

“Carlo Scarpa, Berkeley, California, 1969,” photo courtesy of the University of California Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

 

When one turns the page of an architecture magazine and the work of Carlo Scarpa appears unexpectedly, a quiet inner thrill is felt. Since his passing in 1978, we seem increasingly moved by Scarpa’s caress of material, his strange but faultless sense of placement and proportion, the contemplative nature of his details. These appreciations are heightened by the knowledge that his output was relatively limited. > Read More

Max Levy Portrait for Trace SF_credit Rebecca Thaden Photography

Contributor Profile: Max Levy

 

A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley (1970), Dallas architect Max Levy, FAIA, established his studio in 1984. He is best known for designs that connect people with nature in both rural and urban settings. > Read More

IMG_Banner

Planned Growth or Unplanned Strife?

 

Will San Francisco follow through on its carefully laid plans to accommodate a growing population, or will it continue to fight the same battles time and time again?

> Read More

Hogan_headshop landscape

Contributor Profile: Mark Hogan

 

Mark Hogan AIA, LEED BD+C is a licensed architect in the states of New York and California. His primary interests lie in housing, sustainable urban design and in enhancing digital design workflows. > Read More

TPX_header

Urban Activation Device & TXP

Spanish art & architecture collective Todo Por La Praxis is seeking collaborators and participants for their experimental research on activating the urban void. > Read More

Child running home in the destroyed city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina in the hot summer of 1995. Photo by Thom Hoffman.

When Cities Fall: Urban Histories and Political Memory

Destroyed city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995. Photo by Thom Hoffman.

Our experience of the present is shaped by our understanding of the past. By ignoring the urban narratives of  monuments, structures, city parks, memorials…what messages are we missing for the present?  > Read More

Figure 2_607x405

Save SLO County!

Heading into Paso Robles from the west, 2013

 

Will San Luis Obispo (SLO) County remain predominantly agricultural, or will it sink into the same morass of rural sprawl that took out Orange County? It could go either way, but there’s still hope if we act now. > Read More

Image courtesy of Southern Exposure

The Living Newspaper: Extra Extra

Image courtesy of Southern Exposure

Southern Exposure is launching a public art program, The Living Newspaper: Extra Extra, the first West Coast performance project by the artist Liz Magic Laser and her collaborators, the actors Audrey Crabtree and Michael Wiener. > Read More

Eyes on the River. Photo by Christopher Herring.

The Floods in Budapest

Eyes on the River. Photo by Christopher Herring.

The stone banks alongside the river contain the city. Despite them, here is the river, rising.  Silently, swiftly the waters swarm downstream; the swell of water does not much alter the river’s appearance.  You know there is more of it now only because benches, parks, and the bike road are being submerged.  It has not yet risen to the main city wall, about 20 feet higher; three more days of flooding expected.  

> Read More

Photo by Christopher Herring.

Contributor Profile: Elizabeth Snowden

Photo by Christopher Herring.

Elizabeth Snowden is a Berkeley-based writer and editor. A graduate of Bard College, she has edited catalogues raisonnés on Picasso and Gris for Wittenborn Art Books in San Francisco.

Joseph Kosuth reviewing plans for the art installations at the Dog House. Photo by pm cook.

Mr. Waka’s Dog House

Joseph Kosuth reviewing plans for the art installations at the Dog House. Photo by pm cook.

 

“Get out at the Sakuragaoka post office. Turn around and you’ll see a Lawson’s. Walk to it and then turn left. Walk up that street and you’ll see the Dog House on the right.” Typical Tokyo directions from the art impresario and entrepreneur Joni Waka. > Read More