The San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge is having its moment.
The new eastern span opens in the fall. And on Mar 5, artist Leo Villareal will unveil the Bay Lights, a massive sculpture he’s designed for the suspension section connecting Treasure Island to San Francisco.
Working with CalTrans crews, Villareal has hung 25,000 LED lights on the cables on the north side of the bridge.
The project will cost about $8 million, all of it raised by private donations. And Villareal told me it will repay that investment many times over by attracting $97 million in economic activity to San Francisco.
I was dubious. “Really? People are going to fly here to see it?”
“Yes,” he said. “Public art is a powerful magnet. Many people are drawn to this.”
We were sitting on the Embarcadero, just north of the Bay Bridge. Bells were sounding behind us in the clock tower of the Ferry Building. But Villareal was focused on the sweeping view to the south: the suspension span and the patterns forming in the lights that he had hung.
“For me it’s all about discovery,” he said. “Figuring out what it can do. I don’t know in advance. There’s a lot of chance and randomness in my process, so I’m here to make discoveries.”
In his lap Villareal held a remote desktop connected to a computer in the bridge’s central anchorage. From his computer, he was orchestrating the lights, practicing for opening night.
“This is a program that we wrote,” he said. “It’s called Particle Universe. And we can change their mass, the velocity, gravity. All these things we find in nature. As an artist, I use all these equations and rules as material, really just play with them. I’m just sitting here waiting for something exciting or compelling to happen. When it does I capture that moment, and that becomes part of the mix.”
As Villareal spoke, he made the lights seem to fall from the tops of the cables to the bottom. Then a shadow moved across the lights from Treasure Island toward the city. And back again. Finally the lights rippled, as though reflecting the waves on the bay below.
“You would think you wouldn’t be able to improvise with software,” said Villareal. “But I’ve found ways [involving] chance and working intuitively with software. You can spend more time with this than [with] a sign in Las Vegas or Time Square that does one thing for one minute and then repeats over and over again. The other thing that’s important for viewers is that they don’t feel anxiety that they missed something. At any point that you’re ready to jump in, there it is.”
I asked Villareal: now that he’s spent so much time with the Bay Bridge, the commuter workhorse of the Bay Area, what he makes of its personality. He struggled to answer.
“You don’t want to mess with it,” he said. “You know I feel a lot of respect for it. I want to add something and augment what’s here. These are the icons of the Bay Area, the bridges. I think there’s also an honesty and integrity to the piece. That’s very similar to what the bridge is like. I’ve done a couple of cable walks and gone to the top of the bridge and was amazed at how efficient it all is.”
Villareal is a regular at the annual Burning Man festival in Nevada, and he says he wants people to gather on the Embarcadero to see the lights the same way people gather around campfires out on the desert.
It seemed to be working that night as passersby gathered, pointing up to the bridge.
Said Amy Gallie, one of the onlookers:
“It looks kind of like some kind of star constellation to me. It becomes ethereal, instead of something which is so prosaic that we’re used to looking at.”