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Massive Public Artwork by Leo Villareal Lights up San Francisco Bay

By Lamar Anderson

This article frist appeared on Architectural Record.

March 20, 2013

Crowds of San Franciscans braved pelting rain and umbrella-splitting wind to watch artist Leo Villareal inaugurate his largest light sculpture yet last night. A public artwork on the scale of Christo and Jeanne Claude's Gates or their wrapped Pont-Neuf, Villareal's The Bay Lights is a 1.8-mile-long LED light sculpture spanning the western portion of the Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco to Oakland. Using 25,000 points of white light controlled by software the artist wrote, The Bay Lights will run its algorithmic lighting program every night from dusk till 2 a.m. for the next two years.

Leo Villareal's The Bay Lights will be on view from dusk until 2 a.m. for the next two years.
Image and video courtesy Illuminate the Arts
Leo Villareal's The Bay Lights will be on view from dusk until 2 a.m. for the next two years.
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Leo Villareal's The Bay Lights will be on view from dusk until 2 a.m. for the next two years.

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The work, which is organized by curator Ben Davis of the nonprofit Illuminate the Arts and funded by private donations, is being called the largest light sculpture in the world. "I see it as a focal point, something people can gather around. People who have never talked to each other are suddenly talking, and it's literally creating community," Villareal said earlier that afternoon as he prepared for the lighting ceremony. "It's almost become a digital campfire."

Despite the foul weather, hundreds of onlookers gathered along the Embarcadero after dusk. Like a mini Burning Man on the bay, the waterfront was overtaken by hoodie-clad bridge watchers equipped with brown-bagged beers, lawn chairs, and even a tent. The Bay Lights was still dark, but the work had already inspired some bridge imitators, including a group of revelers from Berkeley who had suited up in lights and were dancing to club music.

Around 9 p.m., Villareal led a group of water-logged partygoers from the Hotel Vitale out onto Pier 14 for the lighting ceremony. Temporary umbrella forts were erected for the children present, and after some mercifully swift comments from San Francisco mayor Ed Lee and his predecessor, California lieutenant governor Gavin Newsom, the crowd began its countdown. Working a laptop from behind another wall of umbrellas, Villareal sent the sculpture into motion. Points of light began to swell from the bottom of the bridge to the top and cascade back down, firework-like, in drips and dots. "I'm pinching myself," Villareal said to the crowd above the whipping wind. "I can't believe the moment is actually here."

The Bay Lights riffs on the movement of water, wind, and commuter traffic—though motorists on the bridge will not be able to see (or be distracted by) the lights. Villareal programmed abstract patterns as a response to the environment, and the software ensures that no sequence will repeat during the project's two-year life, though individual patterns will be recognizable. Sometimes the light drips like rain or swells outward in an expanding glow. Or swaths of shadow seem to move sideways across the cables, suggesting the movement of clouds. "I'm interested in the piece becoming a mirror of the activity around it," said Villareal, who counts James Turrell and Dan Flavin among his inspirations.

Even without the digital artistry, The Bay Lights is an ambitious infrastructure project. Carrying out the technical plan—completed by Parsons-Brinkerhoff—required coordination among several Bay Area transportation agencies, not to mention the construction crews that have spent the last six months dangling 500 feet above the water in the middle of the night. "This project was almost killed a thousand times," Villareal said. "This is way beyond what a single artist could ever do. There are thousands of people that have helped us pull this off."

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