An animated rendering of The Bay Lights.
On Thursday night the light sculptor and programmer extraordinaire Leo Villareal took to the stage at the Autodesk Gallery in San Francisco to explain how he turned the Bay Bridge into a work of digital art. Forty-eight hours earlier the artist had launched The Bay Lights, a massive LED installation running 1.8 miles across the western span of the bridge. With 25,000 white LEDs affixed to about five miles of vertical cabling, The Bay Lights has been called the largest light sculpture in the world.
Installation view of The Bay Lights, which began its two-year tenure on the Bay Bridge last week. Photo courtesy of Lucas Saugen
Every night for the next two years, from dusk till 2 a.m., the piece will cycle through an algorithm-based lighting program that, through its large scale, becomes almost atmospheric. "My inspiration for The Bay Lights comes from all the kinetic activity around the bridge, whether it's traffic or the systems found around the water, the interaction of light in the atmosphere," Villareal told the crowd. "I look at these things and I'm trying to figure out how they work. How do you boil this down to an equation?"
The artist's talk was part of Autodesk's monthly series of Design Night parties. To round out the light theme, the gallery passed out glow sticks and invited revelers to try out a panoply of illuminated installations, from a jumbo Lite Brite created by the maker forum Instructables to a mirrored Infinity Booth that reflects a curving strip of LEDs—and the reflections of viewers—ad infinitum.
Villareal walking on a cable of the Bay Bridge. Photo courtesy of Lucas Saugen
To prepare for the work, Villareal did several cable walks on the bridge, 525 feet above the water at its highest point (and a dizzying 250 feet drop to traffic). "When I went up, it was a cloudy day and suddenly the clouds started to part and beams are coming down and activating the water," said the artist. "I was thinking to myself, If I could channel 1 percent of what I'm seeing out here into the piece, everything's going to be fine."
Villareal testing his lighting program on the shore of San Francisco Bay. Photo courtesy of Lucas Saugen
The sculpture both adds to and responds to its environment. Villareal's abstract patterns do not correspond to actual imagery of the bay, but they are experiential in nature. Points of light—each one controlled like a pixel via servers installed on the bridge—slowly ascend and swell like fog or shoot down the cables like sparks from fireworks; dark spots from unlit LEDs seem to travel across the bridge like windblown clouds.
Photo courtesy of Lucas Saugen
Rather than programming based on sensors that collect environmental data, Villareal writes software that tries to imitate the emergent patterns of nature with ones and zeroes. "My goal has been to develop my own software with my own rules, working towards creating emergent behaviors—create the parameters and then let it go," said the artist. "You don't know in advance what's going to happen. You wait for that moment and when something compelling happens, that's what I capture, and it becomes part of the artwork."
For its illumination-themed gallery show, Autodesk displayed this jumbo Lite Brite made by the design team at Instructables. Photo courtesy of Autodesk
This 3D-printed speaker is embedded with an addressable LED array, which allows each node to be controlled individually. Photo courtesy of Autodesk
The Infinity Booth, installed at the Autodesk Gallery, uses LED strips and mirrors to create the illusion of infinite light. Photo courtesy of Autodesk