When the switch gets flipped on March 5, powering on 25,000 LEDs strung over the vertical cables of the Bay Bridge, The Bay Lights will be the largest light sculpture in the world, spanning 1.8 miles. It will also be the longest. That's because the artist behind the installation, Leo Villareal, built custom software that will choreograph the LEDs according to an unrepeating sequence which will play over the project's two-year span. From sunset until 2:00 a.m., Villareal's dancing, flickering bridge will illuminate the sky every night into 2014.
Animated rendering of The Bay Lights.
Not to worry, though: to avoid distracting motorists, the spectacle will face away from traffic, giving viewers from the Ferry Building to Treasure Island—and anywhere else with a view of the bridge's north side—a good vantage point for bridge-gazing. "It has the sublime nature of just light in the night sky," Bay Lights curator Ben Davis said at a talk about the project at SPUR in San Francisco Wednesday night. "For thousands of years, we've been sitting around that fire sort of losing ourselves in it and just talking. It's what we're attracted to. We're moths."
Davis began laying the groundwork for the project back in the fall of 2010, as he was coming down from the energy and all-out togetherness of Burning Man, which had a city theme that year. "I was frustrated—this is an amazing city of 60,000 or 70,000 people, it comes up in a week, and there's no police, no stop signs, everything's working, there's sharing, there's all this wonderful stuff, and then it gets burnt up. It dissipates into the night sky," recalled Davis, who chairs Illuminate the Arts, the nonprofit he formed to run the project. "I wanted to bring that energy, that sense of spectacle and awe, back to the urban environment where people are and just let it live a little longer."
Davis thinks of The Bay Lights as a giant metaphorical campfire for the city, and he hopes it will draw San Franciscans out of their doors and into the fog—which will add its warping, refracting effects to the lighting program—to watch the bridge together. "This piece is not like the Mona Lisa; you don't just get a postcard and say, 'I saw it,'" said Davis. "It is like a crackling fire, or a meteor shower, that you sit there and you just look at, and it's the stories you tell, the songs you sing, and it's the people that you meet, because you're there for hours."
Hey, San Franciscans: come out for Leo Villareal's talk about The Bay Lights at SFMOMA, February 7 at 7:00 p.m.