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Leo Villareal: Bay Lights

Truly, it was a dark and stormy night.  No, really, I’m not kidding!  A real rainstorm hit San Francisco on the evening of March 5, but that didn’t keep a large group of people from standing on Pier 14 in the rain to celebrate the official inauguration of Bay Lights, a public artwork conceived and designed by Leo Villareal that is affixed to the north face of the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Bay Lights is a project organized by Zero1: The Art and Technology Network, that being the same organization that hosted the Zero1 Biennial this past summer. It was made possible through an ambitious private funding campaign working in partnership with state and local agencies, and will be on view for two years, and maybe longer, depending on public reaction.
Despite the inclement weather, Pier 14 proved to be an optimal viewing station for the piece, which consists of 25,000 computer-controlled LED lights strung at precise twelve-inch intervals on the bridge’s 300 suspender cables, all supported by four 500 foot tall stanchions that are the equidistant waypoints of a span measuring 1.8 miles. For lack of a better term, lets call Bay Lights a monumental light sculpture, and note that at the opening ceremony on the pier it was described as a digital campfire that could bring people together to share a communal experience.

Of course, public art folks are always talking about the ways that works of outdoor art create “community,” even though the word has become something of a sentimental signifier for the political left in much the same way as “family values” is a sentimental signifier for the American right.  That much said, I also have to note that I have overheard many conversations about the piece while riding the bus that suggest that people from many walks of life that would never set foot in a museum have formed enthusiastic opinions about the piece, using words like “trippy,” and “awesome” to describe it. In any event, I saw the work a bit differently, and the reason for that was that, on a much less dark and stormy night, I stood out on the pier by myself for almost a full hour, and in that quiet solitude, I was engrossed by the many permutations of the work’s animated magic. That magic was and is a function of the algorithmic complexity of its programming, cresting moving configurations earmarked by cascading ebbs and flows of choreographed illuminations. Ultimately, the art of Bay Lights is more about the many delightful and endlessly unpredictable variations upon the themes scripted by those algorithms, much more so than the work’s successful address of site-specificity and monumental scale. Here, the key to the experience really lies not so much in ascertaining the themes of organization that govern the lights as it does in being consistently surprised by the sometimes subtle and sometimes abrupt variations on those themes that are manifested in the work. 

One effect that struck me was the graceful elegance of the Bay Lights’ dancing illuminations, oftentimes seeming to mirror the chop and flow of the water under the bridge. The reflection of the lights on that water was an added delight, giving the piece a worthy doppleganger that seemed like an eager dance partner following the lead of the piece.  Herein lies one of the important keys for appreciating Bay Lights: it is not a merely an overblown blinky light extravaganza of the type that we might associate with New York’s Times Square or the Las Vegas Strip; rather, it is best understood as being more of a piece with the cinematic experiences created by abstract filmmakers such as John Whitney or Jordan Belson (to name two among many of San Francisco’s most legendary historical practitioners of experimental cinema).
The subtly elaborate visual poetry of Bay Lights has all of the richness and elegant complexity of symphonic music, making Times Square or the Vegas Strip look like cracked-out garage bands that have been given access to arena rock amplification. For that reason, Bay Lights demands and deserves prolonged attentive viewing rather than a quick drive-by assessment. The experience that the piece offers is more of a piece with stargazing than it is of an episode of American Idol.

To wit: writing in the March 10 San Francisco Chronicle, urban design critic John King dismissed the Bay Lights as being “thin” and not worthy of comparison to Christo’s 1976 Running Fence project which was temporarily installed in Sonoma County. At best, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison, and not just because Running Fence was executed almost four decades ago. Essentially, the Christo piece was a work of static land art that modified a rural area that has always been one of world-class beauty with or without the addition of orange curtains made of non-recyclable nylon fabric. On the other hand, Bay Lights is an non-static public art work that addresses itself to the experience of urban living, and not just any kind of urban living, but a uniquely 21st century urban living—that is, the experience of living in a place where the architectural economy is being radically redefined by the information economy whose historical inception was very much tied to that location.  Although I would never go so far to suggest that the latter will eventually supersede the former (let’s leave that to science fiction screenwriters), the real fact is that, Bay Lights both monumentalizes and memorializes the historical time and place where the information economy became real enough to start measuring urban experience in terms of megawatt-to-terabyte ratios, significantly modifying the more conventional census metrics of populations and square miles. And those new measurements are already being made in ways that will matter ever more as time marches on.

This fact leads to the recognition of a glass half-full or half-empty problem, in that the urge to valorize the vast transformations of new technology sometimes divert us from considering such things as the way that automated surveillance intrudes into what was once called privacy, or how robotized cyberfacture sustains a persistently high unemployment rate that is being called “the new normal.”  Take, for example, the recent news that toll takers at the Golden Gate Bridge have been replaced by a completely automated system.  These dystopian appreciations are not registered by the Bay Lights, which instead embraces a spirit of optimism and generosity. 

Among many other accomplishments, it takes the very same Bay Bridge that has always been a bridesmaid to its more famous orange-painted partner, and gives it a fresh makeover that is very much of a piece with the way that some early 20th century painters such as Gino Severini, Joseph Stella and Charles Sheeler imagined modern bridges. During those giddy pre-war years, large bridges were considered to be wondrous feats of advanced engineering that were metaphorical symbols of the way that an idealized technology could overcome geographic isolation and cultural stasis: “bringing people together.” The 21st century information economy has grown under the banner of a similar mythology that has promised to lead people to a better tomorrow, and Villareal’s Bay Lights harkens us toward it, by giving us a compelling picture of how the technological sublime is now, for better and for worse, our sublime. Given the recent rise in housing costs in San Francisco, it also, quite literally, lights the way for underfunded anti-technology hipsters to find the low cost alternative of living in Oakland, where they might cease whining and get on with their lives.

Leo Villareal: "Bay Lights", on the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge through 2015
About the Author:
Mark Van Proyen’s visual work and written commentaries focus on satirizing the tragic consequences of blind faith placed in economies of narcissistic reward.  Since 2003, he has been a corresponding editor for Art in America.  His recent publications include: Facing Innocence: The art of Gottfried Helnwein (2011) and Cirian Logic and the Painting of Preconstruction (2010).  He is the coordinator of the annual Art Criticism Conference at the San Francisco Art Institute. 

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