Bay Lights: Art installation on the Bay Bridge to flash its lights until 2015

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Mayor Ed Lee of San Francisco, at the press conference for “The Bay Lights” installation, accidentally started to call the Bay Bridge the Golden Gate bridge but quickly corrected himself. This is the way history has treated the Bay Bridge: As the gray traffic behemoth that does not begin to match up to the Golden Gate Bridge, postcard vista of the Bay Area.

This time, however, the Bay Bridge is making the news in a positive fashion.

“The Bay Lights” is the light art installation on the 1.8 miles of the Bay Bridge that artist Leo Villareal debuted on Tuesday with the click of his laptop instead of the traditional — or as he describes it, old-school — way with a switch. The project is the work of two and a half years of fighting for permits, designing and building the project and fundraising the $8 million needed, of which only $6 million has been raised.

The installation is not a “light show” but a piece of abstract art. There are no images or text shimmering into sight on the bridge, and the light sequencing does not loop. The changing of the lights depends on what Villareal describes as “cues” from the environment, such as waves and traffic. In an interview on the project’s website, the artist described the “slipperiness” of the piece. No two people will see the same thing, and just as you start to get an idea of what is before you, the lights change.

Villareal described in a press conference that these formal elements, along with the decision to keep the 25,000 lights monochromatic, was to preserve sophistication, and he hopes that the abstract open-endedness will create what he described as a “digital campfire” — a free place for gatherings and discussions.

This public accessibility is essential to Villareal. He described the medium of light as universalizing, working on what he describes as a more “primal level.” Quite generally but aptly, Mayor Lee called the work a “beacon for the arts community in a world-class city.”

It cannot be argued that the project was solely for the passion for art, unfortunately. The installation is expected to bring in 50 million visitors and $97 million in the next two years. As for the $2 million dollars still missing, grassroots fundraising is leading the way. You can buy an individual LED light either for yourself or in memory of someone, the act of which is called “giving the gift of light.”

The gift that Villareal activated on Tuesday for those who braved the rain, however, was met with some criticism from those watching on the piers. Many wondered aloud where the “fireworks” were, or what it was “supposed” to be. Bad weather seems to be accountable for some of the negative buzz, but the real problem seemed to lie in the differing expectations of the public and Villareal. Those who don’t know of Villareal’s past works or his current mindset behind “The Bay Lights” might have been looking for an entertainer, not an artist. Such are the problems of public art installations.

Other contrasts include the ephemerality of the movement of the lights in comparison to the permanence of the infrastructure. Additionally, each light node is able to be addressed remotely and individually yet the effect as a whole is a harmonious one.

This subtle harmony between “The Bay Lights” and the bay itself will continue until at least 2015 each night from dusk to 2 a.m., not once repeating the same sequences. Though it is a gradual demonstration, it should not be underestimated. After all, it was built especially for the Bay Bridge, paying attention to the community around it. The Bay Area is not known for its showiness or gaudiness, but for its diversity and advancement in technology and modest but strong community. Undoubtedly, the elegance of “The Bay Lights” will grow on locals as they begin to realize how it weaves technology, art and public space together to capture a spirit of the Bay.

A.J. Kiyoizumi covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].