The Bay Lights: a mingling of low/high culture

The Bay Lights: a mingling of low/high culture

Beginnings of a conversation between Joel Slayton and Jaime Austin

Part I
A few evenings ago, Joel Slayton and I stood on the Embarcadero. Before us all was The Bay Lights, a massive public art project by artist Leo Villareal that is soon to become the largest, most famous, and most photographed public artwork in the city. If you’re anywhere near the waterfront at night this artwork is unavoidable. You can’t not see it.

The Bay Lights consists of 25,000 white LED lights illuminating the suspension cables on the north side of the Bay Bridge along the four towers that stretch between San Francisco and Treasure Island. ZERO1 has been involved in this project from the early stages when it was still an ambitious vision of Ben Davis, and has worked with Ben, Amy Critchett and other visionaries who have made this project possible as the fiscal agent for the project. This was the first chance Joel and I had to see the project up close and in person, and our experience prompted a series of thoughts and questions that I’d like to begin to share here:

JA: How would you describe The Bay Lights?

JS: As a spectacle of light and code. Low and high culture mingling.

JA: Low culture or alternative culture? California has long been a famous for alternative culture, and Villareal became inspired to create light art after a trip to Burning Man in the mid-1990s. Yet he also honed his technical chops while interning at Palo Alto based think-tank Interval Research.

JS: There is something very “west coast” about this work—big city, bright lights, fast production, glamour, and hypnotic state. And on the high culture side he plays with the mystical nature of spectacle in the vein of an abstract modernist.

JA: How is this work more than a light show?

JS: It’s not always a part of his practice that Leo talks about deeply, but to me, I like to think of the work as an autonomous system that generates emergent behavior. It’s a series of patterns. Some emphasize the verticality of the cables, others the silhouette of the bridge. The project is still being tested and calibrated, so it’s hard to know if the behaviors we observed will be in the final artwork but when we first arrived, the work was nearly fully illuminated but now that the pattern has grown more complex and it’s unclear if the light pattern is moving upward or downward, it’s more interesting. The work goes beyond feeling like a played instrument, when emergent behaviors crop up.

JA: The public understanding of the work will most likely be as a light show, at least this was what it seemed from the bartenders, tourists, and joggers who we asked during our hours in front of the work. (They all said they liked the lights, but it didn't seem to register with them as an artwork or provoke any deeper thought). Yet The Bay Lights isn’t merely light. It’s 25,000 white LED lights that are individually controlled by custom software. Does process matter? I have a soft spot for process, and in this tech-fueled region I’d like to think that the idea of custom code and precision control could expand the audience for large-scale public art in the Bay Area.

JS: What is the relationship between Villareal and other renowned lights artists?

JA: We both saw Villareal speak about his practice at SFMOMA in early February, where he cited James Turrell as a significant influencer of his work, and I keep thinking back to my experience visiting the James Turrell Museum of the Hess Art Collection in Argentina a few years back. The work of both artists centers on an interplay between light and space. Turrell uses light to alter perception of space and time. Many of his works require visitors to sit meditatively in dark spaces until ones eyes adjust and a perception of light becomes possible, first barely perceptible and then slowly being revealed like a veil being pulled off ones eyes. His work manipulates our vision, our perception, our sense of space in a way that makes us a partner in the process. Villareal’s work is the antithesis of Turrell’s. While Turrell is evoking the natural, Villareal’s addition to the Bay Bridge (a structure that was an engineering marvel when it first opened in 1926) is highly decorative. While Turrell’s work invites stillness and reflection, Villareal’s work is crafted spectacle that is meant to be enjoyed communally. While much of Turrell’s work is about subtle shifts in perception, Villareal’s demands attention. Scale is one area where similarities emerge—both are involved in altering environment in dramatic fashion. Since 1979, Turrell has slowly been transforming Roden Crater outside of Flagstaff, Arizona into a massive work of land art. The Bay Lights is 8 times the scale of the Eiffel Tower's Anniversary Lighting and the largest LED Light Sculpture in the world.

[to be continued…]

The Bay Lights testing, by Leo Villareal, image courtesy of Jaime Austin