TOPICS > Arts

New Art Installation Lights Up San Francisco’s Other Bridge Across the Bay

March 14, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
A new art installation brings new light to San Francisco Bay. The Bay Bridge, which connects San Francisco and Oakland, is the focus of a new public art display featuring thousands of LED technology lights. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels has the story of the high-tech work of art.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And, next, bright lights over the bay.

NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports from San Francisco on a work of public art.

SPENCER MICHELS: For 75 years, the Bay Bridge has been the workhorse on San Francisco Bay, linking Oakland and San Francisco, and carrying 270,000 cars and trucks a day.

On the San Francisco side, its towers support suspension cables that keep the bridge deck up. But this gray utilitarian structure that partially collapsed in the 1989 earthquake has never captured the world’s attention the way its nearby cousin, the Golden Gate Bridge, has. Built toward the end of the Depression, both were engineering marvels.

Now the Bay Bridge is making its own splash. On a cold rainy night last week, it was transformed into a giant work of art; 25,000 tiny white undulating LED lights strung from the vertical cables were turned on in a flashy display of public art that can be seen for miles.

For California politicians like Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, it was a chance to tout the area’s uniqueness.

LT. GOV. GAVIN NEWSOM, D-Calif.: Here we are in San Francisco, a wacky and wonderful place, and a city that is probably best described as 49 square miles surrounded by reality.

SPENCER MICHELS: The high-tech installation, which is called the Bay Lights, is being billed as the world’s largest LED light sculpture. It’s also a major piece of public art, an increasingly popular and often increasingly controversial art form, like The Gates in New York’s Central Park by Christo or the New York City Waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson, or Cloud Gate, a public sculpture in Chicago by Anish Kapoor.

Bay Lights is the creation of Leo Villareal, a New York City artist who specializes in using LED lights and computer programming in works on display at several major museums and in numerous installations. Villareal operates his laptop using specially designed software to control and program the lights.

Once set up, it works automatically. The overall effect is meant to be abstract, but to reflect different movements around the bridge, from waves and boats to traffic and clouds.

So, when you finally pulled the switch on this the other night, and the lights came on, what was your personal reaction?

LEO VILLAREAL, Artist: It was overwhelming. I mean, it was really very, very exciting, because I worked very hard to integrate this piece into its environment. But it’s not specific, and it’s meant to be open-ended, highly subjective, so you can just relax, be with the piece, and take from it what you will. You will never see the exact same progression of sequences twice.

SPENCER MICHELS: The lights, which are on every night from dusk until 2:00 a.m., can be seen only on the side facing north towards Alcatraz and the Golden Gate Bridge. Drivers on the bridge cannot see or be distracted by the lights, one of many safety precautions dictated by a host of government agencies.

LEO VILLAREAL: Installing the piece was also incredibly challenging. We had workers 525 feet up over the water at night from 11:00 p.m. until 5:00 a.m. for months on end.

SPENCER MICHELS: It’s cold up there.

LEO VILLAREAL: It’s cold. You know, you have thousands of cars rushing at you with a couple of cones protecting you, you know, dangling you know over the water at night.

SPENCER MICHELS: The $8 million dollar project is being financed entirely by private donations. So far, $6 million dollars has been raised, much of it by public relations man Ben Davis, who came up with the idea. The rest of the money is still being raised.

BEN DAVIS, Illuminate the Arts: This is going to bring, in my estimation, hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy. I think we’re going to smash all records for public art.

SPENCER MICHELS: Is there something a little commercial about all of that?

BEN DAVIS: Not really, because that money’s not going to anything but the communities that are here already. There’s nobody catching a profit from this involved in the project.

SPENCER MICHELS: Public art used to consist mostly of statues of generals or politicians. Today, many cities are requiring developers of large projects to pay 1 percent or more of construction costs for public art.

J.D. Beltran, who teaches public art at the San Francisco Art Institute and is president of the arts commission, says getting public approval is tough, especially for complicated or abstract works.

J.D. BELTRAN, San Francisco Art Institute: Many times, the public feels like because they don’t understand a piece, it’s being shoved down their throat, and they don’t like it, and they will be very vocal about it.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Beltran, who wasn’t part of the project, says the Bay Lights works as public art.

J.D. BELTRAN: It doesn’t take much to understand because it’s a gorgeous piece. I think it’s beautiful, it’s delightful. It fulfills all those requirements I think that the public wants in terms of a piece of public art. I think I can safely say it’s pretty universally liked.

SPENCER MICHELS: Unless they malfunction, as they did last weekend, the lights will remain lit every night for at least two years. A few years after that, the bridge will need painting and the lights will have to come down.

JEFFREY BROWN: Spencer has written more about the Bay Bridge in a blog. You will find that on our website.