Unveiling the Artistry: The Bay Lights Illuminating the Bay Bridge

I first read about the Bay Lights – artist Leo Villareal‘s installation of individual white LEDs mounted on the suspension cables of the western span of the Bay Bridge – back in November 2012 in Adam Fisher’s New York Times T Magazine article, “Bright Idea“.  I had a Sally-Field reaction. I cried out “They like us, they really like us!”. At that moment, it was less about the content of the article and more about the fact that the New York Times was covering a West Coast art event.  Yes, I still get excited when The Times writes about San Francisco and the topic is not our amazing and innovative food or how our neighborhoods are “Hipster Hunting Grounds”.  The national coverage was the first clue that the Bay Lights project was going to be BIG HUGE. And it is. And the day of the Lighting Ceremony is upon us, as in tomorrow, March 5, 2013, starting at 8:30p.m.  Be there, or somewhere you can see it, or be square.

Presented by Illuminate the Arts and inspired by the Bay Bridge’s 75th Anniversary which took place in 2011, this piece of public art has taken a while to be realized. Don’t take that to mean the commitment isn’t there. Think about it, the artist is working with tiny lights and an enormous steel suspension bridge. It’s going to take some time. And there is the code to control the patterns of the lights. Leo Villareal said this when explaining his process for programming the sequence of the display: “[The sequence is] based on complex algorithms inspired by all the systems surrounding the bridge,including the water and traffic…a mirror of the activity around it.” He added, “It’s a piece of fine art, not a light show, so in that way it’s very pure. But there is a lot of sophistication in the software that generates all the sequences.”  In the Bay Area, it makes sense that art and technology are brought together in such an awe-inspiring way.

The Bay Lights
photo credit The Bay Lights

Oh, Bay Bridge! Once triumphed as an engineering marvel only to be quickly cast into the shadows by the glorious Golden Gate Bridge (even though it’s sunnier over by the Bay Bridge).  As Ben Davis, the driving force behind the Bay Lights installation, told Adam Fisher: “We are Cinderella and we have ashes on our cheeks and we work really really hard…Wouldn’t it be nice just for a moment to put on a gown and be the belle of the ball?”. He is right, this workhorse of a bridge deserves our praise and gratitude – the BB will always be stronger, longer and busier than the GG.  (That reminds me of the scene in Mommie Dearest when Joan wins a swim race and says to Christina: “I’m bigger and I’m faster. I will always beat you.”. But, I digress.)

The Numbers

Here are some stats to give an idea of the magnitude of the light sculpture and help explain why it has taken a couple of years to create:

The cost of the installation: $8 million.

It is the world’s largest LED light sculpture — 8 times the scale of the Eiffel Tower’s 100th Anniversary lighting.

It is made up of 25,000 white LED lights, placed by hand every 12 inches.

60,000 zip ties were used to anchor the entire sculpture to the bridge.

100,000 linear feet of specially armored cabling for the power, networking and communications were used.

It is just shy of 2 miles long and is 500 feet high.

The lights are individually programmed by the artist to create a continually-changing and never-repeating display.

The display will run every night from dusk until 2:00 a.m. for the next 2 years at a total energy cost of $11,000.

Over 50 million people in the Bay Area will see it, along with billions more in the media and online.

An (conservatively) estimated $97 million dollars will be added to the local economy.

There has already been a run-through so the artist and the other people involved are pretty confident that it is going to blow everyone away.

Tomorrow’s unvieling event will be streaming live, thanks to MediaOne.  There are several restaurants, bars and cruises participating in the festivities surrounding the lighting celebration tomorrow night. Many locations along the Embarcadero and some cruises are already sold out.  Still, it’s worth a shot, especially if you don’t feel like standing in the crowds.  Check out the Bay Lights Happenings webpage, a map of viewing spots, and the list in Marcia Gagliardi’s post on 7×7.com to find out where the place to be is when the lights come on!

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