Lights Will Sparkle on Bay Bridge’s West Span
Starting this January, San Francisco will be home to one of the biggest and most ambitious public art projects in recent history. Bay Lights, a light installation on the northern-facing side of the Bay Bridge’s west span, is the brainchild of Ben Davis, founder of Words Pictures Ideas, a Dogpatch-based communications company. The project includes 25,000 LED lights spaced a foot apart on the vertical cables of the span’s north side. Each light will be individually controllable and programmed to twinkle in various patterns for two years without repeating. The effect should be a shimmering array of lights dazzling anyone looking at the bridge from San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge or Marin.
Words Pictures Ideas has worked extensively with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) on marketing efforts to brand the Bay Bridge East Span public works project, a reconstruction initiative that stretches from Oakland to Treasure Island. While his connections with Caltrans officials were important to making Bay Lights happen, the idea was formed in Nevada’s high desert at Burning Man.
“It was a little frustrating to see all that fantastic energy manifest itself and disappear when we could really use it in the same way in the space that people live,” explained Davis, of his 2010 experience at Burning Man. The festival’s theme that year was Metropolis, with festival-goers creating their own mini-city in the desert playing off the concept of urbanity. Burning Man draws people from throughout the world to live self-sufficiently for a week, often creating or bringing art to share. The grandness of erecting a functioning society with its own rules and infrastructure that gets completely dismantled at the end of an eight-day festival inspired Davis to do something big to celebrate the less famous, but work-a-day Bay Bridge. The grey bridge will celebrate its 80th birthday on July 9, 2013, at which point Bay Lights will be up and twinkling.
The more he thought about it, the more he realized the bridge itself was a fantastic canvas. “I wanted to re-celebrate and call attention to the beauty of the Bay Bridge,” said Davis, who called it the Bay Area’s bridge, while the Golden Gate Bridge is the world’s bridge. When he encountered the work of Leo Villareal, an internationally renowned installation artist, he knew he’d found the man who could make Davis’ dreams of a grand celebration a reality. And, as luck would have it, one of Davis’ friends knew Villareal and was able to introduce the two men, who have worked on the Bay Lights project for the past two years.
“I talked to him in a series of conversations about the Bay Bridge, about its history, about the desire to create an experience that reflected metaphorically all the things a bridge stands for, you know connectivity and mobility, but also elegance,” said Davis. “And then, Leo came back with an interpretation of that vision that was just sensational.” With Villareal on board and a rendering to show people the project quickly took off, engaging people with its grandeur, including a group that is notoriously hard to excite: bureaucrats.
“A work of art is always the work of the artist, but at this scale by definition it becomes a work of community. It just can’t happen unless there is deep community involvement, support and passion for it,” said Davis. He found that passion among the employees of Caltrans, San Francisco government and almost every other state, federal or local agency that operates in and around the Bay. “They wanted to see it happen. They began to feel and taste the meaning of it, the civic importance,” Davis said, of the extraordinary commitment and patience exhibited by so many people as the project developed.
It helped that the project is funded entirely from private sources. Davis was adamant that the story of this grand civic project not be one of how public funds were spent. The installation’s price tag is $8 million, about half of which came from an anonymous matching grant. In fact, Davis came up with the last $1 million at the end of July, just in time to make the project a reality. Installation is supposed to start this month, with a grand lighting ceremony planned for January, 2013. Davis was candid that there’s an element of the unknown in the project, although he’s confident they’ll continue to raise the money they need as the project progresses.
The Bay Lights will be one of many events celebrating the bridge next year. “The whole bridge will have over the course of 2013 a spectacular international moment,” said Davis. He called it the “year of the Bay” with America’s Cup, a new Exploratorium building opening on Pier 15 where Green Street meets the Embarcadero, and the completion of the Bay Bridge’s east span. “It’s really nice to have this unifying, frankly cosmopolitan feature of the Bay Lights bringing an experience for everyone who comes to town,” said Davis, who has been transformed by the experience of working on the project pro-bono, at some financial sacrifice.
“It’s incredibly rewarding work. I’m delighted by all the outcomes, just to sort of accept it. There is beauty in trying,” said Davis, with more than a little trace of Zen in his voice. The size of the challenge inspired him, but the passion of all those who made it possible is what kept him working on the project.
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