Interview: Leo Villareal's Bay Lights Returns Tomorrow

On Saturday, Jan. 30 at 7:25 p.m., Leo Villareal’s enormous work of public art, The Bay Lights, will resume its campaign of getting people to pay closer attention to the Bay Area’s second-favorite suspension bridge. Initially a two-year project, the second iteration partnered with sponsors like Heineken and Philips Electronics to include updated LED lighting and a program called Shine it Forward, where the public can dedicate individual lights to people they love.

We spoke with Villareal and Ben Davis, the founder, president, and CEO of the non-profit Illuminate, about what people can expect, how the Bay Bridge itself has changed since last time, and what the artist Christo said about this particular installation.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

[jump] Tell me about what people can expect Saturday.
Leo Villareal: We’re getting ready for Saturday night. At 7:25 p.m., we’re going to hit the button and premiere the Bay Lights. We’ve already had a two-year run, and people loved it so much, they wanted it to come back. So we found more generous patrons to fund that. Additionally, we’re going to give the piece to the state. Caltrans has agreed to dot the maintenance on it. This thing is just a beautiful gift.

Aesthetically, what’s different?
LV: It’s gong to be the same Bay Lights, that everyone knows and loves. There’s no kind of radical changes, but we have new LED technology. So we’re doing some tuning and adjusting to make sure the levels are right, the tempo, all these sorts of subtle things that require attention. I’ve been out here for a few weeks, tweaking.

Are the LEDs new because technology has improved or because you trouble-shot them?
LV: Philips has been one of our main partners, and we’ve worked closely with their engineers to develop a new robust LED for this application. It’s in a tough marine environment with moisture and vibration; it’s just harsh. There are some changes — computers are always getting faster, LED s are always getting brighter.

Is it closer to your original vision? Or have you learned by doing, as it went in a particular direction?
LV: It’s an intuitive thing. It’s an artwork, you just have to feel your way through it, I describe it as tuning an instrument.

Do you have a favorite vantage point or perspective?
LV: I love just moving around and seeing it from all different places. Certainly from the Ferry Building it looks beautiful, and down by WaterBar is great as well, and here in the Lumina [at 338 Main Street]. There are many surprises, depending on where you are. Down Broadway, you get this flash. Even for me, I love getting these surprise moments of just turning the corner, and boom! There it is. It peeks out.

Working with Caltrans, did they help you overcome any obstacles?
Ben Davis: Let me speak on behalf of Caltrans and the Bay Area Toll Authority, because they both worked together along with a lot of other agencies. They found a way to get out of their own way and permit this artwork that no one thought was permit-able.

It’s hard for transportation agencies to support public art, but they’ve taken the bigger view. It’s consistent with their mission is about creating livable cities.

Initially, was it a tough sell?
BD: My first phone call — before I met Leo, when the idea of treating the bridge as a canvas of lights arrived — was to Caltrans. [I said,] “I have an idea that might let your bridge outshine the Golden gate for awhile,” and they were all ears, because there is sort of this “co-opetition” between the two bridge agencies. Of course, they both want to move cars around efficiently, but the Bay Bridge rightfully has a chip on its shoulder. It was in a Cinderella role for seven decades. In some ways, this was the gown that let people see the beauty of this bridge, which is an exquisite piece of engineering.

Connoisseurs of the Bay Lights and the Bay Bridge, when they come out on Saturday night to look at this artwork, will notice something really special. Over the past month, Caltrans and the Toll Authority have replaced the 50-year old, orange, high-pressure sodium lights in the cobra heads with efficient LEDs that eliminate the glare that sort of bifurcated the art installation. The entire Bay Bridge is in illumination harmony for the first time in its history.

When you say the piece was “donated to the state,” what does that mean, concretely speaking?
BD: There is a historical precedent of the Necklace lights, a private gift which were part of the 50th anniversary [in 1986] that became property of the state three years later with so little fanfare that we can’t even find paperwork. For the 75th anniversary, the Bay Lights came and they had a two-year run. So as we were bringing the artwork back, Illuminate, the nonprofit that I run, proposed that if we can raise the money to install a more robust set of LEDs and bring them back during the Super Bowl, we’d like to gift them to the people of California in exchange for the state’s ongoing stewardship of the artwork. Like Woody Guthrie, this bridge is your bridge, this bridge is my bridge. And no one can tough Leo’s algorithms except Leo, so the state can’t decide they want to do something different all of a sudden.

Is it the largest public art in the Bay Area?
LV: I’m not exactly sure but it’s an enormous piece.

BD: Christo’s Running Fence was 26 something miles

LV: This is 1.8 miles long, 525 feet tall. I’ve spent a lot of time, almost six years looking at this bridge closely and I still can’t wrap my mind around the scale … There’s a real thirst for public art and things that engage communities and I think my main mission is changing the way people see. We’ve had almost a billion media impressions, and we’re about to re-launch it with the Super Bowl so a lot of eyes will be on it. We received a lot of support from artists like Cristo, so passing that on to other artists is really important.

What did Christo say?
LV: Christo is amazing. He wrote us a letter, very supportive, very generous. I met with him in his studio, and he’s excited to see the legacy of public art carry on, especially embracing new kinds of technology. It’s good to have role models, especially someone as tenacious as Christo, who can work 40 years on something.

BD: Christo was generous. He said, “It’s a masterwork of public art.” The Gates in Central Park took 21 years, but this piece — from the moment of conception to the moment of the grand lighting the first time around — took less than two-and-a-half years. So there was a great deal of efficiency.

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