Impossible Light: How San Francisco's Bay Bridge Became Illuminated

Apr 29 2014, 10:03am CDT | by

I grew up in a town just south of San Francisco, and have crossed the Bay Bridge countless times without giving much thought to its history – how it first opened in 1936 to four days of regional celebration, and then six months later fell into the shadows of the Golden Gate Bridge, which soon became one of the city’s icons – considered not just a bridge, but a piece of art.

Last month I was visiting the city and heard someone I was with enthusiastically say, “Oh look, you can see the Bay Bridge lit up from here.” I looked over and from a distance confirmed that, indeed, the bridge was shining brightly against the night sky. But at the time I didn’t know anything about it, so turned my head and carried on with the conversation I was having. Two weeks later I crossed paths with Ben Davis, the driving force behind this large-scale art project, and attended a private screening of the documentary film “Impossible Light: The Story Behind An Iconic Light Structure.” I now look forward to returning to San Francisco, standing beneath The Bay Lights – the largest LED light sculpture in the world, and paying proper respect.

The moment of inspiration for The Bay Lights came on the morning of September 18th 2010. Davis had just purchased a coffee near the Ferry Building in downtown San Francisco and was looking up at the western portion of the Bay Bridge, contemplating the bridge’s 75th anniversary that was soon approaching, and feeling as though there must be a way to let this bridge shine in the region’s consciousness again. As the sun was coming up behind it, he realized it didn’t have to just be a functional bridge – it could become a canvas of light. The vision took his breath away, but he knew delivering against that vision would be logistically complicated, and feared being judged crazy for even attempting it. Says Davis, “It’s one thing to imagine lights on a bridge. It’s another thing to figure out how to design, install and then hang them 500 feet over water and 200 feet over traffic in the middle of the night.”

The film is largely a story of successful stakeholder engagement, as there were thousands of people responsible for making this project come to life. This included negotiating with Caltrans and multiple government agencies to secure needed permits, learning best practices from expert engineers and designers, testing out products sourced from various suppliers, collaborating with Leo Villareal – a highly respected artist who Davis discovered through a friend that had recently attended one of his exhibits, and raising $8 million in private funding within one year. “This project was almost killed a thousand times,” Says Villareal. Davis admits that, “Whenever people would say ‘whatever,’ I’d just take it as a yes and keep going.” One thing that helped, particularly in the early stages, was a one-minute video rendering Villareal created, and which consistently resulted in people wanting to make what they were seeing a reality. “It was a game changer,” says Davis.

Jeremy Ambers was looking to make a film at the time he met Davis, and was immediately intrigued by The Bay Lights project – Ambers had lived in San Francisco for five years, and the Bay Bridge had always held a special place in his heart, so he found the meeting more than coincidental. He felt the need to follow the story, and wanted to watch it unfold, so asked Davis if he could film him an his team during the process. Davis agreed, and says he’s been blown away by how accurately Ambers captured their journey. Interviews are interspersed through the film, providing necessary back-story and emotional connection. I particularly enjoyed having a window into Villareal’s previous work, and better understanding his various sources of inspiration. Says Villareal, “I’ve always been interested in scale, but not just scale for scale’s sake. For me the unique part comes from combining technology, new media and software with art history, and adding the element of time, and light to that dialogue.” Burning Man has been a big influence.

Davis established a nonprofit organization called Illuminate the Arts and raised his first $100,000 from WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg, which allowed him to bring Amy Critchett on board and have an expert’s help in executive production and fundraising. An anonymous patron who was already a fan of Villareal’s work, and has a view of the bridge, came in with an offer to create a matching fund valued at $3.5 million, challenging the community to chip in. That proved to be a struggle, and at the final hour Mullenweg came back in and donated the final $1.65 million needed to complete the project, unknowingly allowing Davis to tear up the loan he’d taken out against his home. One of my favorite moments in the film comes when Davis is reflecting on the risk he’s taken on for this project, and contemplating aloud whether any of it really matters. “It’s just art on a bridge,” he says looking away. But then he looks directly at the camera, smiles, and assuredly says, “I don’t know, it matters to me.”

The Bay Lights’ opening ceremony took place on March 5th of 2013 and the installation will remain up through March 5th 2015. Davis and his team are seeking the additional funds needed to keep it lit for another ten years – this would mean taking down the 25,000 LED lights currently stretched across 1.8 miles of infrastructure and reinstalling the piece with optimized materials based on lessons learned. Also on Davis’ current agenda with Illuminate the Arts is a project called Pi in the Sky, which involves sky writing the first several hundred characters of Pi’s infinite non-repeating sequence in a 150-mile arch over urban areas. The ephemeral installation first flew over the San Francisco Bay Area as part of the 2012 ZERO1 Art & Technology International Biennial, and it will happen two more times in the coming year – once over New York on May 28, and once over Los Angeles at a date yet to be determined. Another project that’s quickly gaining traction in San Francisco is called Light Rail, which aims to illuminate Market Street, reflecting above your head what’s happening beneath your feet with the transit system. He also has a big vision for illuminating the wall dividing Israel and Palestine, called Common Light.

The film “Impossible Light” recently premiered at SXSW to rave reviews, and has been an official selection at the San Francisco International Film Festival and the Newport Beach Film Festival. For those interested in seeing it pre-Netflix, you can check out a list of upcoming screenings here or order an advance copy at TheBayLights.org. The story told is a powerful example of what’s possible when you dream (very) big, and can successfully inspire engagement among all key stakeholders. In many ways, the finished piece of art reflects the unity that was required to create it. When asked to describe the impact The Bay Lights is having on those who look up in observance Davis says, “When we’re in the presence of something large it just melts our differences away, and lets us experience a sense of wordless awe together.”

 
 

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