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.”

 
 

Don't miss ...

 

<a href="/latest_stories/all/all/30" rel="author">Forbes</a>
Forbes is among the most trusted resources for the world's business and investment leaders, providing them the uncompromising commentary, concise analysis, relevant tools and real-time reporting they need to succeed at work, profit from investing and have fun with the rewards of winning.

 

blog comments powered by Disqus

Latest stories

Investments pouring in from Singapore: Bengal minister
Singapore, Aug 20 (IANS) Camping here to woo investors, West Bengal Finance Minister Amit Mitra Wednesday said many companies have signed joint ventures and letters of intent promising to pump in at least Rs.1,200 crore in his state.
 
 
111-year-old Japanese officially declared world's oldest man
Tokyo, Aug 20 (IANS/EFE) Sakari Momoi, a 111-year-old Japanese citizen, was Wednesday officially recognised in Tokyo as the oldest man in the world by the Guinness World Records award committee.
 
 
Is your college going kid more active on weekends?
New York, Aug 20 (IANS) Parents always suspect that their college going kids prefer weekends to weekdays. Now there is proof that college graduates are more active on weekends compared to non-college goers.
 
 
How brain can multitask better
Toronto, Aug 20 (IANS) Cooking while having a conversation, watching a movie while browsing the Web, or driving while listening to a radio show - multitasking is an essential skill in our daily lives. Make it better now.
 
 
 

Latest from the Network

Kanye West ditches fried chicken for smoothies
Kanye West has ditched fried chicken in favour of three smoothies a day. The 37-year-old rapper has been banned from eating calorific treats, such as macaroni and cheese and mouth-watering chicken covered in batter, as...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Justin Bieber sued by photographer
Justin Bieber is being sued by a photographer. The 'Believe' hitmaker reportedly destroyed Aja Oxman's camera after ordering his bodyguard to ''do whatever he had to'' to get the paparazzo's memory card after he took a...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
P. Diddy set up French and Khloe
P. Diddy set up Khloe Kardashian and French Montana. The 'Don't Panic' rapper insists rumors his girlfriend's brother-in-law Kanye West - who has 14-month-old daughter North with Khloe's sister Kim - introduced him to...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Ellen DeGeneres' ex-boyfriend speaks out
Ellen DeGeneres' former boyfriend is convinced they'd still be close if she was still in her home town. The 56-year-old talk show host - who is married to actress Portia de Rossi - dated Ben Heath for two years until he...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Coldplay will have to pay to play at Super Bowl?
Coldplay will reportedly have to pay the NFL if they want to perform at the Super Bowl. The 'A Sky Full of Stars' hitmakers are among a list of artists said to be in talks with The National Football League to perform...
Read more on Celebrity Balla
 
Germany to supply arms to Kurdish fighters
Berlin, Aug 20 (IANS) Germany is prepared to supply weapons to Kurds in northern Iraq,announced Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen jointly announced Wednesday Wednesday after...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
PTI agrees for talks with Pakistani government (Third Lead)
Islamabad, Aug 20 (IANS) The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has agreed to talks with the government over alleged rigging of the 2013 general elections, a media report said. Senior PTI leader Shah Mehmood Qureshi told...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Black Friday 2014 is Less than 100 Days Away
Black Friday 2014 is less than 100 days away. When is Black Friday 2014? Black Friday 2014 is on November 28th. Of course the Black Friday sales start already weeks before the actual Black Friday. Which means the first...
Read more on Black Friday Countdown
 
47 arrested in US town after fresh riots
Washington, Aug 20 (IANS/EFE) Forty-seven people were arrested overnight in Ferguson in the US state of Missouri after protestors hurled bottles at police in fresh outbreak of violence over the shooting death of an...
Read more on Politics Balla
 
Is your deodorant making your armpits smell worse?
New York, Aug 20 (IANS) Deodorants and antiperspirants are being more widely used and advertised than ever before, but did you know that they may actually make you smell worse in the long run? According to a study,...
Read more on Celebrity Balla