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Today, a special guest post from Dr. Bridget Gilman on bridges and the remarkable Bay Lights project. Bridget studies postwar American art and is particularly interested in representations of the built environment. She received her Ph.D. in the History of Art from the University of Michigan.

by Bridget Gilman

It is difficult when writing about a bridge not to indulge the form’s metaphoric resonance. Bridges, of course, are built to connect landmasses, but also connote human mobility, connection, and transcendence. Like trains, highways, and other conduits of mass transportation, bridges are also often part and parcel of nation shaping and thus bear the weight of the governmental ideologies that propel their construction.

White City, World's Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893 (Image source: Flickr)

White City, World’s Columbian Exhibition, Chicago, 1893. Brooklyn Museum Archives, Goodyear Archival Collection. (Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brooklyn_museum/2784211121/)

If bridges are inevitably metaphoric, light is likewise unavoidably symbolic—both in material and spiritual realms. Thus conceptions of the modern city are enmeshed with the presence of electric light, not simply on a utilitarian or technological level. To think of the world’s largest cities—and many of their monuments—is often to envision them at night, their skylines transformed from hulking masses to twinkling bodies of light and shadow. Iconic moments of urban luminosity range from the famous “White City” of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago to New York’s “Tribute in Light” memorial at the World Trade Center site, the combination of artificial light and architecture signifying an array of hopes and losses.

Neon Signage, San José, California (Photograph by author)

Neon Signage, San José, California (Photograph by author)

City lighting and urban infrastructure are clearly topics with deep, complex histories; discussion of their import and associations can get bogged down quite easily. But they are also things encountered in the everyday, and thus are fundamental to daily paths and routines. As someone fairly obsessed with the look and structure of the postwar American environment, practically nothing delights me more than the spectacle of vintage neon at old dive bars, motels, and restaurants. Likewise, there is perhaps no more thrilling ordinary spatial experience than a car ride over a large bridge. For just a moment life seems to become both distinctly physical, defined by the opposing pulls of the terrestrial and atmospheric, and existentially precarious, as the smallness and insignificance of a single body becomes all too clear.


Collapsed eastern span of the Bay Bridge, 1989. (Image sources: http://baybridgeinfo.org/timeline)

Collapsed eastern span of the Bay Bridge, 1989. (Image source: http://baybridgeinfo.org/timeline)

This juncture of the grand and the ordinary is nicely crystalized Leo Villareal’s current light sculpture, The Bay Lights, installed on the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge. The bridge itself is a curious structure: far less iconic than its slightly younger Bay Area sibling (it opened just six months before the Golden Gate Bridge) and built during the Great Depression, the Bay Bridge is actually two different kinds of structures—the western span is a suspension bridge, while the eastern portion is a cantilever bridge—connected by a large tunnel through Yerba Buena Island. The bridge originally carried automobile traffic on the upper deck and the Key System train service on the lower deck, the latter an inter-city line in operation until 1960. The most famous date in the bridge’s history, however, is not of its own making. At 5:04 pm on October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck the Bay Area, causing a section of the more rigid eastern span to collapse. Whenever I’m asked by non-Californians if I fear earthquakes, I relate that this particular incident is the only one that causes me some mortal dread.

This catastrophe resulted in the current retrofit of the western span and the replacement of the eastern span. Though the new construction process is not nearly as dangerous as its predecessor (36 men died building the original Bay Bridge), it has not been without its own obstacles: originally scheduled to open in 2007, the project has been plagued by physical and managerial failures, the former including cracks in critical eyebar components and bolt failures.

 Villareal’s installation, timed as part of the bridge’s 75th anniversary, does not directly engage any of this long, occasionally troubled history. Ben Davis, the founder of Words Pictures Ideas P.R. firm, was contracted by Caltrans to publicize construction of the new bridge; Davis recruited Villareal to create a site-specific work for the occasion. And yet, though the piece is promotional in nature, Villareal’s installation shies away from a bombastic display of infrastructure celebration. His chosen lights are neither flashy beacons nor multicolored displays—this is not the Bay Bridge as Times Square jumbotron.

Rather, the work’s form and method animate the structure: instead of emphasizing its status as solid marker stretched across a dynamic body of water, the shifting light patterns make the bridge kinetically fluid. The piece, programmed with algorithms inspired by the surrounding water and traffic, becomes a mirror of its environment.

As Villareal indicates in the Creators Project interview, the light sequencing is a form of “emergent behavior,” i.e. the phenomena of simple, established parameters or interactions producing more complex patterns and systems. In this way his works take up the conceptual suggestions of artists like Sol Lewitt, in addition to the more obvious links to fellow light-using predecessors Dan Flavin, Jenny Holzer, and James Turrell.

Leo Villareal, Multiverse, 2008. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (Photograph by author)

Leo Villareal, Multiverse, 2008. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (Photograph by author)

Museum-goers are likely familiar with Villareal’s work from his enticing moving-walkway installation, Multiverse (2008), at the National Gallery. Multiverse enlivens that subterranean space, transforming the underground passage between the museum’s wings into a playful galaxy of LED patterns. The Bay Lights engages a similar form of light sculpture, though here the space is open, rather than constricted, and the visual experience offered to observers rather than occupants of the space. (The Bay Lights’ LEDs are positioned so as not to be visible to motorists on the bridge.) Moreover, several elements are particularly resonant of the location, beyond the sculpture’s site specificity. While the LED patterns’ rhythmic flow is organically suggestive, the installation also functions as 25,000 pixels on an enlarged screen: each light has an IP address that corresponds to a pixel in a video file, the latter acting as a container for the light data patterns. Control computers are stored in the bridge’s central anchorage and then accessed by the artist and his engineering team via remote desktop connections. These technical elements point to the artist’s own history in the Bay Area. After attending grad school at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, Villareal worked at Interval Research in Palo Alto for several years during the mid 1990s, an experience that introduced him to technologies he now employs in his artworks. The Bay Lights itself is privately funded, with many of the donations coming from Silicon Valley investors. (You can still contribute crowd funding-style here: http://www.causes.com/thebaylightscommunity)

Michael Holden, Burning Man, 2010. (Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelholden/6041248253/)

Michael Holden, Burning Man, 2010. (Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelholden/6041248253/)

In addition to these tech community links, the piece is also tied to another Bay Area ritual, Burning Man. Though now held in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert, the event began as an annual bonfire (i.e. burning a large wooden man—a tradition that continues) on San Francisco’s Baker Beach. A kind of new spin on old counterculture gatherings, the festival has its own visual vocabulary: painted naked bodies, assemblage art (often in the form of bikes or other vehicles), and, of course, abundant lights and pyrotechnics. It is as if rave and steampunk subcultures collided in the desert. Villareal made his first light piece for Burning Man, a set of sixteen lights that served as a homing beacon for his tent but that also became an inspiration for his artistic practice, encouraging him to strip down rather than amp up the technological aspects. Much of this spirit persists in the artist’s recent light sculptures; though his large-scale installations require immense institutional support, their sense of wonder and futurist-like idealism remains. The works are in some ways more sophisticated cousins to Pink Floyd laser shows or planetarium installations—spatial experiences of light that delight on very primal levels—distilled into elegant abstractions. (Another of Villareal’s installations is titled Buckyballs; Buckminster Fuller’s frequently repeated directive, “Dare to be naive,” seems quite fitting.)

Villareal’s works are also, like Burning Man, fundamentally communal experiences. When I stopped to take the photographs for this piece late one chilly spring evening, San Francisco’s piers were alive with revelers, rediscovering their old workhorse bridge. As the artist himself put it, “You won’t have to be schooled in the history of art to appreciate and like it. My goal is to make it feel alive as possible, as alive as a sequence of numbers can be.”[1]

Leo Villareal, The Bay Lights, 2013. (Photograph by author)

Leo Villareal, The Bay Lights, 2013. (Photograph by author)


[1] Adam Fisher, “Bright Idea,” New York Times, November 29, 2012, http://tmagazine.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/bright-idea/.

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4 thoughts on “The Bay Lights

  1. A graceful, imaginative essay.

    My question: do the patterns on the bridge really show emergent behavior?

    It probably depends on definitions and on matters of degree. For example, if you take a string vibrating at 440 Hz and another, neighboring string at 442 Hz, you have two simple parameters but your audible sensation has a warbling 2Hz aspect that a naive observer might not expect. Is this emergent?
    Or, to take a visual example, if you overlay two similar pocket combs (typical tooth spacing 1/8″; simple parameter) and slide them back & forth, you find a dark/light pattern with much larger spacing that moves faster than the relative motion of the combs; the speed and direction of this pattern also depends on the angle between the combs. These moiré effects are also surprising to many observers, but should we regard them as emergent?

    The usual examples carry more surprise and lead to theoretical explorations: For example as in Conways “Game of Life” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conway%27s_Game_of_Life )

    So it would be good to know what visual sensations could be considered as emergent, as surprises, from Villareal’s “Bay Lights”. Is there one programmed pattern of lights visually interacting with another programmed pattern to produce un-anticipated results?
    ————–
    Finally (and with good memories of times together in Tappan Hall) I’d like to be convinced that Sol Lewitt’s work has any suggestion of emergent behavior.

    Jens Zorn, Ann Arbor

  2. Hi Jens,

    Thanks for your comments. I actually had a similar conversation (albeit in much less technical terms) with my better half the engineer as I was writing this post. He contended we can’t know whether it’s truly emergent behavior without seeing Villareal’s algorithm. In any case, definitely good food for thought. As for Lewitt, I’d have to mull that over further too, but if emergence is simply defined as complex patterns/behavior/systems arising from simple interactions, I would say, yes, Lewitt’s work qualifies. But perhaps that definition is too broad to be really meaningful?

    Bridget

  3. The Wikipedia entry on Emergence ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence )is quite informative, though it probably won’t settle many arguments.
    —-The word “emergent” implies something evolving from a beginning state, and in that basic sense ( what Wikipedia calls “weak emergence” ) almost any work of art can be regarded as weakly emergent: A sequence of still photographs of a cartoonist at work, would show complex patterns emerging from simple pencil strokes. A movie of Jackson Pollock working on a horizontal canvas shows the evolution of a remarkable painting from relatively simple physical motions.
    —- Some of Lewitt’s work does have visual surprises that come from the basic symmetries of his 3-dimensional structures [e.g. http://www.insecula.com/PhotosNew/00/00/10/49/ME0000104915_3.jpg ] so one might agree that some of his works are weakly emergent. (I emphasize that “weakly” is merely a classification, not a pejorative)
    If there is “strong” emergence in an evolutionary sequence, then (A) there is a well defined, unambiguous relationship (“the basic rules”) between adjacent members of the sequence and (B) the later states of the system show dramatic behaviors that one would not predict from a knowledge of the rules alone…… one has to do the experiment!

  4. The Wikipedia entry on Emergence ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emergence )is quite informative, though it probably won’t settle many arguments.

    —-The word “emergent” implies something evolving from a beginning state, and in that basic sense ( what Wikipedia calls “weak emergence” ) almost any work of art can be regarded as weakly emergent: A sequence of still photographs of a cartoonist at work, would show complex patterns emerging from simple pencil strokes. A movie of Jackson Pollock working on a horizontal canvas shows the evolution of a remarkable painting.
    —- Some of Lewitt’s work does have visual surprises that come from the basic symmetries of his 3-dimensional structures [e.g. http://www.insecula.com/PhotosNew/00/00/10/49/ME0000104915_3.jpg ] so one might agree that some of his works are weakly emergent. (I emphasize that “weakly” is merely a classification, not a pejorative)

    If there is “strong” emergence in an evolutionary sequence, then (A) there is a well defined, unambiguous relationship (“rules”) between adjacent members of the sequence and (B) the later states of the system show dramatic behaviors that one would not predict from a knowledge of the rules alone…… one has to do the experiment!

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