City Lights

Ben Davis, Mayor Ed Lee, Gavin Newsom, and artist Leo Villareal. (Except where noted, all photos: Drew Altizer Photography/SFWIRE)

STORM CLOUDS gathered last Tuesday, March 5, at the same time as a formally attired crowd convened at the Hotel Vitale lobby to fete artist Leo Villareal and inaugurate The Bay Lights, a massive public work covering the San Francisco Bay Bridge. When I arrived, the affable artist himself was just inside the hotel, greeting guests with a degree of comfort that belied the idea that his eight-million-dollar project might be doused during its Grand Lighting.

Villareal’s work is dubbed the world’s largest LED light sculpture. It spans nearly two miles and straddles communities with investments in art, technology, and political and civic sectors. Representatives from each were present at the top-tier dinner, and there were other soirees unfolding at every view-offering venue, a boon for the already thriving local restaurant scene. The official launch party was hosted by media-savvy California lieutenant governor and former SF mayor Gavin Newsom, and its guests were a diverse mix, though art folks were not necessarily dominant. I chatted with lawyers, SF MoMA director Neil Benezra, lifestyle magazine publishers, Burning Man regulars (Villareal among them), programmers, and even a few artists (Ken Goldberg, Ana Teresa Fernandez) who gathered to celebrate a project that honors a bridge less iconic, but more traveled, than the Golden Gate. Oakland currently has more cultural cachet than Marin, but nevertheless, SF mayor Ed Lee was in attendance, not beleaguered Oakland official Jean Quan.

Left: Art Production Fund cofounder Doreen Remen with artist Lucas Michael. (Photo: Glen Helfand) Right: Marian Goodell, Larry Harvis, and Ken Goldberg.

The party was initially a sequestered, indoor affair, with dinner leading to the 9 PM launch. We were marshaled to our tables with a gentle PR firmness. At each place setting was an official round brooch with tiny pulsating LEDs stylized to resemble the bridge. Some of us were wary of wearing these mysterious, interactive accessories, until we were alerted that the pins also granted entrance to VIP viewing areas. One guest noted that they were selling for $300 on the project’s website, a crucial arm of the fund-raising effort. (Six million dollars have already been raised; another two million are required to keep the thing running for the next couple of years.)

Ben Davis, a handsome graphic communications maven who conceived the bridge project, made remarks, frequently alluding to the incredible community spirit behind it. Those in the room, he said, were a “special circle of generosity.” Befitting the massive public works nature of The Bay Lights, he gave props to prosaic partners like Caltrans and the Toll Authority. Emphatic applause erupted when the legal team got a shout-out.

Villareal took the mic after the salad course, offering heartfelt thanks to Burning Man buddies, but mostly to his family, including his father, who came up from Cuernavaca, Mexico, and his beaming wife and “secret weapon” Yvonne Force, who wore a low-cut orange caftan. We were able to polish off mains and dessert before being offered the opportunity to view the bridge lights from either a pedestrian pier across the street or a hotel suite balcony. I opted for the latter, and squeezed into a frighteningly full elevator that alighted on the eighth floor. Smiling volunteers offered transparent plastic umbrellas as rain began to pelt us—just in time for the big event! The slickened streets resembled an Impressionist painting: Caillebotte, with Prius. Facing the bridge, we saw a growing huddled mass clutching umbrellas, some of them decorated with blinking white lights. It was a cinematic moment, a waterfront noir, with swells lashing the embankment, dousing the paper lanterns that festooned the velvet-roped VIP pier. Soothing electronic music was audible, along with the muffled sound of amplified voices. From that jam-packed balcony we could just make out Newsom bantering with Villareal, who described the piece as a “digital campfire” for the city.

Left: Collectors Lisa Pritzker and John Pritzker. Right: Leo Villareal Sr. and Yvonne Force Villareal.

An ill-conceived New Year’s Eve–style countdown ensued, and the bridge cables became an electrified canvas for Villareal’s algorithmically derived sequences. The lights pulsed with a smooth rhythm, but there were no fireworks. It’s a glitzy, meditative work: spectacular, but calming in the way public artworks must be. Since the piece had been in testing phase for weeks, there was an anticlimactic feeling for locals who had already seen the thing in action (not always with great admiration: One LA-based collector was pleasantly reminded of the fountains outside the Bellagio).

But for the lighting, there was plenty of love in the blustery night, in that swanky hotel, and along the Embarcadero, where unofficial partiers were capturing the first posts of what will certainly be an Instagram classic. The energy dispersed to other bayside venues, the Villareal event moving toward an afterparty at a touristy seafood shack called Sinbad’s where revelers danced and basked in the low-wattage LED glow.

The Bay Lights.