Artist Leo Villareal leaned against the railing of Pier 14, which jutted out into the San Francisco Bay, providing him with a front row seat to watch the pulsing, morphing Bay Bridge light display he first created three years ago.
He gingerly balanced his laptop computer, making undetectable shifts in the software that somehow translated into movements of the 25,000 LED lights strapped to the bridge’s cables.
“It’s like an old friend,” Villareal said. “It’s amazing. I missed it.”
The project, known as the Bay Lights, went dark last March after its scheduled and celebrated two-year run.
Illuminate the Arts raised $4 million to reinstall a more robust set of lights on the bridge that can resist the notoriously harsh conditions for at least another decade. Caltrans had to take the lights down after the debut so crews could perform maintenance on the bridge cables. The newly installed project is scheduled to switch on Jan. 30 - just in time for the Bay Area to host Super Bowl 50.
“I like kind of get lost deep in it — in all the knobs and sliders and physics of it,” said Villareal, fidgeting with the laptops keys in near darkness. “The ultimate for me is to find a place where it’s doing something really amazing and I’m not sure how it got there.”
The New York-based artist has been making brief jaunts to the Bay Area over the last couple months to tweak the lights — he describes it as adjusting tempos, rhythm and brightness. While visitors had taken to naming the different shape-shifting patterns, Villareal said he merely assigns them utilitarian labels based on dates and times.
“If I was a poet maybe,” he said, eschewing more colorful descriptions.
Villareal said the patterns are in an eternal state of flux — hinting at recognizable imagery while never fully mimicking anything. The patterns at times might suggest a school of fish morphing into a glowing rain shower — melding into a puddle of light.
“It changes radically if you’re at an angle or straight on,” Villareal said who observes the lights from vantage points throughout the bay. “It’s always changing — the sequences never repeat the same progression twice.”
For Villareal, standing on the pier with visitors gazing in awe at the blinking lights can seem akin to Dali watching a viewer attempt to mentally unravel one of his paintings. All along the San Francisco waterfront over the last month, people have paused to gaze, take photos and digest Villareal’s unannounced tests of the lights.
“My favorite thing is it brings people together,” Villareal said. “People are sitting here looking at it on the Embarcadero and they can’t help but talk to the person that’s next to them.”
Villareal’s light sculptures have dazzled audiences around the world - from a New York subway station to Istanbul, Turkey. He is currently working on an exhibit which will show later this spring in a San Francisco art gallery -- with proportions decidedly smaller than his vast light canvas glowing over the bay.
But the Bay Lights project has gathered his largest audience — estimated at 50 million people during its initial two-year run from March, 2013 until last year. The newly reinstalled project that will coincide with Super Bowl 50 is set to remain for at least a decade — perhaps much longer.
“I still see it as a marker of time from where I was three years ago,” Villareal said. “It’s sort of a miracle even to me. It’s like how did this happen?”
Villareal folded up his laptop, extinguishing its glow and plunging him into darkness - save for the faint illumination cast from his massive nearly two-mile installation on the bridge.
He cast one last look and headed down the pier.
“I never get sick of seeing it,” he said.