Out with the old, in with the new. The Raygun Gothic Rocket Ship, a much loved addition to the Embarcadero waterfront over the last few years, has been taken down. On to pastures unknown. The Space Cowboys took the Unimog down and Rocked the Raygun away.
What started as a BRAF funded collaboration to get temporary large scale art installed in public places, blossomed into a two & a half year run of the Rocketship patiently waiting for its lift off at the edge of the city, the border with the bay.
In the meantime, Disorient Burner and Artist Leo Villareal has created the largest LED light sculpture in the world – 1.8 miles long, and 500 feet high, featuring 25,000 LED lights that will cost less than a couple of thousand dollars a year in electricity. The Bay Lights has launched, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Bay Bridge with data input being fed from traffic and weather pattern data, amongst other things. The $8 million project is expected to generate at least $97 million for the city.
The final result is 25,000 LED lights strung up along the 1.8-mile stretch of bridge connecting San Francisco and Treasure Island. The individual lights are spaced 12 inches apart and each one can be set to one of 255 brightness levels. The designs Villareal created and programmed to flicker across the bridge don’t include any images or text, and the sequence won’t ever repeat itself.
“What people will be seeing are abstract sequences which are inspired by the kinetic activity around the bridge,” said Villareal. “It’s not literally traffic or the water or any of those sorts of things.”
The designs were also inspired by Villareal’s previous experiences in the Bay Area in the 1990s, when he worked in a research lab in Palo Alto and attended the Burning Man festival.
The result is an open-ended piece of art that Villareal calls highly subjective. Lights might dim slowly from the edges or shapes will unexpectedly dart across the surface like comets. The movements are playful, relaxing and unpredictable.
“You can imagine anything you want in these lights. For me, it’s the mustache,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who sports a signature tuft of hair on his upper lip. Lee was on hand for the opening ceremony, along with California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom.
While designing the sequences, Villareal had to address practical issues like safety for passing boats and drivers on the bridge, as well as artistic considerations such as making sure the animations were viewable from up close, below the bridge, and as far away as Twin Peaks, where the bridge can been seen on fog-free nights.
After obtaining permits and securing funding, trimming the bridge was the final daunting step of the project. Teams worked from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. over the past few months to install the fiber optic network, choosing late night hours in order to have minimal impact on bridge traffic. They used custom clips to hang the lights on 300 vertical spans, mounting some lights as high as 500 feet. Locals have caught peeks of the final product over the past couple of months as producers tested the lighting system ahead of the big debut.
On Tuesday, the hard work finally paid off as crowds of onlookers braved rain, cold winds and a few rogue waves to see the light display’s first official showing. Artist Carolyn Tillie and her husband brought chairs, picnic food and wine to the show. Others accessorized outfits and even bikes with blinking lights to celebrate the occasion.
Mayor Lee predicted an extended lifespan for the project, saying the city will want to keep the display longer than its two-year engagement. He hopes it will help give San Francisco the reputation as a location for world class art.
Relieved to finally hit the On button for the project after years of work, Villareal isn’t thinking that far into the future at the moment. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” he said.