The Bay Bridge Gets Its Glow On

When an algorithm-driven light show took over the Bay Bridge last week, it was the latest example of how much technology is transforming how cities look.

Bay Bridge

Is the Bay Bridge now the cooler bridge in San Francisco? Photo courtesy of Leo Villareal

Last week, for the first time in 75 years, the Bay Bridge, connecting San Francisco and Oakland, made the Golden Gate seem like just another bridge.

Kudos to Leo Villareal. He’s an artist who works with lights, but also with algorithms. And his latest project, The Bay Lights, is probably the most spectacular example of that mix of art and tech that most of us have ever seen.

Under Villareal’s direction, teams of electricians spent the past five months stringing 25,000 LED lights a foot apart–from the top of the bridge’s towers down to the deck–for the full length (almost two miles) of the bridge’s western span.

Drivers crossing the bridge aren’t distracted by the spectacle of all the white dots. They can’t see them. But from the shore, it’s a very different view. Sometimes the light seems to drip down like a steady San Francisco rain. Other times it looks like shadows of clouds moving over the bay. That’s the point. Villareal wants the lights to mirror the natural elements around them. And like nature, the bridge’s lights will never look exactly the same for the next two years. That’s the algorithms at work.

There are no cheap tricks–no splashes of color, no words spelled out, no images–in fact, nothing clearly identifiable. Just constantly shifting abstractions so people can see what they want to see.

Says Villareal: “My goal is to make it feel alive as possible, as alive as a sequence of numbers can be.”

Whither reality?

Public art has come a long way from statues of white guys on horses. And it’s not just about the scale of something like The Bay Lights. It’s what technology has made possible–art that’s dynamic, that shifts mood and shape and sometimes augments reality. Some, of course, are not impressed, seeing art by algorithm as not much more than a 21st century version of parlor tricks. So be it.

But there can be little question that digital technology is now the driver in not just how we interact with our environment, but also in how we view it. And whether its method is to enhance the world around us or to change entirely how it appears, this is where public art is headed.

Like Leo Villareal, B.C. Biermann is a digital artist who wants to provide fresh visions to city life. But he does it by offering slices of an alternative reality. His art projects involve adding a new interactive layer to public spaces.

A few years ago, he co-founded an organization called RePublic and one of its first augmented reality projects, in July 2011, allowed people to point their smartphones at specific Times Square billboards and instead of viewing massive, flashing ads, they were able to see original pieces of urban art. Next came a project in which people aiming a digital device at a fading mural in Norway could see what it looked like when its paint was fresh. And then came the augmentation of buildings in Los Angeles and New York, which were were transformed into fanciful virtual murals on the small screen.

Biermann is now looking at refining his augmented reality concepts so that people could have choices of what “surface” of a building they want to see. Maybe they get an image of what it looks like inside the walls, maybe how it might look 20 years from now. He’s also working with an architecture professor at Washington University in St. Louis to develop a version of his app that would digitally revitalize several of the city’s buildings, with the goal of showing how better urban planning can profoundly change a streetscape’s looks.

As Biermann sees it, one day we may be taking virtual tours of cities, but what we see on our smartphones could be a very different-looking place than the one before our eyes.

That is, if we’re still paying attention to the one before our eyes.

Art palpitations

Here are a few other public art projects built around digital technology:

  • But the lights will not spell out, “Hi, Mom: Now that Bay Lights is in play, a little of the glitter is gone from Luminous, the light spectacle covering the front of a four-story building in Sydney, Australia. When it was unveiled last year, it was described as the world’s largest permanent interactive light display. And one big difference between it and the light show on the Bay Bridge is that it comes with touchscreens that give people in the restaurant down below the chance to become LED programmers.
  • However, they refuse to dance to “Gangnam Style”: And in Winnipeg, Canada, they now have their own interactive art piece that makes up in whimsy what it lacks in grandeur. It’s a collection of 68 LED lights that react to sound, specifically whistling. Called Listening Lights, its inspiration is a Canadian legend that when a person whistles, the Northern Lights become more intense and dance towards the person doing the whistling.
  • Finding their inner building: While it lasts for only a few days in January, the Ghent Light Festival in Belgium is worth a mention if you’re talking about doing digital magic on buildings. Here’s a video from the dazzling 2012 version of the event.
  • And they should know at least a few insults: And here’s one that’s a work in progress. Believe it or not, New York City still has 11,000 payphones, which actually came in pretty handy during Superstorm Sandy. But clearly they need a 21st century facelift and now the city has just announced six finalists in a competition to reinvent the payphone. The entries will be judged on what their reinventions can do. Are they wifi hotspots? A gatherer of data, such as street level pollution levels? Or a true urban kiosk, one that can wirelessly call a cab and be able to tell you what food trucks are where that day? And they have to look good. This is New York, after all.

Video bonus: See for yourself the spectacle of the new Bay Bridge and get an explanation of how it works from the artist himself in this New York Times video report.

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