Bay Lights Project Turns to Tech Leaders to Bridge Funding Gap

5/22/12Follow @wroush

“What if we thought of it as a canvas, rather than a bridge?”

That’s the question that occurred to Ben Davis as he was sitting outside the San Francisco Ferry Building one Saturday morning in September 2010, gazing at the western span of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Not long after, he got a chance to propose the idea to New York artist Leo Villareal—and now he’s running a non-profit dedicated to using the bridge as the framework for a massive Villareal “light sculpture” called Bay Lights.

The plan, if enough money can be raised, is to mount 25,000 individually addressable LEDs on the bridge’s suspension cables, turning the iconic structure into to a giant display for a shimmering, never-repeating constellation of patterns. (You have to watch the video rendering below, created by two employees at Pixar, to fully grok the concept.) The two-year, $8 million light show would come at a key time in the Bay Area, coinciding with the America’s Cup regatta, the opening of the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge, the completion of the new Exploratorium, and several other signature events. Analysts predict it could be seen by as many as 50 million people and bring the city $97 million in added tourist dollars.

Private backers, including prominent Bay Area entrepreneur-investors such as Ron Conway, Matt Mullenweg, and Adam Gross, have already committed $5 million for the project. But there isn’t much time left raise the rest. Davis says Caltrans, the state agency that controls the Bay Bridge, wants the organization to show it has $7 million in the bank before construction begins in July. “It doesn’t happen if we don’t raise $2 million more by July 1,” he says.

So Bay Lights is appealing to the technology community to help it complete a crash fundraising effort. The organization is urging Bay Area entrepreneurs and engineers to use social media, including Twitter and Facebook, to form teams of contributors. The teams that raise the most money but June 30 will win a variety of perqs, such as an invitation to a City Hall reception with Villareal and civic leaders. The top fundraising team gets a dinner with Villareal and invitations to the grand lighting gala and VIP pre-party.

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Why should the tech community be willing to pony up for public art? Maybe because Villareal’s design is partly a paean to technology. After all, it’s a Burning Man-style light show on a canvas a mile and half long. “The piece really reflects the beautiful synthesis between art and technology here in the Bay Area,” says Davis. “It’s reflective of the quality of life that we enjoy and our ability to inspire one another.”

Also, it’s just damn cool, and for two years every smartphone-toting tourist in San Francisco will be posting photos and videos of the light show to Instagram and Facebook. “Knowing that it will be widely shared and passed around through new means of technology, we are encouraging the technology community to get involved,” Davis says. Local technology leaders, he says, “have a track record of being able to band together in coopetition and make some great things happen for the region.”

The Bay Bridge, which is actually three bridges in one (two suspension bridges on the San Francisco side of Yerba Buena Island and a seismically dicey truss bridge on the Oakland side), turned 75 years old last year. But it has always labored in the shadow of its more famous sibling, the Golden Gate Bridge. As soon as the Golden Gate opened in 1937, six months after the Bay Bridge, “the whole world fell in love with it, and the poor old Bay Bridge, with a cinder on its cheek, began doing the really hard work of carrying 280,000 cars a day,” laments Davis, who also runs a San Francisco-based creative agency called Words Pictures Ideas. The Bay Lights project will finally be “a moment for that bridge to shine,” he says.

In Villareal’s designs, the bridge’s cables will be studded with a network of LEDs, each one foot apart. A computer will control the lights to produce an ever-shifting pattern of dots, rays, and waves. Davis says the lights will be attached to the cables using special non-pinching clips designed by local chocolate magnate Timothy Childs, founder of TCHO, and prototyped on a Makerbot 3D replicator.

“That’s one of the heroic little stories” about the project, Davis says. The manufacturer of the LEDs had thought about using zip ties, but they “didn’t want to be responsible for pinch that might be applied to the cables. We got a really strong assist from Timothy, and the Makerbot tech has been key to fluidly getting the new clip tested.”

Villareal has already made it clear that the designs shown on the bridge will be abstract, with no images or text. That means you won’t be seeing giant Google, Cisco, or Bank of America logos plastered across the bay—but at the same time, it means Davis’s group is forgoing a major funding source.

“This bridge belongs to all of us,” Davis explains. “We’ve been really clear that while we are inviting participation from everybody and are willing to share with supporters in a variety of ways, it’s not the kind of thing where you can have a title or a sponsorship. No one will ever get their image on Villareal’s art.”

But what about non-commercial experimentation? Wouldn’t it be cool, for example, to let Bay Area fifth-graders compete for the chance to show their own designs on the bridge? Davis says Bay Lights’ board has ruled that out too.

“Without question, in the world we live in there is an impulse for almost everything that can be interactive to become interactive,” he says. “We have had significant conversations about this topic, but Villareal’s experience is that there aren’t ways to do it well. This is an important enough space and venue that we don’t want to open it to public-playground interpretations.”

So the clock is ticking on Bay Light’s effort to raise the last $3 million—two-thirds of which must be gathered by July 1. Davis says he hopes other tech leaders will follow in the footsteps of the group’s very first backer, Automattic CEO and WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg.

“He was 27 at the time, and for him to find his philanthropic muscles so early made all the difference for us in the early days,” says Davis. “We need more heroism. We need people to step up who are really eager to give back and support this shared experience.”

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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