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The Bay Lights, Leo Villareal’s monumental LED sculpture

The Bay Lights, represents far more than the logistical achievement of stringing 25,000 LED nodes along nearly 5 miles’ worth of vertical suspension cables. The $8 million privately funded piece, which will illuminate the western span (1.8 miles) of the Bay Bridge nightly for the next two years, is the most ambitious project yet by the critically acclaimed Manhattan-based artist Leo Villareal—perhaps best known for his permanent installation, Multiverse, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

A key aspect of The Bay Lights is that the patterns made by the flashing nodes have been shaped by the environment around them. Not only does Villareal program in the variables producing the glowing configurations—which he says will never repeat themselves—he also wrote the underlying software that controls each individual node. (Not surprisingly, this isn’t his first encounter with the Bay Area: the artist, now 45, worked for Paul Allen’s Palo Alto think tank, Interval Research, while in his 20s; that was also when he become a regular at Burning Man.)

In creating those variables, Villareal looks to the bridge itself, and the surrounding Bay, for inspiration: “We have this monumental structure of the American sublime, this beautiful framework. We have traffic moving back and forth, we have boats underneath, the oscillations of the waves, the weather, light, and air. I take input from all of those things”—spending weeks on site, fine-tuning the algorithms on his laptop. “The piece becomes,” he adds, “a mirror of its surroundings.”

“My hope is that The Bay Lights will unleash all sorts of creativity around the Bay Area, and change the way people feel about what can be done,” Villareal says. “My approach to being an artist in society is that things you do should have a really big impact, and for me it’s not really worth it if that’s not the case.”

Leo Villareal was born in New Mexico and educated at Yale (where he was a classmate of Matthew Barney) and NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, the artist now lives in New York City, where he creates artworks using light-emitting diodes and his own proprietary software. The first light sculpture he created was based on a strobe beacon he built in 1997 to mark his Burning Man camp. Since then, he has completed site-specific commissions for P.S.1/MoMA; the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, NY; the Brooklyn Academy of Music, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Next Wave Festival; the National Gallery of Art, where his Multiverse hangs in the underground corridor linking the East and West buildings; the new Tampa Museum of Art; and the 30-foot-tall Buckyball on display this past winter Manhattan’s Madison Square Park.

The Bay Lights is a project of Illuminate the Arts (ITA), an organization based in San Francisco that’s dedicated to the creation and presentation of community-activating public art.

The Bay Lights will go live on March 5th, 2013 at 8:30pm PST and be on view through 2015. For more information visit:

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