25,000 LED lights blink and dance, strung along the network of suspension cables
that help keep traffic flowing across the Oakland Bay Bridge. The lights cascade and wink, answering to the rhythms and patterns created by artist Leo Villarreal. The Bay Lights represents not just public art on a bridge-sized scale, but a grand intersection of science, technology, engineering, art, and math (aka STEAM.) To get a sense of the magnitude and multiplicity of moving parts underpinning this aesthetic behemoth, Liam Nelson sat down to talk with Amy Critchett, Executive Producer of The Bay Lights.
LN: How did this project get started?
AC: My partner in Illuminate the Arts, which is the organization that I founded to be the legal entity behind the Bay Lights, is Ben Davis. Ben Davis is a friend and a colleague. We’ve had some past work experience together as well as some past social experience together. He was part of the Burning Man Camp that I produced a couple years ago for Chip Conley. I recall someone telling me -- I don’t know who it was. Maybe it was Timothy Childs -- that Ben, after coming back from our adventure at Burning Man, had an idea. His idea was to create a sculpture of light on the Bay Bridge. I thought that was interesting. That sounds big. That was probably a couple months before he approached me about the project. I also thought that makes sense because Ben’s company at the time ran a majority of the communications around the building of the new east span of the Bay Bridge. Contextually it made sense. I think part of what the Bay Lights does is really melds and really exposes and supports the art scene in the Bay area but in this heralded, huge, spotlight way that we wouldn’t have accomplished if it wasn’t working with someone like Leo Villareal.
LN: The Bay Bridge is an iconic structure, and one that’s seen by an incredibly broad community of people. That’s an stunning platform— it’s public art on an incredible scale.
AC: It’s amazing the emotional response people have to the bridge itself. I had no idea going into this how passionate and emotional people are about infrastructure and the Bay Bridge in particular because it is such an artery and such a huge connector. Of course there is always a lot of talk about the Golden Gate Bridge is the shining star and all that and the Bay Bridge is the workhorse. Yes, that bridge works hard and meeting and working with Caltrans and all the incredible minds that make that bridge operate was amazing.
Those dudes -- and unfortunately it is mostly men -- are phenomenal. They work so hard. That’s been another amazing part of it. Also in terms of audience we launched on March 5th and we produced a big, huge webcast. Over 120,000 people watched the webcast and we’ve had millions of media impressions; like hundreds of millions of media impressions. Every night we have a live web stream so anyone can see it from wherever they are. We’ve had many challenges getting to this point with the project but one of them was time. We needed to get the permits and have enough money to get the permits and actually do the installation before the east span opened.
LN: I wonder if you could tell us some areas of experience or expertise that came into play that maybe even were surprising to you in the process of getting this done?
AC: I have the capacity to navigate through bureaucracies— the permitting process, there are no words to describe how challenging that was, and how amazing, and how magical because so many people were necessary to make it happen. I had great help and great passion at the highest level from all the agencies that I needed, including the city and county of San Francisco. In order to sign a contract with them we needed to get a resolution from the Board of Supervisors. In order to get a resolution from the Board of Supervisors we had to go to all the neighborhoods. It’s so many layers and at the same time doing the full-on tap dancing, “Sure, we’ll have the money. There’s the bureaucracy and the permit side and then there was fundraising. I’ve had some experience with that but I’m not a fundraiser by profession. I am way better at spending it than I am at raising it. It’s an $8 million project. We raised $6.3 million of it in the past year, which is great, but there’s a funding gap. We’re not out of the woods yet. That was raised by a combination of the work of different consultants who are being challenged to do things differently because we just didn’t have any time. We didn’t have a cultivation cycle. We didn’t have history. What we had was the audacity to just assume that we were going to be able to make it happen and we had Leo. Leo as an entity and Leo as a charger in the art world really was the driving force.
LN: Even though you’re still soliciting the balance of funds, that’s quite a fundraising success story.
AC: I picked up a check for $3.5 million from our anonymous patron at a café on Fillmore Street. Because he’s an art collector and he’s a San Francisco civic philanthropic entity, [the donor is] in support of the art world, and he knew, even though he chooses to remain anonymous, that this was a gift.
LN: Tell me about the technical side of this project.
AC: I’m very comfortable with technology -- I’ve been involved in very complicated start-ups my whole career, some of them technically complicated. After I left Wired Magazine -- that was complicated in its own right -- I went into live web broadcasting well before there were any standards. I would get myself into all of these crazy situations with huge clients, like Nike for example, where I would be producing these technically really challenging live broadcast scenarios. I then went on to Oxygen where we went live with the Convergence Cable Network in an unprecedented way. I’m surrounded by technological challenges. Not that I’m an engineer and not that I know how to fix things, but I know how to ask questions and I know what I don’t know. The installation process, the technical design of the project, and then shepherding it through to actually getting it done, again, I worked with really smart people and you just keep them happy, be flexible, be brave. At one point we had to design literally the mechanism to clip the lights onto the cable. Our lights we bought from Philips Color Kinetics. They’ve never done anything like this before. Of course they have huge installations all over the world but not forward-facing on a suspension bridge with 25,000 lights fully exposed to the elements. There wasn’t a way to actually attach them other than just putting a zip tie. Imagine around this cable choking it with a zip tie. It took a while for them to agree that that wasn’t a good idea. One of our board members, and one of my dearest friends, Timothy Childs, he and one of his colleagues did a 3-D model on a MakerBot of one of the suspender cables and designed what we call our bridge clip, which we then had manufactured and saved us tens of thousands of dollars and also meant that we could actually install the project. Those are the examples of all the things that were happening simultaneously. Then there was the day that my budget went up from $7 million to $8 million in a second. That made my funder really unhappy. I had to navigate through that process.
LN: Did your adrenaline spike? How did you handle that moment?
AC: I just took a deep breath and told them why. When you're making something up technically like we did it ended up the reason why were our technical plans around how to network all these 25,000 lights together was off by about 200 network boxes.
LN: That’s the learning process right there.Yes.
LN: That’s lifelong learning. You cannot prepare for or estimate everything perfectly. There is always going to be something.
AC: That’s why things take a long time. The Bay Lights has not taken a long time.
LN: No, that was fast. That was like Dubai fast.
AC: Yes, it’s funny you mention that because I have a story about that. Christo, God bless him, it takes him 25 years to do a project; to raise the money for it, to get the permits for it, and to do it. Who endorsed the project, by the way. Another thing I did throughout this process was create an organization. We have a whole board of directors and all that means; God bless them. And have launched several grassroots fundraising campaigns.
LN: What type of lights did you use?
AC: They are LED nodes and they are about the size of a quarter; a little bigger than a quarter.
AC: Each one is individually addressable so fiber and power go to each one of them and they are all then run by Leo’s software that he created specifically to be able to manage the 255 levels of brightness.
LN: Is Leo technical hands-on or does he just work with the right vendors for programming and whatnot? There’s a marriage of the two?
AC: Totally. He’s very technically advanced for sure but he also knows what he doesn’t know and he hires great programmers and he knows all the right questions to ask.
LN: Do you have an idea how many vendors were involved in this project?
AC: Thousands of people have been involved in the project.
AC: We have on the BayLights.org a credits page where I really wanted to tell the story of all the different components and all the different people involved at each level. God, I hope I didn’t forget anybody. The Bay Lights is a combination of the technical installation itself. There are several people and reasons why this project would have never happened if it were not for them. My construction manager, Sayeed is one of those folks. He runs all the electrical installation projects for the Bay Bridge. Before I came on the project Ben had met with him and Sayeed was one of the people that could have said, “No, this isn’t going to work.” Sayeed just leaned right into it and said, “Yes, let’s do this.”
LN: Why do you think public arts support?
AC: Because it inspires people to be artists themselves. This piece in particular because it was literally an impossible gesture. It’s really about inspiring that the impossible is possible.
is the Executive Editor of Know Journal.