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He Sees the Light

Andy Isaacson | March 4, 2013 | Lifestyle Story City Life

A useful way to think about light artist Leo Villareal is as a DJ. His installations manipulate light into richly textured patterns and sequences that call to mind a track of electronic music. And it’s all “mixed” on a computer, as if he were spinning dubstep instead of piecing together breathtaking public art. Simply put, the man’s a light jockey. He makes circuitry sexy and lightbulbs positively glamorous. Villareal demonstrated the tools of his trade on his laptop when I visited his cluttered Manhattan studio last December. Storage shelves were crammed with building materials; half-built LED light boards sat on tabletops. He offered me tea and water, then had it delivered from a market around the corner. (“It’s New York,” he said.)

As he adjusted various controls to produce different effects, Villareal explained how he was using sophisticated software to bring to life his latest groundbreaking, King Kong-sized art piece, The Bay Lights, which will be unveiled on the western span of the Bay Bridge on March 5. Peering at a screen that looked like an equalizer, he showed me how he sequenced patterns of light at various speeds, rhythms, and levels of brightness. He was inspired, he said, by the interplay of traffic, sky, and water around the bridge that he observed during several visits this winter. The Bay Lights consists of 25,000 white LED lights that will be programmed as an elaborate visual iPod in shuffle play mode. The lights will shine from dusk to 2 a.m. for the next two years, but one could stand on the Embarcadero the entire time and never witness the same pattern twice. “My pieces have a lot of personality,” Villareal said, with some understatement. “They feel like they’re alive.”

In his Chelsea studio, a few of Villareal’s early light sculptures were displayed atop pedestals around his room, but most of his projects these days are monumental, site-specific commissions that have outgrown the confines of any domestic space. A mile east of Villareal’s studio, two nested geodesic spheres, inspired by the work of Buckminster Fuller, formed the centerpiece of Madison Square Park for the winter. His largest and arguably most complex sculpture prior to The Bay Lights currently lives inside a 200-foot tunnel walkway built to I.M. Pei in Washington's National Gallery.

Though he’s lived mostly in New York since 1992, Villareal told me that The Bay Lights feels like a full-circle return to his most formative experiences as an artist, at Burning Man and in Silicon Valley. He started out studying sculpture at Yale in the late ’80s, a ripe time for the fusion of art with technology: Macs had colored screens, and Photoshop had just come out. Then came an art internship in Venice and a “tech boot camp” at NYU, where he learned computer graphics and programming. But his three-year stint developing virtual reality at a technology think tank in Palo Alto is what really solidified his aesthetic. He began attending Burning Man around that time, too, and at the 1997 event, he built his first light sculpture. It was just meant to be a navigation beacon to guide him back to camp at night—16 pulsating strobe lights on a wooden lattice structure atop his camper—but he found it profoundly hypnotic.

Villareal was struck by the primal, sensual response that light could evoke. “Some people may think of the bridge project as a light show,” he said. “But I really want it to become a communal experience that highlights this iconic structure.” Though software is an integral part of The Bay Lights, the technological aspect is meant to fade into the background. “I think technology distracts people from what you’re really trying to do,” he said. “What’s interesting to me is how a set of mathematical patterns can bring up connections to much deeper things.”

At the moment, however, Villareal had more quotidian concerns, not least of which was the extreme environment of the bridge. “It’s hairy,” he said. “The weather, wind, moisture—you feel very vulnerable and exposed. And if something isn’t working, you need to schedule a lane closure in the middle of the night to fix it.” The project had technical hurdles, too. To design a clip that would attach the light strands to vertical suspension cables, Villareal turned to his friend Timothy Childs, a former “machine vision contractor” for NASA’s Space Shuttle Program who cofounded TCHO Chocolate.

Villareal believes that The Bay Lights is poised to alter the relationship the city has with its artists. The project involved entities like Caltrans (which consulted on safety issues and stipulated that the lights could not be visible to bridge drivers) that don’t usually collaborate with artists so exclusively.

“This is a really nice precedent,” Villareal told me in his studio. “This is doing public art on a scale that’s never been done in San Francisco. I think there’s no going back.”

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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