Bay Lights Project Turns to Tech Leaders to Bridge Funding Gap

“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 … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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