Bigger, Brighter, Better? Will San Francisco Become a Light Art Destination?

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Haddad and Drugan, Bayview Rise

Last year a conscious effort to leverage light as part of San Francisco’s city brand, primarily to attract hospitality revenue and tourism, was initiated with the debut of Leo Villareal’s The Bay Lights, a privately funded site-specific light installation on the western span of the Bay Bridge. Originally temporary, The Bay Lights is now being considered for permanent installation. In a recent stream of consciousness statement in the San Francisco Chronicle, former Mayor Willie Brown put forth a “modest proposal” for a “Season of Lights” with a contest for the most creatively illuminated building, citing City Hall and Embarcadero Center as great examples of what light can do. This year the San Francisco Travel Association self-branded the city as a “national leader in light art,” with a new website that invites “art and culture lovers” to “embrace the power of light” with a self-guided tour of sixteen disparate light installations around the city ranging from meh to spectacular. If this all sounds like a fervent grab for the attention of Burning Man aficionados in the off-season, well, it might be. Two new works this year, Brian Goggin’s and Dorka Keehn’s Caruso’s Dream downtown and Bayview Rise by Haddad and Drugan on Pier 92, reveal a lot about the possibilities of “light art” and the driving forces behind a movement to light up the city.

Caruso's Dream
Brian Goggin and Dorka Keehn, …and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea (Caruso’s Dream)

The full title of Goggin and Keehn’s latest public art installation is …and my room still rocks like a boat on the sea (Caruso’s Dream) -- it is situated on the façade of a new residential high-rise at 55 Ninth Street and features thirteen sculptural “pianos” created from vintage chicken-wire glass and salvaged pilings from the old transbay terminal. It references an account of the 1906 earthquake, as told by opera legend Enrico Caruso, who was staying at the Palace Hotel and was unsure if he was awake or dreaming after being roused from his sleep during the calamity. From 4pm – 10am daily, viewers can tune into a short-range broadcast on 90.9 FM to hear a Caruso opera recording that inspired the work -- the shifting light of the pianos, lit from within, are timed with the music and it is a bewitching, compelling experience.

I tuned in on my car radio from about a block away and listened as the music rose up out of crackly radio static upon approach (the station can only be heard within a block) and I circled back several times to see the work as Ninth Street has become a busy thoroughfare and there is no space to linger in transit. Certainly one could stand on the sidewalk with their handheld radio or boom box, but modern technology has seemed to eclipse these accoutrements, leaving the savvy viewer/listener to rely on the car radio. If you don’t mind circling back a few times, you can take in the work as I did, listening as Caruso fades in and out of range to compliment the work. The combination of sculpture and light and sound, as well as site-specific history and artifacts, is spectacular -- as a multi-sensory experience it is, by far, one the most interesting public artworks the city has seen.

http://youtu.be/RJ6rTnqHCc0

Public access is an issue – not everyone who sees it on the street will understand the layers available for the experience, few will know to tune in and fewer will just happen to have a radio on hand. As much as I like the radio component, I wonder why the music couldn’t also be broadcast at an acceptable level on the street, to engage a broader, truly public audience and to enable viewers to linger more effectively with the work.

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It is a provocative continuation of the work of Goggin and Keehn, who also produced Language of the Birds, a solar powered public art installation near City Lights in North Beach, featuring the appearance of books in flight. Certainly some will also associate Caruso’s Dream with Goggin’s Defenestration 1997 – 2014, the site-specific sculpture of tumbling furniture aloft on the Hugo Building that was de-commissioned and sold piecemeal earlier this year after the building was slated for redevelopment. Though Defenestration was never considered a permanent work, its long tenure came to stand in for permanence and it was widely considered a beloved icon of the city. Caruso’s Dream is a privately funded artwork commissioned by Avalon Bay as part of the One Percent for Art Program, and vetted by a selection process managed by the Black Rock Arts Foundation, an organization developed by several of the founding organizers of Burning Man. Only time will tell how well the work will be maintained -- technology driven public art is notoriously challenging. Earlier this year, as reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the city opted to remove Diller Scofidio + Renfro’s Facsimile, an eleven year old $1.5 million LED screen-based public artwork on Moscone West, long complicated by glitches and outmoded technology.

Unlike Caruso’s Dream, Haddad and Drugan’s Bayview Rise is a temporary installation. It combines a 187-foot tall illuminated mural on the side of a defunct grain elevator and silo on Pier 92 in Bayview Hunters Point; its projected lights transition through changing filters to reveal different fantastical images in the mural. Certainly the work adds something to Pier 92 that was sorely needed and seems to further interest in redeveloping this area of the city. Commissioned by the Port of San Francisco with coordination from the San Francisco Arts Commission, this work openly considers future plans for mixed-use redevelopment of the area: on the other side of the street, placards announce forthcoming real estate ventures.

Seen at night Bayview Rise goes a long way to make the area seem more accessible -- certainly this is not an area that lends itself to moonlit walks, but nor was Ninth Street prior to the recent spate of developments. Bayview Rise, like The Bay Lights, seems more focused on scale and spectacle than any kind of meaningful engagement with local history or the role it might have to play in shifting perceptions of the city. Whether or not these ideas will be enough to make San Francisco stand out as a “national leader in light art” remains to be seen.

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An outstanding question seems to be whether or not it is enough to have the most or the biggest “light art” versus having the best, most interesting work. In his opinion piece for the Chronicle, Brown suggested that San Francisco might become “a city of lights. Just like our sister city Paris.” It bears mentioning that Parisians widely despised the lighting of the Eiffel Tower. In re-imagining the possibilities for San Francisco, perhaps the larger question should be whether the city wants to reflect the sensibilities and desires of it’s own public audience, or whether it cares more about the whims of tourists, who only ever come and go.