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The Bay Lights: Restaurants with a View and Interview with Artist Leo Villareal

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The Artist and his Canvas. Leo Villareal at Bay Bridge. Photo: Lucas Saugen
The Artist and his Canvas. Leo Villareal at Bay Bridge. Photo: Lucas Saugen

The next time you are on the Embarcadero at night, you many want to look up, up, up. A recent dinner outing to Palomino Restaurant to catch up with Chef Adam Jones, profiled for Bay Area Bites LGBT Pride last year gifted me something extra: the chance to see the Bay Bridge lit up in a spectacular and unusual fashion. Palomino staff and guests were downright giddy to see the blinking lights on the bridge that has traditionally gotten short shrift when compared to that other iconic bridge on the other side of the Bay.

The Bay Lights is the name of a living art sculpture with 25,000 lights that is said to be the biggest of its kind from artist Leo Villareal. It is a definite coup to have Villareal on this privately funded project, because he is known for his expertise in using LED lights and computer-driven imagery. Plan-ahead types may want to book that restaurant dinner now for March 5 to see the main lighting event. Everyone else can rest easy knowing that the Bay Lights will be shining bright for the next two years.

Homes, restaurants and bars along the Embarcadero have the best views of the Bay Bridge, including Waterbar, Epic Roasthouse, Sinbad’s, Perry’s, Americano and Chaya Brasserie. Bay Area residents can also expect frequent testing and sequencing in the nights leading up to March 5. If you have a friend lucky enough to live near the Bay Bridge, butter them up to nab an invite now!

I interviewed Villareal recently to find out more about his work, where to view The Bay Lights, and how Burning Man played a role in his creative process. His comments have been edited for clarity and grammar.


Bay Area Bites: Give us your personal take on The Bay Lights project.
Villareal: My initial impulse was to add an additional layer to this already rich environment. I did not want to overwhelm the site but to augment it by creating a very integrated artwork. I believe my work will allow people to see this iconic piece of infrastructure in a new way.

The final concept is remarkably close to my initial idea. We have fought to keep the project as pure as possible, firmly rooted as an artwork. Each of the 25,000 lights is individually controllable and can display 255 levels of brightness. I write custom software that is based on simple rules but that creates sophisticated effects mimicking those found in nature. My interest is in how a set of numbers can appear to have personality and life. All my work is abstract with no images or text. I engage chance in my process and I am interested in the process of discovery.

The Bay Bridge. Photo: Lucas Saugen
The Bay Bridge. Photo: Lucas Saugen
The Bay Lights. Photo: Lucas Saugen
The Bay Lights. Photo: Lucas Saugen

Bay Area Bites: What are your ties to the Bay Area? What does this art mean for the Bay Bridge and Bay Area as a whole?

Villareal: The Bay Lights is absolutely site specific. It is custom made for its environment and takes its inspiration from the systems that surround it-- the traffic, weather, organic systems all factor into the abstracted movement of the lights.

The Bay Area is incredibly inspirational to me. I lived in San Francisco in the early 90s and worked at a research lab in Palo Alto. There is such a wonderful spirit of innovation and creativity that opened my mind and helped me to integrate art and technology in a deep way.

Bay Area Bites: The Bay Area is home to many Burning Man fans. You have long-term ties to Burning Man yourself. How does that relate to the Bay Lights?

Villareal: I was inspired to created programmed light installations in the mid-1990s. One year, at Burning Man, I put up an irregular grid of 16 blinking lights above my encampment to act as a beacon. I used it to get home after a long night out on the playa. The art-making both on and off the playa evolved from there.

Bay Area Bites: What do you like to eat while you are in San Francisco working on The Bay Lights?

Villareal: Antipasti and pizza funghi with Fontina and black truffle oil at Americano.

Octopus carpaccio, oak roasted Ono and Tomales Bay Oysters at Waterbar.

Hog Island clams and baked eggs at Zuni.

Related Information:
The Bay Lights
Twitter: @TheBayLights
Facebook: The Bay Lights

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