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Artist Prepares To Light Up San Francisco’s Bay Bridge Like Never Before

An image taken from a video of The Bay Lights. The lights will be turned on Tuesday, at 9 p.m. PT.

The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge "is the Rodney Dangerfield of bridges," as our friends at KQED say. While the Golden Gate gets respect and tourists, the Bay Bridge simply does its job. But the humble span will shine Tuesday, thanks to 25,000 light-emitting diodes.

The white lights will form patterns that continuously morph and move across the bridge's span, or slide up or down its supports. The Bay Lights project is the work of artist Leo Villareal, who uses diodes like pixels to create scenes of mesmerizing fluidity.

Villareal's earlier projects include Multiverse, a tunnel-like light sculpture of 41,000 LEDs that hugs the ceiling of a 200-foot passageway in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

For the installation on the Bay Bridge's western span, the artist is creating "the world's largest LED light sculpture, 1.8 miles wide and 500 feet high," according to the project's web site.

"This is using a lot of physics," Villareal tells KQED's Cy Musiker, explaining how his lights create patterns and forms. "It's a program that we wrote, called Particle Universe. We can change their mass, their velocity, the gravity."

The Bay Bridge project comes with a price tag of $8 million, financed by donations. As of this writing, about $6 million had been donated. Villareal says he expects the bridge's light shows to bring $97 million to the area's economy.

"Really? People are going to fly here and spend tourist dollars here, just to see this bridge?" Musiker asks.

"Yes," Villareal says. "Public art is a powerful magnet... A lot of people are drawn to this. And many people already have told me that they feel anxiety when it goes out, when it's not on, like something is missing."

Once they're lit Tuesday night -- a live webcast starts at 8:30 p.m. PT, and the lights go on at 9 p.m. -- the Bay Bridge's light show will run each night from dusk to 2 a.m. for two years. The display has been installed on the bridge's northern side.

The project's organizers estimate it will cost about $11,000 -- or about $15 a night -- to operate the lights. That amount has been donated to the project, in the form of solar credits.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit www.npr.org.

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