National Geographic News
Spectators watch the lighting of an art installation on the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, California.

Spectators watch the grand lighting of thousands of LEDs affixed to the Bay Bridge in San Francisco on March 5.

Photograph by Stephen Lam, Getty Images

Jane J. Lee

National Geographic News

Published March 8, 2013

For the next two years, San Francisco's Bay Bridge will have quite the nightlife. Officials threw the switch March 5 on a new public art installation, turning on 25,000 light-emitting diodes (LEDs) affixed to the suspension cables on the western span.

This public art installation will shine from dusk until 2 a.m. each evening with patterns of light that never repeat, thanks to a computer program created by artist Leo Villareal.

This program, based on software used by graphic artists to simulate rain or snow for movies and games, allows Villareal to flick points of light on and off according to a specific set of rules that he determines.

"You have thousands and thousands of points and they all have simple rules [to follow] and somehow, something complex emerges," Villareal said. "That's really the art."

In the simulated world contained in his computer, Villareal can manipulate parameters including how fast a particle can go, whether they can speed up or slow down, and what happens when multiple points "collide."

"I can play around and find certain combinations that do something compelling," he said. "And that's really the moment I'm waiting for."

Well-known for his work with light, Villareal is no stranger to huge pieces of art. His permanent installation at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., is composed of 41,000 LEDs.

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