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Higher Calling

by Brittany Shoot

Jim Campbell transforms Salesforce Tower into a light show to rival The Bay Lights, as the West Coast’s tallest high-rise comes into its own.

When Salesforce Tower officially opens this month, its crowning jewel will already be lighting up the sky. Day for Night will be the world’s first-ever permanent installation on top of a skyscraper. The piece will illuminate the tower’s unoccupied top nine floors, showcasing 150-foot-tall cityscapes from the previous day thanks to six cameras around the city capturing images of waves crashing on Ocean Beach, trees swaying in Golden Gate Park and pedestrians crossing Market Street. Each night, 11,000 LED bulbs will reflect select footage onto aluminum panels that reflect the moving images into the sky. It is the extraordinary masterwork of award-winning San Francisco visual artist Jim Campbell.

Campbell’s visionary style feels distinctly San Franciscan, creating technology with a human element. In Day for Night, Campbell combines two themes from his substantial body of work: the abstract (waves) and the somewhat more defined (people). “It’s an odd combination of aesthetic and content,” Campbell explains, with an engineer’s thoughtful, straightforward delivery. Crashing waves were selected, for example, simply because Campbell liked them. Fluffy clouds fit into a larger plan to begin each evening’s display by playing back footage of that day’s sky. “You’ll get to see the day unravel,” he enthuses.

For Campbell, the larger-than-life installation is a culmination of a three-decade second career. The acclaimed artist grew up in a Chicago suburb and headed east to earn degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology before coming to California in 1978. Art wasn’t on his mind when Campbell began his first career as a Silicon Valley engineer, developing high-definition converters for low-resolution televisions. He holds over a dozen patents and looks the part of engineer-turned-artist with his bright, wide eyes smiling behind sensible glasses, a thatch of salt-and-pepper hair above.

The transition from designing image processing components to low-resolution visual art might seem obvious. But it wasn’t until his early thirties that he began dabbling in filmmaking and photography. “I took my skills as an engineer and my interest in film and made interactive art very, very, very gradually,” he says matter-of-factly. Twenty years after he first began making art on weekends, he was doing the opposite, his engineering work occupying only several days a month.

When Campbell and his wife adopted a child 14 years ago, one of his two careers had to go. He chose family and art over engineering, even though his technical expertise still features prominently in his artwork.

In addition to exhibiting internationally, Campbell’s captivating pieces have been purchased for permanent collections and have been installed in Bay Area institutions including the de Young, the Exploratorium, Grace Cathedral and SFMOMA, where his cinematic grid of flickering LEDs, Exploded Views, greeted visitors to the western atrium in the years leading up to the museum’s major renovation. Campbell’s hypnotic, rhythmic installation of hanging bulbs that viewers can walk between, Tilted Plane, is currently on view on the seventh floor of SFMOMA through September 16.

Day for Night may end up being deeply personal for San Franciscans who see it nightly. But it’s among the least personal works for Campbell, who has made pieces about the passage of time and human movement, which honored his disabled parents. That doesn’t mean Day for Night doesn’t convey emotion. “It’s about feeling, a sort of visual music,” he says.

You could call Campbell the composer and conductor. During the installation’s first year, modifications will be made based on public feedback. Campbell considers this a two-part harmony, accounting for the content as well as the perception. “I might like the content, but if it’s too blurry and people can’t see it, it’s useless,” he adds.

He has already fine-tuned aspects of the piece, such as affixing LEDs to springs that can bend 90 degrees and bounce back. (Window washers vetoed inflexible six-inch rods he’d originally planned to use, arguing they’d break constantly.) There’s one element Campbell can’t control—not that he’d want to. “The fog couldn’t be better for this,” he explains excitedly. Indeed, the city’s iconic fog neatly mimics the filters and screens Campbell often utilizes in his work to further blur pixels and reduce an image to its most basic. The fog also offered the opportunity to create another aspect of Day for Night: a wide circle of light that will rotate around the building like a lighthouse beacon. He notes with pride, “Those are the kinds of things that make this fun but also relevant.”

Relevant to passersby will be a companion piece planned for ground-level Mission Plaza. The content for the vessel is still up in the air, and while he continues to develop the Mission Plaza plans, Campbell continues to ruminate on the unusual nature of this unprecedented challenge. “There aren’t any cities where I can go and see an image that defines the skyline,” he says.

It’s a challenge he’s learned to embrace. “I call it the big experiment in the sky,” he says thoughtfully. “A million people will see it every night, whether they want to or not. It’s a lot of responsibility.”

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