Salesforce Tower’s Light Show, One Year In

By Jesse Hamlin

Artist Jim Campbell is making tweaks to ‘Day for Night’ as some wonder, “Is that all there is?”

Veteran San Francisco lawyer Dave Kennedy lives on a steep North Beach street that provides a direct view of the skyline-topping Salesforce Tower from his front steps. Like most people, he’s struck by the sheer scale of the monumental oval shaft, a symbol of the new city visible across the Bay Area.

He’s less impressed by Day for Night, the ambitious light installation by lauded San Francisco artist Jim Campbell that has played nightly on the six-story crown of the 1,070-foot tower since last May.

“I’m completely underwhelmed by it,” Kennedy said in late March, expressing the sentiment of those who’d hoped for something more from this much-heralded piece, beyond the repetitive images of silhouetted ballet dancers, waves, clouds and other shifting forms.

In fact, until last month — after Campbell finally got the OK to install cameras atop the Exploratorium and Cliff House to capture daily images to be transmitted through the artwork’s 11,000 LED lights — that was the same basic video loop playing night after night, the artist says.

Now — assuming things went as planned —the imagery has started changing nightly, with fresh footage of the bay and sky shot daily from the Exploratorium, and waves hitting the rocks below the Cliff House, reflected that evening in Day for Night. Sometime in the next few months, images of pedestrian traffic in Salesforce Plaza at the foot of the tower should filter into the mix, too.

“The imagery will stay minimal, it won’t become flashier, but it will be different from day today,” says Campbell, noting that the goal from the get-go “obviously was not to do Las Vegas or Times Square, but create something that blends in with the City.”

If some people are bored with the piece because it’s always the same, that will change, the artist notes. But if it’s because they think it’s too minimal, “I’m afraid they might think it’s still too minimal,” he adds, with a laugh.

Campbell, who’s heard from people who love the piece and those who don’t, is keen to tap the rhythms in the tower plaza, “where people are moving in all directions. It’s chaotic, and I think that will look nice up on the building.”

For now, he and some helpers, including students from California College of the Arts who will show their light pieces on the tower May 18, are selecting the nightly images. He and some computer folk are working on a program that will automatically analyze the source imagery — it keys in on “movement and power” — and choose the footage to display.

He plans to run the images as they are, but that could change. If, say, “the waves are too gray or just don’t work visually for me up there, I might saturate the colors, or increase the contrast,”Campbell explains. “So the movement will be representative of that day, but not necessarily the colors.”

That should please the Chronicle’s estimable architecture critic, John King, who sensed the promise of Campbell’s piece, but surmised that the visual loop he likened to “the equivalent of skyline-level Muzak” was not the work as the artist envisioned it.

As for the gracefully generic tower itself, King’s sense of it hasn’t changed much since it opened in January 2018.

“There’s a kind of very well-crafted anonymity about it,” says King, who admires the building’s subtle texturing and neighborliness — “it’s well-tailored, and trying to be a good citizen” — but feels it lacks a certain snap you want in a building that big.

That little snap may come with Day for Night. Campbell is working with Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet to create a kind of bodily clock that will appear on the hour, ritual-like, and somehow tell the time. And he plans to begin each evening with a time-lapse display of that day’s sky.

If it works out, he says, as the City turns dark, “you’ll see the whole day unravel in the sky in maybe the first 20 minutes of the piece.”

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