"Run for the hills. Leave now. You have to find shelter. They have a cheese sommelier."
A friend whispered this warning to me after seeing the spread at the Gift of Light Gala last Wednesday. The "unforgettable evening" was orchestrated by a crowdfunding startup called Crowdtilt in order to raise money to keep The Bay Lights, an $8 million public art installation only visible from the San Francisco side of the Bay Bridge, lit through 2026.
As the sun sunk on the Embarcadero, a troupe of ballerinas wearing tutus embedded with LED lights (to match the art) spun out of Coqueta, the Spanish restaurant where the gala was hosted, and onto the Pier 5 boardwalk. The dancers splayed and bowed accompanied by a lovely young violinist—the girlfriend of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick—who played her own interpretation of "Blurred Lines."
Once the ballerinas fluttered off for a photo-op, my friend explained the sommelier test: "If you serve yourself the cheese, it's not a bubble. But if someone is slicing the cheese for you . . . " The last time he spotted a cheese sommelier was at a party in 2000 where guests were served Gjetost. "It's a Norwegian cheese that's stinky and smelly. It's one of the tastes of the bubble."
The gala was being financed by Crowdtilt, the crowdfunding platform incubated at Y Combinator, which raised $37.1 million in financing (not from the crowd). The campaign's goal is to crowdfund $1.2 million so that the Bay Lights won't turn off in 2015. Venerated yeller Ron Conway, his protege Mayor Ed Lee, and Wordpress CEO Matt Mullenweg were all named as co-hosts on the invitation. None of them showed in three and half hours I stuck around. (Mullenweg was apparently still checking in from Auckland on Foursquare hours before the event.)
But the project—by artist Leo Villareal, who used to work as a researcher at a think tank run by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen—has elicited donations from high-profile industry insiders like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Mark and Alison Pincus. Pincus, the founder and former CEO of Zynga, watched the outdoor ballet in a hoodie and sneakers. Investor Shervin Pishevar, who sits on the board of Illuminate the Arts, the nonprofit behind the installation, was there in a suit.
Last March, the East Bay Express published a thoughtful exploration of how nouveau tech riches were affecting local investment in the arts. Ellen Cushing, the author of the piece, called out The Bay Lights as an example of the increasingly transactional nature of philanthropy. The project, which uses 25,000 LED Lights "is a monument to the power of technology on both an artistic and a literal level (also perhaps tellingly, it's viewable only from San Francisco, not the East Bay)," she wrote, noting that the "Microsoft Medicis" have been "dramatically changing what kinds of projects get funded, and how," like for example, a public work of art you can see from your penthouse.
We never did figure out how the cheese boards, with their glimmering little triangles of dulce de membrillo, were being distributed. Coqueta is run by celebrity chef Michael Chiarello (in the apron above), and there were too many hors d'oeuvres and confections to sample, including a signature cocktail with little tapioca balls meant to mimic the triangle of Bay Lights at the bottom of your glass (when suctioned up through a straw). LED pins, with variable levels of brightness, followed a similar theme.
In any case, a sommelier isn't a very useful litmus test for a bubble. Who knows how many line cooks in how many kitchens are boiling down quinces or how many waiters are gliding through how many crowds, rind cutter at the ready, to seduce potential patrons of the arts. The gala felt more like a leading indicator of an expectation of ostentatiousness, or at least an increasing absence of self-consciousness. In an over-saturated industry, a certain je ne give a fuck can make you stand out. Earlier that day, Yo, a smartphone application that lets users broadcast one word ("Yo") to other users, smugly announced a $1 million raise.
The evening was also marked by the sweet smell of self-delusion. The same event organizer who described Gabi Holzwarth as a "dubstep violinist" and the "flash mob" of ballerinas said the whole idea of crowdfunding the next $1.2 million was to make it more like Wikipedia and not leave it to Google or other sponsors. Crowdtilt CEO James Beshara told attendees that he was honored to be powering the largest civic crowdfunding campaign to date, after a Kansas bike-sharing program.
On my drive here—I had to jump into an Uber because I wouldn't be able to park—so I jumped into an Uber, the Uber driver had no clue that The Bay Lights were going to be turned off if we don't raise this funding. The crowdfunding campaign, if it does anything, it educates the wider population that this is not a foregone conclusion.
As a native San Franciscan told me later: "It's tech people who think Burning Man is an important cultural contributor."
Ben Davis, the chair of Illuminate the Arts, didn't want to be a "downer," but he asked gala attendees to imagine what would happen if The Bay Lights went down.
They're coming down because CalTran needs to maintain this bridge. In the spirit of innovation, just imagine that in the daytime if you look closely you can see teams of painters up there using new materials and new techniques and not just get a three year life out of painting the bridge but 10 or 15 years. And then imagine the same crews in the middle of the night—so they don't cause traffic disruption—through a series of months, hanging out, risking life and limb, seemingly at least, between 11 o'clock PM and 5 o'clock AM in the morning stringing these lights back up, stringing a new more robust product. Twisting the view a little bit to the southeast so we open the view up a little bit more to the emerging part of San Francisco.
Reached by phone later, Davis told Valleywag that by "emerging" he meant San Francisco's Southeast waterfront. Rotating the lights a few degrees would also make it visible to areas like Potrero Hill and Pier 70.
Davis originally dreamt up the idea because, unlike the Golden Gate Bridge, "I think of the Bay Bridge as our bridge. It is the bridge that connects Oakland to San Francisco," he said. "I was trying to celebrate the underdog bit of architecture." However, due to "the physical nature and the safety nature," the lights just cannot be visible from Oakland or it will distract drivers.
Davis still called it an "arts spectacle that's radically accessible."
"There's no way that Oakland will be excluded from this experience," he explained. "It is always 20 minutes away for anyone from Oakland who wants to come over. I will host parties for people to come join me on Pier 7. We will have a cookout."
Perhaps since Crowdtilt was hosting the party, it was "oversampled with high tech players," said Davis. "We are looking to absolutely escape the orbit of that transactional space." In the initial stages, marketing managers and companies asked if they could have their logo on the art installation. "'Wouldn't it be great if we could have title naming rights?'" But, "we decided to live or die with integrity," he insisted, declining to name the companies. "I'd prefer not to for obvious reasons. I think they just thought that's the way things were done."
Davis also directed Valleywag to previous Illuminate the Arts projects like Pi in the Sky. The website describes it as "an ephemeral skywriting installation." To demonstrate how etching the number in the clouds was another "spectacle that was available to everyone," he mentioned a YouTube video with 90,000 hits taken by a bunch of teenage kids. "You can't see their faces, but they sound multiracial."
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[Image by Jim Cooke; photos by Nitasha Tiku]