Potrero Hill Artist Lights Up Salesforce Tower

in / by

Jim Campbell, a contemporary artist who specializes in works featuring LED lights, has been a De Haro Street resident since 1987. Originally from Illinois, Campbell moved to California in the 1970s, and pursued an engineering career in Silicon Valley for 25 years. According to Campbell, his artistic career emerged during those years, but had its inception when he was a Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering student.  While at MIT Campbell pursued filmmaking and photography as “An outlet from the neuroticism of engineering.”

In 1988, Campbell and local artist, Jai Waggoner, held a joint show on the theme of mental illness at a Tenderloin art gallery. He was approached by a San Francisco Museum of Modern Art representative, who invited him to take part in a group exhibition at the museum.

“I went from having never been in a show to being part of a group show at the Museum,” Campbell said. “I gradually started doing more work. My artwork has gone through a couple different phases. I worked on interactive art, and around 2000 got more interested in perception; understanding and revealing how people see things.”

Campbell’s art career grew in the years following the SFMOMA show. During that time, his De Haro Street home and a renovated garage served as his art studio. About 12 years ago, he and his wife, Tessa Wilcox, adopted their daughter, Maya Campbell, and life became hectic juggling two careers and a family. A self-described workaholic, Campbell decided to pursue his career as a light artist full-time, and shifted his art studio from home to a rented space on Third Street.

Last month, Hosfelt Gallery, on Utah Street, exhibited about 15 of Campbell’s works.  “Far Away Up Close” explored the mysteries of human perception through shifting images flickering through LED lights. “Campbell’s pieces are unique among artists using technology; not only because he designs and builds the computer systems that make them function. More significantly, his choice of media is conceptually linked to his message: he uses technologies developed for information transfer and storage to explore human communication and memory. His is not technology used merely to wow, but to consider the relationship of our minds to the technologies we’ve created,” states Hosfelt Gallery literature.

Perhaps the most monumental work of Campbell’s career is slated to open in January. The recently completed Salesforce Tower, at 415 Mission Street, a joint venture by Boston Properties and Hines, is a 61-story commercial building that’ll feature an LED light installation by Campbell on the tower’s top 150 feet.  Illuminated at night, the art display will consist of 11,000 LEDs showing low resolution scenes in color and motion.  According to a description from the developers, the LEDs will face inward toward the tower’s center and produce reflected light, resulting in softer images that’re designed to blend in with the City’s skyline, as opposed to being dramatic. No set narrative will define the changing imagery; they’ll be a combination of scenes photographed from around San Francisco, as well as more abstract graphics.

“The artwork will not function as a billboard, but will be an expression of the building and its relationship to the City, manifesting a poetic presence in both form and content that is inseparable from the gestalt of the building, which is inseparable from the City,” explained a statement from the developer.

Boston Properties-Hines hired art consultants to identify an artist to create an installation for the building’s crown. According to Campbell, they narrowed their search to less than 40 artists from around the world, and asked five finalists to submit proposals, with his design selected.

“I’m 61, and this will have a lot of visibility, in addition to being fun and exciting,” Campbell commented. “A lot of my work starts out as experimental, and this one did too. How can you deal with imagery to help define a skyline? There’s no precedent for that. I’m making it as flexible as possible, so that it works in the context of the skyline and in the context of the City. I don’t want it to be a light show; the last thing I want is a spectacle. I want something that blends and is in harmony with the City.”

Testing of the installation will begin this month, likely at brief intervals in the middle of week, late at night. When is goes live in January, the piece will remain a work in progress for another year as Campbell solicits public feedback. He estimates that about one million people will be able to view it nightly. Potrero Hill’s north slope will offer a particularly good vantage point to view the tower, and also a decent place to solicit feedback from neighbors, he said.

In addition to the tower installation, a much smaller low-resolution display street-level on Mission Street will complement the scene high above. The building’s 1.4 million square feet of commercial space is beginning to be occupied, including retail spaces on the first and fifth floors. The tower will have direct access to a 5.4-acre City park that’s under construction as part of the adjacent Transbay Transit Center project.

“My goal is that I want people to see things differently,” Campbell expressed. “I want people to think about how they see and perceive things; not to give them everything, but leave holes for their minds to fill in. It’s more about creating images that are felt instead of seen. It’s designed to elicit more of an intuitive and primal response instead of an analytical one.”