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Laser rainbow to shine on San Francisco’s Market Street for APEC—and it’ll be brighter in the rain

A rainbow of laser lights shines down San Francisco's Market Street at night.
During APEC, Illuminate will reprise its June 2022 display of rainbow laser lights down San Francisco’s Market Street. | Source: Brian Feulner for The Standard

Illuminate, the San Francisco organization behind large-scale public art projects like the Bay Lights and JFK Drive’s Golden Mile, will reprise its Pride 2022 display of rainbow lasers along the full length of Market Street next week.

The reinstallation is timed with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, the economic summit that’s expected to bring an unprecedented number of global political and business leaders to San Francisco for a week of talks and other events.

This time, though, there will be twice as many lasers. And it gets dark a lot earlier in mid-November than in late June, ensuring more people can see it.

“We’ve worked the controls for the color-changing, so we can move in a more glacial realm and have a more beautiful color story above the city,” Illuminate cofounder Ben Davis told The Standard. “We’re going to set up Sunday and go live on Monday the 13th.”

While not formally attached to the conference, Davis calls it a gift to the people of APEC from the city of San Francisco.

For June 2022’s display, “Welcome,” Illuminate deployed six lasers representing the hues of Gilbert Baker’s famous LGBTQ+ Pride flag. For this iteration, simply titled “Illuminate San Francisco,” there will be 12 lasers. And while summer fog looked spectral with powerful beams shining through it, Davis and his team are particularly excited for next week’s dreary forecast.

“When lasers hit ambient weather, magical things can happen,” he said. 

An artfully blurry image of rainbow laser beams in Downtown San Francisco with an F-Market streetcar.
"Welcome" was Illuminate's Pride 2022 light installation. This next iteration will have 12 lasers instead of six. | Source: Courtesy Joshua James Sandoval

The display will be up from sunset to sunrise on four consecutive nights beginning Monday. Illuminate received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration and is again collaborating with the Port of San Francisco, as the lasers are mounted at Harry Bridges Plaza—the giant, skateboarder-filled median between The Embarcadero’s traffic lanes and opposite the Ferry Building.

Eric Young, the Port's communications director, confirmed with The Standard that Illuminate had filed an application, but added that it was not yet complete.

"If Illuminate is able to complete the application consistent with permit requirements, the lights should be operating during APEC," Young said.

To execute such a large-scale project in such a tight time frame, Illuminate has launched a crowdfunding campaign with a goal of raising $150,000.

As the rainbow is a well-known symbol of LGBTQ+ liberation, it may be tempting to read a political subtext in the timing of "Illuminate San Francisco." After all, several APEC member economies, including Russia and Malaysia, have curtailed queer-identified citizens’ rights. Davis said this is not the case.

“For me, rainbows are not politics. It’s about a spirit that transcends humans, and the beauty and magnetism of life,” he said. “But pick another place for your conference if you don’t like that.”

Rainbow laser beams shining over Downtown San Francisco are reflected in a puddle on the street below.
Illuminate is crowdfunding to raise $150,000 for this forthcoming installation. | Source: Courtesy Matthew Cerrudo

The other sticky wicket is artist Yvette Mattern, who claims that Illuminate has copied similar work of hers, called "Global Rainbow," without proper credit. Davis told The Standard he’s been in touch with Mattern’s legal team and offered to honor her on Illuminate’s website but that a rainbow-hued light installation is also a “pretty obvious idea.”

“The last thing she did was in Brazil, where she was sponsored by Doritos," he said. "I feel no shame in any way whatsoever, and we’ve been as generous as we can be to her.”

Reached for comment, Mattern disputed Davis' claim, saying that she has not heard from him or Illuminate since they met in a San Francisco hotel last year to discuss their respective work and that she's since lost commissions for rainbow laser installations in Key West and Venice Beach.

"This is all about money and power in San Francisco, and they tried to destroy my reputation in the process," Mattern told The Standard. "The whole thing is gross."

Neither Davis nor Mattern identify as LGBTQ+, although Mattern said her work is undertaken in honor of a gay cousin of hers.

During a period where San Francisco’s reputation has been pummeled in the media, the city is attempting to put its best foot forward. Davis sees Illuminate’s work as a potent kind of nonpartisan civic boosterism.

“We’re putting photons through space and letting the magic of San Francisco show itself in the light,” he said. “We let you see what’s already there, with ferocity.”

This story has been updated with comment from artist Yvette Mattern and from the Port of San Francisco.