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Tom Loughlin’s Signal Repurposes 22 Tons of Bay Bridge Steel Into Public Art

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Tom Loughlin’s Signal looks out across the Bay. You can climb on it! (All photos by Peter Lawrence Kane)

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge near Seattle was a late-1930s public works project that became a notorious engineering disaster. Nicknamed “Galloping Gertie,” the bridge began vibrating shortly after the roadbed was installed. It opened to vehicular traffic anyway, but the vibrations continued as the area’s natural winds matched the bridge’s own harmonic frequency — a phenomenon with the decidedly pretty name “aeroelastic flutter.” You can watch video of it shaking itself apart in a 1940 windstorm, often referred to as the most famous “non-fatal” structural collapse in U.S. history — but while the last guy who tried to drive over it managed to escape his car, he couldn’t get his terrified dog to come along.

This is exactly how bridges aren’t supposed to behave, but when the Oakland Museum of California put out a call for artists to produce work from chunks of the former eastern span of the Bay Bridge, Tom Loughlin saw vibration as a positive thing. He took 22 of the 30 tons he was given from the “top chord” of the bridge, plus a red, blinking light from one of the towers, and fashioned Signal, a 14-sided public art on Treasure Island piece that periodically oscillates at the low frequency of 36 Hertz. It sits on ordinary dirt, but with elastomeric pads that allow it to vibrate freely. (They’re basically big rubber hockey pucks, similar to what City Hall’s seismic engineers upgraded that building with so that it survives the Big One.)

We checked it out on Sunday afternoon, and Loughlin happened to present on-site, answering questions and gamely holding a hardware-store ladder up so people could safely clamber about his gray, riveted creation. The low, pulsing sound the Signal makes will probably strike people as either ominous or strangely soothing, but since it repeats itself, it doesn’t feel like a horror film set in outer space where a xenomorph is about to burst through the airlock.

“I think low-frequency vibrations are either comforting or dreadful, so it’s my hope that people find it comforting,” Loughlin said. “It’s an analogy to a foghorn, which I think of as a comforting sound, but it’s also a warning of danger. We’re all lying in bed in the morning listening to San Francisco, and meanwhile, there are people at sea in the fog trying not to ram into the Golden Gate Bridge. If it’s dreadful the first time, you find yourself synchronizing with it.”

The attached light, at 14 feet above sea level is the other analogue to navigation. A powerful Fresnel lens visible from the Embarcadero — and, presumably, all passing ships — it would have been a significant disturbance to Treasure Island’s residents, who already have to put up with major construction and the unsettling fact that their home is basically an unregistered Superfund site. So Loughlin dimmed it on that side.

There’s also a single hatch — the only remaining one of the three at the ends of the girders because the vibration started making them rattle. (“We had to batten down the hatch,” Loughlin says.) What’s in it?

“If you open it, you would see some electronic equipment in there,” Loughlin says. “I built a computer that drives the audio and the light.” He set the system up so that the oscillations are slightly irregular and organic, as opposed to rigidly mechanical, too.

Oddly, the Treasure Island Development Authority and the Bay Conservation and Development Commission, which has jurisdiction over anything within 100 feet of the shoreline, didn’t initially object to the concept. They were mostly concerned about migratory waterfowl or whether the light would be a hazard.

“What I do as an artist is ask people to do something that’s part of their skill set but out of their comfort zone,” Loughlin said. “It’s people’s job to make it work out fine. What will the future hold? I feel for anybody who’s responsibility is to make sure this thing that’s never been done before will be fine in perpetuity. The Bridge was supposed to last forever — and 85 years and one earthquake later, it’s now structure instead of infrastructure. 

Eighty-five years is a respectable lifespan for a bridge built before computers and in only three years. Loughlin sympathizes with anyone tasked with large-scale project in a harsh, maritime environment — and with steel, which corrodes. A bridge engineer told him that planners never actually built the eastern span to withstand a powerful quake. (It rested on mud, as opposed to the western span, which sat on concrete piers.) And while the authorities have given Signal an initial, three-to-five-year promise, Loughlin naturally thinks into the future.

Photo of Signal construction via Artist Tom Loughlin’s Instagram @realtklough

“I want it to remain perfect forever,” he said. “We’re going to maintain it. We’ll do our best, but it’s a thing in reality so [there will be] unintended consequences. We set something out there and things happen to it. Reality will happen to this thing.”

You can visit Tom Loughlin’s Signal on Treasure Island for the next several years. Construction is everywhere, but follow the posted signs around the island back to its western side, near Mersea.


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Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane

Peter-Astrid Kane (they/them) is the Communications Manager for San Francisco Pride and a former editor of SF Weekly.