by Alex Bigman
On the afternoon of Wednesday, September 12, 2012, a string of digits appeared across the Bay Area sky. Produced by five skywriting planes equipped with dot-matrix software, the gaseous markings looped around the bay, beginning over San Jose, then circling up to the East Bay, curving over San Francisco, and continuing down the peninsula back to their point of origin.
While only those who caught the initial digits, 3.1415, were likely to recognize it, the seemingly random string of numbers was in fact the decimal expression of pi—the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter—to the first thousand of its (debatably) endless, non-repeating places. It is the longest continuous message that the skywriting team, which typically deals in brief personal messages or simply brand names, had ever undertaken. And with each digit spanning about a quarter mile in length, it may also be the largest ephemeral art installation to date.
I had the opportunity to view the installation from the at once privileged and impoverished vantage point of a sixth plane, flying on the tails of the skywriters for the purpose of documenting the event. Beside me sat ISHKY, the artist responsible for it all. From where we were sitting, the bursts of swirling white exhaust seemed to dissolve as soon as they emerged, forming nothing resembling numbers. However, ISHKY’s phone was abuzz with Instagram-ed proof of pi’s legibility from the ground. A few meddlesome fog banks notwithstanding, his first-ever public art installation was turning out as planned.
ISHKY, otherwise known as Ben Davis, is not an artist in the traditional sense; at least, he has not presented himself as such until now. His pseudonym ISHKY sets Pi in the Sky—Davis’s debut artistic endeavor—apart from his broader professional background, which is in communications and design. His San Francisco–based creative agency, Words Pictures Ideas, crafts visual identities for public works projects such as the Central Market Revitalization Effort and the construction of the Bay Bridge’s new East Span—the largest public works project in California’s history, as measured in sheer dollars.
While working on the Bay Bridge project, Davis ventured to propose what seemed to him an impossibly ambitious idea: to turn the site of the bridge into a massive installation of a work of public art. To Davis’s surprise and delight, his idea was received with gusto by members of the art elite, in particular the New York–based artist Leo Villareal, who proposed a dynamic LED light installation across the bridge’s West Span exterior; the city, which saw tourism dollars in Villareal’s tremendous, twinkling proposal; and Bay Area investors, who saw the lighting-up of this iconic conduit as an endeavor worthy of their philanthropy. While The Bay Lights project, as it is now known, is still in development, it is currently almost three quarters of the way to its eight million dollar goal—far enough to guarantee that the project is a go.
For Davis, The Bay Lights opened a new creative direction. As he marveled over the project while on a bike ride, it occurred to him that the seemingly impossible proposal had managed to galvanize people precisely because of its lofty aspirations and heroic scale. At that point, the mysterious work of the mind took over: “As I was cycling through the town thinking about impossibility and scale and ‘pie in the sky thinking,’ I just saw, sort of as a visual pun, 3.1415 and on and on flash across the sky,” says Davis. 1
Pi in the Sky would come to be quite a bit more substantial than a mere visual pun. Discussing the direct intentions of the installation during our flight, Davis linked the work to land art’s exploration of an expanded artistic field as well as to street art’s interruption of the sanctioned (and overwhelmingly consumerist) messaging visible in most public space. It is rare, Davis noted, that skywriting works in the service of anything other than personal message or mass advertisement, let alone in the name of art. Several other theoretical grounds opened up before our eyes: the boundaries of public space and the inclusive possibilities of scale; the relationship between technology, immateriality, and landscape; the disruption of daily life; and even the unexpected experience of the sublime.
But however much these theoretical launching points informed Pi in the Sky, Davis seems to have been interested, above all, in outdoing himself. He proudly notes that Pi is physically one hundred times larger than The Bay Lights and, while the cost comes in considerably under eight million dollars, fundraising for the project was, to say the least, a significant feat for a team as small as his. (Davis evaded the details of his fundraising approach by way of a Norman Lehrer quote: “At the moment of commitment the entire world conspires to ensure your success.”)
In a second interpretation of Pi in the Sky, due for completion later this fall, Davis will take the concept a step further. He has teamed up with a start-up firm to launch a satellite into space, where it will orbit the Earth every ninety minutes, broadcasting the digits of pi down to terrestrial receiver stations. Blanketing the planet in the endlessness of pi, this second iteration of the project will take the notion of scale to an almost ridiculous limit. Using a smartphone app to be developed by ISHKY Studios, those curious will be able to track the trajectory of the satellite and explore what will no doubt be an overwhelming representation of the numbers emitted to date.
At heart, Davis’s fascination with scale is a striving toward inclusivity. From the pseudonym ISHKY to keeping the
satellite software open source, to the ephemeral and atmospheric installation’s dependence on crowd-sourced documentation, Davis simultaneously adopts the role of the artist and withdraws from its implications in the same breath. Surrendering some of the authorship to the idea of a larger participatory body, Davis explains: “You move it to a larger scale, [and] it requires more people, and it takes on different meaning because it can no longer be an individualistic expression.” Davis’s choice of subject reaffirms this intention: whether viewers understand Pi in the Sky as a random string of digits or understand it as the famous mathematical constant, the work poses no risk of being mistaken for an individualistic expression.
Davis’s conception of the skywriting project brings a unique perspective to the idea of artistic collaboration. He suggests that, rather than seeing the completed work as the sole locus of attention, we might additionally find the art within the exceptional activities and contributions of the many actors who worked to make the project a reality. “Every single part of this that happens is part of the artistry,” said Davis. “The art is the people coming together to make it happen.”
In a way, Davis’s attitude speaks to a distinctively Bay Area mentality—one that sees the value of the network. Working within the context of the Bay Area, Davis acts as a kind of orchestrator, responsible for wrangling and galvanizing the required expertise, capital, and idealism that is so plentiful here, with Silicon Valley’s economic and technological strengths anchoring the region.
Pi in the Sky is included as one of seventeen works of public art in this year’s San Jose–based ZERO1 Biennial. Subtitled “Seeking Silicon Valley,” the exhibition begins with the premise that the Valley is an elusive place or perhaps not really a place at all. Quiet and rather bland, the physical valley is but the convergence point of a network, the critical nodes of which actually extend throughout the bay. Stanford, NASA Ames, Livermore Labs, UC Berkeley, San Francisco’s financial district, Twitter, Google, Facebook, and Apple, for example, are among the institutions composing a broader idea of Silicon Valley. As an act of geographic circumscription, Pi in the Sky at once lassoes these postulated nodes together and suggests the futility of such a gesture. The digits begin dissolving as soon as they appear; the Valley, too, begs for a still more immaterial definition.
With this reading in mind, Pi in the Sky seems astutely site-specific, however elusive that site may theoretically be. As ZERO1’s lead curator Jaime Austin assuredly asserts, “It was thought of in the Bay Area and designed for Silicon Valley.”2
For Davis’s part, however, the work’s relationship to the Bay Area is more incidental than integral. “Really, it could have existed anywhere we could bring the technology,” he said. In fact, Davis suggested, the work’s aspirations towards maximal inclusivity and provoking dialog might have been better served elsewhere—like the more densely populated island of Manhattan, for instance, or the politically loaded territory between Tel Aviv and Beirut.
But it would be a mistake to conclude that Pi in the Sky occurred in the Bay Area and not New York or the Middle East merely out of convenience. Rather, there is room to argue—as Austin does—that the project could not have had success anywhere else. There is a particular culture present in the Bay Area that is not found elsewhere (and to which events like ZERO1, in particular, are designed in response), a culture built on an unerring belief in innovation and a casual disregard for the mainstream that manifests in the Bay Area’s occasionally symbiotic fields of technology and art. Pair this with an enormous wealth of capital and an unmatched number of people willing to fund “pie in the sky” projects with no promised return on investment, and you have ideal conditions for the massive, ephemeral installation of a mathematical constant. All that is needed is someone to articulate a vision and pull the pieces together. On that score, Davis has proven himself the man of the hour.
It has not been easy assessing Pi in the Sky after the fact. While the snippets shared on Instagram and the reactions posted on Twitter are plentiful—by all counts a fairly successful example of crowd-sourced documentation—they offer only superficial insight into what sort of psychological responses the installation effected in viewers. This may be a result of the peculiar interpretive conditions that the installation set up. While Pi in the Sky was visible to a broad swath of the region, each viewer was only afforded a partial view of the piece. For those curious enough to look, a bit of Internet sleuthing would have yielded a clear answer: the digits visible in the sky represented pi, plain and simple.
Through the mathematical impersonality of pi’s decimal expression, free of any individualistic expressivity that would place it in an artist’s grip, Davis was able to fulfill what he thought to be the inclusive promise of truly massive scale. But there may have been an unintended consequence to this: an art installation seemingly without voice was also mute, the hum of Silicon Valley networks notwithstanding. When the numbers of pi faded, little to speak of remained.