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.