PI IN THE SKY: AirSign skytyped the first thousand digits of pi in a 100-mile loop over the San Francisco Bay Area for another aerial art project last year.
Dave Kyu, current artist-in-residence at the Asian Arts Initiative
While discussing his current art project, Dave Kyu, current artist-in-residence at the Asian Arts Initiative, mentions a quote from Oscar Wilde: “When bankers get together, they talk about art. When artists get together, they talk about money.”
The sentiment rings very true with Kyu, which makes sense when you look at the time and energy he’s spent on his current project, “Write Sky.” He’s spent the last five months haggling with plane companies, looking for groups, holding meetings, trying to drum up additional funding and otherwise hustling. That’s about a month or so of work for every minute that “Write Sky” will probably exist as mile-high cloud-letters in the skies above Philadelphia, before it vanishes forever — and that’s assuming it happens at all.
Tasked by the Asian Arts Initiative with creating a project in their neighborhood of Chinatown North (aka Callowhill, aka the Eraserhood, aka Trestletown), the lack of places for neighborhood groups to get together inspired Kyu to look up. “I started to think of the sky as the only public space that this neighborhood had, and symbolically thinking of the sky as a space that everybody shares.”
Kyu initially thought of using a blimp to access that space, but nixed the idea when he found out that a month-long contract runs about $350,000. A plane-pul-led banner, he felt, “wasn’t poetic.” So by process of elimination, he settled on skywriting.
Kyu envisioned messages written in the skies above Chinatown, how they would make thousands and thousands of people around the city stop, look up and hopefully ponder what it all means — “a ‘Wow’ moment,” he says. He got groups together to collaborate on messages and lined up planes. But a last-minute problem with money paused the project. Kyu and his participants aren’t sure if or when they’ll get to see their fleeting messages go up in the air. But they keep working anyway.
“I’m pretty often told that the work that I do isn’t art,” says Kyu, a Tyler graduate. “I don’t think of myself as an artist, much less a creative person. I’m just really interested in how we kind of navigate our own regular, mundane lives.” His performance art frequently reflects on the regular and mundane, like the 2011 project “My Best Friend Facebook Forever,” in which he did “everything Facebook told [him] to” for a month, attending every event that came his way. In 2010’s “Me & You, Keanu,” he acted out the final showdown of The Matrix at a gallery. Both were deliberately accessible to anyone who’s used Facebook or has seen The Matrix — which is pretty much everyone. “Because there is such a barrier for art,” he explains, “I do want people who wouldn’t necessarily be seeking art experiences to have an interest in my work.”
For Kyu, the prospect of creating something with an assortment of neighborhood groups who weren’t necessarily seeking an art experience was exciting. He decided to have neighborhood participants create messages to go up in the air, before he was even sure how it could be done.
When most people hear “skywriting,” they picture a single daredevil pilot tracing a message in looping cursive across the sky. To maximize the number of letters he could afford, Kyu settled on a more cost-effective method: skytyping, in which a team of five planes flying in formation function as something like a high-altitude dot-matrix printer, with white clouds of environmentally friendly canola-oil-infused exhaust fumes serving as ephemeral ink. Skytyped letters are 1 to 2 miles high and visible for over 30 miles, though they stick around for no more than10 minutes, even in the best of atmospheric conditions.
AirSign, the company responsible for writing the first thousand digits of pi over San Francisco for a celebration of Pi Day (shown, right), initially quoted him $20,000 to have their five New York-based planes fly to Philly and create the three messages — three times Kyu’s budget. However, they offered him a deal: The planes were scheduled to head down to Florida in late September for another gig; if they were going to be flying over Philly anyway, just having them go a little out of their way to do the messages would be only $2,000 per message. Kyu put out a call to groups in the area, with flyers written in both English and Chinese. He got so many applications that he asked six groups to partner on messages. He paired them up based on their applications: Roman Catholic High School with Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS), Reading Viaduct Project with the 215 Festival, and the Artists of 319 with Hive76.
Most of those groups’ motivation to join can be summed up by Chris Thompson on Hive76’s application: “Writing things in the sky is awesome. I like awesome things.” When the Artists of 319 walk the couple blocks up to their partners’ workshop at Ninth and Spring Garden for a message-brainstorming session, Hive76’s appreciation of awesome things is obvious — the member-run “hackerspace” is a place where inventors and artists can play around with a giant array of tools (including a 3-D printer that prints chocolate — chocolate) to do pretty much whatever they want. (Which sometimes includes making battling robots.)
Trying to decide what they want to convey within the 25-character limit may seem tough, but the restrictions invigorate the participants. Index cards with possibilities are strewn all over the table. Some go for humor (“ Cloud Not Found”), some for depth (“This Won’t Last”). One, “Be There Soon,” seems like it could be read as a terrifying apocalyptic tweet from God.
But despite the cheerful atmosphere, everyone here knows that “Write Sky” is probably not going to happen — which, as artists, is something they run into all the time. “Every single project that I do requires more money to finish it,” Thompson says, to everyone at the table’s agreement. This one is no exception.
Disappointment is something Kyu is “uniquely prepared for,” he says, due to his day job at Philadelphia’s “Percent for Art” public-art program, hooking up projects with the pool of money that must be set aside from the budget of any building in which the city invests more than a million dollars. Though that means there’s a lot of money earmarked for art, getting anything done is a long, challenging process: construction-plan approval, building approval, community approval, city approval, building approval, maintenance approval, Department of Public Property approval. “Any public art project that I work on takes about two years,” Kyu estimates.
By comparison, “Write Sky” had been a breeze. But a few weeks before it was supposed to happen, AirSign decided to send the planes down to Florida in pairs instead of as a group. Since all five are needed to skytype, having only two in Philly at a time would be useless. AirSign told him it would be another $6,000 to get all of the aircrafts to come through town at the same time — money that Kyu doesn’t have. The initial date is on hold, and there’s currently no set “rain date.”
Kyu has contacted many foundations trying to get the extra grant money — he even contacted GEICO, which has its own skytyping team. So far, he hasn’t heard back — not surprising, as there’s just as much hustle and red tape involved when he’s seeking foundation grants. Usually, he says, it would be about six months.
This is an obstacle that’s extremely familiar to the brainstormers at Hive76. Although he understands it, 319’s Jaime Alvarez says it can be frustrating. “I think from the artist’s point of view, it’s, like, ‘Why is this so complicated?’” he says. “I want to make some beautiful art. You want to fund some beautiful art. Let’s make it happen!”
For Alvarez, this is just a necessary part of the process, regardless. “We’re not the best at funding ourselves and our own projects, ’cause we’re artists. If we were financial managers, then we’d be in a different field. … Yeah, there’s opportunities out there. But then the job of the artist is trying to find the funding and make the artwork at the same time.”
“Projects slow down when you start to look for funding outside your realm, if you’re not just counting on your own trash-picking skills,” 319’s Sarah Kate Burgess explains. It takes “work and time and bureaucracy to get the funding you need for bigger projects,” she says, an unrelated skill set that artists have to figure out for themselves.
Kyu doesn’t see an easy answer for how to fund large-scale public art more efficiently. “I mean, I wish I had a rich uncle. Well, I do have a rich uncle, but he’s the one who advised me not to go into art, so … ” He shrugs.
But even if the skywriting itself never happens, Kyu sees “Write Sky” as having accomplished much of what he hoped it would. “The concept is, ‘We’re gonna write something in the sky and it’s gonna be cool,’” he says, “but the intent of my project was that these different groups who don’t have a chance to interact would at least meet each other and work together.” Burgess agrees. “Being a participant is better than being a bystander. … Somebody who sees the project is going to be, like, ‘Wow, that’s weird and great.’ Then you’ll just let it go. But for me, it’s been more of an in-depth experience.”
But seeing so many diverse groups working together inspires Kyu to keep hustling toward the goal. “I want to honor the fact that they got excited about this crazy idea. I’m used to spending evenings and weekends chasing my own passions, but now I’ve got these other people involved who are spending their evenings getting together. There’s no way that I’ll give up,” he says.
“Eventually, this will be up in the air.”
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