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Reasons for Aerial Theatre

Stephen Poleskie

An essay that appeared, in whole or in part, in several journals and an anthology in the 1980s, including: Leonardo in the USA, Dars in Italy and Himmelsschreiber in Germany

IN THE AENEID, VIRGIL RECOUNTS one of the earliest attempts to convey information through the sky. This is the story of the goddess Fama (Rumour), who spreads reports by flying at night on wings midway between the earth and sky. The motto, "Fama super aethera notus" (I am known by my fame in the heavens above) is from a speech by Aeneas to Venus.

For more than a decade now I have been using an airplane, flown by me and trailing smoke, to communicate through the sky. My activity differs from commercial skywriting and from military precision teams in intent and therefore in result. A marching band and a ballet company are both engaged in the same practice, that of moving bodies in some sort of order across a space on the ground. However, as their purposes differ so do their results. The analogy that can be applied to my Aerial Theatre as the only similarity between this and skywriters or military precision teams is the use of an airplane to move a person through space in the sky.

The purpose of Aerial Theatre is to create an artistic event in the sky. The action of my airplane lays down lines which can momentarily be observed. This action, however, does not create a tangible art object, a fact which presents difficulty to the viewer accustomed to equating artistic activity with a resulting product. The product of my flight then exists like a dance only as a remembrance of something seen.

The purpose of aerial theatre is not, therefore, the creating of objects in the sky. The viewer conditioned by his a priori knowledge of art wherein an artistic activity leads to the creation of an artistic object, expects something material to result. Art is not the making of objects for commerce. Art is spirituality and the perception of the will of its creator. In my aerial theatre I surround the viewers with a highly charged environment of movement and sound that energizes and expands what is seen. I seek to absorb the functions of drawing, sculpture, and dance into the act of flying itself. Although the separate parts of each piece are known aircraft maneuvers and practiced beforehand, they by themselves have little artistic identity. It is only when a selection of these previously experienced elements are joined in an integrated four dimensional performance in space that anything that can be seen as art occurs. In these events the making of the drawing becomes more important than the drawing itself.

These Aerial Theatre events are not improvisational, however, but are thoroughly planned beforehand. This does lead to the production of a great many works of a conventional nature, such as collages and drawings on photographs. These works are useful to me in preparing for an event and in helping to visualize what I am going to do. Originally I had intended to keep these works private but now find it helpful to exhibit this material to aid in the understanding of the aerial pieces.

Likewise the documentation which remains after an event, the photographs, films and videos, while they may also be useful to the understanding of the event they are not essential to its existence. My pieces are not designed for documentation and many have not been documented. Some have been performed at random over unannounced sites to an audience of whom I had no knowledge.

When we gaze outward at the world around us we can see objects but we cannot see ourselves. We only know ourselves in relation to external appearances. To see ourselves we must look inward. This inward view has no form. Form as we know it is the object appearance which reality presents to the eye when the eye responds to external stimuli. Objects are therefore the external appearance of a reality and not the inward reality itself. My Aerial Theatre is not concerned with objects but, like life, deals with its own consummation. This art, like life, must be experienced, constantly changing and evolving, never definitive.

All previous portrayals of objects have resulted in immobility and as a consequence, dead forms. The dead form is one of the main characteristics of art today, especially sculpture. This is nowhere more evident than in the work of Alexander Calder, an artist credited by some as having introduced motion to sculpture when actually his works have little motion and could more accurately be described as the titillation of trite forms. While his forms do modify the space they are installed in, the small amount of motion they are capable of does little to set up any additional relationship to the initial situation.

Aerial Theatre deals with form which is variable and therefore evolutionary and unique from any other concepts which have existed until now. The Futurists spoke of form in movement and the movement of form. Through this dual conception of form they attempted to give plastic life to their work. They were looking not for pure form but for pure plastic rhythm, not the construction of an object but the construction of an object's action. However, they abstracted and removed the form from the living environment, thereby arresting its motion. A form which has the appearance of being in motion but which itself is not in motion is likewise a dead form, for a consequence of its immobility is its inability to generate a new form.

It is the ability to create new forms that gives Aerial Theatre its four dimensional context. While the pieces may appear as only lines, these lines laid down by the airplane complete those three dimensions which determine volume: height, width, and depth. The simultaneous action of the absolute motion (the aircraft's direction) and the relative motion (the direction of the wind) transforms the created form in relation to its environment. However, it is not only the decomposition of the form's shape that constitutes the fourth dimension. While the decompositions and distortions in themselves do have plastic value, their main impact is the creation of new, living forms out of the dying. In this infinite expansion of form, the conflict between the absolute motion and the relative motion, between environment and object, we find form revealed in a life of its own.

On June 14, 1986, I performed an event over Manhattan in which I incorporated the relative winds of two fronts. A warm front lay to the south of the city and a cold front to the north, meeting approximately at 14th street. From my altitude of 9500 feet this delineation was clearly visible as downtown was hazy with scattered clouds while uptown was clear. As the winds in a high pressure system flow clockwise and in a low pressure system flow counter-clockwise, a straight line laid down the center of Manhattan and would drift southeastward on the uptown side, changing to a northwestward drift after crossing 14th Street. I attempted to use these winds to my advantage and executed several of the pieces across the front line so that they appeared to disintegrate in two directions at the same time. I also worked with the existing clouds. At one point I saw a small cloud drifting toward the cold front. This I wrapped with a band of smoke, departing the cloud on the downwind side to give the illusion that the airplane was "pulling" the cloud. This cloud was then "pulled" into the cold front where it disintegrated. I used the relative movement of the winds as a symbolic as well as a plastic gesture. This performance called Winds of Change was given on the day of a large protest against apartheid held in Central Park.

The perspective of Aerial Theatre is likewise unique and transcends all other known perspectives. This perspective rejects the notion of a point of view. It is a dynamic concept which is the antithesis of all static perspective. The lines laid down by the airplane will appear different to two spectators depending on their relative positions. Thus, the same line can take on opposite meanings. The dynamic and penetrating acute angle can be seen from another position as the vague and open-ended obtuse angle. likewise, a rhythmic and oscillating curved line seen from below can become static and straight when seen at eye level. Furthermore, the terms close and distant no longer matter in terms of relation to the observer as with traditional perspective. Rather, these terms take on an emotional quality as a piece one knows to be twenty miles wide can appear intimate enough to be held in one's hand and the sky can be brought down to the level of the ground.

This way of treating perspective surpasses earlier notions of perspective in emotive intensity and in plastic complexity. The lines laid down by the airplane with their absolute and relative motions create in the mind of the observer a mass of plastic emotions. This presents an art object which has no identity in itself but is capable of assuming an infinite number of identities. The forms exist not only of themselves but also as an extension of the spectacle. This living object, being characterized only by its absolute and relative force lines, is unable to be perceived as a whole. We know the object only through a succession of intuitive stages which is essentially our interpretation of life itself. Aerial Theatre, with its complex pattern of lines simultaneously beginning and concluding, stirs and enthralls the viewer more by what it suggests than by what is materially expressed.

In 1919 the Futurist Fedele Azari, an aviator in the Italian Air Force during the First World War, issued a manifesto calling for a "Futurist Aerial Theatre." In it he wrote: "The artistic form that we create with flight is analogous to dance, but is infinitely superior because of its grandiose background, its super dynamism and the greatly varied possibilities it permits." While Azari's manifesto did argue much of what I am doing today and he is purported to have performed flights of "elementary aerial theatre" near Milan, I have been unable to find any documentation of this work. He had hoped for his aerial theatre to be a "truly popular theatre ... offered free to millions of spectators."
Likewise, my own aerial theatre is given free to those who see it and thereby participate in it. It belongs to those who retain it in their mind, existing long after the external movements and sounds have ceased.

My interest in airplanes began in my childhood. My uncle, who was a pilot, lived with us and I built model airplanes. This interest lay dormant for ten years while I pursued my activity as an artist in New York City. In 1968 I moved to Ithaca, New York, to teach at Cornell University. There I took private lessons and learned to fly.

Until that time I had been a somewhat realist artist, but the view from the cockpit, the vast sense of space, compelled me to an attempt to recreate this experience. However, the rather flat landscapes, with jumbled aerial perspective that resulted were to me considerably less than the reality I had seen. For me, a work of art by its very nature must transcend the reality that inspired it. These works being less than that were then less than works of art. The main elements lacking were the enormous space, the sense of speed or movement and the ability to change. I stopped painting entirely and devoted myself to exploring the use of the airplane as a tool for making art.

My first use of the airplane was in 1972 when I performed an aerial piece over Hamilton, New York in connection with an exhibition of my art works at the Dana Arts Center of Colgate University. For the next three years I did little artwork but spent my free time developing my piloting skills by participating in aerobatic flying competitions.

One man's dilettantism is another man's avant-garde. I did not wish to be an amateur pilot-artist flopping about the sky in a stunt airplane calling it a work of art. I wanted to control my craft with consummate skill so that the ideas I worked out on paper could be executed in the sky. I progressed through the ranks from the Sportsman to Advanced categories, winning several competitions on the way. In 1977 I won the Canadian Open Championship and retired from competition flying.

In 1975 I had taken apart the aerobatic biplane that I had bought from a stunt pilot in Nebraska and rebuilt it as a work of art. After installing a new engine and several modifications to make it more suitable for my purpose, I recovered the fabric on the airplane and painted it in an aesthetic motif.

A few years earlier Alexander Calder had been asked by Braniff Airlines to design a paint scheme which would turn one of their Boeing 747's into a work of art. The result was so ugly that Braniff pilots were unhappy when they were assigned to fly the airplane, and passengers were reluctant to get into it. The airline subsequently had the paint design removed.

Unlike Calder's asymmetrical pattern, I wanted my design to respect the original lines of the airplane. I spent one year on the project and made over 400 sketches. The design was to incorporate the coloring of birds, of WWI camouflaged airplanes and the art of the native American Indian. This airplane, and a group of my drawings, was exhibited in New York City at the Louis K. Meisel Gallery in 1978.

The first use of my biplane trailing smoke in an aerial performance was on October 27, 1976 when I flew over the campus of California State University-Stanislaus. At that time I was a visiting artist at the University of California at Berkeley. Two weeks later on November 19, I performed the "Great Berkeley Airshow" over San Pablo Reservoir near Berkeley for a crowd of students and museum people from the university. In the spring of 1977 I performed a piece over Stanford University. This was witnessed by the American painter San Francis, who had himself caused a piece to be executed in the sky by helicopters trailing smoke over Tokyo, Japan several years earlier.

For the next seven years I executed pieces solo over a number of cities including Washington, D.C. and New York. In 1984 I did the first performance in concert with music and dancers on the ground. This took place in Toledo, Ohio over the Maumee River and was called "Sky Dance of the Maumee." This was accomplished with the aid of the Tower Brass Quintet and the Valois Dance Company. In June of 1985 I did a performance in Richmond, Virginia over the James River. This event, called "Richmond/River/Ritual," was done in collaboration with a brass quintet formed by members of the Richmond Symphony.

My first performance of aerial theatre in Europe was in August of 1985. This was executed using a rented Bucker Jungmann over the Italian town of Pallanza on the Lago Maggiore. This site was chosen because it was the birthplace of the futuristic Fedele Azari. The piece was performed as one of the events held in connection with the International Video Festival at Locarno.

More recently, I have been using my second airplane, a 1958 Piper Apache. This model was the first airplane designed for private business transport. As it is a twin engine airplane, I have equipped both engines with smoke systems. I had hoped to have two lines of smoke but the slipstream causes the trails to merge as one a few feet behind the airplane. As this is not an aerobatic biplane I must design the pieces using only non-aerobatic maneuvers. An advantage, however, is that this is a standard category airplane which is allowed to fly directly over cities. As my biplane was in the experimental category as well as being aerobatic, I had to confine my performances to being over lakes, rivers and other open spaces.

In the future I hope to be able to expand the scope of my aerial theatre. I an planning more collaborative efforts with other pilots flying in elaborately choreographed spectacles in which the airplanes perform pas de deux as well as solo. I would like to have the music played live at some central place and broadcast simultaneously over the radio so that it could be heard by people in all parts of the city. In addition, television cameras in the airplanes would broadcast live the pilot's eye view from the cockpit. Also as I had at Locarrno, airplanes with television cameras circling above would broadcast from that vantage point, while parachutists wearing mini-cameras on their helmets would dive through the pieces making videos. These would be immediately shown on banks of monitors located throughout the city at the same time as the simulcasting of the on-going event. In this way, a spectator would observe the realtime performances, involving the use of marching bands, fireworks, searchlights, and poets circling in planes reading the libretto through loudspeakers.

But what are the reasons for this aerial theatre? Is it a Utopian idea or a novel means of articulating ideas that could more simply be expressed some other way? The story I was attempting to tell in Sky Dances of the Maumee was of a city in flux, Toledo, Ohio. Seen from the air the downtown, wrecked by urban renewal, looked like it had experienced a bombing. Whole blocks had been leveled and were now parking lots. Corporate structures rose to thirty-three stories, not out of a need for space but only to be taller than the corporate structure at the other end of the street. From the sky, the Maumee River, called “Toledo's link to the world,” could clearly be seen as the dividing line between the city's management and working classes. The river leads to the lake, the lake to the sea; across the sea is Europe where the still-living grandfathers of many of these people had come from, but where few would go. Most were living the good life in America drinking beer, playing softball and watching television.

One Sunday an estimated 125,000 of these people watched my performance. Perhaps many of them did not understand what I was trying to convey, but they saw it. Had I made a painting, how many years would it take for it to be seen by 125,000 people? Or for 125,000 people to read my book? This, is not to say I feel that Aerial Theatre is better than the other media, only that this is the way I have chosen.

All meaning is contiguous to some other meaning. This is a four dimensional concept that implies that an idea can grow or increase in ever expanding circles, provided it is not restricted by the social structure in which it is involved.

Unfortunately, an artist is often forced by circumstance to take a position, to try to locate himself in relation to what is currently being done and what has been done before. This presents difficulty, for the original meaning or intent of the work may then be subverted by external forces to serve a different social schema. The artist must be free from the social order (and the society of artists) so that he can avoid the demagogues of distinction who would have us believe there is only one true way.

In 1903 the Wright brothers made their flight in an airplane which had two wings, two motors facing backwards with propellers that pushed the airplane toward the rudders and elevators which were in the front. The pilot lay on his stomach and the airplane took off from rails. Six years later the Frenchman, Bleriot, became the first man to fly across the English Channel. What is significant is that this airplane used principles exactly the opposite of those of the Wright brothers. His craft had only one wing and one motor which faced forward; the propeller pulled the airplane which had its rudder and elevator in the rear. Bleriot flew sitting upright and took off on wheels. We are all heading toward a new land, though we may be proceeding by different routes. Let us hope that on our eventual arrival we will find this new land better than the one we left.

The beginnings of flight lie in the aesthetic. The aircraft as a thing of magic and beauty was created in art and literature centuries before its existence as a thing of function. I seek to return the airplane to its origins in art and fantasy. I feel that art must reflect the sum of human knowledge in an age and therefore use the airplane 'to communicate with the greatest number of people in the shortest possible time. If this leaves Aerial Theatre in a critical no-man's land, it is of no consequence; it is not theatre, it is not performance, it is not air-show nor sculpture or drawing. It is the art of true nature, an art given free to a vast public audience, an art that unites formal beauty with the expansive spirituality of the imagination.

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PILGRIMAGE: Inner and Outer Destinations

We can none of us step into the same river twice, but the river flows on and the other river we step into is cool and refreshing, too.
W. Somerset Maugham, The Razor’s Edge.

WHAT WAS MY JOURNEY? Pilgrims do not normally carry their destinations with them. When what you are seeking is the sky, however, your goal surrounds you constantly, its lightness weighing on your shoulders. It even extends to the ground, so you step lightly. Or did I? Or was it merely “up” that I was seeking - and hating the way?
Yes, I once sought the sky; to put my brand on it, stripe it, circle it, bore holes in it. But that was then. Now I leave it alone.

In 1985, I traveled to Toledo, Ohio, to do an Aerial Theater performance. I made numerous drawings preparatory to that event which I called “Sky Dances of the Maumee,” the Maumee being the river that sliced through the city’s downtown. My program was wedded to that river, the only space I was permitted to fly over. If the airplane was to go down it must be only me who would be injured, or perhaps die. Thanks to a requirement of the FAA, the sponsors provided a rescue boat with a doctor in it cruising below. I later found out that the “doctor” had been a veterinarian, the only person they could find who would volunteer his services. Toledo was not my destination, only a stop on what I thought at the time was my great journey.

For my performance in Toledo I had dancers on the ground, the Valois Dance Company, accompanied by musicians, the Tower Brass Quintet. All went well. It was probably the most coordinated event I have ever presented. But Toledo is not a destination for major art critics, unless you bring your own. There were nice articles in the local newspapers, and on television. When it was all over I was paid $2000.00. The woman from Chamber of Commerce said that this was as much as they usually paid rock stars. I was also taken out to dinner at a restaurant owned by a popular actor, who hailed from Toledo, and whose name I have forgotten, who once played Corporal Klinger on the TV series MASH.

In 1986, Kassel, in Germany, was a grander destination. I would be going farther on the great journey. I had a whole room filled with of my drawings in the Kasseler Kunstverein. I also did a thirty-three foot tall “sky drawing” on the museum’s main stairwell wall with blue chalk. The wall drawing was erased after the exhibition, just as my drawings in the sky were dispersed by the wind. There were drawings in the sky, but I was not allowed to fly the airplane. Instead they were executed by a professional skywriter from Hamburg.

A year later I was invited to participate in Documenta, a major international art exhibition also held in Kassel, but at a different venue. Then my invitation was suddenly withdrawn. I subsequently learned that the organizers had been unaware of my previous exhibition when they had invited me. Documenta needed to have the latest thing, at least for Kassel, where I was last year’s stuff.
Now I am headed in a different direction. I have no idea how far I shall go, but the destination, as always, is up. The one thing I am sure of though is that this time I have fewer days remaining to get there.

From a piece written by Stephen Poleskie, Ithaca NY, 21 July 2007

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This text, written by Stephen Poleskie, appeared in Leonardo Magazine, volume.19, number 3, 1986, as an invited comment to an article Theoretical Perspectives on the Arts, Sciences, and Technology.

IN HIS ARTICLE “Theoretical Perspectives on the Arts” David Carrier uses my Aerial Theatre work to point out the limitations of Rudolf Arnheim’s application of Gestalt psychology principles to contemporary art. I would like to respond to this aspect of Mr. Carrier’s article.

A night flight over clouds clears one’s perception, for the light is above and the ground is dark. One must scan one’s flight instruments and believe the information they give even though it is contradictory to what ones senses indicate. Thus one reacts to a visual picture that exists only in the mind. Perhaps the airplane, which may no longer function as the symbol of a New Age, can function as the means to a new perception.

As I write this I am on a Boeing 747 at 33,000 feet over the Brazilian jungle. The shades are drawn so the passengers can watch a grade B movie. The Captain announces we are crossing the Amazon River, an event that causes even the most ardent movie buff to open their shade and gaze briefly out the window at the landscape below. A minute later most return their concentration to the film. I think that they must all be seasoned travelers, who have seen this view many times before to take such a casual interest, or are these truly people of the New Age who find a canned, antiseptic view of life preferable to the more confusing but richer view afforded by reality?

Gestalt psychology emphasizes the importance of studying entire patterns of mental process rather than isolated mental phenomena. Yet today our minds are becoming more accustomed to ‘thinking’ as a collage of single sensations. The people on my flight may have ‘seen’ the Amazon, although from a great distance and at a strange angle, while watching a movie with one eye, and at the same time their minds on their hunger and physical discomfort. Some may want to know more. Some might even return one day to view the river more closely. But for most, their brief contact at 33,000 feet may remain their total image of the great Amazon.

Form, in the plastic sense, a sense of wholeness or completeness, may not be a part of the vocabulary of the artist of the twenty-first century. Early in the twentieth century transitional ideas of composition gave way to juxtapositional composition, the painter Henri Rousseau showing the direction to filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein’s use of contrasting images to stir an audiences reaction, his ability to inter-cut detail shots with action scenes, and his skill at creating powerful imagery by manipulating visual composition show us clearly that the perception of form must depend on perception of the individual elements that make up the form.

In my Aerial Theatre, which is an art of motion, it is often not possible for the spectator to perceive the performance as a whole. There are many reasons for this: the scale of the piece, the speed of the airplane, the fact that the airplane may sometimes be blocked from view by trees or buildings, or the fact that the spectator may not be at the central location where activities that are part of the performance, such as dance or music, may be taking place.

On 2 June 1985, I performed an event over the James River in Richmond, Virginia. My flight was accompanied by music on the ground provided by a brass quintet. Although the musical group was located in the center of the downtown area, to be part of the other festival events taking place there, the Richmond police would not close a bridge the Federal Aviation Administration required to be closed for safety reasons, so at the last minute I had to move my aerial performance two miles up the river. Thus, most of my performance was obscured by buildings to people at the main site, while people on the river bank and the bluffs had an excellent view of my flight, however could not hear the music.

Who then in Richmond saw the whole form of my piece, if there can be said to be a completeness to one of my aerial theatre events, the people on the bluffs or the people in the center of the city? The nude bathers in the river below me, or the video cameraman in the airplane above? Or the cameraman on the top of a building on the opposite side of the river? Or perhaps the blind man who could only hear the roar of the airplanes motor? Or the art students who had first studied my preparatory drawings and collages at the Anderson Art Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University before coming to the event? Although they perceived perhaps only a fragment of my event, all of these people had perceived, in their minds, its totality, regardless of my intent. How could I dispute them? For I, from my position inside the airplane, busy with the activity of the flight, saw nothing of the form of the event.

Stephen Poleskie, 1986