Cambridge,Mass. — It was pie in the sky all right, with a string attached. Los Angeles artist Lisa Pompelli Van Sant flew her kite, with its picture of a piece of pie, in a whole gamut of colorful kites, fighter kites, and a huge Chinese dragon. The string linked a vision to reality on earth, in a way symbolizing the essence of the conference on sky art held recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Sky art? How does one define the sky, much less art? For some people, it is whatever is off the ground - maybe up a flagpole, where Anders Holmquist flies his flags and banners. Others see the sky as backdrop to the landscape, or the overhead space in which to loft sculpture as do Tal Streeter and Otto Piene. Paul MacCready designed the man-powered Gossamer Albatross which flew just a few feet above the sea in a dramatic English Channel crossing, but Vera Simons, a painter, silently floated across the United States suspended from the helium-filled balloon Da Vinci, going as high as 27,000 feet. Jet trails farther up are in the realm where Vincent Schaefer, famous for his cloud-seeding experiments, has found out how to make clouds disappear and how to make rainbows.
The sky may be the medium for telecommunications around the globe via satellite, which Aldo Tambellini and conferees enjoyed during slow-scan TV contact with artists in Australia, or Tom Van Sant used to send ''Reflections from Earth'' from the California desert. An eye-shaped mirror array reflected sunlight up to Landsat, which relayed the image back to earth.
The sky may be the distance to the sun put to good use by Rockne Krebs's prisms or Dale Eldred's ''Time Incidents'' reaching out to the sun for light to be manipulated on earth by mirrors, creating a display that changes over time. Lowry Burgess goes from earth to the space shuttle to beyond the moon and on out to the stars with a conceptual work called ''Quiet Axis.'' He describes it as a means of understanding mythology ''by doing it.'' Charles Ross is constructing ''Star Axis,'' an observatory-sculpture being built in New Mexico to mark the wanderings of the pole star, past, present, and -future. Philip Morrison, a physicist with the soul of an artist, thinks in terms of the cosmos.
So the sky depends on your individual point of view. The view farthest out, remarkably enough, is also the most ancient. We tend to forget how sky-oriented our ancestors were. Long before the cave artists of Lascaux painted their masterpieces, somebody in what is now Israel made some scratches on the Carmel cave walls, which just might be a record of constellation movements in the heavens. Ice Age drawings of plants and animals may represent seasonal events and migrations on earth cued by movements of sun, moon, and stars, movements very important to hunters and gatherers. Aurorae, supernovae, and comets are found to have been recorded on stone, bone, and structures of various sorts, all around the world beginning many thousands of years ago.
From his beginning, man has apparently been aware of his dependence not only on the earth, but also on the farthest star. In his religions or philosophies or cosmologies - whatever you wish to call them - he has related his own inner being to the external world, somehow confirming his vision of a place in the universe. Stephen Crites, professor of religion at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., speaks of -sacred spaces and the heavenly sublime in analyses of these efforts to integrate physical, mental, and spiritual existence.
But where is sky awareness nowadays? Jack Borden, an NBC-TV newscaster in Boston, reports nearly total ignorance of the sky among people he interviewed at random on the streets of a Boston suburb. Passersby couldn't tell him what the sky looked like at that moment, or if they tried, they found they were quite wrong when they looked up. But, and this is the whole point, invariably when they looked at the sky, they exclaimed at how beautiful it was. They had what Mr. Borden calls ''an aesthetic uplift.'' He claims he had a ''religious'' experience when he suddenly became aware of the sky while on a hike a few years ago. That experience prompted him to start a movement called ''For Spacious Skies'' to assess the amount of sky ignorance and to do something about it, something to restore the aesthetic sensibility.
Enough artists and scientists, however, have been keenly aware of the sky and using it for their canvas or laboratory to warrant the calling of the first Sky Art Conference this past Sept. 25-29, with Dr. Harold Edgerton, MIT professor and inventor of the strobe light, as chairman. Otto Piene, director of the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies, and Elizabeth Goldring, a CAVS fellow, organized the conference with the help of many others. More sky art conferences are in the works for the next several years, to be held in Vienna, Paris, Los Angeles, and likely Tokyo.
The men and women mentioned previously, plus a few hundred more, came to share reports of their work, their visions for the future, or their perspectives on the past art of the sky, and to discuss topics of mutual interest. They were concerned about all kinds of sky pollution, about the possibility for the individual to move out into the sky and how far, about communication free of institutional and political or ideological restraints, and most fundamentally, about fear. When something becomes possible, it then becomes irresistible, as one participant remarked. Then what?
Extreme pessimists confronted confident optimists as they examined the problems. Some, like Paul MacCready, feel that unless something drastic happens we will do ourselves in within 50 years. Others, along with architect Paolo Soleri, think the future on earth not too promising and are preparing to abandon it and move into space. But Mr. Soleri is making his test run in the Arizona desert with a prototype city designed to find out if we can construct a self-sustaining and completely self-contained environment.
Tal Streeter, a sculptor and kitemaker who has found ingenious ways to create colorful cloth-and-tubing objects up in the treetops and telephone poles, is very cautious about getting up there himself. ''I want to introduce myself very gently into the sky,'' he says, ''and leave no trace when I am finished.'' Otto Piece, too, worries about messing up the sky. He has seen more than enough dirty skies in his lifetime, especially during war, and is trying to restore an aesthetic sense to the sky with art works that last only an evening.
Many of the artists like the sense of celebration that sky art provides. We have gone from the days of Hollywood searchlights to Rockne Krebs's laser beams sweeping the night sky on gala occasions. A giant kite requires many people pulling together to make it airborne and to keep it under control. The gathering becomes a festival celebrating the power of the sun to move the air which buoys the kite. Even the earthbound feel the sensation of flight in the process.
However, gloom and doom seem always to be hovering just over the horizon, if not right overhead, threatening the sense of joy and achievement for some people. How does one deal with that? Gyorgy Kepes, founder of CAVS, -exclaimed, ''He who fights joy, fights against nature!'' Tom Van Sant believes we find what we look for, noting that ''we are self-fulfilling prophecies'' and must turn fear around in the creative process to work for us constructively.
And Vera Simons explained in some detail the strict discipline necessary for safety and survival on a balloon-suspended platform for five days, if one were to enjoy the ecstasy of wafting noiselessly above the earth, listening to its ''very special music,'' and gaining a totally new perspective from the sky habitat. Her aim was not only to enjoy it herself and paint distillations of the experience, but also to communicate with the world down below. She did that in a variety of ways with smoke plumes or mirrors or by dropping cards which people returned later with their comments.
Military uses of the sky, monopolization of the airwaves by giant corporations or government agencies, and smog look like fearsome deterrents to art in the sky, never mind to a pleasant life on earth. We are all too aware of missiles, bombs, propaganda broadcasts and restricted communications, acid rain, poisonous gases, and so on. Everyone at the Sky Art Conference knew that somehow we must wrestle with these problems.
Along with the deep discussions of the need to reintegrate earth and sky, inner and outer experience, the art of the sun and human celebration, artworks done and yet to come, there was a certain amount of sheer fun and games.
Charlotte Moorman played her cello while levitating a few feet off the ground with the aid of 60 or more oversized party-type ballons. There were the noontime kite-flying sessions and airplane-towed poetical messages. Otto Pien's "Blue Star Linz," a mammoth inflated sculpture, rose over the MIT campus one evening amid long arcs of tubular ballons, looking like a writhing octopus as it came to life on the round but starlike in its full-blown maturity.
Mark Drela, an MIT aeronautical engineering student, flew his transparent, iridescent rubber-band-powered model airplane weighing 1/4 ounce and resembling nothing so much as an 11-inch dragonfly as it soared around the lecture room to eventually land on an observer's nose. Eugene Larrabee, his professor, aptly commented, "The most efficient engineering solution is always also the most aesthetic."
Yash Pal, secretary-general for the United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Space (Unispace), called upon artists to contribute their efforts to the peaceful uses of their part in it. "It's very difficult to communicate this overall unity and common destiny. "It can be done only if the real communicators share this vision and communicate it."
Phillip Morrison summed it all up: "We have the choice. Daedalus made it. He got there." But Tom Van Sant had the last word: "Perhaps you could say that awareness of the sky is consciousness of a future."