Real and Irrational: Evan Daniel and the art of π

Evan Daniel is an artist and he is obsessed with π (pi). He’s memorized that famous, non-repeating constant up to digits most people wouldn’t even dream of and has incorporated it into his visual visual and performance art in novel and unexpected ways. It’s pretty safe to say that π has become a part of him. He took the time to discuss his work with SCINQ.

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: First off, can you tell me about pi? What is it? How is it significant?

EVAN DANIEL: π is a beloved mathematical constant with a number of properties that make it a great subject of memorization. It’s irrational, so its decimal representation never terminates or turns into a repeating pattern. The digits are random, although as John Von Neumann said, “anyone who considers arithmetical methods of producing random digits is, of course, in a state of sin.” The algorithms used to calculate digits are sufficiently complex that it’s impossible to “fake” memorizing them by performing a calculation.

SI: What is it about pi that inspired you and how does it specifically inform your work?

ED: At first memorizing π was of purely experimental interest. When I first heard that people compete over such things, I thought to myself that it sounded like such a distinct activity that I just had to try it — it’s entirely about sequential thinking. I’ve found memorizing π inexhaustibly exciting on multiple levels. It’s arguably given me a better sense of random movement, and of the number ten since there is a set of ten possible digits. I memorized π in chunks of 50-100 digits to get to 10,000, so in a different way I’ve enjoyed experiencing larger numbers as I count to keep track of where I am. My work retains that sense of experimentation, and the desire to better understand what it’s like to think about numbers. I see it as being about knowledge, cognition, and the reality (or non-reality) of numbers.

SI: Why memorize pi up 10,000 digits? Is it a way of internalizing some aspect of it?

ED: I stopped at ten thousand simply because it’s a nice round number. I got to 7,000 pretty quickly, but then took some long breaks before eventually getting to 10,000. The world record is at least 70,000.

I would say that I’m actually pretty bad at memorizing π since I make errors. Most people who have memorized a significant number of digits with great accuracy use memorization techniques like the PAO system or the Method of Loci, both of which are about forming associations. When I make errors I often wish that I’d heard of those before getting into memorizing π! But for me it’s really more about the philosophical questions than being able to do it.

SI: Can you describe some of the ways you’ve incorporated the memorization of pi into specific projects and what you were trying to explore?

ED: For a number of projects I’ve found it meaningful to count out each digit in order to recite it. For a recent performance I sculpted the 10,000 digits I know by carving a block of marble. I’d count the number of times I hit the chisel with the hammer, then press a button to submit the number by having an Arduino circuit check me. I also gave away the pieces of stone that came off as “pieces of π.” Counting out each number by striking a chisel gave me a real appreciation for the potential reality of such a long string of numbers.

I’ve also performed π by counting sit-ups and push-ups, by painting it, using it to control a full-scale robot, and I’ve created a pie that mimics me reciting π.

SI: For most people, pi is invariably associated with circles, yet most of your work seems to avoid any overt reference to circles or radii. Why?

ED: I’m not entirely sure! It hasn’t been a conscious thing, but since I usually think of π as a sequence of digits and a cognitive exercise it’s pretty far removed in my head from the geometrical interpretation.

SI: Can you describe your process? How do you come up with ideas for a project and how do you go from a vague idea to a finished product?

ED: My projects usually come from one of a few main impulses. I’m always looking for better ways of practicing π, which I do fairly regularly. On the one hand that means finding ways of increasing my speed and accuracy, but it could also mean that I’m using π as a way of getting myself to think differently or learning a new skill. For instance, I’m currently practicing the piano while practicing π by mapping the digits onto the keys. Any of these ideas could gradually morph into a full-scale project.

Another starting point is the desire to make the numbers physical. It’s a spectacular excuse for sitting there and painting shapes for several hours (or days). Such projects usually require a fair amount of experimentation to get a sense of what process will be both meaningful for me and rewarding for an audience.

SI: How did you come to be an artist? Did you always want to be an artist?

ED: I was suddenly able to draw well when I was around 12, and I was aware from a young age that art changed my state of mind and was very rewarding. That fueled my interest and resulted in me majoring in painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. But I think what really brought me in and created a kind of obsession for me was that I had a number of professors who I just thought were absolutely brilliant and intellectually active. The professors I admired had retained a real intellectual rigor and thirst for knowledge into old age, and I thoroughly admired that.

SI: Do you have a background in science and mathematics or are you an autodidact?

ED: I’m more of an autodidact. Off and on I’ve spent time teaching myself mathematics and sometimes physics, which are absolutely beautiful activities. Naturally, being self taught (and only sporadically) I’m not about to prove Riemann or anything.

As a layman it’s also beneficial to read about the history of science, as well as epistemology and the philosophy of science. The latter have been surprisingly influential in the theory of art and the humanities more broadly. I think that artists would be well served learning that side of theory as a means of better understanding the discourse surrounding the arts.

SI: What do you believe an artist’s role should be in society, if any?

ED: I think artists have a responsibility to promote education and understanding. Bertrand Russell wrote “not the mere fact of living is to be desired, but the art of living in the contemplation of great things.” If the arts are unable to supply an arena for that, then I think they have no real function in our society.

I think it’s the responsibility of all artists to take their work’s claim to knowledge seriously, and to advocate for a society that is more open to challenging questions.

SI: Do you see any similarities between the multiple disciplines you bring together in your work?

ED: Mathematics, like art, requires you to be adept at quickly shifting from one assumption to another. Both require you to think abstractly about putting ideas together — and both hold you to certain unavoidable, and often inconvenient, facts (in the case of art, that’s often physical reality). Neither serves to directly improve the human condition, although both aid us in understanding, and both are indirectly useful. Both can be achingly beautiful to perform, but also often slow, tedious, and sometimes pointless. I would say that, at their best, numbers, mathematics, and art help us think great things.

For more information about Evan Daniel’s work, visit his website.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: