November 30, 2011

Held Up by the Wires

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Americans know Philippe Petit as the man who bridged the Twin Towers on a high wire in 1974. But “le coup,” as Petit calls the event, marks only one chapter in a lifetime of performance, expression and mystery. In anticipation of his lecture today, at 5:30 p.m. in Statler Auditorium, the Sun spoke with Petit, who explained the intentions of his work and imagined walking a tightrope across Ithaca’s gorges.

The Sun: Did you have a childhood dream?

Philippe Petit: Yes and no. I started acting on my dreams almost immediately in my young life. When I was six I fell in love with magic and I started learning magic by myself. Sixteen or seventeen was the discovery of juggling. And then I decided to become a wire-walker, and I started learning by myself around 17 or 18. So they were dreams but they were instantly worked upon.

Sun: You describe walking on the tightrope as a type of art. As a child, you liked to climb, and eventually got into tightrope walking. Was there a point in your coming of age where you started to see these activities as art?

P.P.: You know, because of my involvement in wire walking I never thought “is it art” “is it a sport?” For me, it was obviously art, because I was doing it day and night… I was very early adding costume, music and light and stories to my wire walking. So, from the very beginning it was like theatre in the sky. The climbing is a sport, which as a kid I loved, and may have brought me in love with altitude… so maybe that’s where my love of the air comes from. But it has nothing to do with my love for walking on the wire. And now I continue to do it, but when I look back after 45 years, it’s obviously an art that I have practiced; for instance, the art of perfecting a single walk on the wire that appears to be on the floor, as if equilibrium is not a concern. So when you talk about perfection you are in the realm of art. But I don’t think it is for the artist to define himself, I think it’s for the people to look at the performance and decide “is it a sport, is it art?” When you put your soul into an activity, and start doing it with all your imagination and creativity it instantly becomes an art.

Sun: And was this a very fast realization for you – that this was an activity that you could put all of your imagination into?

P.P.: No, I did not have this distance that you use in this sentence. I didn’t realize, as a kid I was practicing 5,6, 8, 12 hours a day, and not stopping to say okay, “what am I doing, what exactly is wire walking?” I was just doing it day and night… I was able to quickly master what they were doing in the circus… Throughout my life I started disregarding and editing what I had learned. Now, I am probably in a time of my life where I edit things, and make them more pure and simple and more majestic and more powerful and more beautiful. But I guess it takes a lifetime to start editing your own art.

Sun: Why did you call your walk across the twin towers “le coup,” besides the obvious of simply conquering them?

P.P.: I was looking for accomplices in France, America and Australia. When I was describing what I was doing it was so close to a bank robbery — although I was not going to steal anything, I was going to offer my presence — that it was logical to find the word “le coup”— which has no equivalent in English — it is something illegal, secret. It has the connotation of bank robbery in French. So I thought that “le coup” was very natural. But I was more busy preparing for it than finding a title.

Sun: Did you view it as an act of conquering?

P.P.: From the beginning, when I was starting to create performance that no one wanted to hire me for, I forced myself upon the system by doing things illegally — I did look at myself almost like a movie director. I wanted to put myself in a situation with my wire that would be very beautiful and spectacular and dramatic. And I started choosing monuments — and, of course, no one wanted to give me permission — so I started doing things immediately. Yes, to answer your question, from the very beginning I had the mind and process of a movie director. To walk from point A to point B is totally uninteresting to me; to break records, to be the highest or longest is totally uninteresting to me. Although, the irony is that I am in some books of record as the highest wire-walker (laughs). I don’t care about that. I really care about the poetry. By the way, those two towers are just one of my many walks, they are not the beginning or end of my life. It can be compared with small wire walks that I put at the same level artistically. Of course, in this country, that is the walk that everyone remembers. I remember one day, I explained that I was interested in linking two things that were doomed to be separated forever. The two skyscrapers were designed by architects and built by engineers, never to be linked. I thought it would be beautiful to link those two. One day I mentioned in an interview that I was not interested so much in the two towers, I was interested in making use of the negative space between them. Most people see two towers. Me, I see what is between the two towers; there is an inhuman void. Well, that is interesting; let’s do something about that.

Sun: For you personally, what act has been the most significant in your life?

P.P.: Actually, that question could fill books. I have written seven books and I am working on number eight as we speak. In those books I tell stories about my life. So, the answer to that question would not only touch on wire walking, but street juggling, magic, building; I write, I draw. All of those works, which are seemingly disconnected, are for me part of a whole, which is my life. So if you ask me which one to highlight, I could mention my very first book, On the High Wire, which is out of print now. It was my first book but I have written many after that. If you ask me about wire walking, I would mention the World Trade Center, but not as the only one. I could give you an example: one day I was invited to do an appearance inside the Opera of Paris. Not the stage, but the staircase inside, which is a historical monument made of marble — beautiful. The wire was probably 12 feet high and 20 feet long. And it was one of my most beautiful performances, one I would put on the same level as the World Trade Center walk. A few months ago I did a one-man show, which I am very proud of — an exhibit of my drawings. If I were to put a page with the highlight of my life that I am most happy with, I would draw from magic, street juggling, drawing, writing and lecturing … If I were to choose two or three walks as the most memorable and pleasurable, I would say the first illegal walk that was very visible, Notre Dame, in 1971 and the World Trade Center in 1974. And among the commissioned work, Chirac at some point asked me to do a big walk at the Eiffel Tower. I walked across the Seine, on an inclined wire, to the second story of the Eiffel Tower — 700 yards long and all the way to 150 yards in the sky, and we had 250,000 people there. So I would say that was one of the most memorable. And then, another one, because there was a lot of theatricality and change of costume on the wire, was a walk I did in Germany for the 1200th anniversary of the city of Frankfurt. It was in front of 500,000 people, between a church and a cathedral, and it took almost 5 years to organize.

Sun: Have you done more work for commission over time?

P.P.: Yes, and I am happy because that is what an artist wants. You want somebody to hire you to perform something. After Notre Dame, Sydney and the World Trade Center illegal walks, slowly or not so slowly, I started to have offers. And I didn’t say yes to all of them… I continued to walk on the wire, and it became more and more difficult for me to perform on the wire professionally. I don’t exactly know why; I think there is a certain lethargy among people, a certain fear of doing things out of the ordinary. And of course my profession appears to be a dangerous one. People think maybe that I am a madman — although I am a madman of detail, and what I want to do is preserve my life, not risk it…. But if you just think of a wire-walker, many people think it’s death defying. Well for me, it’s an art and I don’t want to risk my life. But anyways, that is to say that it is increasingly difficult to put together a high wire walk. And, when I’m offered to do a project, it’s much easier than when I think of putting my wire somewhere. Because if I dream today of putting my wire between two beautiful towers, I will have to find permission — which I probably will never get — I will have to find millions of dollars — which I probably will never get — I will have to organize the whole thing. You see? But if the phone rings, and the owner of the towers says “Philippe, for the tenth anniversary of the towers, I would like to hire you,” and it’s a whole different world. But in my mind, I continue to have the mind of an artistic criminal.

Sun: Have you been to Cornell’s campus before?

P.P.: No! It is all new and I am very happy because I like the element of surprise, and I am going to be surprised of course, and I am bringing surprises too.

Sun: Our campus is flanked by two gorges. What if we commissioned you to walk a tightrope across them?

P.P.: I would be very happy, and I am actually going to look into it. Just the word ‘gorge’ is a perfect word in my vocabulary. I would be very interested in looking at those gorges and being asked to develop a project. And why not come back to do that walk? That would be very interesting.

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Original Author: Joey Anderson