by Patricia Grandjean
Jun 15, 2012
06:55 AMBox Office
Q&A Exclusive: Phillippe Petit
We all know Phillippe Petit, 62, as the man who accomplished what may be the most remarkable "artistic crime" of our lifetimes: walking a high wire between the Twin Towers of New York City's World Trade Center on Aug. 7, 1974, making eight crossings in one hour a quarter-mile above the ground. But that, he says, represents just a fraction of his interests—he's also an accomplished author, teacher, lecturer, juggler and wine enthusiast who's recently been practicing the art of lock-picking and bullfighting. He plans to talk about all of this 3 p.m. at the Yale University Art Gallery on June 16, the opening day of New Haven's 2012 International Festival of Arts and Ideas, in his presentation "Nothing Is Impossible—Exploring Perfection and Talent." An 11 a.m. screening of Man on Wire, the Oscar-winning 2009 documentary about his World Trade Center feat, precedes his appearance. Admission is free. For more information, visit artidea.org.
Here's a question many of us wonder: Where do you get your nerve?
From passion. It's not nerve; when you look at the things I do, you could label them as courageous. For me, I'm just following what I love to do, and I have been working on it for several decades. Therefore, when I do a wire walk, I'm not about to lose my life.
I suppose this is a silly thing to ask: Do you ever look down?
Actually, that's a technical question and yes, if I ever need to during a practice session, I will look down. But in a performance, to walk on a wire and look at your feet is unbecoming. Many circus artists do it, but since I was not born in a circus I developed my own way of walking. In some of my performances I actually made it part of the show to look down, for whatever reason. And between the Twin Towers I remember that, at some point—that was a very strange kind of performance, unannounced, as you know, and it took place a quarter-mile above the street—I snuck a look just for me. It was thrilling to see something I will probably never see again in my life.
Everyone thinks of your World Trade Center walk as your most astounding "artistic crime," as you once put it. Was it really the hardest challenge you've ever faced?
No, not at all. You know, when athletes, inventors and writers—or whoever—are labeled by what they are famous for, very often you find it's just one of the highlights of their life. People referring to me as "the man who walked between the towers" makes me smile, because that's only one of the highlights in my life. I have many others. I've done some small performances that I would put at the same level as the Twin Towers walk. But that's human, to always evaluate someone's work in terms of "the largest," "the biggest." It's kind of interesting, a label like that.
Well, let's talk about other accomplishments you'd like people to know about.
You see, I am what I think you would call in this country a Renaissance man, somebody who has many levels. I'm a long list of things, actually: a writer, a street juggler, a magician, a wire walker, a lecturer. I build things, I draw. I am involved in many arts and many techniques, so for people to think of me in terms of that one event—it's misrepresenting, in a way. I have equal passion for all the other things I do: I built a bomb using 18th-century tools and methods. I'm working on my eighth book right now. I speak several languages. All these things to me are important, because I put my heart entirely into them. The fact that people actually do not know that I'm doing all those things is a little bit troubling. I'm a bit tired of being known only for one of my famous walks, though it was certainly an extremely important moment in my life.
On a personal level, I was interested to learn that you study lock-picking—because I locked myself out of my apartment about a monthe ago and probably could have used your expertise.
[Laughs] Lock-picking for me is an art, and I have actually written a text about it. And I sometimes demonstrate it in my lectures. But it's also a crime, like pickpocketing. I am a pickpocket, which I've also written a book about, The Art of the Pickpocket. Some people may frown at that, because they see the crime more than the art.
Actually, if you're caught with lock-picking tools in your pocket and you're not a certified locksmith, you can expect to spend three years in jail—that's automatic. But to me, it's the art of playing with the notion of tolerance, the physical tolerance of a mechanism, and the space between its parts. The reason you can break open a door is because the hinges and latches are not perfect, and there's a little bit of space everywhere. Sometimes too much space, because everything is jiggling. In a way, the concept extends from physical to metaphysical. You can talk about and "see," when you study the locked system, the ways you can sneak through and enter it.
But lock-picking doesn't get a lot of respect [laughs]. Very often in films, you see dozens of films where the cop or bad guy opens a door with lock-picking tools, but most of the time they use only half the tools they need. And you use certain moves to push the pins up and down until they find the right position, and the actors in films never use those. It's a misrepresentation that always makes me crazy.
It's a difficult art that seems very easy when you understand the principles, and it's a matter of feel—you don't have to look, you can lockpick blindfolded actually. I do love being blindfolded when I do it; it's easier. Then you're just feeling with your fingers the microscopic elements you have to play with. But it's something that might be taught in school because it requires tenacity, passion and perfection. So, if you just look at the practical aspects without judging it morally, it's a very interesting field.
But no, I don't have a little recipe to throw over the phone to someone who lost their keys. [laughs]
You're also an experienced juggler who's been arrested more than 500 times for juggling on the street. What to you is special about that art?
Mostly in this country, since I arrived here in 1974, I've seen that juggling is treated as a fad, almost a hobby. There are professional jugglers in the circus. But there are thousands of people of all ages in America who gather in clubs and competitions. To me, most of that is not juggling, because it's a weekend pastime. I take juggling very seriously, being an artist and perfectionist. I'm extremely demanding on the arts I love and practice. So I am rarely satisfied when watching a juggling performance.
I was the best friend of the greatest juggler in the world, Francis Brunn, who passed away a few years ago. He revolutionized the world of juggling, because what he was doing he would do so perfectly, it looked miraculous. He was an inventor as well. I'm not professional in the sense of making a living at juggling. But I've been a street juggler for 50 years, which is illiegal in most countries—that's why I've been arrested so many times. I love juggling because it's infinite—in terms of what you can do—and always new. I practice it three hours a day, along with my high-wire work. And every day I find new things that I never thought of before in 50 years of practice. So it's a very rich art. But if you think of it as competition, then it becomes an exercise only in technical prowess—to juggle one more ball than your neighbor or imitate new tricks. That I can't agree with.
I understand you're educating yourself on French wines.
[Laughs] Well, that's part of my heritage—the bread, the cheese, the wine—these are probably the only good hings the French do. Since I was born there, it was part of my upbringing. My parents were not connoisseurs, but they were appreciative of good French product. I also learned this as a child, and I became quite interested in certain French wines, and I am still. I consider myself a student of oenology.
Do you have favorite vintages?
Yes! The French are foolish and obnoxious in that they attach all kinds of rules to everything, even making wine. But that's actually a good thing, because some vineyards, due to the territory and the weather, should not produce more than the earth gives. So we have laws in France that you cannot make more than a certain number of bottles a year. One of the smallest areas of land has one of the best white wines, called Chablis, after the village of Chablis. And in Chablis there are dozens of places where people have little fenced-in plots where they cultivate different grapes and make their own wine. There's some amazing wine that comes from these tiny vineyards. They age differently, and have a variety of colors and qualities.
The, in Bordeaux, which is a giant area with many subdivisions, we have Saint-Julien—and Saint-Julien is a fabulous red wine. Actually, there are many appellations that are grand wines, even the young ones are fantastic. And if you let a bottle age 20 years, it's even more fabulous.
I like very young wines, ones that are young in terms of age. They're usually unsophisticated, unpretentious and cost nearly nothing. I love very young white wine from Languedoc, in the southwest region of France. La Parraquet is a very good appellation, and you can find it for $6 a bottle. But it's not complex; it doesn't have a million qualities you can write about.
You have a couple of books coming out—one this summer and one next year. One is an e-book, which is exciting, called Cheating the Impossible . . .
Why is that exciting? To me, an e-book is totally unexciting.
Well, I don't like the idea of e-books all that much, but it's interesting to see people pursue new and different ways of publishing.
To be perfectly frank with you, I didn't pursue it at all. I was . . . what? Commissioned or invited to do it, and my first reaction was, "What? A book you can't get in your hand? Or give to a friend? How outrageous is that? But my friends told me, "You need to be a little bit in the 21st century. The future is people with e-books, reading their Kindles in the subway. It's totally outrageous and precious, but it is the future. Si I said, "Okay! Let's do it Why not?" And now it's done.
It's linked to a TED conference presentation I did this year; I did that talk about a month ago. This will be out very soon; I don't know why it took so long. It gives a little bit of my self-taught approach to creativity, which is the subject of most of my lectures—actually, that's the presentation I'll give in Connecticut.
You're also producing a book called, Why Knot? The Perfect Little Book of Tying.
Yes, this one I'm working almost day and night on—I wake up at 5 a.m. and work until 11 p.m. It has about a thousand drawings or little sketches to show the step-by-step process of knot-tying. It was an immense job to decide on the 65 knots I chose, because there are thousands of possibilities.
As I go through life, I always have in my pocket a little cord, and I share with kids, engineers, doctors or criminals, some knots. And when I show somebody how to tie the knot I use my own method, so this book is full of stories about knotting and my methods of tying. It's a very technical book which I think will revolutionize the world of knots. There are hundreds of books out there, and the world didn't need another book of knots. But this one is very different.
Are there certain knots you just love the artistry of?
This question makes me smile, because the world of knotting is such a delight. And it's so a part of my life; it's the core, the soul of my life as a wire-walker. If I didn't have any idea of how to rig and tie a knot, I wouldn't be here answering your questions today.
It's hard to pick just one, but I have a few favorites, very simple and pleasing in their shape, and simple to tie and untie—which are the two qualities most knots should have. One is the Figure of 8: Most people call it a Figure 8, but being a purist, I reverted back to the original title. I can tie it with one hand, and I have a method for tying it that once learned is imposible to forget. It's a very pleasing knot, because it actually has a shape like the figure of 8.
Another one I like is the Clove Hitch, which many people know—you put it around a post or a pipe. It's made up of two moves; the first is to pass the rope around the pole, and then make it exit underneath the first line. Then you do the exact same thing above it, so it's like two interlocking loops. They're called binding knots—every knot belongs to a class or family. This one's good for closing a bag or wrapping a gift.
So those knots are extremely simple. I could go into many others that are more complex, but these make me very happy and I can do them in my sleep, in all kinds of positions and directions. Again, this is another thing that should be taught in school: knotting! Even though we are going into the future with new technologies, we still need shoelaces, need to tie things. I start my book with a preface titled "Imagine," and I say, "Imagine the world without any knots, any lines, any ropes. And I start showing what we would not have. No flying kites, no hanging laundry. So it's an enumeration of how the world would be different if knots and ropes weren't there.
I'm very excited about this book. Part of my excitement, besides having tackled it—I'm in the middle and a cigarette short and it's been a lot, a lot of work—Is that my publisher, Abrams Books, is really prestigious. I know this book is going to be a gem. It's in four colors and even has a little rope enclosed.
I should ask a wire-walking question. I hear you were invited to wire-walk above the main concourse of Grand Central Station next February, in honor of the station's centennial . . .
No, that's a rumor. The people who are organizing the centennial told the press, "We're in contact with Philippe Petit," but that's not true. I have tried to make contact with them, and that has not yet happened. What is true is that several weeks ago someone planning the anniversary said, "Oh, I'd love to have Philippe Petit do this again," and of course I was interviewed by some newspapers asking if I'd do it, and I said, "I'd love to" [laughs]. That's where we are at the moment. I'd love to do it, and you can simply say that. It's kind of weird, you know? I'd love to do a wire-walk again in New York City—but not necessarily the same kind of walk.
In your bio, it mentioned that there were plans for a Rapa Nui walk, and one above Bryant Park in New York City.
Yes, those two projects are probably the most ready to go, and the most imporatnt in my life at the moment. They'll happen when I meet an angel of the arts who will write me a check. Or hen the powers that be upend their lethargy and cowardice. I don;t think that's going to happen. But I live in hope, and that's somehow how these projects happen. Having the idea and just talking about it. But those two projects are more than just talk, I've done the research and I'm ready to do it, to enter into the tangible part.
I didn't realize that the World Trade Center walk involved six years of research and planning.
Not really. It was six-and-a-half years from the moment I got the idea to the moment I stepped on the wire. Of course, for many of those years the towers were not even built, but they were talked about. So there was research that yielded some information. But basically, in the last eight months in New York City everything got crystallized. So there was a couple of years of planning and rehearsing.
I know you've done some teaching. Can anyone learn to wire-walk?
Yes, I would love to teach again. I thought I would do it this year, but that's not happening. But I'd love to do it every year, that would be great.
And yes, anyone can learn to walk the wire. In the circus world, if you are a child in a troupe of wire-walkers, they put you on a little wire a fw inches above the ground at four years old. Basically, when you can walk on the ground, you can walk on the wire. But me, I learned by myself at the very old age of 14. Having done that, I know anyone can learn. What you need is the motivation and passion; if you have that, you're goin to do it all day long, and if you do it all day long, you're going to become pretty good. Very simple logic.
In my workshops, I don't really teach people how to walk, although some at the end of two days can walk a very short and low wire. Basically, I open the door of my wire world to people. It's much more than technical; it's basically a mix of technique and artistry that I share with my students.
What haven't you done that you'd like to?
Oh, millions of things. It's a tough question because it's a frustrating world, the world of my wishes. But they all gyrate around the arts that I practice, obviously. And they all have to do with leaving something of myself and my methods after I leave this planet. I would love, one day, to create a foundation—not of wire-walking, but of the performing arts, satellite arts like juggling or lock-picking, which are essential to know if you are a magician or wire-walker.
But if you ask me about my projects in many fields—my next book, my next opera, my next wire-walk, my next one-man show—all these are, in themselves, things I want to do. Daily life is too short to do it all, and also, I'm not a millionaire. Therefore, I cannot produce my own art: I have to wait for the phone to ring, or I have to got out and solicit people to invite me to develop something. This is what every artisan on Earth does, and it's very, very hard, and sometimes you lose faith.
I don't want to sound as if I am complaining; this is the life I have chosen and I love it. It's also the most impossible life—if I had a job, I wouldn't have these problems. But you can't be a juggler or a wire-walker or magician as a "job," it has to be the passion of a lifetime. And I'm a man of many passions, too many sometimes.Q&A Exclusive: Phillippe Petit