Philippe Petit's artistic attack -
Interview at the end of the line
A film by James Marsh
On August 7th 1974, the Frenchman named Philippe Petit stepped out on a wire illegally rigged between New York's twin towers. After nearly an hour dancing on the wire, he was arrested and brought to jail before he was finally released.
Sabine Morandini : Is there any tumbler in the U.S? Do they have the same concept of the circus?
Philippe Petit : I can only talk about my spirit and my style because I wasn't born in the circus world. I'm an autodidact and I became an entertainer who plays his own creations. There are artists in the streets and the parks of the U.S. main cities who use the street as a living lab, rehearsal space or permanent audition in order to get noticed and hired. They generally disappear from that environment later on. As far as I'm concerned I chose the street as as stage and will continue to perform there my whole life. The street performers are illegals in the U.S. The parks give artists some permits, which is something I can't accept. I joggle when I want and where I want without a permit. I got arrested over 500 times in my life and all over the world and I will keep on going...
SM : What do you think of Alan Roberts' performance? Is that another artistic attack?
PP : My definition of art is different. I don't believe art should be competitive. Arts in general shouldn't be a place for challenge where one tries to prove to be stronger and more courageous than another. I have nothing to do with all those people who showed up lately on the art scene and adventurous endeavors, dressed as superman or spiderman and achieving 12 climbings in one hour to have their name in the records book. I avoid that like the pleague and am really not interested.
SM : What is your definition of danger?
PP : I could write a book on the subject!It's an extraordinarily complex subject that you can't condense in a few sentences. I believe that danger is a very personal thing, it's also a human invention, to not know, to not study. It's not dangerous to hang around the Mont Blanc when you know what a mountain is and when you respect nature and understand that she is a lot stronger than man, and that we need to make her an ally instead of defying her. This is why I believe that my job as a funambulist isn't dangerous.
SM : What did you feel on September 11th 2001
PP : It's something that cannot be condensed in a short sentence and it wouldn't be very noble on my part to say that I lost two tours that I really love because of the loss of thousands of human lives, and you can't compare that to the loss of a building. You can imagine my feelings during their destruction considering that I spent so many years of my life to fall in love with them and see them grow.
SM : Do you have writing projects?
PP : I'm more and more of a writer and I just completed my 8th book which is about the construction of my barn, which I built during the course of several years alone, with my bare hands, without electricity and with 18th century tools. An american publisher asked me if I wanted to write a book on it. The book includes 375 drawings that mix the artistic and technical aspect of this adventure. I wish this book will be published in France!!Because my last book that is translated and published in dozens of countries and was the basis for “Man on a wire” called “To reach the clouds” still hasn't found a publisher in France!!
SM : Are you bitter or do you have regrets about France?
PP : Yes, I'm extremely bitter, which is actually too tender of a word!!I have an inside rage but after all those years, I realize that it's better to smile with pity so I try to transform my bitterness and my frustration into a shrug of the shoulders and half smiles.
SM : What fascinates you?
PP : Many things!! Perfection fascinates me, theatrical drama, an artist that touches you with his art, somebody very old that still does what he likes is a great lesson for me because it's difficult. I'm a lover of apprenticeship , life is short, I want to learn everything and achieve everything. If I open an old watch I will be fascinated by its complexity and the beauty of its mechanism! I'm constantly fascinated by everything!!
SM : Who inspired you in the funambulist or circus world??
PP : I collect everything about funambulism since I'm 15 years old. Most people look at this universe, that existed long before circus did, more like a prowess, something vulgar and hard and not at all an art form. There are people that inspired me and continue to do so. In history, there was BLONDIN who crossed Niagara falls rapids, Mrs SAKI, in Bonaparte times, but when you look at those great characters, they really weren't artists, they were the hard core old Circus school. The art of funambulism might have never existed and when I die if someone says that I contributed to elevate funambulism to an Art form, I will be very happy to hear that from my tomb. When you look at modern funambulism, there are practically none any more working freely in mature, they are mainly under the Circus tents achieving dangerous and unique and blowing the public's mind away.
They are very few artists left unfortunately.
SM : How do you live with your fame?
PP : When I run into people who stop me because they read my last book or saw my last show and ask for an autograph I feel flattered because it's genuine. But I don't really want to dwell on the “being know” aspect, I'd much rather concentrate on my projects and work, but of course, it sometimes help to be known. It's a tool.
SM : Are you ready for another artistic attack?
PP : Yes, I have dozens of wires in my head that hang in the wind of my imagination.But we live in a world that changed a lot, and today it would be virtually impossible to hang a wire between two sky scrappers of a big city. I would be shot before I'd have a chance to explain and it's strange for me to say that it's impossible because I spent my life doing impossible things!! I keep thinking about clandestine attacks.
SM : Do you have projects?
PP : Working as a funambulist is becoming more and more difficult throughout the world. I think it will become illegal and disappear altogether within a few years. I continue to be a funambulist and I train 3 hours/day and I have offers throughout the world but at the same time it's becoming very difficult to put a funambulist event together.
I had a project of a funambulist opera in the Great canyon, I met with several producers from several countries and then they got scared to lose their funnambulist in the great canyon..Sometimes reality wins which doesn't mean that the artist needs to give up, this project is not buried yet. One of those days, the guardian angel of the Arts will decide to put this project back in the front line and complete it.
It's the story of my life, there are projects that take dozens of years and some that get completed after strenuous lifelong effort.
SM : Could you comment each word :
PP : Ephemeral : It's an extraordinary word, we should pay attention to the ephemeral and we should study it at school!!
Poetry : It shouldn't be defined it should be felt. That what makes us smile and live.
For the beauty of it : It's also something that tends to be forgotten. The craftsmen had a beauty to their craft , the book binder, the saddle maker, there was the love of a job well done and it's something almost lost. I spend my life looking for the beauty of it.
SM : Are you watching your diet?
PP : Not at all, but as my body is becoming old and that I'll never stop, I counter balance , I work out. I will stop only when my body will refuse to move!
SM : Would you like to realize some projects in France?
PP : I would really like to come back to France to hang wires in extraordinary sites and places that we have. I love france.It have to say it. It's easy to have projects but it has to follow through. For example the Gand Palais is a wonderful site where I hanged a wire when I was 18 years old without a permit, and I would really like to hang another one 50 years later and perform an amazing show!!
Books by Philippe Petit
Trois Coups (Herscher, Paris 1983)
On the High Wire (Random House, New York 1985)
Funambule (Albin Michel, Paris 1991)
Traité du Funambulisme (Actes Sud, Arles 1997)
Über mir der offene Himmel (Urachhaus, Stuttgart 1998)
Trattato di Funambolismo (Ponte Alle Grazie, Milano 1999)
To Reach The Clouds (North Point Press/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York 2002) currently translated in 8 languages
L’Art du Pickpocket (Actes Sud, Arles 2006)
Kathy, Emily and Philippe Petit
Philippe Petit in MAN ON WIRE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures©2008
Jean-Louis Blondeau / Polaris Images
Man On Wire
A film by James Marsh
Best Documentary Feature Film Oscar at the Academy Awards 2009.