Philippe Petit, High Wire Artist
High wire artist Philippe Petit electrified New York City -- and the world -- with his early morning walk between the twin towers on August 7, 1974. He has also performed on a high wire at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia. He is artist-in-residence at New York's Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Producer Ric Burns interviewed him during the making of New York: The Center of the World.
Rehearsing the Walk
To make sure that the rigging, which was supposed to happen all night (and the walk, early morning), would happen fluidly, I did different kind of rehearsals. Most of them were fiascos. I rehearsed in real size in a meadow in France, the passing of the cable, the attachment to trees, and all the movements, to make sure that I didn't forget one of those lifesaving movement or one bolt or one nut. Basically it was pretty simple. I had to pass the cable invisibly, secretly, silently, and to pull ropes thicker and bigger until the actual steel cable will walk across, secure it on one side, around some column, and then secure it to the other side, to some ratchet, and pull, and [guideline]. That sounds very simple like this, or maybe it doesn't sound simple. But the detail of it, in the middle of the wire -- of -- The detail of it in the middle of the night was such that we were actually crawling in complete darkness. And it should be completely silent...
Getting the Cable Across
The first problem was how to pass the cable across, how to pass the first line, which will ultimately become a rope strong enough to pull a heavy steel cable. So the first line was supposed to be the lightest and the most invisible, so I opted for a fishing line, nylon fishing line, of course trying different weights because some will snap. So how to get that fishing line across? It's like 200 feet from center of roof to center of roof, roughly. So for months and months in France, prior to coming to America, I battled with my friends about some ideas. We had all kind of ideas. And the idea that prevailed was the one I thought was ridiculous, was a bow and arrow. But actually, after a lot of manipulation and prototypes of the bow, of the arrow, of the wheel (the wheel actually that allows the fishing line to pay off against the wind), it actually worked. So with a fishing line and a bow and arrow, we passed the first line. And then all night we pulled, and then the cable was secured. All that with a lot of incidents. That's the beauty of a plan, is that they never work, the plans, you know. So we had a lot of improvisation, and I was the only one knowing about rigging...
Setting Foot on the Cable
It was an ocean of adventure and full of obstacles and sea monsters probably. All that disappeared when I set foot on the cable. But it was not a surprise. It was not a new condition. I said I never thought about the walk. Maybe I thought about the walk all along, without psychologically realizing I was thinking about the walk. So when I found myself on the wire, facing the wire, one foot on the wire, one foot on the building, and ready to decide to shift my weight to become a bird, to become a wire walker on that wire, it was not something new. It was something that I know I belong to, something that, as opposed to the ocean of hazards, was something simple.
The wire is a safe place for me to be. The street is not. Life is not. It's a rigorous and simple path. It's straight. You don't have meanders like, you know, on the ground, in life. There are no obstacles, no red lights, no bad guys, no politicians, no representative authorities with uniforms. You suddenly -- And there is no life. There is something much more supreme than life. There is carrying one's life across -- Not chancing it, because I'm really not somebody who is ready to play with life, mine or the one of the building or others. But I was finally finding myself living, because I had now opened the door to living on the edge, living the only place where it's worth living, which is fully, and grabbing my life and carrying my life across. It's the most beautiful profession in the world.
Somehow I did this shift from being grounded to being aerial. And I started gliding, and the first crossing -- There might have been only one -- but the first crossing is always an interrogation between me and the place where I anchored my wire, me and the wire itself, because there's no way to test that wire before. So the first crossing has a little bit of a test to it. But I didn't even took the full length of the crossing to get to know the rigging and the vibration of the building and the wire. After a few steps, I knew I was in my element and I knew the wire was not well rigged (we had some tremendous problem during the whole night of rigging) but it was safe enough for me to carry on. And then, very slowly as I walked, I was overwhelmed by a sense of easiness, a sense of simplicity. And actually I can be seen on the first pictures smiling, smiling probably out of disbelief. It's so easy, after all those years and months of ups and down and detours, victories and disasters. Finally I was carrying my life on a path that was the simplest, the most beautiful, and the easiest. I shouldn't say that, but why not? It's very easy to walk on a wire if you spend a whole lifetime practicing for it. So I was actually enjoying myself tremendously, and I was feeling the bird in me, the feathers in my arm grow. And then somehow I improvised on that wire, and I found myself spending 45 minutes and doing eight crossings.
My American Experience
How did you first learn of the September 11 attacks? Do you remember what you were doing when the Twin Towers fell? What did it mean to you? Do you have specific memories of that day?