Fluke Skywalker: Philippe Petit

High-wire maestro and daredevil Philippe Petit comes down from the clouds.

By Carlin Flora, published on January 1, 2007 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Philippe Petit

Profession: Wire-walker, juggler, magician, builder

Claim to Eccentricity: Walking a high wire between the World Trade Center Towers.

The scrappy young Frenchman Philippe Petit was at the dentist's office when he first read about the World Trade Center Towers. Thus was born a bold and imaginative (not to mention illegal) desire to take a walk between the two 104-story buildings. After six years of preparation, Petit, a restless redhead with a disdain for authority who tackled the art of high wire-walking after getting kicked out of lycee, realized his dream the summer of 1974 and pulled off what's been called the art crime of the century. Now a resident of upstate New York, he went on to teeter across wires rigged from the Eiffel Tower, the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and St. John the Divine Cathedral, where he is an artist-in-residence.

Philippe Petit: I am surprised, almost intrigued, that you want to interview me for this magazine. I don't swim in those waters. I walk in the sky.

Carlin Flora: Well, that's the reason right there. Your book To Reach the Clouds reads like an exciting crime heist. Do you think of what you do as subversive?

I don't think in terms of categories. Art is maybe a subversive activity. There is a certain rebellion when you are an artist at heart, even if only in the art of living.

Would you describe your personality as bold?

I would not describe my personality. And I think when you describe people you are making a mistake. That's not how they are, that's how you perceive them at that moment. It's limiting in front of something that is magnificent and unlimited: life.

To put the mind in a box is a crime of life. I want the mind to be too beautiful and too infinite to analyze, and fortunately so. I see kids who go to psychiatrists, and I think, my God, what is happening?

Why does that bother you?

Psychiatrists have their fears, their limits; they are not gods or gurus, so how can they work on the thoughts, the soul, and the brain?

But then again, I continually play with the nature of the mind in the street, as a juggler and magician. I must judge people, and decide on whom to play the joke.

So you are an amateur psychologist who does not believe in psychology?

Right. If I have to make a self-portrait, I would put poetry and rebellion on the list. To be able to walk on a wire, to be able to juggle six hoops, you need focus, another word for tenacity, which is passion. When I talk about my life, I use the word "fighting" very often. There is my intention to create and the world is against it.

What are you fighting against now?

Well, it's actually a very pleasurable adventure—the making of a documentary film based on my book.

For years I have been working on crossing the Grand Canyon. Actually, there is nobody who says "no," but since this is a project that comes from me and not a commission, I have to find the money, plan the logistics, etcetera.

How did you control your anxiety when crossing the towers?

I would say what allowed me to take that first step was my education as a wire-walker.

I don't have made-up recipes that I could give you in the form of advice. I was 24—I had an entire youth that prepared me for this. But it did not prepare me completely. I think no human being can be prepared to face a void of such dimensions.

Death frames the high wire. But I don't see myself as taking risks. I do all of the preparations that a non-death seeker would do. The WTC walk was crazy though; I was lucky. It was terrifying. Still, I grabbed the balancing pole not with the feeling of a man who is about to die.

You felt immense happiness when it was over. How long did that joy last?

It still is with me today when I recall what I did. But it was also ephemeral—just after the walk I was in different jails, and then I was in the claws of the press. The sentence of the court was to do a performance, and I transformed it into a giant event in Central Park. I was working day and night to set it up. I was not sitting down and enjoying the joy that I tasted between the towers.

Do you ever just relax?

I don't understand the concept of vacation. When people say "relax!" it's almost an insult to me. If I were on the beach, I would lie in the sun, but after a few minutes, I would start building sand castles with the kids or fighting the waves or looking for shells.

But I am passionate about some activities which are very calming. I am an 18th century post and beam carpenter. When I am working with tools that are not powered by electricity, I have to be really focused. It's a dialogue between the wood and me, with no noise in between.

What would you like to see happen
at the WTC site?

I think they should be rebuilt exactly the same, or maybe even a little bit higher—as a rebellion against doom.