Photo credit: Victoria Dearing

Fit to Be Tied: An Interview with Philippe Petit

Best known for being the subject of Man on Wire, wire-walking, knot-tying, street-juggling, magician Philippe Petit talks to PopMatters about his forthcoming book Why Knot?.

In an era where the Freedom Tower rises from New York as a symbol of American unity, it seems hard to distinguish the former location of the World Trade Center towers from the events of September 2011. But decades before, while the Twin Towers were still under construction, how could the architects fathom they were building a fantasy for one man. Philippe Petit, a wily funambulist, had completed many daring and illegal wire walking feats. Stretching his wire across continents (figuratively), Petit wire-walked atop France’s Cathedral in Notre Dame and Sydney’s Harbor Bridge before he set his eyes upon the towers in New York. His months of preparation for and the success of his walk between the Twin Towers is documented beautifully in the 2009 documentary Man on Wire. Before that film’s release, Petit had already penned his story in To Reach the Clouds (later retitled Man on Wire to go along with the movie).

For the generation that may have witnessed this feat and for a new generation introduced to Petit through the film, this “universal poet laureate of the high wire” is an inspiring figure. His art is not limited to wire-walking however. Petit is a street juggler, a magician, a craftsman (he built his own barn), and an engaging speaker. In 2011, Petit took to the stage of the Abrons Arts Center in New York for a solo engagement, Wireless!, expounding on his life experiences and demonstrating some tricks for a captivated audience. Within a year, Petit was invited to collapse this inspirational performance into an abbreviated presentation for TED. Not one to balk from a challenge, Petit’s TED talk is now available on the web, and he one upped himself by penning a multimedia eBook, Cheating the Impossible: Ideas & Recipes of a Rebellious High Wire Artist.

The TED talk marked the completion of just one of Petit’s many ongoing projects. Currently he is in the preparation stages of planning for a wire walk on Easter Island, dubbed the Rapa Nui Walk, and another walk to promote literacy, Read Up!, to be done at New York’s Bryant Park. As he plans these, Petit is also finalizing another book entitled, Why Knot? How to Tie More than Sixty Ingenious, Useful, Beautiful, Life-Saving, Magical, Intriguing, and Secure Knots! via Abrams. On track to be released in 2013, Why Knot? is Petit’s lovingly crafted tome offering, knot enthusiast knot lore, knot tying instruction and stories alongside his illustrations and some photos. In advance of this book, and taking time away from practicing of his artistry, Petit shared the joy of his knotting craft and some of his philosophy to overcome obstacles with PopMatters.

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Are you still working on Why Knot? or has the project wrapped up?

No, no, no. It’s still very much alive in the sense that I’m receiving at regular interval new passes from Abrams. I have very little time to correct them and check them. The book is in the making at the moment.

I understand it’s coming out in April of 2013. You will have more than 60 knots depicted. Are you doing all those illustrations or sketches by hand?

All the sketches for the step-by-step process of making the knots, probably 300 drawings, I made. Also I made some elaborate pencil drawings of knots to start each chapter. All that is done.

Why is Why Knot? a project you are working on now?

Because I was invited to do so by the Vice President of Abrams when he came to see my drawings of knots that I was exhibiting in a SoHo gallery a couple of years ago.

How much of your own stories will you be putting into Why Knot?

A lot, actually. Again you see at the invitation of the person I met from Abrams, he said, “I would love a very personal book of knots” because I pointed out there are already many, many books of knots already published, and who needs an extra one? He said, “That could be a unique one, with maybe all your stories and all your experiences of using knots to save your life as you are rigging high wire”. So I say, “Ah, that’s a nice angle. Sure”. Actually to answer that, I have in the book, sprinkled around, quite a few personal stories that involve knots. Also each new chapter has a double page photo of me on the high wire and I mention there, in the tiny little story, which knot was highlighted in that specific high wire walk.

It will have your voice. In your works, it has come across that you are a very passionate person and it will be excellent to read your stories in your own voice.

Not only will the book have my voice, but my voice is all over the book from the very beginning. I jump right in and I invite the reader, immediately after you turn the cover, to start knotting, rather than have a table of contents and preface and how to use this book. All that comes after. But the “jump-right-in” chapter is, as you lift the cover, you are being invited by me to start tying. You can do so because inside the cover is a little red rope.

I was going to ask if the book came with a practice string! I remember from your Wireless! performance that you keep a little red string with you.

Yes, very similar to mine. Of course a little bit thinner because of the book cover and the practicality of it. But the same length, exactly one meter, which is a good length to have in your pocket. The book continues with my voice on every page because, even when I talk about the history of knots or the construction of a rope, I mix up poetry and technique because that’s who I am. I refer to performing and to my philosophy and my creativity. So it’s a very, very personal book that I think is going to surprise everybody in the knot world and outside the knot world.

As you said you are putting a lot of your philosophy into the book, much of which you have shared in Wireless! or your TED talk. Will you be providing advice to others? You have talked about ‘cheating the impossible’ and encouraging others to challenge themselves. Will there be challenges along the way in Why Knot?

Yes, yes. But of course, focus on the world of knotting. I have also put in the book, here and there, what I call a surprise, which is something that doesn’t belong in that chapter to surprise the reader. It could be a magic trick or at some point it is a challenge. I challenge you to try to do this and that. So it’s a very fun and lively book. But yes it has a lot of advice for the supposed knot student. But it’s all focused on how to tie and how to make knots.

In your TED eBook, Cheating the Impossible, you mention magic, juggling and wire-walking as arts. But I didn’t see anything about knot making.

No, no. This coming book is going to answer that.

What drew you to knot making? Was it specifically wire-walking or was it a different aspect of magic tricks?

A little bit of both. I started very early, from five or six years old, to climb. To climb trees, to climb rocks everywhere I could. At some point of course I used a rope. I started making monkey bridges, like kids do, and climbing and rappelling with ropes. Very naturally, I needed some knots. At the very beginning I didn’t care, I didn’t know, and then slowly I started to know and I started to care. I wanted to know more knots or the right knot for the special action. So actually this love of ropes and knots started within my childhood. When I became a professional wire-walker, even more so. I needed more knowledge in rigging and knotting. I started collecting books on knots and really learning more and more. That’s how it started. And also in magic, of course. With a piece of rope you can do magic. You can do a whole program with one piece of string or cord. All that combined is what brought me into the world of knotting.

Were you ever involved in sailing or have you used knots in any other marine-related ways?

No. It’s a little bit frustrated because, of most of the knots we know today, a good part of them come from that source of course. Some are very, very old. Thousands of years old. I was never part of the sailing circle but I enjoy when I’m invited to sail. I enjoy the experience but no, I don’t have any knowledge of that. It’s surprising but my knowledge of knots comes from rigging and its very close actually. In a boat, you use pulleys and all kinds of different ropes and knots so you have to know about rigging. But I guess it’s specialized for the boat world.

In Cheating, you noted at the beginning of each chapter a song or piece of music that you recommend listening to and at the end you put a book or book chapter. Will you be tying any music into Why Knot?

No, that was a specific idea I developed for the TED book. And then I developed specific ideas for the Abrams Why Knot book, such as jumping right in, instead of going through front matters, and scattering the book with surprises, magic tricks and challenges for the reader. [These are some of the] many, very unique features that the book has.

The knots in the book have history, but these are all knots you have used and tried. Will you be crediting others?

Well, in the world of knotting, there is very little invention because there are so many, probably 3,000-4,000 knots that exist, counting all the variations of a classic knot. So you don’t invent a knot. It’s very rare. Those knots exist and I spend a lot of time deciding which I want to put in my book. I explain that to the reader in a chapter about this book, how I selected the sixty knots there. Also I share my own method because for most of the knots I have developed my own methods of learning them, teaching them or remembering them easily. I share that with the reader so, again it makes the book very, very personal and unique. And that’s what we have.

Will you be offering any hands-on demonstrations or workshops to go with the release of the book?

Well, yeah. I talk a lot about the rigging workshop and tying workshop I did. Which I don’t do regularly but sometimes an institution calls me, either Boy Scouts, riggers, timber framers, architects or firemen, they call me and say, “Hey, let’s have a knot workshop”, but I don’t do it regularly. But after this book is published, I will answer yes to those invitations and share my knotting knowledge with others.

What are some of your other projects you are working on? I saw on your bio you have two walks coming up, the Rapa Nui walk and the Read Up! walk.

Well, that’s a giant project in itself. I have not yet been there on a scouting trip. Of course I’m ready to go but all I need is an angel of the arts to write a check, as you can imagine. I’m not able to produce my own performance. I’m not a rich artist. So this project is actually in my head but it hasn’t physically started. Some other projects have physically started. For example, ‘High Wire Variations’ is a performance in a theater with myself on the wire, of course not a super high wire because the theater has a roof above the stage, with a classic pianist and an actor reading texts from my books. This High Wire Variations show I started rehearsing a little bit, or trying to put together the skeleton of the show in the last month. Now we are ready to make the special equipment. A steel manufacturer in upstate New York is working with me on a design. We are ready to start really rehearsing but, again, we need to find sponsors or people who believe in arts and would like to help.

How much funding do these projects need?

Each of my projects is different. For a high-wire walk or for a theatrical show, I cannot really tell. Plus I do not know actually. It’s not my department, as I should say. It’s not the end of the world. Certainly it’s something that is possible to put together. The thing is I need to work with people who encourage the arts — find those people and have them make those projects happen — because, by myself, I can’t.

Are you familiar with Kickstarter or other crowd funding tools on the internet?

I’m not a computer person. I start writing with ink, a fountain pen, for my first draft when I write a book. At some point I put it in a computer for practicality. But I am really not versed in the computer. I don’t have portable phone. I don’t have a blueberry. I don’t have an iPod, an iPad. I live a little bit in a different century. That’s probably very foolish of me to not adopt our 21st century. I have heard of Kickstarter but my producer is the person to ask about the pros and cons for that system.

I’m sure you have a large fan base who would love to see your next walk or production and so maybe Kickstarter would be a better way to reach out to them. But moving on, I’ll ask, from your TED eBook, how do you “force your body to walk through a wall?”

I think it was a metaphor. It’s the idea of how to tackle the impossible. The impossible is a human invention of course. It’s to create a boundary and not try. But if you look at all the amazing victories of man, to go on the moon, to descend in a fiery mouth of a volcano, to cross a channel swimming, all those endeavors were deemed impossible. Then somebody started working on it and it’s not out of luck, but out of passion and tenacity that man can achieve the impossible. That is what that metaphor was about. Don’t let a wall stop you. It can be walked through or broken or [laughs] climbed.

I wasn’t sure if that was the next book you were working on.


In terms of your books, this will be your third or fourth in English?

It’s my eighth book in English.

Oh ok. I wasn’t aware of that. I was aware that you have more books in French but I was going to ask, have your French books been translated to English?

Yes, they have and the opposite is not true. I don’t know why. The French don’t seem to be very interested in my art. It’s strange. So almost nothing comes from the French. I mean it’s not true, a couple of things that I’ve done, a couple important walks and a couple of books as well. Usually it is the opposite. A French book will automatically be translated and published in America. For the book of knots, I already know the good news, the French are interested. I laughed when I heard that news. The book will be made in French.

Do you think then there is an attitude difference between Americans and the French in how they are drawn towards your work?

There is an immense difference of everything. Of attitude, of traditions, of behavior between the American system and the French, or the European, but mostly the French. Yes it’s an immense, immense difference.

Maybe I shouldn’t ask, but do you prefer living here now that you’ve been here for many years or do you prefer France, back home?

Well, maybe I prefer my own planet. When I go back to Paris, I love the city, the heritage, the delicious bread, cheese, and wine that we produce. It’s a fantastic place. I’m talking about the French mentality and that is not fantastic. So I find myself much more at ease in a place where you can ask somebody in the street, “hey I love that shirt, where did you buy it? How much did it cost?” In France, if you want to know how much somebody’s shirt cost, they will punch you in the nose because it’s rude to ask. Secondly, you’ll have to have a four-hour lunch and pet the dog of the guy before you’ll be able to switch from the ‘you’ polite to the ‘you’ direct. We have two ‘yous’ in the language in France, ‘vous’ and ‘tu’. So that right there shows you that if you want to buy something in America, it’s simple, if you want to buy something in France, good luck. It’s a long, long, long list that I don’t frown upon anymore. I laugh at it now. Whenever there is a phone call, and it’s a French proposition, I know it will not work. I know they will look at the ten cents they are going to lose and not at the million dollars they are going to make. It’s just a different way. But I love the bread and the wine.

You are in upstate New York, but how often do you come to New York City for the culture?

Oh, all the time. I lived in New York for thirty years. I consider that I’m still living in New York. I’m still an artist-in-residence of the largest cathedral in the world, St. John the Divine, [at] 112th and Amsterdam. I have my office and my archive there, so I go to New York all the time.

Do you still do shows in Washington Square Park?

It’s a little bit frustrating because I have so many projects, so many activities, that I can no longer spend weeks street juggling when I feel like it. But I try to, at least once a year, go back to Washington Square Park. Though now they have changed the park, so it’s very limited the place where I would be able to perform. So, yes, I continue to do everything I do. Street juggling is a very important part of me. I continue to street juggle, unfortunately not regularly.

When you are not able to street juggle, what does your character, Lippo — what is he doing?

Well [laughs], daydreaming. Asleep but not really asleep. I practice three hours a day, juggling and the high-wire. I have a barn that I built by myself and I have a little stage there. So every day I make this character live through a rehearsal of the juggling and the comic moves with the hat and all that. So he’s not really asleep, he’s alive every day.

That was a very nice question; thank you for that.

Well, thank you. I’d like to ask, in your Wireless! performance and your TED talk, you listed passion, tenacity, intuition, faith, improvisation, and inspiration along the way, as advice or as guidelines for life. Or maybe for your life. Were these for your life or other people’s lives?

It’s for both. Yes of course, it’s for my life. It’s something that I develop and felt essential. I cannot help sharing that feeling that those qualities are essential in life. To create and to live. When I do a workshop or address to students at a lecture, I bring forth those qualities. Of course many other qualities or topics could be added to those. But those, as you mentioned from different talks or books that I have done, are the ones I find essential certainly in a creative field. Yes, although they are personally mine, they are also universal and they should be shared.

What would be a great feat, not of your own, that you draw inspiration from?

A work of art, like a painting, that touches me and that inspires me, I find that a great achievement. It’s immensely inspiring. Mostly if I can tell that the work didn’t take nine seconds but maybe nine months to do. So I like work, basically. I like perfection, [laughs] which is rare. I like focus. I like good work. I like the pride of a craftsperson. Those things are getting more and more rare, as we depend on our world of pixels and pseudo-interaction with others through all our little electronic devices. Which I am not playing at all with. I like things that have been living for a long time. For example, a good saw has been around for a thousand years. You don’t need to invent a new saw with electronic memories. An old saw from the 18th century or the Middle Ages, you sharpen it well and it will do the work and the movement to use it will be beautiful because it has been used for thousands of years. I think I am a person of tradition. But I don’t like tradition to make myself prisoner. It’s a thin line to walk on. But I am wary of the progress, as we call it, of the future and I like very much those things that have been proven as working.

So then back to Why Knot?, you appreciate the timelessness of craft and the timelessness of artistry and you’d like to share the hand-made skills of knot making with an audience. Are you trying to renew interest in something physical like that?

Yes, absolutely. Not only an audience of the readers of the book, but generally speaking. There are so many professions that use knots — from the surgeon to the sailor to the climber to the wire walker, the book binder, the person that sews clothes — almost every profession in the world, some more than others, use knots. I love that. I love the universality of it. The absence of time. You use today a knot that was invented maybe before the Middle Ages. Actually some knots can be dated from drawings from the early Greek and Romans and we still use today.

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