For Artistic Criminal, Breaking Rules Is Key To 'Creativity' Performer Philippe Petit, who walked between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, says the difference between the average criminal and an artistic one is that the former takes and the latter gives.
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For Artistic Criminal, Breaking Rules Is Key To 'Creativity'

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For Artistic Criminal, Breaking Rules Is Key To 'Creativity'

For Artistic Criminal, Breaking Rules Is Key To 'Creativity'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

PHILIPPE PETIT: In my life, I use a lot of black and white so I say I hate books about creativity.

RATH: You might recognize that voice if you've seen the documentary "Man on Wire." It's Philippe Petit, famous for illegally walking the high-wire between the Trade Center Towers in 1974. He didn't just walk between the towers, though. As one of the officers who nabbed him afterwards said, he danced. Petit has performed and lectured all over the world, hoping to inspire people to take creative risks. That's the motive behind his new book "Creativity: The Perfect Crime," even though he hates books about creativity.

PETIT: But actually, it's about my creativity; and it's a very different thing.

RATH: There are helpful notes about practicing and organizing your thoughts, but the book is more like a chaotic peak into Petit's brain with sketches, meditative asides and even internal dialogue written out.

PETIT: Because it is personal, it will be useful because I'm not doing any rules. This is not a thesis on creativity. This is a kind of an outlaw confession. My journey has always been the balance between chaos and order. I have not followed the right path. I have been expelled from five different schools when I was a kid. And I learned, basically, all what I do by myself, so I have something to say that rarely is being said.

RATH: You often refer to this criminal aspect. You talk about the artist, the creative individual being in some ways like a criminal, yourself being like a criminal. Could you explain that?

PETIT: From a early age, I differentiated myself from the other kids because I was - I like things well done. I was trying to orient myself toward perfection. And I was very individualist. And then the more I adopted the faces of a criminal, of course, an artistic criminal, the more I felt that the world was against me, that I had to tip-toe, that I had to hide my discoveries. And of course, it's a metaphor. But to me, the real creativity, the full creativity has to be rebellious, maybe not unlawful, but outlaws of the laws that we have created. To be able to create fully, it's maybe fine that you learn the rules. But you have to forget and to rebel against those rules.

RATH: But you also break down, even though there's similarities between what you do in a bank heist, there's a fundamental difference.

PETIT: Well, yes. In a bank heist, you steal, you take away. In an illegal high-wire walk, you bring, you give a gift of beauty and of inspiration. It's not me who says that, it's my audience. You know, after a walk they come and they say, you have changed my life. Now I can move mountains. Thank you.

RATH: And in writing about creativity you talk about how to engage with the world, engage with objects differently. You talk about the parkour. For people who aren't familiar with parkour, that's this sort of intense running where people kind of almost like run up along the sides of buildings from rooftop to rooftop. I thought that was a pretty recent thing but you did it as a kid.

PETIT: Yes. My father was a very athletic man and he took us - his kids, me and my sister, you know, 5, 6, 7 years old in the woods every Sunday. And we parkour. But, yes, it started in France many, many years ago. And I'm glad that this action has taken over the world.

RATH: Well, there's also something about the transgressive quality, the trespassing quality that seems to attract you.

PETIT: Yes. Any activity such as parkour, such as wire walking, any art that will rejoice in a rebellious freedom is something that is going to enrich our lives.

RATH: And again, if with that rebellious freedom, you know, it's very interesting how you balance that with this intense planning, the mental dress rehearsals that you go through. How do you know when you're kind of done with the dreaming phase and you have to start the engineering part?

PETIT: Well, it's not so much knowing as the hours of the day dictate that to you. There is usually a deadline. There is a time of a performance. And if you're not ready, well, that's going to be very tough. So as you said, first, I am the daydreamer and the poet who conceive of a performance. And at some point I have to, you know, pull my sleeves up and become the rigger who actually rigs the wire.

And at some point very soon thereafter comes the moment where I need to turn the page again and I become the performer. And it's very difficult for me to switch from one to another of those three phases because they overlap. At some point I have to wash my hands from pulling the greasy cable and then put my costume and appear on stage and think of doing a beautiful walk.

RATH: You've been performing for a long time. Has it become any easier to you over time or has the process changed for you?

PETIT: You see, the beauty for me of performing a lifetime - I've been performing the street for more than 50 years, magic, basically 60 years, on the high wire, 45 years. The beauty of it is that it's never the same. It's never easy. And yet, part of my art is to make it look easy.

Since I was not born in the circus, I'm not trying to impress people with a somersault and tricks and pyramids. So I cultivated, and it took a lifetime, the art of walking. And walking is the hardest thing in the world. It's like breathing, you know, we take it for granted, but we should go to school for breathing and walking. And there is nothing more difficult, but I should say also nothing more easy than walking. So I love that, I love the difficulty of showing how easy it is.

RATH: And you also think that there should be a course on mistakes in school.

PETIT: Oh, yes. I have a long list of what there should be a course of - lock picking, mistakes. I have discovered that my best teachers were my mistakes and instead of covering a mistake with a list of excuses, I actually unwrap the mistake and I look at it and I approach it, and I see why.

Why did I cut myself with a saw? I didn't sharpen the saw correctly. I was saying hello to a friend passing by and not concentrating. Or maybe the wood was wet. I didn't inspect the wood. It's my fault, and that's how I'm going to learn. So, I love mistakes, yes.

RATH: So what are you working on now? What's right now in the filing cabinet , some index cards and the notebooks?


PETIT: Many, many thing but I am very proud of this book on creativity which, by the way for me as an author, is my 10th book. I am working on films. I'm working on the high-wire crossing, for example the 40th anniversary of my walk at the World Trade Center is this year, August 7th. So I have in my sleeve a little (unintelligible) apparition that I would like to share with the New Yorkers and with the world. I continue to be a street juggler. I have many projects and I guess that keeps me young.

RATH: That's Philippe Petit. His latest book is "Creativity: The Perfect Crime." Thank you and can't wait to see what you do next.

PETIT: Thank you very much.


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