Two “Artists of the Air” on the Limits of Time and Space
Every year PEN America presents its World Voices Festival, a literary festival in New York City featuring at least 200 writers and artists from over fifty countries in conversation about some of the most important literary, cultural, and political topics of our age. This year the event spanned six days, from May 6th to May 12th, and Guernica writers were able to attend four of the events. These are their dispatches from the festival.
“We live in a time where time is so important,” lamented Philippe Petit, the storied French high-wire walker, to Elizabeth Streb, the eminent choreographer and pioneer of what she has called “extreme action movement.” The two artists were in conversation at PEN America’s May 7th panel, “Artists of the Air,” and Streb had just pointed out that time, the very concept, still has never been precisely defined by humanity. She then asked what time means to Petit.
The wire walker, who fizzes in conversation like champagne just uncorked, bubbled vigorously over. First he announced that he disregards time, “a human invention,” just as he disregards “the force that attracts us to the Earth, gravity.” Next he fretted that such proclamations sounded childish: “How can you disregard something that has existed for millennia?”
Such paradoxes—time’s existence being harder to gainsay because time has been around a long time—might trip up a thinker who hasn’t spent a lifetime circumnavigating the impossible. But just as he leaned into atmospheric turbulence when parading across the wire he famously strung up between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, Petit perseveres in high-flying conversation, placing one foot in front of the other until arriving someplace solid.
“When I set myself to learn juggling, time did not exist. I would spend four, five, six hours juggling. I was a kid! My mother would say ‘Time for dinner!’” His voice drops, “‘Dinner? What a joke! I am learning, here!’ All those stupid gadgets—I shouldn’t say stupid—all of those semi-stupid gadgets that we are slaves of are telling us ‘we are saving you time.’ Time to do what? Do you go jogging in the woods? No! We’re not human anymore! Get lost and do something that takes six hours! Don’t look at your watch! Break your watch with a hammer!”
Then, a little apologetically: “The kid [in me] is talking. Don’t listen to me. But what I mean is that there is nothing more beautiful in life than to be passionate and to forget time, to forget to eat or sleep. That’s my announcement to artists, to students, to anybody in life. We should disregard time sometimes.”
He took a breath and thought about that last sentence again, its situating of timelessness within time itself. “Oh!” he laughed. “Did I say that?”
Petit’s encounter with Streb was timed to celebrate New Directions’s reprint of his treatise On The High Wire, originally published in 1985. The talk was spirited, theoretical, practical, even bonkers. Streb, an intellectually rigorous Guggenheim and MacArthur winner as well as a model of downtown arts-scene cool, posed searching questions to Petit, a chatterbox sprite whose World Trade Center wire walk has influenced Streb’s own work, including her dancers’ 2012 performance in which they hung from the spokes of the London Eye observation wheel.
Streb pressed Petit on his work’s emphasis on slow-motion movement, noting that in On the High Wire he called running “the acrobat’s laughter.” Even that straightforward question yielded a riddling answer: “I am fascinated by the art of creating a perfect walk on a little piece of cable in thin air that moves. Why run? If something is calling to you that there is a fire, there are reasons to run. But in art why try to finish a painting in three hours less than what it takes? Why think of the time it takes to do a masterpiece? You should abandon yourself, forgetting about time.”
The talk ranged from inspirational musings to the practicalities of wire-walking to a sort of Dada patter comedy:
Streb: Would you say you were a thousand feet up?
Petit: No, I can’t say that. That would be a lie. It was a thousand three hundred and fifty feet.
Curiously, Streb’s own riddles stirred his most practical responses. Continuing with the themes of time and space, she at one point brandished a rectangular strip of paper. “This has four edges and two sides,” she noted. “Then, if you twist it just once and reconnect the edges, it has one edge and one side. Why?”
Petit shrugged, “Well, I’m not Mr. Möbius.”
Discussing speed in dance, Streb lamented that the edge of the stage slows dancers down and limits what they can achieve in a performance space. While making an unrelated point several minutes later, Petit, seemingly caught up in his thoughts, strode right to the edge of the small stage that the speakers shared and seemed poised to take one step more, spilling off.
Then he pivoted back and kept right on speaking, creating art from what Streb earlier had suggested was sometimes a limitation. Suddenly, his argument for disregarding snapped into focus: Disregarding a thing demands first acknowledging it and then persevering in spite of it. Both artists certainly had much more to say on these topics, of course, but by that point, well, their panel was almost out of time.