Flânerie en haut: walking the skyline | RUTH BRETHERICK

Catherine Yass, Hire Wire, film and video, high definition, 4 projections, 2 lightboxes, colour and black and white and sound (stereo), 6min 48sec, installation shot, 2008. © Tate, London 2018. Image reproduced with permission of Catherine Yass and Tate Images.


In The Practice of Everyday Life (1980, trans. 1984) Michel de Certeau invokes a roof-top view of Manhattan, looking down from the 110th floor of the World Trade Center to the ‘wave of verticals’ below.[1] The modern city and its skyscrapers seems to throw the human body into a context that could not have existed before: up on the top floor of this building ‘one’s body’, writes Certeau, ‘is no longer clasped by the streets that turn and return it according to an anonymous law […] An Icarus flying above these waters’.[2] The skyscraper flings the body into the sky, while at the same time, from street level, enveloping it, drastically altering one’s perceptions of scale.

Inadvertently Certeau recalls the viewpoint of the funambulist Philippe Petit, on a rope above New York City in 1974 between the newly built twin towers of the World Trade Center. After several years of planning, and with the help of a group of friends and a World Trade Center insider, Petit eventually pulled off this feat of tightrope walking in a clandestine operation, and was arrested shortly afterwards. In this short article, I will approach this act of high wire walking alongside that of Petit’s pupil, Didier Pasquette, between two 31-storey blocks on the Red Road estate in Glasgow, in Catherine Yass’s artwork, High Wire of 2008. In this second walk, the Scottish winds prevented Pasquette’s passage, and he retreated.

Rather than considering these feats within a history of circus spectacle or entertainment, I wish to think of them within a history of French urban walking from Charles Baudelaire’s flâneur, through to Dada and Surrealist perambulations, Situationist psychogeography, and, most of all, Certeau’s essay on walking in the city. The nineteenth-century flâneur, as defined both by Baudelaire and subsequently by Walter Benjamin, is a man of leisure, an urban stroller, a crowd watcher, at home in the crowd, yet detached from it, a man who both revels in and resists the changing city. He is a quintessential type of emerging modernity.

By the time of Certeau’s essay, at the beginning of the 1980s, artistic urban walking had taken its turns through the deambulations of the Surrealists and the dérives of the Situationist International. For Certeau the city is text, and his invocation of the view from the 110th floor presents it as such. Such a proposition recalls Roland Barthes’s 1964 essay on the Eiffel Tower, in which he writes that ‘the panoramic vision add[s] an incomparable power of intellection: the bird’s-eye view, which each visitor to the Tower can assume in an instant for his own, gives us the world to read and not only to perceive’.[3] For Certeau, the city is there both to be read, and also to be written. The true pedestrian writes the city with his feet, finding short cuts and slipstreams, becoming familiar not with the city as a whole, but with a particular neighbourhood in the same way that one becomes familiar with speaking and writing a language. The walker, Certeau writes, adopts ‘turns and detours that can be compared to “turns of phrase” or “stylistic figures”. […] The art of ‘turning’ a phrase finds an equivalent in an art of composing a path’.[4] Certeau’s walker, then, moves tactically against the dominant strategies of urban planning, against the structures one sees from on high. Certeau’s emphasis is on the degree of knowledge of the street-dweller versus the voyeur on high: while those down below walk and write the text of the city without being able to read it, blindly and unknowingly, so to speak, the voyeur, on the 110th floor, can read the city and its plans like an urban cartographer. The walker speaks the language of the city in the way that suits him, tactically, and often against the wider planned strategy of the whole. The moving body is used as a means to subvert the logic of the planned city, to cut against its grids. What, I want to ask, is the wirewalker’s relation to such an understanding of the city?


Pasquette, 2008

In High Wire Didier Pasquette sets out to tightrope walk between two high-rise towers on the Red Road housing scheme in Glasgow. He does not even reach the quarter-way point before sensing that the venture is impossible and he begins to retreat, walking backwards to the platform on which he started. High Wire is displayed in a four-screen installation, showing a close up, two wide shots, and a point-of-view shot filmed from a camera on Pasquette’s helmet.

The lead up to the walk is drawn out, with the camera trained on the buildings. As he steps up onto the platform and begins to walk, Pasquette slides the ball of each foot along the wire before every step, always maintaining contact with the thin ground. Each step is considered, reminding us that it contains within it the potential for failure. The roaring wind of the soundtrack does not let up, and we sense the reason behind Pasquette’s retreat, as we lip read his shout of ‘C’est pas possible’, his words inaudible over the high winds. Without a pause, which might destabilise him, he begins to walk backwards.

High Wire has been installed, among other places, at the German Gymnasium near King’s Cross, London (2011) and at the Gymnasium Gallery in Berwick-upon-Tweed (2013). The acrobat on the wire is in his practice ground in the gymnasium. In this context Pasquette’s walk might always be a rehearsal for a future performance, and as the films play on a loop of around ten minutes, we watch, and watch again, as the funambulist perpetually practices, as he repeatedly tries and fails to complete the crossing.

There is perhaps a deep-seated feeling when watching any dangerous act of daring that the failure of it might be more spectacular than its success. One might recall the fall of the tightrope walker in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. Nietzsche describes a market place, in which the crowds are gathered to watch a tightrope act, and as they watch, the wirewalker is toppled by a taunting buffoon who chases him out onto the rope. The performer plummets, thrashing, to the ground and everyone is silent and everyone stares.[5] For Nietzsche this passage reveals the uncanny in man, his strange and wonderful ability to reach for the Superman (Übermensch), which is the central aspiration of the book. Yet it is the onlooking crowd that serves a purpose here, these watchers and listeners almost vying for the fall. We see them in photographs of Petit’s walk, craning their necks. As the watchers looked up at the space between the twin towers, waiting for Petit’s first step, a dark shape with arms floated down, a ghost of Nietzsche’s fallen funambulist or a prefiguration of what might be. In fact Petit had dropped his black turtleneck sweater.[6]

In High Wire Pasquette’s attempted crossing is not only a failure, but an anticlimactic failure: not a fall, but a retreat. Yet his withdrawal also brings a sense of relief, a sigh as the nervous tension is broken, and we are reminded of the wonderful foolishness of high wire walking, man’s strange and elating desire to reach. Catherine Yass is fascinated by flight: ‘It represents something to do with freedom of the air’, she says ‘and the fantasy of not being bound by anything.’[7] The wirewalker sits somewhere between freedom and restraint, surrounded by the sky, but only able to tread the line of a thread. He exists in that between space, bound, yet reaching for something more, as Nietzsche observed, writing:

Man is a rope, fastened between animal and Superman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous going-across, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and staying-still. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal; what can be loved in man is that he is a going-across and a down-going.[8]

The wire walk becomes this aspiration, man’s desire to reach, on his road of becoming. For Yass, this is represented in her choice of modernist high-rise architecture as the site for the walk. For her, the piece is ‘a dream of walking in the air, out into nothing. But it has an urban background and the high-rise buildings provide the frame and support. The dream of reaching the sky is also a modernist dream of cities in the air, inspired by a utopian belief in progress’.[9] The steady retreat of the wirewalker adds another layer to this relationship between walk and architecture, reflecting the way in which modernist housing schemes, such as the Red Road estate, have subsequently been viewed as failed dreams. Having been built in the spirit of 1960s utopian high-rise living, the Red Road towers were first marked for demolition in 2005, and demolished in stages between 2012 and 2015. Their demolition was due to structural problems and extensive use of asbestos throughout the buildings, but the flats have also been viewed as a social failure due to the rise in crime from the 1970s onwards, and the general climate of alienation bred by high-rise living. The Red Road buildings act as a stand-in for the wider failure of the modernist project and indeed images of their destruction recall Charles Jenck’s assertion that modernism ended at 3.32pm on 15th July 1972, when a huge block of modernist flats was demolished in Saint Louis, Missouri.


Petit, 1974

Pasquette’s failed walk is distinctly different from that of his teacher, Philippe Petit, who triumphantly succeeded against all odds to complete his walk between the twin towers in 1974. It is significant that while Pasquette completed his walk just before the Glasgow towers were destroyed, Petit completed his coup as the New York towers were being built, sneaking into them while the top floors were still a construction site. It is as if his dream was part of, indeed built into, the very dream of the towers themselves, as he sketched his conquests, past and future, onto the bare plaster of a stairwell wall on one of his reconnaissance trips. Where the World Trade Center stood for a confident corporate solid West, in his feat Petit maintained something of the utopian modernist aspiration of streets in the sky, the mysterious loftiness he saw in these towers. Concurrent with Jenck’s assertion about the end of modernism, Petit’s walk is part of the last fanfares of an era when modernist dreams were still possible. By the time of High Wire in 2008, we are in a different era, an era of more caution, an era when buildings are demolished.

While Petit claims the tallest buildings of late modernism, he also makes a key distinction: that he has not conquered the towers themselves ‘but rather the void they protect’.[10] One might understand this void as the new conception of space the towers made imaginable, a lofty view of the world from on high. Petit writes ‘I glide in, feel the width of the abyss, I slide down and taste its depth, with delight I brush by the marble plaza at street level, then I hurtle back up along the silver facades…’[11] His description is that of a swooping camera, filming the soaring heights of the architecture against his nimble frame. And as he moves forward, breaking down the walk on each step as he considers and re-adjusts it, we are reminded of the pre-cinematic chronophotographs of Étienne-Jules Marey, deconstructing the walk on camera. The high wire act is a spectacular cinematic feat, recalling the stunts of movie stars such as Harold Lloyd in the 1910s and ‘20s.

In light of this Petit was desperate to capture the first steps of his walk on film: ‘No film almost means to me no proof,’ he said.[12] Film is bound up with the impossible feat, evidence of its ever having happened at all – think of the moon landings that took place only five years before Petit’s coup. Moving images of Petit were never recorded, but instead he himself becomes the movie camera, looking down at the city below, panning and swooping with his eyes and imagination. As he begins his second crossing between the towers, he thinks, ‘I am no longer blind, I am letting myself laugh.’[13] No longer the blind street-level walker of Certeau’s city, Petit walks into the sky, taking the everyday action aloft.

Petit’s walk has taken on a new role in our time. In 2008 Man on Wire was released, a documentary film directed by James Marsh, which followed Petit’s coup. Without explicitly mentioning the fate of the towers, this film took on the image of Petit’s feat in the wake of September 11, 2001. At the time of his walk Petit was asked repeatedly, by a vying American audience, why he did it, and he always said, enigmatically, ‘there is no why’. This gap allows a modern day audience to project upon the walk the meaning they seek to find in it. The novelist Johanna Skibsrud juxtaposes the image of Petit with that of the ‘Falling Man’, a now well-known journalist’s photograph of a man jumping from an upper floor of one of the towers on the day of the terrorist attacks. Skibsrud argues that ‘Petit's body, suspended triumphant above the newly-constructed twin towers, provides for the American public a surrogate image, and should therefore […] urge us toward a surrogate response to the helplessness and fear evoked by the ‘Falling Man’’.[14]

Seeing Petit smiling his way back and forth from tower to tower, his image is now haunted by the fate of his architectural supports: we already know that his stage is doomed to fall. The fact that he, unlike Pasquette, succeeds in his crossing leaves us with an alternative future in which the towers, too, succeed and survive. As Skibsrud argues, Petit’s image holds the hope of being able to reclaim what she calls the ‘Emersonian individualism integral to American identity’.[15] Rather than the corporate, capitalist image of the towers as monuments of a mighty Western hemisphere, Petit’s fragile, agile frame, a pinprick on the skyline, seems much more apt in retrospect: it is at once flighty, utopian and confident, but at the same time vulnerable.

Yet despite the emancipatory and heroic light in which Petit’s act has recently been viewed, it remains an image of extreme ambivalence. This is partly due to the transgressive nature of the act. The fact that Petit so easily bypassed the security of the buildings, using little more than photocopied ID cards and a nonchalant confidence, seems deeply troubling in hindsight. His lighthearted flouting of the law becomes a strange foreshadowing. But also, if we are to view Petit as a romantic hero, as many have, he is a difficult and in many ways unlikable hero. His cavalier refusal to have a safety line or net seems pathological, an extreme response to the city of skyscrapers.


Certeau and the funambulist

In German, the word for ropewalker, Seiltänzer, means rope dancer. On this precarious wire the very act of walking is placed under so much pressure that to achieve it, through muscular strength and solid concentration, one must acquire all the attributes of the trained dancer. Every step is a reassessment of the activity in hand. In his discussion of the relation between theory (science, ‘know-how’) and practice (art, ‘how-to-do’) Michel de Certeau recalls the figure of the wirewalker as invoked by Kant, telling us that Kant says ‘that charlatans and magicians depend on knowledge (you can do it if you know the trick), whereas tightrope dancers depend on art.’[16] Certeau continues,

Dancing on a tightrope requires that one maintain an equilibrium from one moment to the next by recreating it at every step by means of new adjustments; it requires one to maintain a balance that is never permanently acquired; constant readjustment renews the balance while giving the impression of ‘keeping’ it.[17]

The tightrope walker is a metaphorical description of Certeau’s ideal tactician, negotiating a balance between art and science, between practice and theory, through constant readjustments. The high wire walker, then, might be seen as the ultimate pedestrian, subverting the planned city by truly transgressing its rules of practice. Petit and Pasquette confuse Certeau’s categories of viewpoint on high, and man on the street. Rigged up as if the city’s buildings are mountains to be explored from the exterior, not boxes to be occupied obediently from the interior, the funambulist transgresses architectural space, pushing the boundaries of the notion of the Certeauian tactical walker.

Yet such loftiness is countered, as we have seen, not only by the threat of failure, but also by the fate of the architectural supports upon which Petit and Pasquette rigged their ropes. These acts of pedestrian transgression also serve to illustrate the very vulnerability of that which appears so solid and so sure, the architectural stuff of cities and the governmental and political structures they represent. The risks taken by the funambulist heighten our awareness of what is at stake in the Western city, the precariousness beneath the surface – modernist dreams and Western indestructibility are not permanent. The skyline, despite the modernist bravado of its skyscrapers, is in flux.

So, what kind of flâneur walks this troubled skyline? He is a different kind of man of the crowd, where the flâneur is a crowd-watcher, the funambulist is watched by the crowd, who arch their necks skywards towards this spectacularly cinematic display. Yet these funambulist acts are also tied up with the failure of modernism, industrialism and Western bombast. They herald a postmodern era, as defined by the destruction of modernist architecture both through town planning and through acts of terrorism. Where the flâneur was a symptom of the modern city, the quintessential type of burgeoning modernity, the funambulist, might perhaps be the type of the era that followed: a pathological symptom of its extremes, not only embodying the spectacle of the era, but also, and most importantly, its quivering ambivalence between flight and failure.


Ruth Bretherick (née Burgon) is Research and Public Engagement Curator at The Fruitmarket Gallery (Edinburgh). She gained her PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2017, where she also worked as a researcher on the ARTIST ROOMS Research Partnership. She has published in Tate Papers, Moving Image Review & Art Journal and the Sculpture Journal.

[1] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendell (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, [1980] 2011), 91.

[2] Ibid, 92.

[3] Roland Barthes, ‘The Eiffel Tower’ (1964), in A Barthes Reader,  ed. Susan Sontag (London: Random House, 1993), 242.

[4] Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 100.

[5] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra (London: Penguin, 1969), 47.

[6] Philippe Petit, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers (London: Faber and Faber, 2002), 161.

[7] Catherine Yass in Pauline Bache, ‘Personal Dreams and Social Aspirations’, Aesthetica (August 2008), n/p.

[8] Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 43-4.

[9] Yass in Francis McKee and Steven Connor, High Wire (London: Artangel, 2008), n/p.

[10] Petit, To Reach the Clouds, 179.

[11] Ibid. 175-8.

[12] Ibid., 198. Petit notes that ‘It turned out there was no live footage because Jean-Louis never had the time he had been counting on to check and test the movie camera.’ Ibid., 204.

[13] Ibid., 178.

[14] Johanna Skibsrud, ‘Refloating the Falling Man’, AntiTHESIS, 20 (June 2010), 17.

[15] Ibid. 16.

[16] Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, 73.

[17] Ibid.