Critical Distance

The Tightrope Walker: Petra Mueller
December 2 – December 23, 1995

a response to the exhibition by Angela Somerset

It must be like going to a film; you enter into the screen, you forget abut the camera, the actors, everything–you’re lost in the story, and when you come out, it’s like coming from a dream.

-Guy Caron, Artistic Director – Cirque Du Soliel

Before we begin, before we take our places, before the house lights dim, before things changed, before you and me, before us and them, before we lose our way, there was a…(clap of thunder)

…and it was then in that time and space, before you were a tightrope walker, that you were a sky, clear and deep, no immediate past or long term history. No rain. No wind. And sunsets to die for. True, blue, still. hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhush.

Now the situation is reversed and you are faced with the dawn of a bad day, north wind rising, polar air streams crossing paths, intent on collision. Solid cloud cover, zero visibility, a major storm warning, unstable and layered, waiting in the wings, hiding behind the obvious. hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhubub.

…never the less you’re a professional. You do this for a living. Every day for an hour or so you climb up a ladder and put yourself in limbo (your arms akimbo), pirouetting between two end posts, without safety wire or net, just you and all that air.

But first…there’s one great secret of wire-walking…and I’ll tell you what it is: keep your ass over the rope. That was always my rule; that was always what I thought about first, last and always. Keep your ass over the rope. There’s a trick I did…sitting on a chair on the rope. It’s a very, very hard balance. And the secret is…well, you know. 1

This transient confession catches you by surprise and you are momentarily overcome with worry about your immediate future. The tightrope walker looked down, as behind him high winds shifted vapors and thin clouds, and said, you’re ruining my performance. Piss off.

She, the wise woman, witch, crone, bag-lady, crazy, outsider…has the gift of predicting time relative to change, and you my love, having once lived as a sky, possess a hidden orientation for deterioration. You can feel it in the blue of the little veins running across the palm of the hand and the web of the fingers… But this is of little consolation, as your visibility is becoming poorer. You are loosing your grip and morality is clouding your perception. Expect it to be over in an hour or so. But don’t anticipate any major changes. It’s only a short lived condition that separates our different air masses, you know like the good from the bad, us from them, and so on…

Don’t worry it’s all part of the long range forecast, and for now the show must go on…(clap of thunder)

Later…as she departs…she loses her way…across the river a confused event catches her attention. Her glance and her path are diverted and she enters a space which is no more ‘home’, a ‘there’ which is no ‘here’, where the marks of identity are blurred over. It is only a step aside. But that step aside turns out to be, for her, the beginning of a radical adventure, the dissociation between ‘here’ and ‘there.’ 2

In that moment, in that blue space between day and night, boundaries dissolve, gaps close, and possibilities are endless. You take a step forward, mindful of your distance, careful to remain objective, outside, immuned. You are close enough to read the fine print, over the shoulder of another absorbed in the play by play unfolding of parallel stories that ‘pivot around mental tightropes of hope, madness and despair,’* destined to collide. She turns to you and says, ‘this is about a friend of mine, Esther Valiquette, a Quebec filmmaker, a woman living with AIDS in the last stages of dementia. It is about her fear of mortality and her illusiveness. It is about my fear of mortality and my illusiveness. I am the performer carrying the plastic bags stuffed full of air, on the outside of my cloths. It is about all of us, a subjective documentary about our fear of mortality and our illusiveness. And it is about our 20th century materials: transient but stunningly beautiful violet-blue of commercial blueprints and translucent and eternal plastic’*

Life lesson… In French, H is a letter out of breath. Before it was reduced to silence during the French Empire, it was breathed out, aspired…H, the ladder of writing, is neither immobile nor empty. It is animated. It incorporates the movement it arouses and inscribes…. The body inscribes part of its effort, depending on its position and need, in order to descend and work against the current, against the earth. It inscribes the orientation of its drives which is difficult. When we climb up toward the bottom, we proceed, carried in the direction of–we’re searching for something: the unknown…3

But I must warn you, once you have taken your seat there is no going back. You expose yourself to things beyond your control, and in the end you will leave, more vulnerable, and in some way affected. The shifts and changes, however subtle or imperceptible to the human eye, will resonate in the body. Your body. The social arena will replace the three ring circus that once defined the separate acts of others. It is there the spectator and the spectacle merge. Intimate circles converge. Then you too will find yourself climbing the ladder, stepping out onto the wire, consciously aware of your breathing. A heavy hhhhhhhhhhhha. No joke. You have become implicated. Touched by another’s suffering, you relinquish your immunity. 4

It is a perilous journey that takes you down, across and under. “We are going to cross over borders, just as we recross borders, without knowing anything about it. Where is our border? When I cross a border, it’s my border I’m crossing, though I don’t know which one I’m crossing or which side I end up on. This is the charm of crossing the border. It’s also what can constitute its distressing side. The border makes up the homeland. It prohibits and gives passage in the same stroke.” 5

True, it’s a fine line, but it’s not as difficult as it looks. There really is a lot of surface space and the key is, as always, flexibility. First, you must wrap your foot around the wire, yield to the uncertainty, beyond the appearance of things, beyond their face value. Inversions and abnormal shift patterns threaten to unbalance you in this high-risk, anxiety ridden situation. But weather conditions, like you and I, bear attributes “that are the exact opposite of normal. And these, largely random shifts, have to be met on their own merits”…because in life “anticipation is largely impossible” 6 And just when you think you have it down to a science, the house lights go up and it’s time for the intermission preceding a most perilous and death defying feat.

In the interval between here and now we wander outside for a breath of air, only to find that it no longer exists. A thing of the past, a renewable resource of the modern world no longer, breathed out, used up, burned out. In some circles it is believed the air-space that has made this century possible is part of a thriving trade, as these selfsame transitory zones are sealed inside small tin cans and sold at market…lacking all possibility for ebb and flow these secured microcosms are carried about in plastic bags. The plastic bag, which has made this century possible, a planet shrink-wrapper, eternal and ever true.

Air takes its place along side endangered species. On the verge of extinction. At the edge of time. On the brink of collapse. But don’t be fooled this illusion is only skin deep. Around you the clouds have lifted. The sun warms the surface of things lined up on residential curbs, silently waiting out their existence. Day in and day out, they are faced with the prospects of an unavoidable eternity insured by their very being, with the help of the recyclable storage facilities that promise to make the object worlds new once again. Filled with empty containers, contents impulsively devoured, rat infested aircraft hangers spill their goods onto runways, generating one catastrophe after another. And now it’s just a matter of time.

But all is not lost. Beyond the mounds, beneath the worn surface of things, exists a secret door that will lead us to a place where we can travel for an eternity, if we could just find the key…or so the story goes.

…and then it happened. Later you said “I could see myself making a wrong turn and falling downdowndown off the margin…” 7 …towards the inevitable. Plunging, turning, twisting, free falling, you desperately try to wake yourself from this dream. You lose consciousness and when you awake you find yourself once again in the land of uncertainty founded on predictability, shaped by the belief in divine insusceptibility. But time has changed the shape of things and now you are the one gasping for air, the homeless woman, the wanderer, plastic bags defining, confining, sustaining your existence…. an involuntary tightrope walker, without benefits of ladders for getting up and down on, caught out, pushed out, locked out, look I’m out on a tightrope right now, my heart in my throat, my heart in my hand, yet people applaud not nor gasp with amazement.

this is a strange and unfamiliar territory, and seeing your bewilderment, she offers you this: “you’ve given me no resources but there’s one thing I can do which is to create the life I lead. The bag ladies represent human dignity in extremity – they are a transcendent group.” 8

Together you make a list of the basic necessities: food, clothing, shelter, health care, income, education. But the list is getting unwieldy, perhaps even abstract. “A theory of human needs is a particular kind of language of the human good. To define human nature in terms of needs is to define what we are in terms of what we lack, to insist on the distinctive emptiness and incompleteness of humans as a species.” 9

First you will need something to put things in. One of those bags will do nicely love, and between you and me plastic will be of more use to you later on. You see I have this theory – The art of shallow breathing, or garbage collecting. It’s quite simple really. Scraps of discarded conversation accumulate in reusable containers, and are then stored in the vegetable crispers of unattended refrigerators. Metamorphosis takes place, although some would say rot, forming webs of meaning that feed a subversive bacterial culture. It’s a radical underground phenomena.

…and for a moment you understand the ‘Absurdity Improbable but Real.’* I / you meld into one. It’s the zero count on the price of admission, and people are staring in silence. They hate me and they’re afraid, the lack of air is suffocating, but better me than them, eh? You are beginning to ‘get it’ but then the explosion happens. For you are / I am / she is, was and always will be a loose canon, a scavenger, a public threat, a nuisance, an embarrassment, foraging and gathering in the urban jungle of castoffs. And this is what myths are made of. So even though you know better, having travelled this far, you can’t quite make the leap.

Then you are awake, I mean really awake, stricken with panic and the fear of impending doom. What if… No. No not me. Impossible. And you are quite certain of this because in the land of uncertainty founded on predictability you have been equipped with life skills protected by selective reasoning. You tell yourself it should not, will not, can not happen to us, but only to others. And these others should be removed as far as possible from our day-to-day concerns and encounters. So much for the life lesson…

The colours soon fade but you find comfort in this certainty, although it wasn’t always like this. For a long time you tried to remember…in the land of the here and now the sky is blue. Blue, blue, blue and a million times more blue…A blue wellspring as deep as indigo, as broad as Saturn, as wide as violet, and as blue, and a million times as blue. Breathless and blue.

You miss her deeply, and just when you are ready to let go, someone spots her negotiating a world set against white ground. Beside her lurks the familiar and infinite field of blue, setting itself apart, staking its claim, diazo blue, machine made blueprint, fashioned with a flick of a switch, presto, a sea of endless blue, a forever blue that once seduced you, engulfed you and finally pulled you in… I can see blue and I can feel blue, still, for all the substance of a million blues, I am mute and blind and without sense, said the oracle at the head of the well. Breathless and blue. But the pinnacle is built on shaky ground and when you look closer, you see its afflicted reality, worn edges and inherent light sensitivity. It is hardly stable and eventually will, like you and I, expire. But for the moment, it entices you to climb the ladder. And so you go…

They call it giving. We call it self-gratification. We call it self-gratification.

They call it give-and-take. We call it take-and-take. We call it take-and-take.

They call it generosity. We call it conditioning / the beggar’s mind.

We call it conditioning the beggar’s mind.

Today, to survive the poor can hardly refuse to accept

They say they don’t give anymore

Because we are ungrateful

The ungrateful acceptor / The expecting donor

They say they don’t give anymore because we are ungrateful.

We ponder: will the donor species survive? 10


Bold texts are from Petra Mueller’s The Tightrope Walker, a photo-text installation, bookwork and performance.

* texts are from Petra Mueller’s artist statement.

1. Tom Odgen, Two Hundred Years of the American Circus. New York: Facts on File, 1993. (Quote: Sando Counts, wire walker with the Pickle Family Circus from 1977 through 1980). page 374.
2. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Other than myself / my other self, from Travellers’ Tales: Narratives of Home and Displacement. London & New York: Routledge, 1994. page 21.
3. Helene Cixious, Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993. pages 4-6.
4. Richard Goldstein, The Implicated and the Immuned: Responses to AIDS in the Art and Popular Culture, from A Disease of Society: Cultural and Institutional Responses to AIDS. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
5. Helene Cixious, page 130.
6. Alan Watts, Instant Wind Forecasting. London: Adlard Coles Nautical, 1993. page 64.
7. Hattie Gossett, between a rock and a hard place.
8. Stephanie Golden, The Women Outside: Meanings and Myths of Homelessness. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993. page 6.
9. Michael Ignatieff, The Needs of Strangers. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1984. page 14.
10. Trinh T. Minh-ha, Framer Framed. New York: Routledge, 1992. page 35.

Angela Somerset is an interdisciplinary artist, working and living in Winnipeg.