Thursday, 28 January 2010

The subversion of city streets...

Following my ACL reconstruction last week the combination of pain and medication has left me totally unable to focus my attention on anything for more than a couple of minutes. Having given up on writing a blog post I went to have a look on Vimeo instead. While looking at videos on parkour I discovered this excellent flick book style animation of a traceur in action. Since one of my interests in writing Urban Orienteer is to find out about different urban cultures and practices, this film by the curiously named saggyarmpit had obvious appeal.

Watching it I was reminded of Michel de Certeau's dictum from The Practice of Everyday Life that "space is a practiced place". The animation captures this particularly well in the way that the urban backdrop almost completely disappears as the traceur moves. The city becomes a blur of surfaces and street furniture, a flow of partial objects perhaps, foregrounded only insofar as they impede movement, or provide the opportunity for a change of direction. Place emerges only when the traceur stops for breath. As such parkour provides an excellent illustration of Certeau's position on the relation between space and place in his account of spatial practices. 

Going forward I expect to write more about Certeau. For the present I just want to consider whether his work would have anything to offer the world of parkour? I suspect that if the traceur did turn to Certeau's book it would be as a means of establishing parkour's claim to be a critical practice. To this end they have recourse to the key distinction he introduces between 'strategy' and 'tactics'.

Very broadly, a strategic practice could be described as the attempt to control contingency or uncertainty within a field through the combination knowledge and planning. According to Certeau this implies the following:
  • The privileging of spatial relations over temporal ones.
  • Delineation of an autonomous centre of control or "proper" place (propre in the original French implying "one's own property") from which to manage its exterior.
  • Subdivision of that exterior to render it as a "readable" series of places. 
  • The application of a "panoptic practice" of surveillance.
    Despite his use of military terminology it should be emphasised that Certeau's primary concern was to develop a theory of the way in which ordinary people subvert the cultural and political structures encountered in their everyday lives, particularly by means that would usually be considered passive acts of consumerism. Strategic practices then could include anything from the use of satellite imaging to co-ordinate military operations, through to the combined application of CCTV and a specific isle plan within a supermarket to discourage theft.

    Tactics by contrast are determined precisely by the fact that they have no "proper locus". Rather they can be said to "poach" on the "space of the other". As such their efficacy is determined by the strategy they exploit or parasitize. In his chapter 'Walking in the City' Certeau goes on to elaborate the way in which the simple act of walking can subvert the intentions of urban planners, solely by traversing the places they've created in unexpected ways. Parkour then would be exemplary insofar as it can be understood as a détournement of street furniture:

    However, while parkour may have a valuable critical function with regard to certain strategies of urban planning, it does not follow that there is anything inherently subversive in either the practice of parkour, or in mobility more generally. For example, we can take parkour off the street and put it in the supermarket mentioned earlier. However, since the strategies determining that place are concerned specifically with the maximisation of profit through sales, and limitation of loss through theft, it isn't clear that parkour has any critical import here: see for example Flipping in the Supermarket or Parkour Asda! Short of shoplifting, a more appropriate tactic in this context would be the kind of culture jamming employed by groups like the Space Hijackers, in particular their Buy Nothing Day interventions in 2007 and 2009.

    The validity of a tactic then is determined by its context. It is a matter not only of the 'where', but more crucially of the 'when'. According to Certeau:
    Tactics are procedures that gain validity in relation to the pertinence they lend to time - to the circumstances which the precise instant of an intervention transforms into a favorable situation, to the rapidity of the movements that change the organization of a space, to the relations among successive moments in an action, to the possible intersections of durations and heterogeneous rhythms, etc.
    For Certeau the efficacy of any tactical practice, whether mobile or sedentary, is ultimately a matter of timing.

    Would be traceurs are undoubtedly drawn to parkour for different reasons. Whatever their motivations it is also clear that the media have been attracted to parkour as a marketable commodity. At the same time parkour also seeks legitimacy as a sport. In order to achieve that end it seems likely that parkour will be increasingly drawn away from the streets, and into specially constructed arenas such as the one created for the World Freerun Championships 2009 in Trafalgar Square. As the sport grows its practitioners will have to court media attention all the more in order to secure the sponsorship necessary to get them to events. It would be easy to be cynical and suggest that a compromise has been made in the move away from the streets. Personally I think that this would be the wrong approach. In any case it is a matter best addressed by those within the parkour/freerunning community: Tim 'Livewire' Shieff is Barclaycard World Freerun Champ! 

    Whatever your personal view I think it is clear that parkour can provide a great opportunity for youngsters, particularly when they don't have anything else to do in their area. Hence, rather than take the cynical approach, I'd be more interested to find out whether there might be an identity crisis emerging within the parkour community itself, perhaps inscribed in the traceur's preference of either 'parkour' or 'free running' as the term used to describe their activity. More specifically then, will there come a time when the ambivalent media projected image of the traceur as urban renegade/freedom-fighter becomes untenable for the very people it is intended to promote?

    I'll have to save these questions for another day. In the meantime I'd better get back to my physio. For those wishing to find out more about parkour or freerunning I recommend starting with either of the Urban Freeflow or Parkour Generations sites.

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