The politics of parkour

EDIT [6 June 2016]: You can now read the new and improved version over at Kill Screen.

The noon sun hanging precariously in the sky above the rooftops. The buzz and hum of the city below, amplified through the canyoned echo of the concrete jungle. A cold wind blows, and a pigeon lands on a ledge beside me, three hundred feet above the ground. The open blackness of the roof beckons towards me. Step once. Step twice. Jump. The seconds hang in the air, gravity’s rainbow. Birds in flight. The landing is hard, and strains the soles of my feet with pain, but the impact is absorbed as the body responds to the shock, rolling forward. The sky looms and lurches above me, hard and clear. Feet and hands working in tandem, I rise and continue running. There is nothing but mass, fluidity and compressibility. There is nothing but freedom.

As world design in games nowadays trends towards visions of vast, sprawling overworlds, intricately layered and impeccably nuanced, questions of mobility have risen to the forefront: how does the player get from point A, to point B, in the most efficient way possible? Questions of speed are of paramount concern, of course; no gamer likes to be held up unnecessarily in pursuit of some arbitrary objective. But, as in any art, games too must also be concerned with not just raw efficiency, but beauty, as well: it’s not enough to just get there, but to get there in style, with a certain poise and elegance to one’s motion. From this desire has emerged the rise of parkour in games: exemplified by titles such as Dying Light, Assassin’s Creed and Mirror’s Edge, where core gameplay is defined almost entirely through the fluidity of one’s movement, it seems to be next-gen’s biggest fad, riding along the tide of massive open worlds and complex player-environment interactions. More significant than the mechanistic implications of this trend however are the social, and possibly even political implications: parkour, not just as a means of movement, but as a tool of freedom, of liberation, of individualised power without constraint, and limitless exploration; and ultimately, as a weapon against oppression: at once symbolic and physical, a modernist philosophy of personal resistance embracing both the sky to which we aspire, and the body which holds us down.

Parkour, from the French le parcours (‘the course’), is the art of efficient movement within inefficient space. In a world inundated with geospatial interference — from garbage cans to park benches to hanging gardens to fences — movement is largely confined to pre-established paths in order to preserve the semblance of communal order. Whether such paths are roads for automobiles, trails and sidewalks for pedestrians, railroad tracks for subway cars and trains, or bicycle paths for cyclists, movement in the modern world has become so rigidly defined that it has become in many places unnecessarily complex and at times, downright convoluted. Anyone who has ever attempted to navigate the public transportation system in any major American city can pay testament to this fact.

Parkour solves the problem of inefficient transportation by deconstructing human movement to its most basic foundation: movement simultaneously restricted to and liberated through the human body as sole vehicle of motion, with emphasis on individual willpower and efficacy as means of navigation. While it is very much utilitarianistic in its ambitions, it is not however altogether divorced from a physiokinesthetic grace and aesthetic which very much classifies within the broad domain of art. In both its goals and its underlying philosophy, it fundamentally aligns with modernism in that its primary motive is the affirmation of the power of man over his environment, emphasizing the ability to create, improve and utilize the environment to maximum efficiency. And indeed, there is a particularly deadly elegance to any of the various hooded eponymous assassins of the Assassin’s Creed series, gliding along silently towards their targets, blades glinting in the moonlight –  resisting (in the case of the Assassin’s Creed series, literal) systems of power and oppression not through violence (although there is plenty of this too) but evasion, and circumvention. Perhaps this is even more apparent in the actions of Faith, the protagonist of Mirror’s Edge, who uses her considerable athletic prowess as a ‘Runner’ to act as a courier of compromising messages between various cells of the resistance rather than acting as an agent of violence herself. Where her fellow resistance members seek to dismantle the corrupt forces eating away at their gleaming metropolis through a variety of infernal machinations and devious plots aimed directly at exposing them, she instead is able to resist not just the forces which oppress her (quite literally, too, in the form of the black-suited guards who show up at various points in the game), but the physical boundaries of the city itself. The aforementioned enemies and their ominous black helicopters indeed, in the few rare moments they appear, are more cinematic set-piece than legitimate danger; their bullets rarely seem to hit, and when they do, it seems more of a programming fluke than anything else. The true difficulties of the game are not through encounters with human enemies, but with one’s environment, and even more so, with oneself, and the choices made to navigate through that environment efficiently and elegantly. It represents a vision of modernism in which the artist (or, in parkour terminology, the traceur, or ‘tracer’ – a title which in itself raises interesting linguistic associations with the role of the runner as simultaneous artistic genesis and audience to his/her environment) embraces his or her world as it is, rather than through the confinement of any particular medium. What Pollock attempted to capture in the graceful splatters and arcs of his compositions the traceur experiences as physical phenomenon: nature not diluted through a layer of paint splattered onto a canvas or the brutalist curves of a metal sculpture, but experienced in the purest sense – through direct interaction with the interface of reality.

The traceur, then, is simultaneous artist and audience, as framed within the paradigm of modernism: artist, in the sense that s/he is navigating (interpreting) the environment through a specific chosen course of action in a conscious decision resembling the painter’s choice of colours and forms, or the dancer’s choice of steps and half-turns; and audience, in the sense that s/he is directly experiencing the project of art prescribed via movement. The most comparable experience within the frame of traditional art would be either theatre or dance. Unlike more static disciplines such as painting, sculpture or architecture, dance and theatre add the element of time. The work can be enjoyed while it is created/performed, yet afterwards it disappears and leaves no trace, as the flight of birds across the sky. Memories of traceurs flitting through an urban landscape like silent birds, and memories of ghosts spinning to a haunting melody, are all that remain after the performance is done.

Parkour also fundamentally embraces the ideology of resistance which runs through the heart of the modernist movement. Modernist art rejects traditional form and convention in favour of bold individual freedom, with emphasis on the deconstruction of systems and societal notions of aesthetic order. It espouses the liquidation of systems through the deliberate subversion of each system’s rules from within: for example, where the abstract expressionists utilize the canvas as a means of destroying the notion of a canvas in order to a prove a point, the traceur utilizes the environment as a means of simultaneously demonstrating the inherent flaws presented by the environment (in the form of seemingly inaccessible spaces and obstacles) and exploiting them to his/her own advantage. As painters such as Magritte and Dali sought to dissemble the banalities of modern life by rendering them in nearly hyperrealistic detail, parkour strips away the banality through the aestheticization of everyday objects and routines, turning mundane objects into objects of navigation and traversal and mundane routines into routines of varied creativity and strategic exercise. This is no more obvious than in the glittering, nearly sterile world of Mirror’s Edge, a white utopia splashed with the occasional hue, every colour and surface indicating not a quotidian occurrence but an opportunity for for catapulting, for vaulting, for veering and vaunting and launching oneself away towards another precarious edge.

It is in this act of reappropriation that parkour takes on the full qualifications as a work of modernist art. Though markedly materialist philosophers such as Marx and Benjamin would argue that there is no return to an authentic existence – in other words, a state of being in society in which one’s actions, desires, and general consciousness are independent from the influence of social structures – that is not the purpose of either parkour, or modernism in general. Neither is free from social relations, as both are reactions and thus products of such worlds which bred first their existence, and then perhaps their necessity. Neither seeks to be independent from their respective systems, either; rather, they work by constructing different dialectics with their respective environments, dialogic engagements in which the balance of power is concentrated on the artist/audience rather than the origin of the dialogue, the system itself. Parkour is based around the activity of self-discovery and personal revelation – each traceur discovers a personal experience of freedom through navigating different, self-defined paths through their environments, a discourse in itself which leaves room for each individual to interpret the environment on his or her own terms. It is modernism at its finest; it does not promise a return to an ‘authentic’ existence free from social relations that so many have attempted to reach but have never come close to replicating; but rather, it provides a way for individuals within the modern world to renegotiate their artistic experience and ways of thinking about these interactions within the confines of the unbreakable society, but simultaneously also outside of it. As a work of modernist art, parkour takes on a different rationale by rejecting the efficiency and economic logic engendered in pre-determined urban spaces. It appropriates space within the system but also beyond it by differently consuming the material society and in so doing rejecting the arbitrary domination created by its rules and limitations.

As the traceur leaps from building to building, vaults over railings and across stairs, these spectacular corporeal exercises further solidify a new way of approaching mundane space. Parkour, although dependent upon the physical space of one’s environment, moulds its own territory constituting different legibilities of physical and kinesthetic environment. Thus, parkour achieves the modernist goal of simultaneous coexistence with and liberation from an overruling system, and becomes a practice of freedom – a way of liberating the practitioner from the confines, both material and abstract, that are found and engendered in urban architectural space.

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