[For the illustrated text, please email zoe 'at' asifitwerereal 'dot' org]
"We were playing mere children's games. David Belle and I wanted to develop these games and make them an art, a philosophy... what is shameful is to believe that, once grown up, we shall stop playing. Like Bruce Lee said: play, but play seriously. " (Sebastien Foucan, Traceur)
The discipline of Parkour (commonly termed Free Running by the media) is characterised by the running, climbing, jumping, falling and landing of the Traceur (the practitioner of the free run) across a given landscape, embracing obstacles as opportunities and rethinking the built environment as "a concrete playground of immense potential" (Borden, 2000:226). Parkour originated fourteen years ago in the French town of Lisses, growing out of the childhood games of David Belle and Sebastien Foucan, developing into a discipline and methodology of and for movement through and in the urban realm.
"Draw a straight line on a map of your home town. Start from point a, and go to point b. Do not consider the elements (barriers, wall, wire fences, trees, houses, buildings) as obstacles. Hug them: climb, get over, jump: let your imagination flow". (Foucan, c 2003)
The word Parkour is a deliberate distortion of the French word 'parcours', meaning a route, journey, the course of a river, or a course in the sense of a golf course; and Traceur is simply the French for plotter or route finder. The use of these words reflect the way in which practitioners of Parkour see themselves as 'finders of routes' which 'flow' through the landscape. The concept of 'flow' is central to much of the Traceur's discourse and practice for "a jump is never an end in itself, what we call a 'following' is needed after a jump, to be able to link with another move, to be always active" (Foucan, c2003). For the Traceur, momentum is key, for it is this that one harnesses in order to travel, "one must always go forwards" (Foucan, 14-12-03) like the water of a river. It is interesting to note the association of the word 'parcours' to not only a river, but also golf, for a golf course could be described as being calved through and into a pre-existing landscape, as well as resulting from and of the landscape, in a similar manner to a river: although often diverted and effected by both natural and man-made obstacles, a river is a continuation, a body in motion, 'flowing'; whereas a golf course is made up of individual holes that whilst sit in conjunction to one another in order to make the course at large, also exist as discreet units. The narrative of a golf course is understandable in relation to the sequencing and agreed ordering of these units within the organising principles of rules, regulations, and the conventions of the game. Parkour on the other hand, exists within a more transient and less define playing field but can also be seen to relate to the holes of a golf course, in as much as the Traceur may establish a combination of runs that exist in relation to one another in a sequential way, enabling the 'flow' of an individual movement to transform to the 'flow' of a series of movements.
I vault-jump the three-foot railings at the end of the ally then walk along the cube edge until I reach the corner of the road. There I climb onto the wall of the church yard and follow it round to Market Street where upon I jump down onto the war memorial then the pavement -run one complete.
Where these movements are performed is crucial to the understanding of how Parkour not only writes over pre-existing narratives of space, place, and time, but to how the practice establishes it's own narrative force. In the recent documentary Jump London , a group of the foremost French Traceurs, including Sebastien Foucan, were allowed access to some of the most well known buildings in London. If one examines those buildings included it is possible to establish common narrative threads pertaining to the use of the buildings. "Architecture is as much about the events that take place in spaces as about the spaces themselves" (Tschumi, 1999:13). The narratives that emerge, define the uses and the spaces, as well as the uses and spaces influencing the narratives one finds. The National Theatre for example, can be sewn together with The Globe Theatre, using threads of theatrical proceedings, visiting audiences, and the behaviours associated with such movements of people. Both buildings have foyers and are bound by the act of waiting, it is likely that one must have a ticket to enter the auditoria and upon entering one may sit in a specified location (though the specific narrative of The Globe Theatre does not always require this). One will then engage in an act of watching others perform, then leave. The design of each building as a theatre, facilitates its use for formal theatrical events, whilst at the same time, because theatrical events take place within it, the buildings are called theatres: the architecture is determining the use of the 'space', whilst the use is simultaneously defining the architecture as 'place'. When Foucan and friends 'used' the building they approached it with an alternative gaze. The design of the space did not, for them, lead to a usage common to the narratives just described, but rather an understanding of the space as form that facilitates their movements. The tiered benches of The Globe Theatre became verticals and horizontals; pitched for jumping, with the gaps of the isles crossed with cat-leap grace.
Walking along the flint cobble wall leading to King Street, I run my hand along the railings as I go. Next there is the jump down, which can be taken in one go, or alternatively broken into parts by taking the steps two at a time. At the bottom I cross the pavement to the road without treading on the cracks. -Run two.
The minute the Traceur sets foot on/in the building, the narratives shift. Architectural determinism is written over by the understanding that meaning and usage are not fixed values, embedded in architecture and found at points which are as easily located; as if they were foundation stones, supporting walls, or stair cases. Bernard Tschumi writes that "there is not architecture without action" (Tschumi, 1999:11) and suggests that it is events which create and are the city. With regard to Parkour as event , one can therefore understand that the Traceur, through being a user, is a creator of the city. As Sebastien Foucan balanced in a handstand on the railings of The National Theatre, he "actualises" some of the "possibilities" of space and appears to make the architecture "exist as well as emerge"(De Certeau, 1988:98) afresh.
To understand more clearly the emergence of alternative narratives for the public buildings frequented by the Traceurs, one should look at the way they utilise the space outside/in-between the buildings. The main London Traceur group, the UFCrew, do much of their jamming around the South Bank complex, which, over the last ten years or so, has become a Mecca for skaters (bladders and boarders), featuring heavily in Spots... A Guide
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[Two skateboarders ride the underneath space of The Queen Elizabeth Hall, 10-12-03.]
To Rideable UK Architecture . Whilst being a public space, both skateboarders and Traceurs also treat it as " the physical ground on which to operate" relying "entirely on the objectival nature of the city" (Borden, 2004:293). That which are, in design and architectural terms, "a discontinuous series of walls, surfaces, steps and boundaries" are "in skateboarding's space-time... a flow of encounters and engagements between board, body and terrain" (Borden, 2004:294). The same applies to the Traceur. In both cases, it is just a question of looking at architectural features and street furniture through an alternative lens.
If one looks at how both practitioners of Parkour and Skateboarding view a handrail, one begins to understand the Parkour/Skater Eye: the gaze that enables a rewriting of the urban furniture narrative. "A handrail is a highly functional object: both the time and nature of its use are fully programmed" (Borden 2002:184) with a strong narrative related to functionality and safety. For the Traceur, the determinist-narrative of the handrail is critiqued by their use and regard of it as an object of opportunity.
Outside the Post Office at the top of King Street, I walk along the top edge of the bench, balancing like a funambulist. -Run three.
In the library I take the banister down from the first floor. -Run four.
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[Traceur vaults handrail, www.kiell.com]
Part of the potency of Parkour is that it exists in relation to 'every-day' space one can encounter through day-to-day experience and the architectural phenomena there found. The space beneath The Queen Elizabeth Hall (part of the South Bank complex), whilst of the 'every-day', appears to exist as particular; leftover, an in-between place, an area of renegotiation. The marks left by the skateboarders act as traces of action, which demarcate a territory of the 'then' (the moment of the movement's execution) in the 'now' (the time of the leftover's existence), on the surfaces of contested 'place' (the site of contested narratives). It is a space occupied by the moment of Parkour movement.
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[Marks left by the wheels of skateboards on the [Rails and bollards bellow The Queen Elizabeth Hall,
paving under The Queen Elizabeth Hall, 10-12-03.] 10-12-03]
To understand the relationship of Parkour to the adopted/found space, one only has to look at how the activity shifts perspective when taken into a contrasting environment -specifically that of the Europa Gymnastics' Centre in Erith, London, where on Sunday the 14 th of December, 2003, many from the British Parkour community gathered for PKSeben, a 'training'/jam session to which Sebastien Foucan and friends were in attendance. Here is no longer the in-between space of the streets, but a designated, designed, and controlled environment for movement. The activities of the Traceurs took on a congruence that was previously absent. Their movements sat comfortably with those which one might expect to find in a gymnastic centre: the thread of the Traceur's narrative was of a similar type to those which typically wove the fabric of that space, contrasting to what might be regarded as the golden thread of the Traceur's narrative across and through a Hessian fabric of urban space. To some extent, the pleasure of the Parkour experience shifted in relation to the pleasure associated with space, which Bernard Tschumi describes as "a form of experience -the 'presence of absence'; exhilarating differences between the plane and the cavern, between the street and your living-room; symmetries and dissymmetries emphasising the spatial properties of my body: right left, up and down" (Tschumi, 1995:49). The "form of experience" in the gymnastic centre is conditioned by the absence of juxtapositions; Parkour in the urban environment provides an experience of incongruence and oppositional movements.
At this juncture it is important to note that when one refers to pleasure, one must ask whose pleasure? Point-of-view seams crucial, for it is with this in mind that one understands that to some extent the ideas of 'flow' and 'narrative' are, like 'pleasure', determined by point-of-view. It is possible to identify four points of view that critique the concept of 'flow', in relation to Parkour.
The first point-of-view is that of the Traceur, and the one which has been under primary discussion here. 'Flow' for the Traceur, as previously outlined, is about the freedom of the move. It is thought better to jump a smaller gap with grace and elegance than a large gap in a clumsy aggressive way, "bigger is not always more beautiful" (Bam Bam, Traceur, 14-12-03). The beauty also concerns the new routes the Traceur plots across the space, "is it more or less elegant to go over or round, we'll find out" (Austrian Traceur, 14-12-03). The point-of-view category of the Traceur also contains the sub category of 'the other' Traceur. If jumping at a jam for example, a Traceur will observe and feed back on other Traceur's moves; providing tips, rating style, and critiquing 'flow'. "It is the watching, the reflections with the others that make us discover new elements" (Foucan, c2003).
The second point-of-view one can identify as relevant to the practice of Parkour is that of the member of the public who witnesses a jump, fall, or run. In the same way as one may walk down the street, glance to the left, and see a graffiti tag on a wall, the witness of the Traceur's action may experience it at-a-glance. Writing about graffiti in London, from the position of a witness, Iain Sinclair understands "the tagger" as: "the specialist who leaves his mark on a wall, is a hit and run calligrapher" (Sinclair, 1997:2). If one considers Parkour with a similar gaze and places it in the realm of urban illicit subcultures like graffiti, Traceurs might be described as hit and run choreographers; performing moves in unexpected locations, for the absent/unknown witness. For the witness, the idea of 'flow' is called into question. How can a moment of 'out-of-the-blue' interjection be regarded as 'flowing'? This moment of narrative interruption is jarring, a punktum in the cloth of daily observation, it is not a comprehension of the before/after 'flow' of the Traceur's run.
The third point-of-view which enables a critique of the idea of 'flow' in Parkour, is that of the camera, privileged by the photographer or filmmaker. Be it fellow Traceur or Journalist taking the photo or shooting the video/film, the shot is nearly always set up, in the sense that the position of the camera is decided before-hand with the aim of creating a particular visual result. It may be argued that the Traceur is now performing for the camera. The narrative is shifted by the question of intention. Does it matter if a move is performed by the Traceur as an expression of his or her 'desire path' or that it is completed, with an increased element of staging and dramatisation, for the purpose of being captured on camera?
The fourth and final point-of-view identified here is that of the viewer of the documentation produced by the photographer/filmmaker. Key to talking of 'flow' in this context is the fact that the document is an edited version of events. Gone are the falls, trips, and misses of the actuality. 'Flow' can be regarded as construct of the editing process, placing shots of moves in conjunction with other shots to produce a condensing of time and space, whilst narrative is reached with a point-of-view unattainable from any other vantage point.
I know this space: this is my territory, my neighbourhood, my patch. I fell off that wall. When they repaved Mill Wall Place I was the first to walk on it.
For a Traceur, their intricate knowledge of the city plays upon an ability to perceive it through an alternative lens, revealing a myriad of accessible routes, not within the realm of the daily commute. With regard to Parkour's relationship to the practice of skateboarding, one may argue that Parkour is, to some extent, a distilled version of skateboarding that invites similar modes of analysis and results in a similar critique of the urban space. In understanding the city as a diegesis -through which the Traceur sews new narrative threads as sHe moves through urban space, subverting architectural determinism- one must remember, "we all are spatial story-tellers, explorers, navigators and discoverers, exchanging narratives of, and in, the city" (Rendell 2002:105).
Bastard, Harry. Spots... A Guide to Rideable UK Architecture. WJ & T, Brighton, 2001.
Borden, Iain. Another Pavement, Another Beach: Skateboarding and The Performative Critique of Architecture. Chapter 10, page 178-199, The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space. MIT Press, Massachusetts and London, 2002.
Borden, Iain. A Performative Critique of The City: The Urban Practice of Skateboarding, 1958-1998. Page 291-297, The City Cultures Reader. 2 nd Edition, Routledge, London, 2004.
Borden, Iain . Skateboarding. Page 226-228, City A-Z . Edited by Steve Pile & Nigel Thrift. Routledge, London, 2000.
De Certeau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans, S. Rendall. University of California Press, 1988.
Foucan, Sebastien. Birth Of An Art: Art In Motion. Trans, 'Jeremy'. C.2003. www.urbanfreeflow.com/articles -accessed 10-12-03.
Rendell, Jane. " Bazaar Beauties" or "Pleasure Is Our Pursuit": A Spatial Story of Exchange. Chapter 6, page 104-121, The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social Space. MIT Press, Massachusetts and London, 2002.
Sinclair, Iain. Lights Out for The Territory. Granta Books, London, 1998.
Tschumi, Bernard. Event-Cities. MIT Press, Massachusetts and London, 1999.
Tschumi, Bernard. Questions Of Space: Lectures On Architecture. AA Publications, London, 1995.
PKSeben , Europa Gymnastics' Centre, Erith, London. Parkour Jam, 14-12-2003.
Jump London. Channel 4 Television, 10pm, 09-09-03.
>>www.kiell.com -accessed December 2003
>>www.urbanfreeflow.com -accessed December 2003
Photographs taken by Zoe Laughlin, if not otherwise specified.
ITALICS sections = first person accounts of childhood runs revisited in Sandwich, Kent, England.
For the illustrated text, please email zoe AT asifitwerereal DOT org