Thursday, August 12, 2010

Parkour and the City as a Playground

Years ago when I was in one the earlier years of my undergrad degree at UBC, I took a film course with a guy who seemed to be highly caffeinated at all times and would constantly be bouncing off the walls. And I mean, literally bouncing off the walls. We would be out on campus and he would take a running leap toward an inverted corner of a building and, using one side as leverage against another, run halfway up the building.

At the time, I had never heard of Parkour -- my friend called it something like "freerunning", which to me didn't entirely encapsulate the craziness of what he did -- but in the time since it has become far more popular. A Toronto chapter even offers lessons. The definition (on the American Parkour website) says that "Parkour is the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle within one's path by adapting one's movement to the environment."

Translation: They're like monkeys released into the built environment.

They swing off bars, run up walls, jump across the chasms of buildings only to land perfectly on a narrow ledge, flip off roofs, and engage in any other number of gravity- and fear-defying acts.

Basically, Parkour is -- like street art -- a re-imagining of the urban landscape. Where graffiti and street artists use the city as a canvass or a giant installation project, the practitioners of Parkour (traceurs) use the city as one sprawling, integrated jungle gym. The movements can be so fluid that they seem connect buildings, almost knitting the city together and making it seem like a cohesive whole instead of solitary structures sitting near each other and separated by alleyways, guard rails and walls. Where I see a barrier I have to walk around, they see something that can be leaped over.

So, I guess I disagree with the last little bit of the American Parkour definition. Although it is definitely about adapting your movements to the environment, it is also about adapting the environment to your movements and that's where the real creativity of it comes in. You have to have the ability to look at architecture and see something other than a building or wall or a railing; you have to look and see the possibility of movement, which ultimately makes Parkour a pretty artistic practice as well as a physical one. Afterall, one of other names for it is l'art du d├ęplacement, which translate as the art of movement.

Often I think we get caught up in seeing the city and our environment in a routine way, and so it's jarring and kind of exhilarating to watch someone take your assumption about what the city can be used for and shatter it. Also, it's just damn cool to watch.

First image source.
Second image source.

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