Parkour, Re-establishing Context, and the Introduction of the Superstimulus

If re-appropriation is essential to the spirit of Parkour, and that exploration and creation is equally important, then familiarity is the enemy, and videos create parkour parks out of unfamiliar environments, and any type of pilgrimage to train at famous sites is antithetical. By training somewhere that you know can be used for training because you have already seen or even used it for this purpose, you have deprived yourself of the potential for exploration.

Instead of diving head-first into the unknown and pulling something beautiful, perhaps useful from it, it is much easier, safer and more comfortable to be lead by what has come before us. Once the path has been trodden, it takes little effort to join the group, as not only does the group provide guidance, but it also acts as a shield protecting us from ridicule and from the fear of standing and being thought of as strange.

Videos, books and organised teaching are paradoxically damaging to the student who is looking more for something greater than exercise. It’s fine if you want to participate for purely physical or aesthetic reasons, but you mustn’t deny the greater potential which lies hidden behind the obvious exterior, and to promote the art form in a simplistic light is to misrepresent it entirely.

Willpower, strength, determination and self-sufficiency is what it takes to operate alone in the dark with nothing but a compass and the desire to be better, to improve through self-challenge.

But if re-appropriation is central to the practice of parkour, what if it turned out that somewhere where you train, and have spent time exploring and creating, was actually built just for that purpose? What and how would that change anything? We might no longer be able to call it re-appropriation, but perhaps pseudo-re-appropriation instead, based on our misunderstanding of what the space was originally conceived for.

How we define re-appropriation will be key to understanding and shaping our concept of what is and what is not considered Parkour.

The idea of purpose is implicated in this discussion, and whether or not purpose can be instilled into objects, and what limits may exist in terms of conveying complex rather than simple intentions. For example, we can design a device to cut other objects or even one specific material, however, someone without access to the instructions or the mind of the creator can easily ‘discover’, invent, or otherwise find alternative uses for this object that contradict its design. It seems then, that purpose is perhaps context-specific, and that our use of space and objects is informed by the actions of others and so on. If there are no others to observe, or the others present a context that goes against our intentions, then we are given the opportunity to create or discover new interpretations, or the task of interpretation is simply thrust upon us. In my view, it is innocence or ignorance that is soften the key to the creation of novel interpretations when faced with an alien environment or context. That is to say, if I visit a parkour park that I have never seen before, neither in real life nor in video or photos, and I am free to explore it alone without anyone else potentially influencing me in the moment, then for all practical purposes I am equally as free to create and discover as I would be if the space had not been designed for such use.

The irony of the design argument (argument against using a designed space) is that it exposes a number of things, firstly it shows that we can corrupt any design, including that of a parkour park. Secondly, it shows that no matter whether a space is adapted by us or for us, the way we move, train and interact with it itself is limited by the space itself, all the same; that a sort of ‘architectural determinism’ exists which constrains or dictates how we can use a particular space, which applies equally to both parkour parks and other structures.

While we can make many assumptions about the intended function of a purpose-built space, it is for all practical purposes impossible to know the details and limits of that intention. In this way a parkour park is somewhat a mystery object with no clearly defined purpose other than that we are meant to play or train on it, with both the words ‘play’ and ‘train’ remaining very vague. In this case, the design aspect is what directly creates the context for the space, with ‘permission’ being inherent in its design, much like a legal graffiti wall. But a more interesting aspect of context is the way it is determined by use and majority rule. In a discipline of freedom and creativity, it is hard to remain free of constraints when we are constantly informed by others through videos, group training and the concept of ‘training spots’. It appears that it is not creativity that most people seek, but perhaps the comfort and acceptance that comes from doing and confirming what others already do. Ironically, we end up conforming to the new context in what is perhaps the same old process of destruction and creation of norms that seems ever-present in art.

For me, the beauty of art and in particular that of parkour, comes from the process of discovery or creation of a new context. With the arrival of the parkour park and the constant stream of available videos, what we have is in fact a ready-made context, that is spoon-fed to us, in the same way that any other design is an attempt to establish context. In this way there is little if any difference between a playground and a parkour park, in that they both are attempts at giving permission and confining physical activity to a specific area and set of objects – the same could be said of the modern gym. ‘Here is where you play’, ‘here is where you work’ and so on.

By removing wilderness from the parkour equation we no longer have the same substance, but rather, one that has been conformed to the rules of the civilised environment in which it now exists. For all intents and purposes it has been successfully assimilated. We adapt the environment in accordance with our own ideals, thus in turn adapting the art form itself. Whether government, corporate or other outside interests, their involvement necessarily leads to the same outcome. In an effort to improve numbers dilution takes place. People are left unaware of the presence of prosthetics, for the uninformed, for the outsider, and even the novice practitioner, there is little to no nuance, no fine details, nothing further to grasp, to discover, or to be transmitted. The simple, single, visual dimension is all there is. It is a display. A physical performance for the entertainment of a passive audience.

Creativity is not for the masses, parkour is not for the faint of heart or those looking for a weekend pass-time. If you come for the big, impressive acts and only stick around for the low-hanging fruit, then you cannot be expected to understand and therefore represent the art.

The problem is not that parkour parks, or that any park or playground or gym exists, but that they function in such a way as to create new norms, about what techniques or methods the art consists of, and how and where it is practised, which in this case is being directed by the allure of the superstimulus: the parkour park.

The existence of such parks also seems to be indicative of a deeper underlying problem, which is that having formed our habits and habitat into what they are, play areas are now necessary in order to not only fit physical activities into the unnatural uniformity of our clock-and-calendar-dictated lives, but also to find a place for them in a physical environment which has been immeasurably torn apart, and sliced up to be divided between numerous faceless owners.

Another problem that arises from the birth of the parkour, or skatepark for example, is that once a designated area has been created, governments and other authorities use the existence of this new space as an opportunity to confine it there. And so, in a Trojan horse-like manner, the gift of the park acts as leverage to restrict and control the activity itself, by establishing the parkour park as the correct context in which to practise, training in environments outside of the norm will be frowned upon.

From a global perspective, the parkour park is a good thing if it introduces and gives both children and adults the opportunity to try things that they did not previously have. But this same effect could be achieved by installing a similar kind of structure or space which is entirely unlinked to parkour, or even simpler, by teaching people to use what is already there. It is the normality of the association between the purpose-built park and the activity that is detrimental to the public perception of parkour.

It used to be us adapting to our surroundings, now we’re trying to adapt our surroundings to ourselves.

– Mikkel Rugaard, The Parkour Architect

With the above video and quote, we can see that not only has the emphasis significantly changed, but that also parts are simply missing. Creativity is confined to how movements are performed, and the exploration element is reduced to exploration within a pre-defined environment. The emphasis is on building structural variety, where the intended goal might be to create every conceivable obstacle for the purpose of training parkour on it. This is another example of spoon-feeding, where individual involvement is de-emphasised in favour of accepting the given norms.

The practicality of having a park for teaching a group is one reason to justify having a dedicated space, having a high concentration of obstacles within a single space is also a matter of pure function, which is another example of how external factors can subtly affect the practice and our view of it.

If you are interested in the physical side, then a parkour park is a fine superstimulus, and when viewed side by side with its older, wilder, wiser ancestor, modern parkour is a tame and acceptable shell.

Trying to define where the boundaries of any design lie is like attempting to accurately model human values by simply feeding a long list into the computer. The scope is so large, contains so many exceptions and qualifications, includes both information that we are unaware and ignorant of, that it seems to me most design processes are generalisations, in the same way that that the school system is a generalised design for imparting information on a mass scale. The more complex the intended use of the design, the more difficult it becomes to define its limits. Is who I am due in part, to the intentions of those who created and implemented the national curriculum, or in spite of them?

In a large number of cases, there is no access to the intent of the designer or to an original purpose, so we construct an image of what it might be through social proof. Again, we establish a norm by looking outwards and observing what the majority does most often.

Original purposes can be corrupted and challenged through deliberate attack, or they can be changed through ignorance/innocence.

I believe that there is a distinct difference between creating a new purpose/corrupting a design, and simply copying someone else’s way of doing so. In the second case one is simply acting in accordance with the new norm, and when looked at this way, practising parkour for example can be seen as an example of keeping up the status quo or reinforcing the norm through conformism. And in a neat twist of fate, parkour philosophy when taken to its conclusion, results in something that is not parkour, but a re-appropriation of it in order to suit a new psychological, social, temporal and physical environment. Freerunning could be one such floppy-eared, curly-tailed example.

While all of this may be true though, I feel that norms must be experienced first-hand and re-written by each individual, as until you interact with the old design it remains to be re-appropriated personally by you. This is why I feel that first-hand experience of a space, a technique or concept for example, is necessary in order to get to know it, to make it ‘your own’ or to even ‘own’ it, because norms are established through acts, not mere intellectual understanding.

Furthermore, although norms will affect how we view a space for example, it doesn’t mean that we are entirely at their mercy, only that they will have a strong influence over our vision.

In a lot of cases, old norms when applied to new contexts will create instant corruption and re-design. Perhaps this is all there is: that contexts are changed in the same way that dirt appears to be just matter out-of-place.