Ethan discovering Parkour

This week, I introduced my 7 year old son to parkour, a practice which is characterised by the image of young people jumping and running between obstacles in urban environments. At school, he had already similar movements in formal practices of gymnastics, but even this was a relatively recent education for him. at this point in time he has no greater sense of what makes gymnastics or parkour more or less of a Sport or an art form, such as dance. In fact I could imagine that he thinks of both as more like dance than sport.

I had always felt he would be good at gymnastics. He’s very agile, quick, and he isn’t scared of taking risks with his body. Although, he isn’t careless or reckless and isn’t someone that would take significant risks. He’s careful and precise with his movements. There is a kind of reflectiveness about how he moves.

To me, these are the sorts of qualities one requires to take part in both gymnastics, Parkour and many other sports. In fact, I think these qualities are pertinent to all sports, where being assertive with one’s body is a crucial part of being able to do the sport at all. After all, at some point in gymnastics, parkour, diving, and many other sports, at some point, one is required to have to take a leap of faith and put one’s body into a position that it has never been before and hope or trust that this commitment to the movement will ensure success. Often, it will not and so what also has to be comfortable with failure and, potentially, pain.

However, there’s more to Parkour than simply the willingness to take a risk and I think it’s useful to pursue the philosophical foundation of Parkour, as a basis for understanding what makes it distinct, fascinating, and explains why it is one of the most popular and fast rising physical activities of our time.

A friend of mine is one of the leading advocates of Parkour and has been working hard to ensure that it gets recognition from official sports channels, but, like many alternative sports its community is not always interested in recognition from official sports organisations. While feelings about recognition change over time — surfing, climbing have been through similar processes and now skateboarding is about to become an Olympic sport — what interest me and intrigues me about Parkour is the idea that it responds to certain principles about our human condition.

Consider the context of Parkour: the urban environment. Consider also that Parkour is already distinguished from free running, the former focusing on efficiency, while the latter emphasises creativity. In this essay, I use each interchangeably, though recognise they have crucial difference.

I have read also about Parkour explores our practice of natural movement. In this sense, what appeals about Parkour and free-running is the fact that they are not located within predictable, managed, or fixed environments. Unlike traditional sports, which seek to equalise formalise and standardise the conditions of competition, Parkour takes the unpredictability of the unnatural urban environment and makes this the focus of the performance. Parkour is thus a way of reclaiming urban space, which typically is also managed and owned by institutions.

Parkour/free running practitioners and theorists each describe it as an art form, rather than a sports, although this is not the only practice to be described in multiple, complex ways. After all, figure, skating, boxing, and running each are often described as art forms too. While we should not get too focused on this use of a term that comes from the cultural sector it is helpful to reflect on what it is we mean by an art form when describing it in the context of a practice that may also be described as a sport. In so doing, it is helpful also to reflect on its relationship to art practice in a more creative cultural context. This is often the manner in which cultural practices are demarcated institutionally.

In my mind, the way in which Parkour appeals to its practice as an art form is distinct from these other sports in that it is underpinned by a set of disruptive, creative principles, which have to do with our sense of citizenship. This is different, I think, from even martial arts which are perhaps a monks the strongest contenders for being and art Practice underpinned by a philosophical Foundation. Admittedly one might look at the history of modern sport and argue that our enjoyment of it is central to citizenship especially when one thinks about sport practice as a leisure pursuit as distinct from our work. in this respect sport is re-creative. and it might be Simply that parkour is the new way in which recreation is made political in a way that supports no longer provide because of their having been institutionalised standardized and inextricable from transnational corporate aspirations.

When my son and I were out this week practicing movements, an important part of the process for him was the act of recording the movement using a mobile phone. I want to suggest that this is also a critical part of what demarcates Parkour as an art form. Whereas traditional sports are characterised by the pursuit of broadcasting the activity, Parkour, at least in the way that we’ve begun to practice, is informed by the art of self recording and this emphasis on self recording is very different from the pursuit of broadcasting the activity for an audience.

Certainly the act of self-recording is not unique to Parkour; it may not even be essential to it. In this respect, my position is developing a set of ideas that give prominence to a particular philosophical foundation to Parkour, elements of which may be found another practices. To this end, the approach I take bears resemblance to Wittgenstein’s notion of family resemblances, as a way of describing the essential properties of a practice. For example the art of self recording is also prominent within skateboarding one will often fine skateboarders filming their movements there is even an online game which allows skateboarders to level up by submitting footage of their tricks.

Self recording is a good example of how a physical activity is a way of encountering the limits of a human condition. The video content provides in practice feedback on what we are doing almost in real time. It shows us, whilst we are present in the space, how we are disrupting the physical space and claiming it as our own while also providing an irrefutable record of our having done so.

At this point in Ethan’s life, I have no idea how he will come to differentiate between different art forms. Yet, what is interesting about his generation, is the manner in which sports are having to rethink their contribution to personal and community development, as is evidenced by the rise of alternative sports worldwide.

I worry that many sports have isolated themselves from a far wider practice community who are put off by the formality of sports. For example, Ethan may describe some forms of physical activity as work like, rather than playful, and this is a good example of where sports undermine their potential as creative practices that could engage far bigger communities. Activities like Parkour occupy a different social space presently and it is these sorts of activities that we must seek to nurture, respect, and embrace, in order to more fully realise the potential of physical activity to inform our understanding of our world and a place within it.

Chair in Science Communication & Future Media @SalfordUni / written 4 Washington Post, Wired + found on CNN, BBC Newsnight, TEDx #posthuman