Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Paris Sportif: The Contagious Attraction of Parkour

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I first encountered parkour in a Luc Besson movie, District 13 (from 2004, original title Banlieue 13), but it has a longer history, discussed by Macs Smith in an extract from his book Paris and the Parasite: Noise, Health, and Politics in the Media City published in The MIT Reader:

In a city fixated on public health and order, a viral extreme sport offers a challenge to the status quo.1955, Letterist International, a Paris-based group of avant-garde authors, artists, and urban theorists, published “Proposals for Rationally Improving the City of Paris.” The group, which would become better known as Situationist International, or SI, and play an important role in the May 1968 demonstrations, put forward wild suggestions for breaking the monotony of urban life. Some of these, like the call to abolish museums and distribute their masterpieces to nightclubs, were iconoclastic and anti-institutional, reflecting the group’s anarchic political leanings.

Others were less overtly political and testified to a thirst for excitement. To appeal to “spelunkers” and thrill-seekers, they called for Paris’s rooftops and metro tunnels to be opened up to exploration. The group believed that the mundaneness of urban life in the 1950s was integral to bourgeois capitalism. Boredom was part of how the government maintained order, and so a more equal city would necessarily have to be more frightening, more surprising, more fun.

SI disbanded in 1972, but its ideas about the links between emotion and urban politics have been influential. Among the best examples are the subcultures centered around urban thrill-seeking that exist today, like urban exploration (Urbex), rooftopping, and skywalking, all of which involve breaking into dangerous or forbidden zones of the city. The most famous inheritor to SI’s call to experience urban space differently is parkour, which was invented in the Paris suburb of Lisses in the 1980s. It was inspired by Hébertisme, a method of obstacle course training first introduced to the French Navy in 1910 by Georges Hébert. David Belle learned the principles of Hébertisme from his father, Raymond, who had been exposed to it at a military school in Vietnam. David, along with a friend, Sébastien Foucan, then adapted those principles, originally conceived for natural environments, to the suburban architecture of their surroundings.

Over time, parkour has incorporated techniques from tumbling, gymnastics, and capoeira, resulting in a striking blend of military power and balletic artistry. Parkour involves confronting an urban map with an embodied experience of urban space. It is often defined as moving from points A to B in the most efficient way possible, and parkour practitioners, called traceurs, often depict themselves as trailblazers identifying routes through the city that cartography does not capture. Traceurs sometimes evoke the fantasy of tracing a straight line on the map and finding a way to turn it into a path, although in practice, they more often work at a single point on the map — a park, a rooftop, an esplanade — and end a session back where they started.

Traceurs’ desire to rewrite the map is another thing they share with the Situationists, who liked to cut up maps and glue them back together to show the psychological distance between neighborhoods. But parkour distinguishes itself from SI through its use of video, which continues to be a point of debate within the practice. In the early 2000s, Sébastien Foucan reignited this debate when he broke away from Belle to pioneer his own version of the training system.

Foucan’s appearance in the 2003 documentary “Jump London” cemented “freerunning” as the name for this alternate practice, which put a greater emphasis on stylized movements. Foucan would go on to play a terrorist bomb-maker in Martin Campbell’s “Casino Royale,” leaping from cranes with Daniel Craig’s James Bond in pursuit. Some parkour purists see this as a degradation of the utilitarian roots of their training, and insist instead on a physio-spiritual discourse of communion with the environment, mastery of fear, and humility. They reject freerunning as a brash corruption of Hébert’s principles. The sociologist Jeffrey Kidder notes in his interviews with traceurs in Chicago that they dismiss participants who lack interest in serious rituals like safety, humility, and personal growth. They react negatively to media coverage that highlights parkour’s danger or assimilates it into adolescent rebellions like skateboarding, drug use, or loitering.

In my own email interview with the leaders of Parkour Paris, the official parkour organization of Paris, the same will to blame media is evident: “Parkour has been mediatized in ‘connotated’ films. The traceurs depicted in those fictions were friendly delinquents a bit like Robin Hood. Friendly, yes, but for the immense majority of people they were still delinquents from the banlieue,” they gripe. “It’s been very hard to shake that image.” . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. And it includes this 50-minute video, Jump London:

Written by Leisureguy

27 July 2021 at 10:17 am

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