On the left is a video clip culled from YouTube titled Russian Climbing, one of many examples of the contemporary form of urban mobility known as Le Parkour. In it, we see a young man – a Traceur, as practitioners are called – appropriating the space of the city as platform for exercising gymnastic skill. Here, the city becomes an obstacle course through which one moves from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Understood by its practitioners not as a competitive sport but as a form of physical and mental training, Parkour helps one develop a spatial awareness of specific affordances of urban structures and the ability to overcome mental and physical obstacles with speed and efficiency.
In the Traceur we see refracted a lineage of alternative ways of moving through the city. From Benjamin’s Flaneur to the Situationists’ Deriviste, these urban actors perform the city in ways that not so much reflect it (as representation) but enact it (through transduction). Though them, we can read a city and the affordances it proffers, with each enacting a different city and the socio-spatial relations found there. In this context, Parkour becomes a form of urban hacking, a way of appropriating architecture and its attendant fittings for purposes not sanctioned by the original design. Architecture becomes an obstacle which must be overcome as quickly and efficiently as possible.
On the right is a video clip produced by the video artist Chris Oakley. Titled “The Catalogue” (2004), the clip simulates a shopping mall somewhere in the north of England from the point of view of a surveillance system. Yet we soon see that this system is doing more than just watching. Shoppers are tagged, tracked and monitored as they go about their shopping routines. Transaction histories are mined, personal inventories are matched against products for sale, and recommendations are made. Prescriptions for eyeglasses are facilitated though the retrieval of a recent eye exam report. The purchase and consumption of food and beverage items at a conveyor sushi bar is matched against a person’s medical records and a health prognosis is made based on what s/he is eating.
How might we traverse the gap between the left and right frames of this diptych? What happens when Parkour becomes a conceptual vehicle by which not the material city but the immaterial, informatic city is appropriated as a performative platform for alternative mobilities? What new urban actor might emerge? How might s/he develop a spatial awareness of the affordances latent in these systems and infrastructures, and subsequently recircuit, reconfigure and redirect the flows of people, goods and data in these environments?