By Paul van Kaldenkerken
At first sight Parkour might seem like daredevil stunts or teenagers seeking a quick adrenaline rush. A more thorough look reveals Parkour as a physical training methodology where the practitioner, the traceur, uses only their body to overcome physical and mental obstacles and travels from point A to point B in the most efficient way possible. That usually involves all the basic human movement patterns of walking, running, jumping, vaulting, and climbing. What this superficial definition misses is how Parkour transforms the practitioner’s vision of the city. It is a practice of misusing, re-appropriating and re-inventing everyday objects and structures, rethinking the potential for urban space and imagining a new relation between the self, the body and the city.
Initial research suggested that Parkour constitutes a resistance towards capitalism and a subversion of the modern city produced by and intended for the reproduction of capitalist power relations (Atkinson, 2009: 169; Mould, 2015: 114). Subversive practices like Parkour, skateboarding or urban exploration allegedly re-appropriate urban space, assert use value over exchange value and ultimately are “involved in nothing less than a cultural renaissance, where people began to take control of their rights to the cities” (Garrett, 2013: 244; following Lefebvre,  1991).
Post-structuralist scholars see this cultural renaissance more critically as a “new spirit of capitalism” (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005: 161) rather than a subversion of it. Previous studies overestimated the subversive potential of these practices and underestimated the co-optive power of capitalism. What originally was identified as resistance turns out to be “hyperconformist” (Kindynis, 2016: 11) and “slowly inching towards hegemonic semantics of neoliberal values” (Schweer, 2014: 167).
The question that arises from this discussion is to what extent and under what conditions is Parkour a subversive phenomenon towards the late-modern capitalistic hegemony? While the post-structuralist assertion of Kindynis (2016: 16) in reference to Deleuze and Guattari (1987) to think of urban subversions as rhizomatic and inherently contradictory and fluid is descriptively useful, this theorization lacks normative counter concepts to commodification and co-option and therefore motivational energy (Rosa, 2009: 222). I want to propose a different theorization following Rosa’s (2016) critical sociology of world relation because his concept of resonance provides a normative vision of an alternative, post-capitalistic life. Based on his theory I want to answer the question to what extend and under what conditions the practices and discourses within the social formation of Parkour in Berlin contribute or resist the systemic alienation and imperatives of dynamic acceleration of late-modern capitalism.
I focus on Berlin as it is a “textbook case of neoliberalization” (Lebuhn, 2015: 106) and home to a big and diverse Parkour community, which shows the varying facets of Parkour. The research timeframe was from September 2016 to January 2017. To capture the complex, contradictory and locally specific nature of Parkour I employ methodological triangulation (see Flick, 2011). The triad is composed of (auto)-ethnography to understand the everyday embodied experience of power, alienation and resonance (Ploder, 2011: 139). Qualitative interviews with local Parkour organisations and an international expert provide context, shed light on Parkour’s organization and together with secondary literature help to estrange myself from the culture under study and regain a critical distance after the emergence in the field. Using the wide variety of data I will then discuss the subversive potential of Parkour towards its alienating context of the modern city and modern sports. Subsequently I will go beyond performative aspects of resistance to examine whether or not a political subject emerges in the organization and institutionalization of Parkour. Then I will critically reflect on the limits of resistance and the entrenchment of alienation through Parkour and conclude with the main arguments and a look ahead towards further research.
Post-structuralist critique has identified major flaws in the theorization of urban subversions. Schweer (2014: 151) argues that the artistic critique of Skateboarding has created a more resilient variety of capitalism and Raymen (forthcoming) concludes that the commercialization and sportification of Parkour obliterates all of its political potential. In this line of thought Kindynis (2016: 13) in reference to Deleuze and Guattari (1987) proposes to think urban subversions as rhizomatic social formations. This is descriptively useful to describe the shifts within a social formation and to conceptualize “incorporation and resistance as complex, contradictory and intertwined” (Kindynis, 2016: 16). This deconstructivistic theorization however lacks all normative criteria and motivational energy that resistance and critique require (Rosa, 2009: 222). Even if Schweer (2015: 169) concurs with Deleuze (1990) that “there is neither reason for fear or for hope, but only to look for new weapons [against domination]” with this theoretical framework a weapon can’t even be identified or as one of my interviewees puts it: “It leaves you in this post-modern trap where there is no resistance, there is no way out, nothing is original, everything is complicit” (Interview D). Therefore “the main desideratum of critical theory today is not to prove commodification and alienation once again. Instead its task is to develop a concept of non-commodified existence” (Rosa, 2016: 597).
This normative and descriptive concept is resonance, which he defines as “a form of world relationship, which is formed through af<-fection and e->motion, intrinsic interest and an expectation of self-efficacy, in which subject and world touch and transform each other” (ibid.: 298). Resonance describes a mode of relationship in which both entities affect each other with their own voice, more than a mere echo. To be in resonance is to affect and to be affected, to experience self-efficacy and emotion. Sadness or grief can be just as much an expression of resonance as exuberance and joy. Rosas theory is based on the “radicalisation of the idea of relations” (ibid.: 62) and establishes that relationships between the subject and the world are the basis of consciousness (ibid.: 68). The concept of resonance is able to absorb earlier attempts in the literature on urban subversions to define a normative concept like autonomy, authenticity (Angel, 2011 following Taylor, 1989) play (Stevens, 2007) or enjoyment (Lefebvre and Stanek,  2014). Most importantly a resonant relation is open to different contents, which are socially contingent and historically and culturally specific, which avoids the paternalizing and potential authoritarian nature of other concepts.
Alienation is the counterpart of resonance and describes a relationship that is “indifferent or repulsive” (Rosa, 2016: 316). The material, social or inner world appears to be cold, rigid, repulsive or non-responsive. A complete alienation manifests itself in depression or burnout, where relationships to the world still exist but don’t trigger affect or self-efficacy. Alienation is a relation of relationlessness (Beziehungslosigkeit) (Jaeggi, 2005: 19). The two concepts of resonance and alienation are not diametrically opposed but dialectically intertwined. The ability of resonance is always rooted in experiences of alienation. Alienation is also an important cultural technique and complete resonance is neither possible nor desirable. This mode of relations depends on a silent and even repulsive world, in which momentary resonant experiences can be found. This however presupposes an attitude that is principally willing to engage in resonant relationships, a dispositive resonance. Rosa differentiates world relationships on three axes: Horizontal (social relations in family, friendship, politics) diagonal (objects, body, work) and vertical relationships (transcendence, religion, nature, history), which are stabilized in cultural-institutional spaces of resonance. These spaces of resonances are not characterized by constant experiences of resonance, but as a stable source, in which resonant relations are a question of choice.
A critique of the conditions of resonance now has three tasks. First to examine to what extend social formations are able to establish and facilitate or hinder and destroy stable space of resonance (ethical critique). Second how dispositive resonance and alienation are distributed (social critique) and third if and why late-modern society is able to function despite its crisis tendencies of alienation (functional critique). According to Rosa’s analysis the late-modern condition is characterized by an alienation and destabilization of every social, institutional and cultural space through the structural forces of dynamic stabilisation. Dynamic stabilisation means that society can only remain its institutional status quo (the capitalist economic order, democracy, the welfare state, academia etc.) by temporal acceleration, material growth and social acceleration of innovations. The other central feature of dynamic stabilisation is that competition becomes the dominant mode of allocation of economic, social, cultural and body capital (Rosa, 2016: 341). The market logic of competition becomes the primary operational logic in almost all spheres of society. These two forces lead to a late-modern condition of systemic alienation, which becomes apparent in the ecological crisis of climate change, the various crises of democracy and the psychological crisis of rising rates of mental disorders like depression and burnout. The default condition of the late-modern subject becomes one of alienation from its social circles, work, political system and itself (ibid.: 706).
A critical analysis of world relations has to focus on both sides of the relation, the subject and the world. For Parkour this means studying the everyday embodied experience and the urban environment and its atmospheres as well as structural forces of late-modern capitalism. This is partially accomplished through ethnography, “an approach to experiencing, interpreting and representing culture” (Pink, 2007: 18). I do ethnographic research to an extent that goes beyond participatory observation but is about actively being part of the culture and “becoming an active producer and reproducer of the culture under study” (Garrett, 2012: 44-45): Understanding culture by living it. Parkour is fundamentally different in the everyday practice than in it’s media representation or as Lamb (2014: 112) suggests: “it is impossible to understand a traceur’s interaction with architecture by simply observing this practice from an outsider’s perspective or by analysing media coverage”. I therefore also use auto-ethnography, the practice of Parkour by myself, which follows an epistemology of doing and constant critical self reflection (Gajjala, Rybas and Altman, 2007: 210). I critically reflect my own experience through sociological theory to capture the performative aspects of power, alienation and resonance (Ploder, 2011: 139).
The process included taking notes in the field about the embodied experience, observations, interactions and conversations with other practitioners, descriptions of the environment, reactions and interactions with pedestrians, and first interpretations, questions and hypothesis and took place between September 2016 and January 2017. Due to my already long involvement in Parkour this rather short time frame is sufficient for a cursory study. Informal interviews were conducted during the practice and therefor not recorded but research participants approved direct and indirect quotes. I corresponded with participants online as well as emerged myself in Parkour specific media produced by and about Parkour in Berlin. This is no meticulous study of media use or content analysis but is part of the immersion into the field, which does not only exist in person but just as much in the virtual realm of Facebook and YouTube (Dalsgaard, 2016: 97). Videos and images were collected and interpreted as ethnographic data and used to illustrate my argument.
This research design also takes in account systemic forces that facilitate or hinder resonance. The methods to grasp this context were two formal qualitative interviews based on open ended questions with leaders of the local Parkour organisations (ParkourOne: Interview A; Fußgänger e.V.: Interview B) and an urban planner responsible for the construction of a Parkour park (Interview C). I also conducted one expert interview with a British photographer and sociologist who covers Parkour since 2003 (Interview D) and consulted secondary literature on Parkour, other urban subversions like skateboarding, urban exploration, urban gardening, and neo-marxist (urban) theory in order to gain critical distance from the local context, estrange myself from the culture and engage a multiplicity of knowledge. The (auto)-ethnography, the four qualitative interviews and the secondary literature form a methodological triangle that provides varying viewpoints to produce a diverse set of insights (Flick, 2011: 74).
Through my nine years of practicing Parkour I already had access to the field of Parkour in Berlin, which consists of about 500-700 practitioners and is formally organised in four organisations (ParkourOne, Fußgänger e.V., Pfeffersport, Free1Germany) that offer guided training and is loosely connected via social media. I met my informants during the monthly public meeting, at highly frequented training areas in Berlin and via social media groups like ‘Parkour Berlin’. Because of my long involvement in this community I had to develop a more critical self awareness of my role during practice (Lüders, 2013: 401). My presence as a body doing class, race and gender influenced the attitudes, gestures and practices of the ones involved. Overall this research distances itself from the canon of objectivity and neutrality and emphasizes the subjectivity and reflexivity of research, as well as the ephemerality and multiplicity of knowledge (Ploder, 2011: 165).
- The Self, the Body and the City
“I take a deep breath, trying to calm myself. Adrenaline is not a good companion in Parkour. I accelerate and use a low wall as a launching pad. I plant my left hand, pushing hard to clear the distance to the next wall. I land and roll, feeling the cold stone under my hands and my back. I take two steps and jump again. The jump feels eternal, as if in slow motion my feet reach for the landing. I land on the balls of my feet, quietly absorbing the impact. I feel exhilarated from finally achieving this combination of movements.” (Fieldnotes 12.10.2016)
I have been at this empty concrete fountain since two hours, slowly getting to know it. Parkour is less about long unbroken runs or getting from point A to point B as efficiently as possible as many describe it. It’s a playful and challenging engagement with an environment that was not intended for these purposes. The practice takes place in low level scenarios and is very rarely involving the “roof jumping” (Wheaton, 2016: 111) other studies evoke. Through movement the practitioner creates a dialogue with the urban structures. They transform urban space through touching it and get transformed in that process. As I grab a handrail not to be guided by it but to vault over it I change from a consumer to an active participant of urban space. The haptic engagement of the urban surfaces breaks the repulsive relation, the “fear of touch towards urban surfaces” (Sennet, 1994: 15). The traceur experiences a range of emotions during the practice, from joy to fear to frustration, anger, enchantment and exuberance (see Saville, 2008). The structures around me inspire me (af<-fect) and I experience self-efficacy (e->motion) as I overcome and interact with the obstacles around me. Through this practice, which is guided more by curiosity and less by a quest for achievement, the traceur is able to establish a resonant relation between her body and the city.
Parkour is about rediscovering your inner child and this sentiment is uttered by almost all practitioners I met. Parkour can be described as serious play, as unorganised, unproductive enjoyment in (semi)public spaces that also involves an engagement with fear and risk. Rosa suggests to “recapture resonance through a childlike […] relation to the world” (Rosa, 2016: 387) and kids are usually the first to replicate Parkour movements. Gradually this behaviour becomes less and less accepted and kids get scolded for climbing or balancing outside of playgrounds. Urban space stops becoming a space for adventure and discovery but one of indifference and repulsion. On multiple occasions me or an informant were told to get off a structure that was in common sense not to be used that way, usually accompanied by a phrase like “you will hurt yourself” or “this is no playground”.
The frequent assertion that the city is no playground shows how deeply engrained the specific use of urban space for transportation, production and consumption is (Lamb, 2014: 118). This goes so far as banning ball games, skateboarding and inline skating from public places. The ‘High Deck’ estate in Berlin-Neukölln, which is also a popular Parkour spot, is a striking example. It was constructed in the late 70s and early 80s and attempted to separate car traffic from pedestrians by using elevated walking platforms, the so called high decks. Because most playgrounds were closed, these decks were used as a site for playful interaction of kids and teens. The arising conflict around noise was solved by banning all kinds of play from the area. Nowadays the atmosphere is “not able to awaken any emotion” (Haberle, 2006: 206) and the subject experiences it as “neutral or indifferent” (ibid.). This description shows that the urban environment lacks the ingredients for a resonant relation.
Since Georg Simmel ( 1995: 122) the city has been described as a place where the subject is forced into a closed off mindset, a dispositive alienation. Through the high frequency of interactions the subject has to adopt an indifferent attitude to keep the different other at distance. On the one hand this “latent aversion” (ibid.: 123) offers the basis for individualization and a sense of autonomy and ability to find resonant relations in wide variety of people, places and objects (Siebel, 2016: 64). On the other hand the antipathy of the subject can lead to a severe difficulty to establish resonant relations at all and that the sense of autonomy actually leads to alienation, which becomes apparent in Berlin’s urban atmospheres.
Since its entrance into the inter-city competition for transnational flows of capital, labour and prestige in 1990 Berlins urban discourse and materiality is characterized by “the besetting of urban space with national symbols and the staging of controlled consumer spaces” (Lebuhn, 2008: 89). The urban aesthetic and symbolic landscape of Berlin is shaped by “fundamentally homogenous and exclusive architectural semantics that drew on the virtues of idealism, order and the suppression of emotions” (Hain, 2013: 58-59), severely hindering the affective aspect of resonance. Contemporary urban development in Berlin like the Potsdamer Platz are described as what Augè (1995: 89) called non-places, a place devoid of history, identity and relation (Eick, 1998: 105). With Rosa this can be specified to lacking history and identity because it is devoid of relation. Non-places lead to an alienated experience of place and become visible in the “characterless and monstrous […] and the cold, exclusive architecture” (Hain, 2013: 54) of Berlins urban development geared towards consumer culture (Augè, 1995: 93).
This dispositive alienation is alleviated through the practice of Parkour, which leads a 30 year-old practitioner to call it an “antidote to society” (Fieldnotes 17.10.2016). The subject transforms non-places into spaces of resonance, which then in turn also let identity and history emerge. Augè (1995: 55) describes places of memory and history as follows: “What we see in them is essentially how we have changed, the image of what we are no longer. The inhabitant of the anthropological place doesn’t make history. He lives in it.” The accomplished challenges, the moments of fear and joy, the camaraderie of shared experience are inscribed into the places and build a rich history and “authentic identity” (Angel, 2011: 235) for the traceur.
What became apparent during the research is that Parkour has not only subversive potential as an urban practice but also in its non-competitive ethic and rejection of traditional sport discourses and practices. Schneider (2008: 318) suggests that sport has a system stabilizing function in being a compensation for the acceleration of other spheres of life but more so in advocating the systemic imperatives of dynamic stabilisation and capitalistic virtues. The rationalisation, quantification, standardization and obsession with records and the instrumentilization of the body, where the body is viewed not as a partner in a dialogue but as an instrument, are the result of a merger of the Protestant work ethic with the spirit of capitalism (Guttmann, 2004: 6). The focus on quantifiable results is aligned with the focus on growth and the systemic forces of acceleration and competition. The Olympic motto of ‘faster, higher, stronger’ is the epitome of the accelerating forces of late modern capitalism. Sports reproduces hierarchies through a dichotomy of winning and losing (Hietzge, 2012: 243). In physical education performance is evaluated and graded, in fitness studios subjects insturmentalize their body with highly specific exercises towards the primary goal of amassing body capital. Performance enhancing drugs are the logical result of a sport culture that values quantifiable results and records over resonant body-self relations. Competitive sports foster a relation to the body, that sees it as a tool towards achievement, which in its extremes results in a fight against the own body rather than a dialogue (Schneider, 2008: 332).
Parkour as serious play is distinctively different because it doesn’t produce records or results. Parkour does not rely on demarcated zones, it’s an expressive activity that resists standardization and formal competition, and a practice that allows for a resonant connection between body and self instead of instrumentalizing and therefore alienating this relation. Most traceurs in Berlin reject the idea of Parkour becoming part of the Olympics, which would mean a radical standardization of the discipline. A 26 year-old practitioners tells me, that he sees Parkour as the exact opposite of the Olympics: “How would they even do it? I mean if I see them measuring jumps, or rating performance, its everything Parkour is not” (Fieldnotes 05.01.2017). The dominant values and practices within the social formation of Parkour in Berlin are a non-competitive dialogical relation between the self, the body and the city, a space of resonance within an alienating cityscape and sport culture. Practitioners performatively challenge the hegemonic order but this alone merely constitutes a “reactive gesture” (Hayward and Schuilenburg, 2014: 27) rather than resistance. The question is whether a political subject emerges in the organization and institutionalization of stable spaces of resonance.
- The Traceur as a Political Subject
Traceurs don’t tend to see themselves as political unlike other urban subversions. It does not have the same counter cultural character as skateboarding or a political manifesto like urban gardening (see Müller, 2014). Confrontations with private security of semi-public or private spaces are common and traceurs usually make an effort to settle them cooperatively, often times backing away from making claims that they have the right to move in a certain place. In multiple conversations traceurs questioned the claims of authority made in these situations. “Who really owns these parking spaces or this place” (Fieldnotes 1.11.2017), asks a 24-old male informant about the parking of the free university where he frequently trains and often gets expelled. But in practice traceurs don’t tend to insist on their right to the city.
Parkour can be trained everywhere and to be dispelled from one place just means going on a search for a new one. That gives Parkour a unique dialectic. On the one hand it can be practiced everywhere and is almost impossible to design or regulate against. This consequently empowers the traceur to find spaces of resonance everywhere. But it also makes the practice somewhat politically impotent because they don’t have to be vigilant about their places. Parkour from that lens could be described as opportunistic hedonism, that is less about seizing a right to the city but to develop individualistic spaces of resonance for a fleeting moment. The public meeting in Berlin used to be held at the Velodrom until the owner of this semi-public space attached a ‘no Parkour’ sign there. Even though individual practitioners still use the spot and the sign has since been removed the public meeting was moved to the Potsdamer Platz to not cause a confrontation. While skateboarders might initiate vocal protest when a spot is threatened to be closed (like the Long Live Southbank campaign in London) I don’t see this potential for confrontation within Parkour.
It is in this confrontation though that Iveson (2013) sees the potential of urban subversions to help in realizing a more socially just city. He argues that the alternative uses of transgressive practices “must be asserted through the formation and action of new political subjects” (ibid.: 954). The performative appropriation alone does not constitute an act of resistance. In Berlin I observed a more cooperative political subjectivation than Iveson is imagining and found that practitioners were indeed advocating social change.
Subtle evidence for that is that the Fußgänger e.V. changed the standard founding document of sport clubs that prescribes regular competitions. They put up with the bureaucracy to change that aspect and to not make competitions part of their work as a sport club (Interview B). This resistance to competition as a sporting norm can also be found in the founding charta of ParkourOne, which takes an opposing stance towards an overly competitive society (ParkourOne, 2016: 9). This anti-competitive mindset is actively promoted during trainings, in personal conversation and in media representations (see Deutsche Welle, 2009). In a recent newspaper article Ben Scheffler of Parkour One is quoted that Parkour is about overcoming a mindset of competitiveness that is “taught to us since childhood” (Bobileva, 2014: 18), which also manifests itself in the rejection of Parkour being part of the Olympics. The hegemonic value within the social formation of Parkour in Berlin is not the “neoliberal individualistic and entrepreneurial ethics” identified by Raymen (forthcoming) but a rejection of common norms of competition.
ParkourOne also advocated and convinced the management of the aforementioned ‘High Deck’ estate to allow Parkour there. Their attempts to legitimize Parkour are more cooperative than confrontational. ParkourOne is in close contact with the city government to present an image of Parkour not as adrenaline junkies but a profound cultural practice (Interview A). The imperatives of use of urban space are subverted not only performatively but also argumentatively. One of the directors at ParkourOne tells me that at a conference about public space “we could appear not only as traceurs but as designers of space too” (Interview A). Traceurs try to change the hegemonic order to fit their needs and with Rancière (2002: 28) this constitutes a political subjectification, whereby traceurs leave their assigned place in society and actualize a self-evident and legitimate right to use. Through performance and through argument they call attention to the arbitrary hierarchy of society, to arbitrary limitations of public space and the alienating effects of competition. Practitioners want to change the existing order on their own terms rather then being changed by the order. They defend their spaces of resonance that (so far) have not started to follow the imperatives of dynamic stabilisation or have been moved to specialized and commodified facilities.
- Parkour and Alienation
Traceurs outside of ParkourOne or the Fußgänger have a more ambivalent relationship with competition. A stance that I found is that practitioners condemn competitions but would still participate in them for the experience. Few of the informants saw this as a contradiction of not supporting the concept of competition but endorsing it by their participation. It is here that the distinctly late-modern fluid identity of the traceur really comes to show as values and strong evaluations are relative to the own hedonistic enjoyment and short-term desire (Taylor, 1989: 428; Rosa, 2016: 232).
Because of the loose attachment to the values of non-competitiveness Parkour can easily be co-opted and assimilated into capitalist reproduction. Parkour does not have a anti-consumerist agenda and most traceurs don’t see it as problematic to participate in commercials and advertisements. There are some products that are deemed not to fit with Parkour values, such as cigarettes or alcohol, but practitioners are usually willing to participate in advertisement to earn a living as a traceur. Some traceurs stylize themselves as ‘social media influencers’ to appear attractive to companies for product placement. They collect large amounts of followers in their social media channels, to then promote products through their videos and images (see Weiland, 2016a, 2016b, 2016c). In the Mall of Berlin, on billboards and on Instagram Parkour is used to transfer the desire for resonance into a desire for objects.
When it emerged Parkour was a reservoir of authenticity, a lifestyle not yet colonized by dynamic acceleration forces and capitalist profit and market logics. Capitalism depends on these Others, because they provide new markets and growth opportunities or as Rosa (2016: 620) puts it: “the late-modern economy lives […] from the transformation of a desire for resonance and relations into a desire for objects” (own emphasis). As practitioners become complicit in this transformation through advertisement they enable consumers to define their identity through a purchase and not through active participation. Parkour is colonized and commodified through highlighting the spectacular corporeality and removing the critical aspects of public appropriation through movement. Not only does Parkour lose its critical impetus but also actively endorses an alienating consumer culture.
A central paradox of the late-modern consumer culture is that its subjects purchase more and more but actually consume these purchases less (Rosa, 2011: 116). The subject tries to extend its purview to make more of the world potentially accessible and have more sources of resonance. But in this act the actual consumption loses its importance. Books are not read, pictures taken but not looked at, shoes bought but not taken for a run. The escalating acceleration of the subjects life leaves less time for consumption but only for purchase, through which it searches for identity and resonance. The search for resonance is integrated in accelerating modernity without the ability to be its counterpart. Late-modern consumption is based on the principle that the act of actual use loses importance and thereby produces systematic silence of the axes of resonance because “resonant world relations are not realizable through the act of purchase” (Rosa, 2016: 434) alone. Consumption temples like the Mall of Berlin are a contemporary, if futile, attempt to escape the alienating environment of the city and find a sense of meaning and resonance. If Parkour becomes complicit in the perpetuation of consumer culture it loses its subversive potential.
Parkour also leads to alienation through some of its representations that more and more become “entertaining rather than inviting” (Garrett, 2014: 9). This becomes most visible in the pretext of a commercial involving Parkour stating: “The following stunts were executed by a professional on closed off grounds. Don’t repeat this” (Weiland, 2016a: 0:00-0:06) . This is especially troubling because acts of resistance can have social impact through inspiring others (Deutsch, 2007: 124). When I showed a 26 year-old practitioner a Parkour performance at Potsdamer Platz for the promotion of a movie blockbuster she replied, “They show Parkour as just another sport to show off. And if you can not do this you suck” (Fieldnotes 24.9.2016; also see Ashigaru, 2016). As the practice is framed both by the media and some practitioners “in terms of exceptionality (of fearlessness, skill and ‘craziness’), one cannot help but feel that any implicit invitation to participate has been withdrawn” (Kindynis, 2016: 12). When videos of the practice become more and more about the spectacular corporeality of Parkour, about self-promotion and about amassing subcultural capital they limit the scope of people that potentially become inspired to start appropriating public space through movement themselves (Interview D).
Specifically designed Parkour parks are an example how Parkour creates non-places itself, by standardizing and formalizing movement and removing the creative process of reinterpreting structures. In a Parkour park the movements are obviously designed for and don’t require a transformative creative process. Parks legitimize Parkour as a practice within demarcated spaces while criminalizing it in public space, a process which has already been observed in skateboarding (Chiu, 2009: 40). ParkourOne, who designed two parks in Berlin, acknowledges this by saying that “we don’t have a problem with designing spaces, but we have trouble with creating foreseeable structures from un-diverse material that predetermine certain movements” (Interview A). They created a movement landscape that, according to the involved urban planner, is more inclusive than a regular Parkour park (Interview C). It still puts Parkour in a demarcated zone and reduces the creative capabilities of the practitioners. The resonance of the body-city relation is weakened as the training in the park doesn’t produce the same transformation of the environment. It is more like a echo chamber, in which the world lacks a differing voice and only caters to the practitioners needs.
The appropriation of public space however is only of secondary concern to most traceurs. It is considered a practice that relates more to other sports like climbing and not to other artistic urban interventions. It is no surprise that “traceurs rarely showed any particular solidarity towards other unexpected or unintended activities in the same urban public space they used” (Ameel and Tani, 2012: 23). Even though many practitioners engage in other transgressive practices like urban exploration, they try to differentiate Parkour from skateboarding or graffiti as more wholesome and healthy. Practitioners defend their space of resonance but this does not necessarily lead to other users of public space being able to freely appropriate it through other practices. To the contrary, the acceptance of Parkour in public space leads to more condescending views on other practices, because traceurs try to differentiate themselves from them. Privatisations of well known spots like the Los Angeles Platz are also not an issue in the local discourse. Even though practitioners experience the effects of being expelled by private security firms, the underlying reasons are not challenged or even marked. The description of Parkour as an urban intervention, that could highlight or challenge such developments, largely remains an academic label that traceurs don’t use themselves.
This also leads to the question how open Parkour is for outsiders. Mould warns that a subculture establishes their unique “systems, signs, rules, communities, frameworks and guidelines [and] have as much exclusionary potential as they do inclusionary and emancipatory powers” (Mould, 2015: 232). Public spaces in the neoliberal city have subtle exclusionary mechanisms too. Siebel (2015: 70) argues that the Friedrichstraße or the Zoologischer Garten are increasingly restricted to a public defined as consumers or tourists and Kidder (2013) suggests that Parkour is contributing to these exclusionary mechanisms.
Berlin provides a counterexample. ParkourOne, the Fußgänger and Pfeffersport actively try to incorporate inclusion and diversity into their practice, philosophy and coaching because they see it as their task “to show these abilities [enduring pain and embracing risk] don’t depend on someone’s gender” (Interview A). They do commodify the practice by offering paid trainings but because they also portray the ethics of non-competitiveness and the trainings take place in public space and not in sports gyms or Parkour parks this does not equate with co-option, which would erase critical aspects of the practice. It nevertheless puts a financial barrier to the participation. ParkourOne counteracts this by offering free public meetings (with female participation between 35-50%) a monthly free female training/meeting, and a weekly free conditioning training. Those can be seen as marketing initiatives but considering that the public meeting has been the core activity of ParkourOne even before offering paid trainings I understand them as genuine attempts to make Parkour as accessible as possible.
My own position of privilege as a long-time member might make it difficult to see the fine lines of exclusion that Kidder (2013) identified in Parkour. Nevertheless I never witnessed practitioners encouraging each other to commit to dangerous acts nor is the social hierarchy defined by the risk traceurs take as he suggests (ibid.: 5). One 25 year-old traceur describes “a culture of effort” (Fieldnotes 10.12.2016), where not the achievement but the mental and physical struggle is valued irrelevant of the end result. It’s usually not the “risky stunts that routinely capture […] the praise of the other traceurs” (Kidder, 2013:2) but everything from creativity, balance, flow, power or technical difficulty. The narrative of Parkour as a spectacular practice of a few very skilled individuals is challenged by large parts of the Berlin community, that abstain from creating spectacular online content and during media reports frame the practice as a very focused, non-spectacular, and most importantly inclusive act (see Deutsche Welle, 2009).
Parkour as serious, non-competitive play in (semi)public space promotes resonant relations between the body, the self and the city. With a focus on its spectacular corporeality and perpetuation of consumer culture Parkour can also become a force of alienation. But the hegemonic practices and discourses within the social formation of Parkour centre around an ethic of fulfilment rather than achievement and a principled stance on keeping the practice in public space, non-competitive and as accessible for everyone as possible. This constitutes a critique of an alienating cityscape and of an alienated body-self relation under late-modern capitalistic dynamic acceleration and calls into question norms and practices within public space and sport. The primary concern of the practitioners of Parkour are a resonant body-self relation and within the context of modern sport can be seen as genuinely subversive in its rejection of norms and practices of competition.
While traceurs are able to establish spaces of resonance in public space for themselves and also become political subjects in stabilizing and defending them, they don’t open up these spaces to other practices. In the institutionalization and defence of stable and inclusive spaces of resonance that don’t follow the systemic forces of dynamic stabilisation Parkour in Berlin is a subversive practice, that at least opens up productive perspectives towards a post-capitalistic urban and sport culture. If the process towards a post-capitalistic society is “about getting horizontal, diagonal, and maybe also vertical resonance relations out of the (commercialized) special zones and integrating them in the reproductive practices of the everyday” (Rosa, 2016: 734) then Parkour as serious play in public space certainly carries potential for such a transformation. Even though local Parkour organisations create commercialized spaces for Parkour to earn a living as Parkour coaches at least ParkourOne also engages in genuine, non-commercialized community building activities.
Small scale experiments like this are crucial in establishing alternative futures, but without staging disagreement and confronting systemic factors of alienation these practices tend to be academically romanticised with a ”hedonism-as-revolutionary sensibility” (Hayward and Schuilenburg, 2014: 33) even though they don’t present a challenge to the hegemony (Interview D). Resistance towards an alienated relation can start with the self but has to focus on the systemic side as well, which would “involve finding ways to engage publicly with the unjust city as it exists by asserting our equality, not just transgressing its order” (Iveson, 2013: 947). A reactive gesture becomes resistance where it is linked with a “tangible transformative agenda” (Hayward and Schuilenburg, 2014: 33), which for Parkour is the case in the area of modern sport and the refection of competition. In the area of urban space Parkour might actually lead to the further tightening of space for other users because practitioners don’t show solidarity towards other subversive practices (Ameel and Tani 2012: 28).
Future research has to expand to a more encompassing view of the social formation of Parkour over a longer period of time and revisit the question of stable spaces of resonance in public space and modern sport. Especially the accessibility and openness of these spaces towards all social groups deserves closer scrutiny (see Wheaton, 2016). This thesis was mainly concerned with ethical questions of life under late-modern capitalism and a social critique of the accessibility of resonance deserves more attention. Feminist urban geography following Bondi and Rose (2003) can be a conducive starting point for future investigations into Parkour. Future studies should also investigate possible institutional changes like for example ‘the urban commons’ that enable shared spaces of resonance to emerge and what role Parkour can have in realizing alternative urban and sport futures (see Dellenbaugh et al., 2015).
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