Parkour & Paper Architecture

Ealier in my life I developed an obsession with what I called “paper architecture”–buildings that architects would dream up and potentially theorize, but that for the most part remained unbuilt. They were mostly unbuilt because they were not functional buildings perhaps, rather they were either demonstrations of a theoretical underpinning (as in many of the structures created by Peter Eisenman) or rather constructions intended only to communicate a poetic impulse (such as the work of John Hejduk or Lebbeus Woods). There are more examples (other favorites of my own that sit as slightly more obscure include Lars Lerup, Raimond Abraham and Dougles Darden), but what I found so fascinating about the structures was that they were architectural constructs dreamed up not to fulfill a function (architecture is often inescapably the most utilitarian art, and this leaves space for style that functions as nothing but decorative flourish of course), but rather to project a sensation, an experience. One might not want to inhabit these spaces long term, but to visit them (whether in person or through mediums of representation) would provide a unique experience that a “normal” building (divorced of narrative context) might not.

While the ideas of these spaces still fascinate me (and I imagine if I were to revisit the many books that currently sit on my shelves devoted to these follies, I’d still find they echo inspiration), at this point in time I prefer experiencing things with my body in total rather than just with my mind. I want to experience a space through sensual perception more than just imagining events that could unfold in any given presentation.

I recently came to the realization (&when it hit me, like a brick, it felt nothing if not obvious) that part of my fascination with parkour & free-running grows out of a subversion of the interest seeded years ago: parkour suggests a unique experience of an architectural space despite the intentions of the architect (somewhat contra the “paper architects” and their architectural suggestions of unique experiences despite [client] functionality). In my last post regarding parkour, I suggested the idea that  interacting with architectural space (via the body in a full sense) requires a paradigm shift: a wall must be viewed as something beyond structural support, it must become the other in a partner dance. This comes into play here, but, in a way, entering this active way of thinking about space undermines the functionality of all architecture. Instead of seeing what the architect intended, the free-runner sees the potentiality of movement. This is nothing new in presentations of “parkour” as some wildly idealistic action sport. The rhetoric surrounding the way the market tries to sell parkour as a sport for kids who “can’t sit still” or pushes the idea of “healthy competition” and creative exercise (as if all movement of the body isn’t inherently expressive in some capacity!); it might play to the emotional resonance of the flow space, but what it most often seems to overlook is the insistence on a sense of, to quote both Grotowski and the gnostic gospels, a “movement within repose.”

There’s enough to unpack in that term that I’ll avoid going into it here (for now), but suffice to say that one of the inherent qualities I find the phrase suggests is the idea of a non-functional sense of movement, movement not towards a goal, but rather movement for the sake of experiencing movement itself. Eschewing linearity (or even the inherent momentum of conflict-based narrative that dominates most hegemonic Western thought) delivers a body in a space without any inherent “goal” to fulfill. While a bedroom’s inherent utility is to provide a space for sleep, the interstitial space between two walls that define a perimeter serves no utility other than demarcation. To be able to interact with space not in terms defined by the function of the space, but rather by the possibilities the space provides taps deeply into the same inherent motivation behind dreaming up an architectural structure that suggests a poetic import rather than a function. It also shares motivation with architecture that demonstrates a theory rather than actually creating a space — here I’m specifically thinking of Eisenman’s impenetrable “Fin D’Ou T Hou S” — consider this subject heading in Nina Hofer’s consideration of the work: “THE LIMITATIONS OF SUBJECTIVITY”. Eisenman’s project presents the axiomatics for a structure constantly in transition, never settling into objective space in a given reality. But this is just a theoretical exercise — in the corporeal world the free-running body is capable of viewing all architecture as unstable and constantly in transition, for any structure is refused a single utilitarian purpose. Free-running opens up a multiplicity, refusing any insisted semantic imposition, and allows the body to speak with the space in a mode that refuses didactic meaning.

With all this said, I’d like to close with a final thought — I’ve always thought the most interesting architecture, like the most interesting poetry, pays as much attention to the blank space between the structural elements as it does to the structural elements themselves (walls, windows, doors; words, paragraphs, punctuation). Tom Weksler, in his “From the Mind of an Archer” newsletter, states the following: “In the language of architecture, emptiness can be seen as space, and human movement happens in the space between the framing walls and not ‘within’ the walls. Focusing on the walls will give a logical understanding of safety, but the movement that happens between them is what amounts to one’s experience of life.” The free-runner takes this one step further; viewing the walls not as a container, but rather as an additional element to communicate with.

Parkour & Communication

I’ve been recently preoccupied by thoughts surrounding the idea of parkour, or more specifically “free-running” (a clunky term if there ever were one). My experience with parkour is somewhat limited–until recently it was merely a discipline that I occasionally took classes in at the local gym because they were fun. They were also a marked departure from my normal approach to physical training: I had no specific long-term goals, I just enjoyed running around and jumping over & onto things for an hour or two. It felt like an easy way to get into my body without much thought; it was a way to access the flow state but it felt different than, for example, the flow state of a prolonged engagement with yoga. It felt less integrated, less inherently inside, more social and physical. I don’t bring up this contrast to impose a value judgement on either, but rather to insist upon the difference.

As the pandemic lingered on and my online content consumption shifted through various distractions, I eventually became aware, thanks to the ever-prescient Instagram algorithm, of an account called flipeveryday. The account features an individual who, as the title suggests, flips every day, on camera. What I found was that Egg, who runs the account, wasn’t just doing flips, they were doing a lot of flips in ways I had never considered — and beyond that, there was apparent a desire to not just do flips, but to use “flips” as a way to communicate through movement. Eventually I discovered that Egg was part of a parkour group called The Beans. The first long-form Beans video, “Garbonzo,” had just come out, and as I watched it I realized that this was a group of movers doing something extremely fucking interesting.

What I saw was not parkour in the way I had formerly thought of parkour. The movement that was done by The Beans was sometimes shockingly difficult, sometimes blissfully simple, but always exploratory, joyous and expressive. It’s not just The Beans that are moving in this way, as there seems to be an entire subcurrent of free-runners that approach movement in this more expressive/creative way rather than the way the “sport” has traditionally functioned. (Another specific highlight for me is Sai Ryunoshin, who beyond developing a highly idiosyncratic and exciting movement style is also clearly very inspired by video art and experimental film in how he puts together his videos, and has recently even branched out to more experimental work not always related to movement.) Due to the open & community oriented nature of the folks who practice parkour in this fashion, I’ve been able to have many helpful interactions with group members, and what I’ve learned from watching The Beans has had a decisive influence on my own movement.

As a brief aside — in my mind the ideal way to encounter The Beans is to watch their feature length video, The Bean Movie. It’s free to view on Vimeo, and is a great way to get a really solid chunk of each of the ten Beans’ individual movement style.

One of the most rewarding outcomes of my engagement with The Beans and related free-runners has less to do with specific movement patterns and more to do with a paradigm shift — before finding The Beans I always thought of parkour in a more traditional sense, i.e. the act of quickly & freely moving through your environment. For the crop of free-runners I am speaking to here, parkour is more about moving freely & expressively within your environment — the environment is not filled with obstacles, rather the environment itself becomes something like a partner. Walls are not merely for vaulting over or as steps to higher spaces — the wall becomes the Other you are dancing with. Within this paradigm of inhabiting a space with movement, one can spend an hour interacting with a park bench. This sort of experience, for me, is the height of embodied movement; something a step beyond even the much lauded “flow state.” A few months ago I spoke of the fact that I can now spend an hour with nothing other than my body and an empty patch of grass and experience a range of emotions as expansive as that available through reading a novel. To be able to express yourself and experience such a range of emotions through movement, with or without an object present, is the capacity to learn a new language: to find a new form of communication between your own body and the space around you.

A great example of this kind of communication is The Beans’ video “The Warp Zone,” which finds Egg & Spencer interacting with construction detritus with such intense jouissance you can’t help but smile.

When I go out for solo training sessions lately I try to take this attitude with me, this idea that I don’t need to be perfecting a new move or building a studied sequence — all I need to do is open up a dialogue between my body and outside of my body in a way that refuses expectations or assumptions. This corporeal echo of human interaction has served me well, and I’m discovering a whole new way to experience my body.

Yesterday, as a warm-up for an acrobatics session, I tasked myself with spending at least 10 minutes interacting with a strange sloping mound on a children’s playground next to a large, fake Whale. The video below shows a couple minutes of this interaction. It’s not flashy, there’s no performative intent, but the experience itself was just what I needed.

Against Physical (Mono-)Culture

I came to yoga, and thus it should be said, to any sort of physical practice whatsoever, via Georges Bataille. The few times I’ve confessed this to anyone has mostly gone without comment, as unfortunately I’ve found little overlap between those invested in the writing of Georges Bataille and those with a serious yoga practice. Despite the lack of overlap, both “yoga” and “Bataille” share the sad reality that they have been seriously compromised by their most accessible contemporary experience: Bataille is, more often than not, “the guy who wrote The Story of the Eye” (generally understood as little more than “transgressive” fiction/pornography); while “yoga” has become a commercial experience of self-care primarily indulged in by upper-class/privileged white women. Anyone seriously invested in either Bataille or yoga will pale at these descriptions of course, as they remove any actual meaning & fail to even approach the actual experience of either.

My interrogation into Bataille has ranged from “present” to “all-encompassing” for over a decade at this point, while my yoga practice began four years ago, only to start to fade into the background when I began to explore acrobatics (for want of a better term) two years later, but I recognize that it will always have place in my life. Of course, with all of this offered as prolegomena, there’s a different point I’m aiming to arrive at.

Bataille himself, in “Method of Meditation” (which is a cornerstone of my own studies), titles the second section of his essay as, “My Method Is At The Antipodes Of ‘Yoga’.” So, naturally, there’s a dichotomy to address here: how could I have entered the practice of yoga via the writings of an individual who explicitly states that his “Method” is in direct opposition to “Yoga”? Bataille (arguably in the same “mode” as the practice of contemporary yoga itself, but with strikingly different ends in mind) understood many of the embodied elements of a yoga practice as being technology that could be divorced from the religious context (or, as Bataille himself labels it, “the moral and metaphysical beliefs”) of Hinduism. The history of “yoga” and its spread to the West is vastly complicated and storied (and honestly durationally shorter than one would assume), so I’ll save my thoughts on that for another day, but risking pointing out the fact that taking the technology of yoga and “discarding” the religious context is what makes it truly work for most practitioners in contemporary society without endless further commentary allows us to venture further into what it is that I aim to discuss here, namely, the problem of monocultural dominance throughout the “world” of physical culture. 

I will offer one caveat here, before moving on: I truly don’t believe that learning a physical/embodied “action” in one context and discovering that it is useful in a different context is colonizing or erasing the cultural context that said “action” comes from; even the most precursory research reveals that much of the asana practice the dominates yoga today was itself taken and adapted from a variety of sources: contortion, Indian wrestling, Swedish physical culture, etc. The issue comes down to a semantic one, and it’s an issuing of ascribing a specific meaning to the word “yoga” (a meaning that culture has ascribed to the word primarily out of a desire for easier marketing). As meaning is differential, to ascribe meaning to a word is to establish its own context. Grotowski’s entire Theatre of Sources project was interested in identifying corporeal/embodied elements of ritual and figuring out what the “root” of these sources were, what physicality (a way of walking? spinning? lifting the hand?) carried the seed of the “energy” that could be harnessed for use in very specific ritual acts—Grotowski sought the “source” of these energetic currents, not the end-result that it found itself in. Naturally, especially during the current moment in which I’m writing, these opinions could be considered wildly controversial and it could be found irresponsible to only address these issues in the most precursory fashion. But because I’ve spent more time thinking about certain ideas than writing about them, there’s going to be a level of catch up I need to play, so without risk of losing the plot even further, I can merely offer up the fact that these are ideas that I will be returning to in the future.

Contradiction and Physical (Mono-)Culture

My introduction to yoga via the writings of Georges Bataille is important here merely to introduce the idea of dichotomy or contradiction in relation to my own approach to an idea of physical culture. As someone who stayed far away from physical culture for years because of everything it stood for, as I slowly inject myself into it (and vice versa), I find it extremely positive that the dominant culture is shifting away from a closed-off, monocultural position. Now, more than ever before, there are more accessible modalities of movement offered as ripe for exploration. There are still, of course, the monocultural mainstays of the last few decades: the growing cardio machine sections of big-box gyms, group fitness classes that replace the importance of recovery or progressive overload with loud music and pumping endorphins, yoga classes that market the potentiality to “unwind,” and the grunting, performative masculinity of the weight-room. None of these things, arguably, are inherently “bad” in any sort of objective sense, but the fitness industry’s weakening insistence that anything outside these modalities is superfluous (what this meant before was actually just “unmarketable”) makes space for a push toward more open modalities: functional fitness (presenting the idea of fitness as relevant for all bodies, not just “pretty” bodies or bodies that desire to be “pretty”), accessible opportunities to learn about mobility (instead of just being told “stretching after you work out is important), and well-funded and publicized research pointing to the importance of allowing physical activity to return to the realm of “play” (even for adults!) has finally opened the door to individuals formerly put-off to slowly dip their toes into the world of physical culture and reap the benefits. 

Of course, when any cultural shift occurs, especially a shift situated within or at least alongside of an industry that (at least pre-COVID-19) was a major mainstay \of late-capitalism, there comes a point where the self-appointed leaders of any counterculture begin to move away from a more equitable ideology (here being the idea that physical culture does not have to fit the pre-existing monoculture) and toward the development of digestible structures that are easily duplicated and sold using the same discourse and “closed-door” structures that the former monoculture (in this case: big-box gyms, endorphin raising group fitness classes, etc) have upheld for years. To an extent, it makes sense: we are all operating within the confines of systematic wealth inequity. But for a physical culture theoretically rooted more in creativity than the former monoculture, the idea of buying into a system instead of revolting against it will yet again do little more than reveal impotence toward change: you’re merely replacing one system of control with another.

As culture is always to some extent cyclic, we find those who have been specifically invested in the culture as a career for most of their lives shifting and renouncing their former follies in favor of their new savior (the personal trainer shifting focus to “movement teacher”). I imagine this is everywhere in physical culture, but because my attention is fixed on “movement culture” more than any other, this is where I’ll be considering it. As hesitant as I am to indulge in the term “movement culture” as having any sort of meaning outside of marketing (for in itself it functions as an empty signifier), I’ve come to accept that the modalities that I am currently most interested in exploring are often situated within the useless umbrella term.

The Folly of “Form Follows Function”

While I will forever insist on being antagonistic towards homogeneity in terms of physical expectations (which is to say, the idea that one must look a certain way to be considered fit or whatever), I feel like it’s remarkably important to consider that replacing one standard with another is not progressed, it’s simply re-configuring a model of gate-keeping. It’s keeping the doors closed, not opening them. One of the tenants of movement culture (and because I know folks tend to be extra literal when responding to things on the internet, I’d like to point out that 1) I’m reducing a larger conceptual framework to make it easier to examine structurally, 2) I’m not actually referring to any “strain” of movement culture specifically here, rather I’m considering larger repercussions that move across the platform of choice for movement culture: Instagram) seems to be that, while it’s perfectly acceptable to spend hours practicing your handstand to find that perfectly straight line, as long as you’re using your hours of training as an experience in mindfulness, traditional “pump-style” hypertrophy training is a mistake and a waste of time! Because I guess you can’t approach hypertrophy training with mindfulness? Because inherently putting your body in a certain shape with “perfect” alignment (hey there yoga teachers that don’t understand bodies are all different) can be a practice of mindfulness but exploring the mind-muscle connection that enables a the way you’re moving a weight around with the sensation of blood flow into a muscle as a sort of embodied sensation…isn’t? For a culture obsessed with “generalist” skills, there seems to be a specific list of pre-approved disciplines that can be on that generalist skill acquisition list. There also seems to be a bizarre blind spot to the reality that both hypertrophy training and skill training carry a pure appeal to aesthetics: cleaning up your handstand line is as inherently “empty” as trying to make your biceps bigger; neither make life easier on a functional level. 

With one door opening and another closing, what I often find very disappointing in certain digital encounters with the IG “celebrities” of “movement culture” is how some individuals seem incapable of moving outside of narrow personal experience when framing the idea of a practice. As someone who teachers skill-based physical movement, I of course believe in the idea of doing the work yourself, as a teacher, and investigating methodologies and how they work. A teacher has the responsibility to understand what they’re teaching, and they also have a responsibility to understand that what worked for them will not necessarily work for someone else. Because I believe in this on a basic level, I get very depressed when someone very visible in the movement world dismisses an entire realm of movement because it didn’t work for them: i.e., “When I was practicing bodybuilding my mobility was shit and I felt awful all the time and couldn’t move with anything even approaching fluidity, so bodybuilding itself is inherently bad,” or  “When I was doing 35 hours of yoga a week and blindly listening to my guru instead of paying any attention to the reality of my body, I was actually horribly unhealthy so yoga itself is inherently bad,” etc etc etc. Subjective history becomes dogma, and in the same way that the former monoculture of fitness refused to allow space for play, functionality, dance, fluidity, etc, the new culture is starting to refuse the space where an individual is allowed to come to terms with what they need (or want! not everything has to be “natural” or “healthy,” as those are mythical & empty ideas in themselves!) in their own body, without judgment. 

Hopefully without undermining my own point, I’ll now jump into my own subjective example: I have seen many instances (from “both sides,” so to speak) of individuals making claims that intentionally building arm/shoulder/chest muscles (versus just building lean strength) is inherently counter-productive, or even prohibitive to opening your shoulders (for backbends, handstanding, etc, anything that requires overhead flexion). This is akin to telling someone they shouldn’t bother trying to achieve a personal goal because they don’t have the right body for it. I.e., it aligns with the thought process of “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible!” While it might be harder, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or you shouldn’t do it. In the past two years, because I’ve been intentional about training for both hypertrophy & overhead shoulder flexion simultaneously, I’ve managed to both add immense size to my arms/chest while also increasing my active overhead flexion. I found a contortion coach who approaches contortion in a way that fits with my goals and my body; her coaching is very different from Mongolian contortion and other various traditions more reliant on developing passive flexibility. My coach’s active-flex approach works better for my body & my goals, and because it’s an “open” way of learning rather than a closed way, it’s allowed me to have and make progress on what is often viewed as disparate, exclusive goals. 

The Semantic Issue

Like most things in a world that thinks it’s too smart of its own good, the primary problem with culture can almost always boil down to semantic discrepancy. Because language itself is magic, I ultimately have no desire to define terms for anyone else, my interest is only to be able to articulate & communicate my own interests and desires so I can best find the route to follow to achieve them, or, when teaching, figuring out how to use language to get someone else further on the road to their goals. If someone’s primary interest in “movement culture” is adding another modality to their toolbelt in order to make themselves seem sexier to paying clients within the industry of physical culture, then I’m not sure I have anything to offer—but worry not, I imagine there’s an e-course you can purchase to help with that! I jest, but honestly, if you can be honest with yourself and identify your primary goal as participation in a capitalist industry, then just own that and go with it. You’ll be better off. You have bills to pay, no one should begrudge you for that. What I’m asking is that anyone self-identifying within the idea of the culture start being a bit more clear about their intentions, if not to others, at least to themselves. The collapse of the yoga industry in the time of COVID-19 and a widened awareness of cultural cluelessness/bypassing is due to the fact that the western yoga industry was not actually selling any real access to mental health or embodied peace, it was most often only ever selling the “idea” of signalling “goodness” and “peace,” most often using methods that excuse the practitioner from having to do any actual work. I’m often concerned that much of the movement industry is trying to package this same sort of empty mindfulness using more traditionally masculinist overtones (thus merely recalibrating rather than eradicating a (bullshit) gendered fitness divide: “yoga is for chicks, while the gym, I mean, movement culture is for bros”).

As I mentioned, I don’t have the desire to define what someone else is or should be doing, my concern is to be able to communicate and be held accountable to my own intentions. To do this, I must invoke, once again, my entrance point into embodied practice itself: Georges Bataille. My interests mirror (but are not dependent upon) Bataille’s articulation: an interest in the ecstasy of the impossible that follows “the dissolution of [both the] self and of the objects of consciousness.” Grotowski’s research into the holy actor has also informed (which is to say, it has helped me to further articulate) my intent: “training to immediately access one’s own psychic impulses.” Sometimes this is a sensual ecstasy derived from a good arm or chest pump, sometimes this ecstasy comes from finding a sustained freedom during the airtime of a round-off back-tuck (bringing myself closer to an impossible idea of levitation, the float), and sometimes this ecstasy arrives through using my body at a level of continual excess: pushing myself to a level of intensity unmatched in the way I normally navigate the world. These are not the only things I am after, rather I offer them as mere specific examples, to suggest that there neither needs to be nor necessarily even can be a singular motivation or goal in physical training. The system should not close the door, it should open it so anything or anyone who wants to walk through can.