All posts in opinion

Commercial Pressures

leap_launch_091_featured

post_header_2008_08_stern_03_cropped

A few months ago I wrote a deliberately provocative article about the inevitable commercialisation of parkour. This polemic was intended to get a response and I was somewhat reassured by the number of people who got in touch via social media and otherwise to offer words of thanks for crystallising a feeling amongst the parkour community that is rarely articulated.

For some, it was perhaps uncomfortable reading and for that I feel a little guilty. I would like to re-emphasise the first paragraph: turning down morally questionable money that offers fame, progression and adventure would be very difficult if it were presented to me. In addition to this, I’d like to add that railing against this trend is not in my interests. By being difficult, I risk cutting myself off from friends and cohorts whose skills and abilities I value. I hope that whatever you feel about the article, the risk I’m taking can be appreciated.

A few people picked me on the suggestion that parkour and freerunning are two different things and I felt that a response was needed. For me, parkour and freerunning are identical and yet entirely different. They can be both at the same time, an ambiguity that I think is part of the movement’s nature. These labels are not fixed; they are contradictory, in the same way that a subculture that offers freedom can also give itself to commercialisation and institutionalisation. Or a photographer that sells the spectacular before criticising those who perform such spectacles. (The irony is certainly not lost on me.) Such inconsistencies are part of parkour’s nature.

What interests me at present is the notion that, in response to being co-opted by commercialisation and mediatisation, parkour has developed a mechanism to retain its authenticity: it has created a part of itself that is a commodity and developed a separate identity for it, whilst the non-representational aspects – ie, the spirit, the humility, the daily training in the rain – remain pure and, in a way, untouched. It means that there is something for traceurs and freerunners alike.

It’s a theory – one that might not stand up to scrutiny – and your thoughts would be very welcome. Please get in touch.

Below is the original article, first published here on the Parkour Generations website.


Spectacle and spirit; parkour needs better sponsors

My position on energy drinks is not something I’ve kept quiet about. Before I get started, understand this: if I were a top-level athlete and an energy drink came knocking, I would have a really hard time turning them down. This makes me sad. Hopefully this confession of hypocrisy will give you an understanding that I appreciate the difficulty that energy drink sponsorship creates. Now that’s out of the way, hear this.

Every athlete who does any work for an energy drink company knows in his/her heart that the product is toxic. Just like beer and deep-fried Mars bars, energy drinks are simply not part of the diet of a high-performing athlete.

It’s widely reported that sponsored athletes seen on screen sipping from a can are often drinking water. There’s a reason why there are virtually no Olympic level athletes receiving sponsorship: both the companies and the athletes know this stuff is not good.

Sponsorship and commercialisation is inevitable. The authenticity of parkour – the pure, alternative, liberating power of our subculture – is often damaged when money becomes involved. This is unavoidable: in our neoliberal world, commercialisation is par for the course.

However. The least that communities and individuals can do is try to choose companies that produce something beneficial towards parkour, health, or being physical. The beauty of parkour is that it requires nothing. The flip side of this is that parkour can be used to sell pretty much anything. By comparison, the climbing community is supported by a wealth of progressive companies engineering fantastic products and funding athletes, events and expeditions around the world. It’s a healthy symbiosis.

If there is a compromise to be made when choosing our path, then surely it should be towards something neutral – not something negative. Any degree of commercialisation entails a compromise of ethics and authenticity; we need to be more aggressive in deciding where we draw the line. And here’s why.

If you associate yourself with an energy drink or a casino, all of your inspirational words of wisdom regarding health, training, diet and philosophy is meaningless. It’s not just that you sold out; you sold out to a product that you know undermines the healthy body/healthy mind mentality of a traceur.

Energy drinks have bought lifestyle sports. The two are almost inseparable. These companies have created incredible events and sponsored athletes have pushed the limits of human capacity. Why? Because it taps into a youth market, and there is no way that these products can be marketed to children based on what it contains. The sugary, caffeinated water topped up with questionable chemicals is not the product. It’s all about the brand.

There’s a part of me that sees parkour and freerunning as two distinct things; the first is a global community that trains not for the camera or a social media presence, but for itself. By contrast, freerunning is what we see selling beer, energy drinks and online casinos, with high fives and shouts of ‘bam!’ after nailing an extra twist into a sandpit landing and a sketchy, one-handed recovery cartwheel.

Parkour remains pure and authentic thanks to a vast, often silent majority. You can’t properly convey spirit and humility through YouTube and Facebook, and the subtlety of a showreel will never convey that the landing on this catpass-pre is unsighted and therefore terrifying. Parkour keeps its head down, quietly teaching, training, travelling and finding adventure. By contrast, freerunning, parkour’s brash, noisy brother, has sold a huge chunk of itself to the bright lights and boy, does it make it a lot of noise.

The spectacle is on sale. The spirit we keep for ourselves.

Southbank versus Southbank: Façade and Authenticity

long_live_southbank_featured

Long Live South Bank

The argument over the proposed developments of the South Bank and the consequent relocation of the skaters from the revered Undercroft continues apace. You can read up on the various thrusts and counterthrusts by visiting southbankforall.org and llsb.com.

Merry-go-rounds and deckchairs, fake grass and street performers, graffiti alongside gaudy paintwork, food served from carts strewn with colourful bunting, and row upon row of second hand books; for tourists and residents alike, the South Bank is a magical part of London. A walk alongside the river brings playful, unexpected encounters that give a feeling of novelty and curiosity, a sense of being outside of the commercialism and control typically felt elsewhere in the city. For a moment, it feels as though you may have stepped into a world where everyday rules are not quite the same.

grey_and_redThe geography of the South Bank helps: whilst the river is a reminder that we do not have complete control over how our cities are shaped, it’s often difficult to negotiate the South Bank’s terraces, tunnels and stairwells even with the bright colour coding that has been introduced in recent years. The blank concrete walls soon looks the same and the blurred distinction between inside and outside intended by its architects is often confusing; levels that should connect simply don’t. Getting lost and wandering unwittingly into loading bays, car parks and wheelie bins is all part of the experience.

Alongside its confusing terrain, urban arts have a role in creating the impression that the South Bank is a site for alternative behaviour; there are regular festivals featuring workshops and performances of breakdancing, parkour, hip-hop and BMX. There is a sense of charitable inclusivity, of openness and a recognition of the value that street culture can bring and a celebration of how they shape our perception of the city.

leon_hudson_yellowAll of this is a carefully engineered façade. The graffiti is commissioned; the food stalls have paid for their pitch; urban arts are partially co-opted with security quick to step in if you’re not part of a controlled performance. The grass, deckchairs, bunting and sandpits are all fragments of a faux-carnival that deliberately toys with your understanding of what is permitted and what is subversive.

We know it’s not real and yet we don’t mind – for several reasons. We forgive this mild deception because the South Bank is not a giant corporation painting itself as friendly, approachable, socially conscious institution; it’s a collective of theatres, public spaces and galleries whose intentions are not undermined by any tactics to squeeze you for money.

And there is the Undercroft, the one genuine site of alterity, playfulness and physicality that the South Bank then builds upon throughout its concrete maze. The skaters are not selling; they are not commissioned performers or passing a hat around. And for the passers-by, they give an authentic sense of ‘fuck you’ to conventional behaviour. For the South Bank, however annoying it finds its unwanted residents, their otherness provides a platform from which it has built its culturally sensitive persona. It draws on the skaters to give itself edginess and create this sense of cultural inclusivity.

And now the South Bank wants (or perhaps needs) to move them. The presence of the skaters, BMXers and aggressive in-liners – and the fact that the space was originally borrowed from a city that didn’t know what to do with it – lends integrity to the South Bank’s cultural identity. The danger is that moving the skaters elsewhere, however close, may crack the façade. Replacing the skaters with shops and restaurants may undermine the South Bank’s identity altogether.

steve_moss_wallrun_bottom525This article was originally published on Long Live South Bank on 18th September 2013.