Dedicated to Diogenes of Sinope
This is a video from a cold evening in October at a place we call our studio. We say that partly as a joke, partly seriously.
A studio has four walls, a roof and a floor. Ours has only one wall, a roof and a floor. The floor is made of concrete. It is cold. There is little light, enough to see.
Also, it does not belong to us, not at all, as it is part of a semi-private space that is open to the public. It is somewhat secluded though, and in the colder months not many people besides some dog owners pass by. Only very rarely does someone set foot in our actual studio space. That's why it feels like we own it.
Many animals build their own spaces like caves or nests, but the human being went further through building the house, which is not just a refuge or shelter, but a second world. The artificial. And today in the city we have more inside than outside space. So, in the perception of man, one of the worst things that could happen to you is to become homeless. "Home" means inside the six sides of a building, as nature is not considered our home anymore. To have a house and a garden is a high pursuit for man. The combination of them raises man to a God. Here you can shape both outside and inside space as you like. The house is our refuge from the thrownness of our existence. The history of the house is also a history of excerting more and more control over our environment. The winter became warm. And as we left the furnace heating behind and went for central heating, warmth didn't even require an effort anymore. We have gained control over light, temperature, water, energy, looks; we have secluded ourselves from noises, and created safety. We have created places for us to hide from the world. Rich people and royalty like to own huge houses and gardens, to gain control over as much space as possible. It's nicer to play god if your playing field is bigger I suppose.
It seems to be easier to control a room than to take control over yourself.
How much refuge do I need? How much do I need to hide from this world? Do I actually need all the six sides of the house?
For some time now I've been contemplating these issues also because I lead a training group and I am thinking about its future. Don't we need a place? A house? I am unsure. I looked at some places, but each time, thinking about it, I became scared imagining myself spending so much time in one room and being bound to that place. Not just the financial facts of having a place lead me to very cautiously examine the idea of having one. I simply do not wish to lead a business. Unfortunately, the moment you pay a high rent because you have access to a place 24/7 it inevitably becomes a business. I do not lead a business. I train with a group of people; we are a family, I love everyone that is in this family and this shall continue. The other part is, that a house, the six walls, means freedom as much as it means prison. Right now what we do is more similar to someone singing than to someone painting a picture. The picture gets more and more refined, the goal is to finish it. Singing, on the other hand, appears and disappears. The moment the singer stops, nothing remains to prove that a moment ago there was a song. This impermanence is what makes listening so intense. If you drift away for a moment you miss something that cannot be brought back in that same way. Musical records changed that, but no one will argue against that what is now called live music will forever remain different from records. Our movement training shall, at this moment, not be bound to a place. As we train both inside and outside and change places regularly our practice stays alive because it has no permanence. It stays an endless process instead of a finished work. As the training is not bound to a certain place it allows us to practice anywhere. Indeed we do not need anything in particular for our practice and we can stay nomads instead of settlers, preventing an ideology that is shaped by one certain place. I am well aware of the fact that I lose a lot of business through that approach, especially in winter. It looks much more professional to have your own place, your own address, but for now, the approach must stay the opposite of the dojo, the place of the way. No, here the way is the place. There is no place from where you start your path, but a path from where you place yourself before you go onto the path again. If your practice is claiming to be as vast as practising human movement, in fact, no single house has enough space for a topic that big. Only the roof of the stars is wide enough to host us.
Staying on your toes instead of your heels, keeping the door in your hand, you allow yourself to change. And what is movement if not change?
Allow yourself to be at home not just in the house.
We long to touch. Seeing and hearing might often be the senses we value more, maybe because they work over distance, but touching, the sense that has its organ covering our whole body, is what connects us deeply to the things. To touch the environment is to become a part of it. To be part of the dirt, the cold, the dark, the harsh. Who is the true master if you flee from nature and build the house?
When I was fifteen years old I started to train Parkour. My friends and I saw some videos (youtube didn’t exist) and movies featuring Parkour and we were hooked. Funny enough we started to train at 6:30 in the morning, because we didn’t want anyone to see us. I grew up in a city of 160.000 Inhabitants, people knew each other: maybe in Berlin we wouldn’t have cared. We felt very intrigued but it was clear that what we were starting to do was unusual. We didn’t want spectators, or comments or problems, we just wanted to move freely. That’s why we chose to go at a time when few people were outside. It took us a few months before we started to train in the afternoon as well, but half a year later I started to train a lot alone after school. I started not to care so much anymore and got used to people looking. I was never interested in making a show out of what I was doing and to this day, when a passer-by pulls out his smartphone to film (of course always without asking us for approval) I often stop moving and let him pass. I want to keep my practice modest. Back then Parkour had a very strong code that came from the French founders that started this practice. It was clear for every "true" practitioner that we would respect the people living in the places where we would train, that we would never destroy things and that we would never compete against each other, but instead always be helpful and share. We would respect non-public-space and leave a spot if we were asked to (while we would always try to explain to the people what we were doing and hopefully change their mind). This moral code allowed Parkour to become a respected practice I think, and far less "no Parkour"-signs popped up over the years than the "no skating"-signs. I do ask myself if this code is also the reason why there are far more skate parks than parkour parks and if skating was a bigger trouble for the administrators that wanted to have a neat city. But maybe this is just due to the fact the skating is a bit older.
What do you need to do to make a movement harmless? You recognise it. And as they recognised skating, they started to build skate parks. They have put skating in certain places. Made it harmless. Destroyed it. Parkour is dealing with the same complications. It is becoming more recognised and is, therefore, more in danger. Each Parkour park that is built takes more away from the essence of Parkour.
The essence of Parkour, like skating, is the revolt. Parkour was founded in the post-modern brutalist banlieues and suburbs of Paris. Places that did not develop organically but have been planned out by architects and city developers. Mathematical places. There, Parkour or L’art du Deplacement developed, like a flower climbing up a brick wall, like the grass growing through the paving stone, like the roots blasting through the concrete. Parkour was unexpected. The human builds houses and streets and clarity, and some people did not bow to it. Some didn’t accept it. Some said "no". They said no to the restriction of movement and mind created by architects. Architects and city planners that were unaware of human nature. Because always, like the protagonist in Dostoevsky’s "Notes from Underground", there will be the people that stick their tongue out at the crystal palace. The emergence of L’art du Deplacement was this moment of the tongue sticking out. You want us to be like this, but we want to be like that. Expectations and reality didn’t match. The revolt was born. But through the social code mentioned before, the idea of being strong, useful and helpful, Parkour became a gentleman’s revolt. A positive force in the city, one that is enriching life. The founders that started back then in the suburbs of Paris showed a whole world of people something that we had forgotten. That we have power over our movement. We can decide and we do not need the architects to decide for us. The city became closer to the jungle again and while the city is a movement desert for most people, for others it indeed became the concrete jungle. The moment you put Parkour into a gym, the moment you build a place for it, it disappears. It stops being a philosophical, spiritual, mind-body practice and becomes the training of movements. The essence is lost. A new essence might arise in the gym, but it probably won’t be the same one. Therefore Parkour Gyms do not exist, but rather gyms where movements originated in the practice of Parkour are trained. On the outside, things might appear the same. But the true depth of things is hidden beneath that layer. That’s why I can feel connected to someone that might do something completely different on the outside, but something similar on the inside and then feel completely disconnected from someone who is doing the "same" on the outside, but nothing with similarity on the inside. The human mind puts things into certain places to create order, and so we assign places in the city for certain activities and suddenly you are not allowed to cross here or to move there. When I started doing Parkour at fifteen years old it gave me a sense of freedom, a realisation that I was being lied to and that society is often lying to us to keep itself safe. More often I caught myself skipping a lesson at school, sitting in a tree, learning from nature and jumping over rails exercising my vision of the city. Every practitioner of Parkour will tell you, that this practice is changing your vision. What was lifeless and uninteresting before becomes full of your interest, the ugliest and most violent places finally show their beauty to you. You start to see the things closer to what they truly hold in themselves before you put the narratives on top. „Here you move, here you don’t“. You exercise your vision to see what your possibilities of movement truly are in the space. You are letting go of your old view of the city, renewing it with a vision that is constantly changing and evolving with time and your own potential, skills and experience. Even after years you will come back to a place and realise that there is a possibility you didn’t notice before, but it was there all the time. Your imagination lets the jungle grow out of the desert. You are revolting because you see the city differently. You bring back the chaos into the order that the architects tried to create. And with the chaos, the life comes back.
This life comes back to us also through the touch. The interaction with the environment. The vision alone would not be enough. You need to do. Touch. Feel. Experience. Let all your body melt into the concrete. Besides in parks maybe, many people have not touched the ground in the city for a long time. You are living in a place you never touch. Clothes and the house are closely connected as they both disconnect us from the environment and often the hands are the only part of us that is free to touch something. But the hands stay in the pockets. These are lessons I learned through Parkour. They stayed with me. I internalised these lessons. Being outside in whatever weather is part of my nature. It is indeed not just about the movement. It is about being in the world. In the environment, to touch, to see, to interact, to feel. In the video shown I don’t do Parkour, for years now it is not my main physical practice anymore. But I act with a mindset I learned in this practice. My studio has a concrete floor or a grass floor, or a stone floor or a metal floor or a wooden floor. It can be anywhere. It can be the cold concrete.
Joseph Bartz 2016