Running Through the City
The starting points for this post are the idea of the flaneur, Michel de Certeau’s chapter “Walking in the City” from The Practice of Everyday Life and watching of several video clips from the Epic TV website.
The flaneur is an iconic figure of late 19th century or 20th century cities. The flaneur was originally only male; for women weren’t afforded the same freedoms to wonder in public and remain anonymous. For women to do so would be to suggest their immorality. Male public space, female domestic space. The flaneur is an educated and contemplative urban stroller who is able to make sense of the city, while at the same time remain aloof from the myriad variety of sensations and opportunities that the city makes possible. The flaneur performs a critique of the city through his or her very act of walking, stopping, perusing and considering what is around her or himself. Authors such as Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire are central to the imagining and conception of the flaneur.
Benjamin’s masterpiece is his Arcades Project – an unfinished document (codified into book form) which re-presents, or, rather re-creates the fragmentary nature of urban experience. One doesn’t experience the city as a single linear narrative, but, instead as a re-creation of the urban experience: one turns the pages of the Arcades Projects encounters the series of fragmentary pieces of information which mark a city’s history through notices, signs and textures. Charles Baudelaire’s work, Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil) is a poetic account of the changes Paris was experiencing at the turn of the 19th/20th century. One of Benjamin’s more famous essays is his essay on Baudelaire, ‘The Writer of Modern Life’.
The concept of the flaneur is an essential precursor to Michel de Certeau’s chapter, ‘Walking in the City’, in his The Practice of Everyday Life (trans. Steven F. Rendall), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984. For de Certeau, walking in the city is an act of inscribing one’s movements into a space that seeks to be deterministic and to provide a definitive route of where the city walker (user, citizen) must move. This relates to de Certeau’s conception of ‘strategy’ and ‘tactic’. Strategy is what which shapes, defines and determines. A tactic is that which seeks to counter, negotiate, manipulate and play with. Walking is a primary act of engaging tactically with a strategic space. De Certeau uses the metaphor of ‘the speech act’ to articulate walking’s relation to the city. He writes: “The act of walking is to the urban system what the speech act is to language or to statements uttered. At the most elementary level, it has a triple “enunciative” fucntion:it is a process of appropriation of the topographical system on the part of the pedestrian; […] is it as spatial acting-out of the place […]; and it implies relations among differentiated positions. (De Certeau 1984, p.97-98).
De Certeau argues that the walker is able to ‘transform each spatial signifier into something else’ (1984, p.98). That is, the walker is able to make use of an urban object, or piece of street furniture, or street artefact for his own purpose. De Certeau writes, ‘and if on the one hand he actualizes only a few of the possibilities fixed by the constructed order […], on the other he increases the number of possibilities […] and prohibitions (for example, he forbids himself to take paths generally considered accessible or even obligatory). He thus makes a selection’ (1984, p.98). Thus, the walker makes a selection of urban space; the walker edits out the parts of the city irrelevant to himself and writes a thick line along the paths which he is familiar with, which he favours.
The urban sports practices of skateboarding, freerunning and parkour lend themselves particularly well to this continuation of a critical and creative engagement with urban space and the structured, managed and codified city. I regard ‘the urban’ as being the essentialised nature of ‘city experience’, whereas ‘the city’ is the codified, physical form of urban-ness. The city is that which is imagined in a bordered and discrete manner. The city is always contested through political and subversive means. Urbanness is a sum of sensations, experiences, interactions and memories. For me, the concept of urbanness takes precedent over ‘the city’ (I appropriate the idea of the research cluster of ‘Asian urbanisms’ as developed by ARI NUS).
Iain Borden is one scholar who has written on the creative and critical act of skateboarding in urban environments – see his Skateboarding, Space and the City (Berg, 2001). It is possible and necessary to apply a similar analysis to the practice of freerunning or parkour in contemporary urban contexts. As with skateboarding, freerunning is a critical and creative engagement with urban space. Freerunning, however, operates at a slightly more fundamental level: a flaneur, a walker, a city-being is at any moment able to become a freerunning against and with her or his urban surrounds. Urban beings may well all be nascent (urban) freerunners; they need no tools to become one. They rely only on their way of viewing a piece of street furniture or the infrastructure of a city – its stairs,walls, rooftops, railings.
The freerunner must have acrobatic skills: much of freerunning is about falling, flipping, spinning, twisting, jumping. Freerunning, it seems, is a creative sport: the aim being to get from one point in a city to another with minimal interruption for city obstacles. It’s an alternative to urban-based marathon running – which rather than being ‘freerunning’ is circumscribed running. That is, the urban marathoner has his or her route predetermined. The aim of marathon running being to follow the route, rather than break with it. Marathon running would describe such a break as cheating, whereas in freerunning, such an act is essential. Freerunning is born from an impulse to make sense of one’s urban environment and to apply an attitude of excitement and exploration. Freerunners open up spaces of play and turn supposedly pre-determined, prescribed spaces into zones of creativity and play. Freerunning exists at the border of sport, play and artistic practice.
“An alternative to walking”
The flaneur has moved from being a stroller, saunterer, educated voyeur, into being a critique and playful user of public space: both engaging with disused spaces and appropriating urban furniture. Flanerie is a practice of oscillating between critical engagement with one’s surrounds and an indifference to them.