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Introduction

In the first part of this interview Alex Pavlotski provides some great insight into the Parkour Panels (http://www.parkourpanels.com/) and the research related to them as well as his thoughts and observations on the commercialisation of sports and parkour in particular. Part 1 also revolves around the question if these developments are “good” or “evil” and what we as practicioners can actually do to oppose developments we don´t agree with. The interview continues…

 

Section C – Language and Sexism

When we think about co-option and the effect on groups or subcultures (like parkour) the whole sexism and language discourse is closely related. The use of language and the actual influence on the subculture might not be very obvious at first sight.

 

  1. Terminology plays an important role in parkour. For example there are the french terms like “saut de bras”, then the English translations like “arm jump” and then the English synonyms like “cat leap”. The usage depends where you go in the world, with whom you train or how traditional or progressive a parkour group´s approach to parkour is. What do you think of the different developments of parkour terminology and what cause / effect does this have on our discipline?

Alex:I think to some extent this was the inevitable outcome of parkour’s disorganized origins. So many people at the start had to improvise technique based on a few grainy videos downloaded over 56k Internet and a handful of TV and HVS screen features. Those early practitioners had to figure out movements, and because they were so involved in that process they named them. The sense of invention and ownership that would have been part of that process makes sense to me.

There is however a second category of ‘renamers’ for whom the object of the process of renaming is to distance moves and themselves from the disciplinary history. They want credit as inventors and founders without paying homage to those who came before them. Here I worry a bit because this is the process by which we lose touch with where it all came from. When I look at the history of martial arts and how contested and bitter the fights between many traditions are, I can’t help but think that we could avoid so many of those errors by simply being less egocentric. I think we should know and teach the origins and terminology, but I think, if we do that, we should be free to use localized terms. I don’t think it’s hard to say: “This is a saut de chat, but we call it a catpass or a kong.” You don’t have to agree with the first generation and their ideas, but not acknowledging them is an act of egotism in my book.

I hate to see people use language to isolate, appropriate and control. Sadly, there’s a long history of people doing that.

© Julie Angel: www.see-do.com – http://instaembedder.com/post.php?id=1397261722099752397_1519225710&u=131#.WH-7ZTXGCSo

  1. What do you think of referring to women as “beasts” or “beastly” when they achieve a certain feat in parkour?

Alex: I do it all the time. I’ve always seen it as a gender-neutral term. Why? Am I missing something?

  1. “Traceuese” is supposed to be the female form of traceur in french. In English there are no gender related forms of terms to distinguish female / male practicioners as such. What do you think of the term “traceuse” and gender distinction in our terminology?

Alex: . Before I address the question directly, there’s something I need to say. When it comes to women in parkour there’s one big thing any supportive male practitioner can do to help: GET OUT OF THE WAY. This is surprisingly hard to do for many of us men. And it’s a mistake I’ve made myself. There have seen so many conversations among male leaders over the years about how to ‘fix’ gender imbalance. Even today, guys will sit around and discuss and dismiss community initiatives suggested by upcoming women in parkour. It makes us feel like we are helping, but if you take a step back it looks like paternalism: men making decisions for women ‘in their best interest’. Somewhere in there is the assumption that it’s our job to look after them – not very equal. Everyone has different obstacles to overcome before we meet at the pinnacle of skill. We (men) can help when we are asked, but it has to be at their request. Often it isn’t.

Coming from that angle, this is my thoughts on language. This is tough for me to comment on because I don’t have that much direct skin in the game. The rule of thumb is “if it doesn’t hurt anyone and helps others what possible issue can there be?”

Simultaneously, I’m a fan of acknowledging tradition, even in disagreement. I don’t think we will have anything akin to equality if we try to achieve it by choosing to forget the nasty components of our history. There are definitely bits of our sub-culture that are sexist (varies from place to place) and we need to work on that. But words alone are never going to fix that. The Queer community is a good example of this. They turned around decades of hate by taking control of the words that were used to hurt them. Policing language is like policing history; you can’t erase something by not talking about it. We must remember where we came from so we don’t lose track of where we’re going.

  1. There was a discussion about the similarity of price money for female and male competitors from the APEX competition in 2016. Do you think competition can be used as a means of sparking a positive gender discussion?

Alex: Definitely. The subculture can’t take action without these kinds of conversations. Communities tend to share political outlooks and parkour is a conglomerate of local communities. We learn from each other or live in isolated and territorial bubbles. As a topic of conversation, competition has been key to parkour identity, the progression of the evolution of the practice and the resistance of co-option. I think the APEX discussions were fascinating and important. There’s a tendency to assume that not arguing is somehow good for the international community. Nonsense. We can imagine this as an analogy of a couple having trouble in a relationship. One couple doesn’t talk to each other because they know they will argue. So they talk to others about their problems and live their lives side by side in silence to avoid a fight.Another couple argues all the time but defends each other to others. Which case is healthier?

  1. Should parkour embrace certain types of competition? (APEX vs. Red Bull – does it make a difference?)

Alex: I think competition is here and it’s here to stay simply because there are enough community members that hold it as a personal cultural value. And I definitely would rather see it come from the community rather than be imposed by some other external party – As I said earlier, The Barclaycard World Freerun Championship is a good example of internal co-option. I’m happy to accept it, but do I think we need to embrace it? No.

My issue with competition is that it is so often such a failure of imagination. We have this new thing that comes out of the French-German anti-competitive tradition. And for many English-speaking people who are acculturated to competition this is mind-blowing idea. I’ve seen many communities, and it’s interesting to see how people deal with something new to them. Some have taken this non-competitive practice as a breath of fresh air – something new and interesting and an opportunity to learn. Then you get the people who just start to think about it on local established terms. To me, that’s just lazy and unimaginative. Like, “I have this new amazing French thing that I love and makes me happy… but I need to fix it so it’s less new and less French.”

I find it hilarious how many people treat their inability to cope with novelty as some kind of awesome and unique rebellion. There’s nothing progressive, edgy or original about adding competition to anything in an Anglo nation. I can’t think of anything more conservative. Cultivating a business, community, practice that is anti-competitive is the radical and edgy move in this context, albeit, significantly more challenging. Obviously, it’s a bit different from place to place.

Competition is dependent on context and the competitors.

 

  1. Do you think the parkour vs. freerunning discussion about definitions and such is over or is there still potential for conflict and need for clarification? If you see the need for clarification: Can this issue ever be 100% clarified and be dealt with?

Alex: I think we are getting pretty close to being settled. The debate remains open as long as some people continue to insist that there is no difference. But history generally pushes for diversification and this is where language becomes important. Parkour is a word that defines a specific practice which was defined by a specific guy in a specific place. Freerunning and Art du Deplacement were defined by different people in different places and refer to different practices. Words relate to history. Right now, everyone feels like they are inventing something or redefining something. But I feel like diversification is a matter of time. Parkour and freerunning are close and complimentary disciplines. So close that it can be tempting to blur boundaries in practice. But it’s not all just about practice, origin and history matters. I guess we’ll wait and see how it all plays out.

Section D – Traveling and communities worldwide

Alex – Intro: I moved around a lot, but I got to spend a few months in USA, Canada, Denmark, Russia and Ukraine. Then, shorter periods at each place (two weeks of so) moving around England, France and Japan. Also, I’ve been all over Australia except for Perth (sorry guys!). In some places I moved around a lot looking for regional communities. In other places I spent the time mostly in one place.

  1. What do you feel makes a strong, inclusive, sustainable local parkour community?

Alex: Leadership. I spent a long time thinking about this and trying to figure out the difference between tight and lose collectives. Leadership was the big factor. Wherever there was a person willing to spend a great deal of time articulating, teaching, defining ideas, there was always a strong community. These communities weren’t always unified – some were quite fragmented – but a strong leader was always important. Some would hate them, some would love them, but everyone needed someone to translate parkour from an abstract idea seen on videos into something that made sense to the people on the ground. Before you have a deeply involved local leader parkour is some cloud-like idea floating around on the Internet. Leaders translate that into real movement, local philosophy and then communicate it back into the international sphere. Without a defined and committed leader you just have small groups moving in a way that doesn’t really feed back to the next level. They may have good movement, but rarely does that become a community.

  1. Do you have any advice for community leaders to better facilitate people getting involved?

Alex: Think about the way your philosophy impacts people who are coming in. Pay attention to the things that work in other places and don’t let your pride stand in the way of good ideas.

Section E – Closing Questions

  1. Is your Phd available somewhere or do we have to wait for the book? 🙂

Alex: Sorry to say, the publishers don’t want the thesis out before the book. So, there’s a ‘stay’ on open access. However, I can give people copies with good reason. Just send me an email. But, if you want more comics and more accessible language, wait for the book. 🙂

  1. Anything else you´d like to say?

Alex: Just one thing: Contact me! Anyone who want to have a conversation, or share their experience. I’d love to hear it. I am still and always learning. Plus, PK Panels ideas are always very welcome.

a.pavlotski@gmail.com
https://alexpavlotski.wordpress.com

Love,

– Pava

 

At this point I want to thank Alex for all the time and effort he took for this interview. I am aware the written format is slow, needs a lot of time and is a pain in the ass, so thanks especially to Alex (and everyone else so far) who took their time to sit down and write all this. – Alex

Introduction

Alex Pavlotski is the creator of the well known and widely loved Parkour Panels (http://www.parkourpanels.com/), a satirical and critical web-comic series about parkour. On the one hand these webcomics were a quick read and greatly entertaining but a second, closer look at them revealed that the processed topics were meant to inspire and make people reflect on parkour. Not only were the characters exagerated satirical archetypes of current developments in the parkour scene but the comic-series itself always used the most recent developments as inspiration for the current episodes.

Parkour Panels was part of Alex´s PhD thesis soon to be released into a book. He travelled for around 5 years and met various communities in order to properly understand parkour as a whole. You can find Alex through his blog or actively participating in many of the ongoing online debates on current topics of parkour – for example in the parkour research facebook group.

Section A – Parkour Panels

  1. Each character clearly represents a certain way of thinking, a certain pkmindest or a certain tendency of how to view parkour. At least back when the comics were released. What kind of a new character could you think of bringing to life that envisions some of the developments going on right now?

Alex: This is something that constantly drives me crazy, and a great question. I knew I’d only be able to run PK panels without a break for three years before shifting to writing and drawing more broadly about parkour. But, in truth, the series became a really important outlet for my own feelings and observations (as well as those of the great practitioners I met). So, whenever anything happens in parkour I instantly think about it in PK panels terms, and a lot has happened since I shifted focus to writing.

That means, as you said, new characters are needed to represent new world-views and philosophies. I have a backlog of panels ideas and a few already drawn up, including the debut of one of the new characters. There are three new cast members I have in mind that reflect changes in the international scene.

Gimmick Guru – ‘Master of movement’ keen to market his skills to all who have the cash to pay.
Trainer 2 – A woman community leader who causes Smurfette to realize a few things.
Opinionated n00b – What happens when a fanboy takes the next step…

There was a three panel arc finished with New Kid, but I shelved if after giving it some thought – the character was too concept specific and didn’t have enough range. The three above make good flexible archetypes.

parkourpanels30

© Alex Pavlotski – http://www.parkourpanels.com

  1. Parkour Panels originated as part of your PhD thesis ” Visualising Parkour – Visualising Ethnography” which is now being transformed into a book; could you briefly describe some of the main findings of your research?

Alex: I think the big thrust of the book is about how complex human cultural creations and practices, like parkour, really are. The thesis took on a big range of topics. The book is a little more focused.

For the thesis, the thing that made my study unique was its breadth. I spent nearly five years travelling quite widely and training with and talking to people who jump and something became clear really quickly: everyone does it a little differently. Sometimes it’s a matter of technique, sometimes it’s a question of how people understand what parkour is, sometimes it’s in the community dynamics, but there is always a fundamental and distinct character to parkour everywhere. The Russians, for example, have a strong technical basis that comes from political history and a philosophy that combines European and Neoliberal ideals. In French parkour you can see the ideologies of the state influence definitions and understandings. In English-speaking countries parkour can be both conformity to local norms and a form of innovative rebellion. In Scandinavia parkout fits like a glove.

The thing that makes this interesting is how understated these difference are by people who practice world over. Online, people are always talking about a global community and being part of a global practice, but are constantly fighting largely because of misunderstandings that come out of these differences. Most people simply can’t see them. Their local character is a result of long historical and cultural processes that feel so universal and natural that they are taken for granted. This is culture and bias and I loved the process of working out and explaining the cause of these differences. When you look at it that way parkour transforms from a movement practice to a stage where history, culture, language, politics, ideology, and human drama play-out.

From these observations there were two main findings I want to be central to the book.

[blockquote align=center]

People all around the world think they’re doing the same thing. They’re not, but the similarities, differences and perceptions tell us a lot about the people, the places and the cultures that take up movement, as well as something about our universal desire to move

[/blockquote]

and

[blockquote align=center]

Human beings change our habitat in ways that have unforseen consequences for our own happiness and health. Sometimes these changes impact us in negative ways that force us to adapt or suffer, parkour is one such adaptation.

[/blockquote]

© Alex Pavlotski - http://www.parkourpanels.com

© Alex Pavlotski – http://www.parkourpanels.com

Section B – Commercialisation of parkour / Influence of brands

  1. Could you quickly explain how commercial Co-option is done (and what it is)?

Alex: Sure. Though it’s important to say that commercial co-option is a creative process. People commercialize things in all kinds of ways, some good and some bad.

There is, however, a standard model described by Robert Reinheart and Naomi Klein separately back in the 1990s. This is the model that worries me most. Fortunately, it’s a little outdated now, though it is still regularly used.

Let’s imagine you want to sell an idea and a product. Big companies have long realized that ideas are where the money is. A bag might be 20 bucks of material and less in labor, but add an idea and you can sell it for thousands of dollars. Water is free throughout much of the industrialized world, add an idea and people will pay more for it than milk. Entire industries are created on ideas that are attached to products. Ideas like prestige, courage, adventure, youth, etc., appeal to everyone and can be used to boost the price of your product way above production value.

The process of capturing and associating ideas to products is the golden grail of commercial product development. Ideas like wealth and prestige are easy to manufacture, they simply relate to exclusivity of price. Some people will pay more because they want to be seen as wealthy. They want to splash their cash in what academics call conspicuous consumption. But not everyone is into that. Coolness, youth, adventure are more universal aspirations but companies can’t MAKE those ideas. They’re fundamentally unrelated to material stuff, these things come out of authentic experience. This authentic experience is the ultimate gold mine for product manufacturers and you still have a product to sell. So, most large companies hire people like me (anthropologists, psychologists, demographers, sociologists) to find that idea for them. These guys are called corporate cool-hunters and their job is pretty self-explanatory.

Where do you get your cool? If youth, adventure and coolness are unrelated to your bank account how can you capture it? The first step was to borrow it. Celebrity advertising and trendsetters like sports stars can be hired to associate with your product to lend it some of their cool for cash. This is regularly done and it works. But, some companies decided that this wasn’t enough. Attaching yourself to a person is good, but risky. What if they turn against you or ruin their reputation? This might damage your product value. Worse yet, no celebrity appeals to everyone, so how do you get a bigger range? Another plan was needed. If the sportsperson is untrustworthy you can go further up the line and simply buy the sport.

This is what major brands started doing in the 1980s and 1990s, as the marketing of ideas became increasingly targeted. The upside was each sport brought in a new demographic. Want to target the wealthy? There’s golf and dressage. The working and middle class? Soccer, football, etc. Working classes? Boxing, MMA, etc. In the 1990s companies decided to aim for the niches. Youth and adventure sports would bring in another audience and associate products with all kinds of cool ideas. When these companies got there they found something they didn’t expect or particularly like – culture. Culture is meaning, politics, expression, community, ideology, resistance, creativity and history. While some of this was good, a lot of it was not what the advertisers are after. Lots of examples of this: surfers were cool, free and young, but they were also aggressively territorial, ideologically anti-consumerist and deeply political. Rock-climbers and kayakers were often militant echo warriors. Skaters were too diverse to and disorganized to work with. The good news for companies was that these sub-cultural groups were small, isolated and largely unknown to the public. They were also not used to large amounts of commercial interest and exposure and were relatively new when compared to the more widely watched traditional sports. This made they vulnerable to a great deal of manipulation.

What companies found was that they had the power to almost completely reinvent subcultural practices in ways that make them more fitting for the harvesting of their cool ideas. The first step is to strip them of any historical politics that don’t work well for a mainstream market – to introduce an inherently conservative and commercial politic to replace whatever was there before. This was easy because they controlled broadcasting, which put them in a position to control the growth of the activity. What these companies did was look for willing ‘stars’. Then they would use their resources to start broadcasting the subcultural activity but in a selected way, redefined with a new commercial politic. This politic was borrowed from sport (yes, sport is inherently political and due to its long interaction with industry and the state, quite conservative). The voices of dissenting practitioners, of which there were many, were easily drowned out before the wide proliferation of the Internet by simply keeping them off the mainstream screen. These people were excluded from TV broadcasts and commercial VHS/DVD rereleases. The voices of the paid stars were amplified. Because these ‘stars’ were often young, poor and keen for attention they would agree to all kinds of contract conditions most mainstream celebrities would reject. Their success in their chosen sport was (and still is) completely reliant on their support of the commercial line and product. The final touch was the effect of this kind of co-option on the next generation of practitioners. Because these companies positioned themselves for maximum exposure, many newcomers to these activities were introduced to the commercial version. Many simply assumed that ‘this’ is just what surfing/rockclimbing/skating/etc. is. By telling a story about a group loud enough companies were able to own and reinvent entire subcultures, with ‘stars’ who did whatever they wanted and total control of branding, broadcast and message.

This is the process of commercial co-option. To some extent, some of this is quite healthy. And in the age of the Internet it’s much harder to silence dissenters, but we’ve seen this same process applied to parkour, fortunately, with only partial success. The cultures of skating, surfing and many other movement cultures have been quite badly affected by this process. Practices stand to lose their politics, their diversity and their history in the face of a demand to conform to market politics.

I’d hate to see that happen to PK. I’m lucky to be practicing and recording these debates so early in the development of this practice. Hopefully we won’t go down the same paths as many of the more co-opted and contested practices and keep our internal richness and diversity.

So much for a ‘brief’ explanation!

© Alex Pavlotski - http://www.parkourpanels.com

© Alex Pavlotski – http://www.parkourpanels.com

  1. What can we as practitioners who want to oppose this exploitation and transformation, at least to some extent, actually do?

Alex: Keep hold of authenticity! Commercial co-option only works if the narrative and politics imposed by commercial interests are unchallenged. Their cool-hunting is dependent on authenticity. So, if enough internal practitioners stand up and take ownership as authentic members of the culture it kills the associated cool. We’ve seen this already with MTV’s Ultimate PK Challenge, The Barclaycard World Freerun Championship and the original RedBull ‘parkour’ competitions. All of them followed the co-option formula and had similar effects but all of these faced massive resistance inside the community.

The other thing is to keep talking to each other and disagreeing. Lots of people think that online arguments about parkour are a waste of time, but they’re really important. They demonstrate the diversity of practice and create understanding that there is no single monolithic parkour. This may be frustrating and feelings might get hurt, but it keeps us diverse, informed and connected.

  1. Should we oppose these developments or do you think that on the long run everything will get back to “normal”?

Alex: Culture is a skillset. It is developed through use and we invent it as practitioners. If we don’t guide it, others will. “if you don’t use it, you lose it.”

  1. What is your opinion on parkour companies that rise from within the community?

Alex: Largely positive. While I don’t like commercial co-option I also know that culture is never separate from economy. People need to make a living and parkour is legitimated and even enriched when it enters the mainstream. The only thing I’d worry about is when one entity tries to swallow up the others. I’d hate to see us get railroaded into a single path. From interviews I’ve read and seen, so did David Belle and a number of other central founders.