Consider the contemporary form of urban mobility known as parkour. Practitioners of parkour, known as traceurs, appropriate the space of the city as a plat-form for exercising gymnastic skill. The city becomes an obstacle course through which one moves from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Understood not as a competitive sport but as a form of physical and mental training, parkour helps one develop a spatial awareness of specific affordances of urban structures and the ability to overcome mental and physical obstacles with speed and efficiency. In the traceur, we see refracted a lineage of alternative ways of moving through the city. From Walter Benjamin’s flâneur to the Situationists’ dériviste, these urban actors perform the city in ways that not so much reflect it (as representation) but enact it (through transduction). Though their movement, we can read a city and the possibilities that it offers as well as the socio-spatial relations found there. In this context, parkour becomes a form of urban hacking, a way of appropriating architecture and its attendant fittings for purposes neither sanctioned nor anticipated by the original design. Architecture becomes an obstacle that must be overcome as quickly and efficiently as possible, albeit with poise and grace.
Now consider the spatial topology described in The Catalogue (2004), a video by British artist Chris Oakley, which shows a shopping mall somewhere in the north of England from the point of view of a surveillance system. We soon see that the system is doing more than just watching. Shoppers are tagged, tracked, and monitored as they go about their routines. Transaction histories are mined, personal inventories are matched against products for sale, and recommendations are made. Prescriptions for eyeglasses are facilitated though the retrieval of a recent eye exam report. The purchase and consumption of food and beverage items at a conveyor sushi bar is matched against a person’s medical records and a health prognosis is made based on what he or she is eating. (Fortunately for the subjects in the video, the U.K. provides national healthcare. One can only speculate what would happen in the U.S., where this information would be shared with an insurance company.) While this video is a simulation, the technologies depicted are readily available today, and one can imagine such systems becoming standard in shopping-center design and management in the near future.
Combining these two ideas, the practice of “minor urbanism” involves transposing the practice of parkour to the space illustrated by The Catalogue. As with minor literature, minor urbanism involves speaking in a major language from a minor position. Contrary to major architecture and urban planning approaches that dominate contemporary urban development, minor urbanism examines local, networked, and distributed approaches to shaping the experience of the city and the choices we make there. As computing leaves the desktop and spills out into the world around us, technology increasingly becomes entangled with everyday urban life.
From crowdsourced, geo-located data sets of popular locations in the city produced through social media apps such as Foursquare; to advertising displays on bus shelters that determine your age and gender using vision systems in order to customize the products presented; to contactless payment systems for paying tolls on bridges and tunnels, such as E-ZPass, that store mobility patterns in remote databases which are also accessible by law-enforcement agencies: These systems are designed and programmed to remember, correlate, and anticipate our movements, transactions, and desires.
What happens when parkour becomes a conceptual vehicle by which not the material city, but this immaterial, information-driven city is appropriated as a performative platform for alternative mobilities? What new urban actor might emerge? How might he or she develop a spatial awareness of the affordances that are available in these systems and infrastructures and their entanglements with everyday life? How might he or she subsequently recircuit, reconfigure, and redirect the flows of people, goods, and data in these hybrid environments?
Mark Shepard is an artist and researcher, trained as an architect, who investigates entanglements of mobile and pervasive media, and communication and information technologies with architecture and urbanism. He is an associate professor in both the architecture and media study departments at the University of Buffalo. His project, Serendipitor, a part of the larger Sentient City Survival Kit, is featured in Spontaneous Interventions.