[a.k.a New uses for old bunkers #20: Danny, champion of the world, rides the crumbling concrete walls of death]
“An existing space may outlive its original purpose and the reason d’etre which determines its forms, functions and structures; it may thus become vacant, and susceptible of being diverted, re-appropriated and put to a use quite different from its initial one.” (Lefebvre 1994)
This blog essay is about the 2010 short film Way Back Home in which the bmx stunt rider Danny MacAskill stages a montage of jumps of jeopardy, perilous rides and brave balancing upon a handful of metal and concrete surfaces on a journey from Edinburgh to his birthplace on the Isle of Skye.
MacAskill’s use of ‘found’ built environment courses for his bmx stunt riding aligns his performance to parkour and to urbex. It is MacAskill’s inclusion of the abandoned South Queensferry coastal naval battery, and other unidentified defensive structures, that qualifies this post for inclusion in the NUFOB series. What I want to examine here is how these bunkers are rendered so anonymous and abstract by MacAskill’s dare devil riding. For he finds yet another way to use old bunkers: purely (and very effectively) as available surfaces for movement. Indeed, the identity of the ‘ridden-on’ venues is not mentioned in the film, and the places are inter-cut (I identified the abandoned South Queensferry coastal battery via Google Earth, the adjacent distinctive red-box matrix of the Forth (rail) Bridge as my clue). Such details are simply not relevant. It is the generic geometry and texture of these structures that matters, their ride-ability and challenge. Although, watching the film I also felt at times that an ancillary urbex aesthetic was present somewhere in the background – the military ruins, the reservoir, and some stunning natural scenery beyond.
The film is great, every second a testimony to the tactical (as De Certeau would style it) re-appropriation of these places, and the fullness of their three dimensionality via an anti-gravity ethic, a notion captured in a free-runner quoted by Daskalaki, Stara, & Imas:
“Society looks upon what we do as a bad thing, but they built up this concrete jungle around us. Concrete, roofs, whatever. And we’re told we can only walk in a certain way, we can only move in a certain way. Mankind has struggled for centuries to be free. The pursuit of parkour for us is a pursuit of freedom. The first big high I got from parkour was when I was sitting on a rooftop in central London. A pigeon sat with us. We were where the birds were and I suddenly felt free.” (2008: 53)
What struck me most was how the ‘stunts’ flow in the film, presenting a graceful balletic performance staged with the Romantic aesthetic of ruins (and quaint island villages) and their serene natural scenery backdrops. This film presents a celebration of the places and movement through them. Here, there is no pause, drum roll, ‘bigging up’ preamble about how hard the stunt will be. There is just the smooth execution of the movement and the onward flow to the next. In the understated achievement of such manoeuvres the truly spectacular is revealed.
Yes, there are choices of framing, camera angle, scene selection, moody (but uplifting) musical score and thus this presentation is as manufactured as any film, but I like it – and it seems very truthful to the parkour ethic of flowing through space, and in doing so seeing structural spaces differently.
This vision – this alternative (and enhanced) reading of these spaces of movement is captured well by Edwards (2012) writing in an article on Parkour website, http://www.Parkourgenerations.com:
“Walls, railings, buildings, barriers…structures of every shape and size cease to be seen as they were intended to be seen, and become instead components of a vast, almost limitless playground that one has hitherto referred to as ‘the city’…everywhere becomes an opportunity for movement, everything a training apparatus…the focus of parkour is the development of the individual , through learning to utilise the body in an effective manner so as not to be held back or hindered by his surroundings…in fact the terrain, the space being re-appropriated, is entirely irrelevant!…”
Edwards helpfully shows us here how the built environment and its structures are read as generic surfaces, as ramps, ledges, drops and landing strips. The history and purposes of the places through which the free runner (or MacAskill) flows is not relevant (except to the extent to which – in visual genres they may be presented as interesting backdrops to action, or places of incursion).
But whilst this kinetic reading of place renders them generic in one sense (eradicating that historic or contextual local knowledge which the archaeologist or architectural enthusiast might be seeking) the recorded act of riding, jumping and balancing seems to trace out the lines and form of the structures that are travelled over. This struck me most in the reservoir section of the film. As MacAskill rides along narrow lines of concrete or metal railings my attention is draw to them, they are mapped out before my eyes by his travel. Just as walking gives a sense of direct knowledge of a place that car travel over the same ground cannot, so MacAskill’s perilous performance upon these structures (for me) manages to communicate this physical essence in some way. He traces these lines for me, and by that tracing I feel that I too know them intimately.
In some strange way I’m reminded of decorating – by painting a room you get to fully know it: because your hand has guided a brush over every square inch. By that close attention and procession across the surface, space is claimed.
MacAskill’s appropriation of the coastal battery ruins as a three dimensional performance space maps out those structures for me, via his physical ‘reading’ of the concrete surfaces of those bunkers.
N.B. My previous post on quarry climbing as writing lines on stone, explores similar issues: https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/2012/07/19/rock-paper-scissors-writing-lines-on-stoneland/
Daskalaki, M., Stara, A. & Imas, M. (2008) ‘The Parkour Organisation: inhabitation of corporate spaces’, Culture & Organization, 14 (1) 49-64.
Edwards, D. (2012) ‘Parkour Visions’ article at www.parkourgenerations.co/article/parkour-vision
Lefebvre, H. (1994) The Production of Space, Blackwell: London.