Imagine walking down a city street. Close by, there is a set of stair railings leading down to the metro. Just ahead, lining the curbside, stand pedestrian barriers, lampposts, and benches. To the side are the brick walls of buildings, decorated with pipes and fire escape ladders. For many, these objects would just be part and parcel of the urban landscape. For others, they are essential pieces to the giant playground that is the city — and to an urban obstacle course challenge known as parkour.
Julie Angel, above, an independent filmmaker, artist, academic, and writer, used to see urban spaces as “banal, dull, empty, uninviting, alienating.” But since 2000, when she helped a friend with a documentary on pool skating (the niche sport of roller skating in empty round-bottomed swimming pools), she has come to see the environment differently. The project introduced her to “alternative views of the potential of the environment: using things in a way they weren’t originally designed for,” she says.
“As an artist, I could see their artistry. I loved their creative vision of the potential that they saw. Creating something out of nothing,” Angel says. Seeing the skaters reinterpret space opened her eyes to the fluidity of urban landscape, she adds. “Through their creative and physical engagement with those spaces, it’s brought alive.”
In the 15 years since that project, Angel has done a deep dive into the world of movement culture and what she terms the “age of athleticism:” the growing popularity of parkour, freerunning, buildering (think bouldering, but up buildings), and climbing.
Angel will conduct workshop on parkour and the art of movement at the upcoming National Endurance Sports Summit at Princeton University on Saturday and Sunday, October 10 and 11. She joins an impressive lineup of speakers, including Christopher McDougall, author of the international bestseller, “Born to Run,” and Karl Meltzer, a world-class ultrarunner. For more information and to register, visit www.elevateendurance.org/.
In the earlier stages of her career, Angel funded her creative and artistic endeavors by producing corporate videos on commission and doing freelance painting and decorating jobs, leaving the remaining days of the week to pursue her own projects. But after a while, the idea of “going to an office, pointing a camera at someone and trying to make it interesting” was no longer an attractive option. “Doing anything for the sake of making videos just didn’t appeal to me,” she says. She stopped doing corporate videos in 2000, and hasn’t looked back since.
And while her nine-year-old YouTube channel has amassed close to 19,000 subscribers and over 17.5 million total views, Angel has never considered monetizing her content there. These days, Angel finances her creative work with freelance commissioned videos, mostly about parkour and the movement culture at large. She has made also parkour-themed advertisements for Nokia, Canon and Il Ponte, an Italian bag company.
Angel fully embraces the freedom of her freelance career – and also the risks that come along with it. “If I get one dream job once a year, or even once every 18 months, and if I can live off nothing, and be minimalist,” then it’s entirely possible, she says.
Some may dismiss parkour practitioners and freerunners as simply “adrenaline junkies” who recklessly jump from rooftops, vault over barriers, and scale walls in narrow alleyways. But Angel says that they are actually some of the most risk-averse, most introverted, and least confident people she knows. She was fascinated by their interaction with urban space, but a larger issue that she found herself pondering was their “liberation of intent.”
“Why are people seeking to feel free? If they’re seeking that, then what aren’t they free from? What is the world of someone who wakes up and wants to go out and balance on a rail? And why do we stop playing? What is the sequence of events, the socializing processes?” she asks, listing off the overarching questions that guide her work. What she wants to question, Angel says, is “the social engineering of the body and movement culture: who is normalizing who does what and where? And what is the value to that?”
Angel grew up in Plymouth, on the southwestern coast of the U.K. Her mother was a math teacher and her father a nuclear physicist, but academics just did not appeal to the younger Angel. After graduating from high school, Angel spent some time working for local radio projects before taking up a foundation course in film and television at a further education college, then devoted another two years to study sound engineering. At age 24, she enrolled in the Plymouth College of Art and Design, specializing in abstract animations and film production for three years. In 2004 she began her audio-visual Ph.D. at Brunel University’s Screen Media Research Center in London, researching movement cultures like urban golf, buildering, and parkour.
After six months of filming local parkour practitioners, Angel decided to give the sport a try. She had been very athletic as a teenager, but life had taken a sedentary turn since her high school days, and her first parkour practice left her absolutely drained. “I was physically destroyed,” she recalls. “It was the most shocking wakeup call, physically, that I’ve ever had in my life.”
But her experience with parkour also made her radically rethink her relationship with the city. She remembers dreading having to walk past a nearby housing project, a “dodgy” place with a harshness and density that put her on edge. And yet, once she started to practice parkour, the entire project took on a different feel. “Overnight, I went from a kind of fearful anticipation of passing through this place to absolute enthusiasm,” she ways. She started to really appreciate the positions of benches, the placement of the walls, and their gradual gradients. She found herself drawing invisible lines with her fingers, creating imaginary routes through the urban world. “The whole of London just opened up to me,” she says.
“You’re having this reinterpretation of everything around you. Nothing is fixed. The barrier, the railing outside the building isn’t just a barrier or railing outside the building. It’s now an invitation to see if you can balance under it, crawl under it, move over, hang from it. There’s this dialogue internally that starts to happen,” Angel says.
“This connection with the environment, emotionally and physically, can bring you alive. You reengage with this sense of potentiality and exploration,” Angel adds. “It becomes this tool for your identity transformation.”
What previously felt like a “suppressive labyrinth” to Angel is now a giant natural playground. “My dislike of urban spaces made me want to understand how you find the beauty in those urban spaces. And I found it incredibly empowering that you become this very autonomous, yet very socially connected, person, when suddenly the city isn’t dictating where you move and how you move,” Angel says.
She acknowledges that it can be very alarming for citizens to see this sort of unconventional movement. “But it’s only unconventional because we’ve been sat down and herded into spaces, into these, at times, quite aggressive styles of architecture,” she says.
“Why have we stopped moving in these ways? Why are becoming increasingly more sedentary?” Angel asks. She wants to make movement and questions of public space much more visible in society, and her projects are attempts to encourage active engagement with the urban environment. The more we see unregulated potential for movement practices, the better for us it is, she says. “Freedom is health, and health is movement.”