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San Francisco (Gestalten 2008)

What would tell you more about a city? A geographic map that identifies the buildings, roads, rivers and so on? Or one that gauges how people feel about the city by recording their emotional responses as they move around it?

No contest. The second map would say much, much more about what it’s like to be there, which is why the British designer, Christian Nold, has devised a series of Emotion Maps of San Francisco, Paris and other cities. For the San Francisco version, he combined the finger cuff sensors used in police polygraph tests with a global positioning system to monitor the instinctive responses of 98 people as they walked around the Mission District. His guinea pigs then explained why they’d felt happy, sad, angry or whatever in various places, and if their reaction was triggered by something they’d just seen, or memories of past experiences.

Nold’s Emotion Maps are examples of the design process known as visualization, which uses advanced software to illustrate complicated data so that we (that’s the 99.99 percent of us without doctorates in applied mathematics) can understand it. Visualization comes in the form of still images, moving ones and three-dimensional models that depict elusive, often abstract phenomena such as the movement of Internet traffic, scientific theories or a city’s emotional landscape. If you spot an elaborate information graphic in a newspaper or magazine, that may well be an example of visualization too. At a time when we are bombarded with more and more information of increasing complexity, visualization, or “viz” as it’s called for short, is fast becoming one of the most exciting areas of design.

Visualization was a key theme of Design and the Elastic Mind, the landmark exhibition on the relationship of design with science and technology held earlier this year at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. It is also featured in “Data Flow,” a new book published by Gestalten, and the “Native Land, Stop Eject” show now on at Fondation Cartier in Paris. In that exhibition, the philosopher Paul Virilio and the filmmaker Raymond Depardon explore the tragedy of enforced emigration. They collaborated with a team of visualizers led by the U.S. architecture group, Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, to create stunning visual analyses of its causes and impact on different communities

There’s one simple reason why visualization is becoming so important, and that’s our desire to understand what’s happening in the world at a time when it’s becoming harder and harder to do so. “Design always moves where it is needed most,” said Paola Antonelli, curator of Design and the Elastic Mind, who is now working on a major visualization project. “The surge in computing power has generated a surge in information output, and heated up interest in visualization design.”


Alice Rawsthorn
International Herald Tribune


Laurent Piemontesi, a member of Majestic Force, a group that can be seen practicing ‘l’Art du Deplacement’ in various urban locations around Paris. (Majestic Force)

Back in 1992, the dreariness of life in the Paris suburb of Evry – typical of the concrete jungles thrown up in the 1960s to provide low-cost housing – drew Laurent Piemontesi and six friends together in developing what became a new art form.

They called it “l’art du déplacement,” or, roughly, the art of movement. It was a “human reaction,” Piemontesi said, to the many obstacles of life.

The idea was to travel across the urban landscape as gracefully, intelligently and dynamically as possible. The practitioners – “traceurs,” from the French verb “tracer,” meaning to trail – were supposed to adapt to their environment in order to manipulate it in creative ways. Sixteen years on, they can be seen pulling off anything from gutsy leaps from roof tops to sublime balancing acts on metal railings.

“L’art du déplacement means to come back to the essential roots of mankind: the essential elements are to run, climb and jump,” said Chau Belle-Dinh, another founding member of what came to be known as Yamakasi, meaning strong spirit, or strong man, in a Congolese language, Lingala. “Our philosophical values are rather basic, like respect and courage, values which have been lost in France and elsewhere in the world.”

Piemontesi, now 36, elaborated. “When we say we have to pass obstacles, I have to pass fear – I do the same thing in all things in my life. And this is what we teach kids who come and train with us.”

Helped in part by a hit movie about Yamakasi in 2001, the word about the discipline has now spread far beyond Evry, or Paris, or even France itself. On a recent morning at the foot of the Bercy Indoor Arena in eastern Paris, a group of buff, young men – including traceurs from Denmark, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and the United States – limbered up for a day of training.

The original seven members first started to codify their urban art form in 1997. They said then – and reiterate now – that they wanted to emphasize effort, sharing and self-esteem. This, Belle-Dinh said, helps unite people from very different backgrounds around the discipline.

“Now we are trying to group people together and say: ‘Your color, your weight, your morphology does not create a difference,”‘ he said.

Belle-Dinh, whose family came to Paris from Vietnam shortly after his birth in Ho Chi Minh City in 1977, trains almost every day in a range of urban and suburban locations. He uses concrete walls, metal railings and public ping-pong tables, to name but a few , in order to slide, jump and climb across his environment. “Everyone can do it. We accept everyone. Accept yourself in this sense.”

This teaching survived even the split of two members of the original Yamakasi group, who branched away and created their own version of the discipline known as Parkour. It concentrates more on pushing the physical boundaries of each participant.

Exo, 27, a devotee of Parkour who declined to give his surname, often travels from his base in New York to train with groups in different urban environments.

“The architecture in each place affects the way that each practitioner looks at it and the way they tackle it,” he said. Similarly, he added, “gymnasts when they came to Parkour started bringing flips, acrobatics. Track runners like me would bring endurance, stamina, and a lot of running.”

This approach to physical activity has caught the attention of sporting institutions and governments alike. Manuel Valls, an important figure in the French Socialist Party and mayor of Evry said, “without abolishing their philosophy, the idea is to integrate them into the city by giving them the possibility to develop themselves.”

“I believe the Yamakasi incarnate the spirit of urban life,” Valls said in an interview. “They are a fantastic symbol of the town of which I am the mayor.”

In May, Valls attended an event marking the future opening of the Academie de l’Art du Déplacement in Evry, which will be run by the Yamakasi group. The goal is to provide professional coaching and diplomas for young traceurs who want to make a career and share their passion with younger generations.

In 2004, the Yamakasi trained a group of youth from Evry to join the Cirque du Soleil, the professional circus based in Montreal.

Parkour Generations, a group of traceurs in England, have already started teaching in schools in the City of Westminster in the heart of London, and providing workshops for children in areas like the famous performance square in Covent Garden.

Daniel Edwardes, a director of Parkour Generations, said the group is also working withe Westminster officials to help young Londoners explore their full potential through sport.

Belle-Dinh noted that, while integrating and looking to things such as the financial viability of enterprises like the future academy, the traceurs will never jeopardize the set of values they have honed for well over a decade.

“The area where we grew up has indeed marked us: You don’t have much to do. You’re given a soccer ball and a soccer field, that’s about it,” he said. “We wanted to become strong, but strong in a sense: to be strong in order to become useful, to help others and yourself as well.”

Simon Marks
International Herald Tribunet