Black Box: Democracia

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Editorial Review

Many giant leaps in the face of death
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 30, 2012

If you were to wander into the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s new video installation, “Black Box: Democracia,” and then quickly wander out without staying for the full 20-minute presentation, you might come away with the impression that it’s a slick commercial for athletic apparel. In the three-screen video, five fit young men -- each wearing sneakers, track pants and orange hoodies emblazoned with the brandlike initials “SyD” -- are running, jumping and leaping over and around obstacles.

The confusion isn’t helped by the fact that those same hoodies are hanging just outside the entrance to the gallery, as floor samples might be in a minimalist, high-end boutique. Or that the video, shot by Democracia, a Spanish art collaborative formed by Pablo Espana and Ivan Lopez, uses slow motion and “Matrix”-like “dead time” effects to heighten and fetishize the action.

But it is, in fact, art, not advertising. And it’s surprisingly moving, even if the message is straightforward enough to seem like a slogan: Life goes on.

The initials on the hoodies come from the video’s Spanish title “Ser y Durar” (“To Be and to Last”). Set in a Madrid cemetery established in the 1880s for such “outsider” groups as communists, Jews, atheists and other non-Catholics, the video centers on a group of traceurs, who are aficionados of the urban sport known as parkour. Practitioners of parkour negotiate a path around, over and under architectural structures, using only their bodies, but in typically gymnastic fashion.

And that’s pretty much it.

Though “Ser y Durar” is fun to watch, it’s not all acrobatic backflips and other athletic moves. The video is scored with a dramatic and somewhat martial soundtrack that lends the admittedly propulsive maneuvers a paradoxically somber quality. At one point, the camera lingers on a single traceur, sitting atop a structure that looks like a mausoleum, in a posture of quiet reflection that’s not that much different from Rodin’s “The Thinker.”

In another sequence, a traceur’s spread-armed pose, as he performs a swan dive off a tombstone, resembles that of Christ on the cross.

So what exactly are Espana and Lopez saying?

To be sure, there’s a theme of martyrdom here. At the end of the video, the camera lingers on a Spanish inscription that translates as “Don’t weep for my death / Keep on fighting / Always forward / For the world above the tombs.”

But the inevitability of death doesn’t seem to be the point. Rather, it’s the opposite. The traceurs’ ability to overcome impediments -- even in the face of the grave -- is the message.

The story behind the work
By Michael O’Sullivan
Friday, November 30, 2012

Parkour, or freerunning -- the athletic practice showcased in “Ser y Durar” -- grew out of a French military training discipline developed for obstacle courses. Despite the improvisatory nature of its movement, it has a surprisingly formal philosophy. Efficiency of energy is valued as much as physical grace. And while it’s not overtly competitive, turning back and starting over is frowned upon.

What’s most interesting about “Ser y Durar” is the unexpectedly exuberant way in which the featured traceurs (members of a crew called Hikaru) sometimes interact with the architecture of the cemetery. Running along a pathway, for instance, one traceur executes a series of Cirque du Soleil-style flips when he doesn’t, strictly speaking, have anything to flip over. Later, other traceurs bounce off a columbarium wall, performing gymnastic spins and turns that seem like the opposite of efficiency.

The point of the dance-like choreography seems clear. Despite the film’s Spartan-sounding title -- taken from a parkour motto -- life is about more than merely “lasting.” It’s impossible to watch some of the expansive maneuvers in the film and not see them as an expression, not just of life, but of joie de vivre.

As another parkour motto puts it, “The day that everything is flat, we’ll be dead.”