About two months ago, Galia and I were walking down 116th Street in Harlem. Being terribly late for our meeting with Dan and Ellie, we tried to walk as fast as we could. As we were walking by a little neighborhood Basketball court, something there made us stop. In the middle of the court the Basketball hoop was lying, it’s base torn off and it’s board flat facing the ground. Something about this image was so disturbing for us that we couldn’t just walk by and ignore it.
For us it wasn’t only some ruined Basketball court, the image that was lying before us was packed with sub-text. For us it was a powerful site-specific political public-art installation. In a neighborhood like Harlem, Basketball is much more than a game. It is a symbol of hope for a better future. “For us Hip-Hop and Basketball are the only tickets out of the hood” – indeed it is. The record companies are the wet-dream of hip-hop artists, like collage scholarships are the wet dreams of neighborhood basketball players – a dream to be embraced by the system through playing it’s game. The hoop on 116th street went for an irreversable attempt to change it’s fate, but didn’t make it. It’s cement base, once rooted in the ground, now torn out of it’s womb and grave. It’s feet planted in the cement base reminds of mafia victims dipped in cement and thrown to the Hudson. The angled metal bar is a tragic monument for the attempt to jump out of the floor. An attempt that ends with the face (the board) smashed to the ground and the teeth (the net-ring) broken.
For both Galia and myself, this was a very disturbing and powerful scene. Living in Harlem and experiencing it’s social contrast with downtown on a daily basis, we felt like this experience should be shared, should be appreciated, should be recognized. We immediately thought this piece should be presented in a gallery as an art installation. Then we immediately agreed it shouldn’t. Beyond the appreciation of the message we saw in this scene, we were both confused and excited realizing we are actually experiencing something different than art. it was a scene both casual and sublime. An art context would immediately deprive the scene’s originality and would ruin it’s irreplaceable here and now. Obviously this set is temporary and is probably the result of the construction work on the building next door, this emergent public art piece would not stay there for long. For me this spontaneous signifier holds an aura much stronger than that of the orchestrated contextualized artwork.
We couldn’t just leave it there, so we did what every other western, colonialist, art-history-educated individual might do, we documented it, created a copy, a digital image. We saved it from the fragility of the here and now, only to be uploaded directly into the infinitly reproducing, context depriving databases of Flickr.
I’ve been looking at the image and thinking about it for a couple of days. I was dissatisfied with the quality of the image my crappy digi-cam took, it did not convey the experience I felt. I had to get another shot at the installation on 116th street.
This time I invited Dan with his semi-professional camera to properly document the scene and keep it safe from the hazards of time and space forever. After preparing him for the event for a week, I was terrified that we won’t find it there, that it was lost forever. But it was there, just the way we left it. This time we documented it from all directions, angles, and distances. A neighbor walking by told us it was indeed the work of the construction workers in the building next-door. He said they promised to fix it once they’re done. I told him we think it’s a very tragic scene, that the poor hoop tried to jump, fell on it’s face and broke it’s teeth. He was very amused by this metaphor we suggested and agreed it was indeed a sad image.
photograph by Dan Phiffer
No image, no matter how many mega-pixels it would offer, could replace this experience, I never expected it would. I feel privileged to have experienced this scene and I just can’t stop thinking about it. One could easily use this example to exercise once again the tiring power-struggle driven debate about ‘what is art?’, ‘who is the artist?’ I find this example to mainly question art consumption. It has got me to think about the ways art is reaching it’s audience. Both street art, public art, and net art leave the gallery space in favor of a more casual, less culturally framed experience. Yet what we experienced on 116th street was of another level. It was lying there unintended, lonely, pure, powerful and disturbing. It had the presence of a public art-installation, and the vitality of a public art-performance, but it was free from being designated a public and free from being art, free from being consumed as art, fought-over as art, and finally free from being dismantled like art. What we experienced was beyond culture, it was never mythologized, never meant to be a representation, never meant to convey a message. While symbolizing the tragic failure to brake free from the hood, the body of the basketball hoop manages to break free from culture’s bear-hug, to break free from being art.