Interview with John Early: Here John discusses his research into the materiality of a basketball court in St. Louis Place Park, just one block west of the new St. Louis NGA site. He interprets the court as a metaphor for understanding communities in St. Louis that have been disregarded and forgotten.
How did you choose your site? What intrigued you about this particular place?
I started out with an interest in the NGA site, but upon visiting it I found myself drawn instead to a quiet outdoor basketball court adjacent to the 99-acre site. The court mirrored the vacancy and disrepair of the surrounding neighborhood, and it felt like a much more intimate and manageable space to study for the project. I was particularly drawn to the subtle markings and scattered detritus at the court, which interested me as material markers of presence and life now gone.
What kinds of questions are you asking about the site, and how are those questions shaping your exploration of the place?
When was the court constructed, by whom, and for what reasons? What is the reason for the somewhat unusual, unstructured design of the court? To what degree has the court been used for basketball or otherwise? In what ways might a now derelict space for communal play and gathering serve as a metaphor for understanding neglected and forgotten communities in the city? In what ways can material traces of presence at the court reframe how seemingly vacant spaces and the people that inhabit them are viewed and understood?
What challenges are you encountering with site-based study?
One of the biggest challenges for me is the slight discomfort I feel studying a site to which I have no personal or social connection. I make regular trips to the site for observation and reflection, but my research can at times feel like viewing the court as an outsider—as if from beyond or above. For those reasons, I’m hyperaware of not wanting to make generalizations or assumptions about the site, or to otherwise speak as someone with deep knowledge of the site when, in fact, it is not part of the fabric of my daily life. My approach to the site from the beginning has been more of an archaeological, empirical analysis of place instead of making deductions about the site or its history, which I hope simultaneously honors the court as a place and serves as a jumping off point to broader issues and metaphors of materiality.
As a visual artist, part of my research for this project involves the act of making, so it has been challenging to think through how best to respond to the site visually and materially in ways that best work hand in hand with the essay. There is also a question of audience and considering to what degree my writing and making should be tailored to symposium attendees, the general public, or even those in the St. Louis Place neighborhood.
What were your expectations about the project and site, and what have you found that surprised or even shocked you?
On one of my more recent site visits, I discovered that the fraying nets on the four basketball hoops had been replaced with new ones that were zip-tied to the hoops because many of the hooks had been broken off. I was curious who was looking after the court. I was also intrigued by the ways in which this seemingly small gesture carried with it larger implications of intentionality and care for maintaining the court. I have also been surprised by the lack of history available about the court. The park originated in 1850, but I have thus far only been able to narrow the construction date of the basketball court to sometime in the 1970s.
How do you plan to incorporate visual content into the publication?
A range of visual content will supplement my essay, including photographs of marks and objects found at the court, sculptural forms I create based on those objects and other material present at the site, and images of the site from the United States Geological Survey, Google Maps, and Google Street View. I’m also exploring the creation of an online alternative archive based on this project that further explores the idea of the trace as it relates to our understanding of place.
How do you see your research going beyond an academic contribution?
I’m very interested in exploring how embodied and sensorial ways of knowing can supplement intellectual knowledge and create a more holistic understanding of modern segregation in St. Louis. Engaging with the actual textures and spaces of lived experience is a direction I hope to continue taking my research for the project. I also look forward to integrating more writing into my making, as I’ve found tremendous richness in how each mode of research has influenced the other throughout this process.
A model for
a sculpture in progress. The gold object is a replica of a hard drive found at
the basketball court in St. Louis Place Park. The object sits on a piece of
frosted acrylic that rests atop a pedestal made from dirt and debris collected
from streets and sidewalks. The pedestal is constructed using a process of
mechanical stabilization that requires no binder. It is a stable, freestanding
structure, but over time the pedestal will gradually erode. The hard drive
pictured consists of cardboard, paper, foam, and spray paint; the final version
will be cast in bronze. Total dimensions of the model: 10" x 10" x
5". Photo by John Early.