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Net Gain

The pocket park on the corner of Chapel and Orange seems more like a concrete wasteland than an art gallery. The gravel entrance gives way to unkempt patches of green and yellow grass.  Flanked on three sides by a large brick wall, the area is dark even when the sun is out.  The air is thick with the dust of nearby construction, and the park provides no shelter from the sounds of the street just a few feet away.

But then, there it is: a large, old-school basketball hoop atop a wooden pole.  The rim is rusty, fading from red to crusty brown, and the net is worn and dirty from overuse.   There’s really nothing unusual about the equipment, except that it is 2.5 times larger than any other basketball hoop you’ve ever seen. .

The sheer height of the hoop, designed by Brooklyn artist William Lamson, is enough to intimidate the athletic and non-athletic alike. Since the diameter of the rim is also 2.5 times larger than a normal hoop, the worn-down blue basketball provided on-site should be at least six times more likely to go in. Even knowing that probability, the prospect of tossing a ball 25 feet is daunting. But most people who show up to Long Shot, as the installation is officially called, decide to take the challenge. After all, they come here to ball.

My first shot resulted in an air ball; I missed the net by a good three feet.  On my second try, the ball grazed the hoop. A few more times quickly became fifteen minutes, and then an hour. The ball kept missing its target, but I didn’t want to give up.

The task was Herculean. Lamson, however, would have been pleased by my repeated failures.  “The audience’s struggle to make a shot is the fundamental experience of the work. When we play with this enlarged hoop it recreates the experience of being a child playing on a normal size basketball hoop,” he explained.

Like a child, I became fixated on the task:  I have to get it in, and I’ll stay until I do.  The stares of the people waiting at the bus stop or working at the construction site nearby no longer embarrassed me. I might have looked goofy, but I was having a lot of fun. Occasionally, people came over to see what the ruckus is all about. “Even Shaq can’t dunk that,”  one exclaimed.  And once they see the hoop, they’re hooked; no one who takes a shot leaves without scoring.  While few are actually children, everyone looks like a pre-schooler when they shoot.

The idea of returning the audience to its youthful roots is something Lamson has explored before.  For instance, in 2007 he created “Action,” a series of videos in which he pops black balloons. This year he exhibited “To Work and Trade,” a performance and an installation project where viewers could become part of the exhibition by trading a personal object for a drawing of choice.  Unsurprisingly, the artist says he gets ideas from “things I did when I was growing up…whether it comes from playing with BB guns or playing basketball.”

But is a basketball hoop in a derelict parking lot really art?

Liza Stanton, the art curator at New Haven’s non-profit ArtSpace that commissioned Long Shot, explains, “His work is really dense.  It looks very simple but it’s conceptually pretty complex.” In what may be a long shot of an interpretation, she posits that the hoop is a metaphor for the “nature of being human and the struggle we endure as human beings [both] mental and physical”  Whether or not it shifts our perspective of the world, Lamson’s piece does force its audience to reexamine assumptions about its environment. “We’re all used to the standards,” says Stanton. “[Basketball hoops are] ten feet off the ground, but this one is almost 2.5 times the norm, and that much harder to play on.  This idea of pushing yourself and exaggerating your physical limits, that theme is very present in his work.” ArtSpace’s website puts the task in simpler terms, inviting visitors to “Please play and enjoy!”

Just as Lamson’s art pushes its viewers to reconsider their everyday experiences, ArtSpace pushes city residents to reconsider their relationship with art. Each year, the non-profit gallery puts on nearly twenty shows predominately featuring local artists. While many of ArtSpace’s exhibitions take place in its downtown gallery, the organization also likes to spread art throughout the city. During its monthlong festival “City-Wide Open Studios” every October, ArtSpace presents installations in derelict New Haven buildings and willing artists open their private studios to the public. The Lot, an abandoned parking lot turned public transit site, is another example of the organization’s mission to blur the boundaries between artistic and urban spaces.. In creating work for the site, Lamson understood the Lot’s powerful potential to encourage community engagement with an underused corner of the city. “I hope that people see [Long Shot] as a means of personalizing public space,” he explains.

Although the city undoubtedly benefits from ArtSpace’s exhibitions, the biggest boons go to emerging artists eager to secure spaces to exhibit their work.  Lamson, who graduated from the Bard MFA program in 2006, explained, “I think that for public artwork, the Lot space is a really great base for emerging artists to try ideas.  There are places like this in New York, but that lot in downtown New Haven is special.”  New Haven, often known for the things it lacks, has abundant open space.  Lots that have laid vacant for years are fertile ground for new artists to grow their ideas.  “There aren’t a lot of empty spaces in New York that non-profit art spaces can do public projects.  There are places in New York like Central Park… but for artists like me this wouldn’t have been an opportunity that presented itself.”

He is hesitant to classify his work, but after careful deliberation Lamson decides, “If I had to use one word, I would use the word intervention.  With most of my recent work, I take something that exists in the landscape and I change it or add something to it.”

As I hurl the basketball up at the distant hoop one last time, I realize that just by stepping onto the derelict court I too have intervened. The ball hits the rim, wavers on the edge, and goes in.

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