Court Space is pleased to launch a series of published conversations about sport courts. The project’s inaugural dialogue is a conversation between artist Dana Washington-Queen and curator Ezequiel Olvera on Queen’s new video work, Ode to AND1: Notes on the Sporting Black Body.
During the peak of COVID19 Quarantine procedures, I asked Dana if they would like to engage in a dialogue about the court as a psychological space. I desired to mutually delve into our deep-rooted memories, feelings, and connection with courts. In a way, the court became an architecture for our interior selves to sweat out notions of race, gender, sexuality, and blackness.
Ezequiel Olvera: Let’s imagine the court as a place in your mind where your inner self plays. You can do whatever you want and there are no rules. This is yours. A calm quiet breezes through the court while you shoot the ball around:
How do you feel? Where are you? What does that court look like? Are you close to home? How are you shooting the ball? What is the weather like? Are you playing a certain style? Are you focusing on a certain shot? What type of ball is it? How old are you?
Dana Washington: I am transported to my childhood home. It feels nostalgic. There’s a sort of roughness in my memory, but it makes me smile to envision my 13-year old self, again. She was obsessed with basketball, everything was basketball. I found freedom in it.
EO: Now that you have a crystal clear image of this in your mind, hold onto it. Maybe write, draw, or create a melody; whatever you can to hold this inner self as a true player that is with you and in you.
Take a deep breath and when you are ready, come out of Dana’s court.
In giving context to the piece you introduce the importance of community with your sisters and church. Your identity is being formed around you along with learning how you command authority, discipline, and the ways you evolve. It’s in this stage that you are introduced to the AND1 Mix Tapes and assimilating with a much larger social context. Dana is drawing an identity from these videos, among a plethora of elements in your childhood and life. Some would call this process individuation.
I imagine there are a lot of differences between who you see in the tapes and your self. In the same way, I would look up to painters and artists, but the galleries which they inhabited were so culturally far from the streets of Boyle Heights where my grandmother raised me in. So there were a lot of comparisons I made while ingesting culture; some good and some bad, because they made me feel like the ‘other’. In this way, I can relate to something I imagine you going through.
Did you see differences in the Mixtapes between who you were and the type of bodies captured?
DW: There’s a lack of a definitive sense of time in my Personal History – I should clear that up. Between five and eleven years of age, my sisters and I went from co-ed tee-ball baseball to girl’s slow-pitch softball, then to fast-pitch softball. This “fastness” signaled a shift in organized sports for me. It never sat right to have a ball voluntarily thrown in my direction and I begged my parents to not play anymore. I was in fifth or sixth grade at this point. I already had expressed an interest in basketball but wasn’t part of any team.
From 1996 onward, playing basketball at the house was the Court Space, if you will, that allowed me to become the person that I wanted to be. I was eleven. At this age you start putting things into context about your gender and expression: behaviors, how to dress, brands to wear, who you like, who you want to like you, and etc. Around this time, my kid brain associated softball with girliness. All the girly-girls played softball and that wasn’t me. I was heavily influenced by my then-stepfather; he wore NBA Starter jackets — and I had male cousins who played ball and bought shit from Eastbay magazine. It was easier to run with them than with the prissy girls. And watching them play ball was exciting. It was aggressive and soulful and seemed expansive enough for any type of personality to fit in. So yeah, certainly, the process was about individuation.
I wanted to break away from what my sisters were doing. I understood that my mannerisms, the way that I moved my body, replicated the ways the black men in my family moved. They never said anything about the language of my gestures, neither did my mother — so there wasn’t a difference to me. All I knew was, after seeing Allen Iverson crossover Michael Jordan, it was a wrap. He became my reference. I wanted to be the girl-version of Iverson and this was the start of breaking free; becoming me. After that moment, AND 1 basketball gave me another vocabulary for movement. It was slippery and incoherent, mirroring the lives of the players.
EO: Where is the female you, Dana, see or project in these videos? Among the bodies and the faces you see, is there a single person that you feel you are in another life? In this life? Where/Who is feminine in these tapes? (Obviously, you define your own gender, and I’m sorry if it sounds as if I am projecting a gender onto you. You can always correct me as to your pronouns)
What do you see or wish in these videos? And now that we are in quarantine, why watch these videos? Also, why give an ode? Who and what are we giving an ode to?
DW: There’s for sure a departure gender-wise, but it’s relative. Among the bodies and faces, I saw athletes, so I saw myself. There are incredible differences in the range of athleticism based on sex; I didn’t fixate on the masculine and feminine, but in my head, I was Iverson because I could cross people over like Iverson. I fixated on their skill and innovation. With this in mind, I don’t think that projection is necessarily paramount to Ode to AND1 Basketball: Notes on the Sporting Black Body, possibly intrinsic, or maybe there’s a desire for the viewer to locate me within the footage that I am deconstructing; in either case, I think that it’s more about a non-voyeuristic observation through embodiment. As an athlete, it’s about being shaped by the performance of these black athlete’s motion and imagining my black athletic body within that motion. It’s also about encountering a physical vernacular through the moving-image and wanting to speak their language. The movements are a reference point for replication, and now, it’s a process:
To envision my body within their performing body through embodiment
To use my body to replicate their movements
To succeed in learning their language, to have a dialogue…to play their style of play and presenting it on the court.
Why watch the AND1 Mixtapes now? Going back to the idea of the reference, the Mixtapes were simply sports highlight compilations with corporate funding. AND1 Mixtape Vol. 1 was primarily focused on Rafer Alston, who was a player finding his way through the college circuit toward the NBA, but it also featured other playground legends touring New York. In a way, his story mirrors a phenomenon of non-conventional methods of discovering talent, like on Instagram. The platform is a breeding ground for young, emerging athletes and their content. The way that my Discovery Feed is set up, I see kids as young as seven-years-old on the court with trainers practicing. And there’s always a videographer or someone with a camera there to capture their games, progress, dribbling combos and boom! now there’s a highlight tape for some big sports media company to distribute. The videos are equally a reference to the player’s ability and a pathway to change their circumstance.
For truth, the goal is not just to use the highlight compilations to pursue collegiate level play or even professional, but the ways in which ballplayers are using their bodies to manipulate the sport’s form, is in a way, breaking it open. It’s beautiful to witness how far something can be reconfigured. For instance, Lisa Leslie dunking in the WNBA produced something within Candance Parker and Brittney Griner. Now, there are women at 5-foot 10-inches dunking, that’s a helluva evolution. Stephen Curry changed the pace and shot selection in the NBA; there are more three-pointers attempted than points attempted in the paint. If you look at James Harden’s one-legged step-back three, it sounds crazy, but it’s changing the game in a new way. The bottom line is that we are encountering moving-images, these influence human beings because it’s the closest thing to reality, but it’s a reference point. It’s a reference that you can return and return to again. In all, I give an ode because of the ways in which the black mind operates and the ways in which the black body maneuvers—black people have always moved toward innovation: for creation.
EO: At the end of your Personal History you write:
“As a child, I memorized the streetball player’s mastery on the court. In dream-state, I envisioned my body within their performing/competing bodies, knowing their perception on the court. I was expectant and capable because I could see it.”
You go on:
“The isolation was voluntary, the imagining was a result. There has always been a knowing in basketball, it’s biological, psychological, and sociological.”
…The “imaginary defender that stepped to me.”
It seems your narrative takes a transformation from the beginning to the end. We begin in physical community and end in an isolated, internal, and imaginary court space. In this place, Blackness and playing ball seem to be your bridge into the world of AND1, a past community of players capturing themselves in a certain way.
I see that they project a certain narrative of the Black male, one that often reoccurs in music, media, and movies from the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
But how is this reflection happening during COVID? How does this reflection specific to basketball culture happen now that the NBA is on pause? How do you relate to this?
DW: It’s interesting because I made Ode to AND1 prior to the pandemic. I cut the footage and recorded the audio the day before my wedding day on February 1, 2020. If you think about it, getting married is a big life event, right? Things are naturally going to change. When I revisited AND1 Mixtape Vol. 1, it felt nostalgic. Now, as an adult who is rarely on the basketball court and who misses the rush of pushing their body—it was about remembering history. Conversely, when I was younger and engaging the footage, I was approaching a different crossroads: identity formation. This formation had everything to do with choosing who I wanted to be. It had everything to do with obtaining freedom within my body and learning about the freedom of moving my body in the world. The basketball court space was a place where I could get free, and it’s the same for black male and female and non-binary athletes. Within that space, we’re liberated from outsider’s projections and -isms. Yes, professional athletes are still commodities and objectified, but they’re able to operate freely in their bodies in the court space.
If you look at sports in general, you have to have a certain level of confidence and self-possession. I see organized, competitive sports as an outlet to reckon with real-life frustrations. Black athletes use raw skill to build up a knowledge of the game, to learn about the mindset and skillset of opponents, have to think and re/act quickly. It’s an extension of what our ancestors in bondage had to do, operating in systems of oppression: our ingenuity is part intuition, part attention to detail, part putting a spin on it, imagining something different in this body and in the world… I guess this reflection is uncanny since COVID-19… You know, the inability to move freely with your body and in the world. I mean, this has always been a concern for most black people in America: the desire to move freely without the risk of violence or capture or frankly, being bothered. To quote someone very dear to me, “COVID-19 is just another thing trying to kill black people”. To be politically correct, everyone is at risk. However, I think for folks who have never been put in peculiar situations, they are being forced to get crafty real quick. We are all trying to figure it out on the fly. I’m sitting in my defensive stance, waiting to make the right move at the right instance, to come-up on something…making a way out of no way.
Ezequiel, what does blackness or the black male or female or non-binary body mean to you? What does the movement of a black body mean within your psyche?
EO: In answering this, I want to go back to what you said earlier about finding, projecting, and defining yourself through media of Black bodies playing basketball. In a very conscious, physical, and visceral way, you have created and chosen your own version of Blackness and the black body by synthesizing media.
But for me, I have passively and unconsciously ingested a perspective of the Black body into my subconscious through media. Deep inside I perceive Black women as ugly hags, like the Black Annis or wretched Kali. When applied to Black males this perception passes them through archetypes of Orcs, Goblins, and the Prawns from District 9. Non-Binary Black people equally get the ugly sauce from both of these imagined worlds.
I’ve learned to associate these archetypes with Black people and Black skin through everything. These messages have been woven into my American upbringing in institutions and media. To reiterate, my subconscious has been passively trained.
In comparison, I perceive whiteness to be clean, sterile, sophisticated, and desirable. I perform whiteness in many environments, but especially in the art world in Los Angeles. I perform for white females and I view myself as inferior to them, or as something exotic in their eyes. Performing whiteness in the art world lowers me, a beautiful human, into a childish Latinx imp living in a fantasy where Black people are ogres and white people are deities.
At the end of the day, I place my faith in sport courts. They are these ancient spaces belonging to all cultures where spiritual transformation (alchemy) can happen. All of these learned perceptions, both conscious and unconscious, can be boiled down to their atomic level and rearranged. It’s the heated place where bodies move, exercise happens, and blood circulates. Spiritual matter can be changed.
Even now, through revisiting AND1 with you and slowly watching those games through your eyes, I feel like my subconscious is changing, like from weak offense to a winning defense.
This change is not something that conceptually hangs out in a dusty art book or on social media. This is something that I take out into my life; when I organize art exhibitions; when I walk around my community; and especially when I play basketball.
EO: Lastly, I want to acknowledge the location of streetball in a liminal space intersecting civic community and popular sports culture. How has your identity been formed on the border between your life on the street (civic life, walking around, behaving outside your home), and an interior life (domestically in your home, with your family or partner)?
DW: What I’ve learned about the in-between is that life is a performance. A lot of the things that generate interest, opportunity, financial security is about performance. Whether it’s sports entertainment, community-engagement, the contemporary art world, health care, religious ministries, or other large market corporations and institutions; the body and psyche are required to perform in some way. But also, most of us with black or brown bodies have been performing and enduring in some way since we knew we were “other”. The space-between has taught me that as soon as the first buzzer sounds, there’s space to operate as who you need to be in order to obtain what you’re after, and then, when the last buzzer goes off… you drink some water, you take a breath, exchange high fives, get your ass lit up by the coach in the locker room, but then that performance is over. You get to go home. My wife and I call our space, “The Black Healing Home,” because we can take off all the uniforms, hats and masks that we wear throughout the day, and just really nurture our spirits. She’s a home-birth midwife, deep in the intersection between the community and personal spaces, our home is the liminal space. In revisiting AND1 Mixtape Vol. 1, it provided me the space (within my home) to reminisce about my time as a basketball player, someone hungry to learn and evolve as a player and young person. Those videos were a space to watch the beauty of black ball players, not confined to the institution of the National Basketball Association, they could just be themselves and play ball. Their performance mirrored their lifestyle, they played hard and aggressive, and fed off the energy and support of fans. That’s hella beautiful.
As an aside, being in the midst of COVID-19, the home or dwelling space has become a kind of liminal space shifting toward another in between: virtual space. The way in which we engage is, simultaneously, in an incubation period, but it is also trying to stretch out. We’re having to socialize through Zoom, Skype or FaceTime, distanced learning, virtual art shows and auctions… all this incredibly amazing and disturbing shit is happening on our devices, but it’s strangely fostering another kind of community engagement and economic production.
dana washington-queen is an artist whose work intersects experimental film and documentary practices, photography, narrative prose-poetry, and theoretical writing.
Thematically, they explore cultural and personal history, memory and fiction, and digital space to examine race, gender, sexuality, language, and visual representation. Their work is a negotiation between the black subject and black subjectivity, blackness and liberation, technique, and (ill)legibility. They are developing a research project framed around black noetic theory (BNT) to consider how blackness, interiority, and performance are embedded in modes of production, for which to imagine black existence otherwise in audiovisual space.
In this way, the black body, psyche, and spirit are fugitive of antiblack forums &/or oversimplified representations to unlock sites of passage for emerging visual forms, meanings, aesthetics, and categories.
BNT will allow me to develop an individualized visual language through image, sound, text, and performance that operates adjacent to conventional, classic forms of cinema and video production.