A Relationship with Play

Joseph Hart and Ezequiel Olvera in conversation

Joseph Hart: What is the origin and intent of Court Space, and why now?

Ezequiel Olvera: Court Space originated out of necessity and my underlying interests in Mesoamerican ballcourts. I needed a place to document and exhibit some large paintings I was making. There weren’t many viable options, because I didn’t have any representation and wasn’t ideologically aligned with a majority of galleries in Los Angeles with the capacity to host such large works. I ended up using these neglected handball courts close to my parent’s house in South Pasadena where I spent a lot of time as a child in solitude. Those now destroyed courts of South Pasadena High School provided the perfect environment for art with few restrictions. After I quietly documented those paintings, I invited Marco Braunschweiler, a close friend and colleague, to use the courts to display these raw and tender sculptures about love. This exhibition developed into a series of programs with numerous artists focusing on courts and public places of play, along with organized basketball and tennis games.

Handball Court - A Side
Installation view, Marco Braunschweiler, 2019, South Pasadena High School Handball Courts (handball courts destroyed in 2020)

As an artist curator, my intent is to explore methods and practices rooted in conceptualism for the enactment of liberatory citizenship. I draw heavily from conceptual practices influenced by or rooted in critical consciousness, like those of Ana Mendietta, Luis Camnitzer, and Helio Oiticica. With the exception of Art Los Angeles Contemporary, all of Court Space’s exhibitions have been without permission from any authority or local city government. Having this in mind, artists collaborating with Court Space define their role as citizens and question their social political participation through interacting with public courts. It is my hope that Court Space expands emancipatory civic action and redefines how we conceptually utilize or experience what is public.

Public space is critical to how socio-political culture morphs and changes. More people are taking advantage of parks and public space due to COVID-19. Even though we are masked, courts and parks are places of community and intimacy. These are spaces of political protest and civic action where violence and racism can be combatted. Court Space is at the intersection of these layered social realities and engages them through art and a playful dialogue rooted in conceptualism.

Due to COVID-19 Los Angeles City issued an ordinance discouraging the use of public courts. They implemented this by removing basketball hoops from courts or locking them up with gates. Sometimes they would use wood or steering wheel bar locks to creatively dissuade play. But this opened up more opportunities for Court Space to create installations and programs.

JH: Can you describe your curatorial and programmatic goals?

EO: The goal of Court Space is to further critical consciousness through play and art. Curatorially, I see this happening through a program that supports rigorous performative, experimental, and socially engaging works that aren’t necessarily focused or reliant upon on the art object. I don’t desire to completely disregard objects, because I connect deeply with things and their metaphysics. Court Space has allowed me a greater, more intimate appreciation of art objects with the ability to distinguish their place in public environments. So adjacent to my goals with Court Space, I would like to have a physical project space devoted to objects titled: American Object. This space I envision operating like a commercial gallery or museum.

Gozie Ojini, Untitled (Basketballs), 2019
Gozie Ojini, Untitled (Basketballs), 2019, at Art Los Angeles Contemporary 2020

JH: What has been the response from people who frequent the courts? Has anyone been upset that they can’t play on the courts while art is on view? Can you imagine an exhibition of art objects that also allows people to play on the courts at the same time? What is Court Space’s relationship to the concept of “play”?

EO: The reactions of park visitors and regulars are most always pleasant, curious, and grateful. I try to find neglected or underused court locations so that space may be reinvigorated. My intent is not to kick people off courts or stop playing, because playing and art are of the same importance. If there is a court that is of interest, but heavily frequented, there are always liminal spaces in parks that can be used.

Your second question implies that art objects and people only can exist at the same time on the courts if one allows the other, or that an exhibition is a means to harmoniously unify the two disconnected things temporally. However, my perspective focuses on space as the holder of both art objects and play as equal, interconnected elements inhabiting the same ritual, always.

This perspective about the relationship between play and place is influenced by Mesoamerican culture, Nahuatl metaphysics, and ancient ball courts. I view play and the placing of art objects in public environments as methods to interact with space. Yet the most critical piece of this interaction is architecture, because it unifies these overlapping spheres of movement, culture, aesthetics, and art. Even if it is three solitary walls of brick, they are still the interface of play between humans and space. With this in mind, it is critical that Court Space continues to organize games, like basketball and tennis games on a regular basis, along with art programming. Games are also a really wonderful way to meet other artists and collectors outside of the hierarchical gallery environment.

Two people playing tennis. One reaches high for the ball while other in the background patiently waits

JH: What can Court Space offer that other art viewing spaces cannot?

EO: Court Space, as an extension of my curatorial practice, offers a viable method to host international art programming and form community. It is not an “alternative” method but commands the same institutional importance as sculpture gardens or public installations funded by museums or private collections. Court Space is rooted in critical consciousness with a Non-Eurocentric cultural history. Because courts are culturally universal, we can still operate within and around contemporary institutions basing their programming upon a narrow-minded historical importance of cultural centers, like Paris, New York, or London. My practice will always be rooted in the history of the Americas and will help American Object expand, like Court Space.

As I mentioned previously, Court Space also provides a method to connect with peers through play, rather than in galleries where competition and social pressure can be ostracizing. It’s a positive way to form community during COVID-19 when so many indoor social gatherings are unsafe.

JH: Why should people support and donate to Court Space, and how will donations be used?

EO: People should donate to Court Space and American Object, because they support the strength of my curatorial beliefs and foundations. These core beliefs are fundamental to the way Court Space and American Object will contribute meaning to the discourse of contemporary culture and art. People should donate because they understand Court Space represents a contemporary practice in dialogue with ancient history, and a method to unearth that history.

60 percent of the funds raised will be used for American Object to pay for a year’s rent in a small commercial space along with materials, supplies, and additional website costs, like email and digital archiving. The remaining 40% will be used for Court Space to compensate to artists for performance and installation-based work. We will allocate funds for permits and insurance policies to host events, as well as documentation, website upkeep, and storage.


Biographies:

Joseph Hart is a New York-based artist and founder/producer of Deep Color™—an oral history project and podcast that features artists and arts professionals discussing their work, ideas and lives—offering listeners a forthright and unique understanding about the process, experiences and people behind the artistic pursuit. Deep Color™ is a free resource for listeners and aims to feature a diverse range of lived experiences, career stages and areas of expertise.

You can view Joseph Hart’s work and read about his most recent exhibition, UNNAMABLE, at Halsey McKay Gallery here: halseymckay.com/joseph-hart-viewing-room

Ezequiel Olvera is an LA native artist and curator. Olvera directs Court Space, a project focused on critical consciousness around public sport courts. His writings have appeared in art publications and institutions including Topical Cream and The Museum of Contemporary Art. His work has been exhibited and collected by the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University; UC Irvine Claire Trevor School of the Arts, California; Santa Clara University; Los Angeles Contemporary Archives; and Otis Jackson Jr. (Madlib); among others. He has been interviewed on Marco’s Island, a podcast series on NTS Radio by Marco Braunschweiler.