The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament is slowly winding down. Sixty-four teams from across the nation will play in seeded brackets until only one, this year’s champion, is crowned. In identical fashion, albeit with less fanfare, sixty-four of women’s college basketball teams are toiling away with the same goal in mind: a national championship. Fans following the action try to pick the winning teams in office pools, online brackets, or even Warren Buffett’s one billion dollar challenge to pick the winner of each game correctly, which no one won.
On another front, the New Craft Artists in Action (NCAA) are basketball fanatics of a different sort. The collective, based in Boston but with tentacles stretching out across the world, is crafting exuberant variants of hand-stitched basketball nets and hanging them on hoops everywhere. As team captain, Maria Molteni describes NCAA as a “Craftivist collective that addresses public space, diversity, collaboration, feminism, and interdisciplinary learning.” The collective assembles hand-made basketball nets for abandoned hoops, usually via knit and crochet, to build relationships between artists, athletes, and neighbors. Here the form and function of the “street” and the “domestic” collide in handmade tactical aesthetics that express dissidence and generate new approaches.” I spoke to Molteni recently in Boston.
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Robert Moeller: How did the New Craft Artists in Action get their start and just how formal an arrangement is it?
Maria Molteni: One thing I really like about most craft-based graffiti is that the individual is less important than the group or community. It’s less about the historically male-dominated tendency to slap your name on everything, like pissing on a fire hydrant. But I still believe that the individual’s need for expression and particularly a woman’s refusal to conform or stay quiet is very important. I also wanted to encourage other people to make nets for their own neighborhoods and feel the sort of thrill I was finding in the process. But since I had this weird, self-taught approach to craft, I knew I couldn’t teach people very easily. I wanted to develop the educational and community-engaging ascpects of the project and I knew I couldn’t do this alone.
I invited Andrea Evans and Taylor McVay, both amazing women with strong skill sets and educational experiences, to host workshops on a technique of their choice. We documented lectures, workshops, and installs and started sending nets with friends who were traveling the world, asking them to document and plot them on our networks map. I put a lot of work into our blog so that fans could keep up with the action. The feedback we received from a wide variety of communities was incredible. There was almost immediately a demand for materials and lessons that we could hardly supply. So the three of us, with the design duo Golden Arrows dreamed up an idea for a zine that would walk people through the process of making nets on their own and we officially decided to call ourselves the New Craft Artists in Action, obviously riffing off of the NCAA. We’ve started offering workshops to groups spanning after school programs, at-risk adult houses, and college-level arts intensives.
RM: There is a distinct relationship between art making and sports that’s rarely talked about. Can you elaborate on the parallels between the two, not perhaps the commercialized aspects but rather the practice behind the practice, the things that those looking in might not see at first glance?
MM: I really like all of the stuff of sports — stomp/clap rhythms, chants, pep rallies, whistles, buzzers and mascots. I used to pray a rosary per day (50 Hail Mary’s) and shoot 100 free throws and report back to my dad on how many I made. On a very basic level most art and athletic pursuits require great rigor, hand-eye coordination, and strategic arrangement of forms or people in space. Skills such as these must be honed over years of practice. Practice often calls for repetitive, rhythmic actions or processes that both hone and expand ones physical/mental/emotional potential.
We often talk about the audio-kinetic and aesthetic values that a basketball net brings to the game. Artists often look for this type of satisfaction in their work. I think basketball is interesting because the act of shooting hoops can be a repetitive, meditative form of solitaire, while playing a game demands great physical and mental energy to coordinate with a team of people in complex spacial scenarios. Knitting is beautifully repetitive and therapeutic, but also has a rich history as a social and collaborative process.
RM: The word “practice” is used intrinsically in sports and art, as well as other professions. Ultimately, it implies a modesty of approach combined with the idea that complete expertise is an illusion.
MM: Practice is an interesting word in this context, especially because the NCAA is often associated with “social practice” art approaches. A few years back, when Claire Bishop lectured at the Creative Time Summit, she suggested that this labeling attempts to place socially engaged art at the level of a doctor or lawyer’s practice. But I think of practice as relating more to process, growth, and experiential learning as opposed to professional qualifications.
RM: Are we, too, in a way talking about craft’s sometimes fraught or confused connection to what are generally considered supposedly valid art world concerns?
MM: I’m not sure there has to be such confusion… We don’t necessarily consider ourselves “yarn bombers” but I’m happy to associate with this world of makers and doers, especially to the extent they reinventing graffiti, which is certainly being accepted if not exploited by the art world lately. I like the term Craftivist, coined by Betsy Greer, because it encompasses the tactile and tactical, which is very much in keeping with the concerns of art.
RM: And the defining aesthetics of a Craftivist would be…?
MM: Many artists today choose a material or technique according to how it may best manifest their ideas. The first basketball hoop was a peach basket — a fiber/craft-based found object. (One woman who bought a Net Work for her home compared the piece to Duchamp, which was flattering, but not off track). As the hoop evolved, it moved away from a certain type of utilitarian form to accommodate the needs of the game itself. Our project digs deep into this history and reflects the material and social concerns of both then and now. We are choosing specific materials and practices in consideration of this larger picture, which many craft-based critical artists also do.
RM: Is there a sociological aspect to the project as well? Are the people who play on the basketball the courts you rehabilitate partners here or simply bemused spectators?
MM: Something that has played out very well is that we aren’t forcing anything. One reason I tend to introduce people to my background with sports and art is to show them that I have a personal invested interest in this process. I want to get to know you as a person and vice versa.
There are so many ways to be involved and people very naturally take to the project. You can simply keep your eyes peeled and mark hoops on our map if you feel so inclined, join us for workshops, host workshops, or just play on the nets. People may enter wherever they choose to engage and we try to be really open to the preferences and reactions of neighborhood kids who come running to check out what we’re doing. I actually just finished a “commission” of sorts for some boys in Boston who pleaded for a red, purple and black net. I had just bumped into them while playing so it didn’t make sense to, say, get their phone numbers and invite them to make it with me. So I continued the relationship through a simple gesture, putting the net up for them to find it when I was finished.
We are looking at history and industry with a critical eye, studying those things. But I don’t think we are trying to study participants, nor exclusively perform for them. We’d like to gain friends and collaborators, not subjects and certainly not spectators. We are very critical of spectatorship in the US, consumer culture and inactive engagement with the sports world.
RM: The history of basketball in this country is largely about race. How is that something you approach? Is it a subject you take on directly?
MM: We certainly address this in the opening essay of our book that outlines the history of basketball, and its relationship to the empowerment of marginalized communities in the US and beyond. In practice, we try to approach things on a personal level. We aren’t so focused on a demographic and perhaps we’re lucky to be working with a phenomenon that has affected so many types of people across the globe.
Sports have become a common language that most can understand. They may provide an even playing field for upward mobility. On the other hand they may promote unhealthy competition or exploitation. We feel that we can maintain a reverence for the history and development that so many have contributed to this game over the years but still shift gears a bit. We may show people that art can also be for everyone in a way that encourages you to be critical and expressive, to question structures and rebuild them.