One recent evening, I met up with the artist Jeremy John Kaplan in Chelsea. Kaplan and I have known each other for years, mostly through his roles at galleries in the neighborhood, but today we were somewhere very unfamiliar (to me): the basketball court at Dr. Gertrude B. Kelly Playground. He wore a white uniform (bucket hat, t-shirt, and overalls) and stood on a gold-painted step ladder just below one of the baskets. The getup is somewhere between official-looking uniform and attention-grabbing costume. Fiddling with the hoop, over the course of a few minutes, Kaplan installed a brand new, bright gold net. But nobody had asked him to install it — certainly not the Department of Parks & Recreation. This was tactical urbanism meets performance. This was the latest installation of Kaplan’s Gold Nets Project.
An artist and a basketball player since childhood, Kaplan has dedicated himself to solving a problem that he ran into on countless public courts: no nets (or, best case scenario, nets that are old and deteriorating). Since 2005, and especially over the last year, Kaplan has been making this simple improvement on courts in New York City and around the world.
Each installation, of now almost 300 in total, is documented in a series of photos and mapped on the project’s website. Many are incorporated into Kaplan’s studio practice, with a series of cyanotypes and other works that utilize before-photos of the courts and scraps of deteriorating nets that he sometimes finds there.
If, like me, you don’t play much basketball, you may be wondering how much the Gold Nets Project is really improving courts. Is it just decoration? A meaningless jumping-off point for Kaplan’s studio practice? Or are nets part of the game? After all, in New York City, some rims are even specially-built so that nets can’t be attached, and the Department of Parks & Recreation has said, “Nets are not a critical piece of equipment” on a court. But most players disagree.
When I returned to Kelly Playground about a week after Kaplan’s installation there, I asked a few of the regulars if they’d noticed the change. Yes, of course, they said. Jahvon, a teenager who played at the court often, told me, “Nets make everything better.” The rest of the players enthusiastically agreed. Nets, it seems, are definitely critical pieces of equipment.
Court regulars who see Kaplan at work sometimes assume that he’s a Parks employee. They’ll ask him to repaint the lines or fix the busted lights. Kaplan uses these moments for community building and education, explaining that he’s just a player like them, and when the Parks department falls short, the players have every right to help maintain their own courts. No nets? Easy fix. Lines are faded? Pick up a paintbrush.
The flashy (and high quality) gold nets, coupled with Kaplan’s installation ritual, are markers that an improvement has been made. While critical, this is only the first step. In Kaplan’s ideal world, a few inexpensive nets should lead to improvements to the entire court.
Of course, not all improvements are DIY affairs, and a net here or there is not an overnight fix to under-funded and poorly maintained public parks. To date, Kaplan has installed 291 nets at 112 courts and repainted the lines on 2 as a one-man art project, funded out of his own pocket and by the sale of his basketball-inspired artworks. But Kaplan sees a future where that scales up. He envisions formalizing the Gold Nets Project into an international network of home-court caretakers who work to maintain their courts, fundraise for improvements, and collaborate with cities to make sure that proper maintenance is done.
You might look at the Gold Nets Project through the lens of performance, sculpture, photography, or tactical urbanism. I think of it as a still-evolving experiment in maintaining our shared public spaces. Is it an improvement? Yes. Do people care? Yes. Will they care enough, be inspired enough, to follow the same model? That answer is still to come, but I think cities would be more exciting places if Kaplan’s actions can get more players to agree.