Remaking the Everyday: A Visit to Elsewhere Museum

October 11, 2017

True to its name, Elsewhere is a place set apart and—forgive the cliché—a magical one at that. When I entered the former thrift shop-turned-museum for the first time, the surrounding bustle of downtown Greensboro, NC, melted away as I came face to face with an overwhelming amount of, well, old stuff. This may not sound like the makings of an enchanted land, but the surfeit of aging wares—hats, games, fabric, suitcases, yarn, toys, kitchenware, and so on—has been curated, stored, and assembled to create a unique aesthetic cosmos unto itself. Objects, arranged by category, fill shelves and cabinets from floor to ceiling, or have made their way into the art installations that fill every corner of 12,000-square-foot building. Somehow, Elsewhere is both chaotic in its excess and exacting in its organization. This so-called “living museum” feels like a fantasy realm, untouched by the “real” world outside—but this is an inaccurate, or at least only partial, description of Elsewhere.

The building that now houses the museum and its artist residency and community programs was not always such a whimsical delight—it had a previous, more mundane life. In 1939, Sylvia Gray opened the space as a secondhand store and boarding house; in the 1960s the boarding house closed but the store continued to operate until Gray’s death in 1997. Subsequently, the building, unsold goods and all, remained locked away until 2003, when Gray’s grandson George Scheer and his friend Stephanie Sherman paid a visit during a break from college. Both writers, Scheer and Sherman decided to transform the space into an artist residency space called Elsewhere. And rather than cleaning out the accumulated junk, as one might expect, they instead tied themselves to it forever with a single house rule: “nothing in, nothing out.”

Far from stunting the creation inside Elsewhere, this self-imposed limitation has fostered a universe at 606 South Elm Street that overflows with imagination and creativity. Born of their shared belief that all art remakes that which precedes it, Scheer and Sherman imagined that the litter inside would be continuously recycled into new artistic manifestations by artist residents who came and went. They saw the store’s space as a blank page and the detritus it contained as words to be endlessly shaped and reshaped on that page. The house rule became the foundation of Elsewhere’s artist residency program. Whatever their media or practice, residents are asked to contribute to Elsewhere’s extant world, rather than create individual works to be removed and sold. The artists use only the physical materials at hand to make works on-site, with the understanding that whatever remains of their projects may be disassembled, added to, or removed by future residents. Because artists cannot remove and sell their creations, the commodification inherent to the art world necessarily dissolves inside Elsewhere. While the mantra of “process over product” in the arts has been so oft-repeated as to become meaningless, Elsewhere’s guiding rule demonstrates true commitment to this perspective—since the artist will never possess any product, she must invest in the process, as well as to her contribution to the ongoing collective enterprise. Making art in Elsewhere is a radical act of generosity, divorced from the capitalism that drives the world outside—magical, indeed.

Elsewhere also experiments in communal living. Unlike typical residencies that provide solitary working environments for artists, their residents live and work together inside the museum, through which visitors and community collaborators freely flow. Artists come for two to four weeks, typically in groups of six. They occupy neighboring rooms, recreating Gray’s boarding house of yesteryear, and eat and cook together in the communal kitchen, which is also stop on the public museum’s tour. Far from helping artists escape, Elsewhere asks them to help forge an ongoing experimental community, one that melds art and life.

This museum has another otherworldly capacity: it makes junk valuable. Our common tendency today, of course, is to throw out and replace anything vaguely outdated, broken, worn out, or simply uncool. However, recognizing that the stuff of daily life does not disappear when it loses its obvious use or appeal, Elsewhere asks its residents to find or create its value. Scheer frames this situation positively, as the luxury of not being “without”—everything is a potential resource for art-making. Today, all of the materials he and Sherman discovered in 2003 remain in use, albeit in different forms: prints made with rust harvested from the house hang upstairs; vintage clothes and pages from old books form hanging tapestries; a large kitchen hourglass contains bits of broken glass now ground into sand.

Time, after all, is an essential if invisible component of Elsewhere. Despite their humble appearances, the worn wares have become repositories of past, present, and future. Winding my way through the space while reading and hearing the stories of the works on display, I thought of the many hands that have worked with these materials over the years and the various contexts in which they have done so. The stuff becomes a script, performed over and over in different ways, by different actors, in different theaters. Although defined by the public’s own forgetting of it, the junk “remembers.” It is the unwitting local historian.

In all of these ways, Elsewhere creates a place away from the mindset and practices of modern life and yet—and this is key—the museum is not meant to provide refuge away from reality. In fact, Elsewhere’s staff explicitly seeks artist residents interested in, as per its website, “participation, performance, reuse, public practice, social engagement, intersectional critique, urban intervention, and experimental living” —in other words, artists and modes of art-making that explicitly engage with others and within clear sociopolitical contexts. Elsewhere has developed several residency models, including an artist exchange between other U.S. cities and a residency particularly for Southern artists, that contribute to building a network of alternative-thinking artists across the region and the U.S. For all of the playfulness that permeates Elsewhere, the space takes seriously its engagement in the world beyond its walls.

Although its artists come from around the country, the museum has always sought to work locally and to support its community. Scheer sees the connection between national artists and local audiences as integral to Elsewhere’s mission and it’s an important consideration in resident selection. Elsewhere also offers retreats for groups of students and community organizations, and hosts several education programs for local youth to work with and learn from visiting artists. Currently, it runs an education program called QueerLab, in which queer youth create and publish an annual zine. Elsewhere also regularly hosts community talks, programs, and meals at which artists share their work. The museum even shares a public garden with two neighboring businesses, creating a space where its residents and locals freely intermingle. Residents of Elsewhere, then, agree not only to work within the house but also for, and alongside, the community of Greensboro and the region.

Integrating cultural life into downtown Greensboro has always been part of Elsewhere’s mission. Scheer, who is doing doctoral work on urban development and culture, is acutely aware of the museum’s place within the city’s development. By the 2000s Greensboro was suffering from high unemployment and poverty caused by, among other factors, the textile industry’s decline. Elsewhere’s opening coincided with the city’s reinvestment in its downtown, but the museum remains a unique fixture in its neighborhood. Rather than “revitalizing” the old Greenboro by razing and remaking it, it infuses the physical remnants of the city’s consumer history with its creative energy, programming, and the 50 national artists who visit each year. Similarly, Elsewhere has opened its space to, and partnered with, Greensboro’s political activist groups. Just as the museum remakes its mid-twentieth century materials, this new generation of actors revives and reimagines the city’s storied activism of the Civil Rights Movement.

The “collaborative futures” aspired to by Elsewhere in its mission statement depends on people, things, and site working together to create art and community. Yet in Elsewhere, as in Greensboro itself, these futures are always derived from remainders of the past. As smaller and particularly post-industrial cities across the U.S. reinvent themselves into hubs for new art and art spaces, Elsewhere provides a counterexample to the trend of refurbishing warehouses in ways disconnected from their prior functions and histories. As Scheer notes, building Elsewhere out of Greensboro’s leftovers and investing in its downtown required far more time and patience than simply clearing out buildings and giving them radically new identities. Elsewhere, then, provides a distinct model for re-animating a city’s cultural life, one that harnesses and builds on each site’s unique character and history. Elsewhere reminds city representatives and artists alike that the potential of raw material depends on the imaginative, coordinated efforts of the individuals who shape it. And perhaps most importantly, it reminds everyone who pays a visit to Elsewhere that the most meaningful magic doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

Alexandra Ripp is the Andrew W. Mellon DisTIL Postdoctoral Fellow at Carolina Performing Arts. She holds a MFA and DFA from Yale School of Drama. Her writing and play translations have appeared in Theater Journal, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, and Theater, where she also served as managing editor and associate editor. She has been a programmer and producer of the Ideas series of lectures and panels at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT.