Conservation of mass is a scientific law holding that matter can neither be created nor destroyed. And it applies in one sense to Elsewhere, the living museum, junk-culture archive and ongoing collaborative art project in downtown Greensboro.
It’s a closed system where nothing comes in or goes out. Instead, all the things there stay in one place and are transformed.
Or as Elsewhere co-founder George Scheer puts it, “Everything created comes from destroying something.”
Elsewhere takes up all three floors of a 12,000-square-foot building erected in 1939, just a few blocks down Greensboro’s Elm Street from the old Woolworth’s building that holds the International Civil Rights Center and Museum. What Elsewhere has to offer to artists is an archive consisting of nearly six decades worth of detritus accumulated by the late Sylvia Gray, who ran a secondhand store and boarding house there until her death in 1997.
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After Gray’s death, her inheritors padlocked the building and it sat dark and quiet, populated only by the vast array of objects she left behind. And it stayed that way until 2003, when Gray’s grandson Scheer came down from college in Philadelphia to attend a Phish concert at Greensboro Coliseum.
His grandmother’s eccentric history was a part of family lore, and Scheer was curious to see the inside of her old building himself. So he and friend Stephanie Sherman went in, witnessed the mountains of ordinary household goods – and came up with an idea as quirky as Gray had been herself: to offer up Gray’s archive as raw material and blank canvas for visiting artists. “Hoardiculture,” they jokingly called it.
“The initial idea from other people was to move everything out and turn it into a community space, but Stephanie and I had to fight back against that,” Scheer said. “What matters is keeping everything here and sculpting from what is available. The traces of what’s left behind will be the story of the communities that come through – artists, ideas, questions. It’s all a work of art, but it’s been pirated for parts.”
‘Nothing for sale’
Over the past decade or so, more than 1,000 artists have passed through Elsewhere from as far away as Japan and Tasmania, boarding on the second floor of the building as they work. Raw material is all around them, as the building’s every nook and cranny is stuffed with every household item imaginable – suitcases, furniture, board games, appliances, sundries, clothes, tools, toiletries and on and on. If you can think of it, it’s probably here, although it might not be easy to find.
“It’s a collection that was put together through happenstance,” Scheer said. “It’s 100 years of material waste, basically.”
Nothing is off-limits; even the kitchen and bathrooms can be used for installations. Whatever gets made here, however, stays here.
Nothing in or out, and nothing for sale
Guido Villalba Portel, Elsewhere’s communications director
“Nothing in or out, and nothing for sale,” said Guido Villalba Portel, Elsewhere’s communications director.
Some works do last for a while beyond the artists’ time there, like the huge dream catcher hanging from the ceiling made of thousands of garments, or the tornado made of baby dolls on the second floor. “Glass Forest,” which University of Alabama assistant professor Jane Cassidy concocted this summer from mirrors and light and ambient sound, also shows signs of staying around.
“Since nothing leaves, artists don’t take their work,” Scheer said. “Material is available to be continually transformed and the objects rotate. There’s nothing going up or down, no displays being transferred. Some pieces do retain memories of others. The challenge to the artists who come here is how much of a mark they want to try and leave.”
It also remains to be seen what will happen to “They Believe in Unicorns,” which Antoine Williams (who teaches at Greensboro’s Guilford College) assembled this summer in reaction to the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile police shootings. Consisting of collaged Life magazine covers on the walls (painted over and then sanded down) plus a warped figure made of army-surplus tents and shattered wood, it’s a thoughtful and unsettling meditation on 21st-century racial politics.
“With Elsewhere, you’re drawn into this space, overwhelmed by all the history and materials and told, ‘OK, make something,’ ” Williams said. “It’s a challenge. There’s the shock of everything here to get over, then that first rush – ‘I can do this or this or this or 10 other things’ – and you come back to reality, edit it down. I wouldn’t have been able to do this anywhere else.
“If you need everything to be pristine and orderly, Elsewhere is probably not for you,” Williams added. “But for artists who like to use unconventional materials and get their hands dirty, I’d highly recommend it.”
Little of this possibility was immediately obvious back in 2003, when Scheer and Sherman began Elsewhere’s transformation. Everything was in random, disorganized piles and the building was in rough shape, windows boarded up. So they commenced to sorting.
For artists who like to use unconventional materials and get their hands dirty, I’d highly recommend it.
Antoine Williams, artist and teacher at Greensboro’s Guilford College
“We spent two years moving things around,” Scheer said. “And we still are.”
Once it became obvious that it was too big a job for just them, Scheer and Sherman enlisted volunteers, starting with a group from the University of Michigan. Then they started applying for grants.
Between support from various arts councils and foundations including Kresge and Andy Warhol, plus a Kickstarter campaign, they raised $850,000 to fix up the building. Improvements include fixing the leaky roof, adding a large garden out back and adding central air and heat.
Early on, Elsewhere had to close during the cold winter months. But the improvements give it the capacity to operate year-round. The building is still owned by Scheer’s uncle, and Elsewhere has a 40-year lease that runs into the 2050s.
The place is as overwhelming as ever for newcomers.
The first time I walked in, I did not quite know what to make of it.
Marshall N. Price, curator at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art
“The first time I walked in, I did not quite know what to make of it,” said Marshall N. Price, curator at Duke University’s Nasher Museum of Art. “I’d never been in an arts institution like that before and it’s a pretty unusual place. They’ve really flipped the script of what it means to be a museum, in a good way, wrapping it all up in an old five-and-dime shop.”
Of course, the sheer volume of material makes the Elsewhere archive a work of art unto itself. It’s a place that is, in Scheer’s words, “about the lineage of things.” As he points out, there are a few nearby antique and junk shops that could be “Elsewheres waiting to happen.”
“Why come up with fiction when it’s all here?” Scheer asked with a rhetorical flourish, gesturing toward the expanse of cast-off items within Elsewhere. “When I got here, fiction was what I was interested in, telling stories. But the best stories are the non-fiction ones. And this modernist-genius idea that all artists are alone in their attics working in isolation seems untrue and disingenuous. Art is not out of context and separate from the world.
“This place has been cared for by thousands of people over time who left serious marks, even if those marks don’t exist anymore,” he concluded. “That shouldn’t be lost in all this. It’s not about me or any one person’s vision. I just helped set up the conditions to make it possible. The whole thing has unfolded in ways I could never have imagined.”
What: Elsewhere Museum
Where: 606 S. Elm St., Greensboro
When: Open 1-10 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday
Cost: A $5 donation is requested
Contact: 336-907-3271 or goelsewhere.org