On a warm April afternoon in 2003, George Scheer and I opened the door to his grandmother’s old thrift store in sleepy downtown Greensboro, NC, which had been closed up and boarded shut since her 1997 passing. The building was full of bags and books and boxes and furniture, clothing, electronics, toys, dolls, army surplus, wood, tools, knick-knacks, kitchen-wares, fabrics, appliances--piled in mountains deep throughout the three-story building, with a little footpath winding through this immense puzzle of things. Proprietress, collector, and hoardiculturalist Sylvia Gray built this astounding inventory over 58-years, collecting surplus daily from nearby stores and companies. A child of the depression, Sylvia saw the potential value of the everyday objects, and with a penchant for mis-prints, knots, meta-bagging, and multiples, she amassed far more than she sold, leaving the immense collection to her family after she died without order or future destination.
Sylvia and Joe Gray opened in 1939 as a second-hand furniture store--selling repaired imports of re-possessed depression surplus, purchased in NY and sent south on the many trucks emptied of their deposit of new NC furniture. Soon after WWII, the family launched an army surplus workwear store and catalog sales company, mending goods on the third floor and selling to hospitals and boy scouts across the country via catalog and to downtown patrons on the first, while operating a four family boarding house on the second. In 1955, Joe, Sylvia’s husband, unexpectedly passed away, and Sylvia shifted her attention to fabric surplus from the local mills, and then clothing, and then slowly but surely every-thing imaginable, filling the 12,000 sq ft building to the brink with surplus, thrift, and antiques. She was notoriously difficult to deal with--if she liked you, $5. If not, $25. If you touched while you browsed she would kick you out, if she thought you were stealing she would lock you in. Sylvia believed that everything had its right owner, a specific trajectory, and she kept destiny over the objects, collecting and keeping, piling and compiling up and up and up.
When George and I rediscovered the store--we saw a testament, a psychosis of capital, a veritable encyclopedia of the detritus and surplus collective memory of a century of overproduction. The building of mountains was an installation in its own right, a beautiful metaphor for the ways memories sit and settle, the way ideas are encapsulated in entanglements and thoughts often seem like broken things and illogical architectures. The collection housed symbols of our childhood, nostalgic patterns, iconic Americana and incredibly ordinary parts and pieces. A child of the depression, Sylvia saw immense potential value in the everyday objects as more valuable than the money to which they converted. She collected the refuse of refuse, stocked far more than she sold, priced based on compatibility with its future owner, and eccentrically watched over her hoard. When she passed, her things were without destination--worth too little each on their own and too plentiful for her family to destroy or detangle. We were captivated by the stories and potential contained within the space, with this own astounding arrangement fascinating, tragic, beautiful all at once.
George offered that we fill a box of things to take back to school with us, and lo and behold the box made our Collaborative Fiction writing group come alive. Collaborative Fiction was project imagining ways for writers to co-produce--each participant developing a character and bringing them together in a shared plot. The costumes and props helped the group's imaginations take shape--and we performed, pretended, and played the characters we were inventing in their stories. The spring of senior year, this little box of stuff yielded many magical dinners in George's Philadelphia apartment, an unknown inkling of so many things to come.
Without much of a plan, George moved into the store, and declared nothing for sale, and convinced me to join him in that dirty dusty store in the small NC city. We created a fabric fort for camping in, and began sorting and organizing these things by kind and concept. Joined by collaborators from the University of Michigan, we slowly sculpted habitable environments for a creative community. Downtown Greensboro was just starting to wake up with a single coffee shop, and Elsewhere was on the “wrong side of the tracks” in the southern side of town, often the only late night light on the block. Thanks to a small grant from the Greensboro Arts Council, Elsewhere was born as a non-profit organization exploring this collection, a platform for local and global inquiry and an ongoing exploration of outmoded objects as a premise for arranging a new society. When we ran out of friends to help arrange and recreate, we posted online and founded a residency program inviting artists, scholars, and makers of all kinds to join us in rethinking value, objecthood, and collaboration.
Since discovering the store in 2003, Elsewhere has gone from a dusty store with one working electric socket across the three stories to an interactive world for rethinking living, working, and playing. 50 artists per year from around the world go Elsewhere per year, creating site-specific works with and within the living museum that forms an unusually intimate relationship between contemporary art process and people of all kinds. We worked with artists to build kitchens from the old appliances and libraries from the old books, a workshop from the wood, a fabric workshop for fabric projects, an education laboratory, and resident halls from the boarding house and furniture. We started hosting events to invite communities in to think, discover, learn, and play. The living museum now hosts 10,000 visitors per year who explore objects from their past and an endlessly new array of artworks that engage them. Elsewhere collaborates with organizations throughout Greensboro and across the globe that foster sustainable approaches rethinking things, people, and buildings.
As Co-Director of Elsewhere, I’ve been involved in founding, developing, and advancing the organization financially, organizationally, and creatively. I’ve designed collaborative systems that make information clear for volunteers, participants, members, artists, and museum visitors, and slowly built a staff from an internship program into a team of five curators, launched a community Board of Directors. I’ve helped lead thousands of building, design, organizing, curating, and event-based projects that open new ways to access the collection and connect with neighborhood communities. In 2007, we launched the Artist Conversation Series to help connect resident projects and drive traffic to the museum and our block. In 2008, we took over our alley as a community garden. In 2009, we started playing City, an impromptu performance game that treats the entire museum as a city with a button currency system and encouraging pretend, performance, and to provide a way of extracting the unusual and unique ways in which things and language form the substance for a battle of wits. In 2010, we helped to initiate designs and work to transform our front window into a storefront theater. In 2012, we hosted Read-Ins across the city in partnership with the Greensboro Civil Rights and History Museum, and we also helped to create a mural for the Greenway with artist group Primary Flight. In 2013, we published the Elsewhere Storybook, a text sharing the story of Elsewhere in a way everyone can understand. In 2014, we will shoot the Elsewhere TV show, taking City episodes to a new virtual level. The best thing about Elsewhere is that it is always changing, so ideas can be flexible, responsive, and done right then and there.
A unique grounds for social connection through a comfortable context and responsive, Elsewhere approaches the museum-as-medium, a constant experiment with collaborative systems, public storytelling, and shared resource. Elsewhere creates examples instead of models for imaginative approaches to recognizing history, inspiring transformation, and building connections through people of all kinds. It suggests alternative solutions for contending with our material culture. It priviledges extroversion, material and practice-based inquiry, play and pretend. It approaches things as symbols, tools, signs, objects, concepts, and figures. It suggests a radically inclusive model for participation at highly variable levels of intensity and kinds of engagement. It combines the most viable systems of the past, re-combinates, and seamlessly invents new uses while re-purposing and re-mixing artifacts of the past. Elsewhere is a public space for knowing and learning, a contention with an incredible mass, a site for discovering endless openings in the surplus curiosities of our over-productive culture.
Meanwhile, downtown Greensboro has grown from a tumbleweed ridden, tennis-in-the-street land of abandoned spots to an active and vibrant downtown neighborhood. Elsewhere has been a key player in a larger city-wide initiative for growth and development, within which Elsewhere proposes and founds creative projects, brainstorming, and design solutions. Every day, Elsewhere gets more beautiful as an ever-evolving community of neighbors and creators change, transform, and augment its buildings, places, and things.