January 1, 2007

Elsewhere: Between Art Collaborative and House of Wonder

by Francesca Granata
Interior View

In 2004 George Scheer, Stephanie Sherman and Josh Fox started an art collaborative in Greensboro, North Carolina in what used to be Scheer’s grandmother’s thrift store. Aptly called Elsewhere, the three story building appears as a hybrid between haunted house and cabinet of curiosities: It is filled with garments, toys, furniture and fabric accrued by Scheer’s grandmother throughout the best part of the last century. An amorphous and ever-changing repository of twentieth century American history, it has proved a great raw material for the array of artists in residence, who have visited and altered the space in the past two years. The strangeness of the locale, coupled with its geographical distance from the epicenters of contemporary art, have allowed Elsewhere and the artists to follow unusual routes both in terms of their relation to traditional notions of art and to the “individual” nature of their practice.


How did you come up with the idea for Elsewhere? You were both literature majors at U Penn, so why an art space?

In March of 2003, Steph, our friend Josh Boyette and I took a road trip down south and stopped in Greensboro, where my family lives. The morning before we left, we went downtown to my Grandmother’s old thrift store, which had been locked up for six years after her death. You have to imagine an enormous warehouse space with a small aisleway about a foot wide leading back and piles on top of piles of objects, toys, furniture, fabric and clothing. After poking around for an hour, we filled a box with stuff and drove back to Philly. The box remained in my apartment, and whenever people would come over, they would play with the objects, dress up, or carry something around with them for the night.

We began to see how the objects changed the way people interacted and played together. How exactly this transitioned into actually going to Greensboro and starting an art space is a little unclear. But during the final semester, with the haze of post-graduate life before me, I contacted a good friend Josh Fox, who was graduating from the University of Michigan, and persuaded him to join me in Greensboro. I was, in fact, a political communications major at Penn, and was interested in developing new formats for writers and artists across media to work within community. It was Steph, with a background in literature and theory, that understood how objects could function as a medium of interaction between artists, and how the organization of these objects could simultaneously manifest abstract concepts while providing functional spaces within which artists could explore the boundaries of their practice.

Can you describe the space a little bit, as well as its history?

The 606 and 608 South Elm Street [Elsewhere’s current address] opened in 1939 as a used furniture store, selling repossessed furniture bought from Depression stock houses in New York. In the 50’s, my grandparents—Sylvia and her husband Joe—began a catalog sale of army surplus for Boy Scout troupes throughout America. Slowly, the store transitioned into work clothes, shoes, imported lighters and other such things. In 1955, Joe died, leaving Sylvia to raise her three children. Never remarrying, she alone sent her children to college on the back of this store. She sold fabric, purchasing thousands of surplus fabric bolts from local factories. As early as the 1960’s, she would visit the local Salvation Army daily, picking with impeccable taste clothing and objects. The collecting continued throughout her life, though as she grew older the selling off of objects seemed to stop. It is often said that if she liked you, the price was almost nothing, but if she didn’t like you—if she thought you were trying to steal—she would lay on you an outrageous price before chasing you out the front door. Sylvia passed away in 1997 and the immense collection of things remained locked inside until we arrived in May of 2003.

As I said, when we arrived there were boxes to the ceiling. Everything seemed chaotic, but it was clear that my grandmother had spent much of her life organizing these objects in a simultaneously eccentric, meticulous, and haphazard manner. She was an extreme meta-bagger. She saved everything from broken lamp parts to chair legs. She would tie strings to strings, to create enormous fishing lines of shoes and action figures. We spent the first nine months undoing, sorting, and re-organizing her organization, but with three floors filled with stuff, we are nowhere near seeing everything or finding a spot for it and we find new things almost every day.

The notion of collaboration seems intrinsic to the projects, as artists build on what preceding artists did in the space. They also build on the array of objects that made up your grandmother’s thrift-store. I read in one of your statements that you consider the building “an installation onto itself,” because nothing really leaves the space.

At Elsewhere, nothing is for sale, and nothing permanently leaves. Elsewhere, ultimately, is an artwork to be viewed over time, in a gradual progression where the experience of the artistic process is referenced in succeeding reflections and arrangements. You can read it like a narrative; you experience it like an indoor amusement park. The dynamics of work and play are central to this project; everything you do, you play with, becomes part of your piece. Works created by Elsewhere artists introduce new concepts into the dialogue between community and object, and though each piece is site specific, the demands of space and changing conceptions often require the creators to re-curate works in the space. Not only do artists re-envision particular pieces, but in the re-design of artworks, new meanings are brought to the works and the environment. Often, meanings, neither intended nor imagined, are discovered in a re-contextualization of artworks, formulating an environment that simultaneously speaks to Elsewhere’s past and its future.When we saw the store as it had been left, it was an installation to begin with, an installation performed by history and one woman’s selection within that history-the jumble, decay, disjuncture and sense of infinite treasure and cultural neglect were so moving. It was the artistry of the combination of the visual instant, preserved, but deteriorating.

Garments seem to be a popular raw material for a number of resident artists, perhaps because used clothes are such powerful memory traces. They seem to keep the imprint of the body that once wore them, so that unworn they can easily read as morbid. Can you talk about the collection of fabric and garments at Elsewhere, and the way artists have interacted with it?

It can be terrifyingly intimate, considering just how much material there is. Steph once reached into the pocket of a worn, navy cotton school dress and found a half-eaten bubble gum ball wrapped back up in the clear plastic. These instances trigger an intense cultural nostalgia that gets interpreted on a personal and emotional level, as garments demonstrate their history, stains upon stains, or fading from light, or moth holes. It’s also amazing how the plethora of fabrics demonstrate the over-production within our society, an almost endless resource of surplus-Steph and I used to sleep on a twin bed in the middle of 1500 bolts of vintage fabric, a room made of fabric rolls. Angela Zammarelli, an artist in residence, got lost in the fabric world itself. She only brought one pair of jeans with her, instead. She wore the dresses, she wore the fabric in all sorts of ways, and it almost seemed as if she was always peering her head from above her medium. At the end of her residency, she had constructed a tent in which a tea party was taking place, the walls made of fabric panel narratives expressing the history of her stay at the space

The place seems packed with histories and memories-I assume that not all of them are positive. At one point, it was even a military surplus store. Do the artists you have in residence ever bring out the disturbing or potentially controversial histories which are buried there? How does the community of Greensboro respond?

The best example in regard to questions of community response was an installation we did in the front window space to celebrate our first birthday. It was a bathroom installation scene, and the floor was covered in baby dolls with a rug made of baby clothing…That installation received a spectrum of responses, amazement to horror. In this way, we don’t directly address the histories as having particular political ramifications for the work, but instead try to jar people by using cultural artifacts on such scope or scale, or in a particular arrangement so as to play on the strangeness or uncanniness of “stuff” and their particular place of containment. There is one room with boarded windows upstairs that contains a massive pile of army surplus, mostly from WWII and the Korean War. This room has remained relatively untouched as an installation made by history-the emotional impact is enormous, reminiscent of Holocaust imagery of shoe piles.

Elsewhere is structured as a small non-profit and its aims seem steeped in a tradition of collectivism and non-commercial creative activities. Yet art, and contemporary art in particular, has become such a commercially successful product. There are hedge funds that invest in contemporary art these days. Do you ever feel that what you do might be anachronistic?

The point isn’t to be directly anachronistic, but to explore art-making without the sacred isolation that most art is relegated to once it leaves a creator’s hands and the creator deems it complete. Fundamentally, most art seems to attempt to capture a time in space through the object that is art. Elsewhere is capturing a space in time through the object and their subjects as art. In some ways, it’s a response to a condition or situation where art is only offered in a commercial way, and this seems a theoretical mistake for art to only address the product, and at best capture the production within the product. The notion that a museum is a place for preservation is important, but it’s equally important for a museum to represent a public space that incites interaction. It’s a call for history to be placed in the present, as opposed to the past or future; it’s a comment on peripheries and centrality, and displacing process and product in order to generate art that thinks about and responds to the way institutions develop, implement, and negotiate controlling discourses.Elsewhere is a call to think about living within time as an artistic process itself, drawing into clarity that perhaps people are collaborating on art pieces all of the time by chance or accident, and that theoretically these moments or instances are as valid as a piece in a museum. We’re deconstructing these notions as much as the collection itself, and restructuring it ad infinitum. We also are interested in art that is used not just as a medium to communicate about a particular social or cultural situation, but to offer solutions or models to these scenarios. We can only demand so much from art when it must be a product, but when we start to think about it as a way of life, as a medium itself, then it might produce results, restructure or reconfigure a cultural understanding of human cognition and social practice. But then, most people just think we are kids playing with toys-it’s easy to brush it off that way.For more information on Elsewhere’s residency program visit www.elsewhereelsewhere.org. Elsewhere has recently built an archive of vintage fabric pattern. To inquiry about purchasing the archive on CD-Rom contact George Scheer (wanderingzoo@mac.com). The profit from the sale will help support Elsewhere’s operational costs.