Elsewhere like nowhere else, downtown or elsewhere

by Amy Kingsley

For about three years the artists of Elsewhere, a collaborative on South Elm Street, have holed up inside their space, constructing their own world with all the diligence of a hive of exceptionally creative bees.

But last weekend marked the official throwing open of the doors of this space to the greater community. Well, the doors have been open all along, but this is the first time their opening has been accompanied by the soapy greeting of a bubble machine and the promise of miniature golf.

Elsewhere Artist Collaborative has designated the week of July 8 through 14 as the grand opening of their Museum of Art Process. Events include museum tours, Olympic-esque games like Super Piano Bouncy Ball, vintage dress-up for a photo booth and coloring books.

At 11 a.m. on Saturday morning the loudest thing about Elsewhere is the color scheme. Artists, interns and volunteers pad around the place with the reserve of traditional museum docents. But that is the only traditional thing about the space.

Elsewhere is a difficult place to describe. At first glance the museum looks like a riot of the remnants from the last half century of consumer culture. A closer look, however, reveals the logic underlying the arrangement ‘– like a thrift store grafted onto a circuit board.

In a 1909 manifesto, the Italian Futurist FT Marinetti famously exhorted his followers to tear down museums and libraries. Futurism spawned a number of avant-garde movements, Dada among them, which targeted institutions like museums as great segregating force between art and life. If instead of lobbying to destroy museums they had built their own, Elsewhere is what I imagine it might have looked like. Marcel Duchamp had his ‘“Readymades,’” most famously his urinal turned art piece ‘“Fountain.’” Elsewhere is in a sense a readymade museum.

It is the brainchild of George Scheer and Stephanie Sherman, two graduates of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia now in graduate school at Duke University. The space that is now Elsewhere belonged to Scheer’s grandparents since 1939. The pair operated a succession of businesses ‘– a furniture surplus store, an Army surplus store and a fabric store until the grandfather’s demise in the 1950s. After that the surviving spouse Sylvia Gray allowed her eccentricities to dictate the store, and it became a junk and thrift store until 1997.

‘“As a child, I was able to take whatever I wanted,’” Scheer said. ‘“But I never really took things as I child because there was something amazing about being able to find those things when I came back.’”

Scheer and Sherman moved to Greensboro in 2003 because of the space. At the time, six years after his grandmother’s death, the three stories of property lay dormant but packed with possibility. That possibility was something Scheer and Sherman spotted in the stacks of toys, clothes, army surplus and books.

Two rules govern Elsewhere: Nothing comes in and nothing goes out. The retail incarnation of 606 South Elm Street expired alongside Gray, so nothing is for sale.

‘“I used to have that,’” says Aaron Hall while sifting through a trough of discarded action figures.

‘“Those are the most common words you hear at Elsewhere,’” says Kat Lee, one of several volunteers.

On Saturday night, the museum is hosting an ‘“Alley Shebang.’” It’s a party, a social mixer that is an opportunity for interested parties to informally tour the space and relax with artists. On the mild summer night, much of the socializing is indeed taking place in the alley, which has been done over in early New York tenement. Swimsuits hang from laundry lines crisscrossing the narrow space. Lee and some of the other volunteers have cut swaths of fabric into pennants that flap in a lazy breeze.

The mood Saturday night is a festive one. The Elsewhere environment encourages that. Engage Scheer or Sherman at any length about the project and you’ll undoubtedly get a sense of the conceptual underpinning that drives and manages such creativity. But such high concept is only part of the point. Fun, experience and memory all define the experience that is Elsewhere more accurately than any theory or book.

‘“Understanding is only one part of it,’” Scheer says.

No understanding is required to navigate the miniature golf course set up for the grand opening weekend. The course, like everything else in Elsewhere, has been cobbled together out of supplies already in-house, with green fabric for turf, frames as bumpers and traffic cones marking the holes.

One of the greens sprawls underneath a magnificent sculpture ‘– the cardboard cyclone ‘– that rises out of the toy box and pirouettes across half the warehouse floor.

Near the keg, Lara Dean reminisces about a pink gingham dress she bought at Elsewhere back when Gray ran it as a thrift store. She was wearing it when her high school vice principal busted her for skipping.

‘“It was a ‘Little House on the Prairie’ dress and I was wearing paintbrushes in my hair,’” Dean says.

The next afternoon, as I arrive for a promised tour of the rest of the facility, the smell of pan-fried potatoes and coffee sifts in from the kitchen in the back. The artists and volunteers lounge on a couch strewn with dolls. Behind it, fabric overlaps and umbrellas hang like chandeliers. So I Married an Axe Murderer flickers on a small television in the corner.

In the neglected reaches of the building, reminders of the space before it was Elsewhere abound. Piles of stuff linger in darkness and disarray. The artists-in-residence, who stay for about a month, have started transforming these spaces into installation pieces.

One artist has tackled a room filled with Army surplus, stacking the World Ward II era Army coats and knapsacks.

‘“People used to have a really visceral reaction coming into this room,’” Sherman said. ‘“It reminded people of the Holocaust.’”

Otherwise Elsewhere is a place given over to good memories and whimsy. And slowly, this dark corner is being stacked, tagged and catalogued into submission.

Next door another installation features a cozy tent-like structure with dolls for minarets and tea settings underneath.

The artists who create inside Elsewhere agree to leave the work behind to an uncertain fate. More than a museum, the space and its objects are just framework and syntax for an ongoing dialogue.

During a pause in our exploration, Sherman gestures to a dollhouse and mentions hostages. She takes a doll with bound hands and feet and moves it from the ground floor to a miniature wardrobe.

‘“This place is super context sensitive,’” she says. ‘“At least the way I work is to be so aware of everything.’”

By constantly evaluating and shaping their space, the artists of Elsewhere have engaged with their surroundings in a profound way.

‘“We play a mean game of Laser Tag,’” Scheer promises.

And the goal of it is to find the misplaced object before you are shot. To the uninitiated, the challenge might seem insurmountable. Elsewhere’s regulars, however, can spot the odd Kewpie Doll amongst a litter of playthings. It’s a game with endless possibilities.

And it’s a game you can play if you stop by Elsewhere this week to celebrate the opening.

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