Reversing Entropy

Chris Vitiello


Thursday, April 26, 3:45 p.m.

August thunderstorms romp through Greensboro this April afternoon. I arrive at the three-story storefront of the Elsewhere art space enough after the tantrum of one that only the double yellow line up Elm Street remains damp. With a Cheshire Cat smile, co-founder and executive director George Scheer greets me at the front desk, materializing from behind a tidy case of indeterminate knickknacks.

Several vintage Fisher Price telephone pull toys also grin madly up at me from the counter. A self-described “living museum, international residency program, and educational laboratory set within a former thrift store,” Elsewhere has grown over its first decade from a disorganized avalanche of bric-a-brac to an innovative art hive bustling with young thinkers and doers.

Simply put, there is no other place like Elsewhere on this planet.

In 1939, Scheer’s grandparents Joe and Sylvia Gray moved their modest furniture store here. When Joe passed away in 1955, Sylvia took the reins solo, steering it toward general thrift before it got away from her and galloped into outright hoarding in the seventies. She haunted the other donation and thrift stores in town sometimes several times a day, gathering objects to take back to her overwhelmed shelves.

These objects weren’t mere inventory once they came in the door. They were hers, and she’d size you up and tell you a price—from a pittance to a fortune—depending upon whether or not she wanted the object to go off with you.

The stuff piled up and, after Sylvia died in 1997, the store moldered inside and out. On their spring break in 2003, George and co-founder and creative director Stephanie Sherman—University of Pennsylvania students in political communications and twentieth-century literature, respectively, at the time—edged their way through the front door. Among the dunes of fabric bolts, yellowed paperbacks, and scavenged silverware, they recognized both a fictional, liminal space between fantasy and reality and an overwhelming expression of consumerist American political economics. In short: an artifact unto itself. Elsewhere was born.

Imagining it as a space where artists could find the trove of materials generative, they hung a “Nothing for sale!” sign in the window and started sorting and sifting. “We worked all day and all night, folding clothes and pulling sweaters down. It was unbelievable,” Scheer laughs. “Had we known anything at the time, we would never have done it. It was like jumping in the deep end. We weren’t artists. I dunno.”

Now almost ten years have passed, during which the space has become organized and hosted hundreds of visiting artists. Elsewhere’s not specifically about Sylvia’s stuff anymore as much as it’s about the perpetual possibility for any place people have set foot to burst with stories of social value.

Still, her stuff is seductive. I dump my backpack in a shared room upstairs and dive into Elsewhere.

Thursday, April 26, 5:30 p.m.

I find, in the coils of the kind of stuffed snake you win for knocking over milk bottles with a baseball at the fair, a composition book with the scrawled title: “Activate a Book.” I’m supposed to write my favorite sentence from a book I find in a shelf-lined section of Elsewhere called the “Living Library.” Spines are mostly organized by color on the nearest wall, so I pull out a calm green one—“The U. S. Since 1865,” with a 1947 publication date. I quickly copy out a terrifically politically incorrect line about “the final subjugation of a vast continent” into the composition book, beneath a line about the four Aristotelian elements.

Before I’m done, I have to move out of the way twice. Ethan Gould and Wythe Marschall (who’s wearing a lab coat) of the Brooklyn-based Hollow Earth Society are pulling titles and making thematic—albeit idiosyncratic—stacks of them. They’re in residence to make the Living Library more accessible to visitors and more useful to future resident artists.

“We’re reworking and remixing the library but we’re also developing pedagogy for Elsewhere,” Gould says. “And then we’re also working on a book of short stories by mashing together books and other things here. The whole idea is that it’s a bit of a loop.”

Speaking to Scheer’s and Sherman’s original vision, the Hollow Earth guys see Sylvia’s old books as a generator for infinite stories. They’re creating a digital archive of distinctive and evocative images from hundreds of the musty titles. Future visitors to Elsewhere can use those images to suggest stories the way the Italian author Italo Calvino used tarot cards to generate his novel The Castle of Crossed Destinies, a process that Gould and Marschall will teach us in a Saturday workshop.

The Elsewhere resident artist program began in 2005, when the space still looked somewhat like how Sylvia left it. A lot has changed, as Elsewhere’s now frenetically tidy, but the basic residency rules are the same: use only what’s in the space; destroy nothing; bring nothing in from outside. Now, over 50 artists spend anywhere from three to six weeks here each year, recombining Sylvia’s stuff to express their aesthetic, anthropological, political, or practical ideas.

Hollow Earth’s project brings a new layer to Elsewhere’s residency program: a residency that begets residencies. “I like the idea of just setting something up and sort of passing it on,” Gould says. “It’s what knowledge is, I suppose.”

Our conversation is interrupted by a long, baritone note blown on a giant conch shell. Dinnertime in the Kitchen Commons.

Friday, April 27, 12:40 a.m.

I’m under a highway overpass, girding my mind against the penetrating din of a propane generator. The floodlights that it powers cast a ghoulish light upon Chris Oh, perched in the crow’s nest of a lift some 25 feet off the ground. Wielding a spray can, Chris carefully turns lime green a taped-off triangular area of the massive concrete supports beneath the eastbound lanes of the Spring/Edgeworth overpass. He’s working quickly because time is short.

Chris Oh and his co-conspirator Typoe make up Primary Flight, dynamic producers of street art in Miami’s famed Wynwood neighborhood. It’s now one of the most visually striking places in the country thanks to Primary Flight and hordes of collaborators including all-stars Banksy and Shepard Fairey.

For their Elsewhere residency, Primary Flight is painting a mural on these seven supports as part of Greensboro’s Downtown Greenway project, which has placed some form of public art on each stage of a four-mile walking path that will completely encircle downtown. It’s Primary Flight’s first official public collaboration, and a coup for the city.

Elsewhere has been involved with public projects before, but never with this degree of visibility and permanence. If Hollow Earth’s work adds a new wrinkle to the residency program, Primary Flight’s project puts a whole new face on it. “These specially curated residencies are, in some sense at least, where we imagine going,” Scheer shouts above the noise.

“When we have normal traditional artists, they come in, they work for three to six weeks, and they produce a piece. While we really enjoy the open residency, the more opportunities we get for Elsewhere to become a research lab, to be a creative place to bring together interesting groups and really work with them and the resources, is an exciting challenge for us.”

As a nearby billboard pronounces, this Greenway stage is scheduled to open May 6. Although that’s over a week away, the artists are in a full sprint—the thunderstorms washed out most of their daylight hours. But street artists typically work overnight anyway.

Earlier in the evening, the Primary Flight guys told their story in a public talk at UNC-Greensboro’s Weatherspoon Art Museum. “Back in the nineties,” Chris Oh explains, “Wynwood was a dilapidated commercial and industrial district. The reason we started painting there is because it was so dilapidated that many of the building owners didn’t care.” In just a few years, they’ve gone from dodging cops while painting those buildings to accepting big-dollar commissions from high-end commercial entities.

Sherman became aware of them during a visit to Art Basel. The official festival gallery showings weren’t turning her on, so she took a walk through Wynwood. The street art blew her away. “All of a sudden the space was alive and creating a culture around it,” she marveled. She had to bring some of that home with her.

Sherman approached Primary Flight about doing something in Greensboro, and the project really got rolling once the city’s Downtown Greenway folks came in to coordinate. Now money’s coming from North Carolina Arts Council and United Arts Council of Greensboro grants and Sherwin-Williams is kicking in a small ocean of paint.

Although Primary Flight owns a gallery in the hottest part of Miami and can barely field all the requests they get for work, they’re still a lot more comfortable spray-painting a wall in the middle of the night than they are presenting in a museum auditorium.

Typoe treats the darkness of the overpass’ underbelly like a living room. “This area, in the past, has been subject to a lot of graffiti—and not particularly good graffiti,” he shrugs. Then he gets back to taping off shapes on the concrete.

Friday, April 27, 8:15 p.m.

We’re all sitting on the sidewalk in folding chairs, wishing we’d grabbed sweatshirts from our rooms. Elsewhere’s storefront windows have been folded out of the way to open a little stage to the street, and Scheer and Sherman have almost worked out all the technical kinks for a slide presentation on their late-June Kulturpark project in Berlin.

By way of explaining what Kulturpark is, Sherman tells the story of their finding it. During a Berlin vacation in 2007, they found themselves at a dreadful dinner party.

Someone mentioned an abandoned amusement park as something weird they might want to check out. The next day—Christmas Day, actually—they hopped a fence and their jaws dropped. Imagine a vast urban jungle with a defunct log flume, roller coasters, and a Ferris wheel. Even Sylvia couldn’t have dreamt it up.

“We spent a good forty-five minutes running through the park and climbing up the tracks of the roller coaster. It was like a dream, to be that close to the machinery,” Sherman remembers. And gradually an idea grew: what if we loose a bunch of artists here, like we do in Elsewhere, to do site-specific work?

After New York-based Art Matters invited Elsewhere to apply for an international artist research project grant, Scheer and Sherman returned to Berlin in 2010 to seek out simpatico artists and get their hooks into the park owners. They put out a call for proposals and soon had about 120 project ideas to evaluate.

It’s a hugely ambitious project, with international contracts to be signed and as-yet unignited fires to put out. But it’s happening: a three-week “creative camp” for artists to do their work precedes the big public event over the last weekend in June. Two months out, Sherman nervously titters that Kulturpark could still fall through at any moment. But there’s no fear in her nervousness, only excitement about the idea.

“Some of the projects are more cerebral or process-oriented,” she explains. “There’s a group that’s going to lead the other artists through their orientation and they’ll talk about lost utopias. The coolest ones are the group of architects we’re working with. They’re going to put thousands of CDs on the Ferris wheel so that light reflects over the whole park. The wheel turns in the wind too. It’s going to be amazing to have this giant disco ball casting scraps of light everywhere.”

With three days left on a Kickstarter project to raise $25,000 to underwrite Kulturpark, they’re still almost five grand short, so Scheer and Sherman give us their best pitch. And they’re convincing: smart phones come out, fingers punch in dollar amounts. Within a day, the goal is reached.

After the applause ends and the chairs are put away, the Friday night crowd shifts into dance party mode. I play a round of Battleship in the kitchen, sipping bourbon. Visitors play in a mock confessional before hitting nearby clubs. Then the Hollow Earth guys stumble in, exhausted from a full day of rearranging books and shelves, and we kill a bottle of wine. We talk and laugh until late. I have no problem finding the Land of Nod despite the dance beat throbbing directly below my room.

Saturday, April 28, 1:10 p.m.

Wythe Marschall is tentatively perched atop a file cabinet, itself balanced on a flat file case. The entire Living Library has been rearranged in the space of a day, as building curator Jen Martin shores up adjacent shelves with a power drill. While keeping the shelves accessible, they’re trying to incorporate them into a staircase up to a reading loft cleared of an old installation piece a few hours ago.

But it’s meeting time now. The Hollow Earth Society descends to pow-wow with production curator Aislinn Pentecost-Farren, planning the Living Library’s public opening for May’s First Friday art night.

Pentecost-Farren goes down her checklist, focusing the results of earlier brainstorms toward a whimsical, yet intentional, event. “I was just talking to some of the other curators and they commented on how short peoples’ attention spans are. You know, when you’re out on a gallery walk night and you just kind of stop and look? So I edited out zine making and I edited out poker games.” Gould and Marschall concur.

The resident artist process at Elsewhere is, unsurprisingly, a little different. There’s no project proposal. Elsewhere doesn’t want to know what you’re going to do when you apply—in fact, they don’t want you to know what you’re going to do.

Instead, artists send portfolios, do a little creative piece like an altered postcard, and answer application questions like What are the spaces, real and imaginary, in which your work exists? and How did you play as a child? Scheer, Sherman, and the other curators get a holistic sense of applicants, interview the most intriguing, and finally choose residents. All the work the artists do is imagined on site, where it must remain as well.

Public events are, then, a necessary component for the artists to have some record of their work. Hollow Earth and Pentecost-Farren settle upon a printworks station to screen-print the shirts off visitors’ backs, a “Narratron 9000” story generator, and a booth for visitors to contribute sentences to the “Longest Story Ever Told.” All playful, all substantial, and all drawing on the seeming infinitude of the library. An Elsewhere trifecta.

Saturday, April 28, 3:30 p.m.

Chris Oh and Typoe stand over a paint tray containing a turgid purple pigment bordering on black. In fact it’s called “Black Swan,” and Chris Oh thinks it might be too dark, breaking an unwritten rule of theirs about using only bright colors.

“Just fucking do it! There aren’t any rules anymore. We did this to get out of rules!” Typoe laughs. Problem solved, they hand me a roller and Typoe points out a few taped-off shapes that I cover with Black Swan.

The mural is looking crisp and busy. Primary Flight first blocks out large geometric shapes wrapping around the supports and then outlines smaller wedges within

those blocks to give the three-dimensional illusion of a colorful, angular frieze. The net effect is a transformation of the homogenous urban structures into sculpture, recovering them from the realm of the ignored to become the dominant object in the immediate environment. You won’t be able to miss these when they’re done.

Typoe and I talk about the historical conventions of murals across the state—the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, civil rights portraits, tobacco leaves, rocking chairs—and he describes the unexpected inspiration for their design: Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius. Turns out that Gropius’s first U. S. commission after moving across the Atlantic in 1937 is a building about a mile away.

“We thought it was really interesting that Gropius was here and also at Black Mountain,” Typoe patters. “It’s exciting to think about that in those times, and to bring that out here in our own interpretation. To just use those colors and simple shapes to bring this area to life. Especially because all the buildings over here have such muted tones.”

The overpass separates a quiet neighborhood of nondescript condos and renovated Victorians from downtown’s hulking industrial buildings with vinyl “Available” banners strung across their concrete sides.

Primary Flight had a general idea of what they were going to do, but staying at Elsewhere enhanced their thinking. “We’ve been having a blast. It’s crazy,” Typoe blurts excitedly. “Every day I find a new weird thing up the stairs. Castles and linens and stuff like that. Rooms with weird installations, crazy baby tornadoes, workshops. There’s just so much stuff everywhere that can be made into other stuff—it’s just endless.”

The tessellations of their mural design bring an endlessness, too, to this formerly transient spot that people used to accelerate past.

Saturday, April 28, 6:15 p.m.

I’m sneaking out at the break before a videoconference that the Hollow Earth Society is pulling together of far-flung artist friends likewise obsessed with books and archives. Very sorry to miss the discourse. And very curious if I’ll be able to switch back to normal discourse at the film evening I’m sprinting back to in Durham.

Scheer and I say farewell in the CoLab, an outreach-oriented classroom node they’ve carved out for presentations like this. We yap briefly about how far Elsewhere has come, and I tell him that it takes shockingly few dots to connect Sylvia’s closets stacked up with plastic dollhouses to fifty resident artists per year, collaborations on projects around town, and a massive art event in Berlin that should draw thousands.

Scheer looks around and nods, the slightest hint of incredulity crossing his face. “It feels surprisingly close to the original vision,” he says. Then he idly spins a globe and falls into another conversation.