Annual Reporting: (2013) Elsewhere, Greensboro NC
My most delightful residency of 2013 was at Elsewhere, a “living museum” in Greensboro, NC.
The phrase “living museum” does sum up Elsewhere’s relationship to art. Elsewhere is a place containing a lot of stuff — the voluminous and multifarious and kitschy and quaint residue of its former proprietor’s habits, which shifted over a period of decades from shopkeeper to hoarder. Today all of that stuff remains in the space, yet the place is like a mill churned by a flow of people who remix the stuff and the spaces, creating a kind of funhouse performance of art-as-life/life-as-art.
Scores of artists and other creative types visit Elsewhere for ‘residencies’ each year. As residents, they practice with the stuff and the space, creating new things and reconstituted places — often in interaction with the many people who pass through to explore and play. The effect is, at first look, overwhelming, often delightful, sometimes even hallucinogenic.
So Elsewhere is a place for play — and it is also a place of work. Art-making entails work; place-making entails work; administering the organization in which both of these things happen takes work. The denizens of Elsewhere pride themselves on an ethic of ‘unalienated’ work: generally speaking, the work they do is work they either choose to do, or if the work is of collective obligation (dish washing, fabric stacking, the knolling of everything always) then at least it is work that meets a shared need to maintain order amid chaos.
Rebecca Noone’s ‘[Insert Title]’
Through my residency, I explored the relationship between play, work, and art — tracing ways in which, even amid the perpetual carnival of this ‘real utopia,’ the forces of capital and power are still present (yet, perhaps, malleable). This first took the form of several tracks of research: research into the cultural history of artistic production at Elsewhere itself, alongside research into the technical aspects of its organizational development, along research into the history and present of its surrounding community in Greensboro.
Alongside the research, I practiced a facilitation technique that drew upon notions of ‘Asset Based Community Development.’ This developed along with the material product of my work (a wheel made of foam, fabric, and wood splints) first called ‘the Help Desk,’ then ‘the Help Disc,’ and finally ‘the Stock Exchange.’ This tool consisted of four components, corresponding with questions that I would ask participants (first during the ‘all house meetings’ with all Museum staff, residents, and volunteers; then during CITY, the museum’s traditional role-playing game which involves anyone who might wander in over the course of a night).
These questions were always variants of:
* What can you help others do?
* What can others help you do?
* What could we do together?
* What have we done? i
The first phase of this experiment, practiced iteratively in ‘house meetings,’ was simply to ask the questions, visualize the answers, and then step back to notice what occurred.
The second phase of the experiment was to actively incentivize connections across skills and needs, such that people freely move from visualizing possibilities to taking action together. [Some photos here.]
What potential can such an explicit framework of cooperation make manifest? What might get lost along the way? In the asking of these questions, I think we can recover an ethic of commonality that is otherwise assiduously erased by the flows of capitalism. ii
I only wish I’ve had the time to properly process the results of this experiment. An essay about all this is on my list for 2014. I wish I could link to it right here right now, yet here we are. Instead, how about a photo of me, in Elsewhere’s Time Machine dressed as Heisenberg?