Articles

Learning Greensboro: When Personal Life Becomes Public History (Part 1)

(all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
DJ Fur Mica, Elsewhere’s adorable kitten, in the ribbon room installation (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

GREENSBORO, NC — As a working artist, I spend a great deal of my time elsewhere from home. These days, I am quite literally based at Elsewhere: a living museum set inside a former thrift store in Greensboro. The city’s downtown is a fascinating mix of the adorably retro (old drugstores with their dusty bottles still in the windows, buildings no taller than four stories) and the bland modern (office towers, parking structures, restaurants geared towards a population that mostly works 9 to 5). A walk from North Elm to South Elm — a distance of less than a mile that manages to transport you from a neighborhood akin to NYC’s Financial District to one more like Greenpoint — feels in some ways like a walk backwards in time … if the past also included coworking and artisanal PB&J. This is my third visit to the city, working on a commissioned project based in South Elm thanks to Elsewhere’s grant from ArtPlace. I’m working with pairs of people in the area to produce a series of “everyday history” plaques for Greensboro. I want to emphasize and make public the ways in which daily, unsung labor over time — as much as, or possibly more than, important, change-making moments — turn a place into what it is.

The author's favorite historic plaque in downtown Greensboro
The author’s favorite historic plaque in downtown Greensboro

Last summer, I wrote a series of travel journals from Omaha, where I was doing a public project through the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. If there’s anything I’ve learned between then and now, it’s how difficult it is for an artist to come a community and embed there. Of course there are things we, the artists, can do better (or worse). Expecting a public to immediately like, trust, and come to you makes about as much sense as hoping to get a Chelsea show without ever letting anyone see your work. Relationships are a process. ArtPlace, and creative placemaking in general, have received a lot of criticism in recent years — in part, I believe, because of the lack of sensitivity to the way community relationships are built and maintained.

In doing a project like mine, I am trusting a host organization to have access to the sorts of relationships that I need and value in order to complete my work; in turn, the host organization is also trusting me, a stranger and an outsider, to enter into and perhaps alter those relationships. At Elsewhere, where 50 artist residents per year are asked to make projects entirely out of materials from the museum’s collection, trusting relative strangers with precious resources (historic building lathe, fabrics that have been in storage for decades, shared tools and equipment, sleeping and meal space) is nothing new. The comparison of human relationships to physical materials should not be overstated, but the main connection is this: it can take only one exchange to destroy what it took years to develop.

One of the many books in Elsewhere's collection
One of the many books in Elsewhere’s collection (click to enlarge)

Greensboro is an ideal place in which to examine systems of power and their impact on the creation and presentation of history. The city went through a long and detailed Truth and Reconciliation process following an outcry over the public representation of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre. During a peaceful march against the Ku Klux Klan, five protestors were shot and killed by Klan members. When historical signage was put up to commemorate the event, the word “massacre” was considered too strong for public presentation, and ultimately eliminated: a quite literal whitewashing of the tragedy. Who gets to write history, and how that history can be either manipulated or erased, is an essential question anywhere, but one that seems publicly foundational here. Having my own opportunity to represent the everyday lives of a few local residents with the same aesthetic power and permanence of more publicly important events is terrifically exciting and completely terrifying.

Doing this in conjunction with Elswhere, where living systems and daily interactions are an integrated part of the art-making experience, has allowed me to keep an active handle on everyday behavior and its connection to aesthetic products. Most residents at Elsewhere are asked to make projects entirely out of the “collection”: the myriad objects and materials that the building contains from its days as a former thrift store. Everyone takes a weekly dinner shift as part of the museum’s food co-op. On Wednesdays we clean house together: a “power hour” complete with an excellent soundtrack. These shared behaviors enforce my understanding of how normal, boring tasks make space into place.

So, what does this all mean? I’m relatively early in my process. Greensboro’s Elm Street is part of a developing downtown area in what has long been a fairly sleepy city. Many people I’ve talked to about being here have referenced “that one coffee shop where everyone always hangs out.” But even over the course of my two research visits and this, the first 10 days of my longer residency period, Elm Street has been changing. My first interview subjects, who will host one of the six plaques I eventually produce on the outside of their home, have been living on Elm for 28 years, and didn’t disagree with my assessment that it seems like the street has changed more in the last 27 weeks than in the 27 years prior. While with them, I collected stories from their 26-year-old daughter, who recalled that her friends’ parents used to be suspicious of dropping off their children at her home, considering the area sketchy. Now, she reports, friends will call her from within walking distance of her parents’ home, where they are hanging out at local bars and venues.

The best lunch ever at Elsewhere
The best lunch ever at Elsewhere

I’ll be limiting the stories I collect to approximately 40 words — a complicated and as yet underdeveloped translation process that I look forward to discussing with my storytellers. Given these limitations, the spirit of my work is not (and cannot be) to represent these deep and ongoing changes; rather, I have to factor that understanding of the place into my presentation of more mundane tales: dog walks that happened four times a day for 10 years, followed by a sorrow when the dog was gone; regular visits with the babysitter to Woolworth’s, until it became the International Civil Rights Museum.

More to come from here next week, as I continue to collect stories and start to figure out the process of reworking daily life into recorded history.

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