Fig. 1: Emily Ensminger at Elsewhere, 2013 [still from “Cast Iron Chef”]

Living tapestry or social groundwork:
a brief study of Housepitality

By Zach Whitworth


Freedom is often conceived in negative terms—freedom from something, with the “something” commonly being work.

“I don’t dream of labor” is an understandably popular slogan, reacting to a relentless culture of overwork, individual responsibility, and self-sacrifice. Applied to a revolutionary mindset, freedom is thus distinguished from work as an entirely separate leisure time in which the human spirit and creativity can flourish unburdened. Yet, for the maintenance of such a liberated society, work is still recognized as a necessary evil.

The utilitarian rationale is inseparable from labor’s instrumental function in human domination and incarceration—its modern imposition is the heir to a vast legacy of rule and subjugation. “In the society we live in, all work is like work in the [concentration] camps,” said Theodor Adorno in 1956, referring to the Nazi internment of European Jews less than two decades prior.1 It is in the slogan displayed on the gates of these camps where we find the clearest conception of work at its worst: Arbeit macht Frei—“Work makes one free.” To anyone held captive and forced to work in the most explicit sense, the farce of these words would be painfully obvious.

[1] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Towards a New Manifesto: Conversations of Adorno &  Horkheimer (1956), 4.

Fig. 2: José Guadalupe Posada, A group of prisoners performing labor by the sea, from a broadside entitled “Ultimas noticias de Gerardo Nevraumont y compañeros”, 1892

In his 1904 study of Protestantism and capitalism, Max Weber suggested that labor had “[come] to be considered in itself the end of life, ordained as such by God.”2 The work ethic, self-sacrificial in nature, was considered a divine commandment, one that served the glory of God. To not work became “symptomatic of a lack of grace.” Work here is abstracted as pure means without end.

The religious mentality of work for work’s sake finds its logical extension in art for art’s sake. This projection of the work ethic on the arts is a bloodstain that can appear in seemingly uplifting forms, such as Corita Kent’s Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules, plainly asserting, “The only rule is work.”3 Kent’s additional calls for self-discipline and following “wise or smart” leaders have alarmingly pre-Fascist tones, yet the popularity of these and similar lessons persist among artists.

The fetishization of work defines it as the sole home of the human spirit. The reactionary response instead asserts the human spirit lives where one is not working. In this separation, freedom is either work or leisure and cannot involve both, each the antithesis of the other. 

[2] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Mineola: Dover, 2003), 159. 

[3] These rules were written in the 1960s and hung in Kent’s classroom, and they continue to be  referenced in art classes today. Corita Kent, Immaculate Heart College Art Department Rules. https://
Fig. 3: Urbanus Leyniers, The Harvest, 1712–28

But the labor-averse reactionary doesn’t hate work—they hate capitalism and social stratification, those virtually intangible and illogical systems that have mediated and mutilated the possibilities of human life. Nightmares are embedded in the insurance brokerage and factory floor, the public school and retail store, the unemployment line and credit score. What renders life a dystopian drudgery is not work itself but the entirely senseless toil impressed upon the masses, not only by the immediate powers of immense wealth but by widespread internalization of economical behavior. The hatred is more exactly of work as exploitation, work as it is infected by self-sacrificial cultism and made into a tool of domination.

Could one so easily assert that tending a garden or preparing a meal are undesirable forms of labor? What becomes monotonous and agonizing on an industrial scale can be satisfying and even enjoyable on a local level, that of the backyard garden or community farm, the family dinner or neighborhood barbecue. The hatred of work finds little footing in its social forms—not merely as conversation over a factory line or the divider of a cubicle but as a completely social experience, where both labor and its fruits are the essential building materials of community.
Fig. 4: Léon Augustin Lhermitte, The Harvesters, 1888/89


“There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher famously declared in 1987. Instead, she posited, “There is a living tapestry of men and women and people and the beauty of that tapestry and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves.”4 Thatcher imagined society as a decorative textile meant to adorn a wall, an elegant commodity used to display one’s wealth, a symbol of luxury rather than an item of necessity.

The rug, as opposed to the tapestry, has an inherently relational function. It provides physical comfort for those upon it, sitting and standing. The rug generates a space, a frame, to facilitate the gathering of people. It has notable use in ritual practice, such as the Islamic prayer rug, which constitutes not only spiritual but social experience. The rug has a place in classrooms, where young children participate in lessons together. In a cruder form, it becomes the “welcome mat” at a home’s entryway, a gesture of hospitality with which one wipes the muck from their boots. A century prior to Thatcher’s statement, William Morris suggested “carpet weaving is somewhat of the nature of tapestry,” but unlike its wall-mounted cousin, “its use as a floorcloth somewhat degrades it, especially in our northern or western countries, where people come out of the muddy streets into rooms without taking off their shoes.” 5 Carpets (or rugs) were traditionally made to be placed on a floor, but as they were imported from the East following the Crusades, some Europeans believed they were too precious a commodity to be trampled on. Considering worries of “degradation,” some opted to instead mount their rugs on walls. What was designed to be beneath one’s feet—though even on the floor it was still often associated with status—became an entirely aestheticized object, stripped of its tactile use to preserve its image.

[4] This image of the tapestry was apparently not included in the article as it was originally published.  The unedited transcript provides a more useful metaphoric explanation of how the neoliberal politician  imagines human communities. Though Thatcher was the Prime Minister of the UK, this thinking can be  understood generally as the individualist market-oriented mindset, that which similar politicians and  economists in the US share. Margaret Thatcher, Interview for Woman’s Own (Woman’s Own, 1987). https://

[5] This does not mean Morris necessarily preferred the craft of tapestries over rugs and carpets—the  observation he makes here rather acknowledges the functional reality of floor textiles, which the  manufacturer must take into account when creating such objects. Speaking of how the carpet or rug is  “degraded” is not simply denigrative but hints at the object’s need for maintenance. William Morris, “The  Importance of Pattern in Carpet Weaving,” in The Decorator and Furnisher Vol. 13, No. 5 (New York: 1889).

Fig. 5: William Morris, Holland Park carpet, late 19th century
Thatcher’s “living tapestry” is, by her own words, different from “society”—it can hardly be considered a social object at all. She saw no community but a political economy, that of pure exchange and independence from one another, merely an assortment of egoistic individuals. It evolves the work ethic and its demand of self-discipline into a universal selfishness, valued only as a collective expression of wealth. We get a tapestry which in reality is a rug stripped of its practicality and purpose. The social carpeting is aestheticized, placed not upon the ground where people reside but against the wall, lauded for its service to rulers as an image.

Society is, by definition, the realm of interrelation and cooperation, of interdependence and togetherness. Like textile, it is woven, threaded, and sewn. It is not only an image but a tactile and functional piece. In nature, it is the realm of soil, from which the logic of the universe sprouts the seeds of life. It is the expansive carpet of fungi covering the forest floor. Society is not simply an exquisite artwork but an elaborate groundwork, the rug that ties the room together.

Fig. 6: Elsewhere’s second floor, 2020


Describing Housepitality in full is an impossible task. Officially, it was a department of Elsewhere, the artist residency and “living museum” in Greensboro, North Carolina.6 Theoretically, Housepitality was a small-scale utopian project straddling the line of art and labor. In practice, it catalyzed virtually all social organization and interaction at Elsewhere.7

Housepitality comprised the maintenance of Elsewhere’s living systems. Coordinated by a “Curator,” it outlined responsibilities for housekeeping and homesteading, encompassing the kitchen, garden, residential quarters, and general spaces spanning the three-story building, which had been a mixed-thrift store in its prior life. As the name suggests, Housepitality took on both housework and hospitality work, designating the Curator as the indisputable host of visiting artists and other guests from the community, including neighbors struggling with homelessness. Like the manager of a boarding house, bed & breakfast, or hostel, the Curator of Housepitality became the centermost figure in Elsewhere’s day-to-day and night-to-night operations, from washing linens and scrubbing sinks to orchestrating public meals and skill-building workshops.

Visiting artists were not merely serviced but were expected to actively participate in their own maintenance. Each was treated as kin rather than an outsider on temporary contract, thus even the wealthiest had to cook and clean. Housepitality arranged these activities rhythmically, reserving an hour a week for collective power-cleans of the building and assigning rotating crews of residents and staff to take on weekday lunch preparation.

[6] Elsewhere is referred to as a “museum” in order to give the visiting public a point of reference for  what they walk into. It is based in a three-story building on the south end of downtown Greensboro,  formerly the location of a mixed-thrift store, a furniture reupholstery, and military surplus outlet, among  other past businesses. The apartments on its upper floors once housed families, but as an artist residency,  they have been used as studios and sleeping quarters for visiting artists. In its earliest years—the  beginning of the twentieth century—it was also the address of a boarding house. As a “museum,”  Elsewhere classifies anything remaining from these past businesses to be of its “collection.” 

[7] Housepitality is impossible to describe in full, because what will later be called “unvalued” labor was  most of the labor. Few images of Housepitality itself “in action” exist, as it did not often lend itself to  documentation like visual art and even classifiable social practice do—like other maintenance and care  work, much of it was “invisible,” and it was always in action. It did have moments of vivid exhibition in staged events and some short videos, but these were far and few between when compared to its everyday  activities. The images we can see reveal little to nothing of the day-to-day happenings that the stories describe.

Fig. 7: Emily Ensminger, The Ground Up (Weekly Chores), 2012
Housepitality called regular group meetings, where residents and staff not only had chores determined but were able to discuss ideas and concerns face-to-face. Individuals had the opportunity to weigh in on community activities or address difficulties with Elsewhere’s leadership. While the institution was primarily represented here by the Curator of Housepitality, these meetings nonetheless fostered a degree of dialogue between residents and staff that simulated a dual-power politic. In its best moments, Housepitality structured a potential domestic democracy, where living systems could be directly impacted by the building’s occupants.8

Through a sense of shared responsibility and interdependence, maintenance labor gained a playful flavor. Post-meal cleanup became less a slog and more of a celebration, a time for singing, dancing, and discussion as well as washing dishes and mopping floors. The context of the arts space turned everyday work into an ongoing performance. Solitary meals spontaneously became collective cooking parties. A spirit of collaboration transformed individual activities into group efforts, and for a time, this seemed to permeate the social fabric in and around Elsewhere. The work of maintaining life in the building shifted from undesirable necessity to a playful thread of art and labor that informed every installation, every project, every action.

[8] Housepitality was not a true direct democracy, but it simulated such a system. Residents had direct  impact on day-to-day happenings, from working hands-on with the “collection” and helping to maintain  the building’s living systems to participating in the forum of regular meetings, but this direct impact did  not extend to Elsewhere’s administration, which remains highly exclusive and bureaucratic. The point is  that Housepitality, with all its limitations, at least modeled how a ground-level direct democracy could function.
Fig. 8: Emily Ensminger, Thirty flavors of infused vodka, 2012 [still from “Spirit. As you like it.”]

Inasmuch as people lived there, Elsewhere acted as a temporary commune. Each visiting artist and new staff member had to acclimate to life in a century-old building with a motley crew from widely ranging backgrounds. Fresh batches of residents replaced an outgoing group on a monthly basis. Learning to live with a bunch of strangers was a recurring demand.

We could imagine Elsewhere “functioning” like a student punk house in earlier years—the desire for an alternative lifestyle was more an act of self-righteousness than revolution. Housepitality pulled away from the parochial lifestylism, instead designing a set of pedagogical community guidelines. Elsewhere the playhouse was reformed as Elsewhere the kibbutz, the civic center, the utopian experiment.9 Housepitality presented a practical methodology, a precise toolkit for others to use in organizing communal projects beyond the walls of Elsewhere.

Fig. 9: Emily Ensminger’s collection of fabric scraps from Elsewhere, 2012

[9] A connection between Housepitality and the Jewish kibbutz movement around the turn of the twentieth  century has not before been claimed, yet the sentiments of Housepitality are very much along the lines of  its utopian ancestor. These words, spoken by a member of the Betanya kibbutz, could have easily been the  mission statement of Housepitality: “Work is a part of [our] life and [our] common creation. Through love  for society, a positive attitude towards work is formed, a moment of communality between the workers.  In work, the individual realises all of his or her abilities and strengths and sees him or herself  independently of creating a community. All work, even the most basic, is then a sacred means for  establishing and fortifying the community. This gives it its full content, and it ceases being attached or  inferior.” Avraham Yassour ed., “The Betanya Commune: Selections from Diaries,” in The History of the  Kibbutz: A Selection of Sources—1905–1929 (Merhavia: 1995), 124.


Only briefly is it noted in official records that Emily Ensminger wove rugs during her first month at Elsewhere in the Spring of 2012. The “museum” contained, among its plethora of twentieth century detritus, a sizable collection of fabric, residual from the heyday of Greensboro’s once booming textile industry.10 Back then, Elsewhere’s leadership was more eager to carve out new spaces in the building than utilize the least-used materials in the collection. Elsewhere was discussed as a self-maintaining, self-reproducing system that could generate endlessly from the materials it had, but this autopoietic value was contradicted by utilitarian processes that harnessed only what was “useful” and cast aside the remainder as waste. Despite the idea of resourcefulness being present in the organization’s language, putting it into practice was something of a foreign concept. In stark contrast, it was with the smallest scraps that Ensminger spent evenings making her rugs (Fig. 9).

The motivation was simple: the rugs were to be placed at bedside, providing a soft mat for residents’ feet as they stepped out of bed in the morning, covering the cold, splinter-ridden floorboards. Too taxing a task for Ensminger to accomplish on her own, she enlisted the assistance of fellow residents at Elsewhere and others from the wider community. In teaching others the technique, she not only transformed the solo effort into a collaborative one but into a joyful and conversational project. As each rug was crafted, so too were social bonds crafted, the very basis of society.

[10] The “heyday” of course is inseparable from the South's difficult history of textile labor. It was a  product of plantation slavery for a long time, and industrial textile manufacturing after the late  nineteenth century was not much better. The evils of the former should be obvious, and the latter was  marred by rough working conditions, struggles with unionizing, and wage-slavery. Industrial textile  production today is still in large part a sweatshop business that can fall into either of those scenarios.  Though Greensboro was once home to the Cone Mills Corporation—formerly the largest producer of  denim in the country—that industry has since waned in the area.

Fig. 10: Roll’s Florist Farm, 2009
Reimagining society through local action in scrappy places was nothing new for Ensminger. Since 2009, amidst the storm of the Great Recession, she had operated the Roll’s Florist Farm, a community-supported agricultural endeavor of her own creation in her hometown of Durham (Fig. 10). The site of a former flower shop and greenhouse was reconfigured as a garden for cultivating fresh produce. It was one of a few inner-city farms she and her father developed together, with the repurposing of spaces being their standard strategy. Ensminger had been trained in the visual arts, but “art” was never the point of her urban farming. Rather, art was a way of thinking through the process, or, a spirit of intention. Her goal was social sustenance, concretized in the reproduction of food.

Ensminger’s general method stems more from agriculture and food service than the arts. Her approach to art is as a structure for otherwise non-art efforts—art is the frame rather than the image.11 She refers to this as her “systems thinking,” a mode of identifying needs and organizing accordingly.12 This is not an analytical practice in the economic or technocratic sense—it is conceived in a fundamentally ecological understanding. While economy deals in laws and conditioned behavior, ecology emphasizes interconnectedness, relations, communication, and codependence. “Eco-art” is not necessarily social—in fact, much of it is quite anti-social—yet Ensminger’s studies of organic systems led her in a strictly social direction.13

[11] It is difficult to classify Ensminger as an artist. While at times she could be considered a conceptual artist, this is complicated by the materiality of her work. We might identify her as a textile artist, but only in the broadest terms, at which point textile becomes too limiting a descriptor. It is feasible to lump Ensminger into the category of social practice, but the formalities of the genre are largely absent from her thought. None of these definitions are entirely accurate, nor are they dismissible, and it is in this artistic ambiguity that Ensminger has stitched herself.

[12] Interview with Emily Ensminger, May 19, 2020.

[13] To the extent that Ensminger is an artist, her social and ecological focus places her projects within the  genealogy of Agnes Denes’s Wheatfield—A Confrontation (1982) and Haha’s Flood: A Volunteer Network for  Active Participation in Healthcare (1992–1995), though these examples were far more visible.

Fig. 11: Emily Ensminger, The Ground Up, 2012

At Elsewhere, her ecological mindset persisted. When she wasn’t making rugs, she was devising another urban garden, The Ground Up (Fig. 11). Ensminger configured Elsewhere’s back alley as a space for both socializing and sowing seeds, dramatically increasing its capacity for planting. “Working the land” in a cramped downtown alleyway took shape in tiered beds and pots stacked vertically on scaffolding. Everything was deconstructed several years later, and the garden expanded into a bigger yard behind the alley, but the spirit of artful labor introduced by The Ground Up persisted in other areas.

Housepitality grew out of Ensminger’s residency, as if it had sprouted directly from the soil tilled in Elsewhere’s alley. As with The Ground Up, it began with questions of needs and sustainability, but like Ensminger’s prior practice in urban farming, it was inseparable from the precarious economic conditions of the time. Ensminger proposed the Housepitality department and its Curator position according to both what she saw as Elsewhere’s needs and what her own needs were, having struggled to find jobs beyond waiting tables. But this presented a tactical opportunity—Housepitality could be, in all meanings, an occupation.

Fig. 12: Emily Ensminger working in Elsewhere’s kitchen, 2012 (still from “Wild Game Dinner”)


“To live in a glass house is a revolutionary virtue par excellence,” wrote Walter Benjamin in 1929. “It is also an intoxication, a moral exhibitionism, that we badly need.”14 Such words could describe the ethos of Occupy Wall Street and other movements across the globe that erupted around the turn of the 2010s. OWS welcomed people with free food, medicine, and even literature, exhibiting face-to-face social politics in the open air. The Ground Up and Housepitality came in this wake, beginning only months after OWS had been crushed. Ensminger imbued them with similar sentiments—disdain for bureaucracy, desire for direct democracy, and literal grassroots assembly. In an ecological understanding of “grassroots,” Housepitality, like OWS, was not just a glass house but a greenhouse. The plants grown inside were ultimately meant to leave, to nourish others in the greater world.

An occupation in its own right, Housepitality followed a tendency of occupational realism, which art historian Julia Bryan-Wilson defined just as Ensminger had wedged herself into the seams of Elsewhere. Occupational realism identified artists harnessing “the potential strategic or operational value of precarity,” using a conceptual art framework to “occupy” the jobs they had to work to sustain an income.15 Housepitality, still in this vein, actually flipped this—instead of occupying a workspace as an artist, Ensminger more accurately occupied an arts space as a worker.

[14] Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Selected Writings  volume 2, part 1, 1927–1930 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1999), 209.

[15] Julia Bryan-Wilson, “Occupational Realism,” in TDR: The Drama Review 56:4 (New York University  and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012), 34.

Of course, Elsewhere’s leadership, Housepitality’s own Wall Street, never saw it as anything more than service. The Curator’s efforts to harness community power were mere “programs” to those heading the organization, just as an artist “occupying” a workplace is only ever a worker to their bosses. “[Elsewhere] does not model democracy,” argued Carrie Schneider in 2012. “You really are a cog in a bigger machine.” 16

This machine of material, this concentration of camp, is treated by its leaders as a modern Apocalypse Tapestry, depicting a mythologized end of history.17 It is from this cultic framing that “[the] three story building is billed as a manifest destiny for chosen artists.”18 Residents create artworks from Elsewhere’s overabundance of thrift-store items, but in an ascetic turn, they are expected to leave it within the collection upon departure—the artist’s time, money, and labor are sacrificial offerings to the temple of Elsewhere and its clergy. Weber’s words ring clearly—for this institution’s leaders, work is not what brings about utopia but is itself the end.19 Purged of Housepitality, what is left is art for art’s sake.

Fig. 13: Kenyon Cox, Study for “Labor”, c.1870

[16] Carrie Schneider, “Excavating Elsewhere,” in Temporary Art Review (2012). https://

[17] The massive Apocalypse Tapestry (1375), commissioned by Louis I, Duke of Anjou, still hangs in the  French fortress, Château d’Angers. An exuberant display of wealth at the time, the collection of tapestries  depict horrifying scenes of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation. en/Explore/History-of-the-monument

[18] Carrie Schneider, “Excavating Elsewhere,” in Temporary Art Review (2012). https://

[19] We must pay close attention to nuance in “utopian” language. Utopia does not exist in our current  world but is a horizon. To claim an institution such as Elsewhere is a utopia existing in the present is to develop a futurism, a projection of the hideous present onto the future. Weber quotes the eighteenth-century bishop Nicolaus Zinzendorf in a footnote: “One does not only work in order to live, but one lives for the sake of one’s work, and if there is no work to do one suffers or goes to sleep.” In an arts context, the artist would live for the sake of art-work. As Elsewhere’s leadership markets it as an image of an eschatological future, the horizon itself is conflated with the art-work. Housepitality instead asserted that living was the horizon, that art-work was a means to realize life. Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the  Spirit of Capitalism (Mineola: Dover, 2003), 159.

Even in Housepitality’s infancy nearly a decade ago, Schneider recognized that the pay structure did not appreciate Ensminger for her critical role in daily affairs and public events. Foreseeing the future, Schneider predicted “[Elsewhere] may compensate [the  Housepitality Curator] to book and manage commercial event rentals of the space while  leaving its everyday, internal uses unvalued.”20 That everyday labor is unquantifiable—quality is the heart of maintenance and care. Hospitality, as a utopian ideal, is generosity. As is all-too-common, those perched atop the pyramid of capitalism exploit this  generosity for their own gain. 

Housepitality was thus doomed to be made toil for its Curator. It taught people to reimagine how to live, yet Housepitality itself was not that life. Its fatal flaw was its placement at the mercy of Elsewhere’s leadership, as a waged job that financially supported its Curator. But these politics were ultimately meant to be exported. It did attempt to change what it could on the inside, but the project itself was no case of reformism. Housepitality was a set of guidelines for a utopian community—the image had  to be pictured by those within it, those who would inevitably leave it. The image exits its frame to be realized and live in the real world, like a rug is removed from its loom to operate on the ground.

As an occupation, Housepitality was a demonstration, a protest in and against its host institution as well as a set of prefigurative politics that exemplified the kind of working  relationships needed for a utopian humanity. The horizon it strived for was not a pitiful corporate pluralism of “collaborative futures” but a unified, communal future.21 Clear, yet complex; public, yet personal; organized, yet open.

[20] Carrie Schneider, “Excavating Elsewhere,” in Temporary Art Review (2012). https://

[21] Corporate pluralism is, of course, nothing more than a dressed-up individualism. Even Thatcher’s “living tapestry” demands a certain kind of “collaboration.” The distinction between the plural, individually-oriented “collaborative futures” and whole, relationally-oriented “communal future” is similar to that of the death and life instincts as defined by Mierle Laderman Ukeles: “The Death Instinct: separation, individuality, Avant-Garde par excellence; to follow one’s own path to death—do your own thing, dynamic change. / The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.” Mierle Laderman Ukeles, “MANIFESTO FOR MAINTENANCE ART, 1969!” (1969). mierle-lederman-ukeles-the-maintenance-art-manifesto/

Fig. 14: Emily Ensminger at Roll’s Florist Farm, 2011