Intheconversation's Sal Randolph talks with Randall Szott about collections, cooking, the "art of living," and infra-institutional activity.
SR: You recently announced the closing of your Dilettante Ventures project on your LeisureArts blog. Many of us are very sad to see it end. Could you talk a bit about your intentions in starting the project, and your perspective on it now that it has come to a close?
RS: I created LeisureArts and placekraft as a way to make public ideas and research I had been sorting through for several years. As I think most people are, I was shocked to discover that there appeared to be some interest in my blog(s). I also underestimated the interest in, and animosity towards, my anonymity. I never "revealed" my identity as I didn't believe it would provide any useful context for readers - as I had no real public profile prior to starting Dilettante Ventures.
I had been quite happy to quietly pursue the "art of living" in the highly personal context of my everyday life. Several people encouraged me to share what I was thinking/doing with others and I was growing suspicious of overly individualistic commitments. I was worried I was heading toward solipsism of a sort, so I decided to open up and engage in a larger conversation.
After spending nearly two years of being an advocate for new intellectual infrastructures that would minimize many of the perceived inconsistencies of people who are pursuing similar ideas within an art context, I began to feel as if my public forays had become a distraction from my interests rather than a platform for them. And really, I'm hesitant to seek a platform in the first place. I am happy to have met so many like minded people and to have been challenged by some perceptive critics. The whole thing started to feel an awful lot like a project, a "work" to use art parlance, and I am deeply skeptical about how that can shape one's thinking. I felt like I was in the service of LeisureArts rather than the other way around. The other components of Dilettante Ventures - placekraft and Studiolo54 had already run their course for different reasons, so it seemed like a good time to move on.
SR: In your writing you've been an advocate for the "art of living" as distinct from the art of "art." You went to art school, but remain very skeptical about the value of the art context. What's your relationship to art and the art context now, and how do you see that going forward?
RS: Well, I should probably preface things by saying that I'm aware that these art/life distinctions can be fluid, problematic, reifying, etc.
Having said that, I should backtrack just a bit and explain my past relationship to working in an art context. I went to three private art schools as an undergraduate, but eventually abandoned art and pursued an interdisciplinary degree at a university. I did that for several reasons. First, undergraduate art education seemed overly concerned with 'how to make' and 'what to make' sorts of questions. I believed that the more important questions were why make and how does making fit within a context larger than the history of art. Second, when those questions were addressed, it was in that cursory "math for artists" sort of way - a real dumbing down of ideas. Third, it served me better to become unaffiliated academically and allow my questions to determine coursework rather than the other way around. Finally, I really felt like people in art school had no real foundation of knowledge for making art, they had no perspective to draw from, other than art itself which seemed to me to be an incredibly insular and unsatisfying point of departure.
I found philosophy/cultural studies to be best suited to my needs and supplemented that with anthropology, art history, folklore, and women's studies. The funny thing is, that there is an inverse logic at play within most of those disciplines. At the undergrad level, the "big questions" are in play, but once you enter graduate school you generally have to become hyper-specialized in your research agenda. And even as an undergrad, the maddening thing was that EVERY idea had to be pursued discursively, in the form of the academic essay. That was, and is, what has always drawn me back to art - the incredible diversity of acceptable research methodologies and approaches. So despite many of my reservations about the way the art context ends up being a distraction, mostly by generating conversations that require an art critical/historical contextualization to activities that have an ancillary relationship to those discourses, I went ahead and got two grad degrees in art because of the flexibility of the discipline.
So, to finally get to your question, I'm not exactly skeptical of the art context itself, as much as I'm skeptical of the legions of people I find working within it that would be better suited in another context. For instance, I'm a collector. I have collections of things that make perfect sense within the history of artist collections and that could be displayed consistently within the conventions of art exhibitions. The problem is, I have no interest in either of those. I have tried to find strategies of public display that circumvent art contextualization altogether - by renting display cases in antique malls, utilizing public library vitrines, entering them in state fair competitions, offering them for sale at flea markets, using web based collection sites, etc. The problem, of course, is that my collections often have a critical dimension to them, a conscious relationship to the history of material culture and any number of other intellectual conversations. Displaying them in these "marginal" ways tends to impede those sorts of conversations.
I think this is a dilemma for many people who want to think about and through culture in complicated ways - Do I show them in an art context, however imperfectly it addresses my concerns and burdens me with a history I'm not particularly interested in? Or do I explore them elsewhere and suffer from the lack of critical, promotional, and organizational infrastructure that the art context provides? For obvious reasons, many people choose the former, while I have tended to choose the latter. I also think there are many who choose to do both which is probably the most sensible and where I see myself operating now and in the future. Although, I really only care to operate in the art context in a curatorial/critical mode rather than the artist mode, but those distinctions are fluid themselves obviously.
I am highly skeptical of the value of much contemporary art practice however as I'm not entirely convinced that people have really given full consideration to the range of tactics available for exploring ideas. I worry that the siren call of an "anything is possible" art world distracts people from the hard work of building other, more appropriate, contexts. Given what I know about the current state of art education, higher education, and institutional logics generally, the production and support of these other contexts seems very far away. Despite this, in my possibly pathetic and overly romantic vision of the considered life, I am quite hopeful about the ability of (art and non-art) people to improve their own experience and others' in both grand and mundane ways. And that belief keeps the seduction of cynicism in check for me.
SR: There's a lot to talk about here, but let's take a moment to focus on your collecting activity. I've been aware of some of your collections - the collection of diagrams on Diagrammatic, the collection you made of every instance of the phrase "the new" you encountered in 2005, and of course your collection of copies of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock (which you called 'one of North America's most discarded books'). I wonder if you could expand on this list and talk about these and some of your other collections in more detail. I'm especially interested in what you refer to as the critical dimensions of these projects.
RS: The Future Shock collection is a good starting point, as it illustrates the intertwining of the personal with the conceptual in many of my collections. I started collecting them after initially deciding I wanted to assemble the quintessential thrift store library - a selection of books certain to be found in nearly any thrift store, Future Shock being one of them. I abandoned the idea in favor of just Future Shock for a couple of reasons. I liked the book for purely aesthetic reasons - its various printings were in multiple colors and it had a font that was used in all sorts of other contexts throughout the 70s and 80s to look computer-ish/futuristic. I also thought that the ubiquity of its presence in thrift stores contrasted nicely with its themes. Eventually though the collection became a way to physically manifest a record of the sheer numbers of times I had visited thrift stores and flea markets. It served to document the way I spent a vast quantity of my time - each book representing a visit, but also dozens of "failed" visits as well.
Several of my collections function in this way. I have one of maps of what have been called "non-places." It is mostly mall maps that I started taking home with me after visits to malls before they opened, during the "mall walker" hours before the mall opens in an official capacity. I enjoyed those visits because you caught a glimpse of stores before they were in full consumer display mode. You might hear some death metal blaring at the Gap, or see some teen employees in the food court throwing things at each other while blasting profanity laced rap. I had amassed a pretty large selection of mall maps documenting these visits and then started to expand it to cover a wider range of places including airports, museums, libraries, etc. Beyond its souvenir value, the collection makes a nice visual synopsis of much of the writing around the spatial logic of consumerism and the collapse of private/public placemaking. Or as I have described it elsewhere, it is "an archive of the various ways that non-places are constructed graphically, physically and discursively." You can see some of it here.
I also have a substantial collection of answering machine tapes that I've picked up from answering machines in thrift stores over the years. I've been playing excerpts from them for friends, but never really made them public beyond that. There's some absolutely amazing material there - harrowing, mundane, hilarious, sad, and beautiful. I have a whole host of reasons for collecting them, but for the sake of brevity, I'll just say that they are incredible documents of a passing era in our culture that was never fully analyzed. Answering machines were an incredible transformation of the way we communicated with each other, and with the rise of voice mail, the traces of that transformation are increasingly ephemeral. Although not discussed much (to my knowledge) in the theoretical/intellectual literature, the function/role of answering machines has been explored throughout pop culture in movies and film. I'm finally looking into ways to make these tapes available to the public, most likely in collaboration with FOUND magazine.
There are many, many more collections, but I'm probably sounding like I might need some kind of anti-hoarding therapy, so I'll stop there.
SR: Lol, don't stop there. Seriously, tell me about a couple more before we go on.
RS: Okay, I'll mention a few more. I have a collection of various forms of nothing that I purchased on ebay. I noticed that periodically people would list auctions for "nothing" and decided to start collecting them. Sometimes that meant that in exchange for my money I literally received nothing from the seller, other than confirmation of payment. Other times I have received empty boxes or envelopes, certificates of nothing, a stuffed creature, a prefabricated scroll of nothing references, etc. I think of these listings, along with the thousands of other "joke" listings as a kind of folk conceptual art. That particular collection was short lived as too many of the auctions were being canceled by ebay for a violation of their terms of service, but I still follow many of the "cult" listings with enthusiasm.
I've collected theme ingredient cookbooks, that feature one ingredient (Jell-O, mayonnaise, 7-UP, etc.) utilized in all manner of recipes. At one point I hosted dinners constructed around them, but needless to say the novelty of that wears off quickly on guests.
While living in Ohio I collected souvenir plates of Florida that all happened to be made in China. I loved that these plates, manufactured in a foreign country, were shipped to Florida (where I grew up) where they spent an unknown period of time on a store shelf, and were eventually purchased as a symbol of a visit there. I thought of myself as collecting recovered artifacts from my "homeland" and I eventually took them back to Florida.
Finally, I'll mention a collection of those statuettes from the 60s and 70s that featured sayings like "I love you this much" or "World's greatest dad." the were made mostly by two companies - RW Berries and Paula. I've heard them called "sillisculpts," but there doesn't seem to be any consensus as to what to call them. I saw them all the time in thrift stores and began to wonder about their histories. I wanted to take them seriously, as genuine efforts at communicating. Surely some of them were given as gags, but at least some of them had to be sincere expressions of feeling. Greeting cards are mass produced items with often sappy sentiments, but I imagine it's rare that someone in a hospital dismisses a get well soon card as some kind of kitschy crap. In that vein, I wanted to treat these in the same way you might when discovering a box of someone else's love letters. To be fair, many of them were purely fun like "World's dirtiest old man," but there are plenty that express love, admiration, and respect. I wanted to share the incredible range of statues I collected (hundreds of them), but was leery of doing so in an art context because of how that might trivialize them, turn them into some sort of "so bad it's good" ironic stance - a stance all too common in the capital A art world with regard to middle American tastes/sentiments. So, I decided that an antique store would be an appropriate context given that people from fairly diverse walks of life, certainly more so than your average art opening crowd, with fairly diverse agendas (furnishing a loft, looking for toys from childhood, trying to find cheap housewares, visiting for pure visual delight, etc.) would have an opportunity to see them. I never announced it or made it an event, other than to take a few friends to see the display case filled with the statues. I felt completely validated on one visit when a man saw me and my friend looking at the statues and approached us to say, "Isn't that amazing? I have one of those at home on my mantle, my son gave it to me on Father's Day." Now of course, it's only anecdotal, but it made me think that many people who would have never seen that collection in a gallery had the chance to connect with memories and feelings long since faded. Not bad for some mass produced plastic.
SR: This is a good jumping off point for the question of contexts - you've mentioned several non-art situations you've tried out as ways of presenting your work. I'm wondering if you have some ideas about what an ideal situation would be. What kinds of new contexts could we be developing?
RS: I'm afraid I have to be nit-picky here - I don't want to talk about the things I've described to you as "work." I get quite worried about using that sort of language to describe portions of my day to day activities. I do a lot of things that people who think of themselves as engaged in social art practice would describe as work or projects, but I try to stay away from that sort of art professional language/conceptualizing. Plenty of people throw parties, collect things, host reading groups, take road trips, advocate for new ways of thinking or living and consider that a part of their lives, not as some kind of resume builder or discourse. As you mentioned before, and extending from Allan Kaprow, I am interested in the art of living, not the art of art.
I hope that doesn't seem pedantic because I think it is a crucial distinction. This is tied directly to the notions of context that we've touched on and that you ask about here. Beyond context as infrastructure there is the context of how what one does relates to one's life as a whole. I think some sharp criticisms can be leveled at social practitioners precisely because they frame activities too neatly within the logic of art professional practice. Many of these projects have ethical commitments that are easy to dismiss as exercises or thought experiments, sort of like being vegetarian for a week or becoming a Christian for the period of an exhibition. Both of those are fine if you're looking to set up some kind of critical disjunction or entering into some sort of art historical dialog, but seem foolish if you have a real ethical investment. Likewise, many of the social practice students I've worked with are interested in setting up convivial situations/relationships, but seem to have an interest in something more substantial - something more like fellowship. This deeper form of engagement is not something conducive to being staged, to being a project or conference theme (although it makes sense if you're using the term to mean one's life project). Again, if you want to intellectually interrogate such a thing, fine, but if building enhanced, meaningful human relationships is your goal, maybe throwing a party as a project for your residency is not the best context to do so.
The last portion of your question I think touches more directly on the infrastructural context which is less complicated to me. Although it's not a "new context" I would like to build along the model of the public library. Libraries meet an incredibly diverse set of needs and desires. The meeting spaces there can host book readings/discussions, parties, lectures, memorabilia meetings, film screenings, etc. The advantage of such a space to my mind is that the self-reflexive "hey we're eating curry in a gallery" impulse gets set aside (I don't necessarily have a problem with that kind of thing, but I believe it can get in the way). To look to even older contexts that might serve us better, I find the lyceum and chautauqua movements of the 19th century highly compelling. They were essentially adult education forums that featured an incredible array of programming: prominent thinkers giving political speeches, music, cooking lessons, religious sermons, vaudeville routines, etc. I think it's important to draw on many divergent forms of cultural activity to think through ideas which is why the art context, for all its flexibility can still be a trap. Just think of any number of thematically driven curatorial efforts - failure, invisibility, etc. The unspoken qualifiers for all of these efforts is that they really read "the [theme] in art." Don't get me wrong, art is a great conversation, a great tool for making meaning and enhancing experience, but it is a highly specialized, and all too often, closed conversation of insiders. How enriched an exploration might one have if we were able to examine ideas of say, staging gender identity, beyond the usual suspects of photographers, performance artists, and or painters, but were able to curate from culture more broadly?
And for some contemporary (and local since I live in the Chicago area) models to look to, there are places like Mess Hall and Experimental Station that provide venues for and support people engaged in activities from a range of contexts, including art. There are also programs like The Public Square at the Illinois Humanities Council that sponsor a range of events and discussions around a broad array of issues from knitting to prison overcrowding. I think all of these examples can lead the way to a more robust and fruitful engagement with the issues and concerns of people looking to make sense of their lives in a public field.
SR: You raise an interesting point about the implications of the word "work," and I'd like to zigzag back a bit from contexts and explore it further. One thing that strikes me is that we don't have a very deep vocabulary to talk about the kind of activities you're describing. I think words like "work," project," and "practice," have been an attempt by artists (and others) to broaden the discourse (the way "experiment" was for an earlier generation), but it's true that they are used so commonly in an art context that they do evoke ideas of professionalism. You've used the words "dilettante" and "leisure" in a suggestive way - how does your theory of leisure relate to the way we can talk and think about the kinds of activities you're interested in?
RS: The naming of LeisureArts has a simple back story. Most newspapers have an Arts and Leisure section or a variation like Living Arts. As an aside, the USA Today's version is the Life section which begs the question, what do the other sections cover? I found that the material covered in those sections, especially in smaller markets like Mobile, AL or Galveston, TX (for the most part, as the newspaper increases in circulation, the coverage tends to homogenize around less diverse, less locally driven forms of culture.), was precisely the sort of stuff I found most interesting - profiles of local artists or amateur historians, fishing reports, restaurant/movie reviews, civic association coverage, comic book club listings, etc. I thought it might be nice to operate under a title that might evoke some of that sensibility while also resonating with some deeper connections in my thinking.
I don't really have a theory of leisure per se, but I have been researching it for the past few years. I've found that leisure studies (believe it or not there is such a thing, although apparently in decline or at least transitioning to a more "practical" orientation within the academy like Parks and Recreation Studies) does offer a "deep vocabulary" for talking about these things. The notion of leisure itself has been fairly richly theorized and as you note, I have come to utilize it as a way out of professional forms of meaning-making and creative activity. I have been thinking about the implications of conceptualizing art leisure instead of art work and about how to think differently about the entire culture of work itself (the political dimensions of that are a whole other story, especially with regard to the rise of "immaterial labor" as a theoretically fashionable discussion).
I am deeply committed to promoting "everyday" people who are finding ways to make their lives more meaningful - devoted amateurs to a variety of intellectual pursuits, hobbyists, collectors, autodidacts, bloggers, karaoke singers, crafters, etc. This can come across as being against professionals or professionalism, but I, like most other amateurs, am indebted to their achievements. Where I get really testy though is when professionalism is privileged over amateurism as inherently superior. I've been around the "capital A" art world long enough to see an incredible sense of superiority with regard to "Sunday painters." In fact, the term itself is used as an insult. An obvious exception, and useful bridge between the fields of leisure studies and "high" art discourse is Greg Sholette's writing around "dark matter" in which he notes the interdependency between the hobbyist and professional art worlds. I view myself as someone who straddles those worlds and I try to be an advocate for a rich, inclusive understanding of human meaning-making.
"Culture" is not something I want left solely in the hands of the professional class, the experts. I have found, unfortunately, that I often have to out-snob the snobs, those who share a deeply intellectual/theoretical fundamentalist bias against vernacular cultures, and who believe that specialized and highly refined forms of discourse/activity are the most valuable. Despite the rhetoric around the collapse of distinctions between high/low culture, it's clear to me that there really isn't a level playing field. In the art world it's fine to draw on low culture, to "elevate" it into the high art arena, but show me where in the pages of ArtForum anyone is writing about sidewalk art fairs rather than the global art market fairs. I wish there was a little more honesty around all of this - pop/vernacular culture is only legitimate if it is dressed up in the jargon or ironic posturing of the professional/academic art world. For instance, I was asked to be the judge in a pumpkin carving contest and I've been asked to give talks at universities, I view them as equal honors, the latter is acceptable for the vitae while the pumpkin carving thing is really just "slumming" it in the eyes of the academy. I find the divisions to be deeply entrenched, with biases pervasive despite all the lip service to more pluralistic visions.
To put it all a little more simply, let me draw a parallel with cooking. I am a professional cook and have worked in some highly regarded "fine dining" restaurants, but I would never assume that this makes my cooking inherently better than a home cook. Likewise, I've eaten at some of the most refined restaurants in the country as well as some of the most humble. There is no inherently superior cooking. Sure professional cooking of the fine dining variety tends to be more refined or subtle, but home cooking has its pleasures too. The real question is what sort of meal are you looking to have? Does it taste good? Does it satisfy your hunger? There are plenty of food snobs to be sure, but most of the chefs I know are infinitely more flexible in their tastes and open to a wide world of culinary experiences, from Michelin starred restaurants to street vendors. I find it sad commentary on the art world that the same cannot be said of them. I mean can you really imagine Claire Bishop or Benjamin Buchloh taking something like the Cocoa Village Holiday Art Fair seriously?
I'd really like to hold out culinary culture as a beautiful model of amateur/professional dialog. Look at the number of cooking shows in which professional chefs look to home cooking, state fairs, tailgating, and any other number of non-professional arenas in admiration. I find that inspiring. Likewise, chefs make cookbooks and shows specifically for amateurs to utilize in their cooking. I believe that this sort of creative back and forth, within a reasonably equal playing field, enriches culinary culture. Sure there is a star system in it as well, but just try to imagine an art world in which "ordinary" people had such an investment in participating. The vitality of the shared "discourse" of professional/amateur cooks is something to be envied. Gourmet magazine is read by professionals in the field, but it's also the sort of thing you'll find in your dentist's waiting room. When was the last time you found October in the laundromat (even in New York)? Although many well reasoned defenses for a highly specialized art world can be made, I think art suffers from its inability to develop the "anyone can do it" egalitarian ethic of the food world (I may have idealized it a bit, but there is no denying how much more fully high/low and professional/amateur exchange happens there).
SR: That's a great comparison about the world of cooking. One of the things I've been thinking about in this regard is the difference between public and private activities (cooking for yourself, cooking publicly, making art privately, making art publicly), and something which I think is somewhat related, criticality. How are you thinking about these aspects of the question?
RS: The public/private tension is something I've been working through for quite a while. For some time I resisted the idea that there is a truly "private" act. I recently had this notion clarified when reading Richard Shusterman's account of Michel Foucault's aesthetic self-fashioning in which he makes a clear case for the interplay between individual and social experience. So, the distinction is important in terms of which pole of the continuum one wants to emphasize, but it is misleading to conceptualize them as wholly discrete. All of this is a convoluted way of saying that I think that working in a so-called private fashion is perfectly legitimate.
To my mind, art institutions (including the university) are poorly equipped to facilitate this sort of practice. They're good at facilitating one to many and occasionally, many to many interactions, but one to one activities aren't really part of the equation. I'm not sure that is something that needs to be changed, but site-specific work and time-specific work have been accommodated so I wonder if audience-specific work can be as well. And by audience specific I'm talking about the micro-specificity of one person for whom a work or action is conceived and also the micro-specificity of aesthetic self-fashioning, or the art of living. This kind of "humble" notion of what a public is has been central to my thinking.
So the obvious problem here is, how do you share this sort of thing with a broader group of people in order to draw on the power of collective criticality? I don't have any clear answer to this. Allan Kaprow is an obvious person to look to in all of this, especially his later writings where he delves into the notion of mindful activity and its transformative effects beyond the self. He's an important link between art practices and philosophical practice that I find myself working between.
As a side note it is also useful to think about how an activity is transformed when it is professionalized. As we discussed before, the amateur/professional distinction is important. Cooking a Valentine's Day meal for 60 in a restaurant is clearly different than making it for your lover. Likewise, the people sharing that meal in the restaurant will have a markedly different experience than a food critic served the same meal on an ordinary night. When an activity is your job, your profession, it creates a set of externalities that transform it. Some people thrive on that sort of framing, but I find it inhibiting for the most part. It's not about "purity" so much as it is about the qualitative dimensions of shared experience. If your interest is primarily in criticality and activities as an intellectual exercise, then professional domains are highly appropriate and useful. For me, because I'm more interested in passion, pleasure, and sin of all sins - fun, I tend to avoid professional contexts.
SR: Speaking of passion, pleasure, and fun, now that LeisureArts and the other Dilettante Ventures are coming to a close, what are your plans for the future?
RS: The plans for the future are pretty simple - read, cook some good food, talk to interesting people, play with my son, take a few hikes, and play some poker. Aside from those day to day sorts of things, my wife and I are starting an exhibitions and events series in our home that should be a nice way to foster further discussion around many of the issues we've touched on here. We're going to be taking turns presenting things - my wife will be operating in the more traditional apartment galley mode and I'll be presenting the activities of people who work in contexts other than the art world and generally don't consider themselves artists. It's called He said, She said and our first event is coming up soon. I'm mostly looking to focus on that and operating publicly in an intensely local way (here in Oak Park, IL), but I'll still be on the look out for other opportunities to engage in a more global conversation, maybe even a few "arty" ones...
Randall Szott alternates between life in Oak Park, Illinois and various locations along the coastline of the southeastern United States on the largest US owned hopper dredge. His life is a series of three week cycles on land and three at sea. He believes himself to be the only cook in the merchant marine with an MA in Interdisciplinary Art and an MFA in Art Critical Practices.