OE Ten Year Reflection: Randall Szott

In the countdown to Open Engagement 2018 we have invited 10 friends to reflect on the past 10 years of OE.

Our first reflection comes to us from Randall Szott. Randall is the director of a small public library in a small Vermont town. He is on his town Planning Commission, Development Review Board, and Middle School/High School Board. A former chef and merchant mariner, he is likely running for a seat in the Vermont General Assembly and assures everyone there is NO COLLUSION.

“Being a fake is what I do best.” – Andy Farmer (Chevy Chase in Funny Farm)

“The one caveat is that it must not be called art.” – Allan Kaprow

In 2014, when I was first invited to write for Open Engagement, I was given a question to consider: “Do you need to distinguish art from life?” In many ways this question remains both the most important, and least important question for social practice and for OE’s legacy and future. I originally answered it by juxtaposing a Chevy Chase film (National Lampoon’s Vacation) and some writing by Allan Kaprow (Tail Wagging Dog). In reconsidering it, I turn once more to Kaprow and Chase, but a different essay (Just Doing) and a different film (Funny Farm).

I choose Funny Farm, not because it is a particularly good film (Fletch or Foul Play might be the only Chevy Chase films that come close to being good), but because it parallels certain aspects of my own life/art conundrum. It is a typical fish out of water tale, with Chase and his wife moving from city life to rural Vermont, “hilarity ensues” as they say. My wife and I also moved to Vermont from Chicago, and true to the idiom, significant adjustments followed. In many ways my life has been a perpetual fish out of water tale – in the art world, but not of it; nine years as surely the only merchant mariner with an MFA in Art Critical Practices; sixteen years as a chef with no interest in being one, etc. All of these things engaged life in a particular way, with a particular experiential frame. Was it art? Was it life? Yes. And no. There was always a wink to be made, but not the ironic wink of pulling a fast one and asking for folks to go along with the scam. It was rather a wink that acknowledged the contradictions, but asked for more time to play the game. It may have been fake, but sincerely so. I was doing something. I was, perhaps, just doing.

That brings me to Kaprow:

“Today, we may say that experimental art is that act or thought whose identity as art must always remain in doubt… The experiment is not to possess a secret artistry in deep disguise; it is not knowing what to call it at any time! As soon-and it is usually very soon-as such acts and thoughts are associated with art and its discourses, it is time to move on to other possibilities of experimentation.”

Although I certainly make no claim to be speaking for OE or its multiple contributors and organizers, I think that this dillema has always haunted the conference, and perhaps now it is time to “move on to other possibilities of experimentation.” This assemblage of under-recognized, amazing (mostly women), deserve our deep gratitude for their perpetual efforts. To the degree that any of us took those efforts for granted, they also deserve our deepest apologies.

Sometimes we intend to honor folks by saying “gone, but not forgotten.” In this instance, perpetually hovering the art/life paradox, we might need a new tactic, that of Kaprow’s experimental artist:

“[one] who plays with the commonplace..in the very midst of crossing the street or tying a shoelace. There is no excerpting and reenacting them on a stage, no documenting them for a show. Art is thus easily forgotten. And that is the condition for experimentation: the art is the

forgetting of art.”

In this case then, Open Engagement might move on. Forgotten, but never fully gone.


Works cited:
Kaprow, A. Just Doing. The Drama Review, 41(3), 101-106.