Arts Desk

Exploring Lincoln Schatz’s “The Network,” Now at the National Portrait Gallery

The Network, Wayne Clough composite

In this town, getting a bunch of politicians and Washington insiders to agree on anything presents a challenge—even when it comes to art. Getting them to be in the art, well, that doesn't seem as difficult.

Tuesday, the National Portrait Gallery unveiled a new addition to its permanent collection, The Network, a recent work by video artist Lincoln Schatz. It’s what’s called a generative video portrait—a non-looping video controlled by an algorithm—of 89 Beltway power brokers, from the recognizable U.S. representatives Nancy Pelosi and Eric Cantor to relative unknowns like National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco.

The experience of a traditional video portrait tends to be linear: segments of a person talking layered with B-roll footage. What Schatz has done is scrap the B-roll, and enmesh his subjects with 88 other people who influence the decisions that make the country, and the world, function. But he also gets them to talk about themselves in a way that, say, Charlie Rose might. Then Schatz harnesses a computer program to edit together clips from over 50 hours of footage, in real time, ad infinitum, until an act of God or Pepco intervenes. It’s a feat of technical wizardry that offers a chance to observe powerful figures from the perspectives of their convictions rather than their constituents.

The idea popped into Schatz’s head during a meeting with Anne Collins Goodyear, the National Portrait Gallery’s associate curator of prints and drawings. Officially, they met to discuss the museum’s interest in acquiring his series of Cube portraits, commissioned by Esquire magazine for its 75th anniversary edition. The series included video portraits of PayPal and SpaceX co-founder Elon Musk, architect Santiago Calatrava, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, all of which the museum later acquired in 2010. But this was Nov. 5, 2008—one day after Barack Obama won his first presidential election—and neither could ignore the historic significance of the day. Conversation turned toward Richard Avedon, portraitist of the influential.

Prior to his meeting with Goodyear, Schatz had stopped by the Corcoran to view “Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power.” While there, the artist paid particular attention to "The Family," Avedon's 1976 Rolling Stone commission of 69 significant people in Washington. He noted that 30 years after its creation, the work remained eerily relevant; among its subjects were former California governor Ronald Reagan, CIA Director George Bush, activist Ralph Nader, President Gerald Ford’s Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, California Governor Jerry Brown, and FBI Associate Director Mark Felt, pictured next to Nixon's former secretary, Rose Mary Woods. “We don't know if Avedon had any inkling of an idea of the significance of that pairing,” says Goodyear, referring to Felt and Woods. Avedon died in 2004, a year before Felt revealed his identity as Watergate whistleblower Deep Throat. “It is probably more interesting that he didn’t [know],” she says.

In the course of their conversation, Schatz floated the idea of doing something similar to Avedon's Rolling Stone commission, but with time-based media. “Let's add context," thought Schatz. "How can we take those pieces and start to retell the story by making software that would recombine based on topic?” Goodyear says she felt as though Schatz “could create an artwork that was significant in the present, and that could perhaps be historic.”

So Schatz began working on The Network in 2010. The first big task: figuring out who should be in it. He and his assistants looked at organization charts, contacted pollsters, and polled the Hill. They got obvious suggestions. "Then I thought, let's use a Facebook strategy: use a few people on the radar, and ask them to refer people. That's how it grew." It became a network. The process led him to people he might not have found otherwise, like Kathy Stack, deputy associate director for education and human resources at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

The spring of the following year, Schatz began dedicating five days of every other month to interviewing people. When his interviews wrapped, he traveled back to Chicago to book more interviews and edit what he had. It was a Herculean task: He taped each interview with three cameras. In the editing process, he subtracted his questions, leaving in just the sitter’s responses—and assuring them he would be faithful to their words.

What came next produced a highly innovative way of displaying and archiving moments in history. Schatz and his assistants transcribed the clips, later returning to the video files to add keywords for his proprietary software to read. So what viewers see in “The Network” now, is, for example, a clip of Rep. Donna Edwards discussing innovation, success, and small businesses in Maryland, that might jump to a clip of Google's Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf talking about innovations in interplanetary communication, which then might jump to Lanny Griffith talking about his lobbying firm’s website, which jumps to Sunlight Foundation co-founder and Executive Director Ellen Miller discussing greater government transparency via the Internet. That's how the program selects: it threads through files based on keywords. “It is computational, so it is doing it on the fly,” he says.

Paul Roth, the former director of the Avedon Foundation who curated Corcoran’s Avedon show, seemed pleased to learn that Schatz found inspiration in the portraitist's work. But he makes an interesting point: In the 1970s, when Avedon completed his Rolling Stone portraits, people didn't have the same access to those little-seen power brokers. "Now the times are different,” he says. “We're saturated with media access to the powers that be, and our leaders are more receptive than ever to interviews and public engagement; so it makes sense that an artist today might choose video and dig deep for information where possible.”

That access, combined with Schatz’s medium, created something humanizing. “These are all bright and deeply committed people who want to do the best that they can do, despite what you read in the media,” says Schatz. “They are all in it, 100 percent.”

The commissioners at the National Portrait Gallery, who accepted the work as a gift, can derive satisfaction from knowing that the work included significant people who are shaping history were a part of the piece. For example, as legislators scramble ever closer toward the fiscal cliff, Goodyear acknowledges the significance of Grover Norquist’s presence in the piece. She says it’s that kind of capturing of history that makes The Network, like Avedon’s work, so valuable. Speaking of her motivations to acquire the piece for the gallery, she says she thought, “What can the Portrait Gallery … do to stamp this moment in time? What can we do to capture the moment as we experience it now, and create a document that has layers of significance we can't yet recognize?”

The work is now part of the National Portrait Gallery's permanent collection. Schatz has also published an accompanying book, The Network: Portrait Conversations.

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