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Video artist Lincoln Schatz is known for his dynamic, video-based portraits. His latest work captures Washington power brokers, including Sandra Day O’Connor, Karl Rove and Cokie Roberts, as they discuss their legacies and aspirations. Using special software, these “generative portraits” shift and re-combine, creating continuously evolving representations. We talk with Schatz about his work and the technology that drives it.
- Lincoln Schatz Video artist
Lincoln Schatz: Behind ‘The Network,’ A Video Portrait Of Beltway Power Brokers
Artist Lincoln Schatz talks about the methodology and memorable moments behind “The Network,” an innovative collection of video interviews currently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Schatz recalls the variety of conversations captured on screen, many with common themes of honor, family and public service. For example, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor chose to focus her interview on a surprising topic–her wedding. In another interview, Republican strategist Karl Rove and White House press secretary Jay Carney each chose to discuss their experiences on Sept. 11.
“What came out of a lot of the interviews was this humbleness, this intelligence, these ideas of duty, service and honor, which outside the Beltway are really the fodder for irony, but inside the Beltway are really kind of the core tenets of what motivates and drives a lot of the people in the project to do what they do,” says Schatz.
The installation captures 89 Washington power brokers, including notable figures such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Eric Cantor. Software constantly recombines pieces of portraits, so viewers rarely see the same part twice. The portrait runs without identifying speakers, which is intended to draw viewers to their words and facial expressions without preconceived bias.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIImagine if an artist like Leonardo da Vinci had the latest technology -- cameras, computers, that's the notion that sparked the latest project by video artist Lincoln Schatz. His most recent portrait project captures Washington power brokers on camera, including Sandra Day O'Connor, Karl Rove and Cokie Roberts, as they discuss their legacies and aspirations. These generative portraits shift and recombine in different sequences, creating a continuously evolving conversation with 89 thought leaders.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to discuss how this all came about and the ultimate product is Lincoln Schatz. He is a video artist. "The Network" is the name of his recent project. "The Network: Portrait Conversations" is currently on view at the National Gallery. And Lincoln Schatz will be at the Connersmith Gallery in Northeast Washington this Saturday at 6 p.m. for the opening of his solo show featuring "The Network" as well as still images from the project. Lincoln Schatz, good to have you in studio. Welcome.
MR. LINCOLN SCHATZKojo, thank you for having me.
NNAMDINow, you got to be on the other side of what you did for these two years or so. But can you give us a sense of what we'd see if we were standing in front of the screen, looking at the these video portraits?
SCHATZSure. So standing at the National Portrait Gallery on screen, you would see multiple layers, multiple perspectives of Sandra Day O'Connor on screen. You'd see her frontally and profile. Some of the images would be fairly close up to her face, others fairly moved. And it has this distinct voyeuristic quality to it that you -- it's the way you'd want to see somebody, the way you'd want to scan their face to try to understand who they are.
SCHATZAnd you hear her voice, and you see her speaking as she's being overlaid in this collage. And she's discussing perhaps her wedding and what it was like down at the ranch in Texas to welcome the guests and prepare the food. And that video then fades out, and then another video comes up that's linked by topic to another one of the 89 sitters.
NNAMDIAnd you can go to our website, kojoshow.org, to see a sample of what this looks like there. What inspired this project?
SCHATZSo the day after Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, I came to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Anne Collins Goodyear at the National Portrait Gallery for another project I was working on. And I stopped by the Corcoran to see the Avedon show "Portraits of Power." And I had study this. I knew the work. I had never seen the folio in real life.
SCHATZAnd standing in front of these beautiful, large, luxurious black and white portraits of -- from 1976 that appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, I was -- at first, I thought, I want to do this And then I thought, well, there's got to be a better way to do this because Avedon was restricted by technology, right? He had to capture that 60th, that 100th of a second to represent somebody. And I felt well there is another way we can do this with new technology. And let's hear people in their own voice talk about it.
SCHATZAnd then let's create a system to recombine them because if you think about it -- I think about that show a lot in my mind's eye, the way the images laid out next to each other. The relationships were established immediately in terms of who sits next to who which is one form of relationship. But in reality, as we know, the relationships in Washington are much more fluid in the way they recombine constantly. So the idea was that create a system that will constantly recombine and start to explore all these relationships.
NNAMDIAnd what's fascinating about it is that when you normally look at portraits, you say to yourself, I wonder what these people are thinking. I wonder what kind of mood they're in. Most artists create purely visual portraits, but these portraits of yours are conversations, interviews with each subject. We get to find out a little bit about what they are thinking. Can you talk about why you made that choice?
SCHATZIt was interesting. I remember being at this kind of fork in the road on the project as I was thinking about it. I thought, oh, the easy way to do it will be to -- this, you know, I'll just scan them with video, and we'll come up with kind of a complex system where they move or we twist them, and we capture them.
SCHATZAnd so the hard thing to do is to engage them in conversation 'cause that will, as you know, require a lot of research, and I'll have to be at the top of my game. And I said, well, I have to do that, right? I can't chicken out of this point. I've got to go through, and I want to engage them. And it was really a soul-searching moment to say, am I really cognitively equipped to enter into conversation like this with all these people? And I wasn't quite sure that I was, but I did.
NNAMDIWell, the final product shows that you were more than equipped for it. By the way, if you'd like to join this conversation, you can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think if Leonardo Da Vinci were living today, he'd be using technology like video cameras? Do you think portraits are revealing of a person's character? 800-433-8850 or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
NNAMDIIt's one of the things that really makes this fascinating is that you get to see these people from different angles even as they are speaking. And for those of us who have had to sit for portraits in the past, when the photographer ask you to move this way and move that way, it can be pretty uncomfortable. It seems like it would have been a no-brainer to say talk about something because we are generally much more comfortable in a situation when we're talking. How did you select the subjects for this project?
SCHATZThat was one of the great challenges in the project. The way it -- so once I decided on a way of filming them, the question then became, who do you film, and what's your lens? What's your critical lens? How do you select these people? And I looked across lists of people, top 100, every kind of list, and no, that didn't work.
SCHATZI, then, printed up org charts for the federal government and all the different agencies, and we pasted them up around the studio. And it was just a tremendous amount of paper that yielded not a lot of information about one specific sector of Washington, D.C. So that didn't work. We hired a pollster here in Washington who did a great job of polling for us. And what came back from her were some very obvious things, that President Obama and Speaker Boehner had power.
SCHATZAnd so I was still on the outside, and I felt as if I was physically and conceptually outside the Beltway, that I needed to get inside the Beltway. And it was a moment on Facebook one day, and I thought, this is it. It's about conferring reputation. It's about a warm network. It's about people referring other people. So I started with a seed group of people and asked them who I should have, and that's how it happened.
NNAMDIHe was in The Network at that point. The way things are done in Washington: This person recommends that person, who recommends the other person. But you did get some pushback from both sides of the political spectrum on your choice of subjects. Care to talk a little bit about that?
SCHATZYou know, there are a lot of people that said yes. There's a lot of people that said no. And that would -- the hunt for sitters I deeply enjoyed. I thought it was a lot of fun to do. I felt like I had nothing to lose in doing it, and I really enjoyed contacting and meeting and trying to work my way through those systems to try and get access to people. And Grover Norquist I sent a fax to because -- and he responded, right? Some of the people were very, very hard-won sitters. It took a long time to bring them into the project.
NNAMDIThe other thing you discover, of course, is that, in Washington, once you do something, there is going to be politically partisan pushback. You should expect that. How did you prevent these from becoming simply policy discussions? What did you ask the subjects when they sat down to talk to you?
SCHATZThat was a concern of mine, that it's what I would get. I didn't want that. I wanted to contextualize these people as people, particularly for everything that exists, the world that exists outside the Beltway, who doesn't have -- whose knowledge of them is fragmented. It's pulled through the thin thread of media. So each conversation started the same way, and I would sit down. I sat very close to them. And I'd say, if we can, for the purpose of the conversation, agree that life is a series of points along a line, what's that first point? What's that first dot on your life line?
SCHATZAnd inevitably that's their family. It's their childhood. It's their parents. And I think that entering the conversation that way changed the way that -- it changed the DNA of the conversation completely 'cause it was about them and these kind of -- it was about their family. It was coming at it from a different angle. And early on I said, there's no gotcha questions, and if you don't want to answer anything, don't answer anything. And no one ever exercised that right.
NNAMDIOf course, as Ted Baxter used to say on the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show," it all began in a small 1,000-watt radio station.
NNAMDIYou interviewed 89 people in 45-minute sessions, and all of those interviews are interwoven as snippets of those longer conversations. How did you begin to make sense of all of that information?
SCHATZSo each portrait we filmed with three cameras. And the process was taking the video footage, say, from Justice O'Connor back to the studio in Chicago. First, we edited me out completely of all the footage, and then we separated all the audio into cohesive sections that maintain the integrity of what the intent was. From there, in conjunction with transcripts, we then keyword-tagged every one of the 8,000 video files with topic discussed.
SCHATZSo sitting in that, attached to every video file is this tagging system that software we created understands. So as it looks across, it can pull up and look at relationships, and that's precisely what's happening. So what's keying between video files are these topics. And it's a very naive, low-level intelligence. It's not very smart, but it yields very interesting things.
SCHATZFor example, I can see through software what it was selecting. And one day I selected freedom, and the two people sequenced, first, was Stephanie Schriock from EMILY's List speaking about the freedom of reproductive rights, and next was David Keene from the NRA talking about the Second Amendment.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that because I'd like us to listen to a little -- from the network. Perhaps we can get a connection, this sequence that you're talking about, between these two.
DR. FRANCIS COLLINSIt wasn't so easy, however. We had many stubbed toes along the way. I mean, we had promised to deliver a finished sequence of the human genome in 15 years at a time when the technology to do that hadn't been invented.
MS. JUDITH LICHTMANHow far we've come, how far we have to go. The important Supreme Court decision -- that of Griswold, which decided in the mid-'60s that married couples could legally purchase contraception -- was a landmark decision. Here we are, in the 21st century, talk about contraception.
NNAMDIWell, we edited that down a little bit, but that was Francis Collins from the National Institutes of Health and Judy Lichtman, former president of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, now known as the National Partnership for Women & Families. Talk a little bit about the connection there.
SCHATZThere are a number of them, and, again, as the tagging was done, it was trying to get to the highest possible level. The narrower we got, we'd get these feedback loops of conversation. The broader we got, the more possibility there was for new things to take place. So certainly there -- there's a larger discussion, I think, as we tagged about policy, about science, about change, about social change, and that's really the threading, I believe, between those two clips.
NNAMDIYeah, because it really shows how far we have come in terms of science, and then it leads to the clip in which she said, and here we are, still discussing contraception. Got to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Lincoln Schatz. He's a video artist whose recent project, "The Network: Portrait Conversations," is currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think portraits are revealing of a person's character? What do you think of video art? 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Lincoln Schatz. He is a video artist whose recent project, "The Network: Portrait Conversations," is currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery. And Lincoln Schatz himself will be at the Connersmith Gallery in Northeast Washington this Saturday, 6 p.m., for the opening of his solo show. It features The Network as well as still images from the project.
NNAMDIAnother interesting thing about this project is that you can stand in front of The Network all day long, and you won't see the same sequence twice. So no viewer sees exactly the same thing. Can you talk a little bit about the process and the technology behind it?
SCHATZSure. I call it generative portraiture, which is a mouthful, which is impossible to decode, but it refers directly to the process itself. So the -- a typical video has a loop point and end, and it repeats again. There's no repeat point here. Software is constantly looking at this massive library of interviews, these portraits, 8,000-plus files and then selecting not only which ones come up and are played, but then how they're composited onscreen and how they're manipulated.
SCHATZAnd if we can think of a story as a series of components that are put together that tell a story, then if we shift the sequence of those components, we tell a different story. And that's really what this is. This is -- looking at it, it's -- whenever I pull up to a stop sign, I'm amazed that everybody stops, right?
SCHATZLike, it works.
SCHATZAnd there's this perception of how this all works from all of this different sectors and kind of looking at something. We all have different perception of it. And I think about that with "The Network" as well. It's really an attempt to provide this very robust look in all dimensions at possible combinations and possible connections between people to really ask the viewer to establish that narrative and then question that narrative as well because they understand that it's inherently random.
NNAMDIOne thing that we all found interesting, you don't include names or titles in these video portraits. In some cases, the faces are familiar, and others, not so much. Why did you choose to leave out any identifiers?
SCHATZPeople have -- people come with preconceived notions of people, whether it's informed over time through media, through friends, through their own personal politics. And we tune in and tune people out. And we start to hear somebody speak and sometimes our foreknowledge of them blocks out what they're actually saying, and we resort back to what we think of them. And I didn't want that to happen.
SCHATZI wanted people to listen to what Grover Norquist and Nancy Pelosi had to say without resorting back to I know that person and, you know, this is my knowledge set about them.
NNAMDIIn order to do it yourself, you said you had to leave your own politics at the door.
SCHATZI did. They weren't important, my politics. It was more about, you know, I was in exploration. It was, you know, a Jewish kid from Chicago goes to Washington, D.C. and he has these conversations with everybody. And I wanted to be as open and agnostic and with -- I want it to be a free-form conversation. The minute I felt it was polarized in any way, A, it will lose credibility and then, B, I wouldn't be able to have these in-depth conversations with people.
NNAMDINow, if you do want to know who's who, there's something of an index to the portraits in the form of a catalog, which includes transcripts of all the interviews in case you want, well, a more linear view. Most of your subjects are people in the public eye, used to dealing with journalists and the media: Karl Rove, Sandra Day O'Connor, Cokie Roberts. How was it different approaching them as an artist?
SCHATZI think approaching them and I think approaching all the sitters as an artist -- as an artist, I think I occupy an outsider's role. I'm not media. I'm not kind of anything. I'm like a Switzerland in the world of communication. And I think as much as I had conversations with them prior to the portrait, the -- there are so many layers in this process that no one really understood what I was doing even though I try to explain it.
NNAMDIThey didn't see you coming is what it was.
SCHATZYeah, yeah. Right. You know, you can go there, you can see it now and you understand it, but I don't think they did. And I think it was really an approach. It was just really a very honest, naive approach to them that allowed me to do it.
NNAMDIThere are some interesting stories about the sessions themselves. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor is one. What was the experience like talking with her about her life and her legacy?
SCHATZShe was so gracious and wonderful. And the format was 45-minute conversations. I didn't want them to go longer than that because I was being very respectful of everybody's time because I'm not a very important person in Washington so if I can get what I can get. And I felt that I needed that amount of time minimum to have a conversation. So with Justice O'Connor, we got to about a minute, 42, 41 and we we're talking about her wedding.
NNAMDIWhich is what you started -- which is what she started talking about.
SCHATZRight. Well, she started right at the beginning. We get there, and I'm looking. I'm like, I've got three minutes left to cover everything from her wedding to now. And so I said, excuse me, Justice O'Connor, I'm sorry to interrupt, but there's three minutes left, and I know there's probably a lot of things you'd like to talk to me about. So, if I could, I'd like to move ahead a little bit. And she nodded and waded and said, so when the guests started to arrive at the wedding...
SCHATZSo -- and then 90 minutes later, it was done. And it was just beautiful. She was going to tell her story, which she did in a brilliant way.
NNAMDIWhich, again, is the contrast with when you ask people to sit for portraits because after a while, they get uneasy. They can't wait to get out of there. No, they talk a little bit about their lives, and they stay longer. Some of your subjects have cut-throat reputations, some of the toughest operators in a tough town. What was your session with Karl Rove like?
SCHATZKarl Rove is a deeply engaging person. He is a fantastic storyteller. And I think Karl's portrait went long as well. I think we went way over the 45 minutes. And it was actually an interesting day, so out of pure coincidence of scheduling, that morning, Karl came in. And for a lot of people -- people like Haley Barbour as well -- those conversations...
NNAMDIThe former governor of Mississippi.
SCHATZYeah. These conversations about these seminal moments in their lives that challenge them as leaders, challenge them as human beings and really became a turning point of...
NNAMDIThey both talked about 9/11, did they not?
SCHATZThey both talked about it. And Karl spoke about being with the president, getting on Air Force One, understanding -- trying to understand, trying to wrap his head around, as everybody was, what was happening on 9/11 and then the moment of seeping into him that this -- we're at war. And it was just a deeply emotional conversation to have with Karl. Later that day, Jay Carney came in. And I started talking to Jay and going through. And he said, yeah. And then on 9/11, I was in Florida.
SCHATZAnd he goes on to tell the story -- same story, different perspective -- of being in the press pool and being kind of shoved on to Air Force One, taken up, not knowing what's going on, trying to piece the story together and then, as they landed at the first military base, being, you know, removed from the plane and kind of left there while Air Force One took back off again. So it was a fascinating day of looking at this from -- and really, to your comment before, Kojo, 9/11 was just, you know, for everybody from all different sectors, from Janet Napolitano to (unintelligible) is a seminal point in conversation.
NNAMDIYou know, you say that you started to see Washington as a 3-D pyramid with time being one of the dimensions. All of these people are, in some way or another, interconnected.
NNAMDIYou once spent a year in D.C. on the Hill working for Sen. Ted Kennedy, and with this project, you found yourself wishing that you were 18 years old all over again.
SCHATZAbsolutely. You know -- and I don't know if you ever had this feeling, but you meet interesting, bright, driven, committed people, and their zeal for what they do is infectious. Right? And they have these incredible minds. Larry Tribe from Harvard sat, a constitutional scholar, and as I'm talking to Larry, all I can think about is I want to be your student.
SCHATZI want to go back in time, you know. I also then wanted to join the Foreign Service again. There are all these things I wanted to do and go back in time. And if anything, I think that speaks to the power of these people, their role as leaders, their role, inspiring individuals to make you want to learn what they know.
NNAMDICan you talk, therefore, about the disconnect between what you discovered in doing this project and how Washington is perceived from the outside?
SCHATZAnd I'm an outsider. I live in Chicago. I'm physically outside the Beltway. And my diet in Chicago was a media diet. And what I hear through my media diet is that Washington doesn't work and it's dysfunctional and something has to be done. And unquestionably, there are issues here, right? But as I've said many times before, my biggest concern is that I would come to Washington, do the project and I would become a non-voter.
SCHATZEmbittered. I've gone to the sausage factory, and I'm a vegetarian now. And the exact opposite happened. If anything, I met so many people here who are just top-of-game bright, driven, committed that it completely restored my belief in this.
NNAMDILincoln Schatz is a video artist. His recent project, "The Network: Portrait Conversations" is currently on view at the National Portrait Gallery. He will be at the Connersmith Gallery in Northeast Washington this Saturday, 6 p.m. for the opening of his solo show featuring "The Network" as well as still images from the project. Thank you for joining us. Good luck to you. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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