In the 20th Century Americans section of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, next to a photograph of Michael Phelps and caddy-corner to a painting of Bill and Melinda Gates, hangs a 70 inch flat screen TV, unveiled Tuesday. Equal parts Andy Warhol screen test and Congressional Yellow Book, the television displays various contemporary politicians, wonks, journalists, business leaders, science innovators, and cultural guardians, speaking about their upbringings, their passions, their world views, and their outlooks on the future. Some of the faces, like that of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Republican strategist Karl Rove, are recognizable from newspaper front pages and cable news programs. Others, like lawyer/lobbyist Tom Boggs and OMB administrator Kathy Stack, are less familiar. All together, the 89 subjects make up The Network: "portrait conversations" of Washington's movers and shakers by multimedia artist Lincoln Schatz and are the latest addition to the Portrait Gallery's permanent collection.
The project began some four years ago. when, the day after Barack Obama was first elected president, Schatz saw the Corcoran Gallery's "Portraits of Power" Richard Avedon exhibition.
"It was literally at that show that I started thinking about, how can I do this in contemporary Washington?" explains the artist, whose portraits have appeared in Esquire magazine and at museums across the country.
"Avedon was looking for that unique 'moment' that was representative of that individual," Schatz explains, contrasting Avedon's work with his own project "Using time-based media, I don't need that exact moment. I can have lots of moments,"
Schatz pitched his idea to use cutting edge video and software technology to capture the images and words of people who make up Washington's current channels of power. to the Portrait Gallery, with whom he was working on another collaboration with at the time.
"I wanted to understand them on an individual level, who is shaping the agenda in America's politics culture, commerce, science, all those different sectors," says Schatz. "I kind of used the exact same process with everybody, which was conversation about legacy challenge and aspiration, looking for the ideological threads that tie all parts together."
Each of his subjects he brought to the theater room of the National Portrait Gallery, where he interviewed them for 45 minutes or longer, sitting from about two feet away, as three cameras followed along. The entirety of the sitter's answers—broken up into 90 second or so segments—would remain in the work; only Schatz and his questions were edited out of the final cut.
Separating Scahtz's work from that of Andy Warhol and other video-portrait makers is how the various segments are pieced together. Rather than ordering his sitters' monologues in a single loop, The Network depends on computational software developed by Schatz's team to rearrange the speakers' statements, so their sequence is never repeated. Each segment, some 8,000 in total among the 89 sitters, was meta-tagged by its topic and the software chooses to play the next segments according to the topics tagged in the previous. So, for instance, if Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor speaks about judicial independence, the White House and Congress, the system searches for another segment that also contains one of those tags to play next.
"What is happening is that you sort of thread by topic through all these people and the story keeps being told in different ways because of the computational nature of the piece," say Schatz.
But even getting the subjects to sit for the project was an equally daunting task for Schatz, if not more so. The idea of looking "inside the Beltway" from the outside was part of what excited the Chicago-based artist to the project. But figuring who exactly made up Washington's network presented an initial challenge. First he tried to physically map out the federal government, but printing a large work chart he soon realized it was "massive, impenetrable, and obvious." He then hired a pollster to assess who holds power in Washington.
"We weren't getting anywhere, because I still felt like I was looking at the outer skin," he says. Drawing from the Facebook model, Schatz then decided to rely on referrals, asking each sitter who else the artist should consider, This proved to be the best strategy of infiltrating Washington's network, even if some sitters could produce little more than more names.
Once Schatz reached out to potential subjects some sitters were eager to participate.
"I sent a fax to Americans for Tax Reform and Grover Norquist got back to me right away," he recalls.
Others took 15 or 20 tries to nail down, some because of scheduling constraints, others becuase they didn't at first understand, and many, in this image-conscious city, because of the unscripted nature of the project.
"It was definitely a leap of faith that required a lot of conversation and assurances that I would not take what they were saying out of context," he says. And that's not to mention the legal hoops Schatz jumped through to negotiating a contract so that the sitters could be a part of the project. "As a small arts studio in Chicago, working with these large federal agencies with five or seven lawyers [included on the E-mail chain], that was brutal."
Once he did get his subjects in front of the camera, his work paid off.
"Working with people in Washington, several things became clear right away. One was that everyone that I was working with was on top of their game, intensely bright, and deeply committed to what they were doing, with an extreme earnestness."
His subjects were separated by industry, generation, and, perhaps most importantly in Washington, by the aisle.
"I was concerned that I would emerge politically agnostic. In the end, I came out exhilarated with tremendous faith that there were super intelligent people working diligently on these issues," says Schatz. "While there are certainly differences, everybody I met was so deeply committed to working for their constituents and working for the ideas in the most ultimately noble way possible."
The Network is on display at the National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian Books has also published a book to along with the The Network.
- Homeland Recap: Closer to Closure
- 5 Reasons to Thank Prohibition on 'Repeal Day'
- Shakespeare, Romcoms, and the 30 Rock Wedding
Tierney Sneed is associate editor of U.S. News Opinion. You can follow her on Twitter or reach her at email@example.com.