Storytelling and the Web of Influence

lincoln_schatzI recently had the pleasure of attending an artist talk by Lincoln Schatz,
a contemporary American artist, best known for his pioneering works that create portraits of people, places and processes utilizing video and software to collect, store, and display images. Schatz presented his latest multimedia project called The Network: Portrait Conversations where his lens focuses on the men and women who play pivotal roles shaping the daily workings of the United States. The Network is a snapshot of people, ideas, and power in Washington, D.C.

During the talk, the artist revealed to us how he designed the space in order to encourage his subjects to tell a more personal story. The set was surrounded by an entirely black background giving a great sense of depth, like being able to reach into the recesses of someone’s mind. Several cameras were set in a round, not only to capture many angles of the subject’s expression, but also to eliminate their feeling like they have to focus on the camera in front of them, or any camera for that matter. The subject can then be in the moment of the conversation.

Schatz did not ask leading questions. He was not interested in the politics and any specific aspect of it. His goal was to engage the person in a dialog that would reveal what matters to them: their legacy, their challenges and their aspirations. The artist interviewed a group of influential people, some of whom are seen in mainstream media on a regular basis, and some who almost never step into the limelight. But the common thread that weaves them together are their stories — their concerns, their values, their humanity.

Each video portrait was electronically tagged with key words based on the subject matter of the dialog in that particular video. The computer randomly selects matching key words which determines what videos are played in sequence. The sequence is never the same, making multiple connections and juxtapositions between these people of influence and the issues they talk about, therefore revealing multiple relationships and layers of relevance between their ideas, personal experiences and spheres of influence.

What I learned from the work of Lincoln Schatz sheds light on my journey to tell the story of a Chicago neighborhood that has gone through multiple transformations through the generations — a community of citizens, businesses and nonprofit organizations, a community diverse in every way, shape and form. I see an opportunity to provide an appropriate space and time for each individual to tell their own story, to not mislabel them, to not misrepresent them, to enable them to reach into their core and express who they truly are, to empower them to paint a clear picture of their legacy, challenges and aspirations so they can engage the viewer to join them in the change they envision for themselves and their community.

The Network was first presented as an installation at ConnerSmith Gallery in D.C. The installation consists of the generative video, video stills of all 89 sitters and the set on which the portraits were filmed at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery which is now the installation’s permanent home.

You can find out more about The Network and other works of Lincoln Schatz at lincolnschatz.com.