One on One With Video Artist Lincoln Schatz

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At the National Portrait Gallery's recently-opened exhibit "Americans Now," a work by video artist Lincoln Schatz entitled Esquire's Portrait of the 21st Century, re-envisions how to create a likeness of another human being. Placing a subject inside a 10-foot-by-10-foot cube, Schatz employs 24 cameras to shoot hours of video footage which is then randomly reassembled, and layered by computer, and then projected on monitors for the viewer. (Above: Schatz' portrait of actor George Clooney) The artist sat down with Around the Mall blogger Jesse Rhodes to describe his creative process.

Portraiture is an age-old genre. What draws you to create within that genre?

That’s exactly it. The fact that it’s an age-old genre is exactly what takes me there. It’s one of those things where early on I was aware of the fact that using that language, juxtaposed with new technology, was an unusual combination and it opened up all kinds of potential for innovating in an area that has a long history where you could apply new thinking and new technology and build off the past and create something that has resonance.

What are the advantages of creating a video portrait over a traditional, static portrait?

The ability to connect with somebody. Think about a painted portrait and the way in which a story is told through a still image: you have all these coded signifiers within the pictorial plane that are meant to tell the story. I’ve got to imagine that if those artists had access to this kind of technology, they would have embraced it as well because it allows for  a much broader and deeper telling of the story. You can connect being able to see the moving images and hearing the voices of people adds depth and gravity to the entire portrait process. And is very much of our time right now. I think we’re certainly in the nascency of ubiquity of video as a means of communication. It’s not relegated simply to those who can afford the equipment. Everybody is creating it now on an individual level.

How did you come up with the idea of the cube portraits?

About ten years ago I started creating pieces that would create a portrait of place over time where a camera captured footage for a minimum of eight years. Software would determine what was stored and how it was projected up on a screen. Then I started thinking about taking this process and inverting it; instead, collecting a lot of video over a short period of time. Let’s focus on individuals—let’s really look at portraiture now, let’s focus directly on the subject and how could it be a non-frontal portrait and be multi-dimensional and how could we really engage the system of chance. One of the things we don't see when someone sits for a portrait is how they don't compose themselves: the gesture of a hand, the move of the head, maybe a crossing of the feet. I wanted to look at all those things, put them together and get a much fuller portrait of somebody over time. Early on someone said, “Is this a portrait?” I think it is a portrait. It doesn’t look like a portrait, it doesn’t smell like a portrait—but it’s a different kind of portraiture and I firmly embrace from the beginning that these are portraits: they are portraits of process and they are portraits of place.

The first portrait subject was my mother. She’s like the stunt person in my life. She comes to me all the time and says, “What’s this thing you’re working on?” And I said, “Well, can you come and sit so I can do your portrait.” She said, “Well sure, tell me what you want me to do.” And I was like, “OK, I don’t want to direct, I just want to help you realize what you want to do.” And she said, “Well, let me draw.” Over the course of the next week it was, “Well, maybe I won’t draw. Maybe I’ll do something I’ve never done before. Maybe I’ll get a tattoo in there.” And what came out of the whole process was that I realized that the pre-sittings are so intensely important to get the sitter to understand what it is they want to do and try to tease out how they choose to represent themselves. By bringing them in to have them invested in the process, I wound up getting these portraits that I could never have conceived. That’s the beauty of it.

How does the technological element of the cube portraits work?

The cube has 24 cameras and each camera is connected to a separate computer. Each pair uses an individual logic set to capture video in the cube. At the end of a sitting, all that information is then aggregated back to one computer and then transferred over to a display computer which uses a separate program to start looking at, say, 10,000 files that have been created and then starts to kind of churn them. The software does its own thing in terms of selecting which files it wants, which files to repeat—if it wants to repeat them. Whatever it wants to do. There are multiple layers of video in each portrait and software determines how many layers there will be at a given point in time and how much the video is being manipulated—whether its saturation brightness contrast, etc. Everything on screen is a computational video, meaning there is no loop point and it isn’t a linear edit. It’s just constantly being chewed on by the software.

How much time do you spend with a subject?

It really depends. Very few people say, "OK, got it, don’t need to talk about it, I’ll figure it out." Everybody wants to engage. And what is interesting is seeing how people visualize themselves and whether it was performative, off type or non-type and just the different ways that they identified and use the space and process as a creative canvas to experiment. The scientists were really wonderful. I think they all understood the spirit of experimentation and they fully engaged with the process that way.

Where do you see your work growing from here?

It’s growing in a lot of directions right now. Working on the last two years on a project to address gun violence. Currently working with 5,000 students in Chicago and with Flip cameras teaching them how to create content about the ways in which they’re working to stop gun violence. We started it off by doing 200 interviews in neighborhoods hardest-hit by gun violence on what’s causing violence and how to stop it. We’re in beta on that and we’re launching it in spring 2011.

"Americans Now," featuring portraits of Chuck Close, LL Cool J, Toni Morrison, Cormac McCarthy, Willie Nelson, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Martha Stewart, among others, is on view at the National Portrait Gallery through June 19, 2011.

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