Friday, January 30, 2015

Q&A with Lincoln Schatz

Lincoln Schatz is the author of The Network: Portrait Conversations, a companion to the video exhibit of the same name, in which he interviewed dozens of people connected with Washington, D.C. He is an artist whose work focuses on multimedia and video projects, and he is based in Chicago.

Q: How did The Network project come about, and how did it become a book?

A: It exists as a video exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery. We thought it needed to be codified in an analog format. The book would function as a guide to this complex world.

The video is software-driven [by the topic the subject is discussing]—it’s like a giant bowl of nuts. That makes it more democratic, but also a bit harder to know. The book functioned as a way of condensing and presenting each character.

Q: How do you think people experience the exhibit versus the book?

A: I think the experience of the exhibit is that you swim in it. It’s like a stream of information. You kind of let go of the need of having something fed to you, and you are fed from it.

The experience of the book is quite different. There was a lot of effort put into making each of the people knowable, to cull from a full interview a short essay…

Q: How did you pick the people to include? Are all of them actually based in D.C.?

A: We started with top lists that got us nowhere, and charts of Washington that got us nowhere. We hired a pollster, and it generated really obvious stuff like  Speaker Boehner…We thought the best way would be an organic referral system—get a few key people and ask them. It grew organically out of the network itself.

Some people were great—Nancy Pelosi, Grover Norquist, Martha Raddatz—there was another project we were working on in Washington, and she suggested Peter Chiarelli, and he said, you’ve got to get Marty Dempsey. At the same time, some people made decisions that they were not the right people.

We were keeping in mind to try to keep it balanced between parties. We leaned [right] at first, because we thought the larger challenge would be to get Republicans, but it was not a problem at all.

[One interviewee] was a career person at OMB—it was really interesting to hear from someone deep inside. All of it hopefully is giving people an aperture into Washington who don’t spend time in Washington. It’s not an easy, simple narrative, it’s a very complex narrative.

Q: So they’re mostly D.C.-based but not entirely?

A: A couple of people are not D.C.-based. They’re people who interface with Washington….

Q: Was the title “The Network” chosen because of the process you described with one person leading to another?

A: Yes…there are people who have been there so long they can be based on which administration they were part of. You have all these different ways people are connected that are not obvious to the outside. We’re trying to look at the different ways.

Q: Is there anything more about the project we should know?

A: It’s born out of, how can we look at Washington outside these current prescribed channels? We can dial our media to whatever channel sympathy we have…The attempt was not to change to a specific frequency or political agenda but enter into a world without an agenda, and allow for being surprised. I had a really great conversation with Grover Norquist; it was deeply compelling. I learned more and more.

Q: What changed your perceptions most as a result of working on this project?

A: I had worked in Washington for Senator Kennedy when I was 19. When people asked me what I learned [working on The Network], it is the caliber of people I met, the drive, the intelligence, the commitment to public service, and there’s so much we never hear about…

Q: What are you working on now?

A: While we were working on this project, I was commissioned by the State Department to do a project with the Department of Defense, with foreign service officers and the military. We worked on that; it’s a photo/audio/visual project.

As a byproduct we’re working with the State Department to tell the story around cultural exchanges—I’m going to Laos in March, trying to tell the story of this cultural exchange.

Q: Will that be a book too?

A: It will live on the State Department website. A lot of this is the ability to dig in and understand narratives, and tell them well through mixed media. I really enjoy that.

I’m [also] doing an interview series in Chicago, at the Arts Club of Chicago

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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