The Network: Portrait Conversations

  • Lincoln Schatz
  • Smithsonian Books
  • 224 pp.
  • January 25, 2013

This companion book to a National Portrait Gallery video installation is a sort of performance art illuminating Washington’s many networks of power.

Reviewed by Matthew Green

On the third floor of the National Portrait Gallery sits a new video installation that is uniquely Washingtonian. Called “The Network,” the work by Lincoln Schatz consists of randomly connected segments of interviews with nearly 90 movers and shakers in national politics. If you can’t get yourself to the museum to see the installation — or even if you can — it is worth reading the book written to accompany it. The Network: Portrait Conversations not only serves as what Schatz calls a “translation, of a kind” of the display, it is an enjoyable, at times fascinating book in its own right.

The purpose of Schatz’s piece is to portray the idea that people’s present experiences change their perceptions of the past and future. The piece uses a computer algorithm that continually splices together snippets of interviews in which different people address common topics. The result is an ongoing and ever-changing narrative — a new experience every time one watches. In addition, video footage of each person is interposed with other images from the same interview, varying in size and speed (some are also in black and white), suggesting a fluidity of time and space.

Of course, no book can hope to capture these effects. The book contains edited transcripts of each of the 89 interviews, listed alphabetically by interviewee, along with still shots from the installation itself. Reading the book is akin to viewing the individual building blocks that make up the piece. It is a static experience, hardly the same as watching how Schatz continually rearranges those blocks into novel and unexpected structures.

In this respect, the book fails the reader. But after seeing the installation, I actually found the companion volume to be invaluable and even superior in some ways. For instance, Schatz’s videos do not tell you who is on the screen at any given time — a mildly frustrating omission — whereas the book clearly identifies each interviewee. And though the volume is linear, its contents are also clear and straightforward. By contrast, Schatz’s juxtaposition of faces running at different speeds is disorienting, even disconcerting. Frankly, I had a hard time connecting the installation to Schatz’s larger artistic goal.

Impressively, the artist managed to secure interviews with some of the biggest names in electoral, presidential and bureaucratic politics — Nancy Pelosi, Karl Rove, Janet Napolitano and Jay Carney, to name just a few. Prominent figures in other fields are also featured, including journalism (Cokie Roberts), lobbying (David Keene, Tom Boggs), the think-tank world (John Podesta), academia (Larry Tribe), the judiciary, the military and business (Ted Leonsis).

The interviews themselves vary in quality, though there are more good ones than one might expect. Some of those interviewed share life stories that contain unexpected details and twists. Many provide commentary on the state of national politics in mid-2011, offering a penetrating snapshot of a time of considerable partisan conflict and uncertainty. Schatz was also wise to include interviews with some of the most thoughtful people in politics and government. Jim Leach, for instance, the former Congressman who presently chairs the National Endowment for the Humanities, remarks on the importance of culture in understanding politics, while constitutional scholar Larry Tribe describes the Constitution as “a document of ‘thou shalt nots’” that will never answer the “intrinsically open-ended questions” of governance and society.

Alas, there is also a common tendency, especially by those in electoral politics, to employ trite political rhetoric in their commentary. Stephanie Schriock, the head of Emily’s List, complains about the “Republican war on women”; Nancy Pelosi proclaims that “it’s important how we sustain the values of America, how we sustain the American dream”; Eric Cantor bravely declares his support for “unbridled optimism and freedom.” Such empty, focus group-tested language hides more than it reveals.

Schatz notes that his interviews create a “portrait of people, ideas, and power in Washington.” Yet oddly, despite the name he gives his work, it is not principally about relationships and alliances based on power.  Perhaps this classic, Washingtonian meaning of network is implied by the installation, as Anne Collins Goodyear suggests in her excellent essay in the book, which puts the artwork in its artistic and philosophical context. Certainly, by convincing so many big names to sit down with him for interviews, Schatz has inadvertently created a sort of performance art that illuminates the city’s many networks of power and how to navigate them.

In short, while the book necessarily fails to capture the multidimensional nature of Schatz’s art installation, it is nonetheless fun to read, or even just browse, and may encourage the reader to rethink her assumptions about politics and the interconnectedness of personal experience. It is, in many ways, the ultimate Washington coffee-table book.

Matthew Green is associate professor of politics at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Speaker of the House: A Study of Leadership (Yale University Press, 2010).

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