Being There and Letting Go: A Conversation with Lincoln Schatz

Portraiture of all varieties is hot in the current art market. Just as traditional portraiture risks superannuation by alternative approaches like Facebook and Second Life, Chicago-based Lincoln Schatz is charting new ground. His interactive video portraits fuse likeness and identity with character probing and perpetual change. At the root, the need to record, to display, and ultimately, to immortalize remains. With influences ranging from John Cage, Mies van der Rohe, and Richard Serra to Apple, Hilla and Bernd Becher , and Bill Viola, Schatz began creating video memory artworks in the early 2000s. In From Here (2007), a video installation in the lobby of One Arts Plaza in Dallas, 12 screens, two channels, and two computers randomly collect data, creating a spectral overlap of anonymous yet specific images. “The idea that you can perform in front of it, and that his piece therefore records the memory of the space was something that captivated us,” explains Lucilo A. Peña, President of Development for Billingsley, which commissioned the work. The home version has a motion-activated, wall-affixed video screen transforming data into an ongoing story line that similarly interweaves past and present.

These ventures in turn inspired CUBE, a ten by ten-foot translucent Plexiglas structure equipped with twenty-four video cameras mounted at different heights. In the course of an hour, a person enters CUBE and enacts whatever he or she desires after brainstorming with Schatz. Digital capture from each video camera is streamed to a computer that houses the artist’s specially designed software. The resulting portrait is compiled from thousands of randomly selected video files. These infinitely reconfigured images are then displayed on a computer-powered plasma screen. In keeping with Schatz’ approach, the sitter is now an active agent, while the viewer can penetrate the “fourth wall,” the imaginary divide between audience and action in a movie. A short list of collectors Pearl Lam, Rene di Rosa, Tony Goldman, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and art historian Peter Selz. By mining unique behavioral prints, Schatz’s generative portraits reveal the human impulse that connects us all. This October, for Esquire’s 75th anniversary, Schatz will unveil “Esquire’s Portrait of the 21st Century,” an installation of 40 generative portraits from the magazine’s list of the 75 most influential people of this century.

ST: How did you get the idea of generative portraiture?

LS: It came out of sculpture, about seven years ago. I was working on a public commission with the client, the architect, the structural engineer, and everybody else involved in the project. The changes we were making all took place on paper. I had a longstanding interest in computer technology, and I said, “We have to find a more efficient way to do this. I’ll learn how to CAD model and we’ll do generational drawings.” I got a modeling and animation software program; while I was doing the modeling, I started playing around with animation. The software had the ability to simulate physics, so I could manipulate the physical characteristics of objects, such as weight, center of gravity, wind sheer, elasticity, density, fragility, and repulsion. The experimentation led me to a body of work where I took a sculptural object, replicated it 10 times, and gave each one different physical attributes. After raising them to a certain height in a virtual environment, I positioned virtual cameras all over the place, and let them go. Computationally, I would consider how they fell, hit, landed. I did a number of those and out of them came looped animations.

It took me a while to figure out what really interested me was the idea of chance. I didn’t care about what happened, just about things happening. That led to a lot of writing and thinking about how could I make art out of this. Around 2000 or 2001, I started exploring the idea of using a camera attached to a computer and monitor, randomly collecting video from an environment, randomly storing it, and randomly displaying it. Again, I really didn’t care what was happening because once it was installed in an environment, it would feed on its own. I created a system through which things just happened. This idea has permeated the entire process for the last seven years– certainly with the CUBE project, not only through the technology but also through the conceptual approach to what people do in there. It’s about letting go.

ST: Why did you choose the form of a cube and say, not of a drum? If you take away all of the hardware and software, the CUBE reads as a sculpture.

LS: I wanted to create a neutral space where things can occur. It’s not about creating an architectural statement. When you can go inside and turn the lights on, it melts. It disappears. It It has a stereo system. So when you’re in there, it becomes womb-like. You can get your groove on.

ST: What have you learned from making art this way?

LS: For me, there are two distinct sections of what I do: studio practice and life. They can’t help but be intertwined, but I was trying for a long time to combine them—they were too disparate. This project has gotten me out of the studio. I love people, so it’s gotten me in touch with people. It’s been a great sociological experiment to talk with people, to try to tease out of them what they want to do, to explore how they see themselves, how primary opinions of the self are formed by others, and how people try to communicate and wrestle with all of that. All of these ideas are packed into a very, very simple project of going in the CUBE for an hour.
Someone asked me the other day, “Who would be your three dream people to bring into the CUBE.” I said, “I can’t answer your question. You can’t anticipate who’s going to do something really interesting.” I had no idea that the portrait I did of my in-laws would so phenomenal– it captures the essence of these two people. I’ve learned that randomness and the lack of predictability are really exciting,as well as working with people and provisioning things for them. One collector needed two kids for her portrait, for example. How do I find two kids (It’s this great, organic process!

ST: How do the collectors react when they see their portraits?

LS: We all have an inborn vanity. I got an email from a collector this morning, saying, “I hope my double chin wasn’t showing.”

ST: That’s what I find fascinating—it’s so naked. The CUBE is fairly transparent to begin with, and then you are allowed to do whatever you want, from working on emails to shaving your head. People are making themselves so vulnerable. When I think of traditional portraiture, I always think of the mask. There are very few portraits that go as deep as you are getting at here.

LS: You’re absolutely right. In a traditional portrait, you have a single frozen moment, highly manipulated, generally. And with CUBE, I can’t really guarantee that this person won’t see a double chin because it’s a 360-degree view. For some people, there’s a real desire to control their portrait process. This causes conceptual friction, which results in them ultimately abandoning control in favor of letting go. It forces you to go with it. My mom was the first. She agreed and then during the days leading up to it, there was a hyper consideration of what was going on and how to approach her portrait. This ultimately led her back to her idea # 1, which is like the fingerprint we all have.
There are three primary components of a portrait. There’s the portrait of type, such as the chef or the boxer. The portrait of kind—how you’re standing, talking, and conveying class, position in society, wealth, all of the innuendoes of what’s happening, and how all of that is being teased out. And is the commissioner the collector or a third party? What are the commissioner’s criteria and expectations? All three of these and their interaction are integral to a portrait.

ST: I would also guess that some respond to the techie aspect and others react to the work.

LS: You’re right. And the emotions manifest themselves in different ways. Particularly when there’s a familiarity. All of sudden, a torrent unleashes in your mind and takes you back to a certain place. All portraits, not just mine, have the power to do that. So, I’m tapping into all of these works that deal with memory.

ST: It’s so interesting to ponder the more control is sought, the less successful the result is. In your earlier work, you were in control of nearly every aspect.

LS: There was a turning point in my life. During the 2001 Venice Biennale, I needed to find a friend. A few moments later, there he was. That got me thinking about coincidence. Since then, I’ve tried to remove the word from my vocabulary because I’m not a fatalist but I really don’t believe in coincidence either. So the work started to shift. As I got older, I didn’t want to make these very didactic, empirical statements. My life is a series of unfolding events, and my work should be this way as well.

ST: When I was looking at images of your pre-computer work, I noticed in some an interest in the figure. Do you see a thread from these, to the Dallas piece where you have this slightly more anonymous group portrait, and the current single portraits? Maybe it’s the figure, maybe it’s something else.

LS: In 1990, I started a body of work that went on for a couple of years. They were all coming out of three basic questions: Where am I and what’s going on? How do I understand what’s going on? What do I retain from this? The work was based on my direct experience of life and its relevance to me. When that body of work ended, these questions remained but the answers were more abstracted. And these questions are certainly evident in the generative portraits. Private Weight is a cast of my feet, and the two bags are my weight, measured out in sand. The piece addresses the physical and emotional weight that one carries. As a metaphor, the feet are an incredibly tender part of the body, and they are also bearing the load. 62 days is a perfect example of memory over time. It’s about capturing information over a set a period, going back, and looking at it again. It’s a great forecast for all of this.

ST: Was the Dallas piece the first time you dealt with performance? Did that element sneak in or were there earlier works?

LS: Merge (2003, Paul Klein Gallery at Art Chicago) was the first experimental piece with screen, camera, and computer. It had a start date, and from that date forward it captured a little bit of video from the environment every day. The idea was still in its infancy, particularly in terms of the logic side and the software side. Along with all of this stuff, I was also thinking what this meant in terms of memory. And I’ll never forget: I got there, set the piece up, and all of a sudden, out of the studio, in the real world, the public brought to it a completely different interpretation, which was performative. It was performance mixed with vanity. The first was a kid. He started jumping around in front of the screen, and then he would wait and see himself, and then would jump around even more: he created a response loop between these two -events.

ST: So he was really playing with this inanimate object.

LS: Yes, and later that day, I remember a woman who approached it, stood in front of it, looked at it, assessed what was is going on, then turned her head over her shoulder and checked out her bottom. It hit me. Vanity is a real, driving force in this work, as is performance. It was really refreshing. You conceive something on your own and then how the larger public digests it is as a totally different experience.

ST: In a generative portrait, the object and the subject become one. The objects take on life, and the people become objects. There is a fluidity of roles. As a result of your end product, the objects keep living and changing, the way an actual person does. I assume that was part of your thought process all along.

LS: Yes. It actually started with the last series of sculpture, which involved large, translucent, hanging, Plexiglas panels. Part of the conceptual investigation was making work that would constantly change, and exploring how much the parameters of sculpture can change– something that could be invisible, that could reflect light, and that had multiple ways of interacting with the environment.
These pieces are obviously a lot more complex. They grow on their own. I don’t expect to control what they take in or how they are displayed. They evolve. They have their own behaviors. When you think of the artist creating an object and that act of creation, I’ve really removed myself from the process. It’s not about me. It’s all about you, the subject. It’s reflecting your life. It’s churning your life.

ST: But you’re not like a director of a theatrical production either.

LS: Right. I ran into this collector last year in Miami—great guy. And he said, “I have your piece in my house. In the past year, my wife and I have gotten divorced. She has our daughter, and my son, who had lived with us since his twenties, died. So now, I’m in my house and there’s nothing there, everything is gone. And I see on your piece, my son. And I wait for my son to come up on the screen. I see my wife. I see our daughter. I keep it on. I don’t turn it off because I’m trying to understand what’s happened in my life.”

ST: What else have you observed?

LS: The feedback I get from collectors is revealing in terms of what they are seeing. This couple from Los Angeles said the majority of their content was their domestic help. Where people put their portraits in their home is also interesting. There’s a great piece at a collector’s house in San Francisco. It’s installed in his room for watching movies with a camera looking out the French doors into his garden. And when he watches movies, a screen comes down in front of the French doors. The piece has woven his life into the cinematic life of film.

ST: Bringing the fictitious and the real together.

LS: Exactly. For example, he’s simultaneously in his garden while 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rear Window are merged with him reading a book. It’s an incredible combination of things. He’s very aware of what he’s watching and understands how it feeds into the piece. It becomes an extra layer of performance intermixing with his film choice and narration.

ST: You can take it wherever you want.

LS: You can do whatever you want. It’s a mirror. It goes back to the conversation we’ve been having. You’re asking somebody to go in there and essentially be naked in that environment, be vulnerable in that environment. What that means to people depends on the masks they wear and where they find their comfort zone. It’s really, really revealing. It’s really illuminating too. If anything, it’s given me tremendous hope. People’s solutions, their courage, have truly inspired me and surprised me. It’s fantastic to see people and what they do.

By Sarah Tanguy

Sculpture Magazine | September, 2008

© 2008 Sculpture Magazine