Random Access Portraits

For many artists, the act of creation is also an act of control: a deliberate reshaping of reality with a specific message in mind. But for Chicago-based video artist and sculptor Lincoln Schatz, the creative act is all about letting go.

Schatz creates “generative portraits” of people and places: video images captured by digital cameras, stored on hard drives, and randomly recombined over time in overlapping layers. The resulting works can be read in many ways — as abstractions, as narratives, or as borrowed memories of moments in time.

“I love the fact that these portraits continually evolve,” says Schatz. “I don’t control what gets kept, what gets discarded, what gets put onscreen. It’s completely random. To some people that’s disconcerting. To the people who really get it, I think it’s inspiring. I’m simply creating a framework, a hole though which things take place.”

The portraits combine elements of videography, sculpture, and programming. Schatz uses Pd GEM, a graphical programming environment for multimedia, to set up such parameters as image durations and the number of layers that are simultaneously displayed. Digital video is recorded at 30 fps and stored as QuickTime files on a Mac, then recalled in different configurations and displayed on flat-panel video screens.

Schatz’s work is in private collections from New York to Shanghai, and he’s exhibited at galleries and museums around the world, including the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art and bitforms in Seoul, Korea. He has also done large-scale public installations — for example, a pair of 9’ x 9’ video walls entitled “From Here,” installed in early 2007 in the lobby of the One Arts Plaza complex in downtown Dallas.

Some of his pieces, like “Cluster,” which was displayed at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, capture images from a single point of view via a camera mounted in the frame of a plasma screen. As viewers look at the work, their images are captured as well. The constantly shifting video layers are displayed at random — they might show scenes from a moment ago, or a year ago. As more and more images are collected, the work recalls and displays an increasingly varied reflection of its own audience.

Video Cubed

Schatz’s current project, a series entitled Cube, brings even more detail and complexity to the idea of portraiture. The Cube is a 1,600-pound, ten-foot square steel-and-Plexiglas enclosure with two dozen cameras mounted in different positions on all sides, facing inward. Subjects spend an hour inside the Cube, surrounded by whatever objects they choose, doing whatever they feel represents them best. Video footage is recorded to a series of Mac minis, then recombined via Schatz’s custom software to create layers of images, which are ultimately displayed on large plasma screens.

“It’s interesting to see how people respond to this space,” Schatz observes. “In Chicago, we had an architect who brought in furniture that he designed. We’ve had two personal trainers with these amazing bodies, and a club owner who’s coming in with his turntables. There’s a painter who has created four canvases, one for each side of the Cube, with openings for the cameras — then he’ll paint on the canvases, so he’ll be composited into one of his own landscapes.”

The Cube exhibition is on display at the Catharine Clark Gallery in San Francisco from October 27 to November 24, 2007, and will also travel to Miami, New York, and other locations. In addition to the Cube enclosure itself, the exhibition features three 50-inch screens on which the portraits rotate. “Each portrait is up for a few minutes,” Schatz explains. “Then it goes black, and then moves on to the next person’s portrait.”

For the San Francisco show, Schatz chose subjects who have made significant cultural contributions to the Bay Area, including Craigslist founder Craig Newmark; Tiffany Shlain, co-founder of the Webby Awards; performance artist Annie Sprinkle; Dr. Haile Debas, Executive Director of UCSF Global Health Sciences; and filmmaker Lynn Hershman Leeson.

“It’s been fascinating working with these different people,” Schatz says. “Traditionally, you think of portraiture as a static moment. But with the Cube, you’re acting out your identity over time. And people are taking this thing and running with it! They’re affirming that they can create something new out of it.”

New Media, New Technology

Schatz studied sculpture and photography at Vermont’s Bennington College, and spent 15 years creating cast, sewn, and sculptural pieces before beginning to work directly with computers and video.

“Using different technologies opens up different artistic possibilities,” he notes. “I remember the first time I played with CAD modeling software and started distorting shapes — I thought, wow, I’m creating something that I could never have created without this tool.”
In 1999, Schatz began building virtual sculptures within a CAD environment, then animating them. “I took a CAD object and replicated it several times,” he recalls. “I gave each object a different set of characteristics, whether it was center of gravity, mass, or wind resistance. Then I raised them all up vertically in this virtual environment, with virtual cameras positioned all around, and let them go. I didn’t really care what happened — I just wanted to let the process evolve on its own.”

From there, it was a short conceptual step to working with random patterns and motion using video images. “I realized I was looking at the possibility of creating a system with a set of parameters that change over time,” he says. “That’s where this other body of work came from.”

The Cube project extends Schatz’s use of video and programming into new territory — and also marks a return to his roots as a sculptor. “It lets me combine several things I’ve always loved,” he points out. “One is photography, particularly as a kind of transition into video. The second is sculpture — it’s unquestionably sculptural. And then third, there’s the computational aspect of the project.”

Mac in the Box

“I’ve always used Apple gear,” says Schatz. “Before starting this generative work, I was doing CAD modeling and digital animation work with Macs. So it’s been nonstop.”

The Cube relies on Macs from top to bottom. 24 Mac minis collect footage from each DV camera and store the data as QuickTime files. The Mac minis are connected to a Mac Pro server, and another Mac Pro serves as a display machine.

“The minis are running the capture side of my software,” Schatz explains. “They capture video based on movement and create QuickTime files, which are all stored on the individual minis. When the portrait is done, I execute a script that brings all those QuickTime files across the network back to the server. The size of the files varies, depending on the cameras and how much the person moved — it could be as little as 50 GB, or as much as 175. Once it’s collected on the server, the data is moved to the display machine, and the software starts to harvest and display it. It’s just real-time manipulation of those videos onscreen.”

The Mac minis are a key component in the Cube project, he adds. “It’s a great, low-cost, small machine. I like their economy — both of cost and of size. They’re highly reliable and incredibly stable. I have about 30 of them in the studio right now.”

Schatz considers Macs the perfect platform for his other generative video projects as well. “I’ve tried using PCs for some pieces, and had really mixed results,” he says. “There was such a variance in behavior that we yanked them out completely. QuickTime on a Mac is highly optimized, and on a PC it’s not. I can’t get the run rate I need off a PC. So I won’t use them anymore. I only did a couple of pieces with PCs — I’m recalling them and retrofitting them with Mac Pros.”

But there’s also an aesthetic angle to his Mac-centricity, Schatz admits: “I recently got my 17” MacBook Pro, and I abandoned this dull PC laptop I’ve had for the last three years because I found it so aesthetically barbaric. The GUI was really getting me down. But the minute I got my MacBook Pro, I was so happy! I guess if you’re a visual person, it really makes a difference. I spend a lot of time on that portal, and it’s such a pleasure to do things on a Mac. They’re really easy to understand and work on.”

In Chance We Trust

Schatz’s approach to portraiture is not without risk. Just as he relinquishes control over the artistic results, the nature of the work demands that his subjects do the same. Unlike conventional representations, Schatz’s generative portraits are made up of unscripted, nonlinear images, subverting the idea of “posing” for a likeness. And the hour-long duration of each Cube portrait makes it impossible for sitters to sustain a façade.

“I really do view these as portraits,” says Schatz. “How are you going to tell the story of who you are? And with Cube, it’s very difficult for people to be something other than who they are. I had my brother and his family in here, and it was chaos — the kids running around, throwing a ball — and I realized that’s the way their house is too. I’m finding that people are inescapably themselves.”
He laughs. “It’s funny — I talked to a guy on the phone this morning who’s coming in today. He said, ‘Well, what do I do in there?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. It’s up to you!’”

Portrait of a Portrait

There are two basic types of portraits, Schatz observes: “There are portraits of type — the farmer, the steelworker, the depression-era mother holding a child — and there are portraits of kind, which try to depict the physical or spiritual attributes of a person.”
Most portraits attempt to capture the essence of their subjects. “But all portraits also capture other information,” he adds. “What people are wearing, their physical position, the objects they have with them. It’s a coded language that describes who they are in relationship to contemporary culture.”

The final variable is who’s commissioning the portrait, and why. “Is it the individual, a patron, a spouse? How does that change things? These are the basic tenets of all portraiture.”

By Elise Malmberg

Apple.com | November 2, 2007

© 2007 Apple