Something gets lost in this analog “translation,” as Chicago-based artist Schatz calls this book, of his monumental digital work in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, which goes on display in December 2012. Schatz has assembled what he calls “generative video portraits” of 89 of the nation’s—and primarily Washington, D.C.’s—most powerful people. The subjects are from politics, primarily, but also business, technology, philanthropy and the media. The list includes dozens of well-known movers and shakers—Nancy Pelosi, Barney Frank, Grover Norquist, David Gergen, Cokie Roberts, Karl Rove, etc.—but also many who are not as known outside their particular fields but are nevertheless part of “the network” at the center of national power. Using multiple cameras, Schatz’s studio reassembled the video he shot in Washington to create complex, painterly and collagelike images of his subjects speaking to his questions (which don’t appear in video or in print). Stills from the video appear alongside the edited text of the interviews in the book, which run one directly after the other with minimal white space between them. Each interview begins with a called-out declaration of name and position (“I’m Jim Leach. I’m the chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities”) followed by a straightforward personal history and explanation of how the subject came to his or her current job, as well as reflections on the current state of affairs, most guardedly optimistic. The juxtaposition of these interesting but not earth-shattering narratives with the strange, sometimes ghostly images of their authors is jarring, and it’s difficult to discern if the artist intended to flatter his powerful subjects or present a critique of them that can only be experienced in the digital format.
May find an audience with Beltway groupies but not much more.