The Political Portrait in the Age of Protocol: Lincoln Schatz’s The Network

Michael Maizels

Mellon Curator of New Media Art, The Davis Museum at Wellesley College
Curatorial Consultant for Time Based Media Art, The National Portrait Gallery (US)

“It’s who you know…”
–Contemporary folk saying


This article examines Lincoln Schatz’s The Network, a generative digital-video portrait of political, intellectual and cultural leaders in Washington, DC and the first new media political portrait acquired by the National Portrait Gallery (US). I explore Schatz’s work in light of the theoretical framework laid out in Alexander Galloway’s Protocol, specifically his argument that political power in the digital age is shaped as a center-less networks. I demonstrate how a selection of historical portraits, culminating in Schatz’s The Network, can productively illuminate the shifts Galloway describes-from the centralized reign of royal sovereigns to the comparatively decentralized rule of representative democracies and the more recent emergence of the “distributed network” epoch of political power. I argue that the value of Schatz’s The Network lies in the way that it reveals how the model of a diffuse, open, interconnected network-with all of its conflicted associations-has become a fundamental touchstone of the power elite’s own self-conception.

Unidentified figures sit against a blank void. Clad in suits, or occasionally in military uniforms, they relate insights to an unseen interviewer about their careers, their visions or their take on American politics. “In 2007,” recounts one, “I was having dinner with George Mitchell, Bob Dole, and Howard Baker, and we talked about the disturbing polarization.” Another insists that “the new fights are complicated by the use of technology. Everybody has the ability to pass information around, whatever the theater of operations.” A third candidly asserts, “if our assignment is to stop something from happening, in Washington, that’s a whole lot easier to do.” [1] Multiple cameras fix their expressions from different perspectives, with a final image that is an ever-shifting composite of profile shots and close-ups.

This is roughly what viewers encounter on seeing Lincoln Schatz’s The Network, a ‘group portrait’ of eighty-nine political, economic and intellectual leaders installed in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: The Network (2012-3), Lincoln Schatz, HD Video extract, 5:30 Collection of the National Portrait Gallery (US)

The work was modeled on Richard Avedon’s The Family, the famed photographic portfolio commissioned by Rolling Stone in 1976 that featured sixty-nine influential politicians, executives and union leaders. In the wake of Obama’s first inauguration, Schatz was inspired to create a similar, collective portrait of power at a significant moment in American history, but one executed in a manner and a medium more appropriate to contemporary culture.

The artist and his studio assistants began with a small number of members of the Washington elite. They filmed interviews with them and, in a strategy inspired by Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks, encouraged them to recommend other sitters. [2] While Schatz exercised a modicum of control-he did not want the work devolving into the depiction of a narrow cadre nor skewing in any detectable ideological direction-he nevertheless attempted to allow the selection of subjects to unfold without his active editorial input. After concluding the filming, the interview recordings were sliced up into hundreds of components clips, each tagged with an array of keywords appropriate to their content. In playback, these clips are filtered though a custom software written in MSP/Jitter, one that shuffles through the clips by following linkages between the tags. For example, the piece might flow between National Rifle Association President David Keene and former speaker Nancy Pelosi, both talking about “individual liberty.”

As the first work of new media political portraiture acquired by the National Portrait Gallery (US), The Network stands as a milestone in the history of representations of power. On the one hand, we may consider Schatz’s work as illustrative of a broader democratization of the authority and cultural agency of official portraiture. In my time at the National Portrait Gallery, I have witnessed this evolution firsthand. Since beginning as an intern in 2009, I have seen the rapid growth of the time based media art collection happen against the backdrop of a broader process opening up of the institution, which has been actively seeking to embrace new kinds of subjects for its collections. Though it only began acquiring portraits of living subjects within the past decade, the gallery has since been aggressively adding to programs showcase the diversity of the American experience, from the depiction of pop culture heroes to the daring presentation of the Hide/Seek exhibition in 2011.

Though the acquisition of the The Network certainly figures as a part of these trends, the work itself also speaks to much larger, and much more gradual, shifts in the representation of power. Its status as a rare example of new media political portraiture, a genre with expectations that cut deeply against the grain of the socially-mediated “selfie” sensibility, makes Schatz’s piece a particularly interesting object. Political portraits have always tended to be conflicted artifacts, borrowing representational strategies and ideological tropes from different historical epochs. What is at stake here is not so much the presence of this amalgamation, but rather how this heterogeneity enables us to see through to the first emergence of important aesthetic or ideological markers.

One of the most notable features of The Network is that, in a certain curious way, it seems to be a portrait of no one. This effect is partly due to the fact that the speakers are unidentified while they are on camera. Although the artist intended this anonymity to pull viewers away from their instinctual biases-it might be easier to listen to the insights of a controversial lobbyist if one did not who she was-the omission of names and titles nevertheless serves to de-differentiate the speakers from one another. [3] Moreover, the sheer number of sitters and then shifting, generative nature of the playback erodes the sense of stability (of artwork and by extension of authority) that has historically underpinned political portraits. Rather than the depiction of a single subject, one is instead left with a kind of collective portrait of a political moment.

The specifics of this moment will no doubt interest future scholars. Filmed between 2011 and 2012, the interviews speak indirectly of the brewing threat of a government shutdown, as well as attest to the generational shifts in the halls of power, between the Bush-era neoconservatives and the rising progressives associated with Obama’s administration. However, I’d like to step back from this narrow specificity to address a deeper historical shift in political thinking described by Schatz’s work, one in which power is seen to stem not from the considered decisions of a chosen individual but rather arising from the cumulative actions of a loose-knit system of interdependent actors.

Portraits of the Powerful, Portraits of Power

In order to situate with shift within its appropriate political and technological context, I’d like to turn to the work of media theorist Alexander Galloway. In his 2004 book Protocol, Galloway suggests an addition to the periodizing schema put forth by Michel Foucault, who argues for dividing history into two great political epochs: the centralized reign of royal sovereigns and the comparatively decentralized rule of representative democracies. To this Galloway adds a third epoch, the more recent emergence of the “distributed network” model of political power. [4] Though the rough outlines of this periodizing schema may be familiar from the work of a broad range of theorists, I would like to suggest that one could illustrate these periods through a strategic selection of political portraits. These examples will not only clarify the central ideologies underpinning what Foucault refers to as the “Sovereign” and “Disciplinary” epochs, but also clarify the way in which Schatz’s The Network illustrates the most recent shift, to the mode of “network” and “protocol” theorized by Galloway.

A brief caveat concerning the dates demarcating these historical divisions. It is impossible to ascribe definitive chronological boundaries to such world-historical epochs for several reasons. Not only do the shifts occur at different times in different places, but the subtending ideologies also tend to interpenetrate one another, a phenomenon that leads to historical artifacts that are enmeshed within multiple, conflicting sets of motivations. One could even argue that political portraits, properly speaking, begin only during the second epoch. While ancient kings certainly sought to disseminate their likenesses, it is only comparatively recently that the cohesive notion of a “public,” a body-politic composed of enfranchised citizens, has emerged to serve as the collective audience for such representations of power. [5]

Thus, although Foucault cites Napoleon’s reign as crucial to the emergence of the modern state, I’d like to focus on Antonio Canova’s 1802-6 Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker as illustrative of the ideology behind his notion of classical, sovereign power (Fig. 2). [6]

Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802-6), Antonio Canova, White Marble, 136” Collection of the Apsley House, London

Figure 2: Napoleon as Mars the Peacemaker (1802-6), Antonio Canova, White Marble, 136” Collection of the Apsley House, London

This sculpture has a curious history, which is worth recounting briefly. Napoleon, a great admirer of the renowned Canova, applied a mixture of flattery and diplomatic pressure to convince the sculptor to come to Paris after he conquered the latter’s native Republic of Venice. Canova produced a portrait bust of Napoleon that the Emperor adored, and he ordered a full-length marble statue produced on its model. The resulting work, however, was met with the opposite reaction. Though Mars received flowery praise from Vivant Denon, a trusted artistic advisor to the Bonaparte regime, it was an object of horror for the emperor. He worried that the lithe, nude form of the depiction would contrast unfavorably with his own famously squat physique, and as a result, he had sculpture was hidden away from view. It remained in behind a screen in the Musée Napoleon (the Louvre) until it was de-accessioned into the collection of the British government in 1816, shortly after Napoleon was sent away to his second exile on St. Helena. [7]

Though Canova may have been trying to embarrass Napoleon as payback for the conquest of Venice, the sculpture itself met with enough approval from Denon to suggest that it still spoke to the construction of the regime’s official narrative about itself. This narrative, as seen through the lens of Mars, is the essence of the ideology subtending the rule of the sovereign. This ideology is, in part, the attempt to justify monarchical power by reference to an ancient or mythical past. But the more important issue is the rhetoric through which the Mars constructed Napoleon’s relationship with the present. As Foucault relates, one of the most longstanding doctrines behind royal authority is the assumption of power over life and death, a power that eventually reifies itself into the role of primary truce-maker in the Hobbesian “war of all against all.” [8]. By wielding total authority over a vast realm, the king commands singular loyalty and, by his person, ensures stability in his kingdom. Establishing fealty among widely dispersed subjects necessitated a kind of transference, one in which the kingdom became a metaphorical extension of the king himself. Rendered here as a classical epitome of youthful masculinity, the Royal Body functioned as the seat of authority radiating outwards, the center of a terrestrial cosmology. [9]This, in essence, is the meaning of Mars-cum-Napoleon as a bellicose bringer of peace.

If the ‘classical’ or ‘sovereign’ society was governed by this sort of centeredness, the ‘modern’ or ‘disciplinary’ state is characterized by a comparative dispersion of political power. By contrast with a centralized, sovereign society-regarded as an extension of the physical body of the king-a modern state achieves internal cohesion through a comparative diffusion of power. Enfranchised citizens in a democracy internalize the mantle of authority, wielding political power as well as ensuring their own adherence to a social compact. The everyman becomes the subject as well as the object of political power.

This ideology is expressed in any number of images of American leaders, but it is particularly vivid in Robert Anderson’s recent official portrait of President George W. Bush (Fig. 3).

George W. Bush (2008), Robert Anderson, Oil on Canvas, approx. 60” x 48” Collection of the National Portrait Gallery (US)

Figure 3: George W. Bush (2008), Robert Anderson, Oil on Canvas, approx. 60” x 48” Collection of the National Portrait Gallery (US)

Though the use of oil on canvas and its installation in the National Portrait Gallery connect Anderson’s portrait to more traditional modes of depiction, the work clearly differs from other historical examples. While we would of course not expect the sitting president to be depicted as a mythical king, Bush is here not even truly depicted as a statesman. He bears a sheepish smile and sits forward in a casual, familiar pose, one that creates an awkward elevation of his pant cuffs. His clothing and the furnishings speak of comfort but not particularly of wealth; the position of the couch in the front of the dining table suggests a distinctly middle class configuration. Even the relationship between subject and artist-they were college classmates-suggests a condition not of august grandeur but of almost domestic informality.

This apparent insouciance, which is certainly an active construct of both Bush and Anderson, speaks to the salient difference between what Foucault refers to as the sovereign and disciplinary societies. The oddness of Anderson’s portrait is perhaps that it attempts to capture Bush the ‘average’ man at a time in which he commanded the most powerful military on earth. This distinction between the man and the leader is inherent to the disciplinary society; it would have made no sense to a world in which Louis XIV could declare with all literalness that he was the state. Whereas the king served as divinely ordained center of the realm, our own national ideology, with its origins in the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment, constructed the presidency not as a center but as a placeholder. One man’s decisions stand in for those of the dispersed body politic by which he was elected. In Anderson’s depiction, Bush functions not as a ruler but rather an exemplar, a kind of living reification of upper middle class, white America.

The Protological Present

As the portraits of Napoleon and Bush were tied up in the sovereign and disciplinary modes of power, Schatz’s The Network is enmeshed within a third epoch recently proposed by media theorist Alexander Galloway, the networked society governed by ‘protocol.’ Just as the modern, disciplinary state broke the power monopoly held by absolutist kings, the contemporary politics of protocol represents a further dissemination of authority. Galloway suggests that the second political epoch was governed by ‘decentralization;’ rule by singular Royal fiat was replaced by a familiar system of checks and balances in which the responsibility for crafting, enforcing and interpreting laws is divided up among different stakeholders. Power is now, Galloway argues, characterized by ‘distribution,’ a state in which authority flows not around a few localizable centers, but throughout a diffuse network of power brokers both inside and outside the official government. This does not reflect a model of few hubs and many spokes-which would accord with the Galloway’s description of the second epoch-but rather a truly center-less meshwork of mutual influence (See Fig. 4).

Illustration of Network Types (1964), Paul Baran, Line drawing, Copyright RAND corporation.

Figure 4: Illustration of Network Types (1964), Paul Baran, Line drawing, Copyright RAND corporation.

Undoubtedly, the rapid rise of digital technology has played a central role in this transition. Ray Kurzweil predicted that the fax machine and the cell phone would fatally damage the authority of the Soviet Union, and social media has played an important role in the upheavals of the so-called ‘Arab Spring.’ However, emphasis on technology as a motive force of historical change has a tendency mask the social and political factors that attend technological evolution. While the long duree rise of global capitalism no doubt figures as part of the fragmenting and destabilizing of political authority, the conditions that frame Schatz’s portrait-of government action conceived as network flow-can be traced to more local origins. [10]

Specifically, in the 1960s, two sets of actors began to champion flexibility, horizontality and undifferentiated exchange in the service of very different ideological goals. The first are the proponents of “critical theory,” a strain of philosophical speculation and political analysis that came to exert tremendous influence among American academics at the end of the 20th century. Critical theory initially arose in response to what many regarded as the failure of traditional leftist politics stemming from the abuses of the communists governments in the USSR and China as well as the dissolution of the May 1968 uprisings. Many intellectuals, particularly in France, responded to these events with a renewed suspicion of the assumptions undergirding traditional metaphysics, assumptions that privileged singularity over multiplicity, the center over the margin, and presence over absence. The notion was that while the hegemony of the Royal sovereign had long since disappeared, the deep ideological basis for the domination of the many by the one had remained relatively unchallenged.

At the risk of collapsing the differences between a divergent cohort of thinkers, the writings of Jacques Derrida as well as those of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari illustrate the ways in which the ideas of this milieu were predicated on a rejection of the qualities such as presence, singularity and centeredness. For Derrida, the long history of Western thought could be reduced to the interchangeable series of terms—the King, God, Truth, Man, Reason, etc—that were raised into the privileged place of the center. [11] While Derrida attempted to demonstrate that this concept of “centered-ness” was fraught by contradiction, his contemporaries Deleuze and Guttari sought to envision a way of organizing thought that did away with the principle of centeredness altogether. Their model was that of the rhizome, an underground system of plant stems that extrudes roots and shoots from an expanding series of nodes. [12] Contrary to the traditional knowledge paradigm of the tree, which expressed a vision of stability, hierarchy and ever-advancing progress, the rhizome would embrace multiplicity and dynamism while rejecting an inevitable push towards a predetermined end.

Yet if structures without centers were an important cornerstone of radical leftist thought, they were also of keen interest to the defense researchers who, in the late 1950s, were seeking to ensure the survival of the American government in a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape. In 1958, the Eisenhower administration created ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency, the predecessor of DARPA) to help envision and create the military technology of the future. ARPA strategists determined that one of the most significant dangers to the American state was not a physical or technical vulnerability but was rather an organizational ideology. In an era in which a sudden nuclear strike was a frighteningly real possibility, the tightly unified chain of military command seemed to present itself as a target. If such a strike disrupted the command structure, it might paralyze an American response and thereby undercut the deterrent threat of America’s own nuclear arsenal. These pressures lead to the creation of distributed communications architecture of ARPAnet. Key to ARPAnet was a technology called “packet switching” that allowed messages to be broken apart and routed over numerous simultaneous paths towards a single target. Packet switching lent robustness and redundancy to the flow of military communications necessary to lessen the potential damage that a single, preemptive Russian strike could theoretically cause. [13]

As the ARPAnet grew in size, and eventually evolved into the publicly accessible internet, the need to establish rules and procedures to control the flow of data became ever more pressing. Collectively, these rules and procedures—governing such as aspects of data exchange as the priority and permissions of any given computer—are referred to as protocol. As Alexander Galloway has emphasized, it is the protological aspects of these networks that belies the common appeals to a networked utopia free of authority and control. “At the same time,” he writes,

‘That it is distributed and omnidirectional, the digital network is hegemonic by nature; that is, digital networks are structured on a negotiated dominance of certain flows over other flows. Protocol is this hegemony.’ [14]

As a set of rules, protocol facilitates the movement of certain blocs of information while damming the flow of others. But while the internet itself is governed by certain, specific sets of protocols—namely the Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP)—the concept of protocol itself demonstrates the evolution of power in age of distribution and interconnection.

This is the essential point. Rather than being reified in the body of the king or invested in a set of official institutions, protocol envisions control as woven into the very architecture through which communication passes. Protological decisions are not made by participants in a network but rather arise from a set of impersonal conditions that regulate the behavior of the network in total. Protocol figures authority not as an agent within but as an effect generated through a larger system.

As an artifact of Galloway’s present, protological moment, Schatz’s work leaves us with a collective portrait of truly distributive power, a political structure that completely lacks a traditional center. It seems to accident that Obama, the lynchpin of the rising generation of Washington insiders and the original inspiration for the piece, does not number among the sitters. The elegance, and indeed the value, of Schatz’s The Network is the way in which speaks to the vexed, or perhaps over-determined, model of the network. The vision of authority rendered in The Network is produced through the opposition described above, between the progressive, critical roots of the center-less network model and its simultaneous development within the halls of establishment power.

The piece and its sitters wrestle with the meaning of the network as a signifier of social and technical progress, as well as an instrument for the maintenance of entrenched orthodoxies. The world it captures is one in which the de-differentiating effects of the contemporary media-scape are balanced by the inclusion of a broad range of new voices and ideas. ‘Ultimately, the lesson of The Network is that these conflicted associations have become not just an inextricable part of the exercise of power, but an inescapable touchstone of the power elite’s own self-conception. The installation of a ‘portrait of no one’ in the halls of the National Portrait Gallery marks a kind of official acceptance of this ideology, of power arising not from individual decisions but rather flowing through distributed protocols.


1. Lincoln Schatz: The Network: Portrait Conversations (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2013), 60, 48, 89.
2. Idem., 10.
3. Lincoln Schatz, “Artists Lecture” (National Portrait Gallery) 5/17/2013.
4. Alexander Galloway, Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004), 3. Galloway cites Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the “Control Society” as a complimentary expansion of Foucault’s two-part model.
5. Jurgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society trans. Thomas Burger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 19-26.
6. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison trans Alan Sheridan 2nd ed (Net work: Penguin Books, 1995), 141.
7. For detailed history of the work, see Christopher MS Johns, Antonio Canova and the Politics of Patronage in Revolutionary and Napoleonic Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 88-123.
8. Gary Gutting ed. The Cambridge Companion to Foucault second ed. (Cambridge University Press: 2005), 103.
9. Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983 (New York: Macmillan, 2011), 47. See also Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 6. For more on the notion of royal centered-ness, see David Summers, Real Spaces: World Art History and the Rise of Western Modernism (London: Phaidon, 2003), 201-3.
10. See Jonathan Crary, The Techniques of the Observer (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1990), 10.
11. Jacques Derrida, “Structure Sign and Play” in Writing and Difference trans. Alan Bass (University of Chicago Press, 1978), 278-80.
12. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guttari, trans. Brian Massumi, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), 5-8.
13. Galloway, Protocol, 4-5. Also see Robin Andersen, Jonathan Alan Gray eds., Battleground: The Media, Vol. 1 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008), 196.
14. Galloway, Protocol, 75.


Mike Maizels has an interest in the intersecting histories of art, science and music in the 20th century. His first book, forthcoming from the University of Minnesota press, focuses on the artist Barry Le Va, who in the late 1960s, began to execute scattered sculptures composed of scattered ball bearings, shattered glass, streams of sifted flour, and sharpened meat cleavers. More recently, his research on the art 1960s has lead into curatorial investigations of “variable media,” including electronic and digital art. He is currently the Mellon New Media Curator/Lecturer at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College and a Curatorial Consultant for Time Based Media Art at the National Portrait Gallery in the United States.