At the Intersection of Art and Science

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Troy’s New Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center
Photo courtesy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Just where is the intersection of art and science? To most of us, it’s as small and instant a thing as snapping a shot with a digital camera or pressing down middle C on an electronic keyboard. Yet “At the Intersection of Art and Science” is the official descriptive slogan for something much much bigger—a mammoth new landmark in upstate New York and perhaps even in the future of the arts.

The place is EMPAC, the new Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, officially opening on Friday, October 3, 2008. More than six years in the making, it is a building measuring some 220,000 square feet and costing nearly $200 million. And those are dollars from earlier in the decade. According to Curtis Priem, an entrepreneur and RPI trustee who contributed $40 million to EMPAC, it would cost about $1 billion to launch a similar undertaking today, due to the surging costs in construction, concrete, cooper and the like.

EMPAC includes four performance spaces—a 1,200 seat concert hall, a 400 seat theatre with a seven-story fly space, and two flexible “black box” spaces measuring 3,500 and 2,500 square feet respectively—plus audio and video production suites, studios for resident artists, large glass enclosed atriums, a cafe and more. Not just an arts venue, EMPAC is wired into RPI’s super computer—one of the newest and largest at any American university—and each of its large halls has been conceived and engineered to support advanced research in visualization, animation, simulation, acoustics, optics, and haptics (the study of touch). Designed by Grimshaw Architects of New York with acoustical consultation by Kirkegaard Associates of Chicago, EMPAC has advanced technologies and myriad applications said to be unparallel by any other single facility in the world.

Location, Location, Location

As EMPAC’s sleek glass building has risen out of a grassy bluff above downtown Troy, a major question has also arisen: Why is an engineering school opening an arts center? The answer lies at the heart of the tenure of RPI president Shirley Jackson, a physicist who chaired the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission for four years under President Clinton. She took the reins of the 84-year-old institution in 1999 with the intent of positioning it as a leader for 21st century technologies.

In March 2001, Jackson secured a $360 million anonymous gift to the university, which at the time was the largest single contribution ever made to a school. About half of that money went to a center for research in biotechnology, which opened on campus a few years ago. The balance has gone toward EMPAC, which has been envisioned as a place for the development of new technologies in the arts and communication and also for fostering a new kind of thinking by RPI students.

“EMPAC is both a place and a program. It is a performing arts center, a research location and agenda, a hub of campus interaction, a channel for academic programs and more—a powerful combination for art, science and engineering,” stated Jackson, to the RPI community earlier this year. “EMPAC will prepare our students for global leadership roles by exposing them to experiences which will foster innovative problems-solving, multicultural sophistication, intellectual agility, and the ability to see connections between and among disciplines across a broad intellectual front. With EMPAC our aim is create an intellectual community that did not before exist, and a cultural change at Rensselaer that will reverberate globally.”

RPI is certainly not the first university dedicated to engineering and science to expand its culture and reach. In 1969, the Carnegie Institute of Technology merged with a neighboring humanities school to become Carnegie Mellon University.

“We could have followed the Carnegie Mellon model and taken the price of EMPAC and built a school of humanities and social sciences,” says Samuel Heffner, chairman of the RPI board of trustees. “But this building is more than a concert hall. It’s a true laboratory and a significant move forward not only for Rensselaer but for the concept of arts and technology. EMPAC will have a long-term effect on the future of Rensselaer and will change lives.”

Grand rhetoric has certainly been flowing as EMPAC nears its opening; sometimes the language is even rather poetic.

“It’s this bridge, or it’s this river where arts and science and technology can come together and have a confluence and the highest levels of quality will meet under one roof,” says Johannes Goebel, EMPAC’s director. Goebel is a composer and was the founding director of the Institute for Music and Acoustics at the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, having supervised the opening of its building in 1996. For a period during the 1990s, while still at ZKM, he co-directed Stanford University’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, where he was also a visiting composer.

Goebel’s arrival at RPI in 2002 was certainly not the first time an artist was part of the university community. A small arts department was established in 1975, primarily as an opportunity for students to pick up some electives or participate in a performing group. In 1987, under the chairmanship of composer Neil Rolnick, the department expanded into an academic center offering the nation’s first Master of Fine Arts program in “integrated electronic arts,” wherein students developed technical skills that are applicable to multiple fields, such as music, video and gaming. A popular undergraduate degree program followed in 1996, and more recently RPI became one of the first institutions in the nation to establish a Ph.D. in electronic arts.

Under the banner iEAR (Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer), RPI has been making public presentations of up to a dozen concerts, films, demonstrations and lectures annually and has also hosted artists in residence to work at its facilities for extended periods. Among the more notable musicians presented over the years are Philip Glass, John Zorn, Frederic Rzewski, and Laurie Anderson.

Most iEAR events have taken place in the modest auditorium of RPI’s arts school, which seats a few hundred and seldom draws a full house. EMPAC, it’s worth noting, is an independent entity within RPI. The arts department remains on the other side of campus in the grand old West Hall, which was built as a hospital during the Civil War era (and is said to be haunted).

So the arts do have some established roots at the university, but given the modest draw of iEAR presentations, another question arises: Can RPI pack in audiences at EMPAC’s many halls? And what impact will EMPAC have on the larger arts scene of New York’s Capital Region, which also encompasses the cities of Albany, Schenectady, and Saratoga Springs and is a short drive from the cultural Mecca of the Massachusetts’s Berkshire County.

Regarding the latter question, Goebel has stated that EMPAC will not duplicate or compete with any programming already happening in the region. But local audiences by definition have a limited amount of time and funds, if not a finite capacity for experimentation, as well.

During the mid-19th century Troy, population c. 50,000, was one of the richest cities in America due in part to its location at the meeting point of the Hudson River and the Erie Canal. Today RPI is probably the city’s largest employer. The Albany Symphony Orchestra, which often performs at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (an acoustically acclaimed 19th century hall, also with 1,200 seats, located just a few blocks from EMPAC), already has a long history of working with living American composers. Under the ebullient leadership of music director David Alan Miller, its audiences have become accustomed, if not always fully game, to the experience of hearing new works on nearly every program. And in recent years the local gallery scene has had an upsurge in shows by local artists. But otherwise, the region is no Manhattan or Berlin with crowds eager to hang out on the cutting edge.

Yet looked at from another perspective, EMPAC is the latest link in a chain of major new contemporary arts venues that dot the Hudson Valley and extend into New England. A tour of these facilities would start 60 miles north of Manhattan in Beacon where the Dia Foundation houses its massive modern art collection in a 1929 Nabisco factory. Dia: Beacon opened in 2003. Up the Hudson River another 50 miles in the tiny town of Annandale-on-Hudson is the Fisher Center for the Performing Arts, a sparkling and curvaceous theatre complex designed by Frank Gehry that also opened in 2003 on the campus of Bard College.

The City of Troy and EMPAC are another 58 miles further north, and then 40 miles northeast and over a mountain pass is North Adams, Massachusetts and MassMoCA, the center for new art, sculpture, and performance housed in 13 acres of former factory buildings, which opened in 1999. With the exception of Annandale-on-Hudson’s Fisher Center, each of these facilities represents a major new infusion of culture into a former industrial center. (The Fisher Center has further enhanced an already vibrant artistic scene at Bard.)

From Pre-Opening Events to There is Still Time

EMPAC has not waited for the completion of its building to start presenting events. Seeking to build its brand and engage local audiences, EMPAC has produced 50 different happenings since April 2004. Along with some lectures and film screenings, there have also been concerts with Anthony Braxton, So Percussion, and the Flux Quartet, as well as performances by Troika Ranch, Lone Twin, and Tere O’Connor Dance.

“EMPAC 360″ was an outdoor performance and spectacle on the building’s construction site—highlighted by dancers repelling on its walls—in September 2005 attended by more than 2,000 people and named by the Albany Times Union as the arts event of the year. And last winter, lighting designer Jennifer Tipton bathed the construction site in color for about a month (one of the only non-theatrical projects in her long career).

While Goebel has been supervising the building’s construction and the installation of its technologies, the events have been selected and produced by a three-member artistic team: Kathleen Forde, visual arts curator, Helene Lesterlin, dance curator, and Micah Silver, music curator. The EMPAC web site lists 27 other personnel, but Goebel has estimated that a staff of at least 40 or more will be needed to run the facility. If the current web site—one week before opening night—is any indication, they are scrambling to fill more than a dozen other positions, including box office manager, production technicians, web developer, master carpenter, video engineer and director of research, among others.

Up until now, most EMPAC events have taken place in out of the way auditoriums and campus venues, but approximately 10,000 people have already attended an EMPAC presentation. That figure should easily be surpassed with the string of opening celebrations, which are spread over the first three weekends of October.

The inaugural event is a concert featuring performances by the Albany Symphony Orchestra, the Vox Vocal Ensemble, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and pianist Per Tengstand. Other musical artists slated to appear during the opening festival are accordionist and composer Pauline Oliveros (an RPI faculty member), pianist/composer Cecil Taylor, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Gamalan Galak Tika with Ensemble Robot, and pianist Ramsey Lewis. Theatrical performances will be offered by Dumb Type, Workspace Unlimited, Verdensteatret, and Richard Siegal/The Bakery. For a complete schedule of events, visit EMPAC’s website.

The kind of parallel advancement in both art and technology that EMPAC seems to be all about may be best displayed in There Is Still Time… Brother, a new 20-minute feature film scheduled to play continuously in one of the large studio spaces during the first weekend of events. Commissioned by EMPAC and produced in association with the University of New South Wales and ZKM in Germany, where it premiered last December, it is a model of how the realization of an artistic concept can lead to technological breakthroughs.

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A still from There Is Still Time… Brother
Image courtesy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The film was conceived, developed and performed by the Wooster Group, the influential SoHo-based theatre collective and is shown on an extraordinary 360-degree screen. Unlike an IMAX film, which encompasses the viewer’s peripheral vision, the screen of the Interactive Panoramic Cinema literally surrounds the viewer, measuring 40 feet in diameter and 15 feet high.

To get a feel for the film’s warp-around environment, imagine a busy cafe or office with multiple conversations taking place between people sitting and standing, entering and exiting. The collage-like script, partly improvised, explores themes of war and media, with allusions to the 1959 nuclear holocaust film On the Beach and excerpts from Rosie O’Donnell’s online blog, among many other widely varied references.

Rather than being a giant sensory overload, each screening of There Is Still Time… Brother is controlled—edited, one could even say—by a single viewer in a swivel chair. Wherever he or she points the chair at any given moment, the film is clear and the audio is full, while the rest of the screen is blurred and the sound muffled. Thus, it’s impossible to grasp in one viewing every aspect of the piece and no experience of it is ever quite the same.

Though the IPA technology already existed, Goebel wanted to boost the quality of the sound for the new piece, in keeping with EMPAC’s high standards for both audio and visual production. Typical cinema sound comes from either left or right, above or below the screen. Yet this can be inexact and confusing when the screen is a wrap-around. Enter Jonas Braasch, assistant professor in the architectural acoustics program at RPI.

“With the screen that size, it becomes very important that the sound comes exactly from the same direction as the visual,” says Braasch. “In theatre production you record everything with microphones close to actors but your recording doesn’t have any information about their location. We designed a system that would record the sound and take the data of where it’s located.”

Played back through an array of 32 speakers distributed on three levels behind a new permeable screen, the dialogue in There Is Still Time… Brother will seem almost as if the actors’ voices are coming directly out of their mouths.

Braasch has written an article on his new microphone tracking system for the Computer Music Journal and is at work on a patent application. He foresees a number of other uses for the technology including for the synchronization of musical performances via the internet. Braasch came to Rensselaer in 2006 from McGill University in Montreal. EMPAC, he says, “is one of the few (electronic arts) centers that has the right balance of people involved in the arts and involved in engineering. That’s very difficult to have, without one side dominating the other.”

The creation of There Is Still Time… Brother also had an effect on its artistic team. According to Wooster Group producer Cynthia Hedstrom, EMPAC’s commission reversed the troupe’s normal approach to technology. “We tend to start with content and then find ways that technology can enhance it. Here we were starting with technology and finding content for it. That was unusual.”

The Wooster Group’s development process lasted several years but the film itself was shot in about a week. “Then, as soon as it was done, (artistic director) Elizabeth (LeCompte) says, ‘Oh, I’ve got another idea (for a 360-degree film).’” Concludes Hedstrom, “It’s fertile ground.” And that might be said not just for the technology of There Is Still Time… Brother, but perhaps for EMPAC itself.

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Joseph Dalton
Photo by Timothy Cahill

Joseph Dalton has been covering the arts scene in New York’s Capital Region for six years, primarily writing for the Albany Times Union. He is the former executive director of Composers Recordings, Inc. (CRI), where he produced about 300 recordings of contemporary music. He was also director of a research project on the effects of AIDS on American music which was published in an on-line report by the Estate Project for Artists with AIDS.

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