Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York October 3 – 19, 2008
The opening of EMPAC (Electronic Media Performing Arts Center), a 200-million-dollar, 220,000-square-foot glass, steel, and cedar building is a massive step forward in developing the intersection of technology, media, and the performing arts. After a decade of planning and construction on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic in Troy, its first weekend showcased Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners’ theater and building design as well as the state-of-the-art acoustical alchemy of Kirkegaard Associates. The center is equipped with a 1,200-seat wooden egg-shaped concert hall, a smaller 400-seat theater, two black-box studios, and artist-in-residence work studios. Its wizardry includes such one-of-a-kind technical innovations as an adjustable fabric ceiling, a 70-foot fly tower, computer-controlled rigging and my personal favorite, a circular metal floor coil underneath each patron’s seat that remotely adjusts heating and cooling to the individual’s body temperature.
Digital media has always been the reluctant stepchild of visual arts. Part of the reason has been the enormous computing power necessary to seamlessly present work outside of small computer screens or laboratory test sites. EMPAC put its money where its mouth is and wired more than 800 inputs into RPI’s CCNI supercomputer, the seventh biggest in the world and the largest at any American university. Thus each performance venue is capable of presenting and exploring optics, visualizations, animation, simulation, and haptics (the study of touch).
The EMPAC opening, co-curated by Micah Silver (music), Hélène Lesterlin (dance), and Kathleen Forde (time-based arts), presented a plethora of live musical and dance events, including a performance by dumb type, the stellar Japanese dance group—with its spare, contortionist-like Voyage. The weekend focused primarily on music, including mind-bending collaborations between legendary avant-garde composer Pauline Oliveros and the MacArthur-winning jazz genius Cecil Taylor. There were visual innovations as well, the most impressive being the Interactive Panoramic Cinema developed by the media artist Jeffrey Shaw. It showcased a 20-minute film conceived, developed, and performed by The Wooster Group on a 15-foot high 360-degree screen. Titled There Is Still Time…Brother, it was a scripted and improvised visual sensorama. Shot with twelve digital cameras rendered through a computer, the sound was recorded by a special tracking system developed by Jonas Braasch and presented at the theater through 32 speakers distributed across three levels. With only 40 swivel seats to sit on, viewers could spin around to look at any spot on the screen where action was happening. In order to avoid sensory overload, ongoing activities were blurred or muted on different parts of the screen, guiding the viewer’s eyes and ears onto one focused spot. The result was an all-encompassing diorama of theatrical, visual and auditory immersion, an impressive foray into 21st century aesthetics and technology.
The dance film, a thoroughly overlooked “niche” art form, is a medium in which tremendous leeway can be given to story line, visual representation, the use of the human body and media techniques. EMPAC commissioned four dance movies from the USA, UK, Argentina, and Zimbabwe, highlighting each nation’s style. Starting with scratchy surveillance tapes recording the movements of a dancer, choreographed by Elena Demyanenko, through Russian subways in Joby Emmons’s piece Kino Eye, it shifted to Veterans, Victoria Marks’s short featuring Los Angeles army veterans afflicted with PTSD (post–traumatic stress disorder), to PH Propiedad Horizontal, the breakout work by Argentineans David Fariás, Carla Schillagi, and Maria Fernanda Vallejos shot in a narrow concrete urban passageway. It ended with the surprisingly poignant Nora, directed by Alla Kovgan and David Hinton and choreographed by the Amazon-like Nora Chipaumire, about coming of age as a woman and artist in Zimbabwe.
But it was the film Pioneers of Experimental Media that best demonstrated the institution’s breakthroughs in media arts, with excerpts from the past 30 years of work from the iEar Presents (Integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer) studios, the precursor to EMPAC. Produced by visual artist Kathy High, it explored the development of electronic media, in sober but sometimes hilarious ways, and the ways it can be used to finesse time delay, motion and sound in a manner other forms cannot. There were experiments with laptop orchestras, with musicians sitting on meditation zafus, a concert of body-based audio sensors by Laetitia Sonami, and a hilarious presentation of men wearing enormous, fake golden techno-sensing computerized penises. The early work of Robert Ashley, D.J.Spooky and others shows just how wacky this kind of work looked twenty years ago, and also how far it still needs to go before it can become more than an occasional guest at the world’s visual banquet table. EMPAC will make certain that digital arts will move into a permanent seat.