Eight years and $200 million in the making, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or Empac, resembles an enormous 1950s-era television set on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.
But inside are not old-fashioned vacuum tubes but the stuff of 21st-century high-tech dreams dedicated to the marriage of art and science as it has never been done before, its creators say — 220,000 square feet of theaters, studios and work spaces hooked to supercomputers.
Within its walls, scientists can immerse themselves in data and fly through a breaking wave or inspect the kinks in a DNA molecule, artists can participate in virtual concerts with colleagues in different parts of the world or send spectators on trips through imaginary landscapes, and architects can ponder their creations from the inside before a single brick or two-by-four has been put in place.
As a facility, the new 220,000 square-foot center is like no other, boasting unrivaled presentation and production capabilities: a 1200-seat concert hall designed to the highest acoustical standards; an intimate 400-seat theater; and two highly flexible studio spaces, configurable as traditional black-box theaters or as fully immersive environments. Linked to a massive supercomputer, EMPAC’s potential for art and science spans the physical and virtual worlds and the spaces in between.
The EMPAC building’s conception and construction include many firsts relating to acoustics, theatrical and media presentation, structural integrity, lighting, heating and ventilation. The building is an extraordinary architectural statement. An international architectural competition led to the selection of the acclaimed British firm, Grimshaw, and to the building’s bold architectural conception.
Dedicated to advancing research and artistic production at the intersection of technology, media and the performing arts, EMPAC is poised to be a major contributing force in many artistic and technological domains. A main focus and major emphasis at EMPAC is the development and production of new works in the performing and media arts. Projects, residencies and productions at EMPAC will come from all domains of time-based arts, including but not limited to video, dance, music, theater, internet art, DVD productions, interactive installations, and multimedia art. Some pieces that are created or presented at EMPAC may grow out of the media-rich environment of EMPAC and could travel to other venues, nationally and internationally, others works may be site-specific to EMPAC.
As a facility and an environment, EMPAC will serve as a magnet to artists in a wide variety of time-based disciplines – performance, theatre, dance, music and film/video. The facility opened on October 3rd, 2008 and now offers artists residencies and commissions which include a rare and powerful combination: time to experiment in performance and production spaces of the highest quality combined with a technologically advanced infrastructure. As part of its mission to support artistic production with resources and facilities which are project-specific, EMPAC will provide access to equipment, expertise, rehearsal space, research, or other support as part of a commission, according to the needs of that project.
Here is an example of one of EMPAC’s commissioned projects, “There Still is Time… Brother”:
Commissioned by EMPAC, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute [USA], produced by EMPAC together with the UNSW iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research [AUS], and the ZKM | Institute for Visual Media [D] and in collaboration with The Wooster Group,THERE IS STILL TIME.. BROTHER« is a commission for an installation that consists of an interactive projection for a 360° screen.
The commission is rooted in the recording of a Wooster Group performance developed specifically to be viewed as a projection on a 360° screen. The video is revealed by way of a window that scans around the screen, never showing the whole of the projection at once. The window is controlled by an audience member or performer who selects which part of the 360° video to reveal at any given time. However, it is clear that the sections of the video that are revealed are all unfolding in one, continuous 360° space and that there is some kind of linear timeline to the sections of the performance that we are watching unfold.
This piece challenges the notions of linear narrative in theater or film by creating a time-based theatrical experience that can be experienced in a new way each time it is “performed” by the individual controlling the interface which dictates that which we see and hear in the immersive space of spacialized sound and projection. The viewer is involved in an immersive process of discovery where their chosen point of view creates the dramaturgy of the piece and literally activates the story.
President Dr. Jackson said Rensselaer prides itself on interdisciplinary research and hands-on engineering learning, has a tradition of electronic arts, which includes a major in games and simulations. A performance center had been part of a long-range plan she and the trustees approved in 2000. The concept of Empac was born, she said, when she and her advisers decided to combine art with the problem of making sense of data, a problem that she said lay at the nexus of art, science, technology, cognitive perception and learning.
In 2001, an anonymous donor gave the university $360 million, one of the largest private grants ever made to an American university, enabling Dr. Jackson to jump-start not just Empac but other elements of her plan as well. That gift was later augmented by $40 million from Curtis R. Priem, one of the founders of Nvidia, a maker of graphics processors, and for whom the center will be officially named.
This center is a 21st Century Artists dream come true. Is there a project or an idea you would like to undertake with Empact?
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is the nation’s oldest technological university, offering degrees in engineering, the sciences, information technology, architecture, the humanities and social sciences. It is pre-eminent in research into biotechnology, nanotechnology, IT, and the media arts and technology. In addition to its MFA program, RPI offers bachelor degrees in Electronic Arts, and in Electronic Media, Arts, and Communication – one of the first undergraduate programs of its kind in the United States.