Science + the Arts = EMPAC

State-of-the-art center will allow disciplines to inspire, challenge

September 24, 2006

From the Schenectady Daily Gazette

TROY — In two years, the Capital Region will be home to EMPAC, a $142 million arts center unlike any other in the world. At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, scientists and artists will explore and create under one roof, and the 203,000-square-foot building will be equipped with some of the most advanced acoustics and digital technology on the planet.

Under construction for three years, the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center has dramatically emerged from a hillside on Eighth Avenue, and in the coming months the attention will shift to the heart of the building: its 1,200-seat concert hall, 400-seat theater, two black-box studios with flexible seating, a rehearsal studio and four artist-in-residence studios.

EMPAC will also be the new home of WRPI, the university's student radio station.

"You can't find a concert hall or theater like this anywhere in the world. It's unique in its combination of individual parts," says EMPAC director Johannes Goebel, a founder and former director of ZKM, an experimental arts center in Karlsruhe, Germany.

"Our goal is to enable artists, engineers and scientists to meet in such a way that they respectfully challenge and change one another, while building on the distinct characters of their disciplines," the tall, bearded Goebel said during an interview in the EMPAC Building, his temporary headquarters across the street from the construction site.

Describing EMPAC as "a crossbreed of performing arts center, TV center and media research place," Goebel envisions world-class performances that will engage the senses of its audience.

"We're using spaces built for the senses to do art or to use them in engineering. It's never been done on this scale," he says.

While there is no building yet, EMPAC came to life four years ago when Goebel came on board.

New York City debut

In November 2003, EMPAC had a New York City debut, as Goebel and college President Shirley Ann Jackson unveiled the project to 250 guests at The Duke, a black-box theater on 42nd Street. That same month, EMPAC joined IEAR, the university's department of electronic arts, in presenting "Lux," a sound and video installation by artist Kurt Huntschlager and "Granular Synthesis," an avant-garde media art duo from Austria.

Last September, to mark the halfway point between groundbreaking and grand opening, visitors walked the periphery of the building site during "EMPAC 360: On Site + Sound." During the sunset extravaganza, dancers in flowing orange tunics performed aerial moves while suspended from girders, and there was a string quartet, fireworks and projected video and sound .

"It was an event like you might see in New York City or San Francisco," says Goebel. "We expected 400 to 600 people, and we got 2,500."

hybrid performance

EMPAC's next event, from Oct. 12 to 15, is "entre-deux," an installation by the Montreal group kondition pluriel and choreographer Marie-Claude Poulin, in which one visitor at a time enters a mobile trailer.

"You get an individual performance for 10 to 15 minutes. It's a hybrid between installation and performance," says Goebel.

During the weeklong grand opening, a major symphony orchestra, yet to be named, will christen the concert hall. As conceived by architect Nicholas Grimshaw & Partners, designers of the new Fulton Street Transit Center near the former World Trade Center site, the exterior of the concert hall will look like a giant wooden hull, made of curved cedar planks.

A musician, composer and pioneer in the field of electronic music, Goebel is overseeing the interior design of the building, working with theater consultants Fisher Dachs Associates and acoustical consultants Kirkegaard Associates.

The goal is acoustical isolation, Goebel says, describing "extremely quiet spaces" where "you could have a disc jockey in one and a string quartet in the other and they are not disturbing one another. Life today is entirely polluted by noise. Quiet spaces are very precious in this society."

In the theater, digitally-controlled hoists will allow a bridging between the computer world and the performing world, Goebel says.

Even when traditional classical music is played in the concert hall, the experience will include visual or light components, so the audience is immersed in an environment.

Every corner of the building will be wired to production and post-production rooms, to receive sounds and images and transmit sounds and images in turn.

"lift us from the mud"

Although EMPAC's creations will be complex and high-tech, Goebel does not see EMPAC as "arrogant culture," but an opportunity for the wider community of Troy and the Capital Region.

"The arts can lift us from the mud we're living in," he says.

Although the idea for EMPAC sprung from Rensselaer's nationally acclaimed electronics arts department, EMPAC is a free-standing institution at the college, and Goebel reports directly to Jackson.

"The creation of EMPAC stems from our conviction that scientific education must occur in an environment that offers diversity of thought and experiences," Jackson writes.

"Rensselaer is not turning into an art school," says Goebel.

When asked to explain how a scientist would use the EMPAC building, he jumps up from his chair, and motions with his arms.

It could be any science "where human senses are part of the research," he says.

For example, an engineer studying water flow could transform mathematical formulas into a visual model, or engineering students could develop a new sensor technology for a dance project.

For visiting dancers, musicians, actors and visual artists, EMPAC will commission and co-produce works, Goebel says, and provide the three things that artists need: space, time and technology.

The schedule for the public will not be "busy-busy" because EMPAC will always be about production and research, he says.

"It's not about engineers becoming artists. It's not about artists becoming scientists. There was only one Leonardo. It's about looking out of the box, looking out of the fence," Goebel says. "A change in culture means a change in mind."

Coming events

The EMPAC building doesn't open until 2008, but EMPAC events are already happening.

For more information, including where to park your car and a campus map, visit http://empac.rpi.edu/ or phone 276-3941. All events are free.

Thursday, Oct. 12, to Sunday, Oct. 15: "Entre-deux" by kondition pluriel. A performance installation, in which a single audience member enters a mobile trailer. Co-directed by choreographer Marie-Claude Poulin and media artist Martin Kusch. Two trailers will be on Robison Field, across the street from the Biotech Center. Hours are noon to 10 p.m. Oct. 12-13, 1-11 p.m. Oct. 14 and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Oct. 15. Reservations accepted.

Friday, Oct. 27: "Drift" by Leah Singer and Lee Ranaldo. A live experimental feature film, "Drift" is a collaboration between Sonic Youth guitarist Ranaldo and visual artist Singer, with music and spoken word responding to live visuals created by projectors operated in real time, like instruments. 8 p.m. Heffner Alumni House, 1301 Peoples Ave.

Wednesday, Nov. 1: Demonstration and lecture by Troika Ranch. Mark Coniglio and Dawn Stoppiello, co-directors of the New York-based dance company Troika Ranch and pioneers in the use of interactive media in performance. Lecture is at 2 p.m. in Biotech Center auditorium. Demonstration is at 7:30 p.m. in West Hall auditorium.

Thursday, Nov. 16, to Friday, Nov. 17: "Feed" by Kurt Hentschlager. A performance, in which the audience is immersed in clouds of light and fog, a digital landscape populated with virtual characters. Rensselaer Playhouse, 15th Street. 6 and 8 p.m. Reservations being accepted.

Written by Karen Bjornland. Section: G: Arts and Entertainment Edition: Schenectady/Albany; Final Page: G1
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