EMPAC: Scales, Senses and the Creation of Meaning

Johannes Goebel

This essay offers one perspective on EMPAC. My work with the architects and engineers was to ensure that the building and its infrastructure would enable “experimental media and performing arts” in all its facets. At the same time, I was to define, initialize and ramp up the program, staff and operational requirements that would realize the vision of EMPAC. The following text reflects some of my personal thoughts, which guided me during the collaborative effort to make this extraordinary project happen. EMPAC hopefully incorporates, and is sure to evoke, many more perspectives than were consciously pursued up to now. The intention with EMPAC was to create an environment that was uniquely defined while remaining open to yet unimagined realms. Such intention can only be reached when personal thoughts and criteria are both as equally important and defining as they are unimportant and receding.

From Electronic to Experimental

In the beginning, EMPAC stood for Electronic Media and Performing Arts Center. This was a quite straightforward name at the end of the 20th century. Arts using electricity and electronics had been around for more than 100 years. In 1981, Rensselaer’s Department of the Arts added electronic media to its program, and this is considered the first integrated electronic arts program within a research university in the United States. The combination of electronic media with performing arts in a large center was a clear testament to the radical change performing arts had experienced through electronics all the way to the development of new media, from video or music synthesis to the full integration of computer technology in interactive art, immersive environments and the construction of virtual reality.

The acronym soon changed to stand for Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center. This indicated an opening in two directions. On the one hand, the scientific understanding of “experiment” was introduced as part of the mission of EMPAC. On the other hand, the tradition of experimental art became part of the program. “Tradition of experimental art” may sound like a contradiction, but experimental art can be seen as having evolved and been put into practice in parallel with the electrification of media. 

Scientific experiments may be defined as establishing and verifying causal relationships, supporting a hypothesis up to the point when another experiment falsifies the hypothesis, or generally as aiming for a non-ambiguous communication.

Art is not defined by “right” or “wrong,” and quickly gets terribly boring when it sets out to verify literal or causal relationships. Experiments in the artistic domain stand even further opposed to scientific experiments. They are not about repetition of the known or agreed upon, but about a change of production, perception, experience and interpretation of the world.

The performing arts traditionally comprise music, dance and theater. These art forms are moving in time, in contrast to the fine arts that traditionally produce static works, like a painting or a sculpture. With the advent of electricity, new media were discovered; sound and moving images could be recorded or synthetically generated, and computers became instruments and artistic tools. New visual worlds, new forms of moving through space and of making our senses feel and interact were created. We may call all these arts that move and change perceivably on a vector of time, “time-based arts.”

These time-based arts meet science and engineering through common tools both may use, such as computer technology, image projections or robotics. The Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center provides a platform where all these different approaches, agendas, motivations and goals can communicate with one another through and with the media that yield themselves to shape new experiences and new tools, new directions and new interpretations. And at the center of this, we as humans stand to create and communicate; to explore, discuss and develop; to construct and to experience.

Media and Performing Arts

There is beauty in how words can change their meaning yet still retain some of the old meanings over centuries; when such old meanings of a word surface, they may yield new thoughts and perspectives.

A medium carries and channels between two worlds. A medium may carry messages from the world of the dead to the world of the living; or from eternal beings to us mortals; or it may serve to look into the future. Indeed, such a medium mediates a message by passing from one world to the other.

At some point in time, medium started to be used for naming scientific and technical relations. The medium that was seen as carrying electromagnetic waves was called ether, where aether was a name for an ancient Greek concept of what filled the space above the earth; and today we call one medium carrying digital information Ethernet. Air carries sounds and voices and smells; light moves through and around materials and to our eyes; warmth and touch meet our skin — our senses are the optimized interfaces to specific media, which mediate that which is outside of us to our insides. A medium allows us to communicate with others, through images, written words, sounds, smells or touch. There is no way between my thinking and feeling to your sensing and interpreting, and to your heart, except through the media that move between the interfaces that connect my “inside” and your “inside.” 

Artists have always used media; there is no art without media (just as there is no art without audience). Indeed, art is always a mediation. Art is about using and shaping media, be it paint on a canvas, marble in a sculpture, sounds of music or words, written text, movements in dance or creating an algorithmically defined visual environment. One could say that art has always been media art.

“The media,” as a term, came about in the first half of the 20th century, when mass media such as radio, and later television, together with newspapers and magazines, created a new force in communication. Indeed, the media always incorporated three aspects: the technology; that which was communicated; and the goal that was pursued by using the specific media with a specific content. The media were associated with political power and with mass distribution, with establishing a fourth power next to the legislative, judicial and executive powers. 

Parallel to this political use of the media, media also became a label for technology that uses electricity to produce, store and reproduce something we can perceive, see, hear or feel. If we talk about media today, we mean images distributed and created by electricity or light; sounds that can be generated and distributed through wires; and words and texts and plans and drawings — all of which can be converted from and to electricity and light and which can be stored on media — yet another use of the term, as for instance in “digital storage media.” We cannot see, feel or hear these media unless the stored or generated formats get converted back to that which can meet our senses — through loudspeakers, video projectors and monitors, and computer-controlled systems that “speak to our senses.” 

Performing arts always take place as a social gathering. Performing arts implies that a performance with a beginning and an end brings an audience together to jointly experience an event during which performers and audience share the same space and time. This does not mean that only the performers are active and that the audience is merely sitting and watching; over the past century, performing arts have expanded in many different directions, and even “beginning” and “end” are no longer clear-cut. And performing arts have been complemented by performance art, which has come out of the visual arts and moved to the performing, time-based arts.

By merging media, technological research, computer technology, time-based arts, artistic creation, production and performance under one roof, EMPAC creates new potential for all areas involved. The interface of all these areas lies in our human senses, which we use to communicate, to create and to make sense. EMPAC is focused on our senses, without which media are senseless, and without which we cannot create meaning. EMPAC has been designed with the “human scale” as common ground for experimental media and performing arts, for research and production, for arts, science and technology.

To Human Scale 

EMPAC is designed and built to the human scale. EMPAC accommodates technology, but EMPAC is not built to the scale of technology, even though it is filled with perhaps more technology than any other performing arts center. And even though it has venues like no other research center.

Designing and building for technology is easy; designing and building to the human scale is very complicated. It would seem that it is easy to build for us humans, since that is what buildings were meant for in the first place. But politics, economics and technology have created such intertwined sets of criteria for buildings that basic human requirements are often not accommodated. We accept the creation of buildings without daylight, without high-quality artificial light, a pleasant level of humidity, or a quietness that allows our ears to rest and to hear the soft sounds our ears can perceive. 

With EMPAC, a center for experimental media and performing arts has been designed and built to the scale that allows the expression and experience with our bodies and minds, through our senses. It is defined by the physical requirement of our senses and designed to our human scale. 

Media carry to our senses that which is to be perceived, and the arts have always shaped media for our exchange, experience and communication. Building a center that is to connect media, time-based arts, research and engineering can only be rooted in the common factor of all of these — which indeed is the human scale.

Technology changes quickly, but the fundamental ways our senses enable us to communicate have probably changed very little over the past centuries and millennia. Our minds and our interpretations of the world do change with changes in science and technology, since the media through which we communicate are changing. Our understanding of our senses changes with science and technology as well, but the senses are still the interfaces through which all that is observed to be understood reaches our mind and imagination. 

Our senses cannot be simply separated as functional units from our way of “making sense.” It is hard to delineate perception and meaning in the path from the mechanical stimulation of a sense through the biochemical processes in our nerves all the way to the unknown process of how memory works (memory being a salient part in the creation of meaning). Making sense indeed starts right away when something meets one of our senses. The processing of the signals that meet our senses begins at once — within the sense organs, not just when the converted signals reach the brain. We can train our perception to a very high degree to become more and more refined in what we see, hear, feel, taste or smell. How such training and sharpening of our senses actually can change any or all stages from the sense organ to the brain to the creation of meaning is probably little understood. At any rate, it seems highly likely that such heightening of a sensitivity can also influence the physical properties involved in perception, not only the mental space. One can say that our perception and our senses can be tuned by our intentionality, and that our senses and perception tune our intentionality. 

The interdependency and reciprocal change of sense, perception and meaning is the foundation of our growing up, our acculturation, our learning and our adaptation to our world and adoption of it. Art explicitly shapes matter and time for an aesthetic experience that cannot be subsumed under semantics or logic (which does not mean that semantics and logic cannot be part of art). Art is the strongest proponent of this unbelievably complex interplay between what we might declare to be the physical world and the world of “inner experience,” of sense, sensitivity and sensibility.

In shaping the physical world in the arts, we have always applied new tools and technology as they arose. This is true from the very beginning, once we went beyond what we could produce just with our bodies by singing, clapping, dancing, acting or telling stories. We built drums and flutes, painted on walls and marked our faces. With the change of tools and technology, art changed, as well as our perceptions and what we considered “meaningful.” 

With science we learned to discover, describe and define the physical parameters of our senses, and we explored how meaning might be created. By applying quantitative methods, the threshold and bandwidth of each sense could be established. In parallel, technology resulted in high levels of sensory pollution, which meant that the bandwidths of our senses could not be addressed to their fullest as the levels of sound, light and smell around us rose to levels that were out of control for the individual. In our society, we hardly have places in our neighborhoods where we can gather with others that are not under the influence of unwanted light and sound. And yet, at the same time, technology offers us the opportunities to create new, refined impressions for our senses, which can actually span, more and more, the full bandwidths of our senses. 

If we want to use media or create art that allows us to address our full human potential and at the same time use what technology has to offer, the spaces need to support the full bandwidths of our senses, as much as architecture and engineering allow us. Spaces should be large enough for us to move through: to walk and jump and run and dance. Spaces for social communication and interaction have to be large enough to accommodate groups of people. Spaces should be quiet enough to support the softest sounds we can hear, and they should support all the options we have to create and use light. We should be able to speak and sing without amplification, or to use technology to make a whisper as loud as a wind.

The technical goal of developing media technology has been to come closer and closer to meeting the bandwidths and resolution of our senses. The arts use, in an eclectic way, whatever technology makes accessible. Once a technology is available, one can be sure that some artist will use it right away for artistic creation. And artistic use may move technology in a direction that was not foreseen by the inventors of that technology.

With technology, we create instruments, tools and machines that are stronger than our muscles, sharper than our eyes, more sensitive than our skin, or faster and more accurate than our hands. Technology also enables us to make visible what our eyes cannot see unaided, manipulate that which our hands cannot touch, and shape and model what only our minds could imagine. In all this, technology changes the scale at which we can think, imagine and create. 

By writing on papyrus or clay tablets, we took thinking and remembering out of time and communication out of simultaneity. We went beyond the lifespan of an individual by accumulating the lifetime of thousands of people to build monuments aimed at bringing immortality to just a few. Libraries accumulate beyond the individual memory and mind, and today, digital storage is being fed by millions of people and untold automated technology with incomprehensible amounts of information. 

We change social time by taking individual time to write, compose, paint, sculpt and perform. We then ask and enable others to spend their time on what we created. The time of creation usually takes longer than the time to experience the creation. And with media technology, we are able to separate the producer from the spectator, to build tools to duplicate, distribute and recreate media for individual, asynchronous experiences.

The scales of time and of size were externalized, disembodied and extended beyond what our own senses are able to perceive directly. But each scale we create with the help of technology (such as spectroscopes or telescopes or microscopes) that is also incommensurate to our own human scale needs to be made to fit  exactly our scale of perception, to our size and to the conditions of our senses. 

We have to listen and read and watch in “real time,” in the time of human scale. The shadows of X-rays have to be transposed to visible light, and text stored in digital form has to be brought to a physical appearance of letters on paper or on a computer screen that our eyes can see. And the split-second finish of a car race gets captured and frozen in time so we can determine who won.

Despite our wide-ranging individual heights, we have a certain sense of volume and distance regarding being outdoors or indoors. Most certainly, a 7-foot-high ceiling feels different to me, as a very tall person, than to someone two-thirds my height. But we have a definite measure within us that allows us to have “a feeling” for sizes around us — for how tall a tree in the distance might be or how fast a bird might be flying in relationship to us walking. The media we use to capture and communicate — like the aforementioned clay tablets or sheets of papyrus, or vellum, books or computer screens — were always adapted to be within reach of our hands, adapted to the fine movements our hands could make when creating graphic representations, and to the range of differentiation our eyes might detect over that close distance. 

But there is also the other range of size — that of landscapes, murals, panoramic paintings and movie screens; the range beyond the reach of our hands but within the reach of our eyes and ears. Technologies like painting, photography, film or video allow us to scale those things, large and small, to “fit the frame.” And as we zoom in and zoom out on a computer screen, we have to re-establish a frame of reference so we can judge the original size. Looking through a microscope or a telescope requires us to constantly make ourselves aware of a frame of reference, since in those images we move outside the consistent frame of our normal view. And once we enter the worlds of totally synthetic environments (virtual worlds), we may lose our “innate” frame of reference and may have to adapt to continuously changing scales.

One may assume that technology increasingly allows us to move to “virtual worlds,” worlds that are created with technology and that we can “inhabit” more and more independently of our actual physical environment (rather than inhabit as we do, our own world). It may be that this was a thought that came out of the limitations of technology in the last decades of the 20th century. Being limited to small screens or goggles that allow us to peek into such virtual spaces while sitting on a chair, listening through headphones to acoustical spaces we are not in, or moving in a “cave” of generated projections with three other persons — all these advances in technology have not yet mastered the “human scale” at its fullest.

EMPAC provides spaces with a certain volume and height that may be commensurable with us as individuals or as groups. By being able to project images and sounds in spaces where we do not have to zoom in or out, but where we can move closer and farther away, our sense for volume and space can get engaged in a more direct way. We can establish a scale directly through our physical experience and perception.

Part of the human-scale conceit includes our characteristics as social beings. We have not only the scale of our senses, but also the scale of our human communication and interaction commensurate with our senses. We like to stand around in groups of three, four, five, 10 or 15 to look at things, to walk around to get a better view, to move closer or farther away from what we see or hear, to extend our arms and point with our fingers and say, “Look over there, did you see that?” “Did you hear the dog barking? I think it’s behind the neighbor’s house.” “Let’s go over there and look at the details.”

And we naturally mingle in larger groups, sharing events such as a concert or a show, allowing it to reach our senses, and then for us to talk together about it. If the crowd is too large, we feel lost or uncomfortable, and we create subgroups. And there are many other conditions that determine the human scale. Our senses are the measure for our “being in the world.” They are best at certain speeds, sizes, distances, quantities and qualities.

EMPAC is dimensioned to accommodate what performing and media arts always knew would be good audience sizes for gatherings that would not need electricity to reach the audience — like one, two or five; 10, 20, 80 or 150; 200, 400 or maybe even up to 1,200 — depending on the project or program. And if we are to explore while walking around or by sitting still to take in the experience, these groupings allow communication and sharing at a “comprehensible scale.” And in such spaces, most certainly media technology can align with the human scale.

EMPAC, with its technical infrastructure, offers a platform for creation and communication that can be bound to simultaneous and social interaction. With EMPAC, it is proposed that everything has to be brought to human scale in order for us to perceive, to share and to create meaning. 

The center is a bold statement in a time when technology suggests that there are no boundaries to what we probe, be it the tiniest tiny or farthest far, way beyond our senses. EMPAC can be seen as a symbol in a time when individually distributed and accessed information seems to make getting together and sharing space obsolete.

The Senses: Portals for the creation of meaning

There is a common link between all those scales we can communicate through and about: our senses as interfaces for sharing a flow between “internal” and “external.” There is most probably not a clearly definable boundary between internal and external. For this discussion, let us assume that the portals for experience and communication between “me” and “you” and the “rest of the world” are our senses and what we can produce with and for them — seeing; hearing; moving in space; using our voice and hands; smelling, tasting and talking or writing about it; making films; building houses; developing mathematical proofs; touching and feeling; programming computers; making music; preaching; and going places. 

There may be more senses available to us as interfaces between inside and outside than we might be able to define or agree on. But we can agree for sure that communication between me and you uses the portals of the senses that are part of our body at the boundary between “in me” and “outside of me” and “to you.” 

We can lose a sense organ as we can any other part of our body. And even though all our senses may still be working, we can reach a space where others call us senseless and crazy, which is when we cannot communicate anymore with others on a common basis. But as long as we have common ground with others, this ground is shaped by the portals of our senses. 

And that which we communicate is also shaped by our senses. I cannot speak pictures; I cannot sing with my leg. And what I perceive from the outside and what I give to the outside is deeply shaped by the condition of my senses. A sense is not a mere apparatus receiving external impulses and relaying that information in a neutral way to the brain. Our senses are highly refined and complex interpreters of what is around us and what reaches us. Indeed, they start the interpretation before anything is relayed to the brain. The property of our senses as physical interfaces between “outside” and “inside” shape our view of reality as much as we shape the physical reality around us based on what reaches us through these very senses. 

Technology has always had at its core that we make things that extend beyond the scale of our senses — smaller than we can see, faster than we can move, larger than we can reach, heavier than we can carry, without catching breath, without getting tired. Most advances in science in the past century have come from that which is beyond the capabilities of our senses to perceive.

That a computer works as intended can only be evaluated when we can see, feel or perceive the result with our senses: as a printout in text and numbers; as a graph or picture; as a sound; or as force-feedback in a joystick. Or as a direct result of where we applied computer technology: a building collapses because of wrong calculations; the cattle grow too fast because a computer dispensed the wrong amount of hormones; or we are happy to see a great computer-generated movie.

To see if what we collected as data of incredibly small, fast or distant events actually makes sense, we again have to use technology to make visible what we cannot see, to make audible what we cannot hear and to make touchable what our bodies cannot feel or move. And in order to gain a handle on massive amounts of data, visualizing the data in charts, graphs or interactively controllable representations may yield a more sense-bound level of access than poring over long lists of values.

This is the central issue of our changed relationship with that which is around us and that which we cannot see or feel, but which we believe “makes sense.” We have to transpose all events we want to evaluate and interpret into the realm of our senses. Only then can we find out if they make sense. Only then can we interpret the information and assign it meaning. 

This mapping process for data (when in its raw form, it is smaller, larger or more massive than our senses can perceive) is where experimental media and time-based arts on the one side, and science and engineering on the other can learn from and benefit from each other. Arts have always dealt with the construction, mediation and mapping of complex experiences. Time-based artists are experts in moving through time and space, understanding the material and media that is used, as well as the experience that is to be evoked. Art differs from science and engineering in that art is not focused on unambiguous, formal and correct communications. And this has not changed, even though art is using more of the technical tools, based on “formal logic,” that engineers make available. 

EMPAC is built for our senses as the portals to communication and meaning. Media technology offers new ways to shape media perceived by our senses, minds and hearts, and new ways to direct our interest and the interpretation of what is around us and what is within us.

Seeing, Hearing, Moving in Space

The three ways we communicate with others and with our environment helped lay the foundation for the specifications and design of EMPAC. The building and its technical infrastructure are centered on seeing, hearing and moving in space. We shape the media of light, sound and the space around us in ever different ways, and they are the most fundamental to how we as social beings connect. 

Many have asked why EMPAC’s design focuses on just these three areas of expression and perception and does not integrate the other senses like smell, taste and touch to the same degree. An answer may come from different perspectives: looking at which senses are used for what kind of communication; how the different senses are linked to different levels of reactions; how individualized an area of sensorial communication might be; or how it allows communication within larger groups — all the way to the differences between cultures in which interactions are acceptable or not. 

Seeing and hearing are traditionally defined as two of our senses. In contrast, “moving in space” is not a proper name of a sense; it stands in here for the relationship of our body to the space around us. It subsumes the sense of balance and acceleration of our body (kinesthesia); the sensing of the relative position of our body parts — such as arms, feet or back — in space (proprioception); and the ability to localize ourselves and what surrounds us in the space around us (including auditory and visual cues).

Seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, the sense for balance and acceleration, and the orientation of our body in space are the senses that are part of our nature. Different environments shape them and us differently; different cultures emphasize or do not allow certain ways of touching; one culture deodorizes certain strong smells and finds others attractive; one culture prefers hot spices, another only those that leave our body cool.

Seeing, hearing, and moving in space, as well as their active counterparts — such as creating shapes and colors, creating sounds, doing things with our hands and using our body (from facial expression to jumping) — enable us to communicate simultaneously with just one other individual or with a small group, all the way up to very large audiences. They enable us to continuously and consciously shape communication; the expression and interaction they control are influencing understanding and misunderstanding in the most direct way. The other senses are by no means less determinate in our communication and in our creation of meaning, but how we use and apply them and how we create sensory experiences for them works predominantly on different scales and levels than do seeing, hearing and moving in space. 

The sense of touch is bounded by the extension of our body; in an interpersonal setting, it is limited to the few people we can touch or who can touch us at any point in time. Touching things is limited by our coordination of what we do (driving a nail into the wall or adjusting an electronic microscope, for example) and by our awareness of what touches us (like a hard chair or a soft cushion). Haptics, as the study of touch, explores senses in direct contact, literally “in touch,” with our bodies. Such research does not need, per se, special architecture.

One aspect of how much a sense may be expanded by cultural activities in a group may be how closely it is linked to time-critical immediate reactions for survival — the hypothesis being that, in order to “open up” a sense for change of perception, we have to be in a secure and non-threatening environment. And the range of a specific sense that we want to or are asked to open should not trigger a flight reaction, as when an extremely loud sound hits us in a very quiet context. Refining and opening up our senses is closely correlated to how a sense drives us to reflexes that are necessary for survival in an immediate time frame.

As an important sense for protection, touching and feeling are equal to smell and taste in that these senses are highly refined and at the same time deeply rooted and linked to immediate responses. They protect us in domains that seeing and hearing cannot sense and that may evoke immediate reaction independent of what we are doing. At the same time, these senses are very personal and close to us as individuals. We have all our individually deeply rooted “vocabulary” of smells and tastes, which can recall or evoke without delay, reflexively, worlds of emotions and reactions without requiring conscious thought or intent. We smell a flower, and right away we are four years old, standing in a warm summer garden at our grandparents’. And someone else smells the same flower, and immediately an image of an awkward moment on a first date arises.

We do share basic reactions to certain smells and can learn to differentiate smelling and tasting and feeling, just as some develop hearing and singing and dancing and painting and seeing – there is a wide variety between us individually as to how we react to certain smells or tastes. But, at all times, many perceptions of smelling and tasting can be linked irrevocably to very personal situations we experienced, and so are difficult to use in the creation of interpersonal meaning, especially in larger groups.

So seeing, hearing, speaking and moving in space are engaging those senses, which are usually used for exchange among many of us when we try to sort things out in non-invasive and conscious ways. These are the senses we use most to shape and mediate meaning with more than one partner. They are the senses that connect to symbolic thinking and expression, to language, and which allow us to create with and for others who are with us.

It has to be emphasized that one sense is not more or less differentiated than another, or that one sense can be less controlled, expanded or refined than another. Furthermore, the senses are not redundant. We may cover for certain functionality by using other senses if one is not available to us, but our senses are very specific and cannot be substituted by one another. Within the bandwidth of each sense, there seems to be an incredible potential for differentiation — and we can say that one lifetime is not long enough to explore one or all senses to their limits.

Seeing, hearing and moving in space can be noted as those senses that are addressed and differentiated most for communication among groups of people. Even though smell and taste can be perceived in equally rich and differentiated ways, they can be used in the arts only in broad and mostly unpredictable brush strokes, since the reactions to these sensory perceptions are often connected to highly personalized reactions, which overpower a new context. 

EMPAC, as a production, performance and research center, provides spaces that support the modes of interaction that engage seeing, hearing and moving in space. They allow us to interact simultaneously through different senses – that is, multi-modally — with what we can explore in “experimental media.”

Meeting the Senses

The building and the technical infrastructure at EMPAC are designed to meet seeing, hearing and moving in space equally well and with equal refinement. Human actors and musicians, technical experiments, synthetic environments generated by computers, things heavy and light and dark and bright should all be possible without compromising one another. EMPAC is not built as an ensemble of multi-purpose spaces that support everything on an average level of quality. Rather, the center supports all three modes of interaction, all at the same high level.

The requirement for equal treatment of these modes, plus the integration of highest-end technology that could be integrated with these modes without disturbing the human perception and action, challenged the team of architects and engineers and forced them to stretch themselves to the limit. None of the team members had ever worked on a project that had these requirements. For any one of them, there was no common experience that spanned across all necessary fields. The integrated program EMPAC was to be designed for was not part of the background of any expert who worked on the project. 

Traditional performing arts, media technology, technology-based time-based arts, interactive performance technology through to highest-end audio and video technology that still allowed experimentation had to be brought together. The idea that the feet of a pianist should be visible from all seats; the requirement that computer-controlled theater-rigging machinery should be quieter than previously attempted but still be able to fly cameras or people interactively through space; the concept that a space should support sound from anywhere around an audience; the provision that the orchestra pit needed network connectivity for “computer players” that collaborated with actors on stage; the necessity that pianos and clusters of computer hardware alike needed their specific controlled climate —  all these and many more thoughts needed intense communication and collaboration between all parties involved. 

The requirements for providing fully for our senses was defined by the bandwidths of our senses — by the range of what we can see and hear, and from how space, movement and distance are part of our perception and our being in this world. These parameters are deeply connected to our ways of communicating and exchanging with others. 

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All venues at EMPAC are equally quiet; the Theater and the studios are as quiet as the Concert Hall. In technical terms, they all meet the noise criterion RC15, which means that the perceived noise of the air-handling systems is very quiet, one hopes inaudible. The argument that a theater performance is always noisier than the performance of a solo violinist was abandoned. Sound comes out of silence. And dead silence — in a rest of music or between words and sentences — is needed for tension or release to expand.

One of the results of building quiet spaces is that the quieter a space is, the more one can hear other noise sources. Even faint sounds rise to the level of perception when a space is very quiet. This has consequences for the building’s spaces, which try to accommodate each sense fully. For instance, all the theatrical lights in each venue are on so-called sine-wave dimmers, so dimming the lights does not result in a buzzing sound from the lamps. 

The acoustics of all the spaces are designed to sound excellent without any technical enhancement, such as, for example, an artificial reverberation system. The point being that, if a space sounds very good based on how it is built and how it is adapted optimally to our hearing of “natural sounds,” it will be possible to project any electronically amplified or generated sound into this space and evaluate it with our fullest sense and experience of hearing.

All EMPAC’s venues allow localizing sound sources clearly, while music can still envelop the audience. One design criterion was that it should be possible to place any musician or any sound source anywhere in the venue, not only on a stage. 

The venues are acoustically separated from one another to a very high degree, so it is possible to make rather loud simulated engine sounds in one venue and listen to a flute in the other. This allows a high simultaneity of use; the work in one venue does not hinder the work in another.

All performance floors in the center are resiliently mounted, which supports humans moving and jumping and running. If desired, any floor can be covered with sprung dance floor elements, which are preferred by some performers.

The video projectors yield up to as high a resolution for the projected images as is possible today. Projection screens in any form or shape can be hung or positioned anywhere in the spaces. 

The technical infrastructure allows the sending of any audio, video or computer signal from “anywhere to everywhere” in the venue and throughout the whole building. It is also possible to position loudspeakers, projectors, cameras or any other sensor technology anywhere in the spaces. 

Machine rooms keep noisy equipment outside the spaces. Lights, sounds and images can be controlled from anywhere with remote controls.

The venues are designed to overlap in their sizes and in some properties. For instance, the Concert Hall is more reverberant than Studio 2. The Concert Hall and the Theater have fixed seating, but both studios and the Theater stage (which can be used as a studio of its own) are fully flexible in how the whole floor space is used. Both the Theater stage and Studio 2 have computer-controlled rigging to fly objects or people interactively through the volume of the space, but the other spaces still allow one to “hang anything anywhere” in the volume. Even in the Concert Hall, the entire volume above the audience can be used to hang projection screens, light trusses, platforms with performers, sensor technology or loudspeakers. 

These and many more parameters — including, last but not least, the budget —were juggled endlessly during the design phase. Amazingly enough, compromises to meet the human senses were hardly made. 

The next challenge was ensuring that the design for EMPAC did not get lost during the drawing process of all detailed plans and was actually implemented in the final construction.

The Point of Departure for All to Come

The human scale embraces much more than was touched on in this context. It can go in the direction of the proportions of the human body that we may know from Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (his sketch of the man with extended arms and spread legs inside a circle), or it may continue in a more explicit way from human to humane, to compassion and respect.

Architecture can make us shrink, and buildings can be designed to intimidate us. And architecture can entice us to explore, to feel invited, to enjoy light, shapes and changing views and proportions as we move through a building. There are buildings that materialize endless repetitions of bare functionality, and there are buildings that meet us with details we can discover always anew. 

During the design process, the overall building of EMPAC and all its different venues and spaces was taking shape under the constant consideration of how the architecture would relate to the people who visited and worked in the building, those who came for events and performances, and those who did research or created new works. 

And spaces have to protect and create safe environments. We can only open our senses to new experiences if we do not feel threatened. So one of the prerequisites of EMPAC, as a host for artistic creation, was to provide an atmosphere of safety, one in which people did not have to worry for the moment, and where they could feel protected. If creative people, indeed if audiences, are not in such a space, they cannot open their senses, their minds and their hearts. If our senses have to monitor our surroundings because we feel threatened by something, we cannot accept the invitation to step into an experience that engages us wholly. 

Creativity can only grow and prosper in an environment that provides safety and security, an environment that does not evoke paranoia, an environment that respects individual differences as they surface. Most certainly, people vary widely in what they need to feel respected and secure. EMPAC aims to offer an environment for those who want to come together, to work together, to experience or develop new ideas, to be open for yet unknown directions. 

The Concert Hall was designed to be light and uplifting — the sails of the fabric ceiling, maple wood and white wall panels, the cast stone wall elements with a slight shimmer, and the vertical movement of the upstage wall — respecting the individual while at once supporting a communal experience by performers and audience being in one space, without a stage house or boxes. 

The lobby spaces are all flooded with daylight, as opposed to the venues, which exclude daylight and outdoor noise as part of their “media” focus.

The Theater includes intimate audience seating, like a backyard, where people sit in the yard and others lean out of the windows of the upper floors. The stage is only a foot higher than the first row of audience seating, creating a continuum between spectators and spectacle. Yet the stage is very large, almost as large as the auditorium, allowing space and time to expand during performances. 

The only space with dark surfaces is the large Goodman Theater/Studio 1. But the black walls soar and are broken up through the shapes of the acoustic panels so that one can have visions or dreams that easily glide beyond the space and its walls. 

Next door, the smaller Studio 2, with its white acoustic panels and hardwood floor, seems to ask us to make sounds or dance or to take the atmosphere in and listen.

Studio Beta, on the top level, has large windows opening to a group of old trees. The residency studios, high up in the southwest corner of the building, overlook the Hudson Valley from Troy to Albany and the Catskill Mountains.

The smaller production and office spaces also consider the human scale. The internal workspaces for artists, researchers and staff, as well as the green rooms and changing rooms, are not designed to a lesser quality than the public spaces. All spaces planned as offices have daylight; and windows can be opened to let in fresh air.

Finally, standing outside the building, EMPAC presents itself with a multitude of different faces, expressions and impressions. The low-riding entrance on the top of the hill, not higher than a one- or two-storey building with its curved roof extending off the side walls and its high, vaulted lobby of transparency, stands in contrast to the high-rising west facade at the bottom of the hill that leads into a very small lobby before opening up to the main stairs. There is a riddle posed by the transparent glass wall of the north block, revealing the warm wood and curved shapes of the Concert Hall and the opaque greenish-white surfaces of the south block, emphasizing right angles. The curved wooden shape of the Concert Hall changes its character when viewed through the windows when approaching the main lobby, or when looking down the hill along the north facade, or gazing up the long stairwell behind that facade from the bottom of the hill.

All these present challenges to those seeking to create an integrated perception of the overall building. And the answer may come by entering the building and exploring the interior, noticing ever-changing proportions depending on where one views the different parts of the building, discovering vistas within the building and again to the outside. There seems to be a constant emphasis of moving from an outside to an inside, which in turn is the outside of yet another inside — through the exterior doors to a lobby that extends visually to the hillside, over bridges through doors (which may be reminiscent of Alice’s rabbit hole) to the Concert Hall, which in turn may feel like an open space in its lightness and acoustic transparency. And all such movements between inside and outside may be seen as the guiding principle behind EMPAC’s program of communication, media and the arts. 

Range

Hearing may serve as an example of where technology and one parameter of a sense meet and require the quality that was built into EMPAC.

The softest sound our ears can perceive moves our eardrums by less than the diameter of an atom. The dynamic range to the loudest sound we can perceive without pain is 130 decibels (dB). (It is not important at this point to understand what dB actually means.) Standing inside a symphony orchestra may create sound pressure up to 100 dB. The old long-playing vinyl record had a dynamic range of say 56 dB, which means the softest and the loudest sound it could capture and reproduce extended only over a part of the dynamic range we can hear. 

When the CD, with its digital audio technology, entered our world of hearing, it expanded the potential dynamic range to theoretically 96 dB. The current music production standard is a minimum of 24 bits, which can theoretically cover the full range of our hearing, from the softest action of an atom touching our hearing to a sound rupturing our eardrums. So we can say that digital technology is capable of covering the full dynamic range of our hearing.

Consider the so-called noise floor in rooms, set by air conditioning, traffic noise and other ambient sound. Usually, it is so high that only a limited range is left above the inherent noise of the space. In a typical room, we would not be able to hear the full range of an orchestra — the softest sounds of a bow touching a string would be drowned out by the environmental noise. 

Not surprisingly, most of the music distributed through the media today utilizes only a small fraction of the dynamic range we can actually hear, and that is certainly not for technical reasons.

In an ironic twist, we have departed from our natural capability of differentiating fine and refined sounds with our ears by creating an environment over the past 300 years that has become more and more noise polluted. Now we have the technology available that can record, play back and synthesize every movement our sense of hearing can perceive, but we hardly have the spaces that allow creating with this potential, and using it as part of our human communication and our potential to refine our senses and communication.

So what benefits does our technology bring us when we cannot use what it can offer? To figure that out, we need spaces that allow us to come as closely as possible to the range of what our ears can hear and what technology can create. And not only in small research spaces for specialists, but in larger spaces for audiences and groups where we can jointly use our technology to our human scale.

Consequently, all spaces at EMPAC — not only the Concert Hall, but also the Theater and the studios — were designed to have not more noise than 15 dB. This leaves us with a fully appreciable bandwidth of 115 dB, which acoustical instruments and electronics can easily fill. The spaces are defined for our human senses and the acoustical environment we have been surrounded with for millions of years, as well as for what technology might offer us. 

This is one example of what it may mean to attempt to build to human scale. But it demonstrates that the design of EMPAC, in its confluence of architecture and technical infrastructure, was guided by the human senses, by the human scale.

Additional Note (2014): The final measurements of the noise floor showed, that in all venues the RC 8 curve has been met (which means a noise floor around 8db, much better than we had planned for.)

October 25, 2010

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