Electronic Media Performing Arts Center
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.
Raqs Media Collective: HUNGRY FOR TIMEBy Klaus Speidel
DEC 21-JAN 22 | ArtSeen
While some visitors deemed the exhibition refreshing or exciting, a majority also voiced anger, disappointment, and incomprehension in the visitors book of the Gemäldegalerie der Akademie der bildenden Künste, the paintings gallery of Viennas art academy, in the face of Hungry for Time, an exhibition curated by Raqs Media Collective from New Delhi.
Beyond the Janus-Faced Typologies of Art and TechnologyBy Charlotte Kent
JUL-AUG 2022 | Art and Technology
This column aims to focus on art that engages technology as a medium or a topic. We live in a digital culture and I have found that I better understand the technologies I use, as well as what to reject, in no small part through the thoughtful efforts of artists. Ive grasped the subtleties of coding and computational design by hearing about how artists struggle with it. Ive reconsidered the history of art because it suddenly seems so strange that the last five hundred years of creative practice could be presented as if these artists were not responding to, discussing, and adopting technologies ranging from perspective, gross anatomy, printing, navigational charts, biological categories, camera obscuras, trains, electrification, photography, moving image, and here we start to get into the more recent technologies that are so easily disdained: television, computers, the internet, social media
Glitching Time and Time-Based MediaBy Charlotte Kent
OCT 2022 | Art and Technology
Time is a socio-technological system with profound organizing qualities that feels, these days, exceedingly oppressive. Theres never enough time! For anything. Calendars are the earliest containing device with the purpose of determining a social order; the history of the Roman calendar reveals the role of international and national politics that play out across each new temporal infrastructure. Our temporal orders have been designed through the global proclamation of Greenwich Mean Time in 1884 by colonial empires, the apocalyptic anxiety provocations of the doomsday clock established in 1947, the insistent instant-ness of digital time since the 1970s exacerbated by strings of video chat meetings of the last couple years, and the frenetic branding of our social/professional lives demanded by transnational corporate technologys mediation of everyone and everything, all the time. Its a mess.
Center for Book ArtsBy Megan N. Liberty
MARCH 2023 | ArTonic
Wandering around the flower district of Manhattan, you may be surprised to see a green flag hanging high above the flowers, signaling the location of the Center for Book Arts (CBA) on the third floor, where it has been located since 1999. As artist and designer Ben Denzer recently wrote to me, Despite coming and going to CBA all the time, I can never really get over how much of an unexpected gem it is. The fact that this book utopia is hiding on the third floor of a random building on 27th street has always made me look at all NYC buildings as if each might contain delightful secrets inside.