Experiments In Time

Rensselaer Magazine

By Josh Potter

October 23, 2018

Since the ribbon cutting for the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center on Oct. 3, 2008, EMPAC has helped forge a new paradigm for cross-disciplinary research and production on campus while positioning Rensselaer as a major player in the international art world.

When the Formosa Quartet takes to the stage at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center on October 11, it represents, by director Johannes Goebel’s count, the 5,557th day of the EMPAC program. By more conventional metrics, this performance marks the 10th anniversary of the landmark center’s opening and the start of a three-day event—dubbed 10YEARS—being held to celebrate the occasion.

With a twinkle in his eye, Goebel insists it’s the first figure that matters more to the programmatic vision of EMPAC, not the legacy of completing a decade. While anniversaries are often taken as an opportunity to look back on past achievements, Goebel says, “I’m interested in what happens now! And how to create ever-new ‘nows’ in the future.”

As the string quartet leads its audience throughout all four of EMPAC’s venues, performing classical repertoire selected to match the architectural acoustics of each space, it is indeed in the present tense of listening and feeling the sounds reverberate through the room and against one’s body that Goebel’s point is driven home. While the scientific method can set future-oriented goals for inquiry, and retrospectively consider a body of collected data, art instead provides a reflective space for the human senses to make integrative sense of experience in real time.

As Goebel puts it, “Science aims at understanding the underlying systems of nature and life. Engineering creates tools and methods for supporting human life. Art continually opens doors on the present moments of experience and our search for meaning, and that’s a necessity for being human.”

So it’s fitting, in a poetic way, that the anniversary of EMPAC’s literal door opening be celebrated with a diverse slate of performances selected to figuratively do the same. The anniversary celebration showcases for Rensselaer students and audience members traveling from well beyond the region a host of world premieres, developed over the past year in residence at the center, including a multimedia performance by visual artist Wu Tsang, a 3D sound installation demonstrating EMPAC’s new Wave Field Synthesis audio system, a dance-film installation by Cypriot choreographer Maria Hassabi, a feature film by Canadian artist Isabelle Pauwels, and an immersive theater performance by “world-maker” Yara Travieso, capped off by a concert performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble using a 64-speaker Ambisonic “dome” built around the audience. The festival encompasses a talk by Goebel on the philosophy and politics of digital archiving, a demonstration by CISL director Hui Su on research currently underway at the Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory (CISL @ EMPAC), and the unveiling of the second volume of EMPAC’s “White Book,” Programming EMPAC: Days 4,159—5,476, a comprehensive document of every project undertaken at the center since its inception. A new video kiosk in the EMPAC lobby now allows visitors to browse and view full-length documentation of over 400 productions and performances created at EMPAC.

More than an anniversary, the 10YEARS celebration distills what makes the EMPAC program as radical and transformative 10 years on as it was when President Shirley Ann Jackson first assembled the Electronic Media and Performing Arts Task Force in 2000, as one of her first major actions toward the realization of a new paradigm for cross-disciplinary education and research at the nation’s oldest polytechnic. While this vision has matured into The New Polytechnic, following EMPAC’s early transition from an “electronic” enterprise to the more integrative “experimental” project it now carries in its name, EMPAC continues to anchor the fleet of cross-disciplinary initiatives that have arisen in recent years, such as Art_X, while establishing Rensselaer in a much broader academic and cultural context.

Read the full story in Rensselaer Magazine.