The Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center in Troy, New York
It’s a new, world-class, 142 million-dollar architectural extravaganza for music and the electronic arts — and nobody seems sure where it came from or what it’s doing there. Opening next October.
Any visitor to Troy has to wonder about the huge, glass-skinned, vaguely green-colored building rising up the steep slope that divides the declining post-industrial city along the Hudson river from the prosperous Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute on the top of the hill. Is it a vast community center where the inhabitants of the city will be able to meet the students in a friendly egalitarian atmosphere? Is it a library, a hospital, a sports-and-leisure facility — or maybe a particle accelerator, a jet-propulsion lab, an astronomy complex unlocking the secrets of the stars above?
Well, no, it’s not any of that, but instead the Experimental Media & Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC. When the main stage is done you’ll be able to hear a pin drop from the back balcony of the 1,200-seat concert hall; you’ll attend a top-flight theater production with computer-controlled special effects, watch film projections on the world’s largest screen, participate in vanguard sound and media experiments in two black boxes outfitted with every imaginable kind of electronic equipment, then finally relax with a glass of wine on the terrace cafe and enjoy a view over the quaint little provincial city. Johannes Goebel, formerly of the prestigious ZKM art and media center in Karlsruhe, Germany, has overseen the design and construction process with the aim of contributing a beautifully designed and acoustically perfect building to the world music, media and performing arts community. This man knows exactly what he’s doing. But the question why such a facility has been planned at RPI in Troy, and what it will ultimately be used for, remains an enigma of the first degree.
Throughout the country and increasingly, throughout the world, universities are major actors in local economic and cultural development. One could imagine an ideal situation in which practitioners of a broad range of disciplines are able to bring together the raw intellectual materials for a democratic debate about the best use of land and resources. But in reality, the priorities of the universities are shaped by fierce international competition for students, professors, funds, equipment, contracts, places in the rankings and, last but not least, that most elusive quality of all: prestige in the eyes of the global elites. RPI might be your school or it might be located in your home town, but in this key respect it’s no different from Harvard, Stanford, Columbia or the University of Chicago. The worldwide expansion of the Western productive system since 1989, the speculative boom around computers, biotech and nanotech, and the resulting demand for scientific, cultural and administrative talent to build and operate the new machinery has placed the universities at the cutting edge of the global economy (for just one example, see the recent New York Times article about the transnational market in higher education). If there is one place to look for clues about the world of tomorrow, it’s in today’s universities. Which brings us back to the spectacular glass monument on the side of the hill in Troy.
EMPAC, the jewel at the heart of the Rensselaer Plan for the enlargement of the endowment and the expansion of the university, was made possible by the $360 million gift of a thus-far anonymous donor. It has been envisioned as a quintessentially modernist facility focusing on the purest of the arts, music, whose contemporary electronic dimensions necessitate hi-tech lighting, monitoring, projection, control, mixing, postproduction and network capacities. These in turn can be extended to the other stage and studio spaces, offering a unique technical environment for aesthetic experiments that would be simply impossible anywhere else on earth. Yet despite the mind-boggling specs of the building, there are two conundrums that arise whenever anyone discusses the new facility. The first is where the audience will come from, at a relatively small engineering school in a depressed post-industrial area where high-culture aficionados have every incentive to move to nearby New York City. The second is where to find the money and the select intellectual/aesthetic community to welcome teams of artists-in-residence, whose extended presence at EMPAC would give it the character of a vanguard production facility independent of any local public.
In both cases, the most evident goals of the new arts center seem like wildly unrealizable dreams, with the resulting suspicion that the underlying agenda of the structure must be elsewhere. If one were to guess rashly at its function, something more than sheer generosity or love of the arts might emerge from this architectural program, which outshines both the impressive new biotech lab just behind it and RPI’s $100 million collaboration with IBM to build one of the ten largest super-computers in the world. One of the aims is clearly to confirm RPI’s place among the so-called “New Ivies“: prestigious private universities where the presence of the arts and humanities is supposed to produce a well-rounded individual. But there may be other destinies, developing almost by default under the pressure of major economic and political trends in American society. In addition to its role as a modernist performing arts venue or even a vanguard laboratory, EMPAC could become a massive visualization device whose state-of-the-art equipment serves as advertising for technological developments in bio- and nanotech — all in a luxury, high-class atmosphere that can flatter the tastes and loosen the pocketbooks of America’s industrial, financial and political classes, spurring further investment along the path to the unversity’s expansion and insertion into global circuits. In other words, this would be a fundamentally speculative operation, a risky bet on the future. One can easily picture the high-level conference/trade-fairs, corporate froth sessions, elite receptions and political colloquia that could animate such a place — if the ambition to improve the campus caused administrators to forget the fundamental missions of the university.
All that, of course, is itself just pure speculation, in the face of an unfinished project which has caused a lot of tongues to wag but has given rise to relatively little documentation or critical debate. As a visitor to RPI, I went on a tour of the construction site in the company of students from the university’s clubs and associations. What was striking was not so much the many questions about how students would use such a facility, and the evasive responses that indicated a certain difficulty of access, because of project-based calendars that would tie up the rooms for weeks at a time, and above all because of the relatively large expense for the technical teams, to be paid for by the student groups. Nor was it really surprising to hear that in addition to vanguard artists carrying out the most rarefied experiments, EMPAC might also be filled with Homeland Security agents performing tests on the movement of bodies through perfectly monitored spaces outfitted with latest sensor technologies. Elite spaces, after all, usually come with access-restrictions; and dual-use technologies are the rhetorical commonplaces of a military industrial complex that has always sought to insure at least a façade of legitimacy for academic research. So the truly striking thing was to be there as a visitor to RPI’s Arts department, focused on electronic music and computerized media, which has essentially been excluded from the entire planning and programming process, despite an evident overlap of skills and realms of investigation. The gulf separating the Arts department from the new developments of the arts on the RPI campus is tremendous. Yet this also signifies that the critical practices which form one of the major strengths of the department have not been able to exert their influence on the architectural program. And this raises a question that I believe is fundamental to both the theory and practice of art in the world today.
Simply put, the question is this: What kinds of subjects will the new aesthetic environments help us to become? In the space of a single generation — over hardly more than a decade — the focus of the international art scene has shifted from the neo-expressionist painting revival of the late 80s early 90s to the resolutely media- and network-oriented practices that dominate the scene today. Meanwhile, skyscrapers in Asia and elsewhere are transforming into gigantic video screens, the Internet has become a rival of both television and the recording industries, and mobile telephony plus geolocative devices have brought entirely new orientations to the environment into the palms of our hands. Precisely conceived aesthetic contents, narrowcast through network channels to a plethora of new screens and other display media, increasingly modulate the day-to-day experience of citizens everywhere; while unfolding discoveries in biotech and nanotech, coming hard on the heels of the digital revolution, promise to transform the productive regime on which that experience is based. Will the ethics of egalitarian participation, conscious experimentation, critical inquiry and procedural transparency, which have developed in art practice since the 1960s, be allowed through the doors of the laboratories that are busily producing tomorrow’s aesthetic experience? Or will a quiet transfer of competencies take place, marginalizing the artists and critics and leaving the new aesthetic enviroments to develop without any troubling questions as to the kinds of subjectivity they foster?
Today, a similar sense of mystery hovers over these philosophical questions and over the future use of facilities like EMPAC. Speculation breeds speculation, as financial capital translates into huge new art centers up and down the Hudson River. All these changes have great cultural potential. The unfortunate thing is that their destinies by default are all too predictable. Since the days of Ronald Reagan, the United States has evolved along an almost uninterrupted path toward the formation of a kind of overclass, benefitting both from the tremendous increases in upper-level corporate salaries and the seemingly infinite possibilities for profit on the financial markets. Universities have followed this same path, vying for state and corporate research grants and above all, currying donations from the billionaires, in the hope of generating endowments that will allow them to compete with their distant peers on the transnational knowledge-production circuit. But these developments have been paralleled all too clearly by the impoverishment of the less-advantaged classes, the rise of geopolitical tensions in the struggle over scarce resources, and the specter of ecological collapse, long denied but now pressing upon us with tangible urgency. The subjects of the new global wealth-production regime are trained to be highly competitive, individualistic and above all, blind to the impressive accumulation of social and ecological problems, deaf to the critical voices asking for a change of trajectory.
The question for society in general is whether we want our educational structures, and our aesthetic institutions in particular, to go on fostering this paradoxical blindness, which predominates when the minds and the senses of both producers and consumers are focused exclusively on the glittering spectacles of technoscientific progress. And the question for artists, critics and university art departments is whether we can find the expressive means and the critical discourses to intervene once again, and to bring a new ethics of equality, experimentation, inquiry and transparency onto the stages and into the black boxes where the aesthetics of tomorrow is taking form. To do this requires a precise and far-ranging awareness of what’s happening at the cutting edges of social change, where the new technological environments are invented and installed in daily experience. But it also requires a capacity to confront the managerial techniques, the economic rationalities and the political discourses that keep us on a development path calibrated to the needs of the few and the powerful. In this effort, art can’t go it alone. All the disciplines and sectors concerned with the forms of contemporary society have to find ways of addressing each other and formulating mutually reinforcing agendas. We have to find ways to contribute to a wider debate about the shapes of the future.