Speculations on EMPAC

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.

Rennselaer Plan webpage w/mockup of EMPAC concert hall

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.



Filed under Basic documents

9 responses to “Speculations on EMPAC

  1. Having spent a semester as visiting faculty at RPI, I concur with your analysis. You lost me at “mutually reinforcing agendas”. It sounds too much like the “multi-stake holders” that kept popping up in the official rhetoric around WSIS. see the cartoon at


  2. aL

    I am having my students read and ponder this article.
    i hope it generates some interesting conversation.

  3. Communiversity?

    wouldnt it be great if there was an actual community forum where these kinds of discussions could take place and actually affect change? i hope lots of people from Troy and RPI alike comment here and something comes of the discussion.

    while the educational industrial complex is pumping out careless corporate individualists on the transnational scale… this manifests itself locally as a student body that is totally disconnected from Troy itself! EMPAC almost seems like a (verrrry expensive and shiny) monument to this! it is certainly not a solution. so the paradox is deep, indeed.

  4. Raoul

    First, let me say I skimmed through the middle. I’m a sucker for shorter paragraphs. However I’d like to address your first two questions and some other random points. I think your critical analysis of art, education and society is right on, but I have trouble reconciling those issues in the context of EMPAC. It is most certainly an example of a cutting edge arts and technology center. But given Johannes Goebel’s track record (e.g. ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany under his direction), and his ability to hire great curators (Kathleen Forde, Hélène Lesterlin, Micah Silver), I have great faith that the project will not become an elitist haven of non-Trojans. At least, that is my current opinion 🙂

    So, your two questions:

    1) The audience. This is not the first time a world class arts center was located in a post-industrial location. Just off the top of my head I think of Mass MoCa, but I’m sure places like Bard can be counted simply due to the population comparison. Not to mention your later comments on the rise of media and media display technology across the globe. The audience does not have to come from Troy.

    2) You don’t need money to welcome these cutting edge artists, you need something that interests them. Most artists are not only motivated by money, but by the opportunity to create something new (and some just by the chance to play with those toys). Of course, the toys do cost money, but very little value is lost in the transaction. As an example, when one buys a computer for $2000, isn’t it possible to generate more than $2000 of value from the investment?

    It is no question that new technology has many applications. If an artist finds a better way to do tracking of multiple people in a space, there is a large chance that artist will get offered work by DARPA or the like, but by no means is that an argument against progress. I would say that progress through the medium of the arts is better than a small research group that doesn’t even publish results publicly. Certainly it could be suggested that progress through the arts bring light to technology that was otherwise unknown, but perhaps should have been more public.

    I have no idea if Troy and EMPAC will ever fully integrate, but the possibility exists for numerous outcomes going into the future. At the very least, it has had large success in bringing in the community for the events so far, some even selling out.

    There is much speculation about EMPAC, and my personal response is to look at the director, not the school behind it. EMPAC functions outside of the all departments at RPI, but its not to be elitist, or to take over the arts direction, it is just different. In order for it to be successful, it honestly NEEDS to exist outside of as much of the bureaucracy as it can (you make a similar point above). Given what I’ve seen so far, and my interaction with Johannes, I have much faith that it will have success beyond all expectations, even the ones that expect EMPAC to be something it is not.

    And as an alum, I can say that it has helped my resumé at least. More people have heard of RPI, and thus I have more luck in the job market. I often hear students complain about the money spent, but I’m guessing the number one goal of the student population as a whole is to get a good job. Isn’t that what its helping with? It sounds to me like the students want to have their cake and eat it too.

    (this response seems to have drifted off to the larger debate about EMPAC; please excuse the tangents.)

  5. brianholmes

    It’s great to see these comments, all part of a wider debate which will hopefully make a positive contribution to the unversity’s development. First, to dispell any ambiguity, I should say I have full respect for Johannes Goebel and I think that on his own terms, his work is excellent. My concern as a cultural critic lies with the larger trends that inevitably influence a project on the scale of EMPAC. These trends have clearly led to a focus on individual and institutional advantage in a competitive society marked by increasing socio-economic divides. I don’t think democracy can flourish if the only criterion is comparative advantage for sovereign individuals, whether they are artists, students, administrators, or corporations (which currently enjoy the rights, if not always the responsibilities, of individuals). The United States as a whole is now suffering from its insistence on occupying a dominant place in world affairs, leading to overconsumption, resource wars, serious economic instabilities, autocratic administrations, etc. Yet the left side of the political spectrum, whose focus has traditionally been on issues of equality, does not seem able to effectively intervene, partially because of an insufficient grasp of the complexities of the world society of which we are now a part. EMPAC is a good object around which to focus the multiple compenents of this discussion: it is a concrete case involving an unfinished architectural project and a nascent cultural and artistic program. In any case, we all stand to gain from informed debate and the promotion of such debate is the intention of this article and this project as a whole.

  6. Finally some discussion about the building that nobody knows anything about, except that it will be GRAND!
    My only worry is that there is no turning back ….

  7. Michael Century

    Thanks, Brian, for launching this discussion. From my vantage as an interested and supportive member of faculty, a few points bear further elaboration.

    The first concerns the ostensible “humanizing” of the culture of a traditionally engineering institute through a major investment in performing arts physical infrastructure. For physical infrastructure it is; proportionate investment has yet to be seen on the human side of the equation. President Jackson has lately promoted the value of EMPAC as widening the “aperture” of students’ worldview, and I have no doubt it will do this to some degree – but this is not actually very difficult to do, and could be carried out by a simple continuation and amplification of the excellent pre-opening programming by EMPAC curatorial staff since 2004. However a sea change in the integration of arts/humanities into the campus culture would have to be more participatory than spectatorial. By this of course I mean an expansion of students’ own creative capacities, their space to experiment and collaborate, and above all, their capacity to understand the arts as forms of inquiry that matter not only to their leisure and quality of life, but also to their very self-understanding and grasp of the complexity and challenges of the world they will be entering the coming decades.

    Taken at its word, the unprecedented scale of this $150 million bet on the arts should be expected to contribute to Rensselaer’s “comparative advantage” as a top tier Research University – not just a boon to undergraduate recruitment. No doubt the high end projects now being defined in visualization and virtual reality could attract some new research funding and perhaps corporate support. Probably Rensselaer will be capable of following in the footsteps of recently founded arts-technology university projects, by establishing new and durable research alliances, as has been done at USC’s Center for Creative Technology (Army), UC San Diego’s CalIT (Homeland Security). But the more searching questions about what might be a new and unique Rensselaer advantage would have to take up Brian’s questions about the intricate interconnections between ethics, aesthetics and knowledge; lamentably, this has hardly begun. The glaring gap Brian identifies separating the EMPAC program and planning from the academic process is not just an intramural turf battle, as it is sometimes dismissively been referred to. It is indicative precisely of the absent debate about the question “what kind of subjects the new aesthetic environments [will] help us to become?” We have to go beyond the callow instrumentalization of art as some kind of creative elixir, a secret sauce that will enable scientists to perceive new patterns in their vast datasets, or more prosaically the discovery of commercializable fields of application in information and communication media.

  8. “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.”

    In the last 7 years of my time at RPI I have observed the increasing population of artists paying inexpensive rent that have come to live and work in the buildings available in the declining post-industrial city in the shadow of EMPAC. This is a typical development that I have seen repeated in many places including San Francisco and New York City. Artists take over the abandoned warehouses, factories and lofts inhabit them improve the properties and then most often lose out to gentrification. What the artists create is taken over by more wealthy inhabitants attracted by the art.

    “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”.

    This is an enormous feat of engineering. To have this sort of acoustical wonder in the noise of our technological age is generally unlikely in an auditorium of this size. One strains to listen through fan and ventilator noise not to mention sirens and traffic filtering through the exterior. I hope that this feat of the director who fought many hard won battles for this achievement will be appreciated far and wide. Of course there are many who have been deafened by the noise that we live with and may never be able to appreciate a pin dropping much less the wonder of the delicate music that will be actually heard at EMPAC.

    “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.”

    Well why shouldn’t such a facility be at RPI in Troy? The arts do follow prosperity and also lead prosperity. The kind of arts support that EMPAC has already provided with its program is in keeping with the nature of development on the campus at this time and in keeping with the Rensselaer Plan. The attraction of Troy to artists is already leading a rise in development in the “quaint little provincial city”. It won’t be the first time that such a city has renewed itself and become a noted destination – Santa Fe NM for example.

    Why must there be an “ultimate use” for EMPAC? The building is providing for a variety of uses and will most likely always have an evolving program and uses that are beyond speculation at this time. Hopefully EMPAC will survive as a viable venue in the 21st century as technology continues to accelerate.

    The RPI Arts Department is surviving in the environment of a civil war hospital building in West Hall. Most of the faculty loves the quaintness and beauty of this building despite the lack of infrastructure that would best support 21st Century arts technology. We make do, adapt and look to EMPAC for the kind of technical support and venues that will give viability to our arts presentations from faculty artists and students and for the public.

    The presence of EMPAC on the RPI campus is not only for the Arts it also beckons collaboration with engineers, technologists, biotechnologists, cognitive psychologists, neuroscientists and social scientists throughout the campus. We don’t know yet where this might lead because the pool of creative individuals on this campus alone, let alone the innumerable visitors to come, represent an adventure not to be missed. Not to be missed by whom? All participants including the disenfranchised population of Troy. It is an opportunity not to be missed because the creative core of such a monumental program and building could focus energy on expressing the need for participation and how to give the disenfranchised a stake in this development.

    Yes – EMPAC will give RPI an unprecedented place in the world scene in the arts and technology.

    The new artistic population of Troy belongs to a global network of artists connected via the INTERNET and mostly devoted to egalitarian concerns. This group could provide the conscience for the activity at EMPAC.

    I was attracted to RPI because of good colleagues in a unique department devoted to the integration of the electronic arts and for the promise of a facility that has only existed in my dreams – EMPAC.

    From the beginning of my presence at RPI in 2001 I have benefited as an artist and educator through the EMPAC program directly. Educationally my students have received enormous benefit through attending and reviewing EMPAC events. In the fall semester 2008 after the EMPAC opening one of our graduate students will present his complex ambisonic sound work in one of the black boxes. Now the promise of the facility is becoming real. The program is already real and very effective.

    My upbringing as an artist has taken place in a network of artist’s lofts, galleries, barns warehouses, industrial buildings and many other sites not intended for use by artists much like the present scene in Troy. More rarely my experimental work is presented in establishment venues such as the Kennedy Center or Lincoln Center. Yet my work over the past half-century has made its way and influenced a few generations of younger artists and some have become well known today.

    The global network of artists experimenting with new media and forms is powerful – more so today because of the Internet and telecommunications.

    Likewise for arts organizations. In June 2008 National Performing Arts Convention (NPAC) will convene in Denver, Colorado. Nearly 5,000 composers, musicians, actors, administrators, conductors, producers, dancers, trustees, managers, marketers, critics, businesses, educators, directors, fundraisers, and agents are coming together to build a stronger performing arts community for the future.

    EMPAC is part of this future and does not stand alone.

    “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?”

    If EMPAC receives and reflects the most innovative of artists, as is the promise then I believe that tomorrow’s aesthetic experiences will have to be participatory. The divisions that are both perceived and not perceived are among the largest artistic challenges of our time. I would like to see EMPAC take up this challenge and help to “change the world” – Why not?

  9. EMPAC isn’t going anywhere, so shouldn’t we start embracing it? It will help RPI gain attention (specifically the arts department regardless of how involved the students really are). Bard College has the Fischer Center and now RPI has EMPAC. Both caused controversy, but both put their school on the map for a place where artists around the world will look to see what’s happening.

    I question the students who will immediately jump to conclusions about hating EMPAC so much. How much do those students really know about EMPAC and have they even attended a performance? Every student at RPI has known about EMPAC since before they decided to come here, so it’s not like it was a big surprise. When I go to interview for jobs or graduate school and I say that I attended RPI; maybe the interviewer will say “Oh didn’t they put a huge performing arts center there”. Regardless of how much they know, it can only help me and make my school look better. Many of my friends are employed by EMPAC and speak highly of it. Creating student jobs is already a plus.

    The performances that EMPAC has already hosted in other locations have been wonderful and eye opening. Everything from Dance Movie to Ballet Lab. Needless to say, I’m very excited for EMPAC.

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