I’ve written quite a few posts on this blog about the United State’s one and only major supporter of videodance, EMPAC (Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY.
After two years of construction, on October 3rd EMPAC officially opened the doors of their new magnificent state-of-the-art media and performing arts center, and celebrated with two weekends of non-stop performances, screenings, installations and special events. I was lucky enough to be able spend the day on Saturday Oct 4th, seeing this amazing facility for myself. I traveled with a fellow dance filmmaker, Sabine Klaus (aka CreationEditor on dance-tech.net) who was visiting from Scotland. We took in the sights and Sabine recorded much of what she saw on video to create the 25 min vlog post below. Many thanks to Sabine for letting me share it with you here.
The building is a work of art in itself. Designed by the London-based architecture firm, Grimshaw, it is built into the side of a hill overlooking downtown Troy with views of Albany beyond. With its modern glass and steel exterior, and curvey wood interior it looks like both a starship landing dock, and a giant pickle barrel. It was a bit confusing to find one’s way around the multitude of theaters, studios and galleries, but by the end of the day I’d gotten my bearings.
In 2007, with the support of a $1 million gift from the Jaffe Fund for Experimental Media and Performing Arts, EMPAC launched the DANCE MOViES Commission which supports the creation of several new experimental dance films by artists from the Americas each year. The premiere screening of the first DANCE MOViES Commission films took place in the huge Concert Hall space on a gigantic screen. I don’t know enough to speak about the great acoustical and technical attributes of this space, but it was awesome to see dance films blown up so big with so much visual and sonic impact!
I thought the pieces that showed off the capabilities of the building the best, however were the interactive installations. The Wooster group made a 360 degree video installation that was supposed to be about life in wartime, but it made a more powerful statement about control and editing, as one viewer in the space, sitting in the “chosen” chair, was able to direct the gaze of the group by swiveling around. Wherever this one person looked, that was the part of the video that was in focus and audible. The piece was masterfully designed to look slipshod and casual, but underneath it was very manipulative, making you feel both in and out of control over the action. I’d love to see more pieces like this, but besides major art museums and institutions like EMPAC, it would be hard to find a place with the technical capabilities to mount it. Another great installation was Billie Cowie’s 3-D “In the Flesh” in which viewers don the red and blue glasses to watch a dancer lift herself off of a zebra print rug. Like a ghost being conjured at a séance, it felt creepy to see her delicate hand reaching up to me, almost touching, and then fading away.
All in all, EMPAC is an amazing place for experimental artists, but after visiting I had a few questions about what its real world impact will be. Here in New York City, spaces to make and show experimental dance and media are more scarce than ever. Perhaps Troy and Albany will become a new destination for artists seeking cheap and plentiful real estate with adequate cultural and community benefits to support them, but even in up-state New York, the great disparity between rich and poor is quite striking. EMPAC is really designed for world class artists who already have the capabilities, funding, and expertise to take advantage of the unsurpassed technological resources this facility can provide. This makes sense given their situation at one of the world’s most prestigious technical/engineering institutions.
Even in the arts, it seems the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I would just like an empty room with lights and heat to rehearse in, and perhaps a new video camera that can record high quality footage. I’d like to be able to pay my dancers and crew adequate compensation for their time and talents, and I’d like to not have to work three jobs in order to practice my art. There is a big gulf between the gutter most of us live in and the glimmering edifice of EMPAC. We need to create a bridge to be able to reach these glorious technological dreamlands of the future. This means radically rethinking how we build support, create community, and raise the value of our work. EMPAC makes experimental art look valuable and appealing to the wider world, but its up to us artists to raise the quality of our work to match those expectations. This takes many carefully measured steps to cultivate donor networks, major funders, and presenters whose support will be necessary to reach that glittering gem on the top of the hill.