Immersive Art: Surrounded by Science, Art Flourishes

 
February 1, 2009
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY is the country's oldest technological university with one of the first undergraduate programs in electronic media and arts in the United States, so it isn't surprising that their recently opened $200 million facility, the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) is not only a state of the art performance facility but it is literally a 220,000 square-foot laboratory that will allow for research of the overlapping disciplines of science, the arts, virtual reality and multi-media technology. The entire building includes more than 8,000 inputs to the university's supercomputer (the Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations), which will enable complex modeling and visualization making EMPAC ideal for experimentation in various critical fields.

 "EMPAC is an unprecedented platform for creativity and discovery, a world-class performing arts center and a high-tech research facility under one roof," says Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson. "It is a major center for collaborative inquiry a center for artists, scientists and engineers to come together to pursue discovery at the nexus of the real and virtual worlds. It is a platform for seamless, 'minds-on' engagement to respond to complex research questions in areas as diverse as biotechnology, artificial intelligence, and acoustics. EMPAC introduces a new model for educating the next generation of leaders, who will be better prepared to solve the complex problems facing our world."

EMPAC was designed by the architectural firm Grimshaw, working closely with RPI President Jackson and EMPAC director Johannes Goebel. Grimshaw worked closely with the architect of record Davis Brody Bond Aedas as well as Buro Happold Consulting Engineers, acoustic consultants Kirkegaard Associates and theatre consultants Fisher Dachs Associates.

"The thing that excited me most about EMPAC was the focus on the artists," says Joshua Dachs, FDA's principal. "The EMPAC concept of simply inviting artists to come and take advantage of the technologies available at Rensselaer, and giving them space to work, is very refreshing and forward thinking. For us, it has meant creating spaces that range from the informality of an artist's studio to a full-blown concert hall. Each space provides a different kind of working environment and different technical and acoustical resources, so artists will be able to create work at any scale they wish. I know of no institution like it."

Goebel and his fellow curators have for the past four years during construction already worked with artists to create significant programs on the Rensselaer campus, ranging from performances by Australian dance company BalletLab to a major EMPAC-specific light installation by Lighting Designer Jennifer Tipton. Goebel feels that, "The collaborative, interdisciplinary, and project-based approach of EMPAC creates an environment in which scientific and artistic imagination are reciprocal. The engineer develops technology that may enable the artist to fulfill the creative vision, while the artist challenges the engineer with unexpected approaches to meet the project's needs."

Built with Vision, for Sound

EMPAC is built into a 45 hill with a view across the roofs of Troy and out at the Hudson River, with about 50% of the building actually below grade. Inside are four distinct and specialized venues including a 1,200-seat concert hall, a 400-seat theatre with a full fly tower, and two flexible studio spaces configurable between black-box style theatre to full immersive environment studios for use by both artists and researchers.

The EMPAC lobby showing the cedar "hull" of the concert hall. All four of the distinct space in EMPAC are structurally as well as acoustically isolated from each other.

All the spaces have been engineered to exacting acoustical standards and all are structurally as well as acoustically isolated from each other. The largest of the venues, the concert hall seems suspended inside the glass atrium that audience members enter at the top of the hill. A series of bridges cross over the three-story atrium and pierce into a cedar "hull" that houses the concert hall. A grand staircase on the side of the space leads to the theatre and the studios. The acoustical and structural isolation allows for all four venues in the building to be used simultaneously without interfering with, or restricting any performance.

"The design concept for the building was based on the dual program it supports: a world-class concert hall for traditional orchestral music, and cutting-edge, completely flexible spaces for experimental art and media performance or research," explains architect Nicholas Grimshaw. "The search for a way to express both the history and transience of the building's technological program led us to split the building into halves the 'digital' half containing the flexible spaces of the studios and theatre, and the 'analog' side containing the traditional shoebox shape concert hall."

Don't let the term traditional fool you however, there is nothing traditional outside of perhaps the shape inside the concert hall. The acoustic design advancements in this space are emblematic of the entire concept behind EMPAC. The interior of the concert hall assumes a shoebox form, optimized for symphonic music but with adaptive acoustics to accommodate a range of musical types as well as spoken word. Kirkegaard's acoustic design worked within Grimshaw's concept to achieve an architectural form for the room which is acoustically diffusive yet still an open environment.

Kirkegaard researched and developed new acoustic materials such as an engineered fabric ceiling canopy of Nomex fiber that has a weave which allows for the balanced reflection of mid and high frequencies yet lower frequencies partially "flow" through the fabric providing the presence of reflection and acoustic reverberation time. This groundbreaking use of the acoustic fabric Nomex is the largest installation in the U.S.

This isn't the only acoustically innovative feature in the hall; there are a carefully arranged mixture of convex and concave cast stone panels along the upper side walls while the walls at the rear of the side galleries are covered with mostly convexly shaped Gypsum panels. At stage level convex-shaped sidewalls, with maple and wenge wood millwork, spread sound by their long radius curved shape. The use of this craftsmen-machined finish is highly articulated on the upstage wall to diffuse sound. Through the use of adjustable absorptive banners, audience members will be able to experience just the right amount of reverberation based on the type of performance in the space. None of these acoustic advancements sacrifice the musician's ability to hear themselves or each other but rather enhance the pleasure of performing in the space. J.R. Clancy provided line shaft hoists for the movable ceiling panels, acoustic panel hoists, and acoustic tracks and drapes, and a control system for all of these elements, while Adirondack Scenic, Inc., of Argyle, N.Y., was the tile and cloth installer. Limelight Productions of Lee, Massachusetts provided Robert Juliat followspots, a large inventory of Selecon and ETC Source 4 fixtures, a Rosco Delta Hazer, LeMaitre fog machine, hundreds of feet of Thomas Truss and custom-fabricated stage curtains.

"It's exciting to be involved in an experimental project like EMPAC," says Michael Murphy, J.R. Clancy executive vice president. "The finished spaces provide artists with new levels of flexibility to apply imagination and creativity to their performances."

In the 400-seat theatre, projection screens and speakers can be mounted to the framing of the side galleries allowing full immersion in virtual environments.

Empty Digital Space

The 400-seat theatre space has a 40-foot-by-80-foot stage and a 70-foot fly tower that provides a very rare facility for experimental artists. Fisher Dachs ensured that it met the high standards of professional companies that may be in residence at EMPAC while offering an extraordinary resource for Rensselaer's student performers. J.R. Clancy was contracted by Turner Construction to provide the rigging systems. Clancy's work included all the detailed design and engineering of the rigging equipment, manufacturing and purchasing the equipment, as well as responsibility for the project management. Pook, Diemont & Ohl was the installation subcontractor for all four spaces. The design of the space allows for movable seating at the parterre level, along the sides, so the configuration of the theatre can be a proscenium space or extend the playing area along the sides of the audience. The theatre can be used with or without its orchestra pit and since the framing of the side galleries accommodates the attachment of projection screens and loudspeakers so the audience can also be immersed in virtual environments.

The theatre includes a 33-foot-high-by 60-foot wide steel-framed fire curtain with a counterweight assisted line shaft, 22 motorized sets with 2,000 lbs and a speed range of 0 240 FPM using custom hoists manufactured by Clancy. The theatre and studio theatres also use point hoists (motorized spot lines). The hoists are at fixed locations, with a system of movable, swiveling spot blocks. These can be mounted anywhere on the grid, allowing the user to place spotlines as needed.

Studio 2 is optimized for music performance and recording with tunable 2'x2' glass fiber reinforced gypsum cast acoustic panels.

The attention to acoustic detail carries through into this more straightforward but no less technically advanced space. The black box-style Studio 1 can host music but is optimized for scientific visualization, multi-screen and immersive performances, and dance. The physical space itself can all but disappear; with video projection taking place on all sides beneath a 40-foot ceiling that features a walk-able theatrical grid over the entire surface of the room. The walls are composed of acoustically shaped panels.

"The joy in this project, beyond the opportunity and the challenge of pushing the technology and getting to develop new materials to achieve our goals, was that it started with the President Jackson and the board of trustees," states Larry Kirkegaard, president and principal acoustician of Kirkegaard Associates. "They were excited about the project, they understood not just what it would mean to the campus but the effect of the arts on the sciences, the informing of the art by the science and the creativity; connectivity that allows the merging of the disciplines. It was an astounding project, every step along the way we were challenged and inspired by the Rensselaer team led by Johannes."

EMPAC is sure to continue inspiring with an opening season that includes works by The Wooster Group, Toronto-based Workspace Unlimited, The OpenEnded Group, and the premiere of a series of Dance Movies. However, EMPAC offers audiences an experiential performance simply upon entering the building.



Immersive Art: Surrounded by Science, Art Flourishes
Stage Directions
by Michael Eddy