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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI)

Remarks EMPAC Ten-Year Celebration

October, 2018
EMPAC Concert Hall
Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D., President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Thank you for joining us here to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the opening of our Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center, or EMPAC—one of the most technologically advanced performing arts centers in the world—which is a laboratory for immersive experiences, at human scale, of all kinds.

I am very pleased that as part of our three-day celebration, we are welcoming back to EMPAC tonight the International Contemporary Ensemble, to perform composer Olga Neuwirth’s “Lost Highway Suite.” The International Contemporary Ensemble, an artist collective that explores how new music intersects with communities across the world, also performed in our inaugural concert ten years ago.

The unique capabilities of EMPAC have allowed artists-in-residence, Rensselaer faculty and students, and researchers in science and engineering, to turn their ideas into entirely original experiences, and scientific and technological advances. They have found here leading-edge environments for theater, image, sound, and immersion, that integrate traditional and digital tools in entirely new ways—from a 360 degree “surround” screen—which can be assembled in the studios, to a new wave-field synthesis audio system comprising 576 independently controllable speakers. EMPAC has undergirded research in cognitive science, data visualization, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and gamification. It has empowered exploration and served as inspiration.

For the last ten years, EMPAC has helped to give life to projects in many domains, including video, dance, musical theater, internet art, interactive installations, intermedia art, and multimedia art. It has hosted groundbreaking artists, who have built bridges between the quantifiable—photons, sound waves, and digital data—and the unquantifiable—the sense of beauty, wonder, and mystery that the arts, and sciences, elicit in us.

The quality of the artistic works commissioned and developed here is readily apparent—as is the brilliance of EMPAC alumni and alumnae, two of whom are among the recipients of the recently announced 2018 MacArthur Fellowship “genius grants.” We congratulate choreographer and performer Okwui Okpokwasili, and current artist-in-residence Wu Tsang, whose interdisciplinary ensemble Moved by the Motion will premiere the work Sudden Rise in the EMPAC Theater following this concert.

In addition to hosting groundbreaking performances, EMPAC also has served as a home for groundbreaking scientific and technological research.

It is home to our Cognitive and Immersive Systems Laboratory, a partnership with IBM, which is developing smart Situations Rooms, such as cognitive boardrooms and cognitive classrooms, that use hierarchies, or communities, of cognitive agents, as well as immersive technologies of all kinds, to react to, interact with, and inform their occupants. These rooms anticipate participants’ need for information, and present it in multiple modes—through group interaction with cognitive digital agents, with the goal of greatly enhancing group learning and decision-making—in a truly interactive format.

EMPAC also has given us a laboratory to create new data visualization tools, such as the Campfire, a novel immersive computer interface that helps small groups to work together, to explore data in new ways and new dimensions, and to find groundbreaking insights within that data.

EMPAC has proven to be a powerful platform for learning as well as research, and has helped to inspire the addition of new degree programs, including a new Bachelor of Science in Music designed to prepare Rensselaer students for 21st-century music careers in realms such as composition for gaming, or the leadership of digital music networks.

EMPAC also serves as the North Star for our Art_X @ Rensselaer initiative, which helps Rensselaer students to discover the connections among art, science, and technology; which embeds artistic and aesthetic concepts throughout our curriculum; and which challenges Rensselaer scientists, engineers, architects, artists, and managers, to explore, invent, and discover at the interstices between fields.

Here, at Rensselaer, we educate the next generation of leaders to have the intellectual agility to see across disciplines; the multicultural sophistication to work with others across cultures, geographies, and generations; and a global view that recognizes our shared humanity, and focuses on the greatest of challenges, using the most advanced tools and technologies.  

Given these goals, we are so fortunate to have EMPAC as a platform specifically designed to expand the perspectives of all who work and visit here.

When I launched a task force, in 2000, to consider how Rensselaer could build a platform where research and technology could interact with artistic creation and reflection, such success was not guaranteed. EMPAC is the result of the creativity and commitment of many people with a shared vision for what Rensselaer could become, and what EMPAC could become, as a center for our students, faculty, and community—and for the world at large.

And so tonight, I want to thank all of the thousands of people who contributed to the creation of EMPAC. They include the chair of our original Electronic Media and Performing Arts task force, Professor John A. Tichy of our Department of Mechanical, Aerospace, and Nuclear Engineering, and the Rensselaer Board of Trustees, which unanimously embraced the idea of a platform that would give the Troy campus “star appeal,” while embracing the importance of research and pedagogy being mutually reinforcing. And it was up to the London-based architecture firm, Nicholas Grimshaw and Partners, who won a design competition here, to make our vision a reality.

Tonight, we also recognize Professor Johannes Goebel, who joined us, initially, as a consultant during the design process for EMPAC, and then became its first director. Professor Goebel helped us to create a center that was dedicated to the broader experimental media and performing arts. Over the years, Professor Goebel has had a keen vision for what EMPAC can and should be—especially in the arts—by navigating uncharted terrain at the cutting edge of science and art.

And, of course, this celebration, and indeed, this building, would not have been possible without the contributions of our benefactor, Curtis R. Priem of the Rensselaer Class of 1982 and Secretary of our Board of Trustees, after whom the center is named. A pioneering figure in the field of graphical computing, the author of almost 200 patents, and co-founder of NVIDIA Corporation, Curtis Priem truly saw EMPAC as an investment in the future of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

We hope that you will enjoy tonight’s performance, and be inspired by it to see, and to hear, in new ways. Together, by collaborating across disciplines and reaching across boundaries, we can indeed harness the promise of science, technology, and the arts to change the world.