With New Media fully integrated, the electronic arts step
Into the Limelight

 
Photograph by Mark McCarty

Related story:
Making Art

By Margaret M. Knight

Neil Rolnick had just received his Ph.D. in musical composition from the University of California at Berkeley when he joined the Rensselaer faculty in 1980. His arrival marked the first step in a deliberate effort to build at Rensselaer what has become one of the most highly regarded electronic arts programs in North America.

“Lots of Rensselaer’s faculty still didn’t have personal computers then, but it was perfectly clear that computers were going to be a major force,” Professor Larry Kagan ’68 remembers. “We saw the future of the Arts Department as tied to the strengths of the Institute and the technologies taking shape.”

Today, the department boasts some of the university’s fastest growing programs and has attracted a highly diverse, internationally recognized faculty, whose work is regularly seen and heard around the world.

The Master of Fine Arts in electronic arts, which maintains a steady enrollment of 25 to 30 students, was launched in 1991. This was followed in 1996 by EMAC, the phenomenally successful B.S. in Electronic Media, Arts, and Communication offered jointly with the Department of Language, Literature, and Communication. With approximately 240 students majoring in EMAC this year, the program is winning rave reviews. In its 2000 “Digital Education Guide,” Shift magazine ranked Rensselaer’s EMAC program sixth in a survey of 50 U.S. and Canadian programs.

A new degree in Information Technology and the Arts, which combines a core of IT and technical courses with a secondary focus in electronic arts, was added in 1998. In addition, the department offers minors in studio art (drawing, painting, sculpture), electronic arts (video art, digital imaging, computer music), and music (performance, history, theory). Still to come, a new B.S. in Electronic Arts slated for the fall of 2001 and a dual program with the Department of Science and Technology Studies in preparation.

Now all eyes are turned to the hill above Eighth Street near the Folsom Library where a new electronic media and performing arts center will begin to rise next spring. With the announcement in December of an anonymous gift of $130 million that will build this center and a biotechnology research facility, spirits on campus soared.

A pivotal element in the Rensselaer Plan, the electronic media and performing arts center promises to build on Rensselaer’s reputation for excellence in the electronic arts and enrich the student experience by creating a more lively and intellectually stimulating campus environment. In addition to open and flexible spaces, the building will house a variety of performance spaces ranging from a large auditorium to a “black box” theater for several hundred people, a gallery to showcase work of campus and invited artists, practice and production spaces for music, dance, and theater groups, and facilities to support research in the electronic and performing arts. An architect will be chosen this May at the end of a design competition; construction is expected to begin the following spring.

As a performing arts center, it will provide the means to display Rensselaer’s distinctive position in electronic arts and communication, while enhancing traditional and classical performing arts. And it will also serve to widen the campus outlook and create a broader, richer sense of the world and its possibilities. With this building, Rensselaer will bring national and world leaders to campus to address critical issues such as the impacts of science and technology, ethics, economics, and social change. Rensselaer also will be able to serve as host to intercollegiate competitions and exchanges.

“Every first-tier university with whom we wish to compete—technological or otherwise—has a performing arts center and a vibrant arts community,” says John Tichy, chair of the electronic media and performing arts center task force. “We will be able to compete more aggressively for these talented students, who often have a wide variety of interests. In addition, our campus will offer a more appealing environment to attract and retain the highest quality faculty and staff.”

Bit by Byte

All this is a far cry from the Rensselaer Kagan found when he arrived to study aeronautical engineering. He switched majors to architecture because the only two art courses at Rensselaer in the 1960s—drawing and painting—were offered by the School of Architecture, and the only way to take them was to switch majors.

After earning an M.A. in Studio Arts at the University at Albany, Kagan returned in 1972 to help establish an arts department at Rensselaer. He’s been here ever since, as a sculptor teaching art to artists and engineers. In the ensuing years he has served several times as department chair and is now associate dean of undergraduate programs and curriculum initiatives for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

At the end of the1970s the department made a conscious decision to build an electronic arts program. As soon as there was an opening, they hired Rolnick, a composer and electronic musician. The next two vacancies were filled by a video artist and a computer artist. “At that point,” Kagan says, “we had the three legs that would serve as a foundation of the emerging discipline, and that allowed us to propose an MFA.”

That discipline, called computer-based electronic arts or “new media” by many, is by its very nature impossible to pigeonhole. “In fact,” said Shift magazine authors Richard Bingham and Laura Penny, “we call it ‘new media’ because the Web, interactive CDs, and DVDs are evolving so rapidly that we can’t really call them anything else. The single defining quality of new media is simply that it exists in a constant state of newness.”

What was—and still is—unique about the Rensselaer approach to the field is the insistence that electronic music, computer graphics, animation, and video are not separate fields, but different faces of the same discipline.

The “I” in IEAR

Currently chair of the department, Rolnick began assembling the iEAR Studios (integrated Electronic Arts at Rensselaer) as soon as he arrived. He established a lively electronic arts performance series and set out to build an academic program unlike any other.

Integration was the key—integration of the various electronic media with each other and integration of the electronic media with traditional media.

Branda Miller, an Emmy-award-winning video artist, joined the faculty a month before the MFA program was launched. “At a lot of universities you will find an art department that’s separated from a music department, that’s separated from a photography department, that’s separated from a film department, all fighting for the same resources,” she says.

“At the very heart of our department is a strong commitment to collaboration. If you see how IT tools are bringing about a convergence of media practice—text, image, sound, and interactivity all coming together—you can understand how our integrated structure and our very deep respect for each other’s work empowers us and positions us to succeed,” she says.

“Proximity and collaboration at every level is very important,” Rolnick says, “because you learn how to think about art as something bigger than your own specific medium by working with people in other media.”

With office and studio spaces distributed in three different buildings across campus, maintaining this commitment to collaboration and integration is definitely a challenge that Rolnick hopes will be alleviated in the near future.

“For the four-and-a-half years that I’ve been here, the Arts Department has been the fastest growing part of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences,” says Dean Faye Duchin. In the 1994-95 academic year there were 58 undergraduate majors in the school. By 2000-01, the number had soared to 410, 240 of them in EMAC. “Their ability to absorb such rapid growth under Neil’s leadership has been very impressive, but sometimes the growing pains become all too apparent,” says Duchin. “Everybody applauds their success and recognizes their need for consolidation. Now we are focused on finding the right spaces to bring appropriate things together.”

“At the very heart of our department is a strong commitment to collaboration. If you see how IT tools are bringing about a convergence of media practice— text, image, sound, and interactivity all coming together—you can understand how our integrated structure and our very deep respect for each other’s work empowers us and positions us to succeed.” —Branda Miller

Making Art

The electronic arts are inherently technological, but for Rolnick, the technology is secondary to the art—always. “What I am doing is not research,” he insists. “I can be involved with research, but what I’m doing is making music.

“If we had someone apply for a faculty position whose main interest was creating new technologies, we would suggest that person go to the engineering school. Anyone in the arts faculty should be most concerned about making art and, in a technological environment like Rensselaer, about how art works with technology,” he says.

“For decades composers and technicians have been exploring the possibilities of the use of technology in the creation of the arts,” says Bernadette Speach, planning and development associate of the Albany-based Electronic Music Foundation and of Engine 27, a new sound gallery in New York City. “We have now arrived at a place where the technology allows these creators to follow their artistic instincts. I see iEAR as a leader in this progression. They have been offering students, and other artists, the possibility to create both aural and visual art for many years. Under Neil’s leadership, this program has expanded to become a real force.”

Kathleen Ruiz, a digital media artist who creates virtual environments and simulations, turned down two other offers in order to join the Rensselaer faculty in the fall of 1997. “I was from an environment where people thought you could not make art with computers,” she says. “I did it, but it was difficult to be around people who didn’t esteem the idea of technology in the service of art. I knew that here I would have the opportunity to be around artists who weren’t fearful of using technology, but who knew they are using it to make art.”

The technology Rolnick employs in the service of his own muse is often at the very leading edge of development. For example, his most recent venture creates a whole new kind of interactive musical performance using Internet-2 technology.

Internet-2, the ultra-high-speed Internet reserved for research and education applications, links participating institutions by fiber optic cable over what are called OC-3 circuits that transmit 155.52 million bits per second. Full-stream video at 30 frames a second and CD-quality sound promise to give a whole new meaning to interactive, simultaneous performances at more than one location.

The project, called The Technophobe and the Madman, is a large collaborative work created by artists—writers, composers, videographers, performers, directors, and others—at Rensselaer and New York University supported by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, which specifically asked them to explore the performance possibilities of Internet-2.

“The technical advances of this new networking technology make it possible to deliver full bandwidth, high-quality video and audio in a synchronized way that is impossible with normal Internet technology,” Rolnick says. “My experience, and that of most other artists I know who have worked with electronically mediated distance performances, is that there is no opportunity to rehearse and hone the material as we would in any other medium. You generally get the connection working an hour before the performance—if you’re lucky—and there’s little time to do more than make sure it’s running. That’s terrible.

“By creating a single large-scale multimedia work over the course of six months or so, and by planning numerous rehearsals where we’ll be in two places at once, we hope to really explore unique, meaningful ways to use this new medium,” Rolnick says.

Living Art

Exploring technology and its meaning in our lives is of particular interest to videographer and activist Branda Miller. “I don’t think that art exists in a bubble, separate from life. Thinking critically about the world and how we’re connected, being aware of the way we live our lives, is what artistic practice is all about.

“I also don’t believe you can look at art separate from theory. So for me, being in a technological environment where all of the IT tools come together is very exciting. It offers us new potential for shifting the paradigm about how we live with technology.” It also offers potential to confront a technological world “where human choice and independent reason can be endangered,” she says.

In Witness to the Future, what may well be her most ambitious undertaking, Miller has created a masterful example of how art, life, technology, and education conjoin.

In the 50-minute video, Miller documents how citizens in three environmental catastrophe zones became activists. A fully interactive CD-ROM combines the documentary with hypertext links to 80 hours of interview transcripts, history, and background information, and the first electronic publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. There is also a Web site and supporting materials for teachers and community leaders. Joe Annino ’98, who is now at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, programmed the CD-ROM while he was an EMAC student, and the curriculum has been used at Rensselaer as part of the course Introduction to Science, Technology, and Society.

Miller would like to see the new electronic media and performing arts center used in important ways to realize President Shirley Ann Jackson’s vision of “communiversity”—as a bridge between the university and its neighbors near and far. She would like to see more activities like the spring conference of the Alliance for Community Media, which she is helping to organize on campus this March.

In addition to its attracting world-renowned lecturers, hosting museum-quality exhibits, creating spaces where students and faculty can practice and display their work, she envisions the building as a place where research, internships, programs, and events can address the issue of human values and how technology can work in so many wonderful ways to serve the community and humankind. “We are wiring the world,” she says, “but we aren’t helping anyone figure out what to do with the technology. This facility gives Rensselaer a unique opportunity to help people figure out what to do with all those wires.”

Teaching Art

The popularity of EMAC can be attributed to many things, not the least of which are the fantastic jobs waiting for graduates in fields ranging from multimedia production to graphic design, electronic publishing, digital video and music production, education, and more. It’s a degree for the student who is part writer, artist, musician, and technician.

“When I got out of film school,” Miller remembers, “I had two resumes and two demo cassettes of my work—one that was technological and one that was artistic. What I learned was that potential commercial clients didn’t want to see my ‘straight’ video. They wanted to see my video art. That’s why these EMAC students are so successful. They have all the skills of the technologist plus the creative edge that’s in such demand.”

Another reason for EMAC’s popularity is creative courses that combine rigorous technical work with what Kathleen Ruiz calls “serious fun.” Consider, for example her new course, Games and Guts.

The studio course consists of increasingly difficult “missions” in which students modify existing gaming technology to create their own interactive game prototypes. In one of the first assignments, “The Game of Your Life,” Ruiz instructs students to create three “very short, compelling, interactive gaming experiences using interactive sense memories from your childhood.”

The class, which consists of approximately half arts students and half computer science majors, will approach the problem from different angles, but “they’ll all get to the same point eventually,” she says.

The course, and Ruiz’s own art, which uses elaborate interactive virtual environments and digital photography to satirize gaming violence and challenge the way people look at reality, begs the question, “Where does computer science end and art begin?”

“I don’t think they end or begin anywhere.” The old idea that there is a line drawn between fine art and commercial enterprise is being blurred enormously, she replies. “Fine artists still make work from their creative centers. A commercial artist has a client to please. A lot of contemporary artists use the same methodologies of communication that commercial artists use, but to get art ideas across. I use games and gaming paradigms to do that.” Her latest work, “Bang, Bang (you’re not dead?)” is a multimedia installation that “comments on the observation of violence in computer games and the emotionality of their users,” Ruiz says. The installation challenges gamers to bring people back to life rather than shoot them down.

The new B.S. in electronic arts will not be another EMAC. This program is for students seeking rigorous art training. It will require more basic studio courses and will be more of a stepping stone to the MFA program than to a career immediately on graduation. But what’s unique is that it is a B.S. degree, not a B.A.

“We decided that because there are so many technological components in this program, having extra math and science will be a really positive part of the experience,” Kagan says. “It will appeal to students who get real satisfaction out of doing well in their high school science and math courses and don’t want to give that up when they study art. They’ll be like me!” he laughs. “I really value the math and engineering and science courses I took at RPI.”

As soon as the new bachelor’s degree is up and running Miller has plans to start a new dual degree, this time with the Department of Science and Technology Studies. “I think this program will attract a new type of student to RPI who wants technological expertise in the electronic arts, but who is also interested in community, in politics, in the diverse interdisciplinary areas that are addressed in STS.”

Related story:
More Graduates of the Master of Fine Arts in Electronic Arts Program

Pushing the Envelope

“I’m not a scientist or an engineer,” says Rolnick. “And I have no desire to be either. But what’s remarkable about this environment is that there are wonderful scientists and engineers here who want to be engaged in artistic endeavor and projects that allow us to function as artists on teams with engineers and scientists.”

For example, Rolnick will probably end up collaborating with engineers on academic papers documenting his Internet-2 project, and a Web site for the production is being created by Daniel O’Neil ’99 and Diana Slattery of the Academy of Electronic Media at Rensselaer.

Founded in 1994 by Don Millard, director of the Center for Integrated Electronics and Electronic Manufacturing, the Academy has developed an array of multimedia educational materials and is moving increasingly into the world of electronic arts. An engineer, composer, and guitar player, Millard foresees the Academy interacting more with both arts and engineering to influence the world of entertainment. One of his current projects is an exploration, with Diana Slattery, of how to present a musical on the Web that would allow the audience to participate in the action, and ultimately affect the characters and the plot. Such “out of the box” investigations, Millard believes, are the sort of work that the new building will encourage.

Rolnick is a member of the electronic media and performing arts center task force. He envisions a place where traditional and experimental media will come together, where research focused on performing arts and technology will be nurtured. That research might include such things as robotics in performance or taking performances out of the auditorium and using global positioning technology as an artistic medium.

Out of the Shadows

The influx of all these “nontraditional” students is having a profound impact on Rensselaer. No longer must an engineer change majors to explore painting. And contrary to early fears, the emphasis on electronic arts has resulted in a skyrocketing demand for traditional art courses. “All our studio courses are filled,” Kagan says. “We have to turn people away.” At the same time the new breed of student is challenging faculty in the other schools to develop courses that appeal to them, Kagan says. “The impact on the Institute transcends the numbers.”

“The electronic and performing arts are areas that Dr. Jackson and this university have chosen to develop in fulfilling our vision of becoming a world-class technological university,” says Duchin. “There is not the slightest doubt in my mind that we’ve got the talent, the ambition, and the energy needed to achieve that potential. And we’re not wasting a moment getting started.”

With the construction of the new facility, the arts and artists of Rensselaer will move into the spotlight as never before.

“In addition to adding to the overall cultural diversity of the Capital Region, the electronic media and performing arts center will serve to enhance educational programs designed to prepare our students for creative careers in the new media industries, entertainment, advertising, Web design, education, and corporate communications,” says Rensselaer Provost G. P. “Bud” Peterson. “The center will help to place Rensselaer at the forefront of the development of academic and research programs that combine the study of the arts, creativity, and electronic media.”

Margaret Knight is an education writer living in Ballston Spa, N.Y.

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