- Article by Online Editor
- Photography by Felix Clay
- Designer Random International
It is somewhat perverse that, on one of the first clear, sunny days London has had in months, the queue to see Rain Room at the Barbican’s The Curve makes a long loop that snakes out of the door. Conceived by Random International – a group founded by Hannes Koch, Florian Ortkrass and Stuart Wood, who met while studying at the Royal College of Art – Rain Room is an immersive installation that is encompassing for its haptic, visual, aural and sensual qualities. Attracting a wide demographic – from middle-aged couples to groups of students, children, teenagers and the elderly, who wait up to three hours to see this free exhibition – the work has drawn attention for its inherent challenge: daring visitors to test their influence over where the rain falls, or, indeed, if it can be stopped.
Situated in the semi-circular gallery that wraps around the back of the Barbican Concert Hall, visitors enter the installation between darkened walls that funnel them towards the light and amplify the distant sound of showering water. Then, suddenly, the rain ‘room’ appears. Structurally, the 100-square metre work is simple enough. It is effectively a sandwich – a steel grid floor below an identically sized finely gridded structure formed of I-beams suspended several metres above, with a steady stream of water falling in between. Eight sensors, four along each length, register movement and control the rainfall. But this pragmatic description belies the experience of the work.
From afar, the backlit cascade of falling water is animated by just a few people within, which means that it’s difficult to work out whether or not – and how – the rain falls. Faced with the falling sheets of rain and the subtlety of the technology affecting it, one steps up to the downpour relying on trust – and, in my case, a waterproof jacket. Once inside, it becomes clear that human movement within is ‘seen’ by sensors overhead; the rain stops and starts with variable intensity, depending on the tempo with which you move through it. Looking up, the shifting arcs of droplets fall like soft diamonds around you and I’m reminded of the effect of a heavy stone dropped into a lake. Here, though, the concentric circles created are empty spaces that radiate through the rain as you move through the room, interrupting rainfall.
This installation by Random International continues the group’s fascination with the interaction between human behaviour and the installation. Previously, the collective has created such works as Audience (2008) and Swarm Light (2010) – both of which tested viewers’ reactions to orchestrated, interactive spaces. This project owes a debt to kinetic art – and particularly the idea that space and time can be active components of an artwork. As Random International notes: “Rain Room… specifically explore[s] the behaviour of the viewer and viewers… Observing how these unpredictable outcomes will manifest themselves, and the experimentation with this world of often barely perceptible behaviour… is our main driving force.”
It’s true that watching the reactions of others responding to the rain is as much fun as controlling the rain itself. Expressions of delight, surprise, disbelief – and often, children especially, rushing through the droplets with complete abandon – offer insights into visitors’ personalities. The un-ticketed, temporary experience gives an immediate response and is also democratic; anyone can play God for 10 minutes, if only they’re prepared to queue! Given its popularity in a country that is ridiculed for its grey, rainy climate, I wonder what would happen if Rain Room were exhibited elsewhere, in locations where rain and water are scarce? This already enchanting installation could provoke euphoric glee in regions unaccustomed to the experience of water cascading freely from the sky.
Random International’s Rain Room was exhibited at The Curve at The Barbican, London from 4 October 2012 – 3 March 2013.
The exhibition is now on show at MoMA New York (until 28 July).