In an interview with The Guardian, Random International co-founder Florian Ortkrass was asked to define his role. Artist? Designer? Engineer? “I’ll let you decide”, he answered, in an attempt to nimbly sidestep the question. Fortunately, his colleague Stuart Wood was more helpful. “No would- be designer would create something that’s completely pointless … we’re very much working as artists, because we’ve got our own agenda.”
Random International is a collective comprised of designers and engineers. Their work uses state-of-the-art technology and invites the audience to contemplate the way they interact with space. The Rain Room, currently occupying the Barbican’s notoriously tricky Curve space, is possibly their grandest project to date. It’s a large, starkly lit area of pouring rain that the audience can actually, physically step into. Using a complex system of 3D cameras connected to valves in the sprinkler system, the installation is able to track the audience members brave enough to participate and, provided that they proceed tentatively, stop the rain in their immediate area.
Entering the Barbican Centre the first real Rain Room related thing to strike you is the queue. The installation has proved wildly popular, and at peak times you can be expected to wait for as long as three hours to experience the exhibit. Visiting on a Tuesday afternoon, our wait was a paltry hour and twenty.
When you finally make it to the front you’re ushered through by the staff (a very few at a time – drip by drip), and the space you enter is deeply, profoundly tranquil. The only real light source offered lies at the far end, cut off by the long, slow curve of the wall of the space. You’re assailed by the sound of falling water and a strangely soothing smell, more like that of a waterfall than of rain. Cool and clean, but not necessarily fresh, an atmosphere develops.
The Barbican’s Curve is terribly alluring, and it works best with noise. The sound tantalises and invites – the work is tucked away at the far end of the gallery, around the corner and out of sight.
The visual power is also very striking. The harsh backlighting casts audience members’ shadows onto the wall. You see these first, then as you round the corner, more comes into view – the shadows face a wall of pouring water, the volume intensifies, you begin to notice people within the installation and the negative space they leave in the water as they walk through it. The effect is impressive, tense and atmospheric, but a kind of blockbuster atmosphere. Subtle, this is not.
Walking into the pouring water requires a slight effort of will, it’s deeply counter intuitive. It’s scary in the same way that Mothers by Martin Creed was scary (Google it – it’s well worth it). There’s an acute awareness of a power above you. It feels oppressive, like the rain, but once you begin to trust the technology behind it, you feel liberated. There’s something a bit Canute-ey about walking around in a downpour without getting wet, and it’s easy to enjoy.
The experience of the Rain Room is also starkly physical. Other than a sense of awe related to the spectacle and novelty, the expected emotional impact fails to materialise. This is a sensory experience, rather than a cerebral one.
Looking back through the water at the audience looking in, your sense of participant rather than audience member is heightened. It could be argued there is an interesting reversal of traditional audience/performer roles; after all, the piece is very much like a set, but it is those looking on who are illuminated – as though the lights on a stage swiveled and focused on the audience – but as you reaches the other side any conceptual merit the piece had seems to dissipate.
The backlighting doesn’t work when you’re standing at the same edge of it, either. The magnificence, melodrama and minimalist-sublime (oxymoronic, yes, but it’s there) of the work are exploded. Its visual power is revealed to be two-dimensional.
Walking back, towards illuminated faces, we begin to wonder about the mechanics of the piece. How much water is involved? (2,500 litres, it turns out) Is it recycled? (Apparently, yes.) Is the water treated? (No, we decide, there’s no smell of chlorine). These are the questions that linger after we leave.
It seems as though as a piece of art, this installation, sculpture, whatever, is incomplete. It may even be ill conceived; certainly it cannot bear the weight of its own sensory impact. People queue for this in the same way as people might have queued to witness Tesla demonstrating electrical current in the late 19th century, but with the bonus of a distinct and totally unique physical experience.
The fact is no one would argue that Oblivion, at Alton Towers, is an artwork. But you’d still happily queue for two hours to ride it. If you approach Rain Room with this at the back of your mind, you won’t be disappointed.
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Random International’s Rain Room runs at the Barbican until March 3rd.
Words: Augustin Macellari