Playing with the scope, scale and accessibility of traditional exhibitions in contemporary art museums, London-based design studio rAndom International creates digitally immersive environments that have performative qualities that draw on op art, kinetics, and post-minimalism.
Previously exhibited in London at the Barbican, the latest and most ambitious iteration of Rain Room, a digital deluge that invites users to control the rain, is currently on view outside of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Part of MoMA PS1’s EXPO 1: New York, the programming series initiated by Director Klaus Biesenbach and curator Hans Ulrich Olbrist that explores ecological challenges through the context of economic and socio-political instability of the early 21st century, Rain Room addresses the challenges of engineering as well as the social sciences, as the installation is meant to be experienced first-hand through all five senses, including touch.
Located in a parking lot adjacent to the institution, Rain Room exists inside the walls of a freestanding cube, one that both disorients as well as repositions the visitor from observer to participant. According to Hannes Koch, Founder/Director of rAndom International, “the feeling of emergence” was something that engaged the artist/designer-collective and was one of the progenitors behind their idea for the project. While this feeling led their design process, its realization was “a big experiment in a way,” says Koch. While the idea came almost naturally being from rainy London, the question as to how could it be done was something that would take the practice years to procure and recreate.
The installation at MoMA pushes the digital technologies and programming used to render the project a reality even further. The largest scale room to date at 100 square meters employs three-dimensional depth cameras mounted above to sense shapes and bodies below that turn individual valves on and off to control the amount of water flow, both opening up and closing in varied dense pockets. Five hundred gallons of water are distributed unevenly through 52,000 digitally controlled nozzles. The fallen water is then collected in a custom slough system, filtered, treated and pumped back into the ceiling to be redistributed again. The precise choreography of digital processes and technology is extended from the mechanics of the installation to the way people encounter and inhabit the space itself.
The installation at MoMA is situated in an entirely foreign space detached from the institution unlike the prior version conceived at the Barbican which responded to the architecture of the existing space. Despite this, the cube-like structure provides an immersive environment for the visitor that engages with the user directly, slowing down the pace of life through controlled lighting and the elimination of sound – something that is difficult to do in a city like New York. The transformation of this generic space demonstrates the group’s artistic rigor that extends beyond technical prowess. A performance of sorts, Rain Room engages with users both within the space of the exhibit as well as outside. Establishing a clear relationship with the public through its siting, the exterior facade is clearly visible from the street and surrounding sidewalk; the procession no longer occurs inside the space of the gallery based on intricate floor plans or layouts, but instead takes on the form of the line to access this minimal structure and curious installation. It also emerges within the performance itself – how people navigate the space once inside.
Intended to be experienced by a small group of no more than 10 people at a time, this strategy proves to be successful in one’s interpretation and understanding of the orthogonal space which at once has a set of parameters and borders clearly marked by the above grid, yet at the other seems to be endless. The visitor enters the dimly lit space and is immediately confronted by a sheer curtain through which only shadows and projections are seen. One large camera light is pointed directly in the eyesight of the participant, distorting as well as elongating the space, making it appear almost infinite rather than restrained or confined. Once inside the space of the installation, the theatrical component is played out through people’s individual interactions with each other and the space itself– dancing, jumping, meditating, holding hands, etc. The most interesting reactions however occur when the technology fails, says Koch. The moment there is a glitch in the system and someone gets inadvertently wet, there is triumphant success.