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It was everything I imagined it to be and that was precisely the problem. I entered a darkened room to the sound of unimpeded water. It was strange: something registered as less raucous than a waterfall but wilder than a shower. Industrial gray plastic grates above and below spewed out and swallowed up water without a fuss. Here was the much-anticipated Rain Room, a glorified faucet and drain.
The Rain Room advocates have it right—there is a sense of caution and anxiety when entering the grid; a Rain Roomer must believe in the technology. Those who set foot into the rain field saw the artificial downpour cease above them and leave them dry. As new shifts of people rolled into the room, grown men and women tip-toed into the walls of water, arms outstretched, bewildered and smiling wide, keenly watching the encircling torrent. Pairs of people inched into the perimeter of the showers and locked eyes in delight of their dryness. Hands flew in and out of pockets and purses, fingers clutched phones, ready to record the triumph and the bravery of those willing to trust in the Rain Room.
Ten covert 3D cameras track your body as you enter and move throughout the rainy portion of the Room.1 The cameras work, as most cameras do, by translating light. They triangulate your position within the matrix of rain and send signals to the sprinklers above to halt where you are sensed. The creators of the work—London-based designers, Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass, of the collective, Random International—voice a warning: “don’t wear stripes into the Rain Room—not yet anyway… different fabrics and patterns reflect light at different intensities.”2 This work filled with extremely smart parts also effaces its dumbness. Its inability to sense a striped visitor foils its seamlessness and instead gives it in an endearing sort of dopiness.
But the presentation of the machine’s fragility—its sensitivity to its surroundings, or the tender balance of unpredictable human movement and the calculated mechanical reaction—paints an artwork caught in the throes of technological poetry. In October 2015 Koch explained to the Los Angeles Times, “We’re exploring the consequences of living in a machine-led world…we amplify one aspect of that, which is a space that permanently sees you and observes you. It is a surveillance machine in a way.”3 The lack of trepidation with which the Rain Room is offered as both “surveillance machine” and artwork is what is so unsettling. It makes nonchalant the technologies that follow us, that record us, and sense us without our knowing. The Rain Room capitalizes on the machinery that enables pervasive surveillance technologies and ultimately renders the panoptican novel.
Random International declares the man-machine relationship as its grounds for exploration, but the work is nothing other than a local anesthetic between the two. The experience of the Rain Room only perpetuates habits of unconscious multimedia documentation that make the work a haven for overlapping layers of surveillance on personal, institutional, and corporate levels. The Room is a site suited for cameras; the work has been engineered to both house 3D cameras that track visitors and to create the perfect venue for them to snap photographs of themselves and others. The room is outfitted with a Fresnel lantern—a fixture typically used on stages or movie sets to cash even washes of light—which permits civilian and self-documentation through providing a light level suitable for photography by the common camera. The Fresnel also enables the 3D cameras posed throughout the room to readily comprehend the location of a visitor at any given time in the space. The primary interaction is most simply: visitors enter; hidden cameras track visitors; untouched by rain, visitors pose for their cameras; their images swell out beyond the physical space and into cyber space. This secondary layer of documentation is bolstered by self-prompted keywords (hashtags) and geo-location (geo tags) that enable another stratum of documentation by social media platforms that amalgamate both content and data.
The culture of the social media at the museum has been encouraged by institutions as a means of continued interaction with the artwork but also a way for museums to reach and stay connected to a younger demographic. LACMA in particular has headed up this charge by being the first museum on Snapchat and by dedicating a digital display of selfies from visitors and staff on the third floor of the Art of Americas building. LACMA solicits its patrons: “Be part of the exhibition by submitting your selfie.”4 Here, inclusion has been induced not by verbiage, but primarily through image. We absorb culture through the image, and we seek (and receive) societal approval of our cultured-ness through the proliferation of (and response to) that image. Admittance into the art historical dialogue is no longer limited to the word; physical adjacency seems to be enough.
So despite LACMA’s encyclopedic collection and handful of rigorous academic exhibitions, the Rain Room continues to be offered as the museum’s most potent work. LACMA has weighed the photogenic over the critical and the accessible over the analytical. The Rain Room does not require a reckoning or a wrestling; it is a work that is easy to engage and unlocks itself for the price of a (rather expensive) ticket. For those who gain entry, the work at its lamest, is a crowded photo forum that gets a bit wet. At its best, it is a room of awesome wonder and of singular experience. But it is in the magic of the Rain Room that my largest caveat lies: it asks us to pretend. To pretend that we are only in that place at that moment, that we are only seen by what we can see, and that we are totally and utterly in control.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 4.