Rain Room: Art with Control Issues?

What if you could play in the rain and not get wet?

Posted May 29, 2013

Rain has provided us with thousands of metaphors, many related to crying clouds and drops of tears. In the Taming of the Shrew, Shakespeare wrote:

And if the boy have not a women’s gift
To rain a shower of commanded tears,
An onion will do well for such a shift.

In this case, the onion is a large immersive art environment called the Rain Room (2012), in which it is always artificially raining. Created by the London based art and technology collaborative rAndom International, the work, currently on exhibit at MoMA, has its own designated space across the street from the museum.

In this simulated environment, one enters a space in which it is pouring rain—but you never get wet due to the magic of sensors, tracking cameras and custom software (unless you move too quickly for the program to keep up with you).

It was raining as I waited in line outside the venue, and I experienced nature in the way humans have for our entire existence. But when I entered the technologically-controlled Rain Room, instead of me sensing the rain, the rain was sensing me. Even though the space was alive with the smell of water in the air—just like a natural rainstorm—the system tracked human presence in choreographed effect. Everyone frolicked and posed in an almost a fun house­–like manner. People were holding their faces to the rain, which wasn’t there, sitting on the floor in mock-meditation, running towards each other, and continually looking for the boundary where their presence stopped and the rain started, often just within reach. People were enjoying themselves in the rain—without getting wet.

In the sometimes-wondrous style of art marketing speak, MoMA’s website tells us that, “The work invites visitors to explore the roles that science, technology, and human ingenuity can play in stabilizing our environment.” That particular definition of the Rain Room made me, for better or worse, link the work to the role humans have played in destabilizing our environment, such as the activities that have brought about the superstorms and other extreme meteorological conditions we’ve been recently experiencing.

Since the 1940s the United States has been trying to manipulate the weather. Countries including China, Russia, Israel, Thailand, South Africa and Australia have also used cloud seeding, which forces rain using chemicals such as silver iodide or calcium chloride. But now with the growing concern about global warming the major effects of storm intensity, questions are being raised about the potential that weather modification is also accelerating climate change.                 

Weather is a global concern: floods, superstorms, and droughts have irrevocably altered our lives, and have made survival more difficult. By manipulating the planet’s atmosphere (both actively and through everyday human activities), are we the ones ultimately responsible for this dramatic change in weather, and the distress it causes?

Weather colors our emotions. It impacts our feelings and moods. As children, playing in the gentle summer rain was peaceful and fun. But now, are we rightfully becoming more and more afraid of the extremes of weather?

Art regularly expresses human emotions using weather metaphors. While Rain Room is not a solution to the problem of climate change, it is an elegant, sophisticated attempt at representing a wish to play in the rain untouched again—like a dream trying to make sense of our repressed despondency about something overwhelming and lethal. It holds up a mirror to something that we collectively yearn for, but alas, synthetic rain is neither cleansing nor rejuvenating.

The Rain Room begs the question: Do we really want rain within our control?


Rain Room is on exhibit through July 28: http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/1380

About the Author

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D.

Gayil Nalls, Ph.D., is an interdisciplinary artist based in New York.

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