It started as a 30-second fascination and was almost put in the too-hard basket before it was given any serious thought. But the founders of RANDOM INTERNATIONAL – Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass – couldn’t get the idea out of their heads.
They couldn’t really make it rain, could they? They couldn’t actually create a weather system that could allow people to walk between the raindrops without getting wet, could they?
Turns out they actually could. And when they found an American art collector with deep pockets who was willing to bet against them, they had the financial support to shock the world when they unveiled the first Rain Room at The Barbican Centre in London in 2012.
Now that idea has been seen by more than one million people – and still counting – and has been exhibited in seven different cities around the globe.
It is now housed inside the Jackalope Pavilion in St Kilda, Melbourne after moving from London to New York to Shanghai to Los Angeles to the United Arab Emirates and then South Korea, and will be relocated to the new Jackalope Hotel in Flinders Lane when that eventually opens in 2022 after the events of 2020 delayed construction.
“Rain Room came from an abstract approach of displaying information using other means; printing with not ink, but with water; painting with light on light-reactive surfaces,” Koch told Man of Style from inside his home in Sweden, where it is pitch black at 3pm when we chat via Zoom.
“It was an instinctive really fast curiosity and then we sketched it and we realised it was awesome. But it took years – literally years – to do it. We were drawn to things like that in 2008. We had a pretty convoluted idea for an exhibition of printing super large images by dropping water droplets onto a really big surface. It was just complete rubbish. The system required for that methodology was super-complex; we were effectively simulating a whole weather system in one machine.
“We thought how awesome would it be to recognise the human form in that system so we could make some really fantastic weird thing real and experiential that could never happen in nature. We found a mad art collector in the US who said, ‘That sounds mental, you’ll never be able to do it, but here’s the money to try it’. He said, ‘If you’re successful, I’ll fund the whole thing for the first one’. To his great pains, we were successful and he had to unwillingly fund the first Rain Room at the Barbican Centre. That was a huge public engagement exercise and it really developed from there.”
For those who haven’t stepped foot inside a Rain Room or stumbled across the experiential contemporary art on Instagram, picture a large, darkened 100-square-metre space with continuous rain tumbling from the ceiling. But instead of getting saturated as you walk around the room, the rain pauses whenever movement is detected, allowing you to control the system.
When the first Rain Room opened in London eight years ago, some people queued for 12 hours to spend 15 minutes inside the exhibition. The demand was even greater when it was installed at the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan the following year. Thankfully, by the time it arrived in Melbourne last year, the system had been fine-tuned after years of experience, with slots allocated for visitors to come and view the work in quarter-hour blocks.
The RANDOM INTERNATIONAL creation has dazzled in a variety of settings, from a dreary London winter to a Los Angeles that was in the midst of a drought at the time, to the Middle East to its current residence which is renowned for experiencing all four seasons in one day.
“It connects people to something that is hard to grasp; it puts you in this place that you can never control; you can’t control the environment and the weather. In times when we are suffering from a huge loss of control about our lives, people experience a feeling of empowerment – the whole space reacts to me – it is a physical reaction at an architectural scale to only you. It becomes very personal,” Koch said.
“It is a very fundamental engagement with weather; everybody relates to rain, whether it be through absence in which case it is very exotic. In LA we installed it and opened it at the LA County Museum as a major blockbuster after half a year of drought. There was a couple with an eight-month-old baby on the opening day and they shoved it into the rain, and they were like, ‘This is amazing, our baby has never seen rain’.
“People relate to rain in different ways when they only see it once or twice a year. Whereas people in Italy or England or Germany or Australia or New York, you’ve grown up with it and have childhood memories. It is this fusion of very personal and very cross-cultural memory to rain and I think that’s some of the appeal.”
Koch and Ortkrass created RANDOM INTERNATIONAL in 2005 after the German pair met at The Royal College of Art in London. They now have studios based in London and Berlin and focus on immersive contemporary art that invites active participation and explores the human condition.
The roaring success of Rain Room put RANDOM INTERNATIONAL on the map almost a decade ago, leading to a range of possibilities that they had never imagined before designing a room where millions of droplets fall from the roof.
“It has had an incredibly positive impact. In 2012 at the Barbican and in 2013 at MOMA – back-to-back blockbusters – they were real game-changers for us as a studio. It has opened doors that we wouldn’t have dreamed of looking at before in terms of how people perceive the work. Rain Room has been a really big door opener for us,” he said.
“Having a work like that under our belt has shown us that there is a topical relevance in the things that we ponder for ourselves. The public acceptance of something like Rain Room has given us a lot of confidence and happiness because it is an amazing thing if you can present your work to a large demographic. It has challenged us to think even harder and do even more research, which through something like Rain Room we have been able to do more of that and to research residencies at Harvard University.”
RANDOM INTERNATIONAL didn’t seek out Jackalope for this partnership. The hotel approached the multi-hyphenated artists after owner Louis Li experienced the Rain Room when it was at LACMA.
Li, who moved from southern China to Melbourne in 2007 to study filmmaking at Swinburne University, has become one of the hottest hoteliers in the country since opening his hotel on the Mornington Peninsula in 2017, acquiring rare pieces of art that enhance the experience.
With the world screeching to a halt in 2020 for a reason everyone is aware of, the Flinders Lane construction has been delayed but is expected to open in 2022. Jackalope constructed a purpose-built pavilion designed by March Studio to weather the storm until then.
“Louis got in touch and they were starting to get very interested in developing an art collection as a one-of-a-kind destination in relation to the new building. Louis had this crazy idea that they would make a whole floor in this building a Rain Room and that absolutely intrigued us,” he said.
“We didn’t thank that would be possible and if was possible, how would you even do that? It started a really interesting dialogue. He immediately brought the right team and presented that plan with architects who we hold in huge regard. It was a very interesting proposition, especially to have a work permanently installed in such a public and central location.
“It is one thing to do it in a museum which is up for five or six months, but for us it is a really soothing and amazing thought to make a work like this accessible to the public for an indefinite amount of time. Louis has shown extraordinary respect for the way the work is displayed, we are control freaks about this, and he has shown incredible respect for that.”
Much like music, theatre and sport, art has been something to consume from afar during this once-in-a-lifetime year. But with light at the end of the tunnel, 2021 promises to have plenty of reasons to be excited about, especially for RANDOM INTERNATIONAL.
The innovative studio will be part of a new movement in the art world called Superblue, a ground-breaking experiential enterprise launching in Miami in the early stages of next year, led by PACE Gallery.
Superblue will exhibit some of the most influential experiential artists on the planet, with Japanese interdisciplinary group teamLab, American light and space movement pioneer James Turrell, French street artist JR, Dutch installation artist studio Drift and many, many more.
South Florida will be a place to visit when the time is right.