The first thing to say about Rain Room is that although it doesn’t cost any money to enter, it is not exactly free. Instead you pay with the most democratic commodity of all, your time. On our first attempt to see it we were told the waiting time would be three and a half hours. If you translated that time crudely into a London wage, it could easily push over fifty pounds sterling. We decided to return early the next morning.
The installation opens at 11:00, so we arrived at 09:30 (on a Tuesday) and found six people already in front of us. As people arrived the queue formed behind us, mainly students, some young mothers with babies in tow, all lounging on the carpet reading, chatting, or playing on their phones. At about 10:50 we heard a hum switch on in the distance, followed by the hollow squealing sound of someone switching on a massive shower, and I’m almost sure I felt a draft of chilly air, but it may have been imagined.
We were in the first batch to enter for the morning, and walking the corridor of the The Curve is itself an experience. A featureless, monumentalist curved chamber, with ghostly light throwing tall grey shadows on the high walls, and the alien sound of the water making it an ever more surreal experience, shared with strangers. As we walked towards the water, in a group of about a dozen people, the steward warned us not to walk too fast through the water or we’d get wet. Uncertain of the etiquette, people were reluctant to step forward, despite the hours of waiting. They had no such qualms about taking photos, and the room was quickly dotted with the glow of smartphones.
From the sidelines, we watched as some brave souls walked gingerly into the rainspace. The circle of non-rain duly opened up around them, and as they voyaged deeper into the middle it looked like they were surrounded by a force field. But it’s a pretty big force field, and although one person on the platform will appear to be enveloped by the rain, four or five people on the platform end up pushing the rain into isolated patches.
When we finally hopped onto the platform, it was fun, but it wasn’t the cosmic experience of controlling your environment that we had been expecting. It was fun to push against the limits of the sensors, getting wet in the process. When you walk into rain, instinct tells you to move faster to avoid getting wet, but in fact you have to do the opposite and slow down. This presented an exercise in willpower, and slow, gentle, patient movements not only felt like they empowered you over the self, but also over the environment.
Maybe the installation would have worked better as a part of a sequence, with separate environments that respond to human behaviour in audial and visual ways. On its own I fear the meaning gets lost in the gimmickry. But then maybe that’s ok too, an elaborate toy that has captured the public imagination. Its placement in the Barbican is salvages some meaning, on its own it’s a fountain, but buried under layers of brutalist architecture and cultural ribbonry, it’s a contemplation on our timeless fascination with the act of shaping our surroundings.