Singing in the Rain Room: Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass

Why would New Yorkers and Londoners choose to ponder an artwork that delivers them yet more rain -- which pauses around the human body as it walks through? Why would thousands of Angelenos reserve tickets to experience that installation?

Rain falls as if by magic in Rain Room; the water delivery and filming equipment that monitors human movement is hidden; photo: Avishay Artsy
Rain falls as if by magic in Rain Room; the water delivery and filming equipment that monitors human movement is hidden. Photo: Avishay Artsy

Why would New Yorkers and Londoners choose to ponder an artwork that delivers them yet more rain  which pauses around the human body as it walks through? Why would thousands of Angelenos reserve tickets to experience that installation?

Is it to feel, momentarily, a sense of control of the weather? Or awe and fear at the seeming magic of this digitally controlled immersive experience? Perhaps simply the prettiness of the piece  a black box containing glittering, falling sheets of water. Or maybe it’s the sheer fun of it  if you move too fast through the “rain” or are clustered in groups or wearing shiny items you get wet.

All these questions are raised by the work of Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass, the founders of London-based Random International, creators of Rain Room, an installation that’s been a huge hit with the public, if not always with art critics, some who grumble that the project is gimmicky. A record-breaking 17,000 people have booked a time to visit at LACMA, where the installation opens to the public this Sunday, Nov. 1.

Koch and Ortkrass came from their native Germany to the UK to study engineering and then went to the prestigious Royal College of Art. Their fusion of art and science made them the perfect fit for LACMA, says director Michael Govan, as the museum reinitiates its seminal Art and Technology project, which originally ran from 1967-1971 and paired artists with technology companies in Southern California when the aerospace industry still dominated the Southland.

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Hannes Koch and Florian Ortkrass, the founders of London-based Random International. Photo: Avishay Artsy

Hannes Koch told attendees at a press conference on Wednesday, “For us it’s a goose-bumping honor to show in these walls, in the same place where many of the studio’s heroes started their careers  around the corner you have Bob Irwin, with his garden, you have (James) Turrell next door. It’s just incredible to to be here.”

This installation, however, is funded not by a technology company but by the retro, and sometimes controversial, home furnishings company Restoration Hardware. At the press conference RH chairman Gary Friedman said that when the company decided to “get into the contemporary art business” he was aware that “no one is going to believe that a home furnishings retailer belongs in the art world.” So he told his team, “you are going to have to find something that the world’s never seen before.”

DnA interviewed Hannes and Florian in Rain Room. Still seeming somewhat bemused by the massive success of their concept, the designers explained how it works: complex concealed technology that delivers and recycles the water and films human movement. They also talked about their larger goal: to prompt discussions on our increasingly digitized lives, our modern state of surveillance, and water scarcity.

Angelenos may be thinking about those topics, or they may just want to have fun, and see a little bit of rain.

Avishay Artsy interviews people in Rain Room; only his shiny headphones get wet; photo: Frances Anderton
Avishay Artsy interviews people in Rain Room; only his shiny headphones get wet. Photo: Frances Anderton

DnA: Did you come from the design world? Did you come from the art world? What is Random International?

Florian Ortkrass: Hannes and I met at university, at a very engineering-focused degree in London, at Brunel University. It was design engineering. And that’s where we founded the idea of Random International in 2002. And Hannes went to the Royal College, and I followed a year later. And that’s where we started to work on projects together. The ideas were always more interesting to give to people outside of a commercial context, so they don’t have any preconception of what to think. And that’s kind of how the arts fit with how we both work. This is a very large-scale installation compared to our other works.

DnA: So to you, this is a piece of engineering as much as a piece of art. How did you engineer it?

FO: So we have an idea and we kind of latch on. And then for that moment we are quite ignorant of what that would involve. So we said, okay, so let’s make it exactly as this is. And then we kind of put another hat on and we go and see what is necessary to do this and then it usually grows bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. We need the water. How you get the water up? So for each project we create all the knowledge internally. So we kind of start from the ceiling.

If you stand at the edge, you don't get wet; photo: Frances Anderton
If you stand at the edge, you don’t get wet. Photo: Frances Anderton

DnA: So you start from the top and work down?

FO: Quite literally, in this case, yes. Because we knew we wanted the water to fall. So we had to make raindrops. And they had to be a certain size and a certain speed. It’s actually quite difficult to make rain.

Hannes Koch: It was a really a very quick step from a very convoluted project to this fantasy of full immersion in rain. Which back then was interesting for us to go like, yeah, that would be awesome if we can do that, if we can expose us totally to rain without being immediately affected by it. And then we went and developed it.

DnA: Pulling something like this off requires some pretty strong engineering experience.

HK: The whole studio is based on this philosophy of learning. Most new projects we do things that we previously weren’t able to do. And then we learn. We buy in knowledge, we acquire knowledge, we experiment a lot. And then tried to make it our own somehow. And then for this we learned about rain and water treatment and pump systems and 3D tracking and swimming pool maintenance.

Where Rain Room uses only 528 gallons of water, Random International cycled almost 30,000 litres of water per minute to create the ephemeral Tower- Instant Structure for Schacht XII, 2013, a performative structure at World Heritage Zollverein "using its plentiful, native material: water" pumped out of former mines. Photo courtesy Random International.
Where “Rain Room” uses only 528 gallons of water, Random International cycled almost 30,000 liters of water per minute to create the ephemeral “Tower- Instant Structure for Schacht XII,” 2013, a performative structure at World Heritage Zollverein “using its plentiful, native material: water” pumped out of former mines. Photo courtesy Random International.

DnA: As you know, California’s going through its fifth year of drought. This piece has already been shown in London and New York and now there’s a piece in Shanghai too, but I think it has a special resonance here in California. Do you feel like this is going to create more of a conversation about water?

HK:  I hope so, if that’s not too pretentious to say. It would be nice, I think. This is a bit like showing it in the future. This kind of stuff will become very relevant. This kind of exposure to natural disaster or challenges in climate will become much more relevant, also in Europe and other parts of the world. And so California, unfortunately, is spearheading that experience and showing “Rain Room” in that context hopefully does kick off a few conversations about efficiency of using water. This is a fairly efficient use of 500 gallons of water. A hamburger is maybe not the most efficient thing to make with that amount of water. So yeah, it would be amazing to see this starting these conversations.

DnA: Now there’s another conversation that might come out of this. Which has to do with digitization. This operates because there are sensors and cameras that can see where people are. There’s an element of surveillance involved there. And that our safety and our being able to stay dry really has to do with the system operating, and that maybe could be seen as a commentary on liberty and surveillance and vulnerability.

HK: It’s certainly something that drives us internally a lot. It often goes a bit below the radar, especially with works like “Rain Room” it’s a whole visual thing, an overwhelming, multi-sensory experience but yes it is definitely a commentary on negotiating our relationship with the machine, with mechanized, digitized environments. This is a whole space that sees you, reacts to you and then subsequently dictates how you behave in it and that is I think a massive tension. It’s very gentle because nothing really happens if you get a bit wet, but it is an amplification of something that we can go through every day and increasingly will experience in the future.

In Swarm Study, a work by Random International for London's Victoria and Albert Museum, when visitors moved up and down the stairs, "the light follows in swarm-like formations, varying subtly in its intensity." Photo courtesy Random International
In “Swarm Study,” a 2011 work by Random International for London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, when visitors moved up and down the stairs, “the light follows in swarm-like formations, varying subtly in its intensity.” Photo courtesy Random International

DnA: Another theme here seems to be the illusion of control: control of nature, control of our surroundings. We think of humans as controlling nature. But really we are subject to the whim of this machine to not get wet. And maybe that could also be seen as a metaphor for how we operate within the environment.

HK: I think it’s a complete delusion that we’re in control. We do have an effect on our environment but that’s a different thing from being in control, as we can see with the drought. You know if we were in control, we wouldn’t have a drought. We have an effect, we have an impact, our present does something to the world but that doesn’t mean that we can control it. And I think humans are prone to be delusional. That’s a big part of our ability to operate in everyday life, to think that we’re in control. But you know, if you look at all sorts of areas of science at the moment, more and more this is something to be debated, like is there such a thing as free will. Our whole perception of controlling our environment is largely nonsense.

DnA: We’re talking about some of these big themes like scarcity of resource, or control over the environment. But I think what a lot of people will get from this experience is that it’s just fun. There’s a sense of joy that people get from walking through this project.

HK: Yeah absolutely, and I would not at all mind that. We’re not here to have a big strong message. It’s there to pose questions, and for us it’s just one result of working on these questions ourselves. We want to enjoy our time here and we don’t want to be particularly dark about these things. I think we share quite an optimism in these matters so I think it’s completely, it’s wonderful actually that people enjoy it and maybe don’t think about that but if it poses questions, that’s good with us, definitely.

Reflex, 2011, "occupied the vitrines of London’s Wellcome Trust, mirroring people’s movements of as they walk up and down the busy Euston Road.
“Reflex,” 2011, “occupied the vitrines of London’s Wellcome Trust, mirroring people’s movements of as they walk up and down the busy Euston Road.” Photo courtesy Random International.

DnA: You have more name recognition for doing something like this. Do you think doing a project like “Rain Room” allows your group to take on bigger projects than you might have before?

HK: Yes, it already did. After doing “Rain Room” we certainly experienced a change in what was possible for us to do and on what scale we were allowed to work. And that’s awesome as well. It’s amazing.

DnA: How are we going to see that? What’s coming up that we can look forward to?

HK: We’re working on more public art projects increasingly. And over the next few years more and more of our work will be installed permanently in places where it’s open to a much broader public. So our reach increases. And that’s enabled by projects like “Rain Room,” definitely.

DnA: Why is the public element so important for the work that you do?

HK: Vanity? [laughs] I don’t know, we work so hard and we care so much about making the work. It’s just nice to share it. It’s a huge honor and a massive satisfaction to share this with an audience.

DnA: When the El Nino comes  you know, we’re expecting this big El Niño  will attendance drop, when people in LA have had enough of rain torrenting down?

HK: If London is anything to go by, no. The English like queuing. In New York as well, they had massive monsoon-style rains. It rained into the tent. It was raining more from the roof of the tent than it was raining in the “Rain Room.” And people still queued and queued.

Elmer Ray says he's already enjoying his job providing security at Rain Room; the project brings a lot of "joy" he says; photo: Frances Anderton
Elmer Ray says he’s already enjoying his job providing security at “Rain Room,” because the project brings him and visitors a lot of “joy.” Photo: Frances Anderton