Random International’s work lies at the very forefront of art and technology.

Art Radar interviews founders Florian Ortkrass, Stuart Wood and Hannes Koch about their artistic process and their monumental project Rain Room opening in Shanghai’s Yuz Museum next week. 

Random International, ‘Rain Room’, Installation view at MoMA, New York 2013. Image courtesy Random International.

Random International, ‘Rain Room’, installation view at MoMA, New York 2013. Image courtesy Random International.

From 1 September to 31 December 2015, Random International, the artists behind the highly acclaimed Rain Room installation at London’s Barbican in 2012 and MoMA in New York 2013, will be unveiling the largest Rain Room to date at Yuz Museum in Shanghai.

The founders of Random International’s collaborative studio tell Art Radar about the philosophy behind their high-tech artworks that explore behaviour and interactions between man, machine and environment, as well as their upcoming project in Shanghai.

Florian Ortkrass, Hannes Koch and Stuart Wood of Random International. Image courtesy the artists.

Florian Ortkrass, Hannes Koch and Stuart Wood of Random International. Image courtesy the artists.

Is it true that the three of you met while studying at the Royal College of Art in London, and after collaborating together on art projects, founded Random International? Could you talk about your respective backgrounds and what inspired you to focus on technology?

We actually met before the RCA, during our undergraduate studies at Brunel University. Flo and Hannes were in the same residence and being pretty much the only Germans there as well as a little bit older than the rest – we soon became friends and then collaborators.

We first worked with Stuart in the final year, on the graduate exhibition catalogue. We worked around the clock on it and realised we had surprisingly complementary attitudes and ideas. We all went on to the RCA and continued to collaborate, founding the studio directly upon graduating. We didn’t necessarily have a defined idea of what we were, as you define it above, but we all wanted – needed – the freedom to explore our ideas and we used technology as a tool to do so.

Your website says that Random International creates works and installations that explore behaviour, reaction and intuition in relation to natural phenomena and the human form. Could you elaborate on this?

Currently, we are fascinated by the relationship between man, machine and environment; we are looking at the implications of living in an increasingly computerised, mechanised world from an artistic perspective and how this might change those relationships or affect our perceptions of them. The physicality of the studio’s work is important to expressing this; “Rain Room” would not have worked with projected water, it has to be real to create the engagement.

Random International, ‘Temporary Printing Machine’, 2011, Corian frame, custom rail system, light reactive screen print on canvas, motor, electronic UV, glass LED print head, rapid prototyped components, proprietary software, proprietary tracking software, camera, lens, computer, 1170 x 1695 x 120 mm, edition of 8 + 4 AP. Installation view at Carpenters Workshop Gallery. Image courtesy Random International.

Random International, ‘Temporary Printing Machine’, 2011, Corian frame, custom rail system, light reactive screen print on canvas, motor, electronic UV, glass LED print head, rapid prototyped components, proprietary software, proprietary tracking software, camera, lens, computer, 1170 x 1695 x 120 mm, edition of 8 + 4 AP. Installation view at Carpenters Workshop Gallery. Image courtesy Random International.

You’ve received worldwide recognition with Rain Room, as well as with your interactive works such as Swarm Study (2010-ongoing), Audience (2008) and Fly (2011). Could you pick out what you think are Random International’s most noteworthy projects?

Well, Pixel Roller (2005) was the very beginning, our first work. It’s a performance tool with which you can physically paint digital information or imagery. We then developed other ways to materialise this, such as painting digital imagery with light on a light-reactive surface. This crossover between the intangible, digital information and the direct, physical way it is made manifest… this was something we began to explore further in our Temporary Printing Machine series (2009-ongoing) – blank canvases that respond to the onlookers by printing his or her reflection in light on a light-reactive canvas. Where Pixel Roller depended on our presence as artists, Temporary Printing Machine is automated and will perform continuously without our being there; it’s the viewer’s presence that is essential here.

Random International, ‘Audience’, 2008, mirror, metal cast bases, motors, custom motion tracking software, camera, computer, dimensions variable, each mirror 150 x 250 x 150 mm, edition of 8 + 4 AP. Installation view at Carpenters Workshop Gallery. Image courtesy Random International.

Random International, ‘Audience’, 2008, mirror, metal cast bases, motors, custom motion tracking software, camera, computer, dimensions variable, each mirror 150 x 250 x 150 mm, edition of 8 + 4 AP. Installation view at Carpenters Workshop Gallery. Image courtesy Random International.

The first work where we began to explore the recognition of three dimensional bodies in space was Audience (2008), a field of 64 small anthropomorphic mirrors each imbued with recognisably human-like behaviour. When a person walks towards the artwork, the mirrors collectively turn towards that person making them the subject of the artwork and presenting that person’s own reflection 64 times.

We began to explore the simulation of natural behaviour further, through the Swarm Study series (2010-ongoing), which translates the behaviour of flocking birds into light. The individual light sources act collectively, in real-time; each light source knows where it is in relation to its neighbour and follows certain basic rules to form the swarm, which also responds to the behaviour of people nearby. And of course there are the new works currently in development, but we will come to that…

Random International, ‘Swarm Study / III’, 2011, electronics, Corian, steel frame 4 cubes of 2327 x 1195 x 1195 mm. Installation view at V&A Museum, London. Image courtesy Random International.

Random International, ‘Swarm Study / III’, 2011, electronics, Corian, steel frame 4 cubes of 2327 x 1195 x 1195 mm. Installation view at V&A Museum, London. Image courtesy Random International.

I’d like to ask you about Rain Room: the breath-taking installation allows visitors to walk through a space experiencing rain, including the smell and sound of rain, without actually getting wet. How did you come up with the idea? 

We were coming up with new ideas for how to print digital information and were experimenting with dropping water onto a water-reactive substrate, like falling pixels. The more we began to think about this, the more we realised what would actually be more interesting to us was the system to make the waterfall – to make rain.

At the same time, we were exploring ideas of immersion, how that affects the senses, and so we came to ask ourselves: how would it feel to be surrounded by rain but remain protected from it at the same time? The presence of a visitor within Rain Room is detected by sensors, this causes the rain directly above that visitor (or visitors) to stop falling.

Random International, ‘Rain Room’, Installation view at MoMA, New York 2013. Image courtesy Random International.

Random International, ‘Rain Room’, Installation view at MoMA, New York 2013. Image courtesy Random International.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Rain Room installation at MoMA drew in 74,222 visitors during the 11 weeks. Why do you think it drew in such a large number of visitors?

Rain Room takes something very familiar and makes it totally surreal, but it’s also a very physical experience and perhaps there is a desire for that in an increasingly virtual age. The work is also aesthetically striking, which is not something we had anticipated, and people’s photographs inside Rain Room created a whole new facet of the work online.

Rain Room now arrives at the Yuz Museum in Shanghai, founded by Budi Tek who is also building an “art theme park” in Bali. How did the China show come about? And what were some of the challenges in creating this installation – the biggest of all time?

Discussions began with Budi Tek and it grew from there. For us, it’s been a very engaging development process. The actual experience of Rain Room remains consistent, but it will be more overwhelming because the field of rain is bigger, and it will intensify the sensory aspect – the smell and sound of the rain – as well as enable more people to enter at once. For us as artists, it’s really important that this Rain Room will ultimately have a permanent home at Budi Tek’s sculpture park in Bali.

Random International, ‘What it isn’t’, 2014, glass vials, custom machined brass rings, vibration motor, custom circuit board, custom driver software and hardware, behavioral algorithm, computer, 444 pendants in a 12 x 37 grid, dimensions variable. Installation view at Lunds Konsthall, Lunds. Image courtesy Random International.

Random International, ‘What it isn’t’, 2014, glass vials, custom machined brass rings, vibration motor, custom circuit board, custom driver software and hardware, behavioral algorithm, computer, 444 pendants in a 12 x 37 grid, dimensions variable. Installation view at Lunds Konsthall, Lunds. Image courtesy Random International.

How do you see high-tech artworks or installations evolving over the next five years?

It’s likely that there will be a breaking-away from definition. As technology becomes more and more embedded in day-to-day life, so it will become more established as just another tool for creative expression; and to us it already is just this (see next question). Just as the borders between traditional media have today dissolved somewhat, so perhaps will this extend to encompass ‘new media’ in the future. For digital native artists, everything is open to them – technology is not necessarily a specialisation.

Random International, ‘Fly’, 2011, glass, cable, machined aluminium, pulley, custom control system and software, 2 x 2 m Protype. Rachel Verghis – Incubator. ‘Fly’ premiered at the 4th Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art. Image courtesy Random International.

Random International, ‘Fly’, 2011, glass, cable, machined aluminium, pulley, custom control system and software, 2 x 2 m Protype. Rachel Verghis – Incubator. ‘Fly’ premiered at the 4th Moscow Biennial of Contemporary Art. Image courtesy Random International.

Finally, could you leave us with some of the new projects you are currently working on?

We’ve been taking part in a long-term residency at Harvard University over the past year or so, working with the Bio-mimetic Robotics Department and we have since developed a new body of work that looks at life in a world that is increasingly machine-led. One of these works, 15 Points, is a minimalistic representation of human movement. We’re incredibly excited to develop this further.

Christine Lee

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Related Topics: collaborative art, art and technology, interactive art, new media, museum exhibitions, events in Shanghai

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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