A new art exhibition in Melbourne lets you control the weather

Perched on the rooftop of a St Kilda car park with Melbourne's glittering skyline and Port Phillip bay laid out below, the Jackalope Pavilion black box gallery space – designed by March Studio – already packs considerable wow factor. But step inside and the cacophonous thunder of monsoon-like rain captured inside catches your breath.

A beautiful conundrum created by London-based interactive art outfit Random International, Rain Room is even more magical than it first appears. Thanks to a ring of concealed motion sensors in the rafters of this 100sqm space, step into the solitary floodlight-lit downpour and the seemingly never-ending storm vanishes as if on command creating a 1.5 metre dry circle around you. 

Jen Barnes, a producer and manager at Random International, says the work was developed as a way to explore how human relationships to each other and with nature are increasingly mediated through technology. "When you are walking through it, you have this sense that you're controlling the weather, that you are controlling the machine, but that machine is also impacting the way you move through it."

Four years in the making before the first drops fell at the Barbican in 2012, every element of this mesmerising work that has travelled to the likes of New York institution MOMA and the YUZ Foundation in Shanghai, has been carefully considered. "We knew we wanted it to feel like a downpour, but in order to see the droplets of rain, you have to think about how fast they flow from the ceiling. If they come too fast in one really heavy stream, they disappear. Same if you have white walls like our studio, or if you don't get the tone of light just right. We had to perfect all of that to make the experiences as impactful as it is."

And it is impactful. Sometimes too much so. With an intimate group of only nine visitors allowed at any one time, those sensors trace their movements and turn off the taps the exact moment they step under.  But tread carefully, Barnes warns. "You can't beat gravity. If you move too quickly, you'll get wet by the rain that has already fallen."

This nature-mimicking machine has the upper hand, she suggests as visitors adapt their gait to carve safe harbour. "That feeling of autonomy over the choices that you are making is not quite as cut and dry as you think."

Using 6000 litres of constantly recycled water, the perfectly lit drops fall from a beautiful ceiling that calls to mind Victorian pressed tin. Cascading into a floor grille, the water is filtered and pumped back round again. "It takes less water than it would to produce three hamburgers, at about 2400 litres each," Barnes notes, "which highlights how little we know about how much water it takes to produce the food we eat."

A pressing subject in a dry continent in the grip of a climate crisis. Commissioned for Melbourne by Jackalope Hotel founder Louis Li, it's the first time Rain Room has soaked the southern hemisphere. "Each time the work travels, the context is changed slightly," Barnes agrees. "We hope that people become more aware of their relationship with technology and with nature, how that's impacting the decision that we are making on a daily basis, and meditate on that a bit further." 

When Random International showed it at LACMA in Los Angeles, they were in the middle of a drought. "There were young children who came who had never experienced rainfall," she  says. 'As an artwork, it doesn't come alive until people are participating with it, and that's at the core of everything we do at Random. The human element is crucial." 

Jackalope Pavilion is located on the corner Acland and Jackson Street, St Kilda. Rain Room is open seven days a week, Sunday to Wednesday from 10am-6pm and Thursday to Saturday from 10am-9pm.