The woman behind me in line is very nervous.
“Is my backpack going to get wet? Because my camera is in there.”
She directs the query to the blue-jacketed museum security guard. He’s heard this question before and maintains a friendly smile: “There’s no way to be sure. If you have anything of value that can’t get wet, I suggest leaving it outside the exhibit.”
A friend and I are at LACMA about to see rAndom International’s Rain Room. The immersive exhibit has been running since November and has become a citywide sensation. LACMA has extended the installation multiple times; the latest extension keeps the Rain Room in Los Angeles until April 24, then it reopens on May 19 and runs through July 12. (Tickets for the general public go on sale at 10 a.m. on April 20.)
Why the deluge of interest? The Rain Room purports to allow the experience of standing in the middle of a downpour without getting wet. To be enveloped by falling water? That sounds pretty cool. Especially in Southern California, where climate change rerouted the expected — and much needed — El Niño north of the state.
The museum guard guides the nervous woman, her backpack, her camera and the rest of our line to a blackened corridor outside the exhibit. Our collective anticipation rises. We can hear the near-forgotten sound of actual falling raindrops just around the corner. But the group ahead of us still has some time in the room. We wait. Angelenos may be missing the experience of rain this year, but Disneyland has made us pros at standing in line.
The friendly guard reminds us that we’re a group; that our 15 minutes inside the Rain Room will be plenty of time for everyone in the group to experience the exhibit fully; that the rain will be in the center of the room; that we should walk very slowly when in the rain; that there is no rain against the outer walls; that only six or seven of our group of about 20 should be in the center of the room (with the rain) at any one time; that those six or seven people should enjoy the Rain Room for a few minutes and then cycle out to let six or seven others have a chance to experience it, and then they cycle out and so on; that if we keep to this plan, we all will have several times to experience the “rain” during our 15-minute slot.
“Remember,” the guard emphasizes, “walk slowly. And don’t all end up in the center of the room.”
He escorts us in.
The Rain Room is nearly pitch black save for an immense white light in the corner. The “rain” intensity is similar to a good Southern California desert downpour — the kind that challenges the drainage infrastructure and snarls the freeways. Two thousand liters of water is circulating in a closed loop system. Sixty percent of that water is cycled through the exhibit every 60 seconds. People, naturally, are concerned about the frivolous use of water during the present drought conditions in California. But it’s not that much water and it’s recycled within the exhibit, like an inverted fountain. The same raindrops fall, again and again.
The spectacle of the single bright light slicing through the raindrops and darkness is something to behold. I find the sound even more impressive, however, with drops rebounding off the textured rubberized floor designed to both collect the water and provide a measure of traction.
Our group hugs the back outer wall and just stares at the downpour — some, perhaps, fantasizing this were an El Niño event filling dry reservoirs across the state. We look at one another silently, trying to determine who will be first in. A couple in their 20s makes a move. They giggle as they excitedly trot inwards. They’re too fast. The feedback loop between camera detectors and plumbing can’t keep up and within seconds the couple has taken a shower in their clothes. They stop in chill and dampness. The system catches up and turns off the water above them. The drenched couple now stands on an island of dry, encompassed by rain.
My friend and I decide to enter. I so anticipate the usual wet consequences of the next action, it takes a supreme effort of will to stride into the rain. It’s very much a step of faith, overcoming 200,000 years of genetic programming and trusting that the overhead 3-D depth cameras will correctly image my shape and trigger the local valves to close promptly in my presence. I hold my breath as I gingerly tread onto the rubberized floor — and then there I am surrounded by water with nothing falling from above. It’s a unique moment, and the psychology of forcibly overcoming the muscle memory of expectation is exhilarating.
Heeding the guard’s advice, I move slowly and the dry space around me tracks as well. I approach the shivering, soggy young couple who ask me to take their picture. I oblige. I continue moving through the rain.
I look up at the ceiling where myriad holes create an immense showerhead. In this moment, however, my presence curtails the water flow directly above. A large drop hangs onto one of those holes. It swells and falls into my eye.
My friend and I marvel at the two-foot buffers of dryness that surround our positions and follow us like parched shadows. But human perception is wired to rapidly adapt to strong stimuli and, in surprisingly short order, the experience of umbrella-less protection seems normal. It’s now two minutes since we’ve entered the exhibit’s sweet spot and so we make our way (walking slowly!) to one of the outer walls allowing others to participate.
At this point, however, the rest of the group wants to be inside the rain. And they all crowd in at once, slowly walking toward the center of the room. And the young, wet couple isn’t moving out. And before you know it, more than a dozen people are in a space designed for less than half that number. And those two-foot buffers around everyone start adding up and quickly expand over most of the floor space.
And the torrential “rain,” that magnificent dumping of dense liquid onto the rubber floor, is reduced to a trickle.
And the Rain Room, like Southern California’s expected El Niño, has been altered by the human factor.
And I think: Well, at least that woman’s camera is safe.
Originally published April 15, 2016 in LA Weekly.