Yesterday I visited two art events at the Barbican. Both close on Sunday.
The Queue (4 October 2012 - 3 March 2013) (9am-8pm)
This dynamic artwork has been gathering considerable attention over the last few months. Located on the Barbican's main ground floor corridor, ostensibly it's nothing more than a flimsy chain of taped barriers. The layout resembles a very simple labyrinth, up and down and back again. It's nothing that should challenge the intellectual fibre of any visitor, and yet the temporal nature of the installation inexorably draws them in.
Space is limited, so it pays to arrive early. For some it's been a nine o'clock start, a full two hours early for the main action. The couple staking their claim at the front of the line have brought two packets of Nik Naks for sustenance, and occasionally nuzzle each other in mutual support. The entire line behind them is seated on the ground, coats sprawled and bags laid out to claim the territory. Nobody wants to sit too close to a stranger so the queue winds back further than it might, threatening to extend beyond the end of the barriers into the foyer. Occasionally someone nips off to buy a coffee, but better organised attendees have their own already, or a yoghurt, even sandwiches.
I arrive before ten, narrowly beating the pushchair invasion. There must be approximately sixty people ahead of me, which becomes sixty-two when the student I'm sat beside welcomes two female friends under the barrier. They sit on the carpet and discuss the club they visited last night, and that time they got so paralytic they can't remember what they did - an anecdote which is mercifully short. A few of the waiting participants have books to read to pass the time, but most are relying on their smartphones. Tap, flick, swish - their fingers engage in digital ballet as the minutes slowly pass. I bet half these people couldn't have have stuck out the tedium without 3G support, and ten years ago the queue would have been considerably shorter.
At ten o'clock black-shirted staff begin to appear behind the glass, chatting on walkie talkies. A couple eventually emerge, setting up the artwork's official photograph on an easel and wandering down the line to dispense leaflets. At ten past, one wanders by with a sign reading "the queue is approximately four hours from this point", which she plonks down approximately one hour behind me. An audible shudder resonates, but we are resilient, and the wait goes on. Newcomers wander in from the street, no doubt thinking how clever they are to have arrived early, and their faces fall. Two grandparents have to break the news to their pink-hatted progeny that she won't be getting inside today. Sadness ensues, and the trio go make alternative plans elsewhere.
At twenty to eleven the "approximately six hours" sign appears, if only briefly, as the line reaches the front doors as threatened. An old lady walks past clutching a carrier bag laden with Waitrose provisions - she could be a Barbican resident, but I like to think she's an actress brought in to keep us entertained. The disappointed faces come thicker and faster now, as new arrivals mentally add four hours to the current time and decide their day's too short. "Are you queueing for something?" asks a bemused visitor who's read none of the publicity. And finally the Nik Nak couple stand, followed by a smattering of those behind them, as the appointed time for action arrives and expectations peak.
The Curve's doors open late, something to do with a private view running over, and the atmosphere changes. Books are tucked away, scarves and jackets are gathered, eyes head up front. Where 100+ people had been sitting now 100+ people stand, and everyone politely shuffles forward. This is all it takes for the queue to shrink dramatically in length, and suddenly things aren't looking quite so "approximately four hours" any more. But when only half a dozen people are ushered through the doors ahead, and then nothing else happens for ten minutes, those standing right at the back revert to muted passive pessimism.
It's slow progress to the front, nudging fractionally and occasionally forward. A bunch of students are using the time to do some work, reading through notes on "An overview of the solar system" and jotting down complex equations. Further would-be attendees drop in, sum up the futility of the situation and take photos of an entrance through which they have no intention of passing. At last the distant sound of running water can be heard, and there's a clean smell which reminds very much of swimming pools. "Are you just a one?" asks the member of staff on the door as he ushers me forward. It's half past twelve, and my time in The Queue is finally over.
Rain Room (4 October 2012 - 3 March 2013) (11am-8pm)
The shadows on the wall are the first sign. They appear round the bend in The Curve, a line of heads, lit from behind by a very strong white spotlight. And listen to the sound of that downpour, pounding down like an indoor monsoon which eventually manifests ahead. This rain moves out of the way as you pass - that's the key idea of this artistic installation, but can it possibly work?
The set up is relatively simple, although delivery must be much more complex. A black plastic grid hangs above the end of the gallery space, 72 holes wide and considerably more than 72 holes long. No rain emerges from the front four rows but beyond that a steady stream of droplets falls, then drains away through plastic grooves below. It ought to be enough to drench anyone stupid enough to stand underneath, yet stand they do, such is their faith in the electronics powering the system. Sensors in the suspended ceiling deduce human presence beneath and ease off the rainfall, creating a bubble of safe space amid the deluge. You can watch it most clearly on the ceiling - circles of dry amongst a torrent of wet, slowly shifting as the silhouettes below move around. Looks fun. You'll be inside soon.
Stepping into the rain feels like stepping into the shower, but unnerving because you're still fully clothed. Have faith - the sensors are doing their job, and they'll part the waves for you as you enter. So long as you step slowly, minimal wetness occurs. Tread a little quicker and you'll likely get damp, because the system can't stop any droplets that are already falling before you move into them. Just as well it's winter because everyone's wearing coats, and the overall effect might be more disagreeable with a summer wardrobe. Some visitors even put their hoods up on discovering that speed equals moist hair. But another on my visit defied the odds by wandering around with an open laptop, and over five minutes barely splashed the screen.
It's fun to test the parameters of the installation's programming. Stick an arm out and the rain retreats. Stick out two and the drought zone enlarges to encompass both. You can even spin around, so long as you don't mind how foolish you appear to the outside audience, without getting unduly wet. It's great to have control over the weather, like some all powerful Norse rain god, even if only for a limited period. Five minutes, maybe ten minutes tops if you push it. Nobody's timing your spell beneath the artificial clouds but the next group of moisture-avoiders is already lined up waiting, and it would be wrong to delay their approach any longer.
Rain Room is a unique and highly enjoyable experience, as you may have discovered if you've visited over the last five months. If not, you've only got until Sunday, and your chances aren't good. To reach artwork two you have to queue through artwork one, and that's a considerable investment of time. I calculate only 40 people are getting inside every hour - that's less than 400 a day - so your chances of ruling the rain depend on how early you turn up and/or how long you're willing to wait. Bring a very good book. Walk slowly enough and you could even read it through the storm.