Airborne drones mimic nature in Random International’s latest installation

Random International’s Zoological installation sees a flock of airborne drones take up residence at London’s Roundhouse. They put on an enthralling, at times unsettling, show: but can tech ever move us like nature does?

In 2012, Random International debuted Rain Room, an installation that brought pouring rain into the Curve Gallery at the Barbican. Visitors bold enough to enter the space found that, unlike in the real world, their presence could stop the rain falling on them, giving them the power to walk through curtains of water without getting wet. The work quickly attracted visitors willing to wait hours to see it, both at the Barbican and its later stint at MoMA in New York.

Rain Room was not RI’s first experiment with using tech to simulate, and then play with, nature. The collective has created numerous works in an ongoing series titled ‘Swarm Studies’, which take inspiration from flocking birds. It is a variation on these ideas that they have brought to London’s Roundhouse with Zoological. An installation of flying spheres or drones, the work takes up residence at the space for the next two weeks and on weekends forms an accompaniment to a set of new dance performances (titled +/- Human) choreographed by frequent RI collaborator Wayne McGregor.

All images: Ravi Deepres/Alicia Clarke

During the rest of the week, visitors can come to commune with the drones by themselves. It is a stirring experience: the drones – which have the appearance of large (1.5m in diameter), circular balloons equipped with tiny motor engines to enable them to fly – gather in a group in the centre of the space, and move in formation in reaction to the surroundings and, to some extent, the people who are in there with them.

Visitors respond as if greeting live creatures: adults cautiously approach, hands raised gently, while kids pile in, running and dancing beneath the flying shapes and delighting in trying to reach them (an impossible goal). After the initial excitement, it becomes a more meditative experience. Like Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project, which brought sun and mist into the Turbine Hall of Tate Modern in 2003, Zoological encourages audiences to relax, watch and wait.

Mark Pritchard from Warp Records has provided a soundtrack to the installation that plays out musically many of the emotions it provokes. At times emulating nature, it also evokes harsh machinery, often with sinister overtones. At these points, the drones, which are programmed via algorithms, form a spinning circle in the space, inevitably provoking ideas of UFOs or other sentient lifeforms gathering, possibly with the intent to attack.

The work plays on our innate inclination towards nature, and things that emulate it, as well as on our fears of the burgeoning AI tech that we’re seeing emerge into our world. Both themes serve to draw us in and, experientially, the piece contains some nice touches that add to the effect: the guards, for example, are dressed in aprons slightly reminiscent of beekeepers, and the space of the Roundhouse itself is compelling, providing the kind of cavernous darkness that brings the balls to life.

This all combines to make an artwork that is mesmerising for a time. And yet, as I got used to the drones’ movements and patterns, and knowing deep down that they weren’t capable of the spontaneous movement or interaction that can be found in nature, I became greedy for more spectacle. Zoological, like Rain Room before it, does a great job of making us think about technology, about what we want from it and how it can make us feel. But beyond the initial thrill it provides – which is compelling – it also highlights tech’s limitations, compared to the magic that exists in the real world.

Zoological and Wayne McGregor’s +/- Human are on show at the Roundhouse in London until August 28; more info and bookings at roundhouse.org.uk

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