The seven helium-filled white globes that hover, swarm, and form kaleidoscopic patterns above visitors to London’s Roundhouse are neither friend nor foe—they’re inanimate drones programmed by an algorithm to move, and to respond in turn to the various movements of people below them. And yet their behavior is familiarly, unsettlingly alive. They seem curious at some points, breaking away from their pack to investigate individuals on the ground. They’re menacing at others, gliding gracefully into imposing structures overhead. They’re sometimes clumsy, colliding with each other and veering awkwardly upward. And they’re mesmerizing, evoking entities as disparate as birds and bacteria in the ways they gently dance and dip under the Roundhouse’s domed ceiling.
The balloon-drones are Zoological, a flock of “autonomous, flying spheres” created for the installation +/- Human by the studio Random International, the artists best known for Rain Room. That work, which debuted at London’s Barbican in 2012, helped usher in a new age of Instagram-friendly immersive artworks, attracting day-long lines when it moved to New York’s Museum of Modern Art prior to a 15-month stint at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. But where Rain Room allowed visitors to feel omnipotent, walking freely through a room of falling water without getting wet, Zoological encourages a sense of vulnerability. The ever-shifting constellations overhead are beautiful and unsettling: They catalog and respond to human behavior. This is an artwork that you observe while aware that it’s observing you right back.