Nik Nowak: ‘What we would have called freedom is called privacy nowadays’

NikNowak_4 Foto Benjamin Kahlmeyer

Born in Mainz and based in Berlin, Nik Nowak’s sound objects combine the aesthetic qualities of sculpture with utility or functional objects, and explore urban or military phenomena at play in everyday life. Among Nowak’s notable recent projects is “Panzer” (tank), a minidumper with caterpillar wheels that is transformed into a mobile sound system pumping out 4000 watts of audio.  Other recent works include a diverse range of “Mobile Boosters” (portable, flexible sound systems developed in response to the increasing anonymity of life in virtual space) and “Echo,” a sound installation  in which so-called “echo drones” interact with visitors, recording their speech and playing it back in different ways.  His new collaborative project SCHOCKGLATZE is the distillate of a longstanding collaboration between artists working across the frontiers of several forms. We visited him in his Neukölln studio in summer 2016. He was nominated for SHAPE by Sonica Festival.

Nik Nowak: At the moment I’m building a new Sound Tank. Over the course of the past two years, I’ve kind of reworked a couple of sculptures. In 2007, I built two drone-like tanks, and in 2014 I rebuilt them into real, autonomous robots. Right now, I’m building a more complex version of the Sound Tank. It will have way more possibilities to fold and unfold.

Are these all artists’ studios around here?

I actually move to different places, depending on my work. Right now, the new piece is quite heavy – it weighs 2.5 tons. I was in a studio on the first floor beforehand, and that didn’t work anymore as the original Sound Tank weighs 1.5 tons on its own. We are going to put this new version in a sea container and will ship it to Miami soon.

[In the studio] The panting on the wall is from your work, Echo, isn’t it?

Yes, it’s a copy of the painting, Echo, by Alexandre Cabanel from 1874. The original painting is in storage at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and I had a copy of it made in China. I sent a digital file of the image to an online oil painting service and then had the result presented in a Berlin museum as part of my Echo installation. If you want, it’s a copy of a copy finding its own reality as an original. The Echo installation also included two mobile ground drones – little tank-like robots that were moving freely in the exhibition space and that were able to recognise you via sensors. One gave you immediate feedback of every sound you produced, vocally or mechanically. Every noise that you produced was sent back to you in a directed sound beam so that you would hear your own echo. But no one else would hear it, other than what is audible in a natural room echo. It was weird and irritating because it was a permanent feedback loop of yourself in a public space. It was also a comment on social networks, where you always find yourself in a kind of a hall of mirrors – feedback that looks like feedback from the outside, but is actually a pre-selected environment which you have created based on your own traces and choices. The other drone was recording sounds that you produced and sending these to a huge sound system. The concept behind it was the shift between privacy and public life, a contrast between life on social media and in the digital age versus how it was before.

So your works are comments on contemporary society?

I don’t know if they’re political, but they definitely reflect the reality that we live in. The Echo installation was also connected to another, even more specific project called Delethe, which is about the deletion of online personal data. Delethe is a collaborative long-term project founded by me, the lawyer Philipp Brandt and the late curator Peter Lang, offering a service where you can commission a law firm to delete all your data after you die. This project lives in the grey zone of European and global rights, so it was about testing how far we can get in making the claim. During the years whilst we were working on it, a lot happened in terms of European personal data protection rights. When we started in 2009, the discourse around these rights was only starting. My son, who is eight, will grow up in a world where the permanent sharing and being in a global network creates a totally different reality to the one we grew up in.

I guess being on this threshold of a digital native – digital immigrant gives you a more critical distance…

I can think about a reality in which I was not permanently part of a network, a grid. Questions about freedom, privacy and publicity can be thought about very differently. What we would have called freedom is called privacy nowadays.

Are we at a point of almost losing it?

As an artist, you have a chance to work from a perspective of resistance.

But I guess the digital realm is also fleeting; it can be erased easily.

There are several questions related to archiving and cultural memory. Content that’s archived in print or hand-written form will only be copied to a digital format upon request; otherwise, it’s going to disappear. The mainstream demands what’s going to be copied and delivered to the future. This is also connected to the question of who is or should be doing the archiving and who decides what is important to remember or cultivate. What are the parameters behind it? Is there a right of forgetting? Some groups want a law that would give an expiry date to every digital file. But you would probably lose a lot of historical documents that way, and maybe memory would become the privilege of an elite.

Your work is more physical, though.

It is, but it deals with communication and sound, which is both physical and inconcrete. Sound is my main medium aside from the machinery that produces it. I think a lot about its potential as a cultural catalyst or a tool of manipulation in political and subcultural movements.

Does your interest in the military (especially tanks) originate from your childhood? You mentioned growing up next to a large military base in Germany.

The whole military motif definitely has something to do with the appearance of heavy military equipment in the area where I grew up in, and around Mainz. The post Cold War scenario around the time of the first Iraq war has resonances of WWII and post-colonial geostrategic interests, and left a schizophrenic impression of the simultaneity of peace and war. When the tanks returned from Saudi Arabia, they left traces of desert sand from in front of our kindergarten and on the streets. The war zone and the peace zone were connected through media images and the war machinery. Even though the military had been enormously present during the time when I was growing up, we lived in an optimistic sphere of belief in a peaceful future. As kids we did however have the terrifying intuition of the continuum of war. Today, the omnipresence of war is even more present through the delocalisation of war and an era of worldwide terror.

Can you talk about your fascination with mobile sound systems, also in connection with drones?

I’m fascinated with the fact that mobile sound systems are bound to their physical environments and their social and political circumstances, and that they have the potential to be cultural catalysts. Mobile sound systems have been a global phenomenon since mechanisation in the 19th century. The nonlinear history of mobile sound systems could start, for example, with early mechanic organs and automatic pianos, which brought music from the interiors of the elite to the public space and the masses.

The Futurists, like Luigi Russolo, included the sound of industrialisation in works for classical orchestra; in Brazil the Trio Electricos appeared, which over the decades grew into the size of enormous carnival sound trucks we know today from the Carnival of Rio; Jamaican sound systems played an important role in the independence movement of the 1960s; and the Mic Men in Trinidad and Tobago use old military loudspeakers mounted on old cars to play Indian oldies in order to remember the historical departure from their homeland. Mobile sound systems have the potential to catalyse cultural processes and can be tools to place autonomous concepts of identity, beside the grit of the main stream, into public discourse.

How do you perceive the relationship between the military and art in general?

Art as itself has no relationship to the military. Art can be anything. Although in history, artists have worked from different directions, either as part of a resistance or in support of the larger powers. Art reflects the power dispositive of its time. The military, its strategies, its critics and hackers is an element of the dispositive and can be used as a motif for an art piece.

You’ve worked with musicians like The Bug, and Chicago footwork producers (such as DJ Rashad and DJ Spinn), all of whom focus on bass. Can you talk about these collaborations and why you chose them in particular?

I met Spinn and Rashad in 2012 in Bucharest at the Palace of the Parliament built by Ceausescu, where they performed in the context of the Rokolectiv festival. I exhibited the Sound Tank there. Being part of a rave on the rooftop of this crazy mega building with the history of a totalitarian regime was impressive and left the feeling of being part of a global generation and movement that has the potential to bring change. We decided there in Bucharest to do the first Panzer Parade in Berlin, which we realised a few months later. At the same time, Spinn and Rashad also started working with Kode9, who shortly beforehand provided a text for my first catalogue. What Kode9 and I have in common and on what note we met is obvious, I guess. Later, Kode9 and Toby Heys brought their AUDINT project to my exhibition, BOOSTER art sound machine, which I curated for the Marta Herford Museum in 2014. I produced the second Panzer Parade this year with Scratcha DVA and Ikonika, as a demonstration against the export of weapons to conflict areas.

The Bug and I share ideas about the potential of sound. I met him when he moved to Berlin. I always loved his frequency arrangements and the sirens he used in between his tracks when he performed live. Inspired by this and Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony of Sirens, which I was introduced to by Lothar Baumgarten, I commissioned The Bug to create a piece for the opening of my Echo exhibition at Berlinische Galerie. I asked that the piece only use sirens and echoes, to produce an endless, swelling drone. We called it Sirens – from Avraamov to King Tubby