Why you should care
Because car stereos are so … yesterday.
Nik Nowak, 32 years old and living in Berlin, is — against type — holding forth on the glories of … fine art.
“My greatest influence has been the fine arts,” says the bearded Nowak. “Marcel Duchamp was blowing my mind when I was about 18 years old, and is still an important figure for me.”
Which makes a whole lot of sense when you consider that this son of Frankfurt Rhein-Main, raised by a musician father and an art therapist mother, has mixed the mediums of music, painting and sculpture so totally. And completely. You see, not unlike the famous dadaist Duchamp, Nowak takes objects you think you know and, through a mix of physical and sound sculpting, morphs them into something utterly other.
And standing in the middle of his Berlin studio, surrounded by the fruits of his artistic labor, the mind moves to make sense of the spread of sound gear and vaguely — no strike that, definitely — threatening-looking machinery. Nowak’s most recent claim to fame has everything to do with 4,000-watt-speaker-festooned tanks, unmanned drones, and a sound sculpture called the “Mobile Booster” that boasts loudspeakers mounted on a Mad Max-esque, matte-black, three-wheeled motorcycle-looking thing.
This clash made me think more about soundspheres, mobile sound systems and their political, cultural and social meaning.
- Nik Nowak
“Though my objects,” and that’s what Nowak calls them, “look like science-fiction war machinery, there’s never any military equipment built in.”
But the aforementioned 4,000-watt tank?
“The carriage of the Soundtank is taken from an old Japanese mini-dump-truck.”
Which we only partially buy since, while he’s right about the Soundtank, the first half of the 20th century is a history dotted with examples of tanks with mounted speakers for both psychological and sonic warfare. But we give him credit for not veering away from unspoken cultural associations that might be made between Germans and a love of militaristic glamour.
“The tracks of my Echo-Drones, for example, are toy models in a 1:6 ratio of the American M10 tank that was a sonic tank during the Second World War,” says Nowak, letting you attempt to connect the dots for a little while before he connects them for you.
“In the Rhein-Main area where I grew up in the ’80s, the American military was massively present as a consequence of the Second World War. And then continuously in the context of the Cold War. We had even the largest tank factory outside the U.S., directly in our neighborhood.”
And it’s this proximity to symbols of aggression and aggressive acts and activity that’s not only framed where Nowak is now, but in total, formed the basis for it. While Berlin can be a great place to make art, it’s still a city, and with a city comes certain city distractions. Specifically, the throb and beat of dudes and their cars.
“A key situation that led me to my series of mobile sound systems, the so-called ‘Mobile Boosters,’ was when pimped-up cars pulled up in front of my studio window and were overdroning the subfrequencies of my soundscapes with their much more powerful subwoofers,” Nowak says. “This clash made me think more about soundspheres, mobile sound systems and their political, cultural and social meaning.”
Nowak flung himself, ears first, into about 10 years of research outside of and in addition to his sound systems, resulting in a curated exhibition in collaboration with the museum MARTa Herford that covers every single appearance of mobile sound systems in the arts, spanning stuff from the futurists by way of the late John Cage to much more contemporary positions. Including, very specifically, his own.
All because he wanted a quiet place to paint.
“Yes, the point of the soundscapes were originally to create acoustic atmospheres where I felt safe, protected and able to draw,” he explains. “See, I was developing a method of drawing and making music in one process, because I found out that I have asymmetric hearing in the higher frequency ranges. My right ear hears less high frequencies than my left ear, so my brain always has to compensate for this asymmetry through my soundscapes, which were often composed in low frequencies so that I was able to let my brain rest and focus on the drawings.”
With every work, I try to understand something about me and the world I’m in.
- Nik Nowak
Not so surprising, then, that plotting the path to get to the fine art — the sound and the systems that played it — appear to have been a more compelling draw for Nowak. He says, “Drawing is still a continuous practice that builds the basis also for my sculptural work. Music and making music was always my main energy source and inspiration, and has always been in a relation with my sculptural works and drawings.”
A mix that places Nowak in the mix of what seems to be a healthily “Berlin-based obsession with breaking old forms by matching them with newer formats,” says Berlin music producer Manuel Liebeskind. “So from performance-sculpture-music group Dead Chickens to the industrial music of Einstürzende Neubauten, this is really nothing new. But what is new is the sheer amount of controlled power he brings to performance.”
Which explains Nowak’s electronic bass-based band Schockglatze, his sponsorship by music equipment manufacturer Sennheiser, and his willing admission to being heavily influenced by: ’90s techno, the rap and hip-hop brought into town by American soldiers, and — even later, after his move to Berlin — crossing paths with Felix Kubin from Blitzkrieg and F.M. Einheit from the aforementioned Einstürzende Neubauten.
“Every sculpture tells me something new,” Nowak says. “With every work, I try to understand something about me and the world I’m in. In the same way, I want to understand the sound system that produces my sound, so I build my own ones, and new understandings.”
And listening to the skittery stutter of the music coming from his 4,000-watt tank — sort of dub-by, sort of techno — you believe him. “Music, beats and rhythms can be used for good or ill or any combination thereof,” says Liebeskind. “And seeing Nowak experimenting with all of these forms is both interesting and sort of refreshing, and a good next step for the music that was like this that came before.”
Which is all well and good, but what do we really want to see?
His 4,000-watt tank going head-to-head with a pimped-out supercar. Now that we want to see.
“I have no doubt,” Nowak laughs, “that I could now crush them.”