Nik Nowak

Turning Art and Music into a Message of Peace


At the heart of the “future of audio” are people – inspired individuals who dare to give shape to their creative vision and artistic imagination. Decision makers who prefer to reach their audiences and customers through great audio. Audio lovers who work relentlessly on innovative projects, who redefine and recreate sound experiences that touch the very souls of their listeners. “People” is dedicated to all those musicians, artists, engineers, producers, decision makers, owners and audio designers who fill and shape our world with sensational sound.

Berlin artist Nik Nowak (34) combines visual art and music. His best-known project, the Panzer, or sound tank, critically addresses acoustic warfare and deals with the idea of sound as a catalyst. He was inspired to create this work of art by the presence of Iraqi sand on German streets.

  • Author: Simon E. Fuchs
  • Photos: Nik Nowak
„The power of sound is immediate. That fascinates me.“

Nik Nowak, you work on select projects with your brother Till Nowak. To what degree was art present in your childhood? It was clear to both of us early on that we would do artistic work. Even as a child, Till filmed things with Super8 cameras. I wanted to become a painter. Our father is an art teacher and gave us his support. Till was already interested in cartoons at that point. At 14, I started painting copies of works by Otto Dix and doing portraits of friends. I was later influenced by the Dadaists and, especially, Marcel Duchamp.

We took to different forms pretty early on. Till is now a filmmaker, lives in LA and works on Hollywood productions. I went into visual art. For me, sound and music, as forms of expression, became part of it.

You combine art and music in your installations. Why? I’ve been building sound installations since 2005. It developed organically. When I was painting and drawing, music was always an essential source of energy. My wall drawings were mostly created on location and not in the studio. That’s why, at some point, I built a mobile sound system. Not just a ghetto blaster but a unit that was also a mobile studio.

A whole series of sound objects with different specifications emerged from that. Some could only play high-frequency sounds, while others were aimed at sub frequencies. The sound tank ambivalently references the use of music as a weapon and the use of sound systems as cultural transmitters.

My sound objects are sculptures as well as functional sound systems. The formal aspects of the object create certain clusters of associations in those who see it. Sound tank, for example, is a hybrid of a Jamaican sound system, tank and stealth aircraft.

Nik Nowak for Sennheiser
„I know lots of painters and how important music is as a source of energy for artists.“

What do you find exciting about these two worlds? Both worlds have different potentialities. In visual arts, a carved piece of marble can suggest a female form. But in the end, it is still just stone. The potentiality of sound is such that, although music can work associatively, it can also be a physical experience. Sound waves generate a spatial experience. You aren’t protected from the influence of sound, you cannot withdraw from it. The power of sound is immediate. That fascinates me.

How can both of these spheres inspire one another? The reciprocal inspiration has always been there and it becomes especially visible in classical modernism. With Kandinsky it is explicit, the Futurists expanded the classical orchestra to accommodate the sound of the industrial age, Marcel Duchamp wrote his random compositions, and with John Cage the borders between art and music became irrevocably fluid.

In art, however, music is often there in the background. Its influence often isn’t visible on the surface. But music is an unbelievably identity-building and inspiring medium. I know lots of painters and I know how important music is as a source of energy for artists.

What is your vision for the future of music? There is a record by Fela Kuti from 1998 called “Music is the Weapon of the Future.” When I think about the future of music, I take up this slogan. In the future, music could be a generator for political resistance. There is almost no other means that can peacefully generate and shape a community as strongly. It allows utopias to be realized. You can use it to reconcile concepts of diversity and identity.

A current example is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. It is an Israeli-Palestinian orchestra in which musicians from both communities play together. Making music can break down trauma. For me, that has a mystical element. You can’t fully explain the effect of music down to the last detail.

I find the connective function of music extremely powerful. In that, I see the future of music. Music is hope.

Your sound installations often grapple with the subject of peace, and even more often with the subject of war. Why? I grew up in Mainz, an area in which there used to be many American army barracks, a tank factory and a military training ground. The army shocked me even as a child. In the forest, we sometimes saw silent, heavily armed American soldiers in camouflage outfits with twigs on their heads. Without knowing it, we had made our way onto their training grounds as kids.

On the streets there was sand from Iraq that had fallen off the tank tracks. The vehicles that were stationed in Mainz were used in the first Iraq war. Even back then, I was already asking myself what the essence of war is, why there was a war industry.

The construction of the sound tank was a form of resistance, an active refusal. In May, I’m planning a parade with the sound tank in Berlin. It will give a new connotation to the military parade, targeting the weapons industry and the armaments policy it is associated with, a policy that has for decades flooded crisis areas with inconspicuous and very lucrative deadly weapons and exacerbated conflicts.

Your work “Sound tank” is very well known. How did you come up with the idea? In my youth, I already had ideas that went in that direction. I grew up with the military right in front of my nose. Military vehicles are full of power. You’ll find militaristic themes in the civilian realm as well, in car design or in fashion, for example. In car tuning, sound is used to occupy a space. It adopts strategies of acoustic warfare.

From these observations I built the first mobile booster in 2005. In 2011 I added the sound tank.

You used a Japanese track vehicle as the base. How did that come about? I bought the Japanese base vehicle on eBay. The tracks are relatively large for the vehicle, which makes it more impressive and makes its real size hard to determine from a picture. This was the criterion for the selection of the vehicle. I cut off the entire upper part and built up a freely swinging speaker system on the hydraulically liftable bed. In total, there are three subwoofers, three mid-basses and four horn tweeters. The hydraulics for raising the speakers comes from the construction vehicle.

Which sounds do you play over the loudspeakers? You could describe my performances as sound collages. They are about the psychic and physical effect of sound and the use of sound to occupy space. Sub-basses and interfering noise, like white noise, are blended with crashing waves. A voice from the 1950s comments on the technical development of the acoustic war, we listen to the songs that are most beloved by American tank drivers, Miami bass beats and signal tones for subwoofer tests. From these soundscapes, quotes and my own compositions, something that you could call a sound essay emerges.