Interview Nils Völker
Interview Nils Völker
Interview in October 2015 by Clémence Vole
So Nils, you were born in Aalen in Germany, am I right? And then why did you move to Berlin?
It was actually when I studied graphic design. After my studies, I was searching for jobs and my brother was a graphic designer as well and he was living in Berlin and working there. And he had quite a big client and needed people to help him so he asked me to come to Berlin just for a short time but I stayed here since then. So now it’s about 11 years ago. So that was actually the reason why we kept working together for 5 years or so. And then during that time I kind of like switched from graphic design to art.
What made you become an artist? Why did you switch from communication design to art?
It was actually a coincidence. At the time I was a graphic designer I discovered a Lego set for kids, with which you can build little robots. It turned out that it’s a lot of fun and that you can build quite complex things with it. But in the beginning it was not more than a hobby. Then I received an email from an artist from the Netherlands, asking if I could build a machine for her exhibition. And that was the first time that I realized that this could be more. So ideas grew bigger and more complex so I switched to „proper“ electronics and got into a whole new world.
So the technology was not so present at the beginning?
No, not at all. I’ve never studied electronics or engineering. Sometimes I wish I would have a deeper knowledge in these fields but at the same time it’s a nice challenge to learn new things with every new project I’m working on.
Do you think that your background in communications has an influence on your work?
I don’t know. Actually, I think it has no influence. But of course everything you’ve done at some point in your life has somehow an influence on what you do now. But I think there’s not really a direct connection between the graphic design and the art I make now.
In 2010 you created One Hundred and Eight, which was the beginning of a series of installations based on inflating and deflating bags and cushions. What compelled you to create this first installation?
This was more or less a coincidence as well [laughter]. I got my hands on like 200 something of these little ventilators for a very cheap price. But to be honest at that point I had no idea what exactly I could do with it so I just started playing around. This lead to the idea to create a screen using inflating garbage bags as pixels. But after a long time building the whole thing I was very disappointed as it didn’t work at all as I hoped. But at the same time a simple test sequence I had written, inflating one row after another, was surprisingly beautiful and mesmerizing. So I forgot about the initial idea and kept experimenting with those organic, wavelike movements.
Why did you decide to repeat this concept? Is that one of the directions of your work with installations, making them bigger and bigger and using more and more bags?
Not necessarily more and more or bigger and bigger. When I started, I just wanted to build this one, first installation but I’m still surprised that you can realize so many very different installations by using different bags, different materials, different sizes and shapes … That’s also a reason why I usually make site specific installations. I like the process of finding the right material and setups for each space. Although every new work is somehow based, of course, on what I’ve done before, technically, but also on the knowledge I gain.
What do you mean by knowledge? On technology?
Yes, of course. With every new installation I learn a lot about electronics, about new components, programing and everything. But it’s not only about the technical aspects. I’m very lucky to have every now and then quite extraordinary exhibition spaces like the Theatre du Vieux Saint-Etienne in Rennes and it’s always a challenge to get a feeling and to find the best solution for each space.
Yes I noticed that the sites where your works are exhibited always have their importance. You’ve exhibited in the Eglise du Vieux Saint-Sauveur in Caen, at the Espace Saint-Sauveur in Issy-les-Moulineaux, and now in Rennes in the Théâtre du Vieux Saint-Etienne.
Actually, it’s really funny, it’s going to be the 3rd exhibition I have in France, and each single one of them was inside a church.
Is it a total coincidence again?
I have no idea, maybe in France there are more former churches converted into exhibition spaces than elsewhere? But likely it’s just a coincidence, a nice one because such a church is a fantastic place with a very special character and atmosphere. Pretty much the opposite to a clean, white cube.
I suppose that you always adapt your works to the place where it will be exhibited. But what do you try to achieve when adapting your work to a specific site?
It will be hanging differently in Rennes than it was hanging in other places. So the first time I was exhibiting this installation Seventeen, it was in Germany in a museum and it was hanging above a staircase. So it was guiding people into that space, coming from the lower level up to the higher level. And when it was in Paris, it was also in a church. I got this wonderful place where the altar used to be, so it was kind of like half round the room with a lot of old church windows and everything. So this time in Rennes, I have actually the whole church for myself so it will be more or less in the middle of the space. Actually it’s very difficult to explain with words how it’s going to be hanging. It’s gonna be a little like a V shape, you have to see it.
What motivates your choices of material, the size and number of cushions you use, the frequency of variation etc.? Is that pure experimentation?
Well the size, materials and the colours are mostly based on the exhibitions and locations. So for example a few years ago, I had an exhibition in a really old and actually slightly rotten church in Caen. The exhibition was part of the Festival Normandie Impressioniste which had water as its theme that year. So I decided to use silver cushions as a visual contrast but also because this foil sounds perfectly like breakwaters. Concerning the movements, I usually have a set of ideas in beforehand but I do most of the programming on site as you can see directly what’s working best with a specific setup.
Why did you decide to name your works after the number of cushions you use?
The main reason is that I don’t want to point the visitors towards a certain interpretation. So if I would call an installation “Clouds in the Sky” or something, everybody would see clouds in the sky and not what they want to see in it. People see all kind of things, like the ocean or creatures… Some people also see faces in the bags, which I have never been able to see. And it is really interesting to get all those different reactions. People see so many things in my work which I never had in mind.
So is this a key part of your work not to guide the spectator’s look and to leave it open to interpretation?
And you, what do you see in your installations?
Of course I do have a few things in mind but I don’t want to limit people only see what I see in it. I’m making art because of many reasons, but maybe mainly because I like all the different aspects of the work. I like to make, to experiment, I like to try new materials and basically the whole process from an initial idea to finally setting up an installation. Other artists maybe have a certain idea in mind and then they try to find the best way to express this idea. I like it when I do not exactly know where things end when I start working.
Why is it an opportunity for you to be invited in the Maintenant festival?
I think it’s a really really nice festival, basically. Unfortunately I’ve never been there, but what I have seen like the list of artists going to be there it’s quite nice. A combination of art and music and performances.
I’ve seen that sound performances will take place in the Théâtre du Vieux Saint-Etienne during the festival. Do you find it interesting that your work is going to be in contact with other works?
Yes of course, with every group exhibition, you always have a connection between different works. It can be very difficult but sometimes also surprisingly nice. During the very first exhibition of this installation, Seventeen, in Celle in Germany (2013), there was a very colourful light installation placed right next to it, which changed the color of the whole exhibition space. First I wasn’t sure about this setting but it turned out that both work complemented each other perfectly. So I’m already looking forward to see how the performances and my installation will work together at the same space during the festival.
What will be the direction of your future work?
I will keep on experimenting and make new versions of this series of installations. There is going to be a nice exhibition in November in Munich, where I’m going to realize a whole room filled with cushions. So you’ll enter the space and you’re going to be completely surrounded by cushions. But I’m also currently working on a completely new installation with no fans and cushions involved for my gallery here in Berlin which is going to be presented in March next year.
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