Author Archive

Nils Völker

Nils Volker

Nils Völker

By: Katie Micak | Nadine Lessio

Nils Völker is a media artist based in Berlin. He was born in Aalen, Germany and studied Communication Design at the Bauhaus (graduated in 2004). Völker originally started making electronics out of Lego, but soon moved to larger site-specific sculptures and kinetic installations. His work is mainly focused on ideas of repetition, mechanical rhythm, and how inanimate objects mimic living organisms which he explores through simple materials such as plastic bags, cooling fans, and custom code and electronics.


Sixty Eight - Nils Völker

Sixty Eight – Nils Völker


Although each piece is unique, his sculptures all share the same characteristics including: integration into an established environment, activation in response to human presence, they offer moments of surprise, their pace is slow- almost meditative. Völker is also interested in replicating natural phenomena, such as waves, or breathing, geysers (volcanoes) or the expansion of atoms. It can be seen that Völker is concerned with exploring a familiar found material, and conceptualize how to personify these inanimate objects, creating a whole new experience and use for these products.


Makers and Spectators

Makers and Spectators


Volker describes his work as of “a rather technical nature; creating electronic circuits, programming, drawing circuit boards and soldering. But in the end all the engineering lies hidden under an organic appearing surface and can only be imagined.”

When asked how Völker began with robots, he states, “It’s somehow great to deal with these purely logical and abstract things to end up with something that isn’t logic at all.” (Regine)

Although Völker states his work is not ‘logical’ he hopes to capture something that cannot be captured by either creating containers (air in bags) or putting in contradictory elements (air in water). By using air Völker shows movement, and in a sense makes these works come alive, as if the viewer is standing in front of a newly discovered animal. The animal (sculpture) ‘sees’ and ‘follows’- it has a brain (computer) and lungs (fans and container).

volker fans



Völker considers his approach to art more pragmatic – material investigation- and less conceptually concerned. By finding ideas in accidents, experimentation, or glitches, his work is very much based in formal concerns and exposing the natural state of his materials. The materials he chooses are generally everyday offerings (such as bags), re-arranged and brought into new situations or scenarios.

In “Bits and Pieces” Völker uses found plastic children’s toy called hoberman spheres. These spheres expand and contract (much like plastic bags do) fold into a fraction of its original size using simple joints. It is a complex structure that emphasizes size and movement through expansion. “Each one is moved by a servo motor and individually controlled by a micro-controller creating the illusion of organic waves appearing to move throughout the space although each single plastic ball simply expands and contracts at the right time. “ (Völker) The installation was shown at NOME Gallery, Berlin in 2016.

Bits and Pieces

Bits and Pieces

Starting in 2010, Völker produced numerous “choreographed breathing” installations which all follow the same sense of logic: simple motors and fans are activated by the viewer’s’ presence- this fans ‘follow’ the viewer as they move through the space. Völker’s most notable and widely shown breathing piece is “One Hundred Eight.” As per the title, 108 plastic bags are mounted to a wall and inflate and deflate in sequence and relationship to the movements of observers in the space- as the viewer approaches, they inflate and as they recede, the bags deflate. (Völker) Völker has remade this piece in numerous iterations and shapes, and has named each of the installations for the number of bags used.


By titling this series of choreographed breathing installations pieces in relation to the number of bags present, it can be inferred that Völker is interested in aligning this series within a formalist art tradition. Seen commonly in abstract formal painting, the title of the work is often in relation to when that painting was created in a sequence.  This series is also concerned with only utilizing what is necessary to the meaning of the work. In Völker’s case focuses on the minimal activities of this materials and activates breathing- equals- life, the viewer activates the art.

This is only one area of his practice.


 Arguably, Völker’s most interesting piece is the object performance “Captured” done in 2011 at MADE Space, Berlin in collaboration with his brother, Sven Völker. This piece consists of 304 framed graphic pages surrounded by a fields of 252 inflatable silver cushions. There is a light show in addition to the inflatables, and 12- minute narration broken into four chapters: the intangible, the volume, the border and the ephemeral. The cushions were programmed in relation to each chapter, creating a sense of change over time. The lighting intensified the drama of the air cushions, and created a close relationship between all the elements at play.  (Völker) Audience members attended a live performance, and then the narrative was played as an installation over the following three months.

 Another work discussed in our presentation was “Fountains” (2012), a permanent installation in the Xixi Wetland Park in Hangzhou, China. This ephemeral work is a  to contrast with the solid public art which fills the park. The piece remains hidden under water until visitors walk by, then small fountains of shoot up in sequence throughout a pond- following the visitor as the move. Only using simple PPR tubes, steel and custom electronics is this satisfying and active artwork achieved.  (Völker)




Although Völker does not speak often about the conceptual parameters of his practice, we believe that his work is soundly conceptual. Through his simple and elegant installations Völker asks viewers to see his chosen objects as more than their primary purpose. This re-contextualization forces viewers to relate their bodies to inanimate objects, or consider their movements in relation to the world around them.  In Völker’s world, bags breathe, light tells a story, toys become atoms, and all of these reach out for connection with those who stand before them watching idly.


Thirty Three

Thirty Three


Works cited

P. Natalie. “Nils Völker transforms NOME into a living organism via Bits and Pieces”  Widewalls. 2016.

Völker, Nils. Artist’s website. 2016.


Jobson, Christopher. “Bits and Pieces: An Expandable Kinetic Toy Sphere Installation by Nils Völker” This is Colossal. 2016.


Grieco, Lauren. “Nils Völker breathes life into 108 Hoberman spheres suspended inside NOME Gallery.” Frame. 2016.

Mary. “ART: Nils Völker’s One Hundred and Eight.” S.O.T.R. 2010.

Neunhiem, Anke. “Nils Volker” iGNANT. 2010.

P. Natalie. “Nils Völker transforms NOME into a living organism via Bits and Pieces”  Widewalls. 2016.

Völker, Nils. Artist’s website. 2016.

Regine. “A quick chat about robots, Lego and air bags with Nils Völker.” We Make Money Not Art. 2011.



Title: Pooparray
Box Files:

Make an IoT connected sign that tells you how stinky a bathroom is.


One In Context Scenario

How it Works:
There is a methane sensor hooked up to an Adafruit Feather. The Feather polls the sensor every minute, and then after 5 minutes, takes the highest reading and sends it to AdafruitIO. On the other side of the divide is the Particle Photon. It quietly controls a string of 16 Neopixels that pulse faster or slower depending on the measured methane level it reads from the IO feed.

Does this thing actually run for 8 hours?


Project Context:
I made this mostly as a humour break, and because I wanted to learn how to make different hardware boards talk to each other via the internet. I also wanted to port some of my existing processes and libraries to different platforms. So this was a bit more of a technical focused exercise for me. That said, there’s something really fun about making a somewhat fancy box that is a shit and crossbones. It riffs off our current weird obsession of IoT notifiers. AKA: Nice looking objects that tell us somewhat readily available things. Plus when you think about the tire fire 2016 has been, this is a box that could have so many notification applications outside of just “sense these poops!” Its The Literal Internet Of Shit.

One thing I ran into a lot on this project was yak shaving. If you are not sure what yak shaving is, this post has a very good breakdown. For starters I had to compile and upload using two different methods. Because Particle can be somewhat closed, and Feather is pretty open. I sifted through a bunch of libraries, and tried different message brokers, because again, the implementation of the APIs was different, and performed differently on each board. Voltage was also a challenge. The Feather’s 1v analog pin really frosts my goat, but on the flip side, it can support a 5v circuit. Whereas the particle has stronger voltage tolerance on its analog pins…It won’t output 5v anywhere. Part way through one of my at home up-time tests, I noticed the sensor would start having a bird and only send 1024. This ended up being a combo of the sensor getting too hot, and the voltage divider not being adjusted for current draw or spikes. I had to fiddle around w/ resistor values, and also figure out a way to put the Feather into Deep Sleep to give the sensor a cool down period every hour. Bonus: Extended battery life. I sometimes really enjoy yak shaving type challenges, IoT is a fiddly space, and part of navigating it, is figuring out a tool chain that is going to work.

Future Iterations? 
Probably ditch the methane sensor and make it more focused around news / twitter hashtags about shitty things…like Drumpf. Or Climate Change…or 2016 in general. Or if sticking w/ methene, find a public source or data sheet for overall methane in the city. Make a swankier sign, maybe out of cedar, with an acrylic inlay. Just something very lifestyle slick, that is still very obviously a shit and crossbones.


Experiment 3: Twitter Wiggler

Title: Twitter Wiggler
People: Bijun Chen and Nadine Lessio
Twitter Link:


Motion Test:
Using Twitter:

Cat Test:


The Twitter Wiggler is a twitter enabled cat toy. When thinking about what to do for messaging. Bijun, and myself(nadine), wanted to do something fun, and kind of whimsical, and something we could realistically do in two weeks. I had adopted a kitten earlier in the year, and we thought it would be fun to find a way for the internet to play with my cat. We decided to use Twitter, because it has a well documented API, and twitter bots have gained a lot of popularity over the last few years. We were also pretty influenced by experiments like Twitch Plays Pokemon, in which thousands of people try and play Pokemon on a streaming service through the live channel chat.


Materials and Platform:

This version is constructed of wood and acrylic. The acrylic has a good amount of bend, and when tested with an actual cat, held better than we thought it would. In true cat fashion, our subject was somewhat more interested in the attachment cables than the toy, but did wrestle with it for a bit. For the platform, we choose a headless process in Python. The reasoning behind that, is that we wanted to interact directly with the Twitter API, because it gave us more control, and since this was running locally we didn’t have a web interface, we wanted to use only a server side process. Python provided a good twitter wrapper, and is quite stable, with a lot of good documentation to lean on.

Side note: If this was to be taken into my butt, you could make two processes, maybe one running on Heroku (the twitter bot), and one on the computer. In this case you could use a go between like PubNub or your own server setup to pass commands.

[photo gallery]


Code: One of the code challenges we ran into was making something that was a bit more organic than just on / off / faster / slower. We started with a one to one command, and then shifted a bit to have an additive effect. So that the more people tweeting the wider the arch. But you still retained 2 commands of “faster” and “slower”. On and Off were reserved only for the twitter account owner. Resetting didn’t quite get to what we wanted. We wanted more of a wind down effect, but after some  attempts we kept hitting a thing where the servo would get stuck, so we decided that could go in a next iteration.

Physical: Some of the physical challenges were more around how to mount the item, and how to make a swing arm that was hidden but still had 180 degrees of movement. Bijun had the idea to construct an arm w/ a bend which works if you place the item on a shelf, but also works as a pendulum if you hang it from a wall. You can then cover it with a soft toy top, to hide the servo. We also decided to mount the bread board upside down inside the box, to give easy access to the electronics, without having to physically remove the board.

Servo: Some of the servo challenges were mostly how to get more of a randomized movement. Putting a weight in the middle of the elastic yielded some nice jitters. So we ran with that. We also had instances where the servo would “stick” because it was getting commands on the fly. 


We didn’t look up a lot of similar projects online in terms of arduino cat toys. We did do some research into cat toys in general. But a lot of what we did, was based on the items we had at hand. We already had a fishing type toy, and servos, and access to scrap material, and so we thought about what we could do with that. That said, our main influence were things like Twitch Plays Pokemon, and just wanting to try a fun experiment based around taking a solo or one to one activity and suddenly throw a ton of people into it to see how it changes. 



Other Possible Versions:
Making it wireless and wall mounting it. Putting more possible chaotic elements into it in terms of what people can and can’t control. Put in something that can track if the cat is pulling or playing on it to turn it on, or give the bot more autonomy to decide when to run.

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