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Giving a space a narrative: in conversation with Nikki Hock

Words & photography by Angelina Nikolayeva


Each year inviting more multidisciplinary artists and taking up more challenging – if not almost impossible – projects, visual art became an integral part of Draaimolen festival, something that defines their identity. Not only does this concern light installations, such as the ones you can stumble upon while wandering around the festival site but also the stage designs that keep astonishing both first-timers and the regular crowd.

This time, Draaimolen has faced a real challenge: building all the six stages from scratch on a completely new location. Yet managing to keep their spirits up, the team has been working hard to realize their bold – and somewhat insane – plans. In charge of the wildest ones are multidisciplinary artists Nikki Hock and Joeri Woudstra. The former you might know from his recurring installations in De School or ongoing collaboration with spatial sound studio 4DSOUND. The latter is better known as Torus, a producer with his idiosyncratic, heavily trance-informed style and a DJ who doesn’t hesitate to blast out a Britney Spears vocals or the intentionally kitsch ‘kermis’ jingles from behind the decks. Working together is nothing new to them, however: both artists have already collaborated on plenty of projects, such as their audio-visual performances at Rewire festival and Laser Club the Hague, the event series initiated by Joeri “to experiment with the aesthetical, social, physical and sonic consensus of the club as a white cube post Millennium”. Last year was the first time they joined team Draaimolen, designing the two brand-new Strangelove stages curated by Job Jobse. Of course, they’re making their return to the festival, this time around with even more bizarre ideas. I visited Nikki in his studio to bring to light what they’ve been cooking for Draaimolen Festival 2019. 

He caught me taking a photo of one of the elongated concrete walls in the staircase of the old brick building where his studio is located. With most of the features preserved since its construction in 1917, the cold grey edifice still unmistakably reminded the public school it once used to be. I was trying to capture the shadow on what appeared to be a painting of sloppily drawn circles when I saw Nikki. “I’ve never seen anyone taking photos of this painting before,” he laughed before showing me into his studio.

“I am close friends with Joeri and we always help each other out; for example, when I need a score for one of my installations or the other way around,” Nikki shares while making us coffee at the tiny kitchen counter. “Job didn’t know we’d already been working together when he asked us to design his stages for Draaimolen. He thought we would be an interesting combination.” Even though he admits that it can be tough to work with other people, he believes it’s important to have someone who doesn’t give up that easily: “Joeri is great with putting his foot down and saying what’s necessary even if it’s damn near impossible. I learn a lot from that.”

Last year’s edition saw them giving their blood, sweat, and tears to building the Strangelove stages. “I remember chopping down dead trees and hanging strobes from a cherry picker until 6:00 in the morning the day before the festival,” Nikki recalls. “I got quite sick and even promised myself to never do this again.” Nevertheless, when it all finally came together, the hard work paid off and here we are discussing plans for yet another edition of the festival. “My favorite moment was looking at the forest during the set of Marcel Dettmann,” he shares. “The trees were flashing by the lasers as if they were being 3D-scanned in real-time. Everyone loved this stage.”

From an early age, Nikki wanted to pursue the career of an architect or a musician but eventually ended up studying Mime in Academy for Theater and Dance, where not only he learned to use his body but also had the possibility to go his own way and develop as a visual artist. That said, his passion for music and architecture didn’t fade away: “I used to play guitar, drums, and a bit of piano. I have a lot of drum machines as well,” he tells while pointing in the direction of a closet filled up with gear. “It takes too much time for me as I immediately dive into the nerd stuff, studying the way it works and the software behind it,” Nikki explains. Though, still hesitating to give himself credit, he keeps exploring himself as a musician and made his own scores for the last three installations he created. “Communicating with music is easier, as it goes directly into your nervous system and translates into emotions. My work changed a lot as I started producing my own sound. I believe I'm reaching a deeper layer.” Thus, Nikki managed to combine both of his dreams in what he now does for a living - “sculpting space with light and sound.”

When it comes to his work as a designer, he prefers to keep things minimal and focus his attention on details. Nikki doesn’t merely aim to overwhelm; he rather strives to create a journey for the observer. Perhaps biased by knowledge of his background, when we talk about his projects for Draaimolen, his approach seems rather theatrical to me. “I’m trying to give the space an extra narrative,” he shares. “The DJ tells his or her story and I propose an alternative, abstracted one that does not directly react to the musician; rather, they coexist and work together, and sometimes they go separate ways.”

 

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Photo by Nikki Hock

The stages they designed together are the physical representation of this vision. Inspired by Nikki’s recent rediscovery of science fiction movies, Strangelove 1 welcomes you in an 800 m2 pit outspread in the middle of the woods. “I love how this vast open space feels and you can see the sediments of different earth colors on the sand walls; it’s crazy beautiful!” he tells me with his blue eyes filled with zest. “I wanted to add something very artificial and pour in a layer of transparent glossy epoxy with glow in the dark pigments mixed in as a floor. Every night, even when there is no party, it would light up like kryptonite - imagine this green glow in the middle of nature!” Unfortunately, due to the high production costs and labor-intensity, the idea was deemed impossible but might see the light of the day in the future. “Instead, we decided to use cherry pickers and turn them into some alien-robot looking entities resembling the ones from War of the Worlds,” he explains. Small light filters hanging on the window glass playfully cast colorful shadows on the desk and his left hand while he’s showing me the designs on his computer. “This looks like an apocalypse, right? That’s really the aesthetic I was looking for!” he adds with a generous smile. 

Referring to rave as a political means, the artists employ 9 lasers and 12 spotlights scanning the crowd under a dense ceiling of smoke, attempting to recreate the feeling of a riot at Strangelove 2. “I find the social and technological aspects of it fascinating and I love the aesthetics of it,” Nikki tells me, showing photos of the protests in US and China. “Look, it’s basically a war in the middle of the streets!” The idea to use this theme was on his mind already for a while and the location in the forest seemed like a perfect match. “I want the stage to feel cold and rough. I’ve worked at so many festivals this year and everything was just so warm! I felt the necessity to do something different, I wanted to make it more real.”

Natural forces seem to be one of the biggest sources of inspiration for Nikki. “We always perceive the world around with us being in the center. When nature shows its forces, it makes us feel tiny, and all these trivial things that occupy our minds daily become unimportant. I’m drawn to this earthly violence. I find it soothing,” he explains. His words sound poetic, echoing off the high walls as we walk outside of his studio. “Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote about this feeling of nonentity, your own impotence, the feeling you have when you stand in front of a limitless ocean or a very high mountain. You instinctively feel small and humble and that puts things in perspective. We all should have that sometimes.”