Kinetic sculptures and sound circuits: building solar-powered art at Pioneer Works

In 2014, multimedia artist Alex Nathanson co-curated a project called Nightlight that turned a garden in Queens into an interactive light exhibit. The team had hoped to power the exhibit by running a cable out, but that turned out not to be feasible, and “solar power was the solution.”

Since then, Nathanson has been interested in the intersection of solar power and art. He managed Sunset, a Central Park art installation that consisted of a solar-powered ice cream truck, and he now teaches classes on art and engineering. During two recent Sundays, students at Pioneer Works, an art space in Brooklyn, learned to make sun-powered robots and low-voltage sound sculptures.

The upcycled solar cells used in the projects.

According to Nathanson, many large “solar installations” are actually connected to the grid, so it’s important to him that anything claiming to be “solar-powered art” actually uses functional solar cells instead of merely speculating about how the cells could be used, or using the cells only as decoration. To do so is greenwashing that erases the possibility of using solar materials to learn about physical craft and possible solutions to climate change, he says.

In Nathanson’s class, the students — who don’t need prior engineering experience — used upcycled solar cells from Jameco that came in a variety of shapes. The sound project had three parts: build the sound circuit, build the solar panel itself, and then connect the two. To execute this, the students learned engineering concepts (like series and parallel circuits, volts and amps, calculating output) as well as technical skills (such as how to use a soldering iron).

Students learn how to assemble a sound circuit on a breadboard.

A student uses a soldering iron to build the solar panel, which is attached to the balsa wood sculpture.

The final product makes an array of electronic sounds when placed in sunlight, depending on how the circuit and panels are built.

Alex Nathanson holds the project that his students made during the second week: a sculpture attached to a sound circuit that makes various sounds when placed in the Sun.

The sculptures came in various sizes. Some, like the one above, are made of acrylic and look more like mosaics. Others were made of balsa wood and were more triangular in shape.

The week before, the students had built a different art project: little solar-powered robots that moved.

Solar-powered robots that move.

Nathanson also maintains Solar Power for Artists, an archive of other projects. These range from Low Tech Magazine, a publication run on a mini-computer powered by off-grid solar energy, to the 1957 Solar Do-Nothing Machine, which is one of the first examples of using sunlight to generate electricity, which then powers a whimsical art installation.

“Understanding the physical craft is a big part of understanding how to move to sustainable energy,” Nathanson says. “Many people didn’t know how to solder before this class. I want to give them the tools to experiment and make things that function.”

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