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Interview with Manfred Mohr

Lines of varying thickness rotate on black. On the screen beside, tilted away from the first, is a slide show, a still image from the moving one every ten seconds. This is not a video work; generated in real time, the digital image doesn’t run on a loop. It could go on forever.



P-1271 series, 2006-2007


Manfred Mohr’s solo exhibition at Carroll/Fletcher, his first in London, is presented as a concise survey of fifty years of practice. Logics run off each other; visualisations generated by an algorithm determine the maximum limits of a printed panel on the opposite wall; signs from an alphabet are drafted onto each other and scaled up, made manifest in lacquered steel, and fixed to the wall.


Mohr was living and working in Paris in the 1960s, where he started making generative drawings at The Meteorological Institute (he has lived in New York since 1981). At the time only scientists and mathematicians had access to new computer technologies. At issue now is the ubiquity of computer technology. There’s been a lot of discussion around the New Aesthetic over the past year or so; the technological mistake evidences our new way of seeing. No longer hidden away in research institutions, the computer is now embedded in our working lives, our means of communication and making. In the 1960s computer technology belonged to military research; its use signaled the corruption of art.


Mohr’s website details various ‘work phases’. Some are paradigms of post-war art: action painting, use of black and white, geometric experiments, hard edge painting, colour. Others seem betray a commitment to science and mathematics: systematisation of picture content, sequential computer drawings, fixed structures, 4-D hypercube, graph theory, dissection of cube, quasi-organic growth programs on the cube, 6-D hypercube. It occurs to me that the language of art is just as peculiar as that of science. It’s clear these terms stand in for large bodies of work, work as in labour, learning, but also working out, working through. It is only when I meet Mohr that I realise this is a peculiar language all of his own.




Cubic Limit, 1973



QThe White Review

AManfred Mohr — Everything you see here is one idea.

QThe White Review — One idea?

AManfred Mohr — I mean based on one idea, or different ideas about the same subject. A hypercube is a complicated system of connections, but mathematically you can walk through its lines; you can calculate this path, what I call the diagonal path. For example, in a given structure I can take two opposite points and look how I can get through the structure. This is my alphabet. Now, say I ask the computer to choose two signs and put them together, and I cut them out in steel, it becomes that.

Mohr points to the steel works on the wall, such as P-522d, 1997. For the screen works fixed to the opposite wall, as in the P-1271 series video above, he has laid these pathways on top of each other and asked the computer to colour the spaces in between. The lines are twisted and turned; they never come back.]

Nobody, not even me can understand what’s going on, but that’s not the point. The point is that the system in itself is correct. It surprises me. 

QThe White Review — The image refers only to itself; it’s a discrete object, a closed system?

AManfred Mohr — It’s a rigid system. To start it you need a random number so I use the day’s date.

QThe White Review — So the starting point is arbitrary?

AManfred Mohr — It’s arbitrary; it doesn’t matter where you start. The starting point is arbitrary, but what happens then is not arbitrary. 

Mohr’s earliest work with computer programs and plotters is hung downstairs. There’s no timeline or chronology, but there is a narrative.]

QThe White Review — So where do we start?

AManfred Mohr — Here’s one of my earliest drawings. I had to learn what I wanted to do, so I tried all sorts of things. I would decide to draw 100 lines and then impose what I call aesthetic decisions. It the computer] could make a thick line or it could make a zigzag, little things. The program can randomly choose according to percentages, like 2 per cent thick lines or 5 per cent zigzags, this kind of thing. The direction was random. 

QThe White Review — So it drew 100 lines and you see what you get? 

AManfred Mohr — Yes. 

Here in P-18 Random Walk, 1969] the computer made a mistake and I had to cover it.

QThe White Review — The computer made a mistake?

AManfred Mohr — No, the computer didn’t make a mistake. The paper was bad. 

QThe White Review — Oh okay, the paper made a mistake. 

AManfred Mohr — Sometimes with these humans the paper isn’t flat. 

QThe White Review — Right.

AManfred Mohr — So I developed these kinds of things. I was very much involved in music so I used the idea of writing music, starting left and moving to the right. I said okay, I’ll calculate 32 lines, and started adding one line after another. Then I subtract the first line. When you get to the end you’re left with the last line that was added.

We are looking at ‘inversion logique’ 1970, a series of small drawings, readable as a sort-of sentence fed through a queer logic, a demonstration of addition and subtraction.]

So for a few years I was working on how to draw associated text, angles, binaries and directions, parallel lines and so forth, all calculated with algorithms. It was almost too easy for me. I thought there had to be something more important to it. I had this idea that if you play an instrument you can hear that it’s a piano or a saxophone, so I thought why can’t I make a graphical instrument and play that? 

I made Cubic Limit in 1973 above]. It was after the music writing. This film I abandoned because I wasn’t into filmmaking, but 40 years late I came back to it and I really liked it.

QThe White Review — So how did you make the film? 

AManfred Mohr — With a computer! 

QThe White Review — It must have been very complicated.

AManfred Mohr — Very complicated; I had to use microfilm. The film is three minutes and it took six months to make. I had to write everything and I had no idea about timings, so this was an experiment for me. But visually I saw a future. 

QThe White Review — So the film marks a turning point, between the work down here and the work you went on to make that experiments with different dimensions?

AManfred Mohr — Yeah, yeah. I saw a fantastic alphabet, three dimensions projected into two dimensions. The system of the dimensional idea is to have more and more complex elements to play with; it’s like playing a very long piano.

The cubes lose their sides, start flashing and dancing wildly, according to some kind of calculated randomness.]

Just to tell you that this was before Sol Le Witt did his cubes. 

QThe White Review — I’ll make sure that goes in. 

AManfred Mohr — So after I studied this cube I started making drawings. Let’s say a cube turns slowly from left to right. The centre is complete but towards the outside it looses its sides. I did a whole bunch of drawings from this. But then I looked at the cube and split it in two and rotated each side. So now each side is rotating separately, randomly. 

Then I went one dimension higher.

QThe White Review — One higher?

AManfred Mohr — 4-D. So 4-D is nothing else but 8 cubes intermingled. If you have a cube and you move that cube in time and then you connect these lines, you have 8 cubes to play with. So it’s an even bigger piano! If you put all of them on top of each other you would have a graph of a 4-D hypercube. I ordered these elements in a magic square, so even then I don’t have to make a composition; the computer calculates it for me. 

QThe White Review — What’s a magic square?

AManfred Mohr — I can go up four squares and diagonal four squares. That’s what a magic square is; you can go in any direction but it always adds up to the total. Then I went even higher and higher, and it became even more complicated. It’s a study for myself to understand these things.

I cut a cube in four, so two sides are part of the cube are tuned 5 degrees negative and positive. I wanted to derange or destroy symmetry. By destroying the symmetry you suddenly create a new relationship. One day I heard on the radio some physicists were talking about the Big Bang. You’ve heard of this, the Big Bang, when the world started? They said that somehow the symmetry broke. I thought, Jesus, that’s fantastic! So what I did with the cut cube was program the computer to look for where it can put another cube in a corner, so it grows. It looks again where it can fit something in, it looks again and it finds its path. 

QThe White Review — So it could keep going infinitely?

AManfred Mohr — Sometimes it keeps growing. Sometimes it kills itself. 

QThe White Review — Because it has nowhere to go?

AManfred Mohr — Sometimes it can’t grow anymore so it stops itself, but in some situations it would go on forever. 

QThe White Review — What’s the programme called, the one you were using to write the code?

AManfred Mohr — I used FORTRAN. It’s a programme I still sometimes use. It’s a logical language that the computer can read and understand. Now there are hundreds of languages, C and so on. Essentially they all do the same thing but they’re getting more sophisticated and easier to use, so you don’t have to learn so much. 

QThe White Review — When you started you had to learn a whole other language from scratch?

AManfred Mohr — Oh yeah, but you see when I started there was no school, nothing. There were two books in the world, one in English and one in French. I lived in Paris at the time so I learnt from the one in French. The computer language in itself is not very complicated; it’s maybe thirty or forty instructions. Once you know it you can express anything that you can verbalise yourself. It’s not mathematics; it’s logic. If you do certain things you have to use geometry; if you want to draw a circle you have to know the geometry of a circle. At that time I had to write everything myself, there was no software. Nowadays these kids open their computer and they can do anything they want. They don’t even know you need a formula for a circle. I had to do everything the hard way. That’s why I still use it. 

QThe White Review — Because it’s what you know? It’s like your first language?

AManfred Mohr — Yes. I even wrote a whole font, which I used for the programme numbers on the drawings. At that time I didn’t even want to sign the drawings, but I had to when I wanted to sell them. 

So I went higher and higher in dimension and it got more and more complicated.  I could do different things, but I could not explain to people because it was so complicated. ’6-D cube, what kind of crap are you talking about?’ So I was kind of against the wall, what could I do now to make it function? That’s when I had the idea to let the computer colour it randomly. If this thing moved, you’d feel very strange spaces, which you can’t explain. Suddenly you feel the complexity. 

QThe White Review — Do you think that the drawings demonstrate the ideas, or do they test ideas?

AManfred Mohr — No, the drawing is the idea. I’m not interested to show any fantastic mathematical formula. I use what you call an algorithm, these logical structures. You can write down what you do when you get up in the morning; put on your slippers on; brush your teeth. You repeat it everyday. That’s an algorithm. So I can write an algorithm, and it does something. I know the logic of it but I don’t know how it will look. That’s why it’s not important to understand how it works; I’m not a teacher, it’s not like you look at that and suddenly you’re a wise person. I invent a visual world with my intention of being logical. If somebody looks at it and it talks to them then fine. If they say it’s crap then too bad. It’s not the mathematical content that I want to show; it has to stand as a visual entity in itself. If you put this in the street it has to be as strong as it is here. If it’s good you can put it out in the street. That’s acceptable to me, and that’s my result.

QThe White Review — Because you’ve learnt something? The drawing teaches you about the idea?

AManfred Mohr — Oh yes, I learn constantly. I change constantly, and I get shockwaves. You know, WOW. Reversely, I can’t go back. I can look at other people’s stuff, but I’m so deformed that I immediately look for content. If there is no content I think that he doesn’t know what he’s doing. I am what they call a professional deformation. 

QThe White Review — Professional deformation?

AManfred Mohr — Do you speak French?

QThe White Review — No.

AManfred Mohr — Well, in French you say ‘deformation professionelle,’ but it’s funny, it’s a joke. You’re so determined by your profession that you can’t do anything else. In the fifties abstract art got so popular that people didn’t know what abstraction was. It killed itself because the content was missing. Abstract artists used specific laws, which you had to follow to make a good abstract painting, but by the sixties no one knew what those laws were. No one even bothered. It killed itself and something else came up, Pop or whatever. When you don’t know what you’re doing it becomes nothing. At this point I still know what I’m doing!

QThe White Review — Do you think your work has a relationship to Conceptual Art then? I was thinking about Le Witt’s dictum: ‘the idea is the machine that makes the work.’

AManfred Mohr — In a way I am a conceptual artist, but I don’t stay at the concept. I realise the concept, that’s the difference. Most conceptual artists do fantastic things but it stays at the point or origin; it doesn’t do anything. There’s a concept, I have to write a program, and the program exists before I even see it. The visualisation is the second step, it’s what I get out of the logic. Sometimes I get nothing out of it; I work for six months and get nothing out of it because I went the wrong way. 

QThe White Review — That sounds like something a scientist would say about their work; they had a problem to solve and they worked for six months but they might end up with nothing.

AManfred Mohr — I use scientific ways of working but I don’t have to prove anything. Molecular movement or something… it’s not my world. I invent my own rules and they exist in themselves. They don’t prove anything, they don’t negate anything, and I don’t teach anything either. I show a visual world, which is based on logical thinking. That’s the only difference. 

QThe White Review — You made paintings before taking up the computer; it seems you used the language from your painting in the early computer works?

AManfred Mohr — Yes, over the years I developed a repertoire of signs. At that point I wasn’t logical; I cut them out and moved them around to make compositions. When I got into this idea of programming I thought ‘Jesus, I can programme these things and get them when I need them.’ It slowly grew into another way of thinking. At that point it was more surrealistic, emotional geometry.

Before that it was even more emotional, I was more attached to Pollock, until one day in the sixties I read books by a German philosopher called Max Bense. The second rule in thermodynamics is that an order over time dissolves into random nothing, that’s a law. Bense thought in art we should do it the other way around; we can start with anything and go to an order. The higher the order is the better the art should be. That was his idea. I thought that was interesting because when I was doing these things I didn’t know what was doing, it’s just an emotion; I couldn’t repeat it, I couldn’t do anything with it, but maybe it could grow into order. So that was the beginning of using computers. Bense influenced my whole thinking. 

QThe White Review — Were there other artists organising themselves around these ideas?

AManfred Mohr — There were a handful of artists who started using computers. Nobody had access to a computer, and the drawing machine? There were five in the world! So scientists and mathematicians were the first ones to play around with this stuff. I’m one of the first who came from art. There were five or six in the world, but it grew and grew and grew. 

QThe White Review — It sounds like you must have operated as an insider because you were one of a few who had access to this technology and research.

AManfred Mohr — It’s not something you can understand now but people were aggressive towards me. People threw eggs at me. They said I was destroying art, that I was using military equipment to make art, that I was corrupting art. It was such a strange world. Now no one gives a damn; you have five computers on you and you don’t even know it. At that time the computer was like pornography or something, it was bad. If I went into a gallery and said my work was done with a computer they’d say; ‘there’s the door.’

QThe White Review — Because even outside of art the computer represented a threat? 

AManfred Mohr — It represented everything you shouldn’t do; computer was a bad word. At the beginning I understood that if I had a show I couldn’t mention computers. One day a man took me by the hand and said, ‘I think you should use a computer,’ and I said, ‘I could kiss you.’ He understood, but most people at the time would say it was cold and emotionless; it’s not art. Things change slowly. The worst are art critics, because they didn’t know what to say. It took them twenty or thirty years; it was hard for them. 

QThe White Review — Is that why Computer Art, as a historical concept, is not really part of the narrative of 20th century art?

AManfred Mohr — I think it’s because it shouldn’t be called Computer Art in the first place. There’s confusion between how something is produced and what you show. Nobody would say; ‘he’s a pencil artist’ because he makes only drawings. I always laughed when people asked if it was art. What else is it? It’s what I do. The computer doesn’t add value to it; it’s my thinking that uses the machine. Now they call it Digital Art. I’m not really a digital artist. Digital Art is photography; a digit is a dot, and photography is dots. Do you know what a vector is? It’s Vector Art, in a sense. But I don’t care what they call it; it’s a mixture of everything. It’s either art and it’s interesting or it’s nothing.

QThe White Review — Is technology an extension of you as an artist? Is it prosthesis, or does it have autonomy, it’s own will?

AManfred Mohr — You’ve heard of Marshall McLuhan? He’s my…

QThe White Review — Hero?

AManfred Mohr — Hero. Because he said technology is not against us, technology is our extension; if I keep my whisky in the refrigerator it’s because I want a cold whisky, not because the machine wants to keep it cold. I understood that all machines are extensions of my thinking; if I don’t want to walk, I drive. Who wants to walk a hundred miles? So you drive, but no one thinks the machine took over. You become a different person, who can extend themselves by a hundred miles. So technology is not something I’m afraid of, it’s what I need and what I am. 

QThe White Review — Do you think that as an artist who has used these technologies, you have contributed to their development and acceptance?   

AManfred Mohr — I do what I want to do. If this adds, and I would hope so, that’s fantastic. It is up to the others to see it and take it. Some people still don’t want to touch technology. Humans are very funny people; if a machine makes an error you’re so happy! I trust the machine with what I delegate to it; I know that I can’t make a perfect straight line but I know this machine can do it, so why should I be afraid of it? It’s a mental state of acceptance. 

QThe White Review — But now people are more accepting that they’re changed by technology?

AManfred Mohr — Yeah, yeah. Some people don’t want to change; they go in a cave. They think on 23 December 2012 the world ends. That’s fine too, but there are many levels of the mind, and some don’t go up there. It’s a question of being interested in something. I always noticed that whenever I have a show there are two kinds of people. There are the ones who see it as a starting point; they feel that there is a rule but it’s something they don’t understand. They are positive. The others think the same thing and walk away. For my first show in Paris (Musee d’Art Moderne, 1971), I had a big table that draws, which I demonstrated for two or three hours everyday. The young kids were fascinated, and the people in their seventies and eighties were fascinated. The people in their thirties felt that it was against them, that they had to learn it, so they were very aggressive towards it. 

It was an incredible experience; no one had ever seen anything like it before, it was historic. There were shows all over the world but no museum would touch it. Now there is no problem. In the 1970s and 80s things were still boiling and people didn’t know what they should accept. 

QThe White Review — Maybe it would have been different without strict categories of art. 

AManfred Mohr — I always had this idea that you should never make an exhibition about computer art. It would be like making a show about people who buy the same shoes. Sometimes I refuse to show with other artists just because I work with computers. There are people who make figurative works, all sorts of shit. It’s not what I’m doing. You should make a show about ideas; we’re not all in the same boat because we use a similar machine.


Manfred Mohr’s exhibition at Carroll/Fletcher, London, runs to 20 December 2012.

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