Manfred Mohr on the Symphony of Geometry: A Conversation with Mimi Nguyen

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Manfred Mohr in conversation with Mimi Nguyen, foreword by Melanie Lenz (London's Victoria and Albert Museum).

The prominence of Manfred Mohr’s art is testament to his committed exploration into the creative visual possibilities of algorithms. He was one of the earliest professionally trained artists to access computers and examine what it meant to allow the computer to generate, rather than merely execute, an artwork.

Originally trained as a jazz musician and painter, Mohr introduced formal rules into his work after encountering the philosopher Max Bense whose ideas on programming the beautiful had a lasting impact. Upon moving to Paris, Mohr was equally inspired by the composer Pierre Barbaud who experimented with algorithmic compositions.

Mohr created his first work with the computer in 1969 and by 1971 staged the first museum solo show of works entirely produced by a digital computer.

Mohr’s investigations in the geometric shape of the cube have been the driving force in his practice since 1973.  Shaped by his musical background, he describes the cube in terms of a visual instrument. In 1978 his focus shifted to multidimensional hyper cubes. He charts paths through these spaces which are hard to imagine yet they are computable. The V&A is fortunate to have a significant number of art works by Mohr in its collection.

- Melanie Lenz (Digital Curator, V&A Museum)
Chance and Control: Art in the Age of Computers (2018) MANFRED MOHR (born 1938) Clockwise, from top left: P-122, Paris, 1970–74. V&A Collection. Given by the American Friends of the V&A through the generosity of Patric Prince.

Mimi Nguyen: Manfred, how did it all start in Paris?

Manfred Mohr: It wasn't that I woke up one morning and suddenly used code and a computer –– it was a very long thinking process in my life. I come from the abstract world of music. Music is always the basis of all my thinking. 

My early interest in visual art was therefore strongly influenced by jazz and classical modern music which was then reflected in a kind of action painting. The problem was that I could not really control my artwork. In music I could write down tunes etc., but with action painting I had no real control. 

It was only when I got into the philosophy of Max Bense’s thinking in the early 1960’s, that I understood, that a “rational” thinking in art, as Bense proposed, could solve that problem. One has to create the logic of what one wants to do before you start. 

My artistic work therefore started and continues until today by dissecting and finding the inner logic of what I want to do. I create out of an abstract logic something which becomes visual. 

Mimi Nguyen: P1680-B, Artificiata II, the work presented at the Paris Photo art fair this year, is a custom machine - the challenge of custom machinery presents unique setups and builds. Is that for preservation of your works? 

Manfred Mohr: My interest is mainly in building and creating a visual solution to my ideas. I give as much written technical information and advice as I can with all my real time algorithmic animations, but in the end, your question refers to a problem for future conservators and restoration specialists.

Manfred Mohr began his career as a jazz musician and expressionist painter. He started exploring geometric imagery in the mid 1960s, producing his first computer-generated drawings in 1969. In this series of prints [Scratch Code: 1970-1975] produced from plotter drawings, the computer program creates a range of geometric shapes that echo some of his earlier artworks. Mohr went on to examine the possibilities presented by the cube. 

- From the Gallery Label of the V&A Museum Collection (Text updated 14/8/2018)(07/07/2018-18/11/2018)

Mimi Nguyen: There's also this noticeable equilibrium between order and chaos, akin to music. Going back to jazz as you mentioned before, how has your background influenced your practice? 

Manfred Mohr: P1680-B (2014) is like a music score for a visual or electronic music. The content is rather technical but becomes a fascinating visual play.

It shows the fracturing of a diagonal-path into even and odd numbered lines, where each change of direction indicates the passage through a dimension. (A diagonal path is a multiple-segmented line through an n-dimensional hypercube).

In this work n-dimensional diagonal-paths are shown with their even numbered lines in the left part and their odd numbered lines in the right part of the screen. Furthermore, the respectively missing lines are shown as compressed vertical lines along the sides of each part. The horizontal black lines crossing the vertices of the diagonal path invoke the association of a musical score, but are moving with respect to the rotation in space of each diagonal path. 

In a way, I could also answer this question in one sentence: “the visual result has to swing”.

Mimi Nguyen: What’s the interplay between your creative intuition and the algorithms you use? How do these collaborations influence your artistic decisions and the final artwork? 

Manfred Mohr: That goes hand in hand. The algorithms, which I always write myself, are a direct result of my thinking. They are, so to speak, my guideline to a logical thinking. 

Mimi Nguyen: Any challenges?

Manfred Mohr: The challenge for every artist is the same: having interesting ideas while trying to develop and realize them.  All technical problems and everything surrounding them get solved automatically in time.

Manfred's Mohr P2610_B, 2019 and P1680-B, Artificiata II, 2015 will be presented at the Paris Photo 2023 Art Fair in Grand Palais Éphémère 7-12 November. Explore the exhibition "In Conversation With" here.

Manfred Mohr

Manfred Mohr is considered a pioneer of digital art. After discovering Prof. Max Bense's "information aesthetics" in the early 1960's, Mohr's artistic thinking was radically changed. Within a few years, his art transformed from abstract expressionism to computer generated algorithmic geometry. Encouraged by the computer music composer Pierre Barbaud whom he met in 1967, Mohr programmed his first...
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Melanie Lenz

Melanie Lenz is the curator of Digital Art at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Based in London, she has over 20 years’ experience of curating, commissioning, and delivering creative projects. Specialising in digital arts and culture, Melanie co-curated Chance and Control: Art in the Age of Computers (2018-2019) and has published papers on early computer art in Latin America, gender and technology...
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Mimi Nguyen

Mimi is a Creative Director at verse. She is a assistant professor at Central Saint Martins, University of Arts London where she leads the CSM NFT Lab. Her background is New Media Art, having previously studied at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) and Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. She now also teaches at Imperial College London, Faculty of Engineering, where she leads Mana Lab - a “Future...
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