About the Artist
Mad Mohre is a Michigan-based artist/designer by night and a professor by day. Her process of making has been heavily influenced by ideas of play and various relationships between craft, the use of the miniature, sound, sci-fi, humor, and installation. Stylistically, she is a Bauhaus junkie. Most recently, Ms. Mohre has created album art for the score from Serial (a podcast by the creators of This American Life), developed marketing materials for Uproot Wines (Manhattan), Fab.com (Manhattan), designed branded items for coin_cube.io (Manhattan), Crossing Brooklyn Ferry at BAM (Brooklyn) and sculpted paper works for Bryce Dessner’s website (of The National). She was featured in an August 2012 edition of the New York Times with Sugar Vendil and the Nouveau Classical Project for their collaboration on “In & Around C,” and she won First Place with Will J. Robinson for “Thig” in Networked & Electronic Media’s Summit Art Contest in Barcelona in 2010.
Mad’s favorite time of the day is after a cup of strong coffee and two eggs over medium.
with Joe Brommel, July 2018
I'm interested in the idea of your work as a playground. It seems like you're interested in having your work be a playful space for the viewer rather than something that you have to approach at a distance.
Yeah. Initially, the work is always influenced by articles. Many, many, many articles. I go down this wormhole of research. That doesn’t necessarily need to be something that the viewer encounters in the beginning, though. I want someone to come into a work of art that I make and feel like it’s tongue-in-cheek, or that it has some sense of humor. Like someone giving you a nudge on the playground.
The idea of the playground in particular was really influential to me because the playground was invented in the late 1800s/early 1900s as a way to monitor street urchins; to get kids into a space where they could be observed and they wouldn't be running around creating havoc. So there's always this push and pull for play, whether it's contained or it's free play.
Research on surveillance in general was the kickstarter of my whole practice. Living in London and being introduced to the ring of steel (their surveillance method), and then researching Bentham's Panopticon, and other institutions that would curtail play.
I’m interested in that curtailment physically, but also mentally. If someone comes in and they see a work of mine, like the one that I'm working on with the binary code, it could just look like camouflage and a cool design. But then there's embedded layering, and as they get deeper and deeper and deeper, you realize it's actually about literacy, or an act of reading, or information that is being collected as data. So it can have many reads, it doesn't just have to have one.
Can you say a little bit more about how that process of play has come into your practice in the past? For someone who isn't familiar with your work.
I’m interested in people altering the nature of the work. I was very much influenced by Fluxus works in the 1960s and 70s, and the way in which a set of parameters can be put down. If you think of a sporting event, for example, you have boundaries or guidelines for how to enact play within which people are free to bounce around.
I did this piece called “In and Around C,” which was a spin-off of Terry Riley's piece “In C.” People walk in the space and they see five lines that recede around a corner and hear musicians playing. They follow these lines, but only when they arrive around the corner do they see that while they were passing through the main area they were being recorded from an aerial perspective, and that the stills from that video are being projected as staff measures for the musicians, who can either choose to continue playing the people's heads or to move on to the next measure as the slides change. When the participants realize that they’re actually influencing the piece itself, they go back into the space and modify their behavior. In the several times I've shown it, that piece has become really playful. People move around the space and disrupt the lines and swing each other around and create a challenge for the musicians. And the musicians are, in turn, responding to this dance that the participants are doing.
That's especially interesting in relation to what you were just saying: playgrounds being invented as surveillance spaces. You realize that you were being watched after the fact, but the work entices you to go back into that state of surveillance. Can you say more about that?
It's a questionable way to use the viewer initially, because it’s a tricky space to invite someone to perform and to make them feel comfortable enough. It gets back to an individual's nature. Those of us who are used to jumping into a sphere where we actively give of ourselves, that's a very specific group of people. But the average person is not going to really do that. So the first bit of the piece is a lure, and then the participant has a choice whether to remain a part of it or not.
It’s an older piece, and it changes every time I put it into a new space. The group of musicians changes, so there's a new energy. It’s like teaching: you can teach the same thing, but if you have a new group of students in the classroom they can react very differently.
You also mentioned that you’ve recently started to undergo a shift from that research-based practice to, at least in some cases, a more playful, spontaneous practice. Can you say more about that process? Or if that sounds right?
I’m always triggered by something that I read or that is statistically true. It's very hard for me to make in a vacuum. I don't think any of us do. But I'm particularly interested now in trying to be more iterative. That's probably a better word: iterative. Letting my own practice of making be really playful. Not starting with an end goal in mind or exactly what I'm going to make — which, historically, I have. Like this binary piece: I read an article on literacy, but I don't think that it's about literacy anymore. It's about an act of reading in an educational model. How do we teach people how to read? What are they reading? If something is encoded it needs to be decoded: is that simply an act of translation? Or is it an act of transformation?
Let's back up a little bit there. Can you explain that specific article on literacy, and how it plays into this piece?
I read that, since the 70s, the rate of Americans reading literature has been declining rapidly. And I think that's due in part to the internet becoming so integrated in our everyday lives. We're actually reading at a very consistent rate, but aren’t empathizing with, perhaps, characters whose situations are unlike ours. Which is really changing how we relate to others. It’s a national crisis, in my opinion.
That was the impetus for drawing these characters that had an absence in the space in which you would see something like a phone or a book. I was thinking about creating this sculpture where all these figures who had formerly had books were connected by this light ribbon, as a metaphor for being connected through social media. And that was a launching point for trying to do these collages where I was taking the same drawings and rescaling them. But in the process of trying to physically cut out all these figures, I thought it would be much quicker to make a collage where the computer would choose the scale, value, hue, rotation, and placement of the drawings on the canvas based on some very, very basic inputs. I assigned each drawing that I had a letter — one woman became an “A,” the next guy became a “B,” the next one became a “C,” etc., and the computer could decide how each would be placed. After seeing the first drawing build, then I started playing with those parameters. Does it populate a ton of them? Or does it populate a few, so it's very legible? And then I was thinking about how we see images online. How is that text communicated through space? How do you how do you simplify information and then regurgitate it on the other end? How is the internet set up? Through binary; that's where the ones and zeros come in.
But I don't need for the viewer to see these collages and say, “oh, there's declining literacy in America.” I need for them to think about a digital space that we live in. One that's being constantly manipulated and where there are so many voices contributing that maybe there’s no clarity anymore.
Do you think there was clarity in the past?
Well there could be clarity without truth, right? You could have a limited amount of information being presented, but it could be false information.
That’s interesting in the context of what we were talking about earlier: spaces like Bentham’s Panopticon where the information that is allowed to come through comes through loud and clear, but where the flow of that information is restricted. Whereas now there seems to be less of a cap on what is coming through.
Yeah. All voices are amplified. I've been asked “what is your stance?” “What is your point of view?” “What exactly are you trying to get the viewer to understand?” To me, that’s a binary. That’s limiting the conversation to this or that; “what does Mad believe?” and “what should the viewer believe?” And I really struggle with that because I think that dialogue is a series of questions and presentations. I might not end up using ones and zeros as a form for these collages, but I do think that the layering of information is really critical in how I'm presenting the art. Because, again, if you stack up so much information it becomes a very dense, solid-looking, impermeable space.
I want to take a bit of a left turn and talk about how this space and this residency have influenced your practice. In one sense, a lot of this research and digital work could be done anywhere. But has the physical space you're in had any particular influence? Whether it be your studio, the barn, or upstate New York in general?
No, I think it has to do with the people. I live in a very comparable space in lower eastern Michigan. It's very rural, rustic, there are barns and very crude spaces around where I live, and you have a community of people who might have more conservative political beliefs. So, for me, coming here was really about connecting with a group of people who could guide and be a trampoline for the ideas that I was presenting, instead of sort of shouting into the void. It's about walking into somebody else's studio and saying, “I'm thinking about this, what do you think?” Or having a group or one-on-one critique in here. To me, that’s why this has been important. I can really live in those ideas and live with people who live in those ideas. We might be washing dishes when a conversation about something we had talked about five days before happens. Or there might be a residual comment that I had to process, and now I'm able to really think about it thoroughly in the time that I've been given. It's about time and people, not necessarily location.
And I don’t think I could do this work anywhere because I’m usually interrupted by other life things. I came here thinking that I would make something like an edition of books. And instead it's given me the flexibility to really play. It's like fermented beer — I've gone through adding the yeast and spices, and I've given it time to sit in a cold, dark space. And at some point, when I pull it out from under the bed in the basement, I’ll have actually crafted something — I'll have a refined product that I can pour into glass bottles and cap. But for right now, I've been just doing all the experimental phase testing, working with yeast, and seeing what concoctions I can make.
The gestation period.
Right. And you don't know how the bacteria — how all of us — will react in that gestation period. But it's happening. And the thing will emerge eventually, but I found it more important to let all those elements naturally mix instead of trying to force something to emerge right away.
Beer. Yeah. That's the analogy.
Photos by Walker Esner