BMFAC: “We Are All Winners Now”

Are we in a dentist's office?

Which way to the cafeteria?

This does not look like an art exhibition.

Two photographs of the exhibition of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest in Hyderabad, India, 2010.
Photographs released by Esin Turkakin.

Photographs of the showcase exhibition of the 2009 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest (BMFAC) have been released by one of the contest winners.  Only the winners received any information about the exhibition.  It has taken six months for any photographs to surface on the Internet.  The main BMFAC site has not been updated since the winners were announced last year.  There has been no publicity about the India exhibition on the main site, nor have any of the previous three shows (two in Spain and one in Argentina) been mentioned at all.

The two released photographs are fairly long shots of the show.  I’m sure this was deliberately done, for I doubt the organizers want anyone to have a clear view.

There is no discernible reason why photographs of the exhibition had to be limited to the winners.  Why was no one else in the fractal community allowed to see them?  Information is power, I suppose — or, perhaps, the lack of information maintains power.  With the release of the photographs, we are all "winners" now.  We can make up our own minds about the show based upon what we can actually see.

Two things are immediately evident in the photographs.  The first is that the size of the prints is considerably smaller than a reasonable person would have inferred from reading the contest page’s exhibition description.  Moreover, the prints in India are indisputably more minuscule than the prints displayed in the earlier exhibitions in Spain.  Here is a look at the BMFAC show last May in San Sebastián:

This has the feel of a museum. 

This does look like an art exhibition.

An exhibition of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest in San Sebastián, Spain, 2010.
Photograph by Javier Barrallo. Seen on C82.

The contrasts between the two shows are striking.  The large prints featured in Spain are obviously made using canvas.  Doing otherwise would have made them far too heavy to display.  The prints hung in India are noticeably smaller.  They are paper prints that have been matted and placed under very not-glare-free glass.

Here’s the problem.  The payoff for winning contestants was to have their work exhibited in India at the International Congress of Mathematicians.  No reference to any other exhibition was made (and still hasn’t been mentioned).  To be eligible to enter, participants had to have the capability of submitting images at unusually large sizes.  According to the BMFAC rules page:

Size: Artwork that is selected must then be provided in high-resolution format, sized so that the largest dimension is 8000 pixels. If a high-resolution version of the artwork cannot be produced, it should not be entered. Some images may be selected for printing at even larger size (12000 pixels in the largest dimension) so entrants would do well to be aware of the size requirements. This is particularly important for certain types of fractals (e.g. flames) which are difficult to render at large sizes.

The only logical reason to insist upon such gargantuan image sizes is that the organizers planned to display very large prints — much like those shown at the unmentioned San Sebastián show.  But the small prints used in India could have easily been made from image sizes 1/10th of what was required for entry.

What went wrong?  It seems to me there are only two possibilities.  One could be chalked up to a failure of planning.  The other would be deliberate deception to achieve an ulterior motive.

BMFAC defenders are probably assuming the venue changed unexpectedly.  The conference altered its plans at the last moment, and the exhibition had to relocate to a more limited space.  But none of this is likely.  Any attentive exhibition organizer will pre-plan and be familiar with the exact dimensions of every exhibition space.  In other words, the organizer would know far in advance (and, in this case, BMFAC directors had over a year to get ready) whether the show(s) would be placed in a hall or in a hallway.  The conference facility in India has an exhibition hall; BMFAC was not booked into it.  And a sudden switcheroo couldn’t have been all that last minute.  Realistically, it would take a fair amount of time to have all exhibition images re-printed, mounted, matted, and framed. In the end, the most reasonable assumption here is those running BMFAC knew all along exactly what space would be available and what size prints would fit that space.

As I have systematically argued, the likely explanation for insisting on such huge file sizes was to privilege Ultra Fractal.  It is the software of choice for the two co-directors and for every BMFAC artist-judge.  One co-director writes openly of his UF preference.  Most tellingly, the author of Ultra Fractal, which is commercial software, openly served as a BMFAC judge — which is a conflict of interest so ethically staggering that it brings into question the validity of the entire enterprise.

Ultra Fractal, of course, is the only scalable fractal software that can easily handle BMFAC’s specifications — and everyone involved with the contest knows this to be a fact.  And that’s why they did it — because they wanted UF to look good by weeding out artists using other programs.  Tim clarified in his last post why the selection field was already inherently narrow:

[BMFAC is] limited in what it shows: 25 works chosen not from all that the fractal art world has to offer but from what those who cared to enter the contest thought would impress the eclectic (dream team) of judges. Right off the bat the exhibition is behind the eight ball because, by design, they must passively attend to only what the contestants give them.

Then comes the pièce de résistance.  Hatch a scheme to limit what can be submitted by throttling any fractal artist not using UF.  And, sure enough, as we documented last year, the overwhelming majority of winning images were made with UF.  That was not a coincidence.  It was a foregone conclusion.  No, even worse, it was a deliberate strategy to give the general impression that most of the "best fractal artists in the world" use Ultra Fractal — just like their mentors — the "esteemed" (and self-appointed) BMFAC contest artist-judges.

And now we get the ironic kicker.  Any fractal program could easily have made images large enough to make prints of the size used in the India exhibition.  As it turns out, there was no need for insisting upon such absurdly vast size requirements.  How many more artists could and should have been allowed to enter the competition?  And how much more representative should and would the pool have been to show the true diversity of our art form and a wider variety of artists?

Apophysis’ users should be especially furious because that particular program does not scale images well — as the BMFAC rules page even indirectly notes.  The size restriction ploy pretty much killed off any fractal artist who post-processes, too — unless he or she has a powerful computer at their disposal.

When all is said and done, this whole cynical business was about business.  BMFAC was never about "choosing art that represents our art form to a world that largely does not know it."  It was about selling product and promoting personal interests.  It was, as Orbit Trap has consistently pointed out, a publicity scheme to promote the careers of those staging a competition in which they twice placed their own work.

They should be ashamed of themselves for furthering their careers on the backs of other artists.

But they are not, and they’ll be back again soon to re-run the whole phony contest intrigue again — if they think they can get away with it.

The question for our community is: Can they?


I almost forgot.  I said the released BMFAC photos reveal two things.

The second is that what’s presented in the photos from India is not what I imagine an "international art exhibition" should look like.  Does the "information hallway," as Tim describes it, match the picture in your head of a prestigious art exhibit?

I’ll say it because no one else will.  What the photos show looks like something you’d see in a shoddy cafeteria — or in the waiting room of a dentist’s office.