Beware of the Anti-Fractal

I know this will probably crack some folks up at first, but bear with me as I tell you about something that came to mind just recently while browsing the big page of “winners” at the 2007 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest site.

First, let me draw your attention to the “anti-” thing. I am referring to anti in the sense of “Anti-Christ”, a term which most people will be familiar with, mostly from the popular media, I suspect, which is why I want to clarify its meaning.

Anti-Christ has two accepted meanings. The first is the more common and obvious one, “opposed or against Christ”. The second is a similar, but slightly different meaning of “substitute or alternate Christ”. That’s the meaning I’m referring to when I speak of “Anti-Fractal” – a substitution for, or replacement for Fractals. Much more insidious than the first one.


A horrifying mutation is about to be born

So I’m looking at the winners’ page last week because I read a short blog posting about the 2007 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest and I wanted to double check which of the many “species” of winners the reviewer’s three favorites came from. There’s an interesting comment there, but let’s stick to the Anti-Fractal.

While browsing down the winners’ (that’s plural) page I was struck by the suddenly different style of three of the judges’ works.



Well, Ultra Fractal has a lot of processing options so it shouldn’t be a surprise to see some pretty unusual looking fractals. But it made me think, “Are they bored with fractals and trying to make artwork that looks as little like fractals as possible?”

I’m referring to the wispy, melting, flowing style of image. It’s not the usual crisp, structured, patterned type of fractal image that has traditionally been associated with fractals. It’s something new and different and in the art world that’s always a good thing.

But this is not the art world, this is the fractal art world and I say, “BRETHEREN! BEWARE THE ANTI-FRACTAL!”

Now, I’m sure the artists can produce plenty of fractal formulas and other scientific evidence to easily prove by way of parameter files that those images are as fractal as any other fractal image, but just different-looking than the usual old-fashioned fractals because these new flowing-style fractals have been created with cutting-edge Ultra Fractal techniques.

I think these judges are leading the way in leaving the little world of fractal art and heading out into the larger and more creative realm of Digital Art in general. And by corollary I would say that Ultra Fractal is a tool primarily designed for this purpose: Anti-Fractals – making fractals that don’t look like fractals but can still be easily called fractals because you didn’t use Photoshop, you only used Ultra-Fractal.

In other words, Ultra Fractal is being used to mask post-processing and conceal the the true label of “Digital Art” under layers of fractal formulas!

Don’t we all want something good for Fractal Art to come out of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contests? Yes! And now it has. The judges have shown us that Fractal Art is Dead and Boring and it needs to be cooked a little.

No more spirals – behold the un-spiral! Want your crisp frozen curves to look more relaxed and flowing? Enroll in the Mississippi School of Anti-Fractal Art. But be forewarned: only the good ship Ultra Fractal can take you down that river. You can’t do this with your small fractal crafts.

Unless of course you’ve got the guts to be a Pirate and use Photoshop.

I’ll stop now. I’m meandering.

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9 thoughts on “Beware of the Anti-Fractal

  1. Hi Terry,

    As you know, I first sent this comment to you privately because of its length, but you responded that you wish to have a public record of all communication on these issues. While I dislike the provocative style of your blog, I find this openness commendable. Perhaps you should consider unbanning Ken?

    Following is the text of my message to you, with a few slight amendments.

    ***********

    I am not interested in having the last word, as basically I have said my piece. I will, however, respond to the specific issues which you brought up.

    As I was not familiar with BMFAC I took some time to visit the site, and I also read the record of your correspondence with Damien, which you provided as a link citing his “intimidating tactics”. Both helped clarify my own views.

    My personal opinion is that your arguments are all quite weak, and your repeated refusal to try to understand Damien’s points and attempts at clarification is puzzling at best. After familiarizing myself with the situation more thoroughly I begin to more fully understand the genesis of Ken’s anger, and the probable reasons behind Damien’s decision to stop hosting you on his server.

    Concerning the BMFAC: While I do agree that it is rather unusual and not particularly desirable to hang the judges’ work in an exhibition, Damien clearly explained to you the reason why it happened in this case. He also implied that he was not comfortable with the decision but acceded to the sponsors’ request in order to enlist their necessary support. This can hardly be characterized as “self-promotion”. In your blog, you state the following:

    “Damien M. Jones once defended his odd protocols (like mixing the judges with the judged) in the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest by saying ‘at least I’m doing something.’”

    This is, in my view, deliberately distorted, with Damien’s quote taken out of context. The “protocols” to which you refer were the sponsors’, not his. And Damien was defending his decision to accede to this requirement, in order that the show could proceed, even though he was apparently uncomfortable with it personally.

    Not only that, were you to be fair and honest, you would have noted that while the judges’ work was exhibited, it was clearly separated from the work of the entrants and marked as such. But obviously such a clarification would take the wind out of your sails, and I suspect you know this quite well. Acknowledging this, you would hardly be able to write copy like the following in good conscience:

    “… the judges who set up this promotional self-glorification to further their own careers…”

    These are only two examples of the slanted, polemical style which is in sad evidence throughout your blog.

    Here’s another example:

    “Isn’t this process just a variation of what most Ultra Fractal artists do? You know, pancake together layers of multiple parameter files mostly written by other people?”

    Were you to frequent the UF list, you would know that there are generally-well-observed protocols relating to “tweaks” of extant parameter files. I would characterize the assertion that most UF artists primarily use par files written by others as an egregious lie. If you have evidence of such behavior you should present it; otherwise you have no grounds for making such an outrageous assertion, and—were you interested in journalistic ethics–you would never have written it in the first place.

    If you have concerns about professional conduct perhaps you should start by looking at your own.

    As a personal aside, I find your meretricious writing style quite juvenile and hardly worthy of your obvious intelligence, but that is just a matter of taste.

    A few other points related to BMFAC: You imply that judges and entrants are a self-serving clique. First, while I did recognize many of the artists as users of UF and active participants in the UF community, at least an equal number were unknown to me. You conveniently fail to acknowledge that no artists’ names were known to the panel during judging, for reasons that I think are obvious.

    I noted that some of the exhibited works were done in Apo and perhaps also Xenodream. Of the artists using UF, several are known to me from days of yore as able practitioners in other fractal generators, who I assume switched to UF as their primary instrument (as I did) because of the expanded creative opportunities it affords. Of course, this is speculation on my part.

    I also find your assertion that all the entries look alike as vastly exaggerated. How similar are the entries by Susan Chambless, Stefan Vitanov, Juliette Gribnau and Diane Walker, for instance? How many were made with UF?

    How about this:

    “No, the rules did not apply to BMFAC’s judges. They were free to be as progressively avant-garde as they wished. That way they can come off looking more cutting edge — more convention-smashing than the regular entrants they conveniently artistically hogtied.”

    How conventional and un-cutting-edge do the elements in the entries by David Makin, Ewa Stryza and Liz Nixon look to you? Do you really hold that they were “artistically hogtied”?

    For me most of your assertions do not hold water.

    Moving on to the FU calendar: this is not and never was a formal competition, but rather a general call for images for consideration in a commercial product. I have ascertained that it was never a secret that the editors were granted the right to have at least one image each appear in a given year’s calendar. I find this neither unfair nor underhanded in any way, especially since their images were not (to my eye at least) inferior to the others chosen. Obviously this acted as a form of recompense for their editorial work; they received no other. And what you again conveniently fail to mention is that the final choice of images is always up to the people at Avalanche Publishing; the editors do nothing more than make an initial selection of 200-odd images, which are then sent to the moneymen (and women) at Avalanche for final consideration. It is pretty obvious that they have a certain look in mind and that the images are chosen on that basis, but this is hardly the fault of the editors. You should take that up with Avalanche instead of making libelous statements about the editors.

    If indeed you accused Keith of impropriety or dishonesty in his role as editor for having his images included in the calendar I can understand why he eighty-sixed your post, although personally I would hope that I would have handled it differently. As I only have this third-hand I apologize in advance if I have this wrong.

    I do credit you for reproducing your correspondence with Damien in full and fairly; but for me it is Damien who comes out clean here. What I see are his patient attempts to explain the constraints under which he was laboring, and your stubborn refusal to give him any credit at all for trying to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation. It’s quite easy to criticize when it isn’t you bearing the responsibility, isn’t it? And far from being an authoritarian tactic, in my view Damien’s decision to cease hosting your site was a rational act of self-preservation, which he appears from the record to have done honorably and sensitively.

    It would be nice to think that any of this critique, which I have tried to present as compassionately as I could, might cause you to pause and reflect on the effects of your actions on others, but I have been around the block too many times in too many situations to really hope that anything said here will directly penetrate your rigid defenses.

    You are, of course, free to behave howsoever you wish and write whatsoever you wish, but it is an immutable law that our actions always engender reactions, and sometimes it is only through observing these repercussions, be they positive or negative, that we can truly understand the quality and efficacy of those actions, and the inner structure from which they spring. I wish you well and hope that you achieve your goals with the minimum damage to yourself and to others.

    Toby

  2. Toby,

    Thanks again for taking the time to write.

    Much of what you say addresses issues we’ve covered at length in previous posts and comments. You are welcome to explore OT’s archives to read what we have already argued. I see no reason for a rehash here.

    A couple of clarifications, though:

    Our concerns about the FU Calendar and the BMFAC have always centered on lapses of professional conduct. The point is not whether these institutions are money-making ventures for publishers or aid artists in “expression and self-realization.” Both fractal competitions include the work of their own judges/editors. BMFAC claims to be an open competition, but its rules privilege a specific program. Nearly all of BMFAC’s judges use or openly advocate that same program. Several judges even teach classes in the use of that particular program. BMFAC is filled with other conflicts of interest as well — like judges selecting the work of their own students. You conveniently choose not to address any of these issues.

    It seems your experience with reader Ken has been unlike ours. Your friend is our troll. Follow Tim’s links and you can see your tone is much different than his. But I find no comparison to our actions with him and to MacKay’s with me. Until Ken began violating our comments policy, we allowed him to post here for many months, and his past comments have not been deleted. MacKay deleted and banned me after one post. Ask him yourself, since you seem to imply I am lying.

    And if you are “no happier” about MacKay’s actions, then perhaps, as a contributor to his blog, you should immediately resign in protest — or at least put up a lengthy post there comparing his act of censorship to those of the Chinese communists, as you did here. Furthermore, your praise for Jones seems at odds with your disdain for intolerance, especially since Jones has a record of using intimidating tactics — like booting paying customers off his server for criticizing BMFAC.

    I have lost none of my love for the splendor of fractal art. And I am striving for something constructive. I would like fractal competitions to be run professionally, ethically, and fairly. The artwork of those doing the judging or editing should not be included under any circumstances. Safeguards should be implemented to prevent conflicts of interest. No particular program should be privileged over any other — thus allowing equal opportunity for artists and insuring diversity of artistic styles.

    This is not trashing the competition, Toby. This is a way of trying to ensure that there actually is one — a real one — and one that adheres to professional standards and is a credit to our community rather than a tacky embarrassment.

    Since you (and Ken) seem to think our blog is actually a bulletin board, I’ll let you have the last word — if you like. Rather than run over more old ground, though, I wish you would address OT’s specific objections to the practices of the two main fractal art competitions.

  3. Hi guys,

    First let me say that I am not in complete disagreement with many of your points. My personal opinion is that much of what passes for fractal art should more correctly be called “algorithmic art”, as I believe Damien calls it. Even when clear fractal formulae are used as the basis of images, the questions surrounding what level and types of post-processing can be used while still calling the image “fractal” are worthy of discussion, which, to your credit, you are trying to engender.

    As with everything in our complex physical world, there is no clear point of demarcation, and so we are forced to draw lines in the sand. In a fundamental sense, fractals are one-bit: a point is either in the set or out of it, and so each pixel can really only be one of two colors. I choose to be a “bit” more liberal in my interpretation, as I like the shapes and shadings of orbit traps and a palette of bright colors. How about textures? Are they only permissible if they follow the shapes of iterated elements, or not even then? At what point do attempts to make fractal images visually appealing subsume the fractals themselves?

    I believe that these are questions that must be clarified before embarking on an extended debate about fractal politics, as they underpin many of your criticisms. Without some sort of consensus about the definition of fractal art and how it differs from other arts, you are–pardon my French–pissing into the wind (with apologies to Michèle).

    A word here about the “rantings” of Ken. I know him well; he is in fact a very solid, long-time and respected (among many at least) member of the fractal community, although he generally keeps a low profile. He has been my coding mentor for many years and anyone who uses any of my formulae owes him a big debt of gratitude, although not as big as mine. He is indeed blunt and doesn’t mince words, but in reading your exchanges with him I see very little, if anything, that could be called “ranting”. The words are certainly heated, but in my understanding he presents clear and considered points. If this is the level at which one gets banned on your blog I am slightly surprised that I am still finding my own posts here.

    Let’s move on to some points of contention–your complaints about the court politics of our little fractal principality. In a word, I would say: yes, there are politics. Politics spring up quite naturally wherever there is power and questions about its apportionment.

    I have no big ego investment in my fractals, so generally this is all water off a duck’s back to me. I will admit to some disappointment in not having any of my fractals chosen for the calendar for the past few years, but so what? The FU calendar is a purely money-making venture, and the people at Avalanche Publishing choose the images that they think are going to sell calendars. I have hundreds of images that I “know” are as good or better than any that are chosen, but apparently they don’t appeal to those who judge which images will appeal to the unwashed masses.

    As a related aside, I have been a contributing photographer to a large agency for many years. I am constantly amazed at the killer images that they reject and the crap images of mine that they accept. The bottom line is: if I have complaints about that my only constructive recourse is to form my own agency or start selling my pictures online (and see if they are, indeed, killer images which people will rush to buy). Railing against their judgment is a waste of energy and gets me nowhere.

    “Trahimur omnes laudis studio” (We are all led by our eagerness for praise)–Cicero

    You may indeed be right that the fractal artists who help Avalanche get preferential treatment or have an agreement that at least one of their images will be used, but so what? I have never noticed the quality of those images to be inferior to the other images chosen, and I think if you have a good look at the names of the artists on any given year’s calendar, you will find a number who are unknown to you, and who certainly are not active members of any fractal fraternity.

    I am not big on contests myself, so I am probably not qualified to comment on your assertions about the Mandelbrot contest, aside from saying that all art contests are “rigged” in some sense or another, in that they purport to rank images objectively based on subjective criteria. Again we have the question of lines in the sand: if you are talking about a math contest, in which there are clear criteria (is the answer right or wrong?) that is one thing, but once it gets any more ambiguous than that we are dealing with issues of taste and, to some extent, conscious or unconscious favoritism. If you can’t accept that you are better off using your energies to organize your own contest based on your own brand of favoritism.

    Which brings me to Damien. Aside from my personal admiration for him based on his behavior as moderator of the UF list, I have tremendous respect for his real-world accomplishments, in terms of his very real contributions to (at least one part of) our fractal community. He did put up a server and they did come, not because they were forced to do so, but because it aids them in their own efforts at expression and self-realization. What are you giving to the community positively? It is easy to tear down, much more difficult to build.

    And if most of the work coming from the UF community has some family resemblances, whose fault it that? As Eric Hoffer said, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” You are not going to change this basic fact. If you don’t like UF art then offer people a comparable alternative. If it has merit, they will indeed come, without you having to trash the competition, which is nothing more than disingenuity if you don’t offer something viable in its stead.

    Finally, if you were indeed censored from Keith’s blog, then I am no happier about that than I am about your own decision to ban Ken (and others?), but basically this is ad hom. Just because Keith did it, should you?

    Let me end this with a positive suggestion: let yourself be carried away once again by the incredible wonder and beauty of the fractal world. All the rest of what we are talking about is the merest layer of scum on deep, clear waters.

    Toby

    “We are all born mad, some remain so.” –Samuel Beckett

  4. Toby,

    Thank you taking the time to comment and to do so in a thoughtful fashion.

    We are not averse to criticism at OT. In fact, both Tim and I would like to see some carefully considered disapproval. It would be a nice break from the usual personal attacks.

    Comment moderation does not necessarily translate into censorship. We had a public comments policy. When it was ignored and violated, we removed several posts. So, now we are flirting with censorship? As a private publishing venture, rather than a forum or bulletin board, are we under any obligation to print violations of our comments policy? And if our policies are disregarded, then what is our next logical option?

    That being said, we’ve only restricted two commenters to date. One was someone we recognized using a sock puppet (whom we’ll post if his known alias is used). The other is reader Ken who thinks he is a critic but is actually a troll. We’ve now begun receiving borderline harassment emails from him. If Ken would like a clarification for why his posting privileges have been curtailed, he can identify himself by sending us an email. We’ll be glad to tell him the reasons.

    And, to date, that’s it. I don’t see our actions as a record of intolerance.

    If you are concerned about censorship in the fractal community, you might want to turn equal attention to Keith MacKay’s blog and forum. After I made one critical comment on his Wedreamincolor blog, a post that was neither profane nor ad hominem, I was immediately deleted and banned — and, in fact, an entire thread subsequently disappeared. I was told by the moderator that the blog freely exchanged ideas, “but we will not be exchanging any of yours.” I was compared to “a terrorist” who could “piss on the fractal world from Orbit Trap.” Apparently, this blog — founded by a FU Calendar editor and listing FU screeners and the BMFAC coordinator (as well as you, Toby) among its members — gets a free pass when silencing its detractors.

    Does only OT need counseling about the dangers of suppressing freedom of expression? Does MacKay’s repression trouble you as well — especially since you are listed as a contributing member to his group blog? Or, instead, is MacKay promoting “healthy discussion” (and the status quo) by quashing views that challenge his own and those of his contributors?

  5. I guess, Toby, the heart of the matter is that the response to OT’s criticism of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest and the Fractal Universe Calendar have rarely amounted to much more than an “ad hominen” attack on the writer and not a criticism of what they’ve written.

    But we let that go and allowed the comments section to be used to post whatever people wanted to say.

    Much of it isn’t worth reading, particulary the “blog in a blog” filibustering of Ken, someone who isn’t even a member of the fractral art community in any way, neither an artist or and even a casual admirer of fractal art.

    I think (…humble opinion thing) that the conclusions we came to about the contest were one’s that were pretty obvious and there wasn’t much the supporters of these projects could do except practise the sort of “spin doctoring” and “damage control” that we often see in the political arena when people are caught red-handed.

    They will never discuss the actual issues behind our criticism of the contests because they are “guilty as charged” and they’re just hoping now that the whole thing will go away and everyone will forget what we said.

    The Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest and the Fractal Universe Calendar will survive OT’s exposes. At this point all I hope is that they will do some reorganization and become projects whose primary purpose is to present the best in Fractal Art regardless of who (or what) made it.

    But that means putting aside self-promotion for the sake of the artform. They can do it!

  6. I certainly agree that it you want to keep spam and OT trash out, but I think that you have to be careful that “moderation” doesn’t become censorship. I am not accusing you of this, but if you are writing controversial stuff you have to expect to receive some strong replies. If you filter these too vigorously, you risk having a forum degenerate into an author “singing in the shower”. This is the kind of technique used by commentators like Rush Limbaugh, who ruthlessly screens calls so that all voices heard are friendly.

    But it is not limited to the Right. I spend six months a year in Beijing, and the PRC government justifies its relentless repression of dissent by citing the need for a “harmonious society”. There is always a delicate balance between civil order and freedom of expression, and I think that in healthy discussion it is incumbent on all of us to allow as much of the latter as possible.

    I believe that this blog would be the better for allowing strong criticism in commentary (at least as strong as your own criticism in writing), as long as it remains on topic and is not profane. You are making some serious charges; a vigorous defense of your views would only add to your credibility.

    Of course much depends on what you wish to accomplish with your blog.

    You are welcome to regard this as a personal comment and keep it private if you wish.

    Toby

  7. @Toby Although I’m sure you will not be surprised to hear that I disagree with probably everything you’ve said (as evidenced by my posting, and many other previous postings), I would like to thank you for submitting a comment which is can actually be classified as civilized.

    After enduring for the better part of a year the senseless rantings of Ken (an example) and the short, sharp, insulting one-liners of just about everyone else, your comment confirms to me that the moderation of comments is the only way to even hope to raise the IQ of Orbit Trap’s comment section.

    “ripe with the odor of intolerance”

    “our poor anti-fractal artists”

    Hmmmnn…. I’m going to take a deep breath now and chill out. Thanks for the feedback, Toby.

  8. As a long-time fractal artist, I find your comments ripe with the odor of intolerance. I personally am an old-fashioned spiral man who does not generally use pixel tricks nor combine fractal elements, but that does not mean that I can’t appreciate the work of those who do so skillfully and with taste. This kind of reaction is reminiscent of the Parisian academic art crowd, which was scandalized by impressionism in the late 19th century. Perhaps you are latter-day Louis Leroys; our poor anti-fractal artists will apparently have to organize their own “Salon des Refusés”.

    Fractal art is still *art*, not science; if you were railing against fractal adulteration in a stricter context your argument would have more merit, IMO.

    I am also rather puzzled by the consistent anti-UltraFractal bias evident throughout this blog.

    Although at present I work mostly in UF, I have used a number of different generators over the years. In fact many of my personal favorites were done in Fractal Explorer.

    The plain fact is that–leaving all those graphics capabilities aside–UF is far and away the most powerful and flexible of all the fractal programs. Many of my own formulae and colorings would be simply impossible to port to any other program. And nobody is forcing masking or transformations on you: there is no law that says you have to use any of UF’s features that you do not like.

    So guys, chill out, breathe deep. There is plenty of room here for everyone.

    Just to keep the whole thing balanced…

    Regards,

    Toby

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