Ultra "Fractal" 5 and the Slow Death of Fractal Art

By the power invested in me, I hereby declare this photograph to now be a fractal.

I’ve had a little more time now to reflect on the implications of the digital image import features added to Ultra “Fractal” 5, so I hope I can clarify some of my initial observations. I’d also like to address some of the points made in the comments about my previous post on UF5.

When the image importation features of UF5 were announced, I guessed — and I made clear I was only guessing — that Paul DeCelle had used this feature to reconstruct a copy of a painting by Lars-Gunner Nordström. My guess turned out to be wrong, and I stand corrected and appreciate those who wrote Orbit Trap — including DeCelle himself — to set me straight. My speculation was hardly a wild shot in the dark, though — given the timing of DeCelle’s posts and UF5’s release. And, actually, I’m glad to learn my guesswork fell short, since it means that my initial review of DeCelle’s image — which I noted that I stood by — still rings true.

But simply because I mistook DeCelle’s reconstruction for importation, it does not follow that the rest of the reflections or claims made in my last post were also in error — especially my suppositions concerning the ramifications that Ultra “Fractal” 5 may have for both fractal art and our artistic community. In fact, I think it’s worth noting that (so far) no one has come forward to dispute or refute any of those points.

Whether DeCelle’s image was brought in whole or built piece-by-piece is not the real issue here. The point is that Ultra “Fractal” has been and now will even more become a tool for producing a hybridized, “fractilized,” mixed-media art. How DeCelle made the image is purely a technical question. Here are the more pertinent questions: Is DeCelle’s image a fractal — and is it any more a fractal than my lightning-round exercises of importing a digital copy of Nordström into Photoshop and making rapid-fire adjustments?

What DeCelle has done, to my thinking, is vectorized Nordström’s painting. There are programs available, like Potrace, which can do something similar — that is, trace the boundaries of what the software considers the main elements of an image and save that information as the usual vector file of nodes rather than bitmaps. The advantage, of course, is the image can be rendered at any size without a loss of quality. DeCelle, as I said last month, is a skilled artist and his technical achievement here is indeed stunning. His image has considerable subtle detail and doesn’t appear to be a UF “silkscreen” — even if it is.

However, in my opinion, there is nothing fractal about DeCelle’s image, but I don’t think he ever said there was. DeCelle admits just experimenting with UF4’s graphical functions and using them to “paint” a replication of Moment in Blue. Using importation, I utilized Photoshop filters to also paint on Nordstrom’s original, thus my assertion that UF was now just a plug-in. The inclusion of DeCelle’s par file in the comments does not prove the image is a fractal — only that the image was made in UF and that he used transforms rather than imports. Even though UF can be used to make such silkscreen-like images like DeCelle’s Nordström imitation, my under-30-seconds demonstrations were designed to show that somewhat similar modifications can be made more easily and quickly using a graphics program. The fact that DeCelle used UF4 rather than UF5 does not refute my argument; it merely shows that UF long ago built in enough graphics processing capabilities that its output has often been mixed media and not simply fractal art. But now, with UF5, the image import feature means the program’s ability to produce non-fractal art has been significantly enhanced and made much easier. And this returns me to the main argument nobody wants to touch: All work henceforth made with Ultra “Fractal” 5 cannot be assumed to be fractal art because the program can now incorporate any sort of digital imagery into the final result.

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Let’s turn now to the comments made on my last post.

Sam is certainly correct that plug-ins like Sprite have previously allowed photo incorporation into UF — but I doubt with the same degree of precise control and subtle integration as the new tool interface. Users don’t have to configure anything; it’s already there. Besides, if this addition is just a formality, why are the designers touting it as a major new feature? It’s bound to lead to more photos being used in art produced, and the enhanced layering capabilities work in favor of making Ultra “Fractal” into Ultra Photo as well. I understand Sam may a have different perspective on this issue. He is probably looking at what UF5 could do. I think Tim and I are talking more about how people, especially Fractalbookers, will actually use the software. Making photo imagery easier to incorporate could be just the nudge to tip the scales enough to make the practice commonplace.

I understand Guido’s observation, too. He’s saying image importing is a natural development for UF. The purpose of any art tool is to empower and enable artists to make better, more versatile art — regardless of what methods are used. Hey, if anyone’s ever advocated using graphics processing to push the boundaries of fractal art, it’s me. I’ve been gene-splicing fractals and rearranging their digital DNA for ten years. One of my critics even went so far as to label my work “fractal vandalism.” So, on a personal level, why would I have a beef with pumping up UF’s (or any generator’s) image manipulation features? Bring it on, I say. Shoot that baby full of graphics steroids. Welcome to my world, man.

But, then again, I’m not the one who’s been making smug judgments for years about fractal artists who lazily stoop to using the crutch of “post-processing.” Nor have I been busy creating “fractal contests” that specify submission size requirements that privilege UF, and that stack the judging panel with UF users/teachers/advocates, and that publicly proclaim Kreskin-like mental abilities to somehow intuit what fractal art can and cannot be considered “uniquely fractal.” In fact, I haven’t even called myself a fractal artist since around 2000. In interviews and bios, I usually describe my work as “fractal-based digital art” — which seems more accurate. So, if the boundaries have finally shifted because UF users can now enjoy the post-processing former game cheats of a bundled mini-Photoshop, then let’s all break out the champagne, put away our semantic parsing, and sing kumbaya together around the fireplace screensaver. But, first, I’d like to make absolutely sure we’re all the same page here and agree that making “fractal art” now means whatever digital kitchen sinks anyone wants to include. Are you with me, brothers and sisters?

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I think Guido’s comment hinges on a phrase in the first sentence: nothing more. What Tim and I are saying is it’s a lot more than “nothing”; it’s the beginning of the end for “art with fractals” and the start of what will surely be “photos with fractals.” UF now can double as nothing more than a filter in a paint program. For the truly talented UF artists, this change probably is not a big deal. They’ll continue making their work with their usual precision and vision. But for most of the Fractalbookers, the mass consumers of the UF product, this photo import feature will be the Holy Grail to jazz up what comes out of their assembly lines. With such an easy to use expedient, “Made with UF” soon won’t mean much more than just another digital mash-up.

Poor Catenary — who hasn’t yet figured out that fractal “post-processing” is a myth. Even a few of the self-proclaimed “most important fractal artists in the world” say so. Catenary also believes that

For whatever reason, we humans tend to rate a piece of art more highly if we believe it was difficult and laborious to create. It isn’t a prerequisite (M. Duchamp comes to mind) but I think the view is widely if not always consciously held.

and claims that because “highly layered and processed images…require more work and are thus seen as better,” it must necessarily follow that

you must have worked harder to create the image, since you denied yourself the use of certain tools.

I’d argue that fine art is often assessed by ethereal, subjective criteria that goes beyond considering what tools were used and the time spent using them. How do we know that Duchamp didn’t log countless hours putting his famous urinal to (ahem) “personal use” before placing that art object on public display? And what about the viewer who might happen to prefer my 24-second Fresco tweak of Nordström’s painting to the much more technically skillful and labor-intensive reconstruction of DeCelle’s? Is such a viewer inherently wrong and in dire need of art appreciation rehab?

Catenary’s precepts might sometimes apply to certain exploratory art exercises — like DeCelle’s UF reconstructive surgery on Nordström — but I think they’d generally make poor codes to live by. If I worked eight hours a day for ten years to compose a single three-line haiku like

Me — horse with bum legs.
After ten years, this poem sucks.
Shoot me. Please shoot me.

should I be praised for creating a “difficult and laborious” work or, well, put out of my misery for being a fool? Likewise, using Catenary’s logic, shouldn’t I immediately burn my keyboard and finish writing this blog entry using cuneiform? That way all of you will be more impressed because I “denied myself certain tools” and thus had to work much harder to complete this post.

And, finally, why didn’t I just ask DeCelle how he created his image? As I made clear in my last review, I did not want to know DeCelle’s methods and expressed hope that he would keep his “secret secret.” Why? Because once the Fractalbookers could duplicate his techniques, the newness that made DeCelle’s image so fresh and exciting in the first place would soon be fatally cloned and perish in a death by a thousand cuts posts. But such fears are moot now. With UF5’s import feature arriving on the scene, there are not enough sandbags on Earth to hold back the kitsch floodwaters. I wonder. Will the art form we love be able to survive the Fractal Flickr storm that is sure to come?

Maybe Catenary is right, after all. Maybe we should be asking UF5 artists exactly how they make their images. All of them. Every time. Before any and every public posting. Such a practice should be both standardized and institutionalized. Maybe Fractalus, the home to all that is Ultra “Fractal,” could be used as a kind of Fractal Truthiness Clearinghouse. Damien M. Jones is probably tech-savvy enough to figure out how to administer virtual Sodium Penathol injections and polygraph examinations to all potential UF5 disseminators. The Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest judges could be recruited to do interrogations and to read read-outs — after all, they have both the experience and the psychic powers to immediately ferret out those images that will prove to be “uniquely fractal.” Par files could be poured over like hanging chads. Images found to be “acceptable” could then be stamped in the upper left corner with a visible icon — perhaps one resembling the seal used by the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s– and then given final approval to be posted in “fractal galleries” on web sites and art communities around the world. Those sorta-kinda-fractal images that almost made the cut, rather like the many Honorable Mentions handed out at last year’s BMFAC, would be given frown-face stamps and be forcibly relegated to the malls of Mixed-Media galleries. Finally, those poor images deemed to be utterly un-fractal, would be stamped with bright red circles with lines through them, a kind of Scarlet Letter of the universal designator for no, and trucked off to be dumped into 2D landfills and never seen again.

Too cumbersome, you say? But then, I ask you, in the wake of what UF5 will surely have soon wrought, how can anyone anywhere ever be certain again that any UF image from this day forward can claim to be “uniquely fractal”?

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5 thoughts on “Ultra "Fractal" 5 and the Slow Death of Fractal Art

  1. Great haiku!

    You missed the obligatory seasonal reference, but never mind.

    Here is my modest offering:

    No song lifts my heart
    As I read this latest rant
    Cold tea and windbells

    Sumimasen, yoroshiku onegaishimasu.

    Toby

  2. Great haiku!

    Thanks. I’m guessing you liked the “shoot me” part the best.

    You missed the obligatory seasonal reference…

    Read the second line more carefully. It’s a veiled allusion to my long winter of discontent. Note to self: include more scholarly-looking footnotes.

    Sadly, though, in the end, no work of art is flawless, even one that, given its contextual underpinnings, was supposed to be deliberately bad.

  3. – All work henceforth made with Ultra “Fractal” 5 cannot be assumed to be fractal art because the program can now incorporate any sort of digital imagery into the final result.

    – But, first, I’d like to make absolutely sure we’re all the same page here and agree that making “fractal art” now means whatever digital kitchen sinks anyone wants to include.

    Sorry, I’m confused: are you saying that work created with Ultra Fractal’s image import feature is or isn’t “fractal art”?

    But really, who wants to try defining fractal art in a way that will satisfy everyone? And can it really be defined at all. It seems to me that it’s an evolving term, and for the most part it refers to images created with “fractal” programs. In the Fractint days it seemed OK to call a piece Fractal art even if the image wasn’t actually a fractal (my favourite: Popcorn springs to mind). What’s changed?

    Like you, I haven’t called myself a fractal artist for a long time, but ironically the work I’ve created with the image import function (and my Sprite work before that) are the most fractal pictures I’ve done recently becaue they use images for orbit traps on fractal fromulas.

    You seem worried by the fact that the (what do you call them?) “fractalbookers” will import images of their pets, or whatever. But who cares? You can’t judge art by the lowest common denominator.

    Mark

  4. Just to clarify – I don’t personally believe that the value of a piece of work is solely or largely based on how difficult it was to create, nor did I say so.

    Let me try and articulate this a bit more clearly.

    I suggest:

    One possible component of an aesthetic appreciation of a work of art is how much craftsmanship was required to create it. I.e. it is one of the “ethereal criteria” you can choose to use when assessing a work of art. How heavily you weigh it (or whether you care at all) is part of your aesthetic.

    Craftsmanship is obviously neither necessary nor sufficient to create a good work. Personally, I think craftsmanship is neither entirely irrelevant nor is it all-important. It’s a factor.

    Further: I believe that many makers and viewers of fractal art instinctively weight craftsmanship quite heavily in their aesthetic criteria, without having thought about it too hard, and that this bias affects both the kind of art created and the claims made about it.

    A random thing which just occurred to me: does this mean that most fractal art is more akin to folk art than fine art?

  5. My two cents.

    “Fractal” has a precise meaning only in the mathematical sense. Any so called “fractal” image, even the ones which could be considered as the “purest” by some peoples, is an extremely poor approximation of the underlying object.

    It’s why I prefer to use the term “algorithmic” art rather than “fractal” art. The definition could be the following. A work is “algorithmic” if it is produced by an algorithm admitting a limited number of parameters or data.

    In this acceptation of the term, digital photography and digital handpaintings are not algorithmic art. Most images produced by fractal generators are algorithmic art. Images created in Ultrafractal with the image importer tool would only be partially algorithmic.

    This is the only sensible definition of the art form we are speaking of, in my opinion.

    To make a parallel with information theory one could say that an algorithmic work, even if it usually looks complicated, always has a low complexity, in the sense of information theory. Interestinly, I looked at Wikipedia to find an article on complexity. There is one indeed, which illustrates this concept with… an image of the Mandelbrot set. In the case of “fractal images”, this low complexity is directly linked to the fact that you can produce an arbitrarily large and detailed image from the limited pieces of data consisting of the parameter set, the formulas and the fractal generator.

    Of course, in the above definition, what we understand by “a limited number of parameters” could fill a few more blog posts, and could be used to exclude or include the works of some artists, but I think this energy could be better used at creating new algorithms and algorithmic images.

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