Ultra Fractal 5 and a New Paradigm of Fractal Art

I thought I’d try writing a post, in a straight-forward and non-sarcastic manner, that tries to clarify my concerns about Ultra Fractal 5. Here goes.

I believe UF5 has brought fractal art to a critical crossroads. UF5 will almost certainly kick-start a paradigm shift as to how fractal art is seen and will raise serious questions about what fractal art can and cannot be. We — as artists, programmers, theorists, and viewers — should begin a conversation over what we consider “fractal art” to be and speak up as to whether our perceptions of the art form should expanded or restricted.

I fear the answer is not as simple as Mark Townsend suggests when he notes that fractal art, for the most part, refers to “images created with ‘fractal’ programs.” Take this situation. I import a photograph into the lighting features of Xenodream, add an effect like Wild Glass, and save my work. Xenodream allows me to save both an image file (.jpg, .psd, whatever) and a .xep file. I now have a Xenodream parameter file that is 0% fractal. More importantly, I used Xenodream strictly as a graphics program. I have, in fact, sometimes imported fractals made in other programs (like QuaSZ) into Xenodream and put them through this process. I was, in effect, post-processing a fractal with another fractal program. (Note, too, that a strict reading of Townsend’s definition would likely exclude any — if not all — post-processing.)

With the advent of refined image importation in UF5, something similar can now be done in UF. Import your image, run Popcorn through it, and save. Again, you have a work and a parameter file that is 0% fractal. Paul DeCelle’s work to reconstruct paintings using UF proved a fractal-less creation was possible through his personal vision and skill. UF5’s image importation feature will quickly allow any user to now do something similar with considerably less craft and effort.

Here is the point. I think we all would agree with a statement that fractal art is “art with fractals.” But are we now also ready to agree that fractal art can also be “art without fractals”?

The introduction of imported photographs dramatically redraws the boundaries and shifts UF’s focus from fractal production to graphics processing. I would draw a line between algorithms and bitmaps (photos). Townsend used the example of Popcorn. Popcorn, I’m assuming, is like a rendering effect that modifies the fractal-generated image but doesn’t create anything on its own. I’d point out that is exactly how most people would describe a Photoshop plug-in. Photos, on the other hand, are “dead” imagery; they are static. They have no parameters beyond that of a bitmap and are not the products of some other process. Photos, in short, are unlike fractal images.

And here’s one limitation from a technical standpoint. Incorporating photos into UF may be a real challenge when it comes to making a high res file for printing. The bitmaps won’t be scalable like the fractal elements will be because they’re not vectorized. Gargantuan image sizes, like those preferred by the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest, might make the import feature of little value unless users think ahead and import only photos at a resolution that will not disintegrate when printed at the size of a plasma television.

Practically speaking, once a photo (or Bryce creation, or Terragen landscape, or Poser figure, etc.) is imported into UF5, the work can no longer be said to be “Made with UF.” It is only “Processed in UF” — hence my suggestion that UF has now become a paint program. At best, the introduction of a photo into UF5 results in a work that is more accurately described as “mixed-media.” At worst, bringing in a photo means that all fractal work in UF is immediately done. From that point on, you are using UF to strictly manipulate that imported photo.

Why does any of this matter? Maybe because of attitudes like this one — found in Ken Childress’ latest blog post:

Are fractal images, post-processed beyond recognition of any fractal qualities, fractal art? I think this question might shed some light on the angst exhibited by OT. Because someone uses UF, by default people may consider their images fractal based whether or not actual fractal formulas are used by the artist [my emphasis]. A fractal image destroyed of any fractal qualities by churning through filters may not have the say [same?] defaults applied to it, especially when it originates in some other program than UF.

Childress feels anything goes — including adding non-fractal photos — if you’re using the inherently more-fractal-by-default Ultra Fractal. I think Childress is mistaken (filters use algorithms, too) and is merely privileging his chosen program. I strenuously object to any and all such default privileging of Ultra Fractal. Though the program may be popular, it is not the end-all to everything that encompasses fractal art. Personally, I find the software leaves too much of its own stamp on what it produces. The “machine” is overly visible for my tastes.

Furthermore, Childress is preaching to the wrong congregation. I know I’d welcome a more expansive view of what fractal art can be. And I’d argue that my work, even when processed “beyond recognition,” is probably more “fractal” than any piece made using imported photographs. Childress should be sermonizing on pervasiveness to those people he cites who find UF more fractal “by default.” And who are these people? Tim and I? No. They are, in fact, the BMFAC judges — regulators of the only current international “Fractal Art” competition. It is people like Mark and Sam and Kerry (all of whom have commented on OT recently) who will be doing the deciding, by default, as to what entries are “uniquely fractal” enough to be serious competitors. That means, by extension, these are the people who will decide what constitutes fractal art and what does not.

And how will these judges judge the “fractalness” of these new photo-infused UF hybrids? By default, I think we already know the answer.

Because, by default, the entire competition is skewed to favor Ultra Fractal. The submission guidelines are barn-door sized and thus exclude work rendered in most other programs. The judges are nearly all UF users and advocates — and the winners’ work (including the judges’ self-selected “entries”) is disproportionately weighted to being made with UF.

I worry that this serious philosophical matter is in the hands of those who have shown a marked tendency to privilege themselves and their own, and who have a history of actions valuing personal ends and fostering private agendas over the greater good of the community.

However, all of us in the fractal community have a stake in this discussion, and we should not allow UF to have a monopoly, especially by default. Apophysis users, practically shut out the competition by the size requirement, deserve a say. As do users of programs made by Sterling-Thornton, Gintz, Ferguson, Pfingstl, and many others. As do programmers who create and use their own software — like Lycium and Earl L. Hindrichs. And, yes, as do those artists like Tim and I who might prefer to do our processing in external programs.

My point: the Fractal Supreme Court is stacked with UF activist judges who will soon be given another opportunity (assuming BMFAC is held again this year) to “rule” on what can or cannot be considered “fractal art” enough to be competitive in the only prominent “fractal art” contest. Such decisions could impact how “fractal art” is seen in the public mind and influence what work is allowed where in art communities. The UF5 question will come up before their bench. How do you think they will rule, by default?

I say level the playing field. Vary the size requirements for entering BMFAC. Include judges from all schools and styles rather than defaulting to UF. And, please, no longer allow the judges to include their own work in the “contest” exhibition.

You have a choice. You can speak up and make yourself heard. Or you can keep silent and let the BMFAC judges speak for you. By default.

I hope my views are a little clearer now. Thanks for listening.

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2 thoughts on “Ultra Fractal 5 and a New Paradigm of Fractal Art

  1. I’d say that Ultra Fractal has always been shifting paradigms at to how fractal art is seen, that’s not new to version 5. And it’s always had it’s detractors who say that what it does in not “fractal art”. You seem concerned over the new image import feature, but you point out that Xenodream already has such a feature, so what is new with UF5? There must be some concern about Ultra Fractal other than just the features it contains, and that appears towards the end of your post.

    As an artist and a programmer (but probably less a theorist and viewer) I think our perceptions of the art form should be expanded…always expanded, because if they are restricted then the art form becomes dead and unchanging.

    Personally I’m not interested in defining fractal art, but I’d concede that fractals (and/or perhaps related algorithms) should appear somewhere in the creative process to deserve the term. I’d even say that it doesn’t matter where in the process they appear (i.e. fractal images post-processed, or images post-processed with fractal algorithms). The definition in my previous reply was what I thought the general opinion was (and perhaps I was wrong). I definitely don’t have anything against post-processing, but then I’ve never been a fractal “purist”.

    Ultra Fractal’s focus hasn’t shifted to image processing: image importing is just one of many new features, and possibly not the most exciting (the UF formula writers will tell you that’s the new object oriented programming abilities: all the better for creating, mixing and matching fractal algorithms). And besides, I think there’ll be relatively little simple importing of images: where the feature becomes exciting is when images are used as orbit traps or mapped on to the elements of existing orbit traps…and that’s definitely fractal.

    The technical limitation you mention is a valid point, especially if the intention is to simply import an image and blow it up to large print sizes; however UF does use a form of bicubic interpolation, which I’m sure is already used by PhotoShoppers to produce print sizes that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. It might be less of a problem if the images are used as orbit traps (I personally would accept some image degradation if the overall effect was a positive one).

    Now we come to the real reason that you seem to be fuming against Ultra Fractal: not any feature of the program itself, but the fact that you conceive the Benoit Fractal Art Competitions to be biased toward Ultra Fractal images. I can’t speak for anyone else on the judging panel, or for the organizers, but I vote for images that I like. There are Xenodream and Apophysis images amongst the 2007 winners (though I don’t know whether or not I voted for them). I’d love to see Earl L. Hindrichs enter images, but I don’t think he does many fractals these days. And perhaps it would be better to allow smaller print sizes, but that’s not up to me (or any of the judges).

    To suggest that I (or Sam, or Kerry, or any of the other judges for that matter) would choose Ultra Fractal images (with or without image importing) just because they are Ultra Fractal images, is, I’m sorry, quite offensive.

  2. When I used the new import bitmap function for the first time, I was also thinking at this level. If an image is imported, it would (in my opinion) devaluate the work when described as ‘fractal’. When I began to use this function, it had a ‘dirty’ feel to it.

    In my view the concept of fractals has a profound connection with how the Universe is built. It feels to me we really live in a ‘Fractal Universe’. As is explained in the documentary ‘Colors of Infinity’ with Arthur C. Clarke, fractals are truly the ‘thumbprint of God’. God for me is the Universe, so this has a deep (pseudo)scientific meaning to me in how the Universe is built.

    So in that way I am a purist. When I work/play with it, I don’t like it to be ‘polluted’ with less efficient ways of computing and rendering data.

    The recursive nature of fractals makes me an even more extreme thinker: When an bitmap is imported, the free flowing recursive datastrings would be interrupted by inconsistencies, anomalies. When I visualize this, it gives me a feeling of limit, whereas fractals is just the thing where I find freedom and chaos in a very consistently structured manner…

    Contrary to the above, when it comes to defining fractal art, I wouldn’t exclude post-processed fractals. Post-processing adds an extra addition to what can be done with creativity and fractals. The only thing I would require is that the basis/essence of the work should be fractal. E.g. when a work is created with a non-fractal app, and afterwards coloured in with fractal patterns, the work shouldn’t be described as fractal.

    On the matter of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Competition, I think at the moment this competition should totally restrict the entered works from non-fractal interventions. This because the possibilities when working with fractals are still new and evolving, just look at the evolution of UF. There is still a lot to learn either from the perspective of the scientist as of the artist. And herein the Mandelbrot Competitions has a leading authority of showing the world what fractals really are and what can be created with the pure form of it alone. I would not mind competitions where less is restricted, but let us see first what fractals can do…

    As a last remark we have to look how we create art with fractals and compare it to other means that create art.

    I have noticed there is a big distinction when comparing how I use fractal apps and do something else artistic. When you draw, you start with a plain piece of white paper, when you sculpt, you start with a block of stone, in other words, you start with zero information. But when you are creating fractals, you start with a given algorithm, a formula. The creation of fractals is hereby more of a search than an act, just like photography. Just because of this search, we should look at what we can literally find in the fractal world.

    But I have to remark, there are also fractal artist that begin their process from zero, from the fundamentals, the formula itself. These formula creators are in my eyes the only true fractal artists, especially the ones that have a mental image of what they want to create and then reproduce it in reality (if that is at all possible :) ).


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