Chapter One: From Kumbaya to Pitchforks
Although Orbit Trap is really nothing more than a niche blog that publishes once or twice a week, and I don’t see anything in the future likely to change that, three years is a long time on the internet and I thought some of our readers might find a brief recounting of its history to be of interest, as small and trivial as it might seem in the context of the Blogosphere and the Internet in general.
Sometime in the summer of 2006 Tim Hodkinson (that’s me), and Terry Wright wanted to create some sort of online presence that would bring together and generate fresh ideas and perspectives on fractal art and to serve as a sort of online showcase for them, both to fractal artists themselves and to the fractal art interested public as well. Our hope was to stimulate, or at the very least, suggest more progressive and innovative directions in fractal art.
A blog wasn’t our first choice. In fact, our first idea was a “Best Of” fractal art gallery. We thought this would be a good way to bring good ideas in fractal art to greater attention and hopefully greater use; showcase the best artwork in one place. But the more we considered the difficulties of getting “The Best” artists to allow us to showcase their work, made difficult by painful past experiences with other similar online projects, and also the difficulty in actually finding more progressive and innovative fractal art works to start with — we thought something more along the lines of a community forum, discussion, brainstorming kind of thing would be better.
A forum, despite its apparent ability and intended design to bring together many people and enable them to exchange ideas, was quickly tossed out as they tend, in practice, to become shout-fests and verbal, team wrestling events. That is, when they’re not being derailed by some total neophyte who wants to jump into the thread without even having read the previous postings. Besides, there had been plenty of forums in the past (and there still are) but they haven’t really brought about any sort of artistic awakening among those who participate in them. Forums seem to end up serving a small number of specialized social functions. But aside from that, a forum was too wide open and chaotic for the sort of progressive online thing we were looking to make.
I guess a blog was our last choice. But we thought that if we could get many other people from the fractal world to join it then it would have a chance at being the sort of collective, all-inclusive and importantly, intelligent venue for fresh ideas in fractal art. A blog posting was a nice way for someone to say something or propose some alternative point of view without being drowned out or “anonymized” in a forum thread. Blogging puts the emphasis on the initial posting while comments, like footnotes, are there for those who want to add something or go deeper if they care to. We really had faith in the community to generate innovative ideas and styles if only someone could find a way to get it all started. It had all the optimism of the original builders of the Tower of Babel and almost the same results.
We tried it out in August of 2006 by sending invitations out to about 20 or 30 of the most prominent people involved in fractal art at the time. They weren’t just artists, they were anyone who we thought might have something relevant to add to the great online meeting of minds. Programmers, of course, and also other people who’d shown a thoughtful interest in fractal art in the past. Even folks whose interests were more strictly in the area of algorithmic art, but were still relevant to fractal art and bordered on it.
Not everyone was interested. Many had misgivings about having to produce some sort of written article for a posting once a month. (That was a foreshadowing of the collapse of Orbit Trap as a community project to come.) Most were excited simply to be part of the next new thing in the fractal art world. You can go and see all those community postings over at the Blogger site.
I mentioned that contributors had to post once a month? Well, what do you do when they don’t? How do you approach someone, someone prominent in fractal art world, who’s “delinquent” in their postings and who was enticed to join the blog when you told them it would be easy? I’m not talking about lazy people, either. I’m talking about people who were very busy with their own work, the sort of work that brought them to our attention in the first place and made us think, “So and so’s knowledge and skill would make them a great contribution to the blog”.
After sending out two of these “reminder notices” we decided we had to rethink things. On the one hand, the blog would end up being written by just the both of us if no one else posted anything; on the other hand, hassling people to do something they otherwise wouldn’t do was rather distasteful –for both parties.
We changed the one post a month rule to once every three months around October and started sending out more invitations hoping that we’d eventually have enough postings guarantee enough content to keep our readers interested. We eventually we had to change the rule to post whenever you get around to it (or else start the hassling all over again) and then waited to see if that easy-going, relaxed atmosphere helped the situation. It didn’t. About six months into the life of the blog, a drought set in and stayed. We had enough contributors still hanging on to keep going, but for the most part they only posted their once a month requirement, and with so few others it was too sporadic and thin to keep an audience much less attract one. Readers would drop in because of the prestigious contributor list we had in the sidebar of the blog, but there was no growth in readership.
Around June of 2007, despite the fact that most contributors, for all intents and purposes, had drifted away we still clung to the notion of a big community discussion about fractal art issues fueled by blog postings made by a diverse number of people. It just seemed to be such a good idea; so much talent and experience all in one place. We couldn’t figure out why in such a fertile environment of fractal artistry such a drought in content was occurring. But now a new problem was arising. And this time it ate at the core of the whole project: our own apathy.
You see, it sounds great to include everyone in a project and for sure, on the surface, it looks like the United Nations of the fractal art world; but the effect of such group projects isn’t creative thinking and innovation, it’s a crippling atmosphere of political correctness and general mental inhibition where every radical thought is met with “I can’t say that” and “People will take it the wrong way”. No one wants to offend anyone. And it affected us most of all since we were the ones managing the blog and placed in the role of trying to nudge people into speaking their mind and at the same time protect them from the resulting backlash when they expressed ideas about fractal art that clashed with the status quo.
Status quo. That’s the very thing we wanted to break up in order to see artists be more creative and take more chances with their work rather than sit on their thrones. But in the end, the group blog thing just became part of all that and now even we found the blog had become pointless, irrelevant and worst of all –boring. But there were issues that needed to be dealt with; things that needed to be said; and ideas that needed to receive greater attention. What never seemed to occur to either of us was that we should have just started a blog and written about those things ourselves and not involved all those other people whose forte and interests where in other areas of fractal art and not in the more journalistic pursuits like art criticism and community politics, like ours were.
So in late June of 2007 we began to post on what we thought were serious, meaningful and relevant topics in the fractal art world and if anyone got upset and left the blog, so be it. And a few people did leave, most did so through the back door, but a few took the venue we had given them for intelligent commentary, to whine and complain about what jerks we were, and use it to make a public announcement that they were thoroughly disgusted with us and were now leaving the blog. Terry’s web host even booted him off his server with the excuse that Terry had become a madman and that he feared for the safety of his server and all his (many, many) web clients on it. This was the same man who had “kindly” offered to host the blog, for free, back in July of 2006 when we let him into our plans to launch a group fractal blog. Good thing for Orbit Trap that we passed on that “kind offer”.
I think I got the ball rolling with my post about why I don’t use Ultra Fractal. After the dust settled, Terry ignited an inferno by merely questioning, in the comments section of another posting, if fractal art contests were run ethically, considering the obvious conflicts of interest they contained in the way they were judged. This was the beginning of many inquiries into the fractal art aristocracies known to most people as the Fractal Universe Calendar and the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest. We pretty quickly became pariahs and those contributors who still hung on focused on their displeasure with Orbit Trap’s two moderators and their opinions. Not one responded with a single intelligent response to the issues we’d actually raised. But they did make clear how great their opposition was to frank and honest discussion of anything that involved themselves. I was beginning to see for myself why the fractal art world was such a backward place. The group blog idea was now actually a hindrance to serious commentary on fractal art issues and we finally put an end to that phase of Orbit Trap after those ather tumultuous three months, in mid-September of 2007, little more than a year from the date Orbit Trap was started.
Of course, we didn’t really have to “kick” anyone off. By September of 2007 the vast majority hadn’t posted anything for months and, like I said, had drifted off to pursue other things after posting once or twice; they didn’t care for blogging. The others only “got the muse” to write when we became the object of official outrage and an offense to all those who worshiped the fractal aristocrats or when they stuck to safe and harmless topics that made everyone relax and the readers go to sleep. They used the comments section to ply their old online forum debating tricks and sabotaged the blog with their own inactivity or used it to proclaim their righteous departure. I believe they truly thought that without their august presence the blog would surely wither and die. They hated our criticism of the fractal art world and were probably
happy to be finished with Orbit Trap which was acquiring a somewhat
sinister reputation in fractal land. If it were a Gothic horror movie, we would have been chased off by a pitchfork wielding mob bearing flaming torches and shouting, “The Monster! The Monster!”
Actually the mob wouldn’t have been that big because (did I mention this?) most contributors simply lost interest in writing about fractal art and just silently returned to what they were doing before Orbit Trap came along. I’ve come to realize that only a few people actually find blogging to be fun. Similarly, there’s always a good sized audience for those who are inclined to do this sort of thing because there’s very little commentary on these sorts of cultural niche things like fractal art. There’s no money in it, or anything like that, but if you enjoy the verbal sport itself, then there’s almost the same level of motivation as if you were being paid. Maybe even more.
Most fractal art blogs are photo-blogs. They’re the author’s own work and if there is any commentary to go with it it’s usually about how the artwork was made or named. Nobody writes about fractal art in a broader, more theoretical or holistic way, except occasionally. But it’s not that way with most other art forms. In the area of photography, painting or sculpture there’s plenty of bloggers engaging in criticism and commentary –it’s a normal thing in the larger art world. The fractal world just needs to come out of the dark ages it’s in.
But going back to our original intentions, we wanted to talk about fractal art itself, and not just about fractal artwork. We wanted to create a venue that would engage in serious commentary and criticism of fractal art in general, things that were of significance to the entire genre. We had a broader perspective on fractal art and wanted to see those sorts of issues expressed because it was absent. But whenever we commented on the bigger picture: contests; web-rings; styles; Ultra Fractal; well-known people; there would always be a contributor who’d “go tribal” and leap up to defend their group against us. Not against what we’d said, mind you, just against us personally; some sour, disgusted response complaining that we were complaining. Not all were so primitive, some were very clever and careful, but always dodging the issues we’d raise. There was never any honest dialogue. Just posturing, of an extreme contortionist bent. A good mascot for the fractal art community back then would have been one of those rubber figures with wires inside and bendable into any position imaginable.
Once we dispensed with all that community town hall meeting nonsense Orbit Trap really begin to pick up speed and sail away. But we had to scrape those barnacles off or we’d end up abandoning the ship ourselves. So in September of 2007 we got down to serious work and writing about important things without fear of being attacked and ridiculed from within our own ranks. The problem with the contests being run entirely by insiders who used them to promote themselves cut to the core of what was wrong in the fractal world with respect to community politics. The other problem with the contests of course was that they promoted a rather narrow view of fractal art that served the interests of the oligarchs but bored anyone who had an interest in real art. The contests were a microcosm of the whole fractal art world: inbred and imitative. The tight little groups that ran them gave them a correspondingly narrow perspective on fractal art. I might have had some sympathy for these monopolists if they’d managed to actually produce a collection of artwork that was impressive. As it was, their medieval guild mentality of entitlement produced calendars and contest exhibitions that were almost entirely filled with junk –and much of it was their own work!
If you check out the posting numbers on the original Blogger site where the archives are listed, you’ll see the trends I was talking about. Big excitement in the first few months shown by the large number of postings and then a sudden and continued drought. The numbers don’t show the whole picture though, you have to take a look at the postings and see how short most of them were. Like I’ve said, most contributors were enticed to join the blog on the understanding that they’d give it a try and see how it went. They gave it a try, but blogging wasn’t their thing. And for those few that did continue to post, commentary and criticism was definitely not something they wanted to engage in –or even be connected with. Fair enough, I thank them for coming out of their “comfort zone” and trying something new, but it became obvious by the end of the first year, in September of 2007, that only Terry and I were interested in pursuing this sort of fractal “journalism”. It also became apparent that fractal journalism was what our readers were primarily interested in also.
Like most bloggers, we kept an eye on our web stats and feed subscription numbers using various methods. When Orbit Trap started to address controversial issues like the dominance of Ultra Fractal and the aristocratic nature of the fractal community’s contests, more readers started tuning in and staying tuned in. When we left the group format it became obvious that fresh criticism and commentary were what our readers where interested in even if our former contributors weren’t. Back-slapping and endless hollow compliments were the hallmarks of artistic criticism in the fractal world up until that time. People were clearly ready for something else. I guess we should have started with that “something else” right from the start. But I am thankful for the opportunity to have met so many big names in the fractal world –especially since now most of them would probably never want to meet me again.
Chapter Two: Dark Lords of the Fractal Kingdom…