Ups and Downs of the 2009 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest

Ups and Downs

Ups and Downs.  Design by Roller Coaster Tycoon.

The 2009 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest results have been announced.  If you’re a regular OT reader, you already got this news.  We announced it on Thursday — apparently before the contest itself was ready to do so.  When, on the UF Mailing List, one of the judges noted on Saturday that he “had to find out from OT” about the announcement, the BMFAC director graciously showed up to explain:

No you didn’t miss the announcement. I had enough time on Thursday to post the winners and open up display of the entries, but didn’t have enough time to craft an appropriate announcement. And frankly I wasn’t ready to encourage a flood of visitors until I had enough time to respond in case there were server problems, so I thought I would make the announcement today. It seems OT’s obsession with something they hate has made such an announcement unnecessary.

Moral of the story: Do not make a web page live until you are like totally ready to have it be seen by the public.  This moral applies whether one is engaging in art competition pre-sorting judging or art competition post-sorting judging.

And let’s also note a conundrum.  It’s hard to deny the privileges Ultra Fractal enjoys in a certain fractal art contest — a contest that says it’s specifically dedicated to bringing the richness and diversity of fractal art to “a world that largely does not know it” — when the contest director’s official communiqués are delivered via the small-pond vehicle of — wait for it — the Ultra Fractal Mailing List.

But I’m getting in a snit already, and I haven’t even started.  Let’s begin again…

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As Tim announced on Thursday, the winners of the 2009 BMFAC are in.  I’m sure Tim and I will be writing more about this year’s iteration of the contest in the future.  We like writing about the contest, as some of you have probably noticed, although, truly, we long for the day when we will no longer have to.  Unfortunately, that day is not today, and, at least at this early stage, all I can tell you are my initial impressions.

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What’s up:

The judges still do not have work officially entered into the exhibition.  Twenty-five winning images were selected, and none of them were by a currently serving BMFAC judge.  This significant change in contest procedure is to be commended; it unquestionably advances the credibility and professionalism of BMFAC.  I’d like to think OT had a hand in bringing about this change, although I’m sure BMFAC Central will claim such was the design all along.  Whatever the reason, it’s a positive change.

Naturally, OT will take a kind of Reagan-based “Trust but Verify” attitude in this matter, since we remember that falls off turnip trucks hurt.  We’ve seen October Surprise talk before of sponsors insisting and hedges against sufficient quality used as fresh clarion calls to hang up judges’ art.  The philanthropic graciousness of BMFAC Central has traditionally been bookended with dollops of self-publicity and grabs for personal or financial gain.  I wonder if the director and the selection panel will continue to be satisfied with consistently sitting out of the big show — with not being counted among “the most important fractal artists in the world.”  Will “prestigious” judging and pushing Ultra Fractal like Pepsi be satisfying enough for them?

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Other ups:

One winner was a former BMFAC judge.  Several other former BMFAC judges did not win.  You know what that sounds like?  Fairness.  This round goes to the current judges.  Praise where praise is due.

Was it just me, or did there seem like better variety and a little more experimentation in this year’s winners?  It wasn’t quite as much of the usual UF parade of layered pancakes.  Some of the images were striking and inventive, especially those of Ramon Pasternak and Natalie Kelsey.

Every winner should be congratulated and deserves every accolade that comes their way because of their achievement.  OT has never had a problem with BMFAC’s winners — only with its administrators and sponsors.

The flash mob of 50+ alternates and honorable mentions that cropped up on the love fest that was the 2007 BMFAC winner’s page are gone and definitely not missed.  More good work — and thanks for that much needed purge.  I understand not wanting to hurt feelings and offer encouragement, but three-fourths of contest contestants do not need to have their egos stroked.  It cheapens the accomplishments of the exhibition winners.  Besides, we already have a near 100% delivery system for such an I’m OK You’re OK vibe.  It’s called Fractalbook.

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What’s down:

More serious attention should be given to removing conflicts of interest from the competition.  It’s tawdry, not to mention highly unprofessional and ethically questionable, to include fractal software authors as judges.  The conflict of interest should be obvious: there is an increased opportunity for such persons to benefit financially or personally.  Whether the profit or publicity is a little or a lot does not matter; the principle should be sacrosanct.  As I noted in my earlier post about the nature of  conflicts of interest, even the mere perception of a conflict of interest should be a concern and could corrode trust in the legitimacy of a contest.  Garth Thornton, originally a judge for this year’s BMFAC, came to this understanding and resigned.  He is a honorable man, as well as a talented artist, and I respect him for his courageous stand.

I have little respect for the other two software authors who refused to resign, for I find them much less honorable.  Did they not see the same conflicts of interest Garth did, or were they looking the other direction at potential perks that might come from serving as judges?  Their decision to remain on the selection panel contaminates the integrity of the competition and should call the evenhandedness of the results into question.

BMFAC should establish a detailed conflict of interest policy and post it publicly on the contest’s rules page.  No software authors can serve as judges out of concern for their own commercial or professional gain.  Judges who teach fractal art classes must recuse themselves from judging their own students.  Other similar stuff.  Put it all in writing.  Examples of conflict of interest polices are all over The Google.  Everyone will be less suspicious if the contest administration at least shows awareness of such common, ethical practices.

Stop favoring Ultra Fractal at every turn.  Ultra Fractal’s author is a judge.  More than half the judging panel are commonly known as UF artists.  The contest director is an acknowledged UF zealot.  Worst of all, relax those absurd monumental image size restrictions.  Bigger is not necessarily better for an art exhibition.  Most photography shows are not comprised of picture window sized prints — and photographs surely have as much detail as fractal art.  Moreover, you’ll reap adding more diversity and variety to the competition — as well as come closer to the aim of showing a representative sampling of contemporary fractal art.  If you continue to so openly privilege UF, then just call the whole affair an Ultra Fractal contest and create a small category called “Other” for those few winners who slip through the UF sieve.

These recommendations do matter.  Failing to make these changes will allow doubts to remain and fester about the fairness and professionalism of the contest.  Here’s why.

I spent some time Googling each of this year’s BMFAC winners.  Most of them have web sites or community galleries.  In some cases, I found their winning images posted online to various web sites, blogs, or art communities.  Other winners had essays online where they discussed their art and mentioned the programs they use.  A few winners were blank slates; there was little or no information about them.

Using this data, I made a best guess estimate of the programs used by each winner to create his or her winning image.  I stress that I am guessing, but the guesses are reasonable and made after careful study.  Of course, BMFAC does not release such information, nor would it be in their best interests to do so.  They probably don’t want you dwelling on how many UF images there are per square inch of BMFAC’s exhibitions.  So, admitting my own scientific guesswork, here’s how the contest shook out for me*:

Ultra Fractal: 14
Apophysis
: 5
Xenodream
: 1
Fractal Domains
: 1
Unknown: 4

Assuming my conjectures are fairish, and granting a margin of error (or further additions from unknowns to the UF or Apo stats), it becomes clearer why those conflicts of interests and restrictive file sizes are bones of contention.  Let’s go to the math.

76% of the winning images appear to be made with either UF or Apo.  And the authors of both of those programs served as contest judges.  What’s that smell in the air?  Could it be — the scent of undue influence?

56% of the winning images appear to be made with UF (or more, if any of the four unknowns are also UF based).  This is actually a bit lower than in previous BMFAC exhibitions (especially if one counts the “invited” work by judges).  Still, what’s the overriding impression?  The proclivities of half the selection panel, not to mention those UF friendly and easily scalable image size restrictions, are paying off for UF — still unofficially BMFAC’s product-placed and teacher’s pet software.

Let’s face it.  If you don’t use UF — or don’t have a machine powerful enough to render Apo at quilt sizes — your chances of winning a spot in a BMFAC exhibition are remote.  I’d say they are about the same as a non-spiral had gaining admission into the pages of the now defunct Fractal Universe Calendar.

If the competition is going to continue to so heavily privilege only one or two fractal programs, then the merchandising and publicity of BMFAC should come clean and reflect this fact.

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Other bads:

Tim has already addressed the shake-your-head, cloying obsequiousness of an image openly paying homage to a BMFAC judge somehow ending up in the winner’s circle.  In the VU meter of unprofessionalism, this bit buries the needle as deeply into the red as it can go.  Here’s a tip for those wanting to do better next go around. Start now building a series of tribute images dedicated to possible judges for BMFAC 2011.

One individual, who has never been a judge, has hit the trifecta and now won a space in a BMFAC exhibition for the third straight time.  I guess we can safely conclude that he is either a) the most important fractal artist in the universe, or b) a devout water-carrier for all things BMFAC who is consistently being rewarded for his loyal service to the cause.  The scales of justice want to know which way to tilt on this either/or issue.

If you’re going to say in your selection criteria that you want work that is “uniquely fractal; artwork that uses fractal tools to produce less-fractal imagery is not as desirable,” then you should probably be diligent to select such work.  At least several of the winning images have little discernible fractal structure.  Other people have noticed this slip, too — like former BMFAC judge Samuel Monnier who makes a similar criticism on his blog.  Hopefully, he won’t now start receiving those why-don’t-you-just-shut-up and go-start-your-own-art-contest if you-think-you-know-everything comments OT routinely receives.

The BMFAC selection criteria also notes the following:

We would prefer you create new artwork for this contest. Existing works may also be submitted, but we are more likely to select artwork that is new and fresh.

However, a number of winning images were not created solely for the contest.

This image appeared on Renderosity in August of 2008.
This image
appeared on DeviantArt in August of 2009.
This image
appeared on DeviantArt in July of 2008 under a different title.
This image
appeared on DeviantArt in October of 2009.
This image
appeared on DeviantArt in June of  2009.
This image
appeared on DeviantArt in March of 2009.
This image
appeared on Renderosity in September of 2008.
This image
appears on the artist’s website with a copyright date of 2008.

I quit surfing around at this point, since I had now found one-third of BMFAC’s winning entries were not newly created for the competition.  Again, why bother to insist upon this criterion if it’s going to be so loosely enforced.  Not that good role models were always provided.  Even when the judges were sneaking their work in the back door, did they follow their own suggested stipulations?  Not always.  The director’s “invited” selection for the 2006 BMFAC exhibition was made in 2001.

Finally, the director needs to build an announcements page for BMFAC.  That way breaking information about the competition can be quickly posted and easily checked.  A contest info page would be a convenient spot for stuff like photos and reviews of the exhibition — unless, like the 2007 exhibition, there’s going to be a total news blackout on the show instead.  Moreover, using the Ultra Fractal Mailing List as the official organ for disseminating BMFAC updates gives the appearance of favoring UF insiders over everyone else.  Worse, it makes those of us who don’t want our inboxes crammed with round robin UF tweaking games feel more than a little left out.

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*This graph is only a guess.  Treating this graph like a fact will likely increase the risk of side effects like emotional outbursts, outraged emails, virtual gnashing of teeth, and erectile dysfunction — which, as everyone knows, is caused by everything.

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2 thoughts on “Ups and Downs of the 2009 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest

  1. “One individual, who has never been a judge, has hit the trifecta and now won a space in a BMFAC exhibition for the third straight time.”

    “Yes, there are “conflicts of interest” between judges and participants, not to mention the administrative staff involved.”

    ;-)

    I would say this is the most blatant case. It didn’t come as a surprise to me at all.

  2. Such contests as the BMFAC could learn a few things by reading the rules of the AMPAS for their annual big awards . (Or any other professionally run event.)

    The AMPAS do not require 2 or 3 hours, it can be as little as 40-minutes. It can even have “a minimum projector resolution of 2048 by 1080 pixels”, not something so outrageous as to require a giant drive-in theater screen.

    Yes, the rules of the BMFAC are tailored for specific applications and more powerful computers. Yes, there are “conflicts of interest” between judges and participants, not to mention the administrative staff involved.

    But as long as people believe they might actually become a winner, they will overlook the odds against them. Look how many people play the lottery, or gamble in Las Vegas casinos. (The latter example more akin to the BMFAC.)

    .

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