Termites (2007)

Termites are morphologically uncomplicated insects, in contrast with their astonishingly complex social behavior.
–Robert L. Smith, Termites

Several weeks ago, while commuting to work, I was listening to Dana Gioia, director of the National Endowment of the Arts, chatter away on National Public Radio about how no one reads anymore. He claimed that the majority of Americans had not read a single book (including technical manuals) in 2006. Apparently, other amusements have replaced a good read — films, video games, and (probably) making digital art.

Which is too bad. Reading is a wonderful way to gain insights into the world — or even into something smaller — like the (assuming it exists) fractal community.

Last weekend, I found myself reading a collection of essays called Cyberspace Textuality: Computer Technology and Literary Theory (edited by Marie-Laure Ryan). One essay in particular stood out: “Virtual Termites” by Lance Olson. Olson was talking about the influences that led author William Gibson to pen his groundbreaking cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. According to Olson, one of the primary influences on Gibson was an essay by iconoclastic film critic Manny Farber called “White Elephant Art and Termite Art” (later compiled in Farber’s book, Negative Space, 1974). Olson summarizes Farber’s argument as follows:

Farber distinguishes between two kinds of art. The first, for which he holds contempt, is White Elephant Art, the sort that embraces the idea of a well-crafted, logical arena, incarnated in the films of Francois Truffaut. Proponents of this near-school produce tedious pieces reminiscent of Rube Goldberg’s perpetual-motion machines that exude a sense of their own weight, structure, and status as masterworks. The second kind of art, which Farber advocates, is Termite Art. This is the sort that stands opposed to elite aesthetic culture, embraces freedom and multiplicity, is incarnated in the films of Laurel and Hardy. Proponents of this near-school produce pieces that gnaw away at their own boundaries, leaving little in their wake except traces of enthusiastic, assiduous, and messy endeavor.

See any parallels to Fractaldom?

I would argue that White Elephant Art can easily be seen in the Fractal Universe calendar selections and the overall UFractalus “school” that dominated the exhibition selectees of the first two Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contests. After all, are not these two entities the most public displays of the aesthetics of contemporary fractal art? Are these competitions not spun to the masses as the best fractal artists currently have to offer? Run the verbal footage from the 2006 BMFAC page:

It will exhibit high quality works by the most important fractal artists in the world [emphasis mine].

There’s your ruling cultural aesthetic — spelled out clearly and definitively. A pastiche of self-selected, self-proclaimed masterworks by our community’s White Elephants.

The Rube Goldberg analogy fits, too. UFractalus school images are more built than made. Raid the parameter file repository and start stacking and connecting the elaborate pixellated parts. 100 layers. No post-processing. Better yet — sign up for UF courses so you too can duplicate the reigning, assembly-line, “correct” fractal forms.

Or don’t. Just make your own art. Explore the road not taken. Use programs other than Ultra Fractal. Post-process with wild abandon until you discover something you made and you like. Let accidents happen and embrace them for their surprises and suggestions — like Laurel knocking Hardy on the head with a 2×4. In their films, the accidents make the meaning — not the construction of the plot.

Gnaw away at the calendar swirls and the pre-fab UF look. As Farber observes:

Termite Art has no goal except to chew through its own limits, fuse and confuse, create zones where “culture” can’t be located precisely, and where the artist can be cantankerous, extravagant, pushing creative possibilities and not caring what the results might be. It just keeps gnawing outward.

Keep gnawing until the foundation that houses the school of “the most important fractal artists in the world” begins to buckle. Then, just maybe, the prevailing aesthetic of fractal art will cherish personal vision and idiosyncrasy, value vitality over methodology, and be unselfconscious of its origins as either a “program” or a “style.”


Rooms with a View
Blog with a View

Image made with Fractal ViZion and post-processed until the Orkin Man arrived.

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