What fractals are good for, or, the creative use of fractal algorithms.
Fractal art needs a reboot, a re-thinking of what it’s all about. The optimistic forecasts from the early days of fractal art, the coming fame and pubic recognition, needs to be corrected and downgraded in light of what has actually come about in the years since then –actual conditions. Today’s fractal artists believe fractals are just another artistic medium like paint, clay or photography and therefore possessing similar artistic potential . They would probably say that the creative potential of fractal art is limited only by the creative ability of fractal artists.
What I intend to do in this second part of my series is talk about what fractals do best and how that relates to using them creatively –artistically. The down side, what fractals fail at will come in the next part, Part 3. Fractal artists are defensive of their art form because in their minds they’ve elevated fractals to the level of fine art and subsequently made them into something that continually falls short of it’s goal. We need to accept fractals for the simple and fun things that they are and quit hyping them as some new art form with super powers –digital da Vincis.
Once upon a time…
I remember the old days. It was only about ten years ago, 2002. I’d been playing around for about two years with my graphics program, the GIMP, making seamless tiles for web pages. Take any kind of image, apply the “Make Seamless” filter and then load it into a test web page. It was a kind of graphical jackpot machine; you never what the result was going to look like. I did just about anything you could to an image and then, “Make Seamless”. Sometimes the most interesting results were just cutting out a little square and using it as a tile without making it seamless. There were so many creative options.
I did feel at first that this new background tile thing could be a new and exciting 21st century art form. I was a bit of an art fan and had studied art in high school and read a few books, so I was always expecting somewhere to arise a new “art form”and the start of a new “revolution in art”. But after a year or two I came to see it as a decorative, design sort of thing and lost interest when the styles in web pages turned from being heavily textured, 3D everything to today’s more simpler, subdued styles. Today those background tiles and “left borders” look pretty retro, along with flaming text, turning java-cubes, embedded MIDI files…
I got interested in fractals, somehow, and settled down to playing a similar graphical game with Sterlingware, a classic fractal program by Stephen Ferguson. Once again, the creative options seemed endless and, if I do say so myself, I think stretched the creative boundaries of Sterlingware as far as they could go. Also, like seamless tiles, making fractals was pure joy and something that was so engrossing you often had to tear yourself away from before doing anything else. There was always some new parameter adjustment to experiment with and who could say what strange new world would grow up from that.
I saved a lot of images back then. I deleted a lot too. Over the years I came to save less. I came to make the images larger and larger and fewer and fewer. I became more discerning and overcame my “beginner’s excitement”that made me think everything was a great discovery. The images became a bit repetitive as I reached the limits of my experimenting and I tried out other fractal programs. They’re all different in some way but they were all similar in some ways too. One of the ways they were all similar is that the images often looked more interesting when I was making them than they did later on. Especially when I would review an entire (large) folder of them. I used to think this was because I’d lost a bit of my objectivity when playing around in the fractal program and just thought everything looked good.
Now I think differently . I think it’s because fractals are a more interesting and more creative experience when you can interact with them. There’s a dynamic with fractals that is lost when they’re presented in “static” form as an image separated from the flowing world of parameter changes. Fractal programs themselves are an art form, a generative art form. Saved images can show you what you might see in the program, a sample, but they can’t capture the interactive world experience that makes fractal programs such an engrossing experience.
The number one creative use of fractal algorithms is the creation of interactive programming. That’s the creation of fractal programs to experiment with fractal algorithms and rendering methods. I’m sure an audience would rather play with your parameter file than look at the image you made with it. It’s the difference between seeing an exotic tropical fish swimming in an aquarium and looking at one preserved and mounted on a board. Live fish are a much deeper and more complex kind of object than dead ones. I think of static fractal art images now as “Dead Fish Fractals”. Souvenirs rather than the real thing.
The real beauty of Stephen Ferguson’s fractal programs, like Sterlingware, or Tierazon is in the using of them. Most people wouldn’t see that as a fractal art form, but I do. Fractals are best presented in interactive form –a fractal program. Personally, I think Sterlingware is the best example. I’ve never seen any program that rivaled its interactive art powers. You can do almost everything from a mouse click.
Unfortunately, today the most common use of fractals creatively is saved images. They never compare to the rich, interactive form and I think the reason so many people make them is because traditionally that’s the form “real art” comes in: a still, captured image that can be printed out and framed just like a portrait can be “painted-out” and framed.
It probably sounds ridiculous to say such things in the fractal world today, but to experience the highest and most creative form of fractal art one needs to go no further than a fractal program. Fractals are first and foremost an interactive medium, and not a source of wall art. But one wouldn’t expect that because traditionally art is a “wall and frame” thing. This is what I mean when I say that most fractal artists don’t really understand fractals and what their most creative application is. Fractal programs are the real fractal art and fractal programmers the real artists in all this. Sterlingware is such a thrill because Stephen Ferguson understood fractals and how to make them look good as well as how to make it easy and fun for someone to experiment with and explore them. It’s an interactive canvas and the program is the frame.
But we all know this don’t we? We’ve just overlooked our own experience and thought that what our viewers will want most to see are saved images and not have the fractal “art experience” for themselves. We’ve been showing the world our snapshots when we should have been showing them how to go and see the real thing for themselves. (Or maybe fractal art audiences have been doing just that; sneaking past the art exhibits and exploring the software instead. That might explain why the number of fractal artists is growing while the size of the audience never changes.)
One could say that there are actually no fractal artists at all because the art is interactive and the viewers are really the so-called artists themselves who operate the programs. We photograph statues and call ourselves sculptors. The real fractal art exhibits are in the programs not in the portfolios.
Terry Gintz, a contemporary and colleague of Stephen Ferguson made a program that even further shows how the real creativity in the programming and “live” presentation of fractal imagery. The program, (Fractal Vizion, I think) generated random parameters and served up the image for you. I don’t think you could even tell it what formula to use. One of the several types of random images it would make was a fractal “landscape”. It drew it for you and colored it too. Each one was a different landscape and it was fun just to watch the program perform. That’s the sort of thing that exploits the creativity of fractal algorithms.
Fractal Explorer has a Strange Attractor feature that creates one random strange attractor shape after another. They’re all a little different and none of them looks like anything you’d ever make with your own hands. I went nuts over this thing and saved hundreds of them. But again, as with fractals, I came to realize that the context they were created in was more creative than any static collection I could come up with myself.
Also by Stephen Ferguson is the “Plum08” java applet that uses the Gumowski-Mira formula. It runs all by itself, initiating when the web page loads, and draws before you an endless series of subtly colored algorithmic sand dollars, african shields and plankton. The artist is the applet. Or maybe Steve, the author, is the artist? (An interesting note is that the applet has no save feature or even a pause button so you can take a screenshot, the applet is entirely something to watch although it’s the most impressive implementation of the Gumowski-Mira formula I’ve seen.)
What fractal algorithms can do before your eyes is more impressive than the record of what they’ve done before someone else’s. And the saved images are in a sense, merely a recording of a live performance, and much less than the real experience of being there. The interest in these programs has waned over the years because fractal enthusiasts have focused their attention on making “fractal art” rather than playing with it. Fractals have become intellectualized and their mechanical programming origins downplayed because they trivialize the work of “artists” by showing how easy and fun the creative process is.
The Grand Canyon is greater than all our snapshots of it. But the nature photographers want you to look at their photos and buy them and talk about how great they are instead of looking at the canyon for yourself because then you’ll be the same as they are. Ultra Fractal artists even go so far as to copyright their parameter files because they think they actually own the fractal landscape themselves because “they made it” by they punching in numbers that no else had ever (thought) to do, and like Captain Kirk in Star Trek, boldly went where no man has gone before. Fractal artists love to deny their humble origins and claim for themselves what are really the results of publicly owned, mathematical formulas.
Anyhow, I’m getting ahead of myself. That sort of stuff is for Part 2, where I intend to talk about the things that fractals fail to do. It’s kinda dark and gloomy because this pretense of “art” has put a shadow over the happy land of fractals. But you can still visit that land just by sparking up almost any fractal program and playing around with those creative marvels called fractal formulas. See for yourself what the best part of fractal art is all about. You don’t need a guide and you don’t need to be an “artist”.
You may already be an artist!