The Nature of Creativity in Fractal Art, Part 1: Automatism

Six months ago… I decided to summarize… and bring to completion… all my thoughts…

…about whatever it is my computer hobby is all about.

I didn’t even have a good label for it.

But nothing helps you think deeper and deeper than trying to write more and more precisely about something. It wasn’t about fractals really, it was about (what I came to call) “Picture Machines”. Anyhow, every rewrite spawned another rewrite, a better rewrite than the rewrite before. With the passing of each month I changed the date at the end of my preface chapter and changed what my preface was prefacing.  Here I am, facing another preface.

Eventually I came to the bottom of it all: fractals; cellular automata; IFS things; other programs that make neat pictures but are hard to label. I finally stumbled on what I casually call my Unified Field Theory of …whatever it is my computer hobby is all about. But now I have a name for it: automatism.

But that’s not the really big thing. While plumbing the deep concepts of automatism my mind wandered and I got hung up on authorship and creativity in fractal art. You see, automatism, the computerized type, is mostly fractal art. Fractals are the most developed and the most sophisticated species of automatism. That’s not the big thing. The real big thing is that I came to understand the nature of creativity in fractal art and that it brings together and explains as a single art form all the little weird programs I’ve used including that seemingly unrelated, and quite eclectic category of them called photoshop filters: automatism à la carte.

Four-part series

I need to explain what “automatism” is. Then I’ll explain “mutationism”. And then I’ll talk about image editing and after that I think there’ll be another part that takes all those things and then puts it all together and zaps it with lightning in a thunderstorm and screams, “It’s alive!”.  I’m expecting it to be a four part series of postings, but I’ve come to expect the unexpected.

If you don’t know automatism, you don’t know fractal art

It’s all about automatism. Fractals, and the fractal art form that comes from them, is automatic, all the time. Automatism is imagery that is created by a self-operating device. Automatic, in this context, means “self-operating” or “self-moving”. Obviously, this describes a machine, and since it’s self-this and self-that and implies a high degree of independence it doesn’t have the same category of function as that of a mere “tool”. In automatism, or we could say, in automatic art, the machine does everything because it doesn’t leave anything else for anyone to do; it works selfishly and in a self-contained way; the machine monopolizes everything and like a temperamental painter, won’t let you look until it’s finished. Such a machine, since it’s automatic, is called an automaton. The plural is automata, although one can say “automatons” if they prefer. Automatism is the art form, or the medium, or the method of automatic image creation.

Calling a fractal program an automaton and saying it “does everything” ought to sound extreme and possibly even mean and insulting in the context of fractal art. I know, I’ve been here a while, too. But that’s okay, I wouldn’t be writing such extreme things if I didn’t think they were true and that I could explain them and counter all objections. I don’t say these things lightly; I’ve been countering all my own objections to these ideas over the last six months. It’s all been proven, but let me show you the proof, the argument.

“Follow the creativity…”

Remember my comments about my mind wandering off following the idea of authorship? I know this issue has been dealt with years ago, but it was dealt with wrongly. Where does the creativity come from in fractal art? I read something on the Wikipedia on a page dealing with Algorithmic Art or some automatic art category like that, and it stated that the user is the creative agent because although the program draws everything, it merely carries out the directions and instructions that the “artist” gives it. The artist directs the machine.

You should find that to be a reasonable statement if you’re a healthy and well adjusted member of the fractal art world, that is: the fractal artist is the creative agent because they actually direct the automaton and configure it. The artist tells the machine what to do. The artist leads the creation of algorithmic art and is therefore, obviously, the author of it. Have you ever seen a fractal program make art all on it’s own? That is, have you ever seen a fractal program set it’s own parameters? Can a fractal program operate without a user?  Totally autonomously?

Well of course it can. In fact, the program is the leader and the “artist” is always the follower. The artist is not even in the position to direct the creation of imagery that they can’t even imagine beforehand. Fractal artists work by guessing at new parameters and reacting by trial and error at what the program draws from those guesses. Fractal artist always start with a preexisting image and mutate the parameter settings, guessing and then refining their guessing.  First big guesses and then smaller and smaller ones.  Self-similar guessing at multiple scales. They guess because they have absolutely no idea what any parameter change will look like ahead of time. Does that sound like the user giving the machine direction or the machine giving the user direction?

I’m not saying fractal artist don’t own the copyrights to “their images” or that we should all stop putting our names on “our own work” or treating it as “original” or “personal expression”. But you know, there has always been an equally valid argument for the machine being the originator of all fractal art. In fact, if the machine were a person, copyright would be a real problem in fractal art. They have this problem with operas: who’s more important, the composer of the music or the composer of the lyrics? So who should have the copyrights to fractals? The composer of the image or the composer of the title?

A little clarification of automatism

  • Automatism is a principle: self-operation (there’s nothing else to it)
  • Operation refers to the actual formation (drawing) of the imagery and not the peripheral actions of a user (or random number generator) making parameter settings that merely “initialize” the drawing process
  • Self-operation means mechanical operation instead of manual operation (they’re the only two options)
  • No manual operation means no personal involvement because, simply put, you’re not personally involved in the formation (drawing) of the imagery; it’s independent of, and doesn’t reflect the thoughts, ideas, imagination or intentions of the user
  • The concept of personal style is a mistake and is actually impossible.  When it occurs, it’s merely an association that is made with the first person to render that particular combination and permutation of settings with the program.  One “adopts” a style from the automaton rather than “fathering” their own.
  • One’s contribution to the whole image making process consists entirely of adjusting the variables of the automaton, in this case, the parameters in the fractal program, something that can be automated as well (eg. random batches). There is nothing else a user can do than “variate” the variables.
  • Creatively, one browses along a linear series of permutations, hopping or stepping from value to value, all of which were possible before they were actually rendered by individual users because they are just the permutations and combinations of the program’s variables; each image is a “condition” of the program and can be “activated” by anyone using it, even another machine like a random parameter generator.
  • The only way to create something personal and unique is to somehow involve one’s hands in the formation of the image, that is, draw on the image or alter it manually and selectively at the micro-scale.
  • The hands connect one’s conscious mind and imagination to the image because that is the only way our thoughts can be visually expressed and thereby introduces the medium of manualism to the medium of automatism (this will be dealt with in a later posting)
  • All these points are characteristics shared by all forms of automatism, not just fractal programs. Fractal programs are just “fractal-based” automata and as automatic as cellular automata, kaleidoscopes, transformation filters, and all the other varieties of genetic art programming. They’re all “picture machines” drawing a different style of picture, automatically.

What does a fractalist do?

Let’s take a closer look at how a user works with a fractal program. If you’re a fractal artist you know all this but you’ve probably forgotten what is really happening because everybody looks at a fractal program these days as a tool used by a fractal artist when in fact the fractal artist is a tool used by a fractal program.

Let’s take the most creative of all fractal artists:

  • He makes his own formulas!
  • He makes his own rendering methods!
  • He even invents his own gradients!

The program, Ultra Fractal, is the automaton. A mere shell of a thing, it is ultra programmable and not only waiting for UF Man’s directions, it’s waiting for a formula, and a rendering method, and a coloring thing… Can you imagine such a minimal automaton and such a maximal user as this? If anyone can be called The Stallion of Fractal Art, it’s such a user as this.

But even this user is a eunuch, a creative eunuch. Eunuchs are interesting legal entities because they can never be accused of fathering an heir to the throne or other stuff. Google defines it like this: “a man who has been castrated, especially (in the past) one employed to guard the women’s living areas at an oriental court.” So you see, a eunuch is never the author because a eunuch can’t be an author. In fractal art women can be eunuchs, too.

To understand how all fractal program users are followers instead of leaders, and guessers instead of directors, you need to look just a little more closely as what the fractal artist does and when. It’s like a court case, “What did you know and when did you know it?” Firstly, even the author of a fractal formula has no idea what it’s going to look like until it’s rendered. As for the rendering method, it’s just a set of instructions until the program combines it with the formula. The coloring gradient is the same. They’re all configuration settings even in UF where they can be written separately and aren’t just a menu item to be clicked on. But one loads a formula the same way they input any other configuration setting like iteration number or whatever. Writing a formula is just a longer and more elaborate configuration input.  More complex, but not categorically different.

In other programs, Tierazon, for instance; they have simple formula parsers which allow for trigonometric functions (sin, tan, cos…) as well as bracketed sections and the usual numbers and variables like “x”, “c”, etc… The formula parser is just another menu option or input field for variables that the algorithm permits. And no one knows what they’re going to look like until the program displays it. The big point though, is that the program always starts the creative process and not the user. The user then reacts to what the program produces. Like upping the iterations or lowering them, or zooming-in to a deeper location or whatever. It’s the machine making an image and the user fine-tuning it -afterwards. That’s the nature of (the user’s) creativity in fractal art: mutation.

Mutation is the name of the game

Mutation is the rearrangement or alteration of a preexisting system. Just as in Biology, a mutation is the changing of a gene’s function. A gene is like a variable of which the organism is the expression and the form that derives from all the genes in it. A parameter setting in a fractal program is like a gene and the altered value that goes with it is like a mutation to that gene. The image is the result of all the parameter settings’ expression, which would be the equivalent of the reproduced organism. What is there in the rendering of a fractal image that is not a variable? And what variables are there that do not have some sort of option as to what they can be set? Even a formula in UF is just a very elaborate parameter setting which forms part of the machine, the fractal program. The entire fractal program is the automaton, not just the fractal algorithm itself. Fractalists don’t draw the fractal images, they configure them. This is why a fractal image can be stored in a very small text file called a parameter file because it’s not the image, it’s the configuration settings for the automaton.

Artists don’t work by editing parameter files because they wouldn’t know what they were making until it was rendered. It might not even produce anything when edited as a text file in text editor. The user saves the parameter file after the user knows what their parameter changes look like. The user needs the program to guide it in changing parameter settings. The parameter settings are the DNA of the image and the user works by changing them one at a time, one gene at a time, on a preexisting image. They make art by mutation and not creation and certainly not with their imagination.

Mandelbrot said it first

Nothing I’ve said here changes how fractal art works or what it’s value is; it’s just a clarification of what’s been going on ever since Dr Mandelbrot made the first fractals on a computer. Even he said it changed the rules in art back in 1989 in his article, Fractals and an Art for the Sake of Science, in the computer art journal, Leonardo.

A new form of art redefines the boundary between ‘invention’ and ‘discovery’ as understood in the sciences and ‘creativity’ as understood in the plastic arts.

And how about this humdinger…

They [fractals] lend themselves to ‘painting by numbers’ that is surprisingly effective, even in the hands of the rank amateur.

Fractals and an Art for the Sake of Science, Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Leonardo. Supplemental Issue, Vol. 2, Computer Art in Context: SIGGRAPH ’89 Art Show Catalog (1989), pp. 21-24

Has anyone in the fractal art world read Mandelbrot’s article from way back in 1989? It doesn’t seem to have had any influence on them if they have. But I don’t fault anyone for not grasping the brilliant analysis Mandelbrot made back then about fractals and art. The article is very concise and unless you’re familiar with the terminology that accompanies the study of automatism, you would not immediately notice the careful nuances and implications of the words he uses. Mandelbrot understood automatism and for that reason he understood creativity in fractal art very well. I think most fractal artists understand better what Mandelbrot said about geometry than they do what he said about art.  More about that later, as well.

Coming soon, Part 2, which will be all about mutation; our favorite pastime.

Postscript: get an education, visit the new Fractovia

In particular, check out the “READ” section.  I found the article by Dr. Mandelbrot I quoted in Juan Luis Martinez’ most recent blog posting: “Defining fractal art: A “history” (kind of)“.  Juan Luis has been doing a lot of reading and a lot of thinking, too.  From my experience, it’s  the thinking that takes the most time and effort but that’s what yields the most progress.  I’m sure Dr. Mandelbrot spent most of his life thinking.  I was surprised to read how much he thought about art.  I don’t think anyone has contributed as much to both the science of fractals, as well as the art of fractals, as he has.

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2 thoughts on “The Nature of Creativity in Fractal Art, Part 1: Automatism

  1. A fractal program can not create an image without human intervention. It can sit on your hard drive all day long and do nothing unless we first run the program. Does a fractal program know what formulas work well together? Does it know at what range to set specific variables to get specific styles and results. Does it know when an image is too dark, or too distorted or noisy, or whether an appealing image is even being created. Does it know when to zoom in or out or pan left or right to enhance a composition?

    While it’s true you have described exactly how most fractal programs work, and how a user manipulates the variables, it still takes human intervention or creativity to create an interesting or unique fractal image with any degree of regularity. Of course it’s certainly possible an automated mutation function of some sort can create some interesting images, but it’s equally as likely that the automated mutation could still be improved significantly manually.

    I get the whole ‘just pushing buttons’ concept and the thought that it’s more of an exploration than creation process. But without a human’s visual interpretation, the program’s user interface can’t do anything on it’s own, it can’t make a decision on what to do or where to go next. It’s human creativity that decides where to go and how to enhance the visual, and when and where the journey ends…

  2. The issue here isn’t about what method makes better art: mechanical (random) control, or intelligent (human) control. The issue is how the medium functions. How the medium functions defines what is possible and what isn’t. If the medium is composed exclusively of self-operating devices (programming), then creativity is exclusively mechanical, and conceptually not what most fractal artists think it is.

    The assumption that manual, non-automatic contributions will always improve the artwork is not just a matter of taste, it’s a concept that radically changes the art produced. Personally, I believe fractal art is more interesting, but not necessarily “nicer-looking” when artists avoid the habit of trying to “smooth” the raw imagery’s “roughness” and instead search for better-looking roughness. I am clearly in the minority when it comes to raw fractals but most fractal artists have a very restricted view of what good art is and tend to be very conservative and stick to plain themes with wide appeal. But who am I to criticize anyone’s taste in art?

    A program designed to wait for user input will always wait “all day long and do nothing” for user input. Screensavers are designed to do the opposite and only stop working when a user inputs something.

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