The Nature of Creativity in Fractal Art, Part 5: Artist or Symbiont?

Executive summary

The user does what the machine can’t do and the machine does what the user can’t do and together they make something.

Automatism explains how fractal imagery works and mutation explains how a fractal user works but only symbiosis explains how fractal “art” works. Automatism works at the local scale while mutationism works at the global. The two agents, the automaton and the mutator have complimentary but exclusive roles.

I am the Jacques Cousteau of Fractal Art

Introductory summary

This could be the conclusion: the nature of creativity in fractal art is a symbiosis between the artistic machine and the greedy, lazy, good-for-nothing, talent agent that rides on its back and steers it one way then another, grabs the art and signs its own name to it while it tells the senseless, bolt-brained machine to keep working, telling it again and again, “Remember, you’re nothing without me!

Automatons can be designed to allow for manual configuration by exposing their variable settings so that a user can interact with them.  This in turn gives rise to the role of the mutator; an intelligent guesser who takes the place of an automated, random guesser. The user uses the machine. But not to draw –with, but rather to draw -from. The user initiates the image-making process but doesn’t know what the outcome will be. This does not describe a conscious, deliberate act of creativity unless you’re willing to include guessing as a careful and deliberate thing. The user rides the machine and the machine carries the user wherever the machine can go. The machine can’t go everywhere. Its reach is limited to the sweep of its parameters. And so the nature of creativity in fractal art becomes clearer: not human; not conscious; not unlimited.

It’s all about explaining the nature of creativity in fractal art. Human expression does not explain it but automatism does. Fractal artwork doesn’t have the personal styles and the originality that we associate with artists and their artwork in the plastic arts because the automaton, and not the user, is the artist. Its multitude of users, unless they do some truly transformative editing by hand, merely reflect that singular creative power found in the autonomous graphical mechanism, the creative soul of the art form. The name of a fractal artist is anecdotal because fractal art is largely anonymous, ubiquitous and a shared domain.

If you haven’t read the first four parts, you don’t need to now.

A Symbiotic Relationship

Just as I described the actions of a fractal program user as mutation, I now use another biological term to describe the relationship between the user and the fractal program: Symbiosis. Like mutation, symbiosis works so well as a description that I almost believe it is the computational equivalent of the original biological concept. The working relationship between user and automaton is thoroughly symbiotic. In fact, the symbiosis is even stronger than that found anywhere in the natural world. Here is a dictionary definition:

symbiosis (noun)

  1. Biology: the intimate living together of two kinds of organisms, esp. if such association is of mutual advantage
  2. a similar relationship of mutual interdependence

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition, 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

The user does what the machine can’t do and the machine does what the user can’t do and together they make something.

But separated from each other… the user can’t draw or even imagine such creative scenes, and even if he could he’d get tired easily. Creative work is very intensive and exhausting even when it’s fun. Similarly, separated from the user, the program’s vast repertoire of imagery and graphical styles would remain in an eternal state of unlocked potential; undiscovered and unseen. Unlike the clown fish and the sea anemone who can still function on their own, the fractalist could not create art without the program and the program could be nothing more than a wandering, automated screensaver, fractalating senselessly to a strange, warped and very sparse audience.

Of the two, the fractalist needs the program more than the program needs him. But since fractal programs are designed to be dependent on fractalists to be initialized and activated, the impression most fractalists get is that the program can do nothing without them and waits for their directions and divine help to give it the breath of life and its daily bread. While it is in fact true that a fractal program can do nothing without user input, this is entirely because a fractal program is …programmed to do nothing without user input. The truth is, the automated graphical mechanisms that provide the creative power for computer automatism can be implemented in various ways of which the most common, but not the only method for fractal algorithms, is user controlled.

Mutual interdependence for what?

Perhaps my analogy of symbiosis is just a little too abstract and conceptual. Living organisms need to live: to eat; reproduce; and protect themselves from dangers; but a fractal program doesn’t need anything: it’s a machine, a lifeless, non-living thing. For what does it need a user?

An automated fractal machine doesn’t need a user to create imagery. But it might need the user to make “art”. Discerning the difference between any old kind of visible imagery and art kind is a matter of artistic sensibility –a complex mental impression. This is something a machine doesn’t have and never will have (although there is an interesting study into this). It’s up to the user to provide this “art-filtering” function if the goal is to produce art and to not just fill space. And that is the goal: to produce art. That’s the “what for” of my “for what?” question.

So, for the sake of argument, let’s say that an automated fractal program, which would essentially be a screensaver or “generative art” program; is not capable of producing “art” for the simple reason that recognizing such a category of imagery, and much more –programming that kind of recognition into a fractal program– is near impossible as it would require some revolutionary implementation of artificial intelligence to substitute for the human intelligence normally required for such artistic sensibility. Automatism creates imagery and lots of it, but harnessing that graphical talent for artistic purposes requires human judgment and intelligent selection. Automaton’s don’t even have eyes to see what they’re doing, so how can they recognize artistic merit even if they did happen produce something that had it?

Symbiosis, symbiotic, symbiont

In case you haven’t already deduced what the term symbiont means, a symbiont is a member of a symbiotic relationship; a relationship that exhibits symbiosis, or mutual interdependence. Sometimes symbiont refers to the weaker or more dependent partner in the relationship, so it works well for fractal art. Although, since both partners have exclusive roles, one can treat each of them as equally important since a successful outcome (ie. art) is wholly dependent on the contributions of both members. I won’t refer to fractal artists as parasites anymore in this posting. Or even as intestinal bacteria like the kind that allows cows to digest wood in their stomachs. Equal, but different; it’s that kind of thing.

The Tale of the Idiot Savant and the Clever Art Dealer

Once more, the chorus: The user does what the machine can’t do and the machine does what the user can’t do and together they make something.

A fractal program, or any autonomous graphical mechanism, is like an “idiot savant.” An idiot savant is someone who is super skilled and talented at just one thing and an idiot at everything else. For instance, an idiot savant might be someone regarded as mentally retarded and yet be able to solve complex arithmetic problems in fractions of a second. They’re a savant when it comes to complex arithmetic calculations but unable to feed themselves or function beyond the level of a very young child. An idiot savant exhibits an extreme imbalance and specialization of skills.

And so does a fractal program exhibit an extreme imbalance and specialization of skills: able to create vast panoramas of richly detailed imagery in fractions of a second and yet blind to what it looks like and totally unable to judge whether it’s an algorithmic masterpiece or an empty rendering window. All a fractal program needs to become a self-sufficient artist is a pair of eyes and a basic awareness of what looks good and what doesn’t.

Enter the fractalist who provides the missing eyes and the simple artistic sensibility that even the average person is capable of. Now the output of a fractal program can be scanned for art-bearing areas and mined with intelligent precision. And when it comes to parameter settings, the intelligent control of the user, which replaces the senseless dice-rolling of a random algorithm, responds to what it sees the current parameter settings are producing and adjusts them, moving, by the process of mutation, towards more viable results. The user provides a visual and intelligent feedback mechanism; a sort of “art sensor.”

This radically changes the creative process, but not by changing the source of the creativity, but by changing the order in which permutations of the variables are generated.  Rather than mutating the image randomly, the user does it intuitively, so that the next mutation is not completely out of left field, as a random one would be, but something different.  What do I mean by “intuitively”?  It’s guessing, really.  It’s a process of making smaller and smaller guesses as the user “feels” their way along looking for a configuration that might become something.  No one can reasonably claim to know what any parameter change is going to look like.  But smaller guess have a smaller range of possibilities.

Instead of going through millions of unappealing random permutations to get one decent looking piece of art, the fractalist can make propositions and guesses with an intelligence the machine is incapable of. The machine is incapable of such intelligent control and direction because, as I mentioned, it’s blind and has no conception of art; it has neither perception nor conception of art.

Global vs Local Scale

Nothing so powerfully clarifies the mutual interdependence and exclusivity in the roles of user and machine so well as the concept of global and local scales. The two artistic agents are perfectly separated in what they do and therefore wholly dependent on each other to complete the actions of the other. This is why I am so bold as to say that fractal “artists” are not the source of the creativity in fractal art: they can’t even touch the canvas, much less create anything in it. On the other hand, the program can’t adjust or configure itself: all changes to the image parameters are at the sole discretion of the user. There, in a nutshell, are the two scales and the two exclusive domains of the user and the machine; you probably missed them.  Alteration of the parameters (global effects) can’t be the work of the program; and creative expression in the imagery (local effects) can’t be the work of the user.

Picture World and Parameter World: The two domains of Global and Local [From]

To put it in even simpler terms: the user controls everything outside the frame and the autonomous graphical mechanism controls everything inside the frame. It makes the question of the user’s artistic expression pretty absurd and almost a non-starter. Whatever they can contribute artistically from the function of cropping an image is about all they can say they’ve “expressed” of themselves. It’s still something, I’ll admit, but just not very much when one compares it to what they’re cropping out: which is the great imagery the machine made inside of the crop marks. It’s not a skill that seems to easily distinguish users from each other and in that respect reinforces what I said when I previously referred to fractal art as a “shared domain”.

When users edit the imagery by hand, then they invade the local domain of the fractal algorithm and start to operate in the area of locally selective effects in addition to their regular, standard role at the global level with global effects. That’s why I said image editing holds enormous potential, as it introduces user-based creativity to the default fractal-based creativity, even if so far it is rarely a contribution of equal importance and significance, in terms of artistic merit, to that of the machine’s. Working inside the frame, the user mixes the mediums in fractal art: automatism with manualism (plastic arts).

So the automaton draws the pictures and the user alters their variables. The automaton operates exclusively inside the image and the user operates exclusively outside of it. The user makes global changes to the image. The global level of scale refers to actions that affect the entire image as a whole, as opposed to acting on individual parts of the image selectively. A global alteration affects all parts of the image equally; it alters the global conditions, not local ones.

The automaton on the other hand makes local changes to the image, which is merely to say the automaton constructs the image or paints it. This is just like how an artist, holding a paintbrush, selects a color from their palette and selectively applies it to a specific part of the image in a series of calculated actions. An example of a global alteration to the artist’s local domain would be to substitute paper for the cloth canvas or to limit the palette to a different set of colors, or give him a paint roller to paint with instead of paintbrush. Global changes affect the overall operation of the painter for which he has no control and do not effect what the painter chooses to paint in any specific part of the canvas.

“For which he has no control”. Although everything revolves around the automaton (our mechanical “painter”) the automaton is just as much a slave to the user as the user is to the automaton. The program can’t ignore configuration changes and do something else, just as the painter in my example can’t chose to paint on canvas when all he is given is paper. When you start to work with a fractal program you will soon get the feeling that you are in control and not being controlled. Only later on when you are fine tuning the machine and get frustrated with its inability to do something just slightly differently, like make something curved and circular instead of straight and square, or make something random instead of always regular; only then will you get the feeling of being controlled, restricted, frustrated, limited, etc…  stuck in the inescapable wheel ruts of parameter sweeps instead of roaming about freely.

Executive Conclusion

The user does what the machine can’t do and the machine does what the user can’t do and together they make something.

Another Conclusion

Well, that brings this 5-part series to an end.  That’s my view of the nature of creativity in fractal art.  I wish I had some great statement to make about the future of fractal art or some electrifying slogan that would usher in a great renaissance in the art form.

It’s all just conceptual.  But I think conceptualization is what makes art what it is: art is conceptual.  What we think changes what we see.