Monday, July 28, 2008

Image of the Weak: Fractal Art

I used to go hunting for exciting new images. Now I'm content if I can just find something that looks different. I don't care if it's great or not.

The Golden Age of Heroes is Over
Guido Cavalcante summed it up quite well two years ago while writing on a related topic, that being the pursuit of more than just "beauty" in Fractal Art:
It's not a problem, of course, if some prefer to continue on creating purely aesthetic and visually intriguing objects. There is nothing wrong in doing that, although doing so does not constitute the same "heroic" accomplishment that it once did when algorithmic artists were struggling to break away, and give birth to a new medium. That was the challenge of the last 20 years.

Yes, all those sleek, true-color, multi-layered, "what formula is that?" fractal images we see today were once an heroic accomplishment -- just like climbing Mount Everest used to be. But nowadays, on Mount Everest, things have changed. There are package tours running tourists up the sides of Mount Everest and the real skill and endurance comes from scaling government regulations and waiting in line. It's not the same place anymore. Perhaps one day mankind's abilities will reach such heights that we will no longer climb Mount Everest but rather descend upon it from above; from a high tech helicopter or even from space. Metaphorically speaking, that's where I think Fractal Art is: the achievements of the past are beneath it.

Those achievements were technical achievements. In the Golden Age of Fractal Art's past, each new rendering capacity or feature gave a quantum leap to what a fractal program could achieve and what the person using it could achieve. It was a time where the artform was characterized by what you could do; a time of technical innovation not artistic innovation. It was like discovering or arriving at the edge of new territory.

But it's no longer heroic to plant the old flag in the same place and claim the same land for Fractal Art again and again. It's time to move on and explore the interior.

We Don't Need New Tools
We need new eyes.

If you still like looking at the carefully shaded, superimposed, "perfect" images, like those featured in that great king of cliches, the Fractal Universe Calendar, then the problem is in your mind and not with your software.

If you're not bored with boring things -- then you're boring!

Animation alone seems to offer something new. There have been some interesting achievements ("2266" is my favorite), but by far little more than "zoomathons". Of course, motion pictures didn't make still photography obsolete. But rather, "animated photography" expanded the territory (and costs) of the photographic artform. So if you're thinking of upgrading to Ultra Fractal 5, then I recommend you get the animation version. It's a new frontier for Fractal Art, and I think you'll find you'll need just as much creativity with sound and music as with fractals since silent fractal movies will probably have the same one-dimensional feel as the original silent movies did with their audiences.

Layering is the Opiate of the Masses
I think graphical enhancement or "post-processing" is great; it merges seamlessly with the processing that fractal generators do. Fractal "generators" render fractals, but what this actually amounts to is nothing more than photoshopping invisible mathematical calculations. All fractal imagery is artificial and whether its appearance is limited to just those graphical tricks that the fractal program knows how to do, or whether you add a few tricks from the repertoire of a graphics program (where most of those "rendering" tricks come from, anyway) merely reflects one's political and social allegiances in the online fractal world, a matter which is purely trivial or abitrary with respect to the pursuit of making artwork. (Or, as The Fractal Artists Ring says, "Dogmatic")

But combining fractal images in layers like some gourmet sandwich is a technique that I have rarely seen yield successful results and most often leads to the blurred, wispy, non-descript "stuff" that populates most of the online galleries of Ultra Fractal enthusiasts. Layering as a creative strategy in Fractal Art might seem normal and "professional" but I think that's only because so many people are using it. I don't think layering as a feature in fractal programs has produced the quantum leap in creativity that it was expected to. Two wrongs don't make a right, and two dull layers rarely turn into a single good one. Texture or background layers are a different matter. They perform the same enhancing function as a graphics filter.

In short, very few fractal artists utilize the creative effects of a graphics program to enhance their work and as such the vast majority of fractal artwork displayed is plain and repetitive. Layering, I suspect, for those who work with Ultra Fractal, is just the result of trying to revive such lifeless imagery in a context where there's nothing else they can do.

Art, not Artists
Stop praising new artwork whose only significant attribute is the name of the artist who made it. For that matter, hold the Big Names and the old Has-Beens to higher standards of innovation and ridicule them when they just repeat the same old visual tricks. And how should you ridicule them? Direct them to your own latest work that looks just like theirs. Imitating someone else's work is the sincerest form of flattery in Fractal Art -- flattering yourself, that is.

And then... start praising artwork that's innovative despite who made it. Forget politics and give kudos to the artwork that deserves it. Of course, if you love online politics more than art or are more interested in the personalities of fractal artists than the artwork itself, then you will have no interest in this -- because you have no interest in fractal art.

Well, there you have it. Sorry I couldn't find someone to fill the Image of the Week chair. Masterpiece of the Second, however. That would be easy.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Images of the Week: Three on a Match

Can I borrow some of your Head On?

A Goblet Emptied by clifftoppler

As I predicted, the boundaries of what is and what is not fractal art would have to be reshuffled once the Fractalbookers shelled out for Ultra Fractal 5.

I said UF5 could be downgraded to a Photoshop plug-in, and here we see the proof. A digital reproduction of a detail of a painting by William Etty was imported into UF5 and then "filterized." There is nothing fractal about this image, although it appears in Renderosity's fractal gallery under the genre of "mythology." The mods at the art community should immediately move this image to the 2D gallery.

To be honest, I rather like what the artist has done with Etty. But this is a case of image manipulation and not fractal generation.

The artist also makes this observation:

I was experimenting with the image import feature new to UF 5, and suspect it may be calling for some reappraisal of their aims by many fractal artists. Would that be a bad thing? Reappraisal should be the name of the game for all artists. We renew ourselves daily.

I explained in an earlier OT post why UF5 will bring about more than a "reappraisal." It should, in fact, usher in a paradigm shift as to what constitutes fractal art. I'm all for renewing myself daily, but that doesn't mean we can suddenly call a manipulated digital image (an "apple") a fractal (an "orange").

If I was an investor in Ultra Fractal, I would start to worry that images like the one above -- asserting to be "a fractal" and claiming to be made primarily with UF5 (with a bit of face tweaking in Painter)-- could begin to seriously de-value the software. And why? Because Ultra Fractal could quickly be associated with a stream of very un-fractal art -- or, at best, highly diluted fractal art. UF might become to fractal art what Hollywood is to film. Yes, UF streams forth plenty of loosely termed fractal-like "product," but no one is going to confuse it anytime soon with leading the vanguard of the art form.


Hey.  Who put acid in my nectar?

Hummingbird-WIP by Keith MacKay

To be fair, I suppose this image is more of a work-in-progress than a finished art piece. MacKay posted it to his blog, admitted he was playing around with UF5, and merely noted it "has potential." To me, it looks very much like what I used to commonly see when BringItIn was first introduced. You know. Pets and friends inexplicably swept into the pinwheel maelstrom of a spiral.

However, I sense real money-making possibilities here. Just pack up your laptop, with UF5 fully loaded, and park yourself next to the caricaturist in a busy city square. Snap a cell phone photo of a patron, grab an email address, and send each mark a pic of themselves trapped in a black hole of swirly swirliness. Or hang around carnivals, preferably near the Tilt-A-Whirl, and render a few snappy, import-heavy "sketches" of festive riders as you compete with those auto-flash shots of the screaming, green faces riding the roller coaster.

Why include this image among today's reviews? Wasn't MacKay the artist who so painstakingly "mastered his tools" to produce striking UF hummingbirds? Although I admit the image above is eye-catching, there's a certain rushed, click-and-shoot quality about it -- an ambiance not seen in MacKay's earlier work. This looks, well, engineered. Like a fractal version of the Canon Sure Shot.

This also reminds me of the Dilbert joke where a computer programmer is asked to write a program that will do everything he currently does. When the programmer finishes the task, the program immediately replaces him, and he's fired.


I knew moving to Malibu would have its drawbacks.

Canyon Fire by Joan Kerrigan

Maybe someone should call the sewage treatment plant about this problem.

Edge of Darkness by Damien M. Jones

I've complained in previous posts that I sometimes find work made with Ultra Fractal to have a kind of cloned, homogenized trait. I speculated this sensation is probably due to the way UF images are made. Someone writes a base formula -- and then other UF users step on it producing a string of ad infinitum variations on a theme.

A casual chain of this phenomenon can be seen in the images above. One is from an admitted relative newcomer to fractal art who notes in a blog post in February 2008 that she'll be taking a UF course from the Mississippi School of Anti-Fractal Art. The other is from the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest director cum soon-to-be-exhibited "judge" and one of the blurbed "most important fractal artists in the world."

See what I'm driving at when I gripe about everything mashing together to look similar? There's a certain uniformity of style here -- in line, texture, movement, even in perspective. The only real difference is found in the use of color. In that regard, I much prefer the warm (no pun intended), vibrant tones of Kerrigan's image. As its title suggests, there's a sense of urgency conveyed and a suggestion revealed about the destructive potential of the flames. Jones' image just reminds me of something itchy -- like chafing or a nasty rash. The only urgency I feel is an impulse to smear Lanacane over the surface of my monitor screen.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Art Fist: The Brutal Code of Color!


I made this image in Sterlingware with only a slight hue shift in XnView, my trusty side-kick. Although Sterlingware is now over 10 years old, which is pretty old by software standards, and lacks many of the new features that extend the rendering powers of fractal programs (i.e. user formulas and other junk) I consider it to be the current Heavyweight Champion of Fractal Art without any real competition.

Am I nuts?

No, no. Not at all. It's because of Sterlingware's color capabilities and the ease with which it allows you to experiment with it. A color coup d' etat.

That's right. This is about art, first and foremost, and only secondly about fractals. Art is the more important factor in the label, Fractal Art. (Write that down.)

While new formulas and all that other confusing stuff may sound exciting to the mathophiles in the fractal art world, and has probably lead to the current stagnation of fractal art, it's what you do with the structures created by formulas that leads to the creation of Fractal Art and not just fractals.

I think the first converts to post-processing were those who saw something interesting in the basic fractal images they were making and knew how to make that short, but quantum leap to completion in a graphics program.

I'm sure the earliest post-processing successes involved simply color enhancement and not the thermo-nuclear layering that we see proliferating today. Color is a big deal in art because it's a big deal to the human eye, that is, to visual perception. Color turns straw into gold.

Which brings us back to Sterlingware. Sterlingware still has me engrossed in fractal art despite the fact that it lacks power windows; GPS; and a talking dashboard like Ultra Fractal 5 has. Sterlingware is the Fist of Color! A lean, mean, Fractal Art machine.

Ha! Ha! Ha! ...I win again!

Sorry about that. But when I say excited, I really mean it.

If you don't like it, then go parse yourself.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Monitor Heads Vs. The Wine and Cheese People

Get back in your seats! First I have to show the Image of the Week:

Wood Fractal by Skepsis, 2006

Flickr comments are a whole new genre of writing -- and state of mind too!

I found this thought provoking. Obviously, you can see this is a photograph of a piece of a sawn tree trunk.

If there was a fractal rendering method that could reproduce such imagery, would you use it? If you could zoom into this image and check out the deeper details, would you do that as well?

If you took that fractal image, made with this "wood" rendering method, and printed it out, would it be a photograph? Do the hyper realistic landscapes made with the computer program, Terragen, belong in the photo-landscape category or the digital art category? If someone printed out one of those hyper realistic Terragen landscapes and entered it in a photography contest and won, would that be "cheating"?

Lately I've been reading old books from the Internet Archive. There are often a number of file formats to chose from. I usually read them in the Djvu format which is essentially the same as viewing the scanned images of the original books. I have downloaded over 130 books from there in Djvu format (I haven't read them all) and when I browse the directory they're stored in with my file browser and see them listed as thumbnails of the front cover, I feel like I have a real library that's just as real as the one which holds the original, physical books.

Actually, I prefer my digital library to the old kind, although it would be nice to be able to hold the originals or read them while sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard instead of in front of a computer in the basement. The digital medium changes the way I "interact" with the books, and it's not always for the worse, either.

Call the digital books -- Monitor Books. And for that matter, call the digital art that is viewed on the computer monitor -- Monitor Art. (And call me... Monitor Man! Hero of all things Digital!!!)

The digital art that is printed out, framed and hung on the wall is different. And expensive! Just as it's more expensive to produce a book in printed form than it is to produce it in digital form -- as a digital file.

But don't most people prefer to read printed books than to read electronic books on a computer monitor? And similarly, don't most people prefer to view and display art in an art gallery or hanging in a picture frame on a wall rather than -- on a computer monitor?

Print produces imagery of higher resolution and also of greater size (although TV screens/monitors are starting to reach pretty big sizes). Fractal imagery printed out in huge sizes like those of the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest are more impressive than the same images seen on a monitor, aren't they?

Well, no. Or not entirely, I'd say. I think the computer monitor is simply a different medium than the printed one. Just like my electronic library, the "electronic canvas" of the computer monitor has some advantages and, in my opinion, only a few, minor disadvantages to the printed canvas.

I guess you could call printed fractals, "wood fractals", since they're most likely printed on paper (wood fiber). And you could call the people who prefer to work in the computer monitor medium, Monitor Heads. The printed stuff gets framed and hung up in a gallery, or something close to it. Gallery's are notorious for serving wine and cheese on the opening night of a new exhibition -- hence, The Wine and Cheese People.

So there you have it: the two fundamental groups in the fractal world with respect to medium.

And who will win? Well, if you're reading this on a computer monitor...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

No Remorse

Doing an end run around the jury you sit on means never having to say you're sorry.

[Photograph seen on Memory and Desire.]

The "jury" is still out as to whether the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest will be held again this year, so we don't yet know whether its judges will once more give themselves a free backstage pass to hang their own art next to the "winning entries" they select. There is one thing we do know though. The BMFAC judges have shown absolutely no remorse for engaging in such a conspicuous breach of professionalism

It's been two years now since the first competition, and we've yet to hear any of the judges knock or question the contest's framework. They cannot claim to be pawns, for they have never complained to being used as such. If they were not complicit in the set up of the contest, then they are least complicit in not criticizing the arrangement after the fact. Have any of them denied the insider privileges they enjoy? No, they have either remained silent or openly defended the competition's ethically questionable protocols.

At best, they have a confused view as to what has transpired. They evidently fail to see their own responsibility or the competition's unbalanced provisions -- and who it (coincidentally) benefits. Maybe only an Ultra Fractal zealot like BMFAC's director could create an entity that so conveniently favors UF fractal art, but the rest of the judges apparently have no qualms about helping out or defending the contest.

BMFAC judge Mark Townsend disagreed there is any UF bias and said recently in an OT comment that he just votes "for the images he likes." It's too bad the entry requirements prevented him from seeing much else but work made with UF. He notes that images made in other programs were among last year's winners -- but avoids providing any percentages that would allow an evenhanded comparison. He also had this observation:

To suggest that I (or Sam, or Kerry, or any of the other judges for that matter) would choose Ultra Fractal images (with or without image importing) just because they are Ultra Fractal images, is, I'm sorry, quite offensive.

Fair enough. But since we are keeping score...

I find the competition's overt privileging of Ultra Fractal -- from the massive size stipulations to the near total appointment of judges who use UF to the selection panel -- to be offensive. And, I'm sorry, but I find the fact that BMFAC's judges are allowed to include their own work in an exhibition they have judged to be very offensive.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Ultra Fractal 5: SwastikaCurveTrap!

Alright. Sure. The swastika is an ancient symbol found in a number of cultural contexts and therefore has more than one meaning and significance. It also, I suppose, could be described as a simple geometric shape...

But really, couldn't they have come up with a better name? Did they have to use the word, "Swastika"?

How about: ElbowCurveTrap; BentCrossCurveTrap; CrookedCurveTrap; BoomerangCurveTrap; RunningCurveTrap; etc...

Screenshot of SwastikaCurveTrap by Ken Childress (KCC)

Screenshot of SwastikaCurveTrap Code from

Of all the surprises in Ultra Fractal 5, this is the last one I would ever have expected. I know some of these folks know nothing about art, but I'm surprised that they know nothing about history as well!

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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

6 More Reviews Using 6 Words

Evolving by Maria K. Lemming

Evolving by Maria K. Lemming

Lines. Motion. Color. Perspective. Whimsey. Wonderful.

X09202 by Joseph Presley

X09202 by Joseph Presley

Whose woods these are? Don't ask!

Undone by Joel Faber

Undone by Joel Faber

Let's see my brother top this.

Calla Lily by Susan Gardner

Calla Lily by Susan Gardner

I know what Freud would say.

Dead Wood by Michael Faber

Dead Wood by Michael Faber

Let's see my brother top this.

Unknown FUC Pic

Unknown Fractal Universe Calendar 2010 Selection* by I Forget Who

Engineered in UF for UF engineers.


*Viewing availability in your area may be limited by Avalanche Publishing's whims and/or the Fractal Universe Calendar editor's influence.

Warning -- prolonged exposure to the FUC pic may produce the following side effects: temporary loss of sentience, irresistable engineering impulses, extreme self-righteousness, acute rhetorical failure, severe urges to join a software cult, and erectile dysfunction (hey, everything causes that). Void where prohibited -- or maybe just void.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Ultra Fractal 5 -- For Engineers Only!

I think the developers of Ultra Fractal 5 have fallen into the trap that has plagued fractal programs from the earliest days: overly complicated, user-dependent configuration.

I have always gotten the feeling, the several times I've tried out Ultra Fractal, that it was designed for people who weren't like me. With Ultra Fractal 5 this feeling is even stronger. While browsing the reference pages for the new Ultra Fractal 5 formula feature that incorporates classes, I was stuck by the thought, "This is an improvement? This is like going back to the old days of DOS and writing your own programs!"

I'd quote some of the formula lingo so you can share my "I don't think we're in Kansas anymore" feeling, but it's not as simple as cutting and pasting the sort of everyday language that us humans use; you'll have to browse it on the site.

Ultra Fractal in general, and Ultra Fractal 5 in particular, represents to me the "evolution" of fractal art in a direction away from greater usability and user-friendliness and instead in a direction towards increasing complexity that requires skill and training to do anything beyond the most simplest of tasks. This is the classic fractal software design error: making it hard for non-technical people to use and not easy.

From a user's perspective, Ultra Fractal 5 offers a few new features that make life easier. It seems very evolutionary, a continued refinement of an already excellent product. A thumbnail browser, layer groups, linked layers, image importing. Very good things, but they don't seem earth-shattering--perhaps a minor earthquake, but certainly not anything that will make California fall into the ocean.

This appearance is quite deceptive. Under the hood, UF5 packs a MAJOR foundational change in the way fractal formulas are written, a change that will--once mastered by users--break down constraining walls that many fractal artists didn't even know were there.
(Damien M. Jones, "Introduction to Objects: Users Version")

"From a users perspective"; "once mastered by users". I think the developers long ago lost that "user perspective". Or did they see themselves as typical users? And design a fractal program that is written by engineers and for engineers?

A lot of work has gone into Ultra Fractal, and from the looks of Ultra Fractal 5, a lot of work is continuing to go into it. But what I question is whether that work is making Ultra Fractal a better tool for the average user to make fractal art or is simply making a better tool for the developers and beta testers to play with and "oooh" and "aaah" over. Ultra Fractal 5 strikes me as the fractal programmer's fractal program.

But does the complexity of Ultra Fractal just simply reflect the inherent complexity of Fractal Art? Perhaps Fractal Art really is Rocket Science after all? and maybe good fractal art is like a golden castle high up on a mountain and if you can't do the math, you can't walk the path? (ha, ha, funny eh?)

Hmmn... these are big questions. I'll just say that your answer to how much technical (i.e. math and programming) skill is necessary to make fractal art will probably predict whether you're going to like using Ultra Fractal 5 or whether you're going to find it a ball and chain that slows you down and requires you to do excessive, detailed configuration when you'd rather be experimenting and exploring fractals.

I used to hear it said that Ultra Fractal simply had a "steeper" learning curve. But what appears to the eager engineers of Ultra Fractal as a steep learning curve is actually more like a tall mountain to be scaled by the average user; which is to say it's a barrier and not something most users will simply "learn" their way over. Go ahead, call the users "stupid" or "lazy" or do what the linux gurus do and just say, "RTFM"; but Ultra Fractal 5 is a fractal program that only an engineer would love.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Ultra Fractal 5 and a New Paradigm of Fractal Art

I thought I'd try writing a post, in a straight-forward and non-sarcastic manner, that tries to clarify my concerns about Ultra Fractal 5. Here goes.

I believe UF5 has brought fractal art to a critical crossroads. UF5 will almost certainly kick-start a paradigm shift as to how fractal art is seen and will raise serious questions about what fractal art can and cannot be. We -- as artists, programmers, theorists, and viewers -- should begin a conversation over what we consider "fractal art" to be and speak up as to whether our perceptions of the art form should expanded or restricted.

I fear the answer is not as simple as Mark Townsend suggests when he notes that fractal art, for the most part, refers to "images created with 'fractal' programs." Take this situation. I import a photograph into the lighting features of Xenodream, add an effect like Wild Glass, and save my work. Xenodream allows me to save both an image file (.jpg, .psd, whatever) and a .xep file. I now have a Xenodream parameter file that is 0% fractal. More importantly, I used Xenodream strictly as a graphics program. I have, in fact, sometimes imported fractals made in other programs (like QuaSZ) into Xenodream and put them through this process. I was, in effect, post-processing a fractal with another fractal program. (Note, too, that a strict reading of Townsend's definition would likely exclude any -- if not all -- post-processing.)

With the advent of refined image importation in UF5, something similar can now be done in UF. Import your image, run Popcorn through it, and save. Again, you have a work and a parameter file that is 0% fractal. Paul DeCelle's work to reconstruct paintings using UF proved a fractal-less creation was possible through his personal vision and skill. UF5's image importation feature will quickly allow any user to now do something similar with considerably less craft and effort.

Here is the point. I think we all would agree with a statement that fractal art is "art with fractals." But are we now also ready to agree that fractal art can also be "art without fractals"?

The introduction of imported photographs dramatically redraws the boundaries and shifts UF's focus from fractal production to graphics processing. I would draw a line between algorithms and bitmaps (photos). Townsend used the example of Popcorn. Popcorn, I'm assuming, is like a rendering effect that modifies the fractal-generated image but doesn't create anything on its own. I'd point out that is exactly how most people would describe a Photoshop plug-in. Photos, on the other hand, are "dead" imagery; they are static. They have no parameters beyond that of a bitmap and are not the products of some other process. Photos, in short, are unlike fractal images.

And here's one limitation from a technical standpoint. Incorporating photos into UF may be a real challenge when it comes to making a high res file for printing. The bitmaps won't be scalable like the fractal elements will be because they're not vectorized. Gargantuan image sizes, like those preferred by the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest, might make the import feature of little value unless users think ahead and import only photos at a resolution that will not disintegrate when printed at the size of a plasma television.

Practically speaking, once a photo (or Bryce creation, or Terragen landscape, or Poser figure, etc.) is imported into UF5, the work can no longer be said to be "Made with UF." It is only "Processed in UF" -- hence my suggestion that UF has now become a paint program. At best, the introduction of a photo into UF5 results in a work that is more accurately described as "mixed-media." At worst, bringing in a photo means that all fractal work in UF is immediately done. From that point on, you are using UF to strictly manipulate that imported photo.

Why does any of this matter? Maybe because of attitudes like this one -- found in Ken Childress' latest blog post:

Are fractal images, post-processed beyond recognition of any fractal qualities, fractal art? I think this question might shed some light on the angst exhibited by OT. Because someone uses UF, by default people may consider their images fractal based whether or not actual fractal formulas are used by the artist [my emphasis]. A fractal image destroyed of any fractal qualities by churning through filters may not have the say [same?] defaults applied to it, especially when it originates in some other program than UF.

Childress feels anything goes -- including adding non-fractal photos -- if you're using the inherently more-fractal-by-default Ultra Fractal. I think Childress is mistaken (filters use algorithms, too) and is merely privileging his chosen program. I strenuously object to any and all such default privileging of Ultra Fractal. Though the program may be popular, it is not the end-all to everything that encompasses fractal art. Personally, I find the software leaves too much of its own stamp on what it produces. The "machine" is overly visible for my tastes.

Furthermore, Childress is preaching to the wrong congregation. I know I'd welcome a more expansive view of what fractal art can be. And I'd argue that my work, even when processed "beyond recognition," is probably more "fractal" than any piece made using imported photographs. Childress should be sermonizing on pervasiveness to those people he cites who find UF more fractal "by default." And who are these people? Tim and I? No. They are, in fact, the BMFAC judges -- regulators of the only current international "Fractal Art" competition. It is people like Mark and Sam and Kerry (all of whom have commented on OT recently) who will be doing the deciding, by default, as to what entries are "uniquely fractal" enough to be serious competitors. That means, by extension, these are the people who will decide what constitutes fractal art and what does not.

And how will these judges judge the "fractalness" of these new photo-infused UF hybrids? By default, I think we already know the answer.

Because, by default, the entire competition is skewed to favor Ultra Fractal. The submission guidelines are barn-door sized and thus exclude work rendered in most other programs. The judges are nearly all UF users and advocates -- and the winners' work (including the judges' self-selected "entries") is disproportionately weighted to being made with UF.

I worry that this serious philosophical matter is in the hands of those who have shown a marked tendency to privilege themselves and their own, and who have a history of actions valuing personal ends and fostering private agendas over the greater good of the community.

However, all of us in the fractal community have a stake in this discussion, and we should not allow UF to have a monopoly, especially by default. Apophysis users, practically shut out the competition by the size requirement, deserve a say. As do users of programs made by Sterling-Thornton, Gintz, Ferguson, Pfingstl, and many others. As do programmers who create and use their own software -- like Lycium and Earl L. Hindrichs. And, yes, as do those artists like Tim and I who might prefer to do our processing in external programs.

My point: the Fractal Supreme Court is stacked with UF activist judges who will soon be given another opportunity (assuming BMFAC is held again this year) to "rule" on what can or cannot be considered "fractal art" enough to be competitive in the only prominent "fractal art" contest. Such decisions could impact how "fractal art" is seen in the public mind and influence what work is allowed where in art communities. The UF5 question will come up before their bench. How do you think they will rule, by default?

I say level the playing field. Vary the size requirements for entering BMFAC. Include judges from all schools and styles rather than defaulting to UF. And, please, no longer allow the judges to include their own work in the "contest" exhibition.

You have a choice. You can speak up and make yourself heard. Or you can keep silent and let the BMFAC judges speak for you. By default.

I hope my views are a little clearer now. Thanks for listening.

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Friday, July 04, 2008

Mark Townsend: Son of Pollock!

Emergence by Mark Townsend 2006

While writing a recent posting, I was Googling to find Mark Townsend's orbit trap works done using the image importer, Sprite, and I surfed head first into a coral reef of Neo-Pollockian Artworks at his gallery site, Fractal Dimentia. Like Odysseus from the old Greek stories, lost again on his journey, I exclaimed, "Truly this is the very temple of Pollock!".

But seriously, I've chosen these images of Mark's for Image of the Week because I quite like them, although I'm sure there are many who won't care for this sort of style, just as there are still many who don't care for the classic drip-paintings of Jackson Pollock that now sell for an awful lot of money and receive lofty critical praise. Actually, I prefer Mark's "paintings" to those of Pollock's, but that's just my personal opinion. (Perhaps, art investors should start buying up some of these at today's, undiscovered, prices.)

Untitled by Mark Townsend 2007

I think imagery like this deserves it's own category and I would suggest the term, "Granularism". You won't find that term anywhere else; I just coined it. I say "granular" because it's a large assemblage of smaller, micro-images that form granules or smaller, independent parts. (It wasn't made that way, but it to me it has that appearance.)

One could simply shrug off work like this as nothing more than elaborate "textures", but that's the sort of thing that separates the artists from the tourists in the world of art. It's the skilled or talented eye of an artist that sees something noteworthy or substantial in imagery like this and pursues it and refines it.

Mark's been pursuing work like this I'd say for several years as shown by some of his earlier work which is just as interesting. One can see the development and refinement of this image style by viewing his entire gallery chronologically (older to newer).

Imperator by Mark Townsend 2006

In terms of Fractal Art... Is it Fractal Art? I don't know. But it's certainly generated as opposed to hand made. But even if it was hand drawn or whatever-drawn it shouldn't really matter -- there it is, make what you like of it. Scientists are still studying Jackson Pollock's work (yes, scientists!) and have discovered patterns suggesting that Pollock inadvertently created chaotic systems while working with his drip apparatus of dripping paint cans suspended on ropes which Pollock struck with a stick to induce vibrations. Some have suggested that Pollock's drip paintings have fractal qualities to them. How's that for extending the boundaries of Fractal Art?

Fooled ya. This is one's by Pollock.

Anyhow, in terms of Fractal Art, these granularism works are good examples of how one can produce interesting work without focusing on the usual things -- major structures like spirals or mandelbrot figures or other "macro" forms -- and instead pursue the internal qualities of fractals -- the minutiae -- the dust of art, where diamonds lay. I'd like to see more of this type of work but it's not the sort of thing that is commonly produced. As for Mark though, I'm sure we haven't seen the end of his exploration of this type of imagery. In fact, I think he's just getting started and there's even better stuff to come.

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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ultra "Fractal" 5 and the Slow Death of Fractal Art

By the power invested in me, I hereby declare this photograph to now be a fractal.

I've had a little more time now to reflect on the implications of the digital image import features added to Ultra "Fractal" 5, so I hope I can clarify some of my initial observations. I'd also like to address some of the points made in the comments about my previous post on UF5.

When the image importation features of UF5 were announced, I guessed -- and I made clear I was only guessing -- that Paul DeCelle had used this feature to reconstruct a copy of a painting by Lars-Gunner Nordström. My guess turned out to be wrong, and I stand corrected and appreciate those who wrote Orbit Trap -- including DeCelle himself -- to set me straight. My speculation was hardly a wild shot in the dark, though -- given the timing of DeCelle's posts and UF5's release. And, actually, I'm glad to learn my guesswork fell short, since it means that my initial review of DeCelle's image -- which I noted that I stood by -- still rings true.

But simply because I mistook DeCelle's reconstruction for importation, it does not follow that the rest of the reflections or claims made in my last post were also in error -- especially my suppositions concerning the ramifications that Ultra "Fractal" 5 may have for both fractal art and our artistic community. In fact, I think it's worth noting that (so far) no one has come forward to dispute or refute any of those points.

Whether DeCelle's image was brought in whole or built piece-by-piece is not the real issue here. The point is that Ultra "Fractal" has been and now will even more become a tool for producing a hybridized, "fractilized," mixed-media art. How DeCelle made the image is purely a technical question. Here are the more pertinent questions: Is DeCelle's image a fractal -- and is it any more a fractal than my lightning-round exercises of importing a digital copy of Nordström into Photoshop and making rapid-fire adjustments?

What DeCelle has done, to my thinking, is vectorized Nordström's painting. There are programs available, like Potrace, which can do something similar -- that is, trace the boundaries of what the software considers the main elements of an image and save that information as the usual vector file of nodes rather than bitmaps. The advantage, of course, is the image can be rendered at any size without a loss of quality. DeCelle, as I said last month, is a skilled artist and his technical achievement here is indeed stunning. His image has considerable subtle detail and doesn't appear to be a UF "silkscreen" -- even if it is.

However, in my opinion, there is nothing fractal about DeCelle's image, but I don't think he ever said there was. DeCelle admits just experimenting with UF4's graphical functions and using them to "paint" a replication of Moment in Blue. Using importation, I utilized Photoshop filters to also paint on Nordstrom's original, thus my assertion that UF was now just a plug-in. The inclusion of DeCelle's par file in the comments does not prove the image is a fractal -- only that the image was made in UF and that he used transforms rather than imports. Even though UF can be used to make such silkscreen-like images like DeCelle's Nordström imitation, my under-30-seconds demonstrations were designed to show that somewhat similar modifications can be made more easily and quickly using a graphics program. The fact that DeCelle used UF4 rather than UF5 does not refute my argument; it merely shows that UF long ago built in enough graphics processing capabilities that its output has often been mixed media and not simply fractal art. But now, with UF5, the image import feature means the program's ability to produce non-fractal art has been significantly enhanced and made much easier. And this returns me to the main argument nobody wants to touch: All work henceforth made with Ultra "Fractal" 5 cannot be assumed to be fractal art because the program can now incorporate any sort of digital imagery into the final result.


Let's turn now to the comments made on my last post.

Sam is certainly correct that plug-ins like Sprite have previously allowed photo incorporation into UF -- but I doubt with the same degree of precise control and subtle integration as the new tool interface. Users don't have to configure anything; it's already there. Besides, if this addition is just a formality, why are the designers touting it as a major new feature? It's bound to lead to more photos being used in art produced, and the enhanced layering capabilities work in favor of making Ultra "Fractal" into Ultra Photo as well. I understand Sam may a have different perspective on this issue. He is probably looking at what UF5 could do. I think Tim and I are talking more about how people, especially Fractalbookers, will actually use the software. Making photo imagery easier to incorporate could be just the nudge to tip the scales enough to make the practice commonplace.

I understand Guido's observation, too. He's saying image importing is a natural development for UF. The purpose of any art tool is to empower and enable artists to make better, more versatile art -- regardless of what methods are used. Hey, if anyone's ever advocated using graphics processing to push the boundaries of fractal art, it's me. I've been gene-splicing fractals and rearranging their digital DNA for ten years. One of my critics even went so far as to label my work "fractal vandalism." So, on a personal level, why would I have a beef with pumping up UF's (or any generator's) image manipulation features? Bring it on, I say. Shoot that baby full of graphics steroids. Welcome to my world, man.

But, then again, I'm not the one who's been making smug judgments for years about fractal artists who lazily stoop to using the crutch of "post-processing." Nor have I been busy creating "fractal contests" that specify submission size requirements that privilege UF, and that stack the judging panel with UF users/teachers/advocates, and that publicly proclaim Kreskin-like mental abilities to somehow intuit what fractal art can and cannot be considered "uniquely fractal." In fact, I haven't even called myself a fractal artist since around 2000. In interviews and bios, I usually describe my work as "fractal-based digital art" -- which seems more accurate. So, if the boundaries have finally shifted because UF users can now enjoy the post-processing former game cheats of a bundled mini-Photoshop, then let's all break out the champagne, put away our semantic parsing, and sing kumbaya together around the fireplace screensaver. But, first, I'd like to make absolutely sure we're all the same page here and agree that making "fractal art" now means whatever digital kitchen sinks anyone wants to include. Are you with me, brothers and sisters?


I think Guido's comment hinges on a phrase in the first sentence: nothing more. What Tim and I are saying is it's a lot more than "nothing"; it's the beginning of the end for "art with fractals" and the start of what will surely be "photos with fractals." UF now can double as nothing more than a filter in a paint program. For the truly talented UF artists, this change probably is not a big deal. They'll continue making their work with their usual precision and vision. But for most of the Fractalbookers, the mass consumers of the UF product, this photo import feature will be the Holy Grail to jazz up what comes out of their assembly lines. With such an easy to use expedient, "Made with UF" soon won't mean much more than just another digital mash-up.

Poor Catenary -- who hasn't yet figured out that fractal "post-processing" is a myth. Even a few of the self-proclaimed "most important fractal artists in the world" say so. Catenary also believes that

For whatever reason, we humans tend to rate a piece of art more highly if we believe it was difficult and laborious to create. It isn't a prerequisite (M. Duchamp comes to mind) but I think the view is widely if not always consciously held.

and claims that because "highly layered and processed images...require more work and are thus seen as better," it must necessarily follow that

you must have worked harder to create the image, since you denied yourself the use of certain tools.

I'd argue that fine art is often assessed by ethereal, subjective criteria that goes beyond considering what tools were used and the time spent using them. How do we know that Duchamp didn't log countless hours putting his famous urinal to (ahem) "personal use" before placing that art object on public display? And what about the viewer who might happen to prefer my 24-second Fresco tweak of Nordström's painting to the much more technically skillful and labor-intensive reconstruction of DeCelle's? Is such a viewer inherently wrong and in dire need of art appreciation rehab?

Catenary's precepts might sometimes apply to certain exploratory art exercises -- like DeCelle's UF reconstructive surgery on Nordström -- but I think they'd generally make poor codes to live by. If I worked eight hours a day for ten years to compose a single three-line haiku like

Me -- horse with bum legs.
After ten years, this poem sucks.
Shoot me. Please shoot me.

should I be praised for creating a "difficult and laborious" work or, well, put out of my misery for being a fool? Likewise, using Catenary's logic, shouldn't I immediately burn my keyboard and finish writing this blog entry using cuneiform? That way all of you will be more impressed because I "denied myself certain tools" and thus had to work much harder to complete this post.

And, finally, why didn't I just ask DeCelle how he created his image? As I made clear in my last review, I did not want to know DeCelle's methods and expressed hope that he would keep his "secret secret." Why? Because once the Fractalbookers could duplicate his techniques, the newness that made DeCelle's image so fresh and exciting in the first place would soon be fatally cloned and perish in a death by a thousand cuts posts. But such fears are moot now. With UF5's import feature arriving on the scene, there are not enough sandbags on Earth to hold back the kitsch floodwaters. I wonder. Will the art form we love be able to survive the Fractal Flickr storm that is sure to come?

Maybe Catenary is right, after all. Maybe we should be asking UF5 artists exactly how they make their images. All of them. Every time. Before any and every public posting. Such a practice should be both standardized and institutionalized. Maybe Fractalus, the home to all that is Ultra "Fractal," could be used as a kind of Fractal Truthiness Clearinghouse. Damien M. Jones is probably tech-savvy enough to figure out how to administer virtual Sodium Penathol injections and polygraph examinations to all potential UF5 disseminators. The Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest judges could be recruited to do interrogations and to read read-outs -- after all, they have both the experience and the psychic powers to immediately ferret out those images that will prove to be "uniquely fractal." Par files could be poured over like hanging chads. Images found to be "acceptable" could then be stamped in the upper left corner with a visible icon -- perhaps one resembling the seal used by the Comics Code Authority in the 1950s-- and then given final approval to be posted in "fractal galleries" on web sites and art communities around the world. Those sorta-kinda-fractal images that almost made the cut, rather like the many Honorable Mentions handed out at last year's BMFAC, would be given frown-face stamps and be forcibly relegated to the malls of Mixed-Media galleries. Finally, those poor images deemed to be utterly un-fractal, would be stamped with bright red circles with lines through them, a kind of Scarlet Letter of the universal designator for no, and trucked off to be dumped into 2D landfills and never seen again.

Too cumbersome, you say? But then, I ask you, in the wake of what UF5 will surely have soon wrought, how can anyone anywhere ever be certain again that any UF image from this day forward can claim to be "uniquely fractal"?


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