Thursday, August 21, 2008

Review of the Week: The 2007 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest Exhibition

Apparently, I can't run fast enough to get away from this art.

I find art is best contemplated while jogging...

They say you learn something new every day.

Today, I discovered it's not easy to write a review of an exhibition I never actually attended.

Then again, it's impossible to actually attend an exhibition when you don't hear about it until seven months after it has closed.

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If OT's readers and Fractaland in general have been waiting for an update about the 2007 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest Exhibit, well, as the saying goes, you missed it. Don't feel bad. I'm sure you aren't the only one.

I know I was certainly looking forward to seeing it. I missed it, too.

And I even actively tried to keep tabs on it. I regularly scoured the usual fractal art forums, communities, and assorted haunts in hopes of ferreting out any peep about it. What did I find? Nothing. On Fractalus? Zero. Why even the BMFAC 2007 web site remains strangely silent -- about its own much trumpeted exhibition no less! The webmaster was certainly not shy about providing coverage of the 2006 BMFAC exhibition festivities. But news of the BMFAC 2007 exhibition appears to have been buried in a witness protection program. Don't take my word for it. Google it yourself. Try: "benoit mandelbrot fractal art contest exhibition 2007." I already know what you'll find. One relevant entry. Here -- where one paragraph vaguely states that a winning selection by the artist will be displayed in Spain in November. That's it. And that's where I took my only clue to find the MIA exhibition.

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I began by checking the Spanish connections to the contest and Googling the BMFAC's listed judges -- especially those who had no work displayed in the exhibition. Doors finally began to open. One judge in particular stood out: Javier Barrallo.

Running a search on him, I found two -- and only two -- articles about the 2007 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest Exhibition. Both articles are written in Spanish, so I had to rely on Google's translation engine for an English transcription. I also pasted text into Babelfish for another translation used for comparison purposes. Quotes that appear in this post are derived from Google, and bracketed inserts from Babelfish are sometimes included for clarification.

The first article, which appeared on lukor.com, is here. The second article, which appeared on the web site of the university where the exhibition was held, is here. I have linked to English translated versions, although the original Spanish pages can be easily found by either following links at the top of the linked page or by pasting a shortened version of the URL address into your browser window.

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And what do we (appear to) learn?

The exhibition was held in Pamplona and displayed in the "lobby of El Sario" at the Public University of Navarre. The exhibition ran from December 21st, 2007, to January 31st, 2008 -- according to this agenda item in the university's calendar.

Both articles bill the event as: International Art Contest Fractal Benoit Mandelbrot 2007. Javier Barrallo (Calonge) is described as "the director of the contest." No mention is made of previously assumed director Damien M. Jones (although this site lists Jones and Barrallo as co-directors) or any of the other BMFAC judges. None of the exhibited artists is mentioned by name either, although the titles of several art works are cited.

Barrallo is a professor of Applied Mathematics at the Public University of Navarre. He appears to be a fairly accomplished academic and has roots in the Ultra Fractal cult community. His work turns up in several "Ultra Fractal Challenge" events hosted by Janet Parke. He has contributed to the UF List Parameters Database. He certainly knows and has ties with Jones -- and even co-authored an article with him. These established connections between the "co-directors" might further explain why the BMFAC's submission requirements are so heavily weighted towards UF -- and also why the selected judges are mostly (totally?) associated with the software as well.

One article notes:

Of the twenty-five works that make up this show, fifteen have been specifically chosen and the rest are guest artists.

"Guest artists." That's one way to put it. The other article describes the non-winning artists as "invited." Neither article mentions the professional faux pas that these "guest artists" also conveniently served as the contest's judges. Nor did the exhibition appear to differentiate the guests from the winners when displaying the art prints. In the photograph above, the only one I could find of the exhibition, one sees (if a black and white photo of an art exhibition can be called "seeing") an image by self-selected "guest" Kerry Mitchell (left) hung beside juried "winner" Susan Chambless (center).

I've said from the start this entire fiasco is set up as a publicity stunt for the judges to exhibit themselves in a seemingly competitive scenario in order to appear juried and thus more prestigious. But, of course, the respectable veneer is a stacked deck from the start. The BMFAC guest-judges are quick to judge others but repeatedly refuse to let others judge them.

I wonder. Can you be a guest at a party you are throwing for yourself?

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Here is how Barrallo describes the art in the exhibition:

We try to [give] a representative exposure of what fractal art [is at] this time [and] wanted to have a dozen [ten] artists, expressly invited by [their] capacity in this discipline."

So, indeed, the BMFAC is meant to be a representative sampling of the best contemporary fractal art. Made primarily with Ultra Fractal. With a backstage pass for the Ultra Fractal-loving judges who get a green light to soak up 40% of the wall space. While a remaining heavy ratio of UF selections comprise the rest of the show. Does that sound representative to you? And exactly what constitutes the "capacity in the discipline" of the judges -- other than hanging out near the UF orbit of co-director Jones?

One article notes that the displayed art work was "the computer representation of a single mathematical formula, usually very simple." In the other article, Barrallo observes that the displayed fractals are

like painting by numbers. Here there is no work [done in a] photo editor but answered [strictly by] mathematical formulas, the outcome of those formulas is translated into numbers and those numbers to colors.

Those fractals sure sound pure as the driven pixel. I'm gratified to learn that no post-processing cheating in photo editors was allowed to taint these pristine proceedings. Oh. No. But wait. Hypocrisy alert. Since most of the winning/invited entries were made using Ultra Fractal, wasn't nearly every displayed work masked and layered and pancaked to the edge of their event horizons using the graphic manipulation Photoshop-Lite features built into UF?

Long story short: Those suckers on display were hardly "simple." They're Franken-Fractals -- through and through.

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And, hey, all you wannabe BMFACers and OT readers with curious minds that want to know, could this be the reason we've heard zippo so far this year about a (now officially cancelled by Tim) 2008 BMFAC? One article states that the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest is

held every two years.

Really? That's news to me -- especially since the first two contests were held in subsequent years. Of course, since all of us have been living in a virtual BMFAC news blackout, all of the information in the articles is a revelation. Like the similar (and recently disappeared) Fractal Universe Calendar Contest, Jones & Co.'s primary work ethic appears to be grounded in a smothering secrecy. Isn't this our community's big shebang? "Our" International Fractal Art Contest? Wasn't there a deluge of 50+ also-ran honorable mentions in the big BMFAC winnowing nearly a year ago? Therefore, the rarified exhibition selectees should be deemed exemplary and deserve the further recognition an exhibition should ideally provide. In fact, the exhibition should be the apex of the contest -- not a hush-hush throwaway shunted into obscure Google netherworld caches. If nothing else, shouldn't at least the BMFAC site have some record of their own exhibition to provide a further public illustration of the power and grace of the winning entries -- the best-of-the-best sweated over by the BMFAC judges after they first made absolutely certain their own art was grandfathered in "invited"?

Why you'd almost think the BMFAC organizers and judges are ashamed of something.

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Did I mention they should be?

Here's a selection of what I wrote to Jones last October when we had a verbal skirmish in the Xenodreamers group. What I said to him then remains just as true today:

If this were nothing more than an invitational exhibit, no one would be asking questions. But this cozy arrangement to showcase friends is masked as a contest that presumably has rigorous integrity. But the contest is an afterthought that occurs only once the judges have made their initial gallery grab. Without the addition of the contest, the judges could not display their work at all -- and certainly not under circumstances that have the appearance of being juried and thus more respectable.

[...]

If you want to run a legitimate contest, then pay your judges (even if that means an entry fee) but keep them out of the "winner's circle." And if you want to display your work and the work of your friends, then hold an invitation-only exhibit and be satisfied.

As long as you try to have things both ways, questions of ethical conflicts and unprofessional behavior are going to dog you.

Maybe this fractal art contest can still be saved and receive a much needed professional makeover this year -- or, as seems to be suggested, next year. If not, then its organizers and enablers can expect the howling will once again be heard -- across the expanse of ocean -- as far away as Spain.

UPDATE: Fractalus, the site owned by BMFAC co-director Damien M. Jones and which houses both the 2006 and 2007 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contests (see hosting information on both home pages), has apparently blocked sometimes blocks a link in this post where I noted that Jones knows 2007 BMFAC spokesperson Javier Barrallo. The link was to a photograph of Jones and Barrallo standing next to an exhibition poster for the conference where the 2006 BMFAC was exhibited. Jones will probably argue the link was blocked out of bandwidth concerns, but one could also just as easily assume that Jones is unwilling to allow OT's readers to see concrete proof of his association with Barrallo. The photograph can now also be viewed here. Jones is on the left and Barrallo is on the right.

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1 Comments:

Blogger Philip Northover said...

This exhibition reminds me of the saying, leading a horse to water and being unable to make it drink.

Some biases come to mind:

i) one of the organizers, understandably, wants to have something in it for himself. He's not running a charity here, and with independent judging, would take the risk of being excluded from his own show.

ii) the judges, having their own works included in the show, naturally do not want to be upstaged. There is a tendency, even if only subconsciously, to pick the weaker works to be the winners. (A subpoint here is that a single spectacular contestant work could steal the whole show - not just upstaging a judge, but upstaging everybody. Probably not an outcome the organizers and judges would like to see - visitors to the exhibition all breathlessly clustered around one wall hanging and ignoring everything else!)

iii) some judges were too well acquainted with some of the contestants. There was one case which to me looked like a judge helping a friend into the show.

Anyway, they can run the thing however they want. And maybe it's a great success and we just haven't heard. If so, bully for them. If it was not a success, I'm sorry to hear it. Perhaps the exhibition part of it wasn't even held - sponsor cold feet at the last minute... in which case, much ado about nothing, as Willie the Shake might have said...

8/23/2008 1:14 PM

 

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