Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Has the 2009 Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest Cleaned Up Its Act?

Will I judge my hands to be cleaner if i wash them with soap i programmed myself?

What! Will these hands never be clean?

It's baaaaack. The Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest returns for 2009 with freshly scrubbed rules.

Past co-director Damien M. Jones made the announcement last night on the Ultra Fractal Mailing List:

Good evening listfolk,

I would like to inform you that the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest 2009 is open and accepting submissions. This is a contest to select images for exhibition at ICM in 2010. The submissions period closes October 10, 2009.

For complete information, please visit the contest web site:


Thank you for your attention.

Damien Jones

So has the competition cleaned up its act, or is there still some dirt lingering under its fingernails? Well, no pun intended, you be the judge. Here are my initial impressions:

Have the Judges Been Taken Off the Wall?

It appears that the contest's directors and sponsors took some of Orbit Trap's past criticisms to heart. Previously, as we pointed out many times, the contest was tainted by including the judges' artwork -- even to the tune of 50% of the exhibition. To its credit, this year's competition appears to have remedied this arrangement. From the rules page:

Eligibility: Anyone may submit their own artwork to the contest, except selection panel members and their immediate families.

That's more like it. Giving credit where credit is due, I applaud this change which certainly makes considerable strides to promote fairness, reduce conflicts of interest, and remove the sense that the whole thing was deliberately undertaken to be little more than a self-serving publicity stunt for the judges.

But I know what the more paranoid among you might be thinking. The rules are clear about the judges being disallowed from the contest -- but what about the exhibition? Are they also excluded from that venue? After all, since some of the judges are (self-described) "prestigious fractal artists," should they not receive some compensation for donating their time so willingly? I agree that, compared to previous years, the formal details of the exhibition are more sketchy and could have been left vague to allow wiggle room for tweaking at a later date. However, on this front, I'm going to take the directors and sponsors at their word and assume they are operating on good faith. Unless I learn otherwise, I'll presume that no asterisk clauses or extenuating circumstances will arise to allow any of the judges to display their own work in the 2010 exhibition. And, if the judges deserve compensation, I would hope the competition's sponsors would pony up a fair monetary payment for services rendered rather than provide wall space beside the winning artists.

Follow the Money

But just as one conflict of interest disappears, another rises to take its place. Consider this year's panel selection members:

Benoit B. Mandelbrot, Honorary Chairman
Javier Barrallo (Spain), The University of the Basque Country
Damien Jones (UK), fractal artist and programmer
Kerry Mitchell (USA), fractal artist and programmer
Janet Parke (USA), fractal artist
Juan Bautista Peiró (Spain), Polytechnique University of Valencia
Frederik Slijkerman (Netherlands), author of Ultra Fractal
Rajat Tandon (India), University of Hyderabad
Garth Thornton (New Zealand), author of XenoDream
Mark Townsend (Australia), author of Apophysis

What would be one of the most serious conflicts of interest for a judge in an art contest? Could it be the opportunity to make a business profit by serving as a judge?

Imagine this scenario. Imagine an art contest where some of the judges are in the business of selling art supplies -- you know, like paints, brushes, canvases, frames, mattes, and so on. Imagine further that these judges would be certain to know that some artists entering the contest would be using their products. And not only would they be able to recognize their products in given artworks, but so would many of the other artists and viewers who would examine the prize-winning entries. It stands to reason that the more their products are associated with the winning entries, the more money they are likely to personally make.

Does the above situation sound like a conflict of interest to you?

I would guess that the authors of various fractal software were included as judges in this year's competition to give the appearance of greater balance. After all, there has been some previous criticism, from Orbit Trap and other parties, that past competitions seemed skewed to a particular software platform. Including the creators of Ultra Fractal, Xenodream, and Apophysis is probably designed to show that this year's BMFAC has no prevailing bias.

And maybe it succeeds to that end. But it leaves a worse problem in its wake.

Two of the programs, Ultra Fractal and Xenodream, are for sale. Their authors have a clear financial investment in their respective software's success or failure. The situation would be different if the software was freeware. But it's not. There's hard cash to potentially be made from product placement -- and this competition provides a world stage for advertising fractal generators. The software that winds up in the winner's circle will invariably be associated with artistic success -- especially from an exhibition built to acquaint newcomers to the field of fractal art. In short, if Ultra Fractal and Xenodream images do end up in the exhibition, two of the panel selection members will most likely make a profit as a direct result. And that, gentle readers, is a classic example of a colossal conflict of interest.

Please understand that I'm not accusing anyone of doing anything unethical here. After all, no judging has yet taken place. Conflicts of interest are not so much about individual personalities as they are about compromising situations. Conflicts of interest establish an atmosphere that opens loopholes, create opportunities for preference and for gain, and, worst of all, allow abuses to more easily occur.

And some conflicts of interest are so visibly inherent as to be unmistakable. Would you think it fair if Olympic athletes were judged by their own coaches -- or, more to the point, by the merchants who make sports equipment and apparel? Such coaches and merchants would surely stand to financially benefit if their protégées or products won a medal. But the Olympic community would deem such an arrangement to be outrageous and demand such shenanigans be rectified. So why should the fractal community sit still for a comparable state of affairs?

The bottom line? The two authors of for-sale software should resign from the judging panel immediately.

Additional Ca-Chinging

Another, perhaps lesser, conflict of interest, and one that Orbit Trap has noted in previous BMFACs, also involves making money and has not been washed clean. Two other judges could also make a profit -- depending on what software dominates the contest and exhibition. Why? Because both do or have taught courses in using Ultra Fractal at the Visual Arts Academy. Again, if UF racks up the kudos in this year's BMFAC, then Ultra Fractal will then be associated with internationally award-winning fractal art. UF, however, has one substantial drawback. I'll let the instructor of the course "Working with Ultra Fractal" explain:

Ultra Fractal is a powerful, feature-rich, and extremely versatile fractal generator that allows the user to explore many types of fractals and to create amazing images. But it has, by nature, a very steep learning curve.

There's the rub. You want to win those art prizes, but the prized program is designed for someone with an advanced engineering degree. Don't worry though. One of the BMFAC judges will come to your aid -- for a fee.

It stands to reason that the more exposure UF gets as a "winning" program, the more likely cyber-seats in UF classes will be filled.

These "faculty member" judges should also resign either their teaching job or their judging job, but I won't get my hopes up. Even a dump truck of Lava won't wash the pie off some hands.

Size Matters, or How Loaded Are Those Dice?

And is there much doubt what fractal software will once more prevail when the BMFAC smoke clears? Let's do the math with a short assembly of the judges:

Frederik Slijkerman -- author of Ultra Fractal.

Damien M. Jones -- formerly hosted the UF web site for many years and has been considered such "an evangelist" (his phrase) for Ultra Fractal that he even wrote a lengthy apology to explain his expressed devotion to the program.

Janet Parke -- teaches UF classes online.

Kerry Mitchell -- has taught UF classes online.

Mark Townsend -- created Apophysis, a program originally made for use with Ultra Fractal.

Given the above roster, I'd say things are looking good for UF users again this year. Hopefully, though, we won't go so deeply into UF cult worship as to have a repeat of the 2007 contest where several students enrolled in judges' UF classes picked up awards or honorable mentions. That coincidence left a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste.

And if the aesthetic proclivities don't lean in a UF direction, the submission sizes certainly do. OT complained about the required plasma TV size dimensions in past contests. You'll be glad to know they've gotten even more gigantic this go around:

Artwork that is selected must then be provided in high-resolution format, sized so that the largest dimension is 8000 pixels. If a high-resolution version of the artwork cannot be produced, it should not be entered. Some images may be selected for printing at even larger size (12000 pixels in the largest dimension) so entrants would do well to be aware of the size requirements. This is particularly important for certain types of fractals (e.g. flames) which are difficult to render at large sizes.

12000 pixels? What are you making? A mural?

Well, maybe yes, as it turns out. One of this year's BMFAC judges is an expert on murals.

Sorry, Apo users. You're screwed with those flames. Sorry, post-processors, you too -- unless you have a system with a quadrillion gigs of RAM. And for users of stuff like Ferguson or Gintz software -- you know, software authors who somehow didn't make this year's all-inclusive judging cut -- well, you can render large but your graphic processing functions are somewhat limited. So, by design, that pretty much leaves an entry pool of UF and (to a lesser extent) Xenodream images -- that is, the rare programs that can make works to massive scale but also heavily process them.

OT has argued before that there is absolutely no reason to insist that all fractal art must have gargantuan dimensions and be printed the size of a barn door to be artistically successful. No, this insistence that bigger is better is a precisely calculated, exclusionary provision contrived to limit the playing field rather than level it.

So, To Conclude

My initial impression of this year's BMFAC is that it has only partially cleaned up its act. The judges have been handcuffed outside the gallery door, but the helping hands of BMFAC still need some conflicts of interest and agenda items scrubbed off with industrial, anti-bacterial soap.

And other questions remain for later discussion. For example, how will the judges handle mixed media collages made in UF5 that are submitted to this "fractal art contest"?

And what kind of overriding aesthetic about fractal art is being perpetuated with this contest? That question has crucial implications for all of us who engage in some form of fractal art. Jones makes clear in the rules that he wants to avoid all stereotypical "garish, 70's style imagery." I guess I'd sleep better if I didn't wonder whether he's replacing that tired trope with another stereotype of his own -- a stereotype that, in its own way, is just as narrow and "garish" as those spirals that were once de rigueur for the now defunct Fractal Universe Calendar. Artwork that, in his words, is

uniquely fractal; artwork that uses fractal tools to produce less-fractal imagery is not as desirable (but is not disqualified). We want artwork that will look good when printed large (i.e. has lots of good, interesting fractal detail).

Admit it. You know what he wants. He wants it to be big. He wants it to have detail. He wants it to appeal to Janet Parke. And he wants it replicated over and over and over by her students until it becomes the only critically recognized expression of what fractal art can be.

He wants your multi-layered UF monstrosities.


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Blogger Philip Northover said...

Oh cool! Third time lucky?! Well, may it be a great success, or at least get further than the others... tsk tsk, as they say, one of the consolations of getting old is seeing what other people are doing wrong... ;-)

8/04/2009 3:35 PM

Blogger Nahee said...

As long as the Fractali are running the show, then it will be basically a UF contest (but that is what they have always wanted).

And why is DMJ shown as (UK), has he finally moved back after living in various states (TX, IL, FL, etc.) of the US for the past several years?? (Did they revoke his Green-Card?) :-)

I can hardly wait until they get to the Terrabyte size requirements!! ;-}


8/06/2009 7:04 AM

Blogger Philip Northover said...

The large sizes may be for verification purposes. If it's large, it's probably yours. Not always of course but it may cut out some jokers.

Wonder if the judges and friends will appear with the same pics as for the other shows. No point having exhibition quality prints gathering dust in Damien's basement/storage space. ;-)

Anyway, I'd love to see the show. Unfortunately, not enough to travel to India or Spain.

Good to see PNL is "baaaaack" too. I wouldn't think the alt binaries are as active as they once were, still as one venue closes, another opens. C'est le 'net.

8/07/2009 10:01 AM

Blogger Chris Oldfield said...

What about the dynamic of the judges discussing and working together?

And I am touch curious.. at what point exactly do you envision someone pushing their own monetary goals above the rest?

I just can't see it. I also can't imagine the judges as a whole being unaware of the dynamic and being blindsided by it.

It would seem you give none of them any credit, whatsoever.

8/11/2009 11:45 AM

Blogger Jen said...

You seem to be a bit misleading when talking about these massive dimension requirements. I was curious as to your "barn door" sized remarks, so went and did the math myself.

At the 8000px on the largest dimension, it turns out that the largest it could be at a minimum of 300dpi is a mere 26 inches on it's largest size. A two foot two inch on it's largest side print does not strike me as being massive. Rather, it actually seems quite small for something intended to be printed for an exhibition.

You had me under the impression these were being run at a size comparable to Tom Thomson's work "Woodland Waterfall" (it's over 6 foot on it's largest dimension) when in fact they are not.

In fact, the requirements seem as though they are pushing the boundaries of too small to show proper detail on something with infinite zoom possibilities, like a fractal. I certainly was disappointed at how much wasn't visible on some prints I have received of fractals, where the prints ranged between 12 inches and 32 inches on the largest side, and intend on getting them redone larger when I can afford it.

Shouldn't an exhibition be concerned with these very same printing issues?

8/26/2009 6:41 PM

Blogger cruelanimal said...


I don't think I'm misleading anyone. I've made, sold, and exhibited quite a few prints; however, I use an experienced professional printing company and not a mass market firm like Zazzle. I've been able to make detailed, archival, fine arts prints up to 42" on the largest side from image sizes roughly half the dimensions of what BMFAC requires.

If your calculations are inevitable, then why do other digital art shows that include fractal art, like some at the physical gallery at MOCA, not require BMFAC-sized renders for making their exhibition prints?

The claim that fractals are somehow different and need large display sizes to show sufficient detail seems like an equivocation. An exhibition is an exhibition. Photographs, for example, are filled with detail but are usually exhibited in much smaller sizes than BMFAC will allow.

Your experience with prints may have been different than mine. The fact remains, though, that some artists and programs will be unable to enter the competition because of the size restrictions. The director himself notes that flame fractals have some trouble pumping up to the necessary dimensions. The one program that has no difficulty scaling up is Ultra Fractal -- and, given UF's advocacy roots in half the judging panel, I'm guessing this is the reason behind the hefty size requirements.

8/27/2009 9:19 AM


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