Saturday, August 22, 2009

Will the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest Do the Right Thing?

Maybe no one will notice if I say nothing...

Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.
--Mark Twain

Image seen on

I wanted to pop on briefly and second what Tim said in his last post. I've known Garth Thornton since I helped test early versions of Xenodream years ago. I always found him to be thoughtful and straightforward. I've long admired his art, and he continues to create stunning work -- like this piece seen recently on Fractal-World:

The Google Search Engine by Garth Thornton

The Google Search Engine by Garth Thornton

In short, I've long had respect for Garth -- but never more than I had this week. He is the only judge of the competition to ever address Orbit Trap's objections as to how the Benoit Mandelbrot Fractal Art Contest is run, and, certainly, the only one to act based on his scruples after reflecting on how his actions might appear to others. Moreover, he could have resigned silently -- out of the public eye. Instead, he made his conscience an open book -- even going so far as to post his reasoning for resigning on a public forum. By his actions, he has shown himself to be estimable.

Would that some of the other BMFAC judges faced with financial conflicts of interests do some similar soul-searching. If they don't want to listen to me, perhaps they should listen to Garth:

[T]he whole point of conflict of interest issues is not to rely on integrity. For a contest, anyone of questionable integrity or clearly lacking in credibility should not be a judge anyway. More generally, whether the context is awarding financial contracts or judging contests, a series of questions may be asked. First, people are expected to declare any personal conflicts of interest. Then there may be consideration given to whether the interests have a material or other effect on the outcome, and whether the person should participate or be party to any discussions, and whether or not they should have a vote. The exact approach depends on the kind of organization. In many contexts it is standard for the person to step aside from the entire process. Both objective and perceived conflicts of interest have to be considered.

Would that the competition be run without such a heavy blanket of secrecy. If Garth had not posted his rationale to the FractalForum but had simply sent a private email, would anyone have even noticed that he stepped down? As it was, how many of the other judges learned of Garth's resignation by reading it on Orbit Trap? A high profile art competition does not have to operate like the CIA, nor should fractal artists have to scour the Web for months probing for any word about BMFAC's exhibition -- which is exactly what happened in the last contest. Even today, there is not one photo -- not even one sentence -- about the details of that exhibition on its own web site.

Would that the director relax the massive size restrictions for entering the contest -- restrictions that privilege Ultra Fractal and its users while impeding or excluding other programs and artists. BMFAC should be a showcase for all schools of fractal art. If the majority of the judging panel is composed of UF artists, teachers, web hosts, code writers, advocates, and even the software's author, then please rename the competition and just call it what it is: The Benoit Mandelbrot Ultra Fractal Art Contest. Truth in advertising is preferable to a smoke screen most of us can easily see through anyway.

Would that BMFAC's sponsors rouse themselves from their slumbers and get the right thing done. Do the competition's sponsors -- Fundación Vodafone España, Universidad del País Vasco/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea, ICM 2010 (International Congress of Mathematicians) -- approve of how the contest is being managed? Does their silence mean they have no moral qualms -- even in the face of a prominent judge's resignation? Past BMFAC sponsors have not always been so hesitant to assert their influence on the competition's day-to-day operations. Previously, according to the contest's director, BMFAC's sponsors insisted the judges be included in the exhibition, as this memorable passage from Orbit Trap's archives recounts:

I am well aware that people were not happy about judges' work appearing in the ICM exhibition alongside contest entries, but we made it clear from the outset that contest entries would not be the only art shown. This year is no different. The sponsors require this as a hedge against insufficient quality being submitted [my emphasis]; it is, after all, their money at risk.

Would that some of the other BMFAC judges facing conflict of interest issues of both financial and personal gain voluntarily review the facts and search their consciences as selflessly and honorably as Garth Thornton did. Or, if such acts of moral courage were forthcoming, would they have already taken place? Perhaps the sponsors need to take action again this year. But instead of ushering some judges into the exhibition through the back door, maybe the sponsors should do the right thing and usher some of judges off the selection panel and out the front door.

Maybe instead of a hedge against insufficient quality, the sponsors should consider another hedge -- a hedge against insufficient integrity.


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