MOCA: Museum of Computer Art

Interview with Don Archer, director and co-founder
including a note on the Mandelbrot Set

June, 2000

Maria Teresa De Donato
Editor-in-chief, digital art section, CESIA
an organization for study and research in the fine arts
Florence, Italy

Don, could you introduce yourself?

I got my BS in Industrial and Labor Relations at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York and did advanced study in English education at New York University. Later, I attended graduate study in computer programming at Brooklyn College in New York. For eight years I taught English in the New York City high schools. I was also an entrepreneur in a retail/manufacturing business for several years. For the last twelve years I worked part-time as a massage therapist. In 1993 I started doing fractal art and later became the co-founder and director of MOCA: Museum of Computer Art ( Since 1994 I exhibited print art in several one-man and group shows in New York City. One of my works was purchased and included in the collection of the Ball State University Art Museum, Muncie, Indiana. I am an innovator of U-draw fractal art on the web where web viewers contribute input and collaborate in the fractal-drawing process (fractal art and U-draw website:

As an artists what is your main sources of inspiration?

I am inspired by the Renaissance and Impressionist masters as well as by the larger-than-life figures of modern art, including Cézanne, Picasso, and the later Americans, de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. I am especially attracted also to those artists who have particularly wrestled with the idea of form, like Mondrian.

What are your strong points?

If I have any!

No manual art skills or training but a feeling for line and color. As a practicing computer artist, I am obliged regularly to discriminate between alternative versions of an image. In fact, the computer shapes and sizes an image with the click of a mouse, and rotates or shades color through it easily. So multiple versions of an image are available to the artist. At that point, it?s the artist?s obligation to find the most opportune and rewarding of the different versions; that is, to find most expressive and dramatic "drawn" line and "applied" color, as they come together to create the image. I have got a lot of practice doing this, and hope some expertise. More generally, I am zealously committed to my art, focused, goal-oriented, and a hard-worker. I have a good knowledge of the history of art and the conviction that computer art and fractal art cannot, and will not, be denied a role in the long tradition of fine art. I have also the strong feeling that fractal artists are breaking ground and preparing for the artists of the future, though, of course, we cannot anticipate in any way what they will do.

CHAOS02. Tell us about it.

This was early art. I was particularly enamored of the Mandelbrot set (* see note) and began to play with formulas that elaborated the mathematics of the set, mostly randomly because I am by no means a careful or knowledgeable student of the math. I had also just acquired a more powerful computer and was able to explore faster and deeper into the screen image. A whole series of fractals ensued, of which Chaos02 was one of the strongest and most dramatic. It was a happy circumstance: the coming together of a new formula, a new and faster computer, and a map of strong and appropriate color. One of my viewers liked it so much that he created a wall-hanging rug from the design.

How much time do you spend on your work?

My life is a total commitment to my art. I have a family life and I work on a part-time basis as a massage therapist, but 60 or even 80 hours a week at the computer is not uncommon. Indeed, almost everything I do is circumscribed by my art. Drawing fractals is a compulsion. Almost everything else is peripheral and secondary. I say this as fact, not with pride. It makes life difficult for those with whom I live. Fractals are generally infinite in size and depth, which suggests, to put it mildly, that there?s lot of room within a fractal to rummage around. Indeed, a lot of hours can be spent zooming and exploring. This may not always be necessary, for one of the characteristics of fractals is self-similarity, which means that themes and motifs tend to repeat themselves at any scale and at all depths. So one can be satisfied that a quick screen rendition has captured everything of interest in a fractal. But this is not always the case. Sometimes there is absolutely no hint of what lurks behind the fractal surface. This was the case with the Chaos series. The images were there, but they took a lot of searching.

Do you usually have everything clear in your mind when you start to work as an artist or it develops as you move on?

Fractals are a serendipitous art. While one can anticipate the kind of image that a particular formula will produce, based on one?s experience with the same or similar formulas, there is absolutely no way to anticipate what the final image will look like. In that sense, every fractal (or at least every great fractal) is a surprise and a revelation. This is one of the great mysteries of fractal art and one of its great glories. This is what keeps me coming back to fractal drawing day after day, night after night. One never knows what one will find.

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What kind of techniques do you personally use as a digital artist?

I am a kind of fractal objectivist. By this, I mean I am always looking for and searching out the fractal object; that is, the fractal form that is unattached and even unrelated to anything else in the image, possibly swimming in space. Mathematicians tell us that the Mandelbrot set is "connected ", forever looping and trailing into another part of the set, so there is never any beginning or end. My adventure is to try to contradict this idea, to find separate objects. So my fractals do not often " go off the edge of the screen". These objects will indeed be characteristically fractal in shape (whatever that means: I leave it to the eye of the beholder), but they are "whole", they are distinct, and, if you will, they are something the eye can take hold of and grab.

Color will make or break any fractal image. I generally draw my images in black-and-white, which allows me to position and size the "object", to get the proportions right. Only when I am satisfied with the black-and-white image, will I apply color. (This is not unlike Matisse, and many others, drawing on the canvas with charcoal or pencil before applying the paint.) The computer is a great colorizer, but there is the danger of running away with color. I lean (or should lean) to a very limited palette, to grounded, earthy, unsaturated colors, and to hues and variations of the same color. Coloring my "objects" is great fun, as I try to relate the "object" to the background and give it the drama that it requires. I use the freeware program Fractint to draw my fractals. Its formula parser is long familiar to me and I can readily develop new formulas with it, despite my unsophisticated command of math. But it is a DOS program and relies on 256 colors. This is inadequate. So I copy the parameters (a text record of the image) over to Ultra Fractal, a Windows-based shareware program that renders the Fractint parameter in 24-bit smooth color at high resolution. This is the saved and archived image. In rare cases, I will post-process the image in Photoshop as a try to correct some perceived failing, but I almost never succeed in improving the rendered image.

Who had the idea about "MOCA: Museum of Computer Art" and how did you get started?

It was 1993. I was drawing fractals for several months as a member of CompuServe?s computer art forum. Fractint had been developed by a loose-knit group of programmers called the Stone Soup Group working on CompuServe. The forum supported the program and encouraged the exchange of fractal ideas and images. It was also home to POV-Ray, a ray-trace program that generated exciting photo realistic images. But it was as if the CompuServe artists were talking to themselves and showing their work only amongst themselves. Considering the talent and the amazing new art being produced, this was unsatisfactory in my opinion, I conceived the idea of some sort of platform to promote the new art and bring it to a wide audience. I had met Bob Dodson on CompuServe. He was both a fractal and ray-trace artist based in Oregon. (I was in Brooklyn NY), and we seemed to have common ideas about computer art.

The idea of a museum presented itself. Its name was a no-brainer but perfectly right for what we were doing (MOCA: Museum of Computer Art), although the MOCA part caused some hostility because it was already bespoken. I assumed the role of director and Bob of curator. We started to assemble images (mostly of CompuServe artists), and within a few weeks we had our first exhibit. It consisted of a pack of five floppy disks distributed by US mail. It had very few takers. But was a beginning.

What criteria do you follow to allow an artist to exhibit on your on-line museum?

Talent and quality of art aside, we look for seriousness of intent, for some sort of creative track record, possibly a history of work shown on or off the web, for familiarity with and expertise in the computer art tools being employed. But the art?s the thing. We are artists ourselves, we have a long experience of looking at computer art and traditional art, and we unabashedly say we know what we like when we see it. We are looking for art that is new, fresh, vital, and vigorous. Having said that, we acknowledge forthrightly that our decisions are entirely subjective and fraught with the potential for mistake. If the art is not there, technical prowess alone, in our eyes, will not redeem it.

What are the most important points in a digital art work to make it look good?

Looking good is probably not a good criteria. Better criteria are charm, wit, humor, strength of composition, drafting skill. Mostly, I would tell artists, "Make it new!"

Animation art, ray-traced and ray-traced and drawn art, computer-painted art, height-field art, fractal art, computer-enhanced photography, digital art. Could you briefly describe techniques used for each one and the main differences existing among them?

Computer animation, like film animation, requires multiple frames or "stills", demands large file sizes and cannot be transmitted at reasonable speed by conventional telephone lines. It requires broadband, the broader the better. Its future as computer art is tied to the success of broadband technology. Broadband is already making heavy inroads in the market for connectivity, and the future of computer animation would seem to be assured,

There are many 3-d technologies. Ray-tracing posits camera, lights and objects, and simulates the effect of shadow and reflection. In the common terminology, ray-tracing produces photo realistic images, or images of heightened realism. Height-field art, as produced by programs such as Bryce, draws a kind of landscape filled with mountains, towers, seas, skies and celestial bodies. It generally creates an otherworldly effect.. Photoshop, CorelDraw and Fractal Painter are typical of vector or bitmap programs that generally rely on various input devices (mouse, stylus, tablet) to produce art. Manual art and drawing skills are usually required. The digital camera, of course, recapitulates conventional silver halide photography. It has yet to prove itself as a tool for artists, though resolutions are improving, prices are falling, and ease-of- use is growing.

Let it be noted that some of the best computer art we have seen has been created across multiple programs. We think this trend will continue and grow.

What will be your future plans as artists as well as director and co-founder at MOCA?

I would like to see MOCA remain as a non-profit organization sans advertising. It cries out for a professional staff, voluntary or paid. It needs curators, critics, programmers. It needs funding. It awaits public or private support. There is almost nothing on the web quite like it, no site that sweeps its net so comprehensively and authoritatively over computer art. Its work, size and prestige will continue to grow, so far as I can help it.

Thank you.

Don Archer is a fractal artist who has created a premier and popular fractal website, where ? as already stated at the beginning of the interview - viewers may participate in the creative process by inputting values to the formula that draws the fractal. These are called U-draw fractals, which are then posted for exhibition on Don?s site. No mathematical sophistication is required. The site also includes a comprehensive retrospect of Don?s fractal art, including many of his classic images.


the Mandelbrot Set

A fractal is a mathematical construct, a graph, a plotting of points on screen or on paper based on a remarkable and ingenious idea of Benoit Mandelbrot, a Polish-born mathematical researcher educated in France, who was working for IBM in New York in the 1970?s. Mandelbrot?s idea was to draw a plot on a graph whose horizontal axis was based on real numbers and whose vertical axis was based on imaginary numbers, add a constant to the formula, then calculate each point on the plot by plugging in the previous calculated value. The formula he devised had simplicity and elegance. In computer language, Mandelbrot?s formula reads

z = z * z + c

which is to say that z equals z times z plus c, the c being a constant that is added to the product of z times z each time the multiplication takes place. The formula also tells us that the product of z * z + c then becomes the new value of z, in a sequence of calculations that may indeed be very intensive and could not in practice be done prior to the advent of the computer. Mandelbrot?s formula draws the spectacular set of points that is now renowned as the Mandelbrot Set. He coined the word fractal to define a new kind of geometry based on the fractured nature of the universe that his formula exploited. It became evident to programmers and mathematicians soon after Mandelbrot?s discovery that minor (or maybe not so minor) variations in the formula, together with algorithms that color the points when certain mathematical conditions were met, could create spectacular images of great splendor and complexity, of a kind never quite seen or even imagined before. Fractals, it was learned, had an intricate detailed structure, and their motifs and design themes were repeated again and again, often in surprising and dramatic configurations, irrespective of how greatly the fractal was magnified. Artists soon found a new art field to exploit.

A special thanks to Don Archer for his kind cooperation, the use of the image published in the present article, and the in-depth explanation about the Mandelbrot set / Don Archer, MOCA 1994-2000, Brooklyn, NY, © All Rights Reserved

Maria Teresa De Donato
About 2566 Words
© 2000 All Rights Reserved
12100 Austin, TX 78758 (USA)

MOCA: Museum of Computer Art

Don Archer's digital art homepage