Tuesday, 10 November 2020

The Spirit of Amano

As probably many of you already know, last days have been times of turmoil for the international community in Aquascaping. Unfortunately, apparently there have been a number of cases of breach of rules of various contests, with the subsequent disqualifications of those participants in some of them. I am sure those disqualifications will continue for the remaining of this 2020 season of contests, as result of those events.

However, I do not want to linger in this article in what happened or not, nor mention individuals or organisations involved into that. Instead, I prefer to discuss about the context and what this means for Aquascaping.

The last days have been a good opportunity to check the mood of the community about this problem. As many of you may know, Aquascaping community circles around the many existing contests. There are a few reasons for it, being probably the most important one the role that the IAPLC has, possibly the most famous and prestigious contest for Aquascaping within the community.

The late Takashi Amano founded the IAPLC, with the support of his company ADA. He did it with the spirit of promoting the art and love for Aquascaping. Because of Amano had in that time -and still does-, a good number of followers, the participation on the IAPLC became a kind of encountering point for the international community, otherwise scattered, even if IAPLC came later than other contests of similar characteristics. However the powerful promotional engine of ADA and its presence on internet made the magic to happen. Nowadays, the role of IAPLC is somewhat a bit diluted, as there is a good number of other contests, both national and international. But still, IAPLC remains as the king and the one which first price is the most wanted.

But, why scores so high in the feelings of the community? Well, because is one of the core components of the legacy of Amano. His love and passion for Aquascaping and the natural world permeated all his actions, whatever we discuss about his works, his books, his videos or his talks. He had a power of gathering people that only natural leaders have, and as result of it, his message of "Learn from Nature, create Nature" went deep into the bones of the aquascapers of his time and continue till nowadays.

At that time, being awarded the first price in the contests meant to be crowned by Takashi Amano himself in the IAPLC party, and consequently, being considered with lot of respect and as member of the top part of the community inspired by him. Seen with the perspective that only time gives, one can see that Amano became less and less involved in many aspects of the contests. With no doubt, the price to pay for fighting cancer, with its corresponding toll, and the need to focus energies where they are most needed. With this change, IAPLC also evolved by itself. It is easy to check this by comparing the works as appearing in the IAPLC booklets along the years: they have become less and less representative of Nature Aquarium as concept developed by Amano, and becoming more and more in the works that we find today in the top entries of the IAPLC, generally quite disconnected of such concept.

IAPLC Winner work 2006 - "Autumnal colours" by Chen You Lin

IAPLC Winner work 2019 - "Dream On" by Josh Sim

Whilst this may look irrelevant, it is not, because also marked a tendency in the works: the Aquascaping for competition became progressively in a competition of techniques, rather than about the art itself. Somehow, this evolution started an IAPLC no longer really representing the spirit of Amano, quickly evolving as consequence of the increasing number of participants and the need to find new ways to achieve the "wow factor", criteria with the largest weight in judging the works nowadays, with no doubt. 

Thus, the idea of "Aquatic Planted Layout" suffered a substantial mutation. Nowadays, some of the top works scarcely have plants if we compare them with the heavily planted aquariums leading many of the works in the initial years, with the hardscape primarily reigning as driving factor for the aquarium. If you are interested to check the evolution, please visit the IAPLC page here. There is no longer respect for the raw materials, and modelling with tools and resines is now customary. Whereas in the "Nature Aquarium" the harmony of layout, plants and fish was the key objective to achieve, in the popular diorama style of nowadays visual impact is the target. This subtle difference has a drawback: when we work towards the visual component, we do not work towards achieving a natural environment to trick the fish, as Amano liked to say. And whilst nature's behaviour cannot be faked, visual components can be. However, the more the aquariums are developed purely for one photo and the contests, the less a love for nature is found in them, because nature cannot properly develop in an aquarium that will run just for three or four months or purely designed to win a contest.

For me, this is one of the saddest point of this story. It is commonplace to see how top contestants affirm they follow the spirit of Amano, when often is not the case. And it is even worse to hear some saying such a thing, to later on find out they cheat in the photos. So, essentially, pretending that one follows the teachings of Amano as a way to engage with the community, but on the other darker side clearly breaching such spirit. This is just using his memory as a tool, and proves a substantial lack of respect for him and his role in Aquascaping.

Most of contests have similar regulations and requirements, and all of them coincide in one aspect: do not alter photos in any way that may modify the layout created. This is set like that to ensure a fair competition for sure, but not only that; it is so that the quality of the work can be evaluated properly and judge it in a way to see if it is worth to reach the laurels of this art or not. Whenever someone cheats, even if it is just editing the photo to add a fish, it is not following the spirit of Amano, no matter what that person says or believes.

Amano loved the competition, sure. Also defended the auto-exigence and the need to excel in life in whatever you want to do. But there is no honor or glory in achieving a goal if for that you are not truthful to the spirit of the rules, of a contest, or in this case, of  Aquascaping.

But, why someone would want to cheat? Well, definitely because has confused the message. One thing is to fight for the first price, aspire to it and use that as a tool to make oneself better, polish your skills and work harder. But another thing is to believe that all means and tools are valid if that leads you to where you want to be. A good rule to distinguish between the two aspects is imagining you do the aquarium only for yourself: if you would not cheat in that situation because makes it pointless, then probably it is also wrong for a contest, because it means you do not press yourself to improve; you just press yourself to cope with an egotistical objective of public acknowledgment. And when the real prize we are setting is our own self-complacency, then the paths that are followed could be the wrong ones because everything could seem admisible, when is not.

I am sure that we can easily affirm that Amano never pretended not defended this way of acting. But it is important that we understand why it happens because it is the only way to correct it and avoid it. For sure, a vast majority of people are fair players and even some may be also looking to compete just for victory, there are many others they really do it for the fun of it, the chance to share their works and get a critical view of their works to learn to improve. But there is a misconception in the word passion, which can be easily confused with obsession. Being passionate is something that shows off in our works and way of acting, as passion connects to love, and love manifests as generosity in sharing. However, obsession is a dangerous thing and has nothing to do with love. It only obeys to personal interests and does not look for sharing. An obsession can twist the glass through which we see reality, and make us think something is acceptable, when is not.

Unfortunately, there is no need for many people not following rules to create a significant disturbance. And this has been made very clear in these days; if someone cheats and is caught, people unravel certain degree of rage that comes from the frustration they feel. It has a huge impact in the perception of the community, and harms the prestige of those contests which did not see the problem coming or did not react properly to it.

Some now claim the need to produce videos along with the photos, so the videos may be requested upon if the works is considered for a good ranking. A kind of sanity check. This is not bad idea, but...is this really what we want? Further proofs and details just to check people do not cheat? Cannot we, as community, understand the relevance of the rules, why they are there and why they should be respected? Cannot we really live under the true spirit of Amano of fair competition, share of passion for a form of art we all love, and at the same time respect each other? Or are we going to continue considering this a war for prestige? The more rules we have to police for contests, the worst will be for everybody, in the sense that then discussion goes around the rules, and not about the art behind the works.

But, of course, it is important we do something about this problem. No regulating this means that other people might consider this behaviour as acceptable and risk it. A few times last days I have heard that editing photos is almost customary in the contests. And it is true that doing some editions is somehow allowed...but not for the composition of the image, rather than things like light levels, overall colour correction or contrast...it is clear, however, some do not understand those limits, so probably best thing would be not allowing editions at all, of any kind. I would leave those aesthetical adjustments to the contest to make over the winner works, if they think they need some correction for editorial reasons. If we do not draw clear limits, then we leave room for misinterpretation. Simpler rules also enable simpler referring, transparency and clarity. Some contests have actually already these rules, but sometimes they do not reinforce them, and this is an aspect where contest organisations have a clear duty towards the community.

Extract of rules from IAPLC 2020. Full rules are found in this link.

One thing is for sure: if we do not do an introspective, as community, of those events, this form of art will suffer. It will, because of nowadays the weight of contests on it is so large that if they do not work properly they will act as deterrent to many people, who will not share the same principles and will lose interest in Aquascaping. When something becomes so much about the competitions, those who do not want to participate become excluded. So the quality of the competitions is a paramount aspect for the preservation of Aquascaping as we understand it today. Thus, all contests have a huge responsibility to ensure the cleanliness of the competitions and to rule them by the principles of the community. We cannot keep looking aside this problem.

Said that, it is long ago I decided not to participate in contest, and one of the reasons is precisely what I address in this post: the competitions are no longer representing the true spirit of Aquascaping. And if we are honest, we would see also that the spirit of Amano was neither the competition for the sake of the contest.

In fact, as a curiosity, in his autobiography published soon after his death, he never mentions the IAPLC or the contests.

For him, for Amano, the IAPLC was not in the list of what himself considered a personal achievement of his life; instead, he spent most of the description of his existence around three aspects: love for nature, strength in face of the challenge, reinvent oneself as many times as needed to reach own goals. This is the true spirit of Amano, not the contests.

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