As a hobbyist/aquarium industry entrepreneur, I find myself in interesting positions at times. I like to do different work, push out new ideas, and share them. Above almost all else in the hobby, I love authenticity...the act of being who we are- doing our aquariums the way WE want them to be...Not just copying someone else's work, ideas or thoughts.
I think we should take the works of others and study them, refine them... build upon them. Those things advance the hobby. Yet, of late, I've noticed a disturbing trend towards flat-out replication, without any further effort. And what's worse, I have seen and heard successful hobbyists urging others to embrace this stupid mindset!
An example of this was some "advice" I heard in a podcast with a talented aquarist: "Copy an existing work that you like- exactly. Work with it for a long time and gain confidence with it before moving on to a design of your own"
Are you fucking kidding me? That's a good idea? Like, truly some of the shittiest advice I've ever heard in the hobby.
The message is just awful:
"You're not good enough to come up with something of your own, so duplicate somebody else's work until you figure it out..."
Why would anyone want to do that?
Who thinks that is good advice?
I mean, I suppose that in some corners, it could be interpreted as good because we all aspire to create stuff that pleases us, and if you want to copy others' work because you love it, so be it.
Nothing wrong with that.
And of course, for many hobbyists, that might mean recreating an aquascape that we saw online, at the LFS, in a fellow hobbyist's tank, or one of those international competitions. Gaining inspiration from the work of others is great...It gives us a "guideline", so to speak, for creating our own version of the word.
Artists have been doing it for centuries- drawing inspiration from others, then sort of "tweaking" their own versions. Nothing inherently wrong with this. Inspiration comes from all sorts of sources.
When it starts becoming a "paint by numbers" thing, with everyone trying to create an aquascape they've seen verbatim- one that meets someone else's rigid "formula" for theme, layout, composition, stocking, etc., it's really "unhealthy", in my opinion.
I have been noticing an incredible blandness in aquarium work lately on social media...lots and lots of tanks trying to look like other tanks and...
And part of this comes from the aquascaping contest world, I think. A narrative has been pushed for a very long time, IMHO. A narrative which seems to preach that you have to submit to and execute a specific "style" of aquarium, or your work is irrelevant somehow.
I mean, it seems to me that to place highly in one of those contests, an aquarium has to employ soem very specific elements. I suppose that's their call...I mean, it's THEIR contest and rules, right? However, it's kind of laughable at how limiting this is: 'Scapes that employ these things are studied, analyzed- revered as THE way to 'scape. Anything that seems to deviate from this is just sort of shrugged off as a "nice try", "gimmicky", or something equally dismissive.
I'm sure many of you will disagree with me from the outset. However, if you look at this objectively, I'm kind of right...
It need not be this way.
From the outside- especially to someone like me who comes from the reef aquarium world, which has went through similar "Copy this exactly in order to have a successful, attractive tank..." periods, its all too familiar- and all too disappointing.
I suppose that it's even kind of funny, too.
A sort of "paint by numbers" approach to 'scaping, quantifying, and looking at the aquatic world. Trying to be exactly what we see elsewhere; what others "approve" of. And worse yet: Perhaps not even what we feel in our hearts.
That can't be a "positive" for the hobby.
Look, I have no problem with different styles of aquascaping or tank management. This is not a critique of any particular "style" or approach- it's a critique of the attitude...Wether you're into floating forests, Dutch-style scapes, leaf-litter only tanks, or just a pile of rocks and stuff, Mazel Tov. Good for you. Keep doing them.
Because you love them.
Where I have problems is when we (and I mean it generically and collectively) are resistant to any deviation from what we as a group feel is "the way."
Now, again, just because I'm advocating utilizing materials and adopting an interpretation of Nature as it really appears in some areas, doesn't mean that every other way sucks. Although I'm not the only one who thinks this way, I always hear from at least one or two persons, who, after reading a piece like this, will tell me that I'm doing the same thing as those I question, and am nothing but a hypocrite.
No. No I'm not. Read this again.
All I'm saying is that no one should "hijack" aquarium keeping and dictate what is the accepted "style" and what isn't. Trust me, I'm well aware that many people find the approach that we advocate, the interpretation of Nature, and the resulting "look" as aesthetically ugly, "dirty", messy, etc.
And that's okay. Opinions- and tastes- vary.
Personally, I'd rather most hobbyists not play with this stuff- because if you think about botanical-style aquariums as just an "aesthetic", you're missing most of the point here. It's about understanding function and influence as much as it is about a "look."
And I hear a lot that blackwater/botanical-style aquariums are all the rage and "trendy" now...I see lots of these types of tanks showing up on Facebook and in my Instagram feed. It's gratifying...However, I've noticed a scary thing:
A lot-not all-but a lot-of the tanks seem to look almost exactly like a lot of other tanks...Like, same kind of layout. Same sort of use of materials...And the number of inquiries we receive from hobbyists, accompanied by a pic of one of the tanks we did, asking for us to select some pieces of wood that look as close to the ones we selected as possible- is kind of disconcerting.
I mean, on one hand, you're flattered that you're having an impact- and that others are inspired enough to try to replicate what you're doing. On the other hand, you don't want hobbyists to think that your interpretation is the only way to be create a great looking, smooth-operating tank.
And there's this other thing...
Because our "craft" requires an understanding of natural processes and occurrences, I fear that inspiring others to try to simply replicate the look of aquariums that we've done verbatim also carries with it the need to educate them on why these tanks look this way, what to expect, and how to manage them- and that a lot of hobbyists aren't getting THAT part.
It's why we've spent like 50x more time talking about how these tanks function than we do talking about how to create a "look" with botanicals. The "look", as we've said a million times here, is tangentially related to the function. A byproduct of it, really. To simply focus on botanical-style aquariums from an aesthetic standpoint alone is a mistake.
This sort of "assimilation" of blackwater/brackish botanical-style aquariums into the aquascaping world as a "style" scares the crap out of me. It's not a "style." It's a methodology. A mindset.
I cringe, because these types of aquariums require a greater understanding than just trying to get things to look a certain way- I can't stress it enough. There is moe to this than just creating a cool layout.
Tossing leaves and botanicals into your tank just to achieve a "look", without considering their impact on the environment on the aquarium is to flirt with disaster.
And guess what? Even with the different function and operation of these kinds of tanks, there is a ton of room for creativity, interpretation, and individual style.
Yet, I just can't help but wonder why so many aquarists worldwide seem to be "held hostage" by a mindset that proffers that "you have to do it like everyone else" in order for your aquarium to be taken seriously, or to operate successfully- and how it arose.
What is the reason for this attitude?
To be "cool?" To belong? Because we want so badly to be like the great aquascapers that we'll forcibly subscribe to some rigid style to appease the masses? I don't think so.
So how did all of this stuff become the accepted norm? When did we as a hobby decide to take this weird turn?
I have no idea.
And I'm not telling you how to think here...Believe it or not.
I merely suggest that we consider the absurdity of this close-minded thinking when choosing to precisely replicate the work of others- no matter where they are from or who they are. And you know what? I am pretty confident that most of the creators of these beautiful 'scapes will be flattered that others are inspired by their work, but they'll be the first to tell you that you should not feel that you have to exactly replicate their work exactly in order for it to be considered "great."
Don't get me wrong.
I'n not saying not to copy, replicate, interpret, or emulate the work of others. If it speaks to you, why wouldn't you?
However- if you have your own cool idea; if you have a unique approach...and it looks different, functions in a way that you're interested in, and makes you feel good, you should go for it- even if "they" don't approve of it.
And you should share it.
Not because you want people to duplicate your work verbatim, but because you want to inspire them to build upon what you did, to improve it and evolve it.
Do it yourself...FOR yourself.
This is how the hobby moves forward.
Stay brave. Stay independent. Stay unique. Stay excited...
And Stay Wet.