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Interview

Originally titled: “The Optimal Questionnaire: Digital Artist Achraf Kassioui”

On , after the first version of this website get featured on NotCot, Gianpaolo Pietri, writer and architect, interviewed me on his then new website, theoptimalists.com. That interview also went on NotCot. Since the original host and domain have been changed, I republished the interview on this page.

Who are you? Brief bio, accomplishments, passions.

Hello, my name is Achraf Kassioui. I studied fine arts during 2 years in Paris, then I went to la Sorbonne studying Philosophy during 3 years, and then one year in graduate school in cognitive science, where we were mainly introduced to theoretical computer science and cognitive psychology. I also was lucky enough to have an internship linking robotics to cognitive psychology, in a CNRS research laboratory at la Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie de Paris.

That was last year. Now the focus is to go back to imagery and art work, mainly with computer animation and graphics as a medium. Actually I should not say “going back”, because those attempts to dig in the academic world and studies are very important to build future projects on the computer, be it 3D animation or any medium where we can make “things in motion”, or “expressive and empathic systems”. More on that later.

Where are you from? Where do you work out of now?

I currently live in Paris, but I was born in Morocco, where I was living in Tangier and where I attended the French High School. Multi-cultural influences were strong: Moroccan humor and customs, western books and magazines, Arabic poetry, other countries’ high schools students (several countries like US, France, Spain, etc. have their high schools in the city), and Spain 10 miles away (or 2 hours ferry away).

I am currently looking for new challenges in computer animation, video games, visual communication - that is, fields where we need some brute force skills like 3D techniques (skills that are always improvable and perfectible), but mostly some ambition and art vision. Video games for example are definitely a field where there is a lot to dig in, following the already classical debate of “are they art forms or not, and when and how”. Visual communication or any other work where one aims to a kind of “universal human meaning” using geekish and nerdy tools are very interesting too.

If I don’t have any opportunity here in Paris during the next few weeks, I’ll go back to Tangiers, continue working for more 3D animation and some projects coverage, and then apply somewhere in the US.

What is your preferred medium? For your animations?

Computer graphics in general are definitely the current home land. There is a settled wisdom within the high-end 3D and computer animation industry that states: one has first to master traditional art forms in order to be good on the computer. That is, one has to thoroughly experience drawing, or painting, or photography, or writing, or sculpting, or maybe acting, or dancing, etc. before diving into toolbars, digital timelines and render buttons. And obviously one can only agree. If the purpose is to make still renderings, or character animation, or modeling, or any part of the settled CGI industry, computers are just another canvas.

However, as a canvas, computers can have their own “texture”. A drawer operates with the paper proprieties, and computers provide a very interesting new propriety: they are behaving machines. The computer can host dynamic interactions, with the user, but also within itself. In fact, this is what makes video games, scientific simulations or data visualization.

Maybe one can point out a little fact about the understanding of computers as a new playground for design, an example linked to computers as a tool: the graphic tablet was invented before the mouse – as far as I know. The computer as a technology triggers specifically designed ideas for its proprieties: a graphic tablet is somehow a direct execution of a concept we already had, whereas a mouse arises as a specific way to deal with the new tool. But this is still a technologically constrained example, and we should end up talking HCI in general.

Getting back to a more general understanding of the computer as a new canvas, one can say that computers are a way to bring broad physical possibilities at home. We can design a machine in the machine and explore various dynamic behaviors. And mostly, a computer is so physics grounded that we cannot assume any preconceived idea for that behavior or for that human meaning. We have to design the whole path that lends to simple expected things for us (this is why there are “uncanny valleys”). Quoting Aaron Sloman¹, “the computer, unlike academic colleagues, is not convinced by fine prose, impressive looking diagrams or jargon, or even mathematical equations. If your theory doesn’t work then the behaviour of the system you have designed will soon reveal the need for improvement. Often errors in your design will prevent it behaving at all. Books don’t behave. We have long needed a medium for expressing theories about behaving systems. Now we have one, and a few years of programming explorations can resolve or clarify some issues which have survived centuries of disputation.”

So harnessing the computer as an artistic medium isn’t easy, but the beauty is the aha excitement when we figure out how to satisfy both the very rational computer and the very instinctive human viewer.

When did you discover the need, if that is what it is, to do what you are doing now?

This is the good part. Maybe I could say that all started when I discovered the 3D software packages, back in the late nineties. It was a truly metaphysical experience: we drag the mouse and shape a cube, then we move the timeline 10 frames forward, we move and rotate the cube, we make a keyframe, we play the sequence from the first frame, and the cube starts moving. This is astonishing. All the early teenage dreams of a model railway, airport and space launch stations seemed closer, and all the previously built Lego sets could be brought to life, acting and behaving on their own. This is the true –and very classical– motivation. keyframed entities

So the aim is to wonder in awe in front of moving creatures. But how one could extend the cube -or teapot- translation animation, and designs a convincing “thing that moves”? Keyframing is the answer brought by a century of hard and innovative work. But, as I began playing with keyframing, and mostly because of rendering times and thus meditation leisure, I started wondering about how to make things that really behave autonomously, in the sake of those little dreamed creatures that share our existence, and testify our sensitiveness to comic and tragic life situations. This is somehow a romantic definition of art, a very classical one, yet very strong in my opinion. So, how to design genuinely moving and behaving entities?

It happens that this is an old question, recently tackled by artificial intelligence, robotics, and cognitive science. Those studies showed that it was a really hard question, where thousands of questions lie behind every single question. However, in addition to the epistemic relevance of those problems, I was maybe more interested in their artistic potential. In one hand, there is the engineering and clever work required by such future creatures. In the other hand, there is the fascination for expressive motion, from cartoon to kinetic art. My whole point is that I dreamed of a rational form of art. One must be severe enough to build physics based models of motion (and not culture and meta-meta based models of expression), and yet, provides meaning for non-expert public, at least for the curious ones. Keyframed animation done by great animators definitely provides a massive amount of meaning through motion, but it would be great if the character rig was actuated by an embodied cognitive network. It must be animation through simulation, and the authorship would lie on the design of the body and the cognitive system. machine doodles

In the very beginning, I had a naïve reasoning:

  1. An artist is a man who tinkers, wondering how we perceive and experience things and situations, and seeking to produce structures able to match our very sensitiveness to the world.
  2. Cognitive studies try to physically and theoretically understand the structures that make us sensitive and self-aware beings.
  3. Hence, art is a cognitive study, and the very art creation process could be the way-of-life of a cognitive researcher.

That was the naïve idea. If you will I wish to expand this idea a little bit.

One can state that an art work is an attempt to capture and express oneself. Not the biographical self or the blog-like introspective states of mind, but the self as a being that is sensitive and aware of its universe. The artist express the self’s structure in the more universal possible way, yet still concrete and stimulus based. For instance, one could say that Rothko gives us a try into plain color perception, as if he was building situations where perception’s hard wired routines are emphasized. In front of the plain colors picture, the viewer’s experience focuses on more elementary or atomic sight’s components than, say, in front of an apple’s picture. Chances are that if we see an apple, we’ll see an apple. The brain is so efficient and fast at pattern recognition. But if we break the link to the grandmother neuron², chances are that we start looping through the basics of perception. This is why Rothko does not try to represent an object that exists away or outside the painting. The painting is the very object, still to be brain wired. The art of an artist is then to build a relevant experience so to avoid banality and provide a rush in the brain. Devant l'esthetique

Now, in cognitive science or in robotics, we want to know for instance how to design pattern recognition systems. One can wonder how to link visual inputs to an “apple neuron”, that is, the processing path that lends from presumably non-categorized data to a more categorized class of objects. The challenge is to figure out what happens in the brain during common tasks, like spotting a familiar object or hanging someone.

Those are “very well lived” experiences, but not so very well “understood” experiences. We can define understanding something by the ability to build a system that performs this thing. And one can naïvely state that artists already struggle to rebuild lived experiences. Thus, artistic authorship and craftsmanship could be relevant to dig into those inner structures.

Basically this is why I went for fine art studies, and then philosophy and few cognitive science. And one can guess, this ends in even more entanglement. But liberal and academic education supplies good theoretical ammunition. We get somehow calmed down, avoiding too much fanciness and inane excitement, meanwhile, we begin to draw an early conceptual landscape, with tagged difficulties, dead-end roads, and mostly, names of fellow and people who already play the multi-player endless game (the one questioning about cognition).

Hence, I should humbly quote tons of papers. But just to give a hint about the former art and cognition link, Alva Noë³ coined a, “the artist is a kind of experience engineer”. Words like those that I met just weeks before studying philosophy in the university were very exciting and encouraging.

But what’s the link with the things we see on my website? The drawings we see are drawings that I made while thinking about all that. They were attempts to express basic perception and embodiment facts (weight, balance, stand, etc.). The pictures in Schemata were early doodles dreaming of little machines. And all the drawings were meant to be physics grounded, because physics is the ultimate playground. Which lends later to explore 3D simulation and dynamics on the computer. However, there still a lot of frustration, and I am nowhere near of an early tiny little bit of self-motion creatures. No keyframing animation should be a good starting point.

Why should people care about your work? What do we stand to learn from it, or is it more willful?

Basically I want to make art that I can explain to a physicist. More seriously (but I was serious), it’s like a computer nerd decided that aesthetics and design were actually really fundamental. Or like a draftsman decided to seriously undertake hardcore academic values (truth, epistemic relevance, model building).

Thus, how can one fight against the idea that aesthetics are a matter of skin without genuine depth? And conversely, how one can fight against the idea that rationality and abstract theories are “cold” and of limited relevance regarding our lived experience? I grew up in a culture where “ratio” and “appreciation” are two different things. I keep in mind that this is nothing new, and the desire to merge the continuum fuzzy flow of living, in one hand, with the multi-observers rationality and parsimony in the other hand is an old desire.

The goal is to build shapes and behavior which do not use shortcuts to established cultural signs. It might be more interesting to build the entire dynamic path that yield from physical interactions to a familiar human behavior, following the “if you didn’t grow it, you didn’t explain it”.

And this is very hard, because if we are talking about human emotions, it’s just another way to state the hard IA problem. But instead of rebuilding the human, it would be exciting to provide other kinds of shapes and expressiveness. And actually it’s the goal: building little things that can appeal to us, but which have their own autonomy as a physical possibility. One can call it “meaningful physical possibilities”, or “design choices”.

And for that, CGI seems to be just the right medium, because we can rationally grow forms and shapes on a computer, make artistic choices, and take pictures of that. Roped body

Where does your inspiration come from? Does living in Paris have anything to do with it? Who are your favorite artists? (Or anyone who inspires you and your work)

Basically it’s: 1) I want to make wondering pictures and little worlds. 2) Let’s see what scientists and philosophers say about the world and us, so I can avoid too much ridicule. 3) They really have a problem with aesthetics and emotions.

I should quote philosophers (Spinoza, Kant, Merleau-Ponty, contemporary Philosophy of mind, ..), artists (Da Vinci, Picasso, Kandinsky, Rothko, Pixar, ..) and science building and tinkering (physics, computer science, ..). As for recently, I read a lot from new and interesting figures about video games and interactive media, like Jason Rohrer or Chris Hecker, and follow innovative work in CGI like the one made by Zeitguised.

Have you shown your work anywhere? Organized exhibitions? If so, when and where?

No, except student and school events, and some early public readings...

Do you make a living from your drawings and animations? If so, any secrets on how to do it?

Not yet.

Anything else we should know. Final words of wisdom for our viewers.

First, thank you for your questions and for this opportunity to squeeze out some thoughts. As for words of wisdom, if I can state any, maybe I could stress on the benefits of liberal arts and education, especially for new fields like computer graphics arts and interactive media. Those are platforms able to express old and fundamental existence’s aspects, so one mustn’t ignore former classical work, preventing inane content, and allowing some new currencies.