Experiencing human-computer interaction

“I build interactive tools and design experiences that make human-computer interaction more tangible, divergent and meaningful. I work in this manner to investigate how computation could be unveiled and brought out into the real world, thus rendering it accessible to the diverse forms of distributed and embodied cognition that humans have always been using to live and act on this planet.”

Raul Altosaar is an infradisciplinary artist, technician and researcher. He leverages his foundational skills in computer graphics and extended realities to design spatial experiences and interactive tools.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Raul Altosaar: I am an Estonian-Canadian artist, technician, and researcher. Youth saw me hovering among forests, cities, computers and the ocean. As a teenager I thought I was going to be a professional e-sports player. But my early involvement in networked communities pulled me in other directions. I decided to become an artist because of the internet.

During high school I ‘befriended’ 2000 contemporary artists, activists and theoreticians on Facebook. I naively used the resulting influx of information as leverage out of my adolescent ennui without realizing the consequences of absorbing so much from such an abstract, accelerated and tantalizingly “personal” window, twice-removed from existence or the real world. The journey to reconcile these disparate fragments of fast knowledge with my own lived experience still persists.

But the tools and media that envelop us are always double-edged swords. My formative years spent trawling the internet forced me to develop a nimble and critical relationship to institutionalized knowledge. This helped me avoid floundering in the nearly inapplicable and exhausted models of thought, pedagogy and disciplined knowledge production that continue to dominate the ivory towers of post-secondary education. Over the years I’ve managed to jank together my own little useful toolbox, mainly consisting of mental heuristics, grounded bodily practices and a good nose for flexible, open-ended knowledge.

I entered art school three years ago thinking I was going to become a contemporary artist. However, the vacuousness and barely hidden violence of the overground art world quickly robbed me of any such illusions. Much was missing from my own work as well: I was making large abstract paintings, organizing and staging illegitimate performances and yelling nonsensically about inanities online. I was not enriched nor content. I desired something more meaningful out of the work that I was making.

I spent the better part of a year working through and sitting with my concerns. Surveying my environs I realized that I possessed little technical knowledge or understanding of formal systems. Concurrently, I wanted to build things that could extend out into the real world and exist beyond the confines of the pure, subjective present that had until then dominated my practice. Seeing that art school was irremediably failing to provide both the technical understanding and the necessary training in formal systems I began to teach myself how to teach myself. At this time I started working with emerging technologies such as virtual reality. My autodidactic entrance into the world of computer graphics, game engines and programming became a moment of transition as I oriented myself towards a research-creation practice that could intersect with computational investigation, human-computer interaction and experiential design.

Nevertheless, I remain linked to the ways of knowing and feeling contained by my relation to artistic practice: the affective intensities, utter disregard for causal systems and the wonders of embodiment continue bubbling just beneath the surface and emerging when I least expect them to. It often feels like I am standing somewhere between two very different worlds, methodically working away on an unfinished and rather precariously constructed bridge.

RB: Have there been any particular influences to your art practice?

RA: I could regurgitate some words about being captured by the internet, computers and networked communities but running through everything that I have ever assembled is deep incredulity at the fact that we live in these things called bodies which move around on this thing called the planet. The fact that my fingers have evolved to move things around and drop them and type these letters at the same time as I’m forgetting I’m breathing while the neurons in my stomach are blindly processing the sunlight outside and my legs are itching to go step into a pile of fresh asphalt and my butt continues carefully processing the venom and pheromones of the fire ants that bit me four days ago as I sat feeling my shoulders and neck being forcibly pulled forwards, disabled by twelve long years of computer use and then holding a note with my voice that sends shudders down the neural pathways of someone I care about a lot and how my chest somehow manages to store all of the pain that I refuse to even look at, let alone hold because that would mean vulnerability which feels unsurvivable and how my hand placed onto the area around my heart brings water to my eyes and then… suddenly becoming aware of my entire body, forever engaged in some kind of unknowable, reciprocal dance with my environment and the fact that I am a vessel and the sound of leaves blowing through my ears as I try my best to implode and sculpt hot air in the form of words with my mind in an effort to tell you about why I care about the things that I do. I forget about most of these things most of the time but they are simple truths that come before everything else.

RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?

RA: I build interactive tools and design experiences that make human-computer interaction more tangible, divergent and meaningful. I work in this manner to investigate how computation could be unveiled and brought out into the real world, thus rendering it accessible to the diverse forms of distributed and embodied cognition that humans have always been using to live and act on this planet.

Computation should not be seen as a recent invention. Rather, it might be understood as a way of exploring, tinkering with, and developing intuitive understandings of complex systems and dynamic processes. Therefore, a fundamental question of human agency is embedded in the very heart of computation. As global economies transition towards automation, black-boxed algorithms start guiding then governing lives, and the ability to work alongside intelligent machines begins to differentiate those who can access an equitable distribution of resources from those who cannot, this question becomes more urgent.

An early computational interface designed and grown in Estonia.
Photo by Merilin Kaustel-Lehemets

In their current form, computational devices and media are flat, two-dimensional surfaces that interface with users solely through vision, small hand gestures and completely static bodily positions. The affordances of these devices are quite limited and do not resemble the diverse, continually inventive ways that humans navigate, interact with and produce meaning inside of their lived, spatial environments. A fundamentally normative assumption of vision, ability to self-exploit by remaining seated for long hours, and cognitive ability to manage abstract information in a non-distributed mode render the very useful process of computation accessible to only a small minority of the planetary population. This needs to change if we want to build more resilient futures that are inclusive and accessible by default and not by exception.

My work regularly floats in and around a number of heterogeneous disciplines. My practice is currently situated at the intersection between emerging cognitive and computer science research, experimental design practices, self-organized learning communities and the history of computation. The vocabulary of my work is hewn out of the unexpected entanglements that emerge out of this interstitial space.

RB: What do you aim to communicate to your audience through your art?

RA: I try my best to approach the world with a broken heart, preemptively acknowledging the insufficiencies of my own practice, research-creation and/or discipline. I prefer to work backwards from the assumption that whatever problem I imagine to be highly urgent has already been solved by the planet in a more robust, energy-efficient and scalable way. With that assumption in mind, my practice nurtures and makes space for the myriad processes and forms of embodied knowledge that have evolved on this planet for millions of years without any need for human intervention.

My work may open up new ways of being present together, of staying with the trouble and actively transforming both the historical and technological constraints that shape so much of our lived realities.

RB: How do you imagine the human body will interact with computers in the future?

RA: I imagine it will feel like cooking, walking slowly in the forest, or playing the piano. Maybe even like physically caring for another, learning how to dance the salsa or listening to a distant relative describe constellations in the night sky. Computers might be both very large and very small. We could walk into the big ones and move things around with our entire bodies, cause things to react and receive instant feedback. If we wanted to turn them off we would just sit on them or leave. The small ones would be in many places but the data would need not travel very far. Our attention spans would naturally widen and shrink with the daylight and darkness. Screens would no longer exist: our walls, the ground or the kitchen table would become temporary resting places for our knowledge, our schema, our quotidian negotiations. If you wanted something more permanent you would quickly build it out of real things or just touch a tree. Diagrams could be easily sketched in the air with fingers. You would feel it. Nothing would be simulated: our bodies, coupled to the planet, are already the best graphics cards we could ever hope to have. Learning would start in motion and then move upwards, cycling through increasingly complex levels of abstraction and then return: always back to the body. Programming our new computers might happen outdoors and involve small groups of people arranging rocks, rope or fruit on the ground. A goat will be standing in a nearby tree, communicating with the barn swallow to help the silly humans figure it out.

RB: Can you say something about your works Computationally Disintegrative Therapy and Liquefied Realities?

RA: Computationally Disintegrative Therapy was my first foray into interactive virtual experiences. I found a disused room filled with decrepit machines that were scheduled for removal. My collaborator and I arranged these machines in specific locations and then 3-D scanned the room to produce a digital reconstruction. When we installed and exhibited the work to the public, we made sure to approximately match the locations of the physical machines to the virtual ones. This ended up becoming the crux of the piece: viewers would enter the already-surreal physical room and then be invited to enter the digital reconstruction using a head-mounted display. Immersed viewers would begin exploring the space with their bodies and quickly realize that some machines were larger in real life than in the simulation, while others were smaller and had spatially shifted. Time and time again, viewers reported that these physical inconsistencies both confounded and heightened their sense of space, time and embodiment in a very gentle but tangible way. This project was therefore my first attempt to investigate that powerfully poised moment where a body hovers in and interacts with that liquid space between the actual and the virtual.

Liquefied Realities was my second virtual reality project. It is an archive that is activated by the body and assembled out of the remains of a dying megacity. More specifically, it is a huge virtual environment made out of a number of digital reconstructions of real-world locations in and around Toronto. At the moment of capture, these locations were all in the process of being either demolished or rapidly developed. I visited these in-between spaces and captured them using a process called photogrammetry, which converts hundreds of still images into 3-D models.

Most virtual environments aim for high-fidelity and hyper-realism. These traditional environments are mathematically composed and rigidly optimized for good performance: straight lines, well-delineated surfaces and “realistic” lighting abound. Suffice to say, our experience of the real world is vastly messier, more irregular and sketchier than these seemingly perfect spaces that often only serve to further alienate and disembody viewers. I attempted to evade this paradigm by drawing a tenuous connection between human depth perception and the algorithms responsible for creating 3-D models from my photographs. Essentially, I relinquished creative agency to my machinic companions who helped me “see” these spaces and work towards a slightly more humane virtual environment, one more linked to our embodied experience of reality.

RB: What future projects are you currently working on?

RA: My next project is entitled Distributed Computation. It marks my transition away from pure artistic practice towards computational research and experiential design. After having built two relatively robust projects I quickly became dissatisfied with the nature of virtual reality production. It felt like I was going to great lengths to essentially simulate an experience that relied nearly entirely on vision and could only be experienced by one person at a time. While these experiences did activate the body they lacked the sturdy, meaningful and easily shareable multi-modal affordances already provided by the real world.

Distributed Computation is an interactive, room-scale instrument that is played by up to four people at once. The instrument is composed of multiple invisible sound spheres that hover in the air throughout the play-area. Users explore said play-area holding hacked VR controllers that provide haptic feedback when held in the vicinity of a sound sphere. Importantly, no head-mounted display is utilized in this project: finding and playing the spheres involves using the entire body, not just vision. When a user’s controller collides with a sound sphere, a sound is generated. Users can grab these sounds and move them wherever they wish inside of the play-area. When two sound spheres are brought into proximity, randomized musical patterns are automatically generated, emergent polyrhythms created. Thus, users can quickly chain together these simple forms of interaction to create complex musical arrangements that are spatially distributed and activated by gesture and whole-body movement.

The fluid transition between enactive, iconic and symbolic forms of knowledge is of special interest to me. Included in Distributed Computation, therefore, is a series of two-dimensional, dynamic diagrams that are projected onto the walls of the play-area. These diagrams represent various abstractions such as the user’s physical location in space and time, the location of the sounds, and the number of times that specific spheres have been hit. I hypothesize that transitioning between these various levels of abstraction might enrich the user experience and potentially provide a model for how our new computers might look, feel and work in the coming futures.



All images copyright and courtesy of Raul Altosaar

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