Queerskins Interview

I had the pleasure of meeting and being interviewed by Gaby Sirkin for the Microsoft Sunday Storytellers. Below is a video which really speaks to why I wrote this story and also why VR.  Thanks to all involved, especially Gaby, a badass woman in her own right.

Interview by Gabrielle Sirkin @gabriellesirkin

Filmed by Cory VanderPloeg @coryphoto

Video edited by Eric Chang @change.is

Audio edited by Jesse Hiatt @jesse.hiatt



In writing about this, I discovered some things even I didn’t know about how and why I came to write this story. Not the usual…

I wrote the first words for Queerskins, the story of Sebastian, a young, gay physician estranged from his rural Catholic Missouri family who dies of AIDS, a year after giving birth to my daughter. Caring for an infant is all consuming. My days were a blur: changing, feeding, and sleeping when I could. Towards the end of that first year, as I was just emerging from that isolated existence, I came across a book by Harvard theologian Amy Hollywood that referenced the Beguine mystics https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beguines_and_Beghards, a group of lay nuns in the 13th century who embraced ascetic practices as a way of communing with God.  Mired as I was, in the materiality of life, it resonated with me. Inspiration is a mysterious thing, but looking back, I think that motherhood and this book are what prompted me to write this story of a man who performs an almost saintly act of self-sacrifice, one so radical that he is ostracized by his community for it. I wanted to write a story in which this act could be read ambiguously and problematically, as a “feminine” act of self loathing, masochism, and weakness or as a supremely “masculine” act of justice, courage and strength. In this way, I hoped to explore my own relationship to wanting to help others and my complicated relationship to gender roles and expectations, especially as a mom.   I decided to write the story in first person, in the form of a diary. 


As I began writing, I realized that the character I was inhabiting was both me and not me. It was often painful because this separation was porous, my own repressed thoughts and feelings flowed into him and were reflected back to me. But, rather than retreat, I decided to push further. I began writing as Sebastian on a social media site (now defunct) called The Experience Project. Rather than have “friends,” you would connect to others through stories. I stopped after about six months,  when people wanted to know me beyond my stories. It was never my intention to pretend to be a gay man living in Missouri–my goal was to make my self uncomfortable with this double persona. Some of Queerskins is very sexually explicit. https://soundcloud.com/illya-szilak/sets/queerskins-ark-installation 

I was really nervous sharing it with gay men, especially my long-time artistic partner, Cyril Tsiboulski, but, apparently, I have a pretty good imagination. In fact, when we show Queerskins, most people think Sebastian is a real person. I think that is because, not only do I know him so well and so intimately, but also because Queerskins is a universal story about love, shame, and belonging as much as it is an “AIDS” story. 


In 2013, Cyril and I published it online (www.queerskins.com–please use only Firefox browser to experience) as an interactive narrative that included the diary text (40,000 words), two hours of audio monologues from five people who knew him, commissioned and crowd-sourced videos and Flickr creative commons photos. This was the second interactive narrative we produced together (the first is Reconstructing Mayakovsky (2008) www.reconstructingmayakovsky.com ). 


Our artistic focus changed in 2015 when I experienced VR—Oscar Raby’s documentary Assent–for the first time. Immediately, I understood the potential, for we had been trying to make interactive “installations”  all along. So, I wrote a proposal for a VR experience, https://vimeo.com/269894160/fe42d78daf,  inspired by Queerskins: a novel. We were floored when we learned that Tribeca Film Institute/MacArthur Foundation was giving us money for a prototype. Everything we’d done up to that point was self-funded. I remember getting the call and screaming and jumping up and down. My daughter who was now 10 started jumping up and down with me. She didn’t know what it was about, but she knew I was excited and ecstatic. Cyril and I ended up on a crazy year long journey that took us to rural Missouri to shoot 360 video with a total stranger (Richard Hammer) and out to California to meet with Skywalker Studio (which did our audio post-production and design). That money, $20,000 changed everything for us. More than anything, it gave us confidence. Queerskins: a love story is what we wanted it to be. We did not see our lack of experience as a barrier, but as an opportunity to be brave and to collaborate with incredibly talented people.


Sebastian dies two years before I began my own journey as a physician and infectious diseases specialist. I became a resident at The New York Hospital just as the protease inhibitors, a new class of drugs to treat HIV, came out. We all held our breath as we watched patients recover, Lazarus-like,  from near death.  I remember, too, my mother setting up the first AIDS Hospice in Austin, Texas in the 1980’s and I remember when Rock Hudson died and little kids with AIDS were banned from their public schools. I continue to practice medicine on a part-time basis at Rikers Island Correctional facility in NYC. The stories I hear, the suffering and humanity I witness there are sometimes difficult to bear, but it is a privilege to have the wherewithal to help in the ways I can. It’s not something I can really talk about. The “facts” do not in anyway capture what is so profound about these experiences,  so I started a blog to write about it. https://wordpress.com/stats/day/rikerssite.wordpress.com


Perhaps because I am a physician,  I have a particular and especially powerful relationship to embodied, physical existence. In Queerskins, as in all my stories, I am interested in exploring the tension between those limits and the desire to transcend them. Art does this, tech does this, love and religion do this. It seems to me that this reach for transcendence is a quintessential part of being human. But, the historical, material reality grounds us. My stories always begin with a lot of historical research and I often include archival data into the stories. For instance, in Queerskins: a love story, we 3D scanned objects that I’d curated and bought mostly off of eBay. Also, rather than have you sit in a generic CG car behind Sebastian’s grieving parents, we worked with Pat Goodwin to shoot photogrammetry of a real 1986 Cadillac Sedan DeVille. When possible, we prefer to house the VR in a site specific interactive installation. In this way, we extend the virtual world and story into the physical space. It is an incredibly powerful alchemy. When budget and time allowed, we went further. We asked visitors after they went through the VR and the installation if they would look for an object that related to their own story of love and loss, not necessarily associated with HIV, and be anonymously photographed with it. In this way, visitors were given a way to discharge the emotion built up in the story in physically expressive way that connected their story to the story of Sebastian. The stories that people shared with us were incredibly intimate. Honestly, it was almost too powerful. During the premiere at Tribeca, I felt like I couldn’t leave. I had to be there to talk to and take care of our participants. 


I think that in using tech, many artists follow a path of least resistance. Phenomenological and aesthetic complexity is sacrificed to the demands of RAM. This is why a cloying, slick CG aesthetic has become a hallmark of much new media work especially in VR .  This is one reason that we knew we had to use 3D volumetric video rather that CG animation or mo-cap for the actors. 3D volumetric is memory intensive, but it captures the subtleties of human motion that we don’t even consciously process.  In developing Queerskins: a love story, we understood that you, the visitor, is situated so close to the parents that you will read their body language in a visceral way. So, we actually hired a choreographer, Dawn Saito, to work with the actors on their gesture and posture, creating a kind of awkward seated dance, a missed call and response between them. 


This year we began work on Queerskins: ark, http://vr.queerskins.com/ark, co-produced by Intel Studios. It is a stand alone VR piece that continues the story of Sebastian and his mother. Having realized that she essentially abandoned her son, by not accepting him as he was, she finds a way to overcome her grief and her own limitations. Reading his diary, she allows herself to imagine him alive and in love. In a pivotal scene, the two lovers begin an intimate dance, beautifully choreographed by Brandon Powers, in response to diary entries. We don’t ask you to dance or tell you how to feel about this, but depending on how you move in relation to the dancers, you will experience the dance differently. We wanted to create a “dialogue” between you and the dancers, a kind of “touch” though no actual touch occurs. In fact, your own body acts as an additional light source, illuminating the dancers. We also have plans to push the physical installation and crowdsourced performance which we explored in Queerskins: a love story, even further with a participatory theatrical experience. I’m definitely going into an area that, for various reasons,  I don’t feel comfortable. But, honestly, if I don’t wake up feeling like I was drunk with a lampshade on my head the night before, I’m not doing my job as a storyteller.  Having a creative partner that I trust and respect immensely is a critical part of this. I’m the one with huge visions and Cyril is the one that makes it real.


Sebastian’s diary opens with a quote from Meister Eckhart, a 13th century theologian influenced by the Beguines. “Let us pray to God that we be free of God and we rejoice in the everlasting truth by which the highest angel and the soul and the fly are equal.” It is a radical idea. What he is saying is that a divine vision of the human life may actually border on the perverse. Our ideas about the world and its hierarchies and divisions are necessarily human, but other ways of viewing and being in the world exist. I believe that. I don’t think either Cyril or I is interested in promoting empathy per se.  Of course, that is the much trumpeted promise of VR. Even so, when you take off the headset, you are still going to be gay, or a woman, or black, or not, and you are still going to have to deal with the social, political and economic realities of that.  We are more interested in using technology to create stories which facilitate unexpected forms of connection and understanding. We want to use the spatial and interactive affordances of VR to create a kind of magic circle where, at least for a time, the “normal” divisions and binaries that separate us into “me and mine” and “other” don’t easily or simply apply. We can’t change who you are, but when you experience our work, we hope you leave a little more tolerant, a little more courageous, a little less sure of your own boundaries, and a little more expansive in your point of view. 

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