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In this Peabody Futures of Media award-winning virtual reality experience, you are seated in the back seat of an old Cadillac, behind grieving parents, Ed and Mary-Helen, as they take a magic realist journey down a country road in rural Missouri. Through the drama playing out in the front seat and by interacting with a box of personal belongings, photographs, and a diary, you get to know Sebastian, the son they have lost to AIDS.
Our goal was to create an experience that feels both comfortingly familiar and unsettlingly intimate and personal. In fact, many people relive their own childhood memories of sitting in the backseat, watching their parents fight, and being unable to leave or to intervene. Not only do you feel like you are really there, with the parents, this every-day act of sifting through the contents of the box connects you physically and psychologically to Sebastian’s life and the story. Also, because of your proximity to the parents, you read their body language through your own body, a little like sitting on stage with actors in a play. For this reason, we worked with a choreographer to orchestrate actor posture and movements. Ed and Mary-Helen essentially do a seated “dance,” a missed call and response, which reveals their conflict in a powerfully visceral way.
In Queerskins: a love story, http://vr.queerskins.com/a-love-story, you become co-director of the story. Rather than offer a branching narrative or a set of defined tasks, we offer you an excess of possibilities for how to experience the story. You might get wrapped up in the parents’ fraught conversation as they struggle to come to terms with their son’s homosexuality and their Catholic faith. Or, you might spend part of the journey looking at the Missouri landscape, filmed on location. You might focus on examining the objects in the box. Depending on your own personal history and memories, you will relate and respond to the objects differently, and, thus, each person will construct the main character, Sebastian, differently. These choices as well as a randomization of the objects (there are three unique sets of photographs and seven diary entries that you might get each time) encourage replay of the experience, which enriches the story further.
Sound is a critical part of this experience. We were fortunate to work with Skywalker Sound for spatial sound design. Even before the visual story begins, as major credits roll, you are charged with constructing a story based upon what you hear around you: a screen door slamming, footsteps on gravity, a car engine starting. In this way, we immediately harness your imagination, and you begin your role as co-creator. Later, we use sound to augment the photographs. As you bring a photo towards you, it triggers an “aural memory” related to that photo. Lastly, you get to hear Sebastian’s voice reading his own diary. Recorded with binaural audio, he sounds as if he is right in front of you, a living presence, which you could almost reach out and touch.
Although this story is fictional, we purposefully incorporated elements of historical reality. All of Sebastian’s belongings are 3D scanned archival objects from the time period. The car is created with photogrammetry of a real 1986 Cadillac. The news on the radio is actual testimony before Congress in August 1990 at the beginning of the first Iraq War. If you are lucky enough to look out the window at a certain point, you will see a single billboard of an empty bed. This is a photograph of Cyril Tsiboulski’s bed, an homage to acclaimed artist Felix Gonzalez Torres who photographed his own bed after the loss of his lover to AIDS and placed it on billboards across the country. Through the appropriation of historically accurate content and technologies that capture the nuances of time-etched physical reality, we were able to create a magical realist aesthetic, which actualizes a tension between material, embodied reality and the quintessential human desire to transcend those limits through imagination and storytelling. Creating this unique aesthetic was not only an important artistic decision, it also reflects a key theme of the story.
Queerskins: A Love Story http://vr.queerskins.com/a-love-story is inspired and adapted from the critically acclaimed online multimedia narrative Queerskins: a novel. http://online.queerskins.com/ that we put out in 2013, and which continues to be taught on a university level as an important work of digital literature. Designed as a multimedia scrapbook, it contains 40,000 words of Sebastian’s diary, two hours of audio monologues from five people who knew him, photos curated from Flickr Creative Commons, and crowd-sourced and commissioned videos. After experiencing Queerskins: a love story, you can further explore Sebastian’s life through this free online resource.
Writer and director Illya Szilak, who is also a practicing physician at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York, was inspired to make Queerskins: a love story based on her experiences as a medical resident in NYC in the 1990’s. Howevery, she and Tsiboulski, who identifies as a gay man, did not approach Queerskins: a love story wanting to make an “AIDS story” or a “gay” story. In fact, these words are never uttered in the experience. Instead, through story and technology, the experience puts you in the position of living through the intimate, interior worlds of others that, hopefully leads you to an emotional engagement with the characters and themes, and, ultimately, an empathy for the characters’ unique personal experiences, and hopefully for all persons who experience love, illness and loss. Releasing Queerskins: a love story in the midst of a pandemic adds a powerful contemporary resonance. For many of us, during Covid-19 Ed and Mary-Helen’s grief is something we can immediately and personally relate to.
Queerskins: a love story is available in English for Oculus Rift and Oculus Rift S (with Touch controllers) with optional Spanish or Italian subtitles.