Illya Szilak is a transmedia writer/artist, independent scholar, and curator. She and her long time collaborator Cyril Tsiboulski (Cloudred Studio) were recently awarded a grant from Tribeca Film Institute/MacArthur Foundation to create a VR experience inspired by their online narrative installation Queerskins.
Reconstructing Mayakovsky www.reconstructingmayakovsky.com was included in the second Electronic Literature Collection and was a jury pick for The Japan Media Arts Festival 2010. The animation done in collaboration with Pelin Kirca has been shown in eight film festivals around the world.
Her second multimedia novel Queerskins www.queerskins.com was recognized by the Webby's in the category of NetArt in 2013 and was exhibited at the 5th International Digital Storytelling Conference in Ankara and at the Bibliotheque National in Paris. It was recently featured as part of a group show Queertech.io at three LGBTQ festivals in Australia. She and VR artist Oscar Raby (VRTOV Studio) received a grant from the Sundance Institute/Arcus Foundation to make a VR experience inspired by Queerskins.
She is an Oculus Launchpad Fellow. Her longtime collaborator is interactive designer Cyril Tsiboulski at Cloudred Studio (NYC). Their first VR experience Queerskins: a love story which combined VR, site specific installation and crowdsourced performance photography was awarded the Special Jury Prize for VR by the Columbia University Digital Storytelling Lab and a Peabody Futures of Media Award for transmedia. Their second VR experience Queerskins: ark is being co-produced by Intel Studios and is expected early 2020.
We describe the design of Queerskins: ARK, a virtual reality (VR) narrative artwork featuring pre-recorded 3D volumetrically rendered human dancers portraying same-sex lovers. Rather than adopt a more conventional perspective-taking, we created novel opportunities for connection and intimacy by utilizing a unique movement based language and a magical-realist aesthetic. The design process was aided by a series of prototyping exercises with live participants. In the final test, we found that all participants experienced positive emotions in the scenes where the gay couple appeared and felt more connected to the men, as measured by the inclusion of other in self (IOS) scale, than to the other main character (mother) who was presented in a more realistic way. Reviewing the history of empathy and relevant neuropsychological literature, we offer possible mechanisms for these findings and argue for broadening research into the ways aesthetics and movement could be used to promote empathy in VR.
We love thinking. We love sharing our ideas and design process so others can learn from our discoveries and mistakes. This takes a lot of time, and if you aren’t in academia, it doesn’t count for much on a CV, but we hope more artists make their creative processes public.
DM me for a copy. Also, yes, I am available for public talks at conferences or for guest lecturing spots at universities. I am a lively and out of the box thinker/speaker and I love doing it.
It’s interesting to think about where architecture in VR is a proxy for “real life” and where it fails. Clearly touch and smell and the nuances of sounds in a space are generally missing. That is also one reason that I have found virtual exhibitions of art usually wanting because “reality” becomes the standard, the golden ring, and VR will never be the same as that. But, what if we saw this as an opportunity to see what VR makes possible such as walls that emit sound as you move by or that morph with proximity or distance?
You have never experienced a photography exhibition like this. We use a procedural “game” logic to create an installation which makes the experience of viewing the art, a critical part of the art, itself. In My Own Skin is a public world which you can find in the “Community Labs” section of “Worlds” in VRChat. You will need any VR headset, including Quest, or a PC and a free VRChat account to access. The installation features wearable avatars that you can choose between to proclaim who you are or who you would like to. be. Tickets fo live events are available here.
The plan, eventually, is to offer a full set of 20 avatars for you to choose from to proclaim your “true identity” as you explore our interactive photography installation “In My Own Skin” in VR Chat. Each line below will be emblazoned on a sleeveless t-shirt. I call these anti-Google categories of identity. And, standing together with your fellow performers you can form poem(s). At CPH: DOX, opening April 21, we will only have five, asterisked. This is really going into new territory for us and for our art. It takes a lot of time and we do it without pay. We are still learning, experimenting, processing. But, really, it is a beautiful, strange, strong, wondrous work. Please come by. You will be glad you did.
We are so excited to invite you into our new art work “In My Own Skin” that combines handmade “queer skins” –handmade garments– created as part of our collaboration with textile artist Loise Braganza that sit somewhere between costume and clothing. Beautiful photography by Tagger Yancey IV of amateur models who were asked to reveal a part of themselves by choosing one of the garments that best represented these attributes and be photographed in their own homes using natural light. In our virtual installation in VRChat, these portraits will be housed in archetypal edifices. The procedural logic of the installation, recapitulates the act of veiling and revealing. I can honestly say you have never seen photography this way. These portraits are certainly in conversation with drag but operate differently–not aping binaries, but finding a new materail language of wonder and beauty and difference. Opening in VRChat April 21st. For CDP: DOX, we will be performing live conversations with featured guests. Details on how you can participate SOON.
First up, the only one in Zoom (to celebrate trans visibility and for all you without headsets!) will be what will surely be a mind-expanding and delightful conversation with Alex: Gender Troubles in XR (and IRL): a Trans Perspective Gender, as Judith Butler notes, is performative. Virtual Reality offers the potential of subverting rigid binaries of gender and the association of gender with biology, a legacy of Victorian eugenic “science.” In this walk and talk, Alex talks about her experience as a trans model, actress and activist and the potential to alter our relationship to conventional notions of “maleness” and “female,” using selected photographs in the exhibition “In My Own Skin” as touch points. Alex will perform some of her powerful poetry live during the event.
The rest of the conversations will be in VRChat and space will be limited! Details soon!
Beom Jun Kim of wa.k studio joins me to discuss Space Matters: the Overlooked Importance of Architecture in XR. The importance of architecture and the relationship of physical space and in relation to the role of movement through space in VR has been under-recognized. Recent developments in neuro-aesthetics and embodied cognition have confirmed what architects have always known, that that the construction of space can radically shape human experience.
Actor Michael DeBartolo (Sebastian in Queerskins!) joins me to discuss Touch in the Time of Covid: Rethinking Intimacy in XR. The spatial and interactive affordances of Virtual Reality offer the opportunity to construct unexpected forms of intimacy, creating a kind of magic circle where, at least for a time, the conventional divisions that separate “us” and “other” don’t easily or simply apply. Actor Michael DeBartolo, who modeled for the exhibition, discusses his personal journey as a proud out gay man and activist through his work in VR. He will also be performing live monologues from Sebastian’s Diary. You do not want to miss this!
Textile artist and collaborator Loise Braganza will join me for “The Texture of Identity: Fashion and the Body in VR” Although digital spaces are being rapidly colonized by large corporations, often perpetuating existing political, social and economic inequalities, Mumbai based textile artist Loise Braganza, who created the garments for “In My Own Skin,” will explore how these spaces might become laboratories for rethinking our relationship to clothing, the body, identity, representation, sustainability, labor, and pleasure.
Angelo in one of Loise Braganza’s handmade “queer skins.” Photo by Tagger Yancey, IV
Excited to announce that our interactive virtual installation combining fashion, photography, and architecture will premiere April 21st at CPH: DOX. It will feature customized avatars that you wear into the space becoming a defacto model /performer. Huge thanks to Mark Atkin for having the vision and courage to curate us in. More news to come on gallery walk and talks we will be doing during the festival with special guests talking about gender, intimacy, fashion and architecture and XR.
We are pushing the boundaries of art and VR–making your movement through the installation an integral part of how the art functions. Our hope is that you leave wondering who am I? Could I be different? Could I be other, too?
Isaac wearing one of my favorites–the pink silk “pant” suit.
Thought 1: Can’t tell you how dismayed I was when they stopped allowing you to be a robot in AltspaceVR, (won’t even mention the giant Pottery Barn –everyone can be white!–called Facebook Horizons). The normalization of identity through avatar is to be expected. It is a digital form of what Foucault called “bio-power” and it is our future. But, that doesn’t mean we won’t find ways to resist.
In keeping with physicist Karen Barad’s suggestion that “matter is …not a thing, but a doing,” we propose to explore fashion and the body as vital phenomena that perform, communicate and relate.
For Barad, “relata do not preexist relations.” What appear to be separate categories: human/nonhuman, male/female, self/other, etc. are in fact, appearances that manifest when an “agential cut enacts a local resolution within the phenomenon of the inherent ontological indeterminacy.”
The photograph is the cut. Film, through its suturing of frames, offered us the illusion of time based phenomena as “things” in space.
VR can act as a lab for trying out new relations and exploring the tenacity of certain relations. In our exhibition/game/performance space, we explore this by having the visitor choose and don a wearable avatar, quite literally becoming the art and moving through the environment–becoming de facto performers (thanks Judith Butler! )Quite simply desire moves you toward something. Aversion moves you away. Sometimes you are caught looking.
In Fairytales, you go where you are not allowed, Goldilocks, Jack up the Beanstalk. As a child, there is that sense of shame. You feel it for them because they broke the rules. The late great Eve Sedgwick wrote an amazing essay with Adam Frank called “Shame in the Cybernetic Fold”.
“Shame is one of those affects whose digitalizing mechanism works to “punctuat[e the system] as distinct.” Perhaps, along with contempt and disgust, it can be a switch point for the individuation of imaging systems, of consciousnesses, of bodies, of theories, of selves, an individuation that decides not necessarily an identity but a figuration, distinction, or mark of punctuation. And unlike contempt or disgust, shame is characterized by its failure ever to renounce its object cathexis, its relation to the desire for pleasure as well as the need to avoid pain.”
Maybe that’s what we are getting at.
We literally construct an edifice around the photographs of amateur models wearing Loise Braganza’s marvelous “queer skin” fashions. Thus, your viewing the photograph begins as a peepshow and your movement into the interior, an undressing of sorts. But, of course, there is no original. There is no naked version of an image or an artwork. We clothe images in memory, personal and cultural expectations and taboos. The baroque gets at this.
Excited to report that we received final photographs from collaborating artist Tagger Yancey, IV for our “In My Own Skin” project. As many of you know, much of the art we make explores the ways that technology, specifically VR, can offer visitors the opportunity to “try-on” different ways of knowing and connecting with others. We then extend that into the physical world through installation and objects. This donning of a different “self” in VR led to my wanting to create actual garments. In the midst of a pandemic, across thousands of miles, we have had the joy of collaborating, over the past year, with textile designer Loise Braganza to create 20 unique garments which amateur models were asked to choose from and wear. Most of the photography took place in the model’s own home. With Covid, communication through a touchable, physical object became that much more urgent. Loise’s focus on texture and ornamental detail became a form of touch, creating a visceral intimacy between viewer and model. We are planning an interactive exhibition in VRChat that will truly be unlike any other viewing experience of photography that you have ever had. You, yourself, will become a performer in the space, donning a customized avatar wearing one of the garments–a “queer skin”. Your movement through the exhibition spaces becomes a literal undressing of the photograph. Really pushing the edge of VR/game/performance/and photography. Can’t wait to show you what we have planned.
In the meantime, enjoy these. Just beautiful work: intimacy, embodiment, texture, and “touch.”
This morning, my can of cat food was confiscated at Rikers, you know because a can, in the right hands, is a weapon, (technically, correct). But it’s 8 AM and it pisses me off because I’m working the Covid unit at Rikers and, honestly, I love giving the feral kitties food. I thank my lucky stars that so many have let me bring in that potential weapon. But, I can’t let it go so I say. “It’s this little bit of humanity, coming to the jail, feeding the cats.” And, the officer agrees, but it’s now on camera. So, after I put it in a locker, I say to no one in particular, “You know the world is going to hell in a hand-basket. And ,the Mental health clinician coming through the metal detector says, “yeah, I know.” I say, the good news is that come the apocalypse, as a doctor, I’m gold. So stick with me.” She laughs and says, “yeah, I know.”
Last chance to experience Reconstructing Mayakovsky, our groundbreaking interactive “novel” put out in 2008, included in the 2nd volume of the Electronic Literature Collection and still being taught at the university level. It has been an amazingly good run, but obsolescence is a key mechanic operative in the work. The archive, which has linked not downloaded information, has slowly been collecting 404 errors.
The investment video (adapted from a particularly disturbing real DARPA conference slide show) which got picked up by real investment sites when we posted to Youtube with #future #investment #money #science #AI has been buried by 13 years of cat videos, the real time Google image search has been broken for a while. So, you will have to imagine for yourself what “hope” and “evil” and “human” look like.
We were always interested in keeping time as part of the novel and with time comes mortality and change. Mayakovsky is about the impossible dream of the end of history, the final number, the solitary genius artist, the vile absurdity of war. It’s a work, a kind of sci-fi detective story, that utilizes mostly open source code and “found” digital objects. The original 90,000 words of text (a lot of which is appropriated) is read through a series of “mechanisms” including a manifesto, a concrete poetry machine, a hand-drawn animation created in collaboration with Pelin Kirca, and an audio soundscape.
For our part, we hope RM can live on in printed form. The book then becomes the artifact that remains, the bones of something that was once alive. We are looking for a publisher, yes!
This project remains remarkable. Honestly, I look at it and wonder how in the hell we managed to do it. So, maybe some student or computer whiz will be interested in reconstructing Reconstructing Mayakovsky? Remaking it and adding, changing, or remixing? That would make us very happy. And, Mayakovsky, too. We could also see this as a physical and virtual installation if some forward thinking gallery is interested.
Here is Vera X. our heroine, (the main characters are Vera, Nadja, and Luis Blue– for those of you who know Russian, there is a thought puzzle there, and a clue, like everything in the novel… ) Here, is when Vera decides to resurrect Mayakovsky as a virtual being to save OnewOrld, even though she knows it may kill her. Is it an act of heroism, faith, or crazy despair? You get to decide.
“She does not want annihilation. She wants the center to hold, she wants it even in the face of knowing that it may not. That is courage, she thinks. That is love. No longer can she proceed into the future secure in the knowledge that parallel lines do not meet, that the sky will not fall, that the dead will not rise. She cannot say, ‘These things do not happen and it is good that they do not.’ Because the sky did fall and the dead did rise and things happen with poetic synchronicity. She is seeking neither the mechanized assurances of reason nor the feverish augury of faith, but something beautiful and fragile and incomparable.”
The last word of the novel–there is no last word online! ) is “yes.”