About Illya Szilak

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.

Join Me @G4C Talk on #Aesthetics and #Empathy

You could go to the Unity for Humanity panel Monday July 12th at 1:30 PM at the Games for Change Festival or you could geek out on my talk where I’ll argue that aesthetics are critical to empathy and may actually be the nature of reality. Think Bergson, queer phenomenology, Kojeve’s end of history, Heidegger’s broken hammer and mirror neurons. I’ll be expanding on points in our recent paper published in The International Journal of New Media, Technology and the Arts. Join me!!

Our paper “Empathy as Aesthetic Sympathy in VR: Lessons from Queerskins: ARK” has been published


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.


#Designing #Worlds in #VR a conversation with #architect Beom Jun Kim @wa.k_studio in #VRChat for @cphdox

Part 1/11 BJK and I discuss the potential and limitations of virtual spaces and architecture, in the “In My Own Skin” installation in “Community Labs” section of VRChat

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?

In My Own Skin OPENS tomorrow at CPH: DOX

Words fail to capture who we are and who we can be.

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.

You see me, then

Everything I am not

scared, most days

Lying to myself


Memory of something

Snaking, seeping

Hiding, biding

Pink ribbons in my hair

*Something bursts

*(out )



*In Your Face

Braver than I was

I am,perhaps,


An other.

#Interactive Live #Event in #VR #Installation Featured @CPH:DOX premiere of #InMyOwnSkin

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.

Mass-produced men’s underwear, silk ribbon with hand embroidery that can be worn curled up in the pocket or unfurled, found man’s t-shirt with hand embroidered cloth insert.

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.

The artist as a young dog.

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!

And I feel-
Is too small to fit me.
Someone inside me is getting smothered.
—Vladimir Mayakovsky, Cloud in Trousers, 1914

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.

#InMyOwnSkin #VR #Interactive #Art #Installation to Premiere @cphdox

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.

Tomi, wearing the only “found” garment, a tiny negligee with rather bedraggled pink feathers.
A true NYC portrait in the Loise’s “Kate Moss” dress paired with the model’s handmade “FTP” bag.

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.

#Hannah Höch meets #Drag in our new #art exhibition premiering April in #VRChat featuring #wearable #avatars

mock up of one of the artwork/avatars visitors to the exhibition don upon entry

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.

Thought 2:

 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.

Thought 3:

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.

Duchamp–Rose Selavy indeed!

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

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.

Drag architecture
Hannah Hoch 1919

Kim Chi

Photo by Tagger Yancey IV, garment by Loise Braganza, one of 50+ photos in the exhibition “In My Own Skin” coming soon.

New Work Premiering Soon

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.”

End of the World

writing from Rikers

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.”