The Future of VR

As the big platforms continue to promote certain content (games) and favor certain kinds of stories, we see a real need to continue to make boundary-defying works that might be considered controversial.   VR is such a powerful storytelling medium, that beyond “diversity” as a code word,  it is critical that different kinds of stories are supported and promoted. Why is VR so powerful?

I am going to argue that there are two key aspects which make it an especially powerful medium for storytelling–both of which relate to the concept of presence as put forth by Riva, et al, based on Antonio Damasio’s neuroscientific theories.

presence slide

  1. It is a spatial medium so the language of VR will be spatial (a language drawn from dance, installation and sound art, theater and performnce art, architecture, 3D video games, also film, which offers the illusion of 3D space and movement through the camera’s eye.
  2. It invites procedural storytelling and alternative forms of logic and physics including our relationship to objects in space.

I’m going to give a quick art history lesson because it important that to understand that seeing and moving through space is something that we are taught to do in a certain fashion, so much so that it seems natural, but it isn’t.

Raphael linear perspective

The discovery of linear perspective during the Renaissance defines for us what “reality” is supposed to be. Although we take this perspective to be natural , it is, in fact,  a mathematical abstraction of how we humans see. Linear perspective posits an infinite and homogeneous space that makes objects relate to each other through their position alone. (Panofsky) If you think about it, this is really a negation of psychophysiological space. Humans can’t see or even conceive of infinite space, moreover,  how we perceive a space depends not only on the kinds of objects in that space, that is to say what we attend to and ascribe importance to, but also how we move through that space.

Greek vase

Interestingly,  pre-Renaissance, the Greeks understood that  retinal images are spherical not linear so you get something like this.  I mean look at this—this is a really complicated space. And, I don’t know who this person is, but based on the size (look they are so big they have to kind of bend their neck to not hit the ceiling) I am going to predict that this person is more important than this other person.

oculus tuscan villa

Now, skip ahead a couple centuries—and guess what —we have a kind amalgamation of these two perspectives.  Because whereas Renaissance perspective assumed that we see with a single and immobile eye, in VR today we have a move towards stereoscopic images and also the ability to look if not move in 360 degrees.

Unity screen linear

But, even today, the de facto reality that you find in say Unity game engine is organized according to a linear perspective. Nevertheless, VR makes apparent the role of the mobile body in determining visibility and invisibility—what is seen and what is not seen..

 

queer phenomenology slide

As Sarah Ahmed notes: how we move through space is incredibly important. To me, this speaks not only to how I think about my own work in VR but also the power of VR to change how we think of  and construct reality. Unfortunately, graphic “realism” has become a goal in much VR. Not only, is this bound to be unsatisfactory (it will never be as good as the gold standard, which is reality). Moreover, it overlooks the true power of VR as a tool that reveals how we construct reality, as well as the ways we might construct reality differently.

So moving through an environment,  what kinds of information do we generally privilege as humans? Riva’s theories point to this. But, the answers were actually suggested by French philosopher Henri Bergson at the turn of the last century. He suggests that what we perceive is a universe of images—sound-images, touch-images, smell images, etc.  and that our consciousness privileges those that relate to the body and to memory.

For me, those are two touchstones for creating interactive narratives in VR. I understand that bodies are messy and, for many people in tech, it is just this possible escape from that messiness that appeals, but, as a working physician, not only do I think that is preposterous on many levels, it is a dangerous magical thinking. More than anyone I can think of working in VR right now, our work is about exploring this tension between material embodied reality and the desire to transcend it.

 

So, part of the Queerskins: ARK project, is a collaboration with Loise Braganza, a Mumbai based textile artist and fashion designer, with whom I worked to create “queer skins” –20 unique garments for our Queerskins: ARK installation that was to happen in conjunction with a physical installation. The idea behind this was to create soft machines, which would create an opportunity for potential wearers to viscerally consider their relationship to gender, sexuality, taste and physical body size/form, and to create novel forms of intimacy and connection with the storyworld/art and with each other. Since Covid- we have pivoted to a photography series, some of which you will be able to see at our installation in VRChat for the Venice International Film Festival VR Expanded exhibition. Here are just a few from Loise Braganza’s photo shoot with Shruti Viswan.  This dialogue between our embodied existence and transcendence through technology and storytelling is what needs to happen now. We know this is pushing not only buttons, but also boundaries of art-making and storytelling with VR.  Some of these photos will appear in our virtual installation that we are creating for The Venice International Film Festival exhibition. This will be an explorable, expanding “home” for Queerskins. We also see it as a stage for creating live virtual performances.

 

Queerskins: ARK VR selected for Venice International Film Festival

Excited to announce that Queerskins: ARK, co-produced by Cloudred and Intel Studios, which I wrote and directed,  will be exhibited at the Venice International Film Festival VR Expanded September 2nd-12th. ARK was created with my long-time artistic partner Cyril Tsiboulski, who is creative head of Cloudred,  a Brooklyn based interactive design studio, in collaboration with choreographer Brandon Powers.  ARK is the second of four planned VR episodes. In this, Mary-Helen, a devout Catholic Missouri mother, reads her estranged gay son’s diary, and allows herself to imagine him alive and in love. It features a transcendent and viscerally sexy and intimate dance between Sebastian, her son, and his lover, Alex.

 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many people will not be able to travel to Venice this year because of travel restrictions. Venice VR Expanded will be exhibited in an entirely virtual format, placing all selected immersive content on VRChat, a social media app accessible, through VR headsets and PC laptops, to VIFF accredited viewers. Working with Beom Jun Kim who leads W.AK Studio, the Brooklyn based architecture and design practice, the Queerskins team will create an interactive “world” within VRChat that functions as an interactive art installation. Here, visitors can interact with objects linked to audio monologues from the interactive online narrative Queerskins: a novel. Wandering through the maze-like domestic space, they piece together the story of Sebastian.

Home In My Own Skin: Missing Pieces, Blue Velvet, and Donuts

 

Art is a virus–I only now recognized how much Blue Velvet  has influenced me, although Mayakovsky’s ear falling off in Pelin Kirca’s wonderful animation in our first interactive narrative  Reconstructing Mayakovsky was inspired by a combination of the opening scene of Blue Velvet (I put it in a slide show I made to show Pelin when we started collaborating on the animation) and Mayakovsky’s own play, with the characters missing body parts, Vladimir Mayakovsky: a Tragedy.

“All my life I have been looking for a place. Home. Sometimes, I’d see it in passing, driving down a street or jogging on the beach in Malibu. Sometimes I’d dream about it.

Sometimes it was a mansion and sometimes just a cabin in the woods. Though, I don’t think I have ever found it, I have found places where, at least for a time, I was loved.” Sebastian A.

 

I wrote Queerskins: a novel  as a gay man living in Missouri. The purpose was not to fool anyone, it was to kind of succeed and kind of fail, and in doing so, explore and transcend my own boundaries. It was a way of being at home in my own skin in a way that I never felt in real life. Many of the diary entries deal with painful parts and relationships from my “real” life remade and approached through the eyes of another.

Having recently found VRChat, I feel I have found my place in social VR. It’s like a Japanese anime world come to life. Imagine Toy Story + Faulkneresque stream of consciousness + many 12 year olds. I love it. It’s absolutely mad. Here is when I decided that who I really wanted to be was a donut man. Stay tuned–we are planning something special for Queerskins: ARK…More soon..

 

 

 

 

Thoughts on VR, Angels’ Wings, Epistemology and the Nature of Reality

The choice of which information is worthy of attention and which is to be overlooked or which is never even sensed (e.g. the magnetic forces of the poles)  are the foundation for what people consider “reality”. These decisions are so ingrained and so rapid that they occur mostly subconsciously, becoming perceptible only in some kinds of meditation (e.g. mahamudra/watching the mind).

“Crazy” is a privileging of other kinds of information in lieu of or in addition to what we habitually take as validly “real”.  I think of Rilke’s comparison of angels and crazy people in Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Angels are aware of all information, and aware of the illusory/relative nature of all the categories of knowledge that humans consider relevant or irrelevant. Artists are some place in between. Their association with both the divine and the abject is epistemological. 

Meister Eckhart’s prayer that we rejoice in a state wherein the highest angel and the soul and the housefly are equal is an invocation of divine knowing beyond human categories of reason. To us humans, such a logic necessarily seems perverse… (see more on perversion below). This will be the guiding principle for the next VR episode of Queerskins, which I am currently drafting. 

Technology, especially VR, has the ability to ACTUALIZE THE AESTHETIC NATURE OF ALL REALITY, while allowing us to negotiate the evolving relationship between our still embodied state with its million year old codes that we call genes.. Unfortunately, I fear that technological nihilsm which clings to an ever more powerful, augmented, and immortal self is easier to embrace than the mess of bodies and their fluids.

Daily Mail | We’ll be uploading our entire minds to computers by 2045 and our bodies will be replaced by machines within 90 years, Google expert claims

June 19, 2013

Daily Mail — June 19, 2013 | Victoria Woollaston

This is a summary. Read original article in full here.

Ray Kurzweil, director of engineering at Google, believes we will be able to upload our entire brains to computers within the next 32 years, an event known as singularity.

 

 

What does it mean to upload a brain? It seems to me a desperate attempt to escape the logic of embodiment which is birth, aging and death. To quote from my manifesto from Reconstructing Mayakovsky: “You cannot Google yourself to enlightenment.”

Bergson suggests that the information we humans privilege relates primarily to the body and to memory. This is a guiding principle for my interactive stories. For me memory can be broadly considered: genetic, cultural, personal, artistic (aesthetic codes, genre, archetype).

VR is powerful because of its ability to generate a sense of presence–a feeling of being in THIS time and THIS place.  Although there are many definitions, the one that most intrigues me is Riva’s version which builds on Damasio’s neuroscientific theories of self,   where presence is the earliest mechanism of consciousness by which we separate self and other and internal sensations from the external world. This process of formation of self and the sensation of presence depends upon an organism’s action in the world. But, what happens if forming selves online and virtually,  we are no longer grounded in the real? It seems to me that we are substituting intensity of feeling  for the gravity of reality. This move from the truth of the exterior world and “objective” facts to the truth of the interior world and belief , which has become pervasive in our contemporary media inundated culture, is symptomatic of a loss of a defined, limited and stable sense of self and environment which digital technologies have promoted.

VR is perhaps the ultimate machine for this unsettling. The question is what is truth when gravity no longer holds us? When movement is virtual? How can the truth recover or, alternatively, be redefined in transcendence?  I think this is why we are seeing so many VR experiences related to dance. It is not just that movement generates presence.  It is  not just the recognition that body language is our primordial language, which machines as yet can neither read nor replicate in all its nuances. In VR we are  asking questions through the body in virtual environments.  Is some shared metamorphosis possible?

The quantum eraser experiment shows that asking the question restricts the variety of appearance of “answer”. The question constitutes a reduction of the suchness of a moment of consciousness, the answer thus goes from a blur of possibilities to discrete answers. “While delayed-choice experiments have confirmed the seeming ability of measurements made on photons in the present to alter events occurring in the past, this requires a non-standard view of quantum mechanics. If a photon in flight is interpreted as being in a so-called “superposition of states”, i.e. if it is interpreted as something that has the potentiality to manifest as a particle or wave, but during its time in flight is neither, then there is no time paradox. This is the standard view, and recent experiments have supported it.”[clarification needed][2][3]

What is the answer between wave and particle except movement? A state of flux with no fixed or final position?

The digital, in so far, as it promotes a binary thinking is problematic. But, the transcendent potential of computer technology comes from its logic/language which reveals the procedural and aesthetic nature of all reality. VR can offer a way to at least temporarily privilege a different logic, a different point of view or way of negotiating the self/ other boundary. The price of this logic is a loss of an intrinsic, narrowly defined and stable sense of self. But, we can still dress our empty selves as in Leonardo’s drapery drawings–a big influence on my thinking for Queerskins: ARK. download-2.jpgLeonardo’s drawings admit to the power of a body to shape the surrounding reality, but at the same time, the body would not appear were it not for the veil/cloth/queer skin.

Existence as form is predicated on a reduction of information that relates to embodied space (first cut is spatial) within a moment of consciousness (a second cut that brings in or generates time as such. ). It is these constrictions which allow form to appear at all. An ignorant consciousness does not recognize this process of cutting which is the basis for art nor the conditions of this cutting that lead to this form and relative cause and effect which is the basis for science. In some ways, art is truer than any reality because it is not shy about artifice or observer agency. In both art and science, cause and effect appear on a relative level, but what causes them to appear is an operation of mind. Only certain operations of mind–those that recognize constricted versions of cause and effect and reinforce these, are considered valid in our society. And, indeed within the constraints of the system, they are valid. BUT THE ACTUAL CAUSE IS THE PROCEDURAL CONSTRAINT, the act of cutting, ITSELF. This is why we mistake cause and effect for identity. In other words, the appearance of things and a self is a procedural reflection of subject object separation in the form of an image of the patterns of and attachment to certain habitual patterns of mind. The procedure is often mistaken for content, something existent in itself.

Unfortunately, graphic “realism” has become a goal in much VR. Not only, is this bound to be unsatisfactory (it will never be as good as the gold standard, which is reality). Moreover, it dismisses the true power of VR as a tool that reveals the process by which we construct reality as story mechanics.

Aesthetics is a form of cultural memory. Even what we consider “real” is a culturally imbued memory. In our VR stories, Cyril and I are especially interested in using technologies which capture the patina of time passing forward, or the glance backward of history, e.g. 3D scanning of objects and photogrammetry and our combining of 360˚ video with other forms of visual image is critical to our virtual storytelling. I look for moments where I can subtly disrupt the seamlessness of stories and, in doing so, ask participants to consider what is lost as we move from analogue to digital, and also to consider what changes when we capitulate to the limitations of technology.

The male is generally associated with logic but, in fact mathematics is no less aesthetic than painting. Mathematics is sublime because the constraint of thought is writ large and with the elegance of an economy of means. Art, on the other hand,  is an impossibly complex equation, which, nevertheless, follows a logic. But, rather than masquerade as “law” like mathematics,  –it manifests as rules of the game…  AND I WONDER IF THIS IS OUR FASCINATION WITH GAMES RIGHT NOW?

“As with chance, we must not forget the power of desire to engender logical monsters. ” and also

“Perversion’s power of fascination comes from a ritual cult
based on rules. The pervert is not someone who transgresses
the law, but someone who eludes the law in order to dedicate
himself to the rule, someone, then, who evades not just the
reproductive finality of the sexual order, but that order itself,
with its symbolic law, in order to link up with a regulated, ritualized, ceremonial form.”

BeaudrillardSeduction”.

FYI: I prefer earthly perversion any day over Kurzweil’s computer heaven. 

The metaphor I have come up with for my storytelling is the strange attractor–which look like angels wings–I gave a pair of these to the creator of my virtual post-apocalyptic world in Reconstructing Mayakovsky. They are massive wings grafted onto his back. He is in chronic pain and becomes addicted to morphine. He dies, well, let’s just say the surveillance cameras see a bird, diving Icarus-like to the street. download

“Strange attractors are unique from other phase-space attractors in that one does not know exactly where on the attractor the system will be. Two points on the attractor that are near each other at one time will be arbitrarily far apart at later times. The only restriction is that the state of system remain on the attractor. Strange attractors are also unique in that they never close on themselves — the motion of the system never repeats (non-periodic)”

The thing about creating a story based on strange attractors is that it can be locally chaotic but globally stable. SO, what can those strange attractors be when we start playing with reality in VR–because even if you are attempting to rewrite habitual concepts of self, body, and physics, you must give your participant something to ground themselves with, to orient their embodied and habitual reality, even while you loosen the grip, else there will be chaos, and most people won’t go there.

All that Heaven Allows

I choose character and genre specifically melodrama (Douglas Sirk is a muse) which offers the added bonus of strong emotions and overt artifice. (like Plato’s Phaedrus –“this story isn’t true.” which is the first line in Reconstructing Mayakovky.) Also, I pay meticulous attention to aesthetic codes. I want you to come with me willingly and leave from some place farther away than where you began. Moreover, this negotiation between “real” and “artifice” creates a space where you can see your own desire for certain kinds of information, certain narratives over others. This rupture creates a space for your own memory and imagination to operate.

The Master’s Bedroom–it’s worth spending a night there… Max Ernst’ drawing uses a box/room to contain his mis-scaled perverse collection of objects. His subversion of a familiar, domestic space with everyday objects  (he copied these from a mass produced teacher’s catalogue) that do not belong together spatially or content-wise, creates a mesmerizing and uncanny alternative logic, which inspired Queerskins: a love story. 

download-4

Max Ernst

Appreciate that a chair  or a bear is a moment of consciousness (complex, everchanging,  electrons, photons etc. ) It is only in attending to certain details and ignoring others that “chair”  or “bear” as such appears to exist.  In the space between 1 and 0, absolute and relative information, there is an a musical tone, a vibrational movement that is as complex as a taste. Godel’s incompletness theorems 

“Gödel specifically cites Richard’s paradox and the liar paradox as semantical analogues to his syntactical incompleteness result in the introductory section of “On Formally Undecidable Propositions in Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I“. The liar paradox is the sentence “This sentence is false.” An analysis of the liar sentence shows that it cannot be true (for then, as it asserts, it is false), nor can it be false (for then, it is true). A Gödel sentence G for a system F makes a similar assertion to the liar sentence, but with truth replaced by provability: G says “G is not provable in the system F.” The analysis of the truth and provability of G is a formalized version of the analysis of the truth of the liar sentence.”

 

What are the implications for AI and creativity as they relate to this necessity of incompleteness?

Once subject and object separation occurs (that earliest logic associated with the development of self and presence) then all knowledge is relative because there will always remain a hole, a void, an unknown, that can not be known without other, but other can never be completely known. That void of knowing is not nothing, rather I see it is a generative space akin to what Plato called khora,

So likewise it is right that the substance which is to be fitted to receive frequently over its whole extent the copies of all things intelligible and eternal should itself, of its own nature, be void of all the forms. Wherefore, let us not speak of her that is the Mother and Receptacle of this generated world, which is perceptible by sight and all the senses, by the name of earth or air or fire or water, or any aggregates or constituents thereof: rather, if we describe her as a Kind invisible and unshaped, all-receptive, and in some most perplexing and most baffling way partaking of the intelligible, we shall describe her truly.
— Plato, Timaeus, 51a[1]

and this is the space that gives birth to art.

 

 

CannesXR Keynote by Sarah Vick, executive producer, Queerskins ARK in conversation with me about Volumetric video, movement, and empathy in VR

Although a growing body of research shows that “bodily postures, gestures and expressions are inherent components of emotional experience and tacitly influence the evaluation of persons, objects and situations as well as memory recall,” researchers have yet to fully exploit these findings in VR empathy research. And, I’m going to make the argument that physical movement in VR storytelling is itself an underused opportunity to create situations for empathy and generally change the way we think.

 

Blood and Chocolate: a variation on Queerskins: ARK at CannesXR/Tribeca Immersive

Queerskinsark_5

 

Blood and Chocolate a lyrical 360˚ video variation on Queerskins: ARK will be shown in the Museum of Other Realities June 24-26th, as part of The Cannes Film Festival with whom Tribeca Immersive is partnering. MOR is a virtual museum space, unfortunately only available for Oculus Rift and Vive headsets at this time.

This 360˚ video variation presents a glimpse of the intimate lovers’ pas-de-deux, choreographed by Brandon Powers to a score by composer Wilbert Roget II,  from Queerskins: ARK. That project – co-produced with Intel Studios and set for a 2020 release, harnesses volumetric video and spatial sound to tell the story of a mother who, reading the diary of her estranged son, Sebastian, whom she has lost to AIDS, allows herself to picture him alive and in love. The text used in the Blood and Chocolate installation and for the voice-overs in the experience are taken from Sebastian’s diary, available free in an interactive narrative at queerskins.com. For updates on Queerskins: ARK, please follow us @queerskins.

I will also be in conversation with Sarah Vick, Intel Studios, executive producer for Queerskins: ARK, who is giving a keynote on “Building a shared sense of Humanity with Volumetric Video” on June 25th.

The Importance of #Storytelling and #BLM

Part of my job as a physician is fact-finding, but the other part, the art of medicine, is storytelling. How I go about collecting a history, how I listen to and take seriously, and prioritize a patient’s concerns, and the trust or mistrust I engender, all affect how the patient receives the story of their illness and the subsequent outcomes. As a white woman working at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York City, I have had the opportunity to confront my own passive acceptance of a system which destroys black communities and functions as if inmates’ lives are disposable. And, as an artist/interactive storyteller, I have come to understand that how we as a country talk about race and injustice perpetuates the racism that is pervasive in our systems. Facts do not exist in a vacuum.  The way we tell stories matters. The New York Times publication of Tom Cotton’s call for military suppression of “insurrectionists” such as myself, a white woman doctor, mom, and artist, is one such glaring example of this.

The entrenched, pernicious narrative of the “good” and the “bad” mostly black protester/person is one that we see in the news as well in discussions with family and friends. The minute you fall into that narrative, you are supporting the racist system— not because acts of property damage and vandalism are not worthy of opprobrium or prosecution, but because you are privileging one kind of narrative over another much bigger and more important one. The narrative of “good” and “bad” overrides and is used to overlook the real violence done in so many ways to black people every day. The “bad” protester narrative is a distraction that plays into America’s underlying racism, whether acknowledged or not, that black people deserve less than justice because they are lesser, uncivilized, barbaric. This is a narrative handed down from slavery. It has infiltrated the subconscious of our white society so that we are not even aware of it. If you talk about vandalism, talk about systematic economic injustice, talk about systematic educational injustice. Give those equal time. This is not a white liberal justification for these acts of destruction. It is a plea for changing priorities in our storytelling. It was the exceptional brutality of George Floyd’s murder that lead to these protests. But, that exceptionality belies the fact that racism in American economic, political, educational, and social life is so pervasive and fundamental that for many people it is essentially a non-story—just the way things are. But, these are exactly the stories we need to tell, again and again, until we finally hear them and create substantive change. That story above all others is this: black lives matter.

Queerskins: a love story commercially released on the Oculus Store

We are live. We don’t usually ask that people share things for us on social. But, please share this information. Queer and otherwise non-conventional VR commercial release is rare. By supporting these kinds of experiences, you help insure a future for other artists.

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. 

 

 

Queerskins: a love story Long-Awaited Commercial Release Next Week on Oculus Store

Queerskins: a love story, our Peabody Futures of Media award-winning Virtual Reality drama for Oculus Rift will be released on The Oculus Store next Thursday May 21st.

In this seated 6DOF experience, you are seated in the back seat of an old Cadillac, behind two grieving parents, Ed and Mary-Helen, as they take a magic realist journey down a country road in rural Missouri. Along the way, you will get to know Sebastian, the son they have lost to AIDS. “Queerskins: A Love Story” http://vr.queerskins.com/a-love-story is inspired by the online, interactive, multimedia narrative we put out in 2013 Queerskins: a novel  It tells the story of a young gay physician estranged from his Catholic family who dies in 1990, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. For the online, we created a multimedia scrapbook: 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. Although you can navigate through any way you choose, you still feel more like a passive consumer than an active participant. Because Sebastian’s story deals with AIDS and homosexuality in a very intimate way, we were excited to tell it in VR so that we could make you a co-creator in the storytelling. In “Queerskins: A Love Story,” you are charged with reconstructing the man who has died by interacting with a box of his belongings, photos and a diary. How you relate and respond to the objects in the box, for instance, a statue of the Virgin Mary or homoerotic Tom of Finland drawing or a Hulk Halloween mask depends upon your own personal history. Many people relive their own childhood experience of being 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” in the backseat of the car behind his parents, this simple act of sifting through the contents of the box connects you physically and psychologically to Sebastian’s life and story. We were also aware that, because of your intimate proximity to the parents, (actors were shot with 3D volumetric video to capture the nuances of human movement), you will read their body language through your own body, a little like sitting on stage with actors in a play. For this reason, during rehearsals, we worked with a choreographer to orchestrate actor posture and movements. Ed and Mary-Helen essentially do a seated “dance”, a painful missed call and response, which reveals their conflict in a powerfully visceral way.

Although our story is fictional, we chose to incorporate elements of historical reality. All of the objects are 3D scanned archival objects from the time period. The car is an actual 1986 Cadillac. The news on the radio is an 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’s bed, an homage to artist Felix Gonzalez Torres who photographed his own bed after the loss of his lover to AIDS. Although, it would have been possible to 3D model these from scratch, we wanted to avoid the slick, hyperreal aesthetic that pervades much VR and digital film. Our goal was to create a magical realist aesthetic that generates a dynamic tension between embodied, material, historical reality and the very human desire to transcend those limits. To accomplish this, we ended up combining a lot of tech that no one has put into the same experience—360-degree video 3D volumetric live-action video, 3D scanned archival objects, photogrammetry of a real Cadillac, 3D CG modeling and animation, and spatial sound. Although the technical achievement of this project was recognized by SIGGRAPH, the Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques, which showcased it in 2019, we are not interested in tech wizardry for its own sake, but for the potential it offers to tell emotionally impactful stories.

For us, sound is a critical part of creating immersion in VR. We were fortunate to work with Skywalker Sound for spatial sound design. Importantly, the experience begins with sound. As major credits roll, you are charged with interpreting the radio “play” you hear around you: a screen door slamming, footsteps on gravity, a car engine starting. From the beginning, your imagination is harnessed, and you begin your role as co-creator. Later, sound is used to create “aural memories” which emanate from the photographs in the box. Lastly, you will hear Sebastian’s voice, reading his own diary. Recorded with binaural audio, it sounds as if he is right in front of you, a living presence, which you could almost touch.

In this time of our current pandemic, Queerskins: a love story has acquired a contemporary significance which we did not anticipate. We do hope that it will encourage viewers to remember that prior epidemic, in which, unfortunately, some people were considered to have deserved their fate. For instance, Jerry Falwell, heard in an archival radio clip in the opening scene, preaching God’s love, also notoriously proclaimed that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality. However, we did not approach Queerskins: a love story wanting to make an “AIDS story” or a “gay” story. We didn’t want it to be pigeonholed (or dismissed), or, even worse, create a story that suggests “gay people are just like straight people,” ignoring the political, social, and economic realities of being gay. Instead, through story and technology, the experience puts you in the position of living through the intimate, interior worlds of others. It is our hope that this will lead to an emotional engagement with the characters and themes, and, ultimately, an empathy for the characters’ personal experiences and, by extension, for all persons who grapple with love, illness, and loss.