Queerskins: a love story is a haptic experience for Virtual Reality and an interactive installation

Queerskins explores the dynamic tension between the “real” and the virtual, fact and fiction, memory and desire through a compelling, character-driven narrative. The story revolves around a complex relationship between a devoutly Catholic mother and her gay son who dies of AIDS at the beginning of the epidemic. Queerskins explores the quintessentially human desire to transcend ordinary reality through memory, belief and imagination.

About the project

Queerskins employs Unity Game Engine, Oculus Rift and Touch, Depthkit 3D volumetric video, projection mapping, panoramic photography, 360 video and spatial audio. We also harness pre-computer era technology—impactful storytelling, lyrical and emotionally charged writing—to create an immersive, alternative world.

This world offers visitors the opportunity to connect with an urgent social message in a non-didactic, emotionally powerful way. Through story and technology, it puts visitors in the position of experiencing the intimate interior worlds of others. This leads to an emotional engagement with the characters and themes and an empathy for the characters’ personal experiences, and by extension, for “real” persons who grapple with love, illness and loss.

The Experience

A diary found in a box of belongings offers a devoutly Catholic mother living in rural Missouri in the early 1990’s a second chance to know Sebastian, the estranged son she has lost to AIDS. In this emotionally charged immersive video experience, visitors intimately witness the tense interactions between the two grieving parents, while taking a magic realist journey down a country road, a memory lane populated with scrapbook artifacts from Sebastian’s peripatetic life.

Installation

Attic with window and a rocking chair

The installation space is where the visitor will begin their experience. This is Sebastian’s attic bedroom populated with various objects and photographs. This space is primarily a static set within which fleeting visual and aural memories (curated from online.queerskins.com) appear via projection mapping. The visitor is prompted to put on a headset to begin the VR experience.

Scene 1

Driving a card through the Missouri country side

The visitor is positioned in the back seat of a car within intimate proximity of DepthKit rendered 3D volumetric characters: Mary-Helen, Sebastian’s mother, in the front passenger seat and Ed, Sebastian’s father, who drives. Surrounded by an oppressive silence, but unobserved, the visitor has the opportunity to focus on the facial expressions and body language of the two main characters. 3D scanned objects from Sebastian’s attic bedroom are in the box next to the visitor on the car seat. The story is revealed through the visitor’s interaction with the objects.

Scene 2

Sebastian and Alex hold hands at El Matador Beach

Two young lovers, Sebastian and Alex meet at sunrise on a sublimely beautiful beach near L.A. to celebrate their anniversary. Our aim here is to make visitors feel distinctly “queer” in their own skins, not entirely sure where the boundaries of “real” and “virtual,” “self” and “other” are or ought to be. The visitor begins the experience in the position of an observer standing near the shore looking out to sea. At this point the visitor can choose which character’s point of view to take—Mary-Helen—who is an outside observer, or one of the lovers, Sebastian or Alex.

Scene 3

Hospital

Sebastian sits in front of a black doctor in a white coat sitting behind a cheap metal desk in a small, hot office. A fan whirs, voices and noise come through the window from the busy Bamako street. In the corner, we see Mary-Helen standing with the diary. Sebastian looks older, thinner, exhausted. He has grown out his beard. The doctor tells him his diagnosis.

Scene 4

mary-Helen sitting in Church

During Sebastian’s funeral mass, Mary-Helen, wracked by guilt and sadness, experiences ecstatic “visions”. This scene harnesses the immersive realism of 360 degree video and the artistic potential of CGI to explore the human desire for transcendence. Here, as in Episode 2, the visitor is an intimate observer of Mary-Helen. Sitting in a mostly empty baroque church, having been abandoned there by Ed, Mary-Helen listens to Father Jim give the sermon about Jesus in the Garden at Gesthemane.

Again, the visitor is privy to her private thoughts. Praying she be given a sign that Sebastian is with God, Mary-Helen begins to see things. At this point, the “real” religious artworks in the church: a painting on the cupola, statues of the Virgin and St. Sebastian, a Pieta morph into CG animations, accompanied by a soundtrack of carnivalesque symphonic music mixed with fragments of Father Jim’s sermon. Brought back to the present by her sister, Patti, Mary-Helen sees her imaginings disappear and the soundtrack replaced with the banal but beautiful sounds of the everyday. Returned to “real life,” Mary-Helen and the visitor must continue the task at hand: trying to make sense of the pain and joy of living and loving. However, if the visitor turns round, she will see in a window near the altar, a rainbow has appeared, the aftermath of the “real” summer thunderstorm that accompanied Mary-Helen’s visions.

Cast

Hadley Boyd Hadley Boyd
as Mary-Helen
Drew Moore Drew Moore
as Ed
Michael DeBartolo Michael DeBartolo
as Sebastian

The Creators

Illya Szilak is an independent scholar, writer and new media artist. In her art practice, she uses open source media and collaborations forged via the Internet to create multimedia narrative installations online.

Shaped by her experience as a physician, her artistic practice explores mortality, embodiment, identity, and belief in a media inundated by an increasingly virtual world.

Her first work Reconstructing Mayakovsky was included in the second Electronic Literature Collection and has been taught both as an example of innovative narrative game and literature at the university level. Her second work Queerskins: A Novel was included in the third Electronic Literature Collection.

Cyril Tsiboulski is co-founder and creative director at Cloudred, an interactive design studio that investigates novel forms of expression through technology. He is also a faculty members at New York University where he teaches in the Digital Communications and Media Program. Much of his professional and academic work centers around networked technologies and the way they affect human experience.