vr visitor experiencing the dance scene in QUeerskins: ARK during the Quills Fest 2022 presentation at the brooklyn navy yard in new york city

A four chapter cinematic Virtual Reality experience

About the project

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. Queerskins explores the quintessentially human desire to transcend ordinary reality through memory, belief and imagination.

Queerskins 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. It is our hope that this will lead 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.

Chapter 1
Queerskins: a love story

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 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 dialogue and the body language of the two characters. 3D scanned objects (books, photographs, a diary) appear in the box next to the visitor on the car seat. The story is revealed through the visitor’s interaction with the objects.

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Chapter 2
Queerskins: ark

Michael DeBartolo as Sebastian, Photo by Michael Dekker

Envisioning a scene from Sebastian’s diary, Mary-Helen imagines her son alive and in love. In her vision, Sebastian and his lover Alex begin an intimate dance on a beach at sunrise. Movements of the visitor’s hands and body generate traces of light, creating an ephemeral landscape through which the lovers dance. Acknowledging and celebrating the fact that her son loved and was loved despite her own and society’s rejection of him, Mary-Helen realizes that love is what will save her.

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Chapter 3
Queerskins: fly angel soul
[ in production ]

Sebastian (Michael DeBartolo speaks with a Doctor (Tommie Moore)

This experience takes place in Bamako, Mali in the mid-1980s. Sebastian, a young American doctor and his friend, Bathilde, a French-Malian nurse anxiously wait the results of Sebastian’s AIDS test.

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Chapter 4 [ planned ]

mary-Helen sitting in Church

During Sebastian’s funeral mass, Mary-Helen, wracked by guilt and sadness, experiences ecstatic “visions”. This chapter harnesses the immersive realism of 360 degree video and the artistic potential of CGI to explore the human desire for transcendence. Here, as in chapter 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.

Created by

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.

Cyril Tsiboulski is co-founder and creative director at Cloudred, a digital design practice that is both an independent content-producing creative studio and a service-based agency with global clientele across corporate, government, civic and cultural domains. He is also a faculty member at New York University where he teaches in the Digital Communications and Media Program.


In Collaboration With:

Choreographer Brandon Powers creates seamless visceral experiences at the intersection of theatre, dance, and technology. The form of these experiences are determined and constructed by fusing techniques from by background in immersive theatre, musical theatre, and Modern dance. Brandon is committed to investigating technology’s effect on our culture, minds and private experiences by creating experiences which embrace technology’s role in our lives as a connector and community building tool.