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A Conversation with Illya Szilak

A Conversation with Illya Szilak

The responsible development of XR technology requires a diverse community of voices to help build it. To celebrate the limitless number of perspectives in the XR industry, the XR Association sat down with Illya Szilak. Illya Szilak is a writer, artist, director and creative producer for interactive and transmedia stories. In 2018, she premiered her first VR experience Queerskins: a love story in site-specific interactive physical installations around the world.

Below is an excerpt of the interview with Szilak, which has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity. 


1. Let’s first talk about your XR story. What sparked your interest in working on XR? 

 I started working with my artistic partner Cyril Tsiboulski in 2007. I had written this novel called Reconstructing Mayakovsky, which was going to be interactive and online. At that time, the Kindle hadn’t even come out; I didn’t really know exactly what I was making. It was somewhere in between a video game and a text. 

[While I was looking for a developer,] someone introduced me to Cyril, who grew up in Moscow [and was familiar with the Russian avant-garde futurist poet.] We connected instantly, and have been working together ever since. We started out with interactive literature and Queerskins, which was about 40,000 words of original diary text in first person that I wrote from the perspective of a young gay physician named Sebastian, who is estranged from his rural Missouri family and dies of AIDS in 1990. And there are two hours of monologues from five people who knew him alongside photographs and videos. 

In 2017, we got a prototype grant from Tribeca Film Institute to make Queerskins as a virtual reality experience. [The result] Queerskins: A Love Story ended up winning the Peabody Futures Media Award.


2. So you first launched Queerskins in 2018, but the story was actually published in 2013. How, and why, did you decide to make it into an immersive installation? 

I actually had a plan to write this story into VR before Tribeca came out with a call for VR experiences. Writing the story took about a year, and required me to switch how I approached storytelling with this new medium. Once that happened, the learning was really rapid. But it took a long time for me to shift over to that kind of storytelling, where you have the intimacy of having a visitor physically present within the story and using their body as part of the storytelling. [Since the beginning,] I’ve understood intuitively how powerful that was going to be emotionally and that’s why we wanted to do it. So the [impact] lies with both the XR components on the level of interactivity and the intimacy it creates with the storyline. 

It was really important that we didn’t allow you to pretend to be a gay man through the immersive experience. In lieu of that, the participant is seated in the backseat of a car behind Sebastian’s parents. They are tasked with trying to understand who the man is that they are grieving. Was he a “good man” like his mother says, or a “disgrace” like his father believes, or someplace in between, human like the rest of us? The visitor is charged with figuring out who he was by going through a box of belongings, photographs, and a diary that appears on the seat beside them.

We wanted to create an intimate relationship between the participant and the story. The idea is that you, as the visitor, get to bring your own biases, your own experiences, and your own history to inform how you develop who this person was. So everyone will have their own idea of who Sebastian was, and none of them will be exactly right. And none of them will be complete. But they will always have an intimate relationship with that visitor because they’re the ones responsible for figuring out who he was.

That intimacy of having a visitor who was physically present within the story and using their body as part of the storytelling, I understood intuitively how powerful that was going to be emotionally and that’s why we wanted to do it.


3. How do you use your storytelling as an avenue for empathy and what has the impact/importance of your project?

Absolutely, I actually saw a great AR experience at Tribeca this year called Colored which was talking about this woman, pre-Rosa Parks, who would not give her seat to a white person on a bus. And it took everything I could to not cry, or just weep during this it was so profound.

I’m really happy that this technology is being used to tell those kinds of stories and not just pigeonholing [artists and storytellers] into creating commercially viable stories. For a number of reasons, the stories that [Queerskins and other minority creators] tell are not commercially viable. And yet, they are finding support from other users and building empathy. In the end, these will be the stories that people will flock to as more companies begin adopting XR like Apple. These stories are going to be front and center.

[With Queerskins,] we try to allow everyone to have their own experiences, and not just push this one kind of “transcendent experience” [the visitor] has to follow. We give users the option in the story to be as close or as far as they’d like. For some people, they might step back and say Oh , I’m a little uncomfortable with this. That’s profound for us because it creates opportunities to question how and why you feel the way you do.

I believe in the potential to change hearts and minds with this media, I actually want to recognize where people are coming from and that may be at different points than I am or you are.


4. What advice do you have for people just starting out who are interested in creating stories and using VR to do that?

Number one is, to see as much VR as you can. Even failed stories are incredibly instructive. Additionally, think about how and why you want to tell a story in XR. There are all of these obstacles [building in XR], and there are way easier ways to tell a story. I would encourage others to figure out why it is so necessary that you have to tell it in XR. I’m not saying that there aren’t really good reasons for why, but you got to figure it out for yourself to determine where you want to take your story.

I would also say, [XR] is a collaborative effort. Finding your tribe of people who can embrace the vision– and then bring all of their particular skill sets and talent to that thing– is necessary. We’re all jumping into an abyss together.

Lastly, be brave. If this is the story that you must tell, tell it in that way. Don’t think about commercial success. Don’t think about what’s going to sell, be passionate and go for it. I’ve taught storytelling in XR and I’m always encouraging people to get in now. Just get a foothold so that you can take your place at the table, which is so important. 


5. And speaking of new mediums, so you’re working on a film? Could you share a little bit more about that?

Our newest project, Fly Angel Soul, continues the Queerskins story and is supported through a grant from The Jerome Foundation. In Fly Angel Soul, Sebastian, a physician, moves to Mali, West Africa to volunteer with patients after being estranged from his family. However, it’s there that he first receives his AIDS diagnosis.

I wanted to know what it is that virtual technology can bring to the intimacy and empathy of filmmaking. [After the success of Queerskins,] I was interested in exploring this further. How would we shoot a film differently? And with that, the whole production process then did a whole 180 basically.

The title is called Fly Angel Soul and it comes from a quote from Meister Eckhart who was a 13th century Catholic monk who said this very heretical thing and almost got burned at the stake. “Let us pray to God that we be free of God, and that we rejoice in the everlasting truth where the highest angel and the soul and the fly are equal”. 

In this film, we are actually filming from the point of view of an angel. These are all virtual cameras, a human and a fly.  I think that that was another reason that we turned towards film because we want a very large audience, we want everyone to see what we make, and to understand or, hopefully, bring that empathic potential of XR into the 2D film.


6. How is the current political landscape affecting the LGBTQ+ community? And how are/how can immersive technologies bring the community together?

The current backlash against LGBTQ+ members isn’t just in the US, it’s everywhere. For example, Cyril has an ear to Russia because he still has a lot of family there. And, recently, the Duma passed a bill that basically outlawed homosexuality in Russia. He knew it was coming, and he has family members who are gay that had to get out of the country.

So I think that the power of VR,  or XR, in general, is just the ability to create these kinds of intimate, empathic experiences, which can in lots of ways, override, sort of, the cognitive functioning of the ideological brain. If you’re immersed and engaged, then something can happen where there was [previously] just a little spark. 


7. And so what can the industry do then to attract more gender and sexual diversity in immersive worlds and social VR?

In the broadest sense, I think that there are these queer spaces and XR experiences where literally anything goes. It’s got a little bit of a Wild West quality to it and I think that the only way to encourage that is through supporting the makers of these stories.

I’ve been asked before by fellow artists, why do you allow these corporations to support your stories? And to that, I’m like, Why? Why do queer people have to be in the back of the room, putting together their Legos and creating original products that are of merit but aren’t being supported by a major corporation? No, I deserve a place at the table. Black people deserve a place. Everyone deserves a place at that table, and that is really up to those organizations to make a commitment to it. 

It’s not just [supporting minority creators in June for Pride Month.] That’s not what it’s about, it’s way more interesting and way more exciting to get those people who have different backgrounds and ideas into this kind of storytelling. That’s what’s actually going to make you money and maintain and grow this industry in the end. It’s not even gonna get off the ground [if you don’t have input from diverse perspectives.] So it’s economically, the best thing for people to do, and certainly, artistically the best thing for people to do. But, it’s also the right thing for people to do. 


8. At XRA we like to say the XR industry has a limitless future. What does that mean to you?

I mean, it is limitless in terms of the imagination, but I would sort of push back against that a little bit. And I’ll tell you why. This is something that we take into account all the time in our own storytelling and part of it has to do with my relationship to embodiment. It comes from being a physician, and especially a physician working at Rikers, which is basically just an example of hell on earth, and mass incarceration.

There is a potential for transcendence using this technology. You can fly, you can walk through walls. But at the end of the day, you are going to take the headset off, and you’re still going to be gay or not gay, and you’re still going to be Black or not Black, and you’d still be a woman or not a woman or presenting as such. No amount of VR is going to necessarily take that away. So we are always leaning back into the reality of lived existence. And that happens to also be an innately political experience. So from just a realistic standpoint, you are not going to be able to make a story that will suddenly allow people to transcend everything that they’ve learned, especially millions of years of evolution.