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 current project is Atomic Vacation a narrative game for VR. www.atomicvacation.com and devblog at www. https://www.facebook.com/atomicvacation/ She blogs on Electronic Literature and the Arts for the Huffington Post http://www.huffingtonpost.com/illya-szilak/

Missouri Here We Come

Progress on Queerskins VR.

We are flying to Missouri with Richard Hammer to shoot 360 video landscapes. In all our work, we are interested in the tension between the very human desire for transcendence through storytelling, art making, love, religion and now, VR, and embodied, material, historical reality. That is why it is so critical to us to actually haul ourselves to the places we write about. look for a photo travel log here and on Instagram/Twitter @atomicvacation.  missouri-river-valley-steve-karol

VR MX Fest photos and recap

Cyril and I went to give a workshop on Intro to Storytelling in VR and I gave a keynote about that based on our experience with Atomic Vacation. Both went really well. Our hosts were amazingly gracious and the creative energy was magic. Here are some shots of the workshop, venue, and afterparty. The students were so engaged. Can’t wait to see what VR experiences start coming out of Mexico! Also, yes, that’s me with a virtual man at the Post office in Mexico City. I make friends wherever I go.

Revisiting Reconstructing Mayakovsky

Almost nine years old now and still going strong. Reconstructing Mayakovsky has been written about and taught on the university level as an example of experimental literature and narrative game.  Check it out if you haven’t yet–like all our stuff it is free!

Mechanism b which you can play with on the site

is a seriously playful investigation of the power of language. It is concrete poetry for the Twitter age–the novel in ten words–lovingly picked by me for their sound, meaning or remix potential then randomly chosen from that list of 500 or so words by the computer. In the parenthesis you see the number of times the word appears in the “novel.” Clicking on the word brings you into one of the chapters where it is found. The beauty and surprise of these poems comes from the peculiar combination of my own desires and the computer algorithm (a process which has taken over the entirety of writing Atomic Vacation)
SUCK PEACOCK and MUNIFICENT BITCH are the luck of the draw!

Atomic Vacation update

Reworking the script to accommodate the lure of haptics. We are still children in this world, we want to touch everything. To touch is to know–our bodily orientation and movements were the beginning of language. Lakoff and Johnson showed this beautifully in their amazing book Metaphors We Live By. I have been drawn to Japanese Noh for just this reason. I took a workshop on it and was excited to hear the performer call it literature through movement.  In my research on Noh (despite a valiant effort last summer, I can not speak Japanese so my reading is limited to a very small pool of writing about Noh in English) I found the perfect rhythm for Atomic Vacation which begins slowly with few objects and activities and builds stepwise to a chaos of activity that stops suddenly when the time is up. Last weekend, I reshot Tomi Heady playing Rae in her cell phone farewell to Shizuku. Originally, I had use postproduction filters to bring up the contrast almost erasing Tomi’s features so that her face resembled a mask. For this reshoot, I shot using bright light and shadow and the mask of her face is doubled by having the Noh mask in the background. I needed to add some  props that users will recognize in the Atomic Vacation environment to Rae’s farewell video. They needed to come from “real life.”  This is what plays in Shizuku’s “mind” when she cuts the feed to Earth. It is what prompts her search for and creation of a “living” memory of Rae. In my script it serves to ignite the same desire to know (to touch) Rae  in the user as well. You can see the video on our Facebook dev blog  Here are some stills. Astute manga loving players will catch the shout out to the kick-ass women at CLAMP.

Munchausen by Proxy

This man exhausts me. I see him nearly every week. His thoughts are like the ping pong balls that bounce around in a Lotto jar, fast, erratic. It goes on an on. The number never coming up. The balls forever jumping.

I find him first sitting in a chair hunched over in the hallway, a wadded up brown paper towel clutched in his hands. He has been crying, angry, bitter tears. The world is against him. People hate him. I know this from prior conversations. But, he looks different. Defeated? This is someone who faked a seizure in front of me. With him, the truth and a lie are a hairsbreadth apart.

I ask him what is wrong. I ask him would he like to see me. He jumps up and follows me back to the clinic. His speech is even more pressured than usual. His mind is jumping from a height, a body splattering me with blood and bone. He leaves himself everywhere, a carnage of minute details of perceived injustices. My own mind follows one then another then collapses. “Stop, I say, I need to bring you back to here and now.” He quiets for a moment, then is off again.

The officer comes and stands patiently just outside the opening to the concrete cubicle. “Do you want him to see mental health?” she asks. I realize that it is Friday and that mental health is still here since it is not yet the weekend. “Yes, of course, ” I say. First, I must get him to take his medication.He is on treatment for Hepatitis C. I lead his thoughts to the here and now, a mother taking hold of her child’s hand. He swallows the pill dutifully even as he is telling me he wants to die–he spits the threat out like a child screaming that he will show everyone at his party–he will eat the cake but he will not enjoy it.

The officer leads him off. A few hours later he is back. I suspected he would be. They have done nothing for him. They hate him. They are fucking idiots. And, so he has decided to take sixteen naprosyn and ten capsules of gabapentin. He does not seem at all worried by this and I realize that it is possible he is making it up. I check the pharmacy records. I calculate that if he saved all his meds from a week ago, what he says might be true. I ask him if this was a plan, he admits, no, it was impulsive. He asks me what will happen to him. I call poison control and urgent care. The former advises I send him to the hospital, the doctor at the urgent care guffaws, “get a fingerstick and an EKG– he doesn’t need to go out.” I think this is true. I suspect he hasn’t taken much. The scratches on his neck and abdomen are superficial, too. Thin red lines that stand out dramatically against his sallow white skin. He broke up a radio to do it. No, it was not sharp enough to do him in, but yes, he wanted to do himself in. I ask him at one point if he has ever had a pet– the point I am trying to make is about concrete reality, about the effort required to really care for another creature or oneself. It is not an abstraction, it is not some distant philosophy. It is the concreteness of food and water and cleaning out the kitty litter box. This slows him. But, in the end, he lives epic narratives and can not escape. Still, his thoughts rarely go to the egotistically grandiose–the music career, the movie career he was just this close to becoming a star but his mother that fucking bitch who stole his money and thinks she is perfect she thinks she is perfect and she thinks I am trash but that is what it was like she always wanted to hurt me as a child they would hurt me it was Munchausen’s syndrome!

I am trying to read the mental health clinician’s note and listen to him at the same time. Pristine attention is wasted here. It only adds energy to his ranting. My gaze alone is fuel for the fire. I stare at the computer screen. “It’s Munchausen’s by proxy,” I say, not expecting him to stop. “What?” he says. I look up. “It’s Muchausen’s if you do it to yourself. It’s Munchausen’s by proxy if someone else does it to you.” This revelation stuns him. For a few seconds, he does not talk. He is processing something. Something has changed. He says gravely, “I have to write that down, I don’t like seeming stupid in front of people.” For a few seconds, he searches for a non existent pen, dropping the pile of papers of different colors and sizes and states of folding and crumpledness that he holds in his lap, then forgets. And, we are off to the races again.

He signs the refusal to drink activated charcoal. On the paper I note that by not doing what is recommended, he risks “injury, disability, and death” That seems to cover it. We are making deals. He does not want to go on suicide watch. That will only provoke him. He wants to go to C71 to see the psychiatrist. I sigh. They will not take him. I know this. He is clearly suffering, but also insufferable. He is a great sucking mouth that belches insults. He will be right back here. I tell him I will try to reach the psychiatrist. I tell him in my experience it is tough to do at 11 at night. I do try. Now, he asks for Klonopin. I tell him, no, I cant do it since he says he took ten gabapentin which can cause central nervous system depression. This logic makes sense to him, he drops the subject. As he waits for the fingerstick and EKG, he begins insulting a C.O. I walk out and tells him. “Sh. Just be quiet. Just for a little. Just for tonight. You can do this. You don’t not have to be mad, just put it off until morning.”

On the way out, he is grateful. We look at each other for a moment, maybe five seconds, which in his world is a long time. I want to say I feel for you, you are so incredibly fucked up. But, I don’t. This is not a movie though, certainly to look at it, nothing has changed, but maybe in some small way, it has. At least, I have to hope this.

Before, he leaves, he stops by my cubicle. He has no thought that maybe he has spent too much time, or that I have other things to do. He is forever a neglected child. There will never be enough time, love, reassurance, and he will try to eat the world, shoving it like that birthday cake he never got. He will vomit it and feel guilty and then angry for being made to feel guilty and the whole thing will start again.

He has a final request, of course, he does. There is always another and another. Another thought, another word, another solution. He asks me to write down the Munchausen’s “thing”. I scribble it on a piece of computer paper. He looks at it quietly as if trying to memorize it. Then satisfied, he adds it to his pile.

Atomic Vacation update

Really paring down and directing opening scenes. It becomes a form of multimedia poetry. The user opens a drawer and finds these “found” images: a picture of fake Chanel pink gloves and a picture I found on Pinterist of someone taking a picture of a Juliana Spahr love poem with their cell phone. I have never met her, but love her poetry and emailed her to see if she’d agree to let me use it. She loved the idea.

As is our style we use a lot of circulating and historical media and what I call an “ecstatic excess” of data to tell stories. Here, the data the user gets is randomized so noone will get the same story. The other options when you open the drawer are a hybrid computer poem that I composed from appropriated text and my own monologues put into a computer story algorithm and reedited. Shizuku the robot girl is perhaps in love with her teacher Rae, but what does that mean? That she is organizing her thoughts around her? That she “feels” something? That is up for the user to interpret. Tomi’s Depthkit scenes are so present and human and weird. Maybe what a robot girl would remember/fantasize about?

“when computers begin to think, we begin to choose, how could you not have understood that?”