Illya Szilak’s novel, Queerskins, is an interactive web-based work which includes collaborative and open source media creating an online multimedia narrative installation. It explores the topics of gender, sexual identity, morality, and justice. This work was completed in 2012 and can be accessed online. Queerskins can be viewed using Google Chrome or Safari browsers via desktop or laptop computer and requires an active internet connection and sound. This interactive novel is Szilak’s second work and has been included in the third volume of the Electronic Literature Collection (ELC Vol. 3).
The novel’s interface is composed of layered elements including text, sound, video, and images that can the reader can explore at random or view as one cohesive multimedia collage. In fact, this work contains 50 video clips, over two hours of character monologues, 40,000 words of original text, and close to 100 still images. Like her first novel, most of the media elements that Szilak uses in this piece are a combination of appropriated and commissioned original media. The images used for this work were curated via Flickr Creative Commons and most of the video was sourced from YouTube. Illya also collaborated with two artist to create original work for this piece.
As the user navigates through each chapter of the novel, which can be accessed at the bottom of the interface, there are chapter pages that reveal various multimedia elements. Some of these elements include images of diary entry pages that offer text that can be read and various still images with audio overlays. The use of various elements in this piece offer the user an immersive and interactive experience. Each element can be clicked on and interacted with in some way, whether it be to listen to an audio file, read text, or view a video clip. The imagery and contents of the video clips help facilitate an understanding of the mood and theme of the narrative as well.
This work tells the story of Sebastian, a young gay physician who comes from a small-town Catholic family who is infected with HIV and dies of AIDS at the beginning of the US epidemic in the early 80’s. The novel begins with Sebastian’s mother discovering her son’s diary where she uncovers intimate details of her son’s life while reminiscing on memories of the past. As the reader traverses through each page in the novel, the various elements scroll horizontally across the page like overlapping fragments of memories. While experiencing this piece, the user may begin to feel a sense of connection with the various characters, especially Sebastian, the main character of the story. Reading each of the detailed diary entries, users begin to piece together the life and intimate thoughts of the young physician. The collection of narrated monologue audio tracks of other characters in the novel act as a Greek Chorus commenting on the action of the narrative.
Due to its fragmented structure, this is the kind of story that may take some time to experience and make sense of. The more that it is interacted with, the more the story is revealed. One of the affordances of this style of novel is that the reader is not confined to one single path of narrative. Various pages and chapters within the story can be explored however the user pleases. This type of interactivity allows the reader to go back to various points of the novel to make connections and understanding of the narrative. Throughout the chapters of the novel, there are various random diary entries that are not in chronological order and the videos or images displayed on the screen don’t alway correspond with the entries. As the user views each artifact on the individual chapter pages, some of the previous artifacts that were viewed begin to make more sense. For instance, several of the narrated images are of Sebastian’s mother recollecting events of Sebastian’s life or are her reactions to reading entries of the diary, but the diary entries on the page don’t correspond to the particular events that she mentions. However, diary entries of the event may show up later on another page or in another chapter. The overall experience of this novel gives a puzzle solving or “playing detective” vibe which can make it an interesting and interactive experience for the user.
Along with Queerskins: A Novel, Illya Szilak and a team of designers have created a virtual reality experience of Sebastian’s story. Currently, two chapters (Queerskins: A Love Story and Queerskins: Arks) have been completed and more chapters are in the works. You can find more information about the virtual reality experience and installations of the works at queerskins.com.
This entry was composed as a part of Will Luer’s course, DTC338 Electronic Literature at Washington State University- Vancouver in March 2019.