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Issue 231

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s Living Archive

Skye Arundhati Thomas profiles the young artist and takes a trip through her many immersive game-worlds that celebrate Black trans life

BY Skye Arundhati Thomas in Features , Profiles | 22 NOV 22

'BLACK TRANS SISTER, LET ME HOLD YOUR WAIST …’ swells the anodyne autotune voice in Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s short film Dedicated To My Black Trans Sisters (2021). Cyborgs with spiky edges ride in a serpent-green sports car down a dark highway. Drops of red, hot light flash down from a brooding sky as the car zooms. ‘BLACK TRANS SISTER, YOU’RE THE ONE I WANT, WRAPPED AROUND ME EVERY NIGHT,’ the synth-pop trills. Inside the car, an unblinking driver holds the accelerator at a steady pace. Still, the car flips over, lurched into an inky void, tufts of amber-lined smoke overwhelming the screen.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, I Can’t Remember a Time I Didn’t Need You / blacktransair.com, 2020, screenshot, Twine, Blender, gifs, FL Studio. Courtesy: the artist

Switching between film, animation, painting, sound and performance, the London-based Brathwaite-Shirley often makes works that encompass multiple mediums. ‘WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT,’ reads the banner on the homepage of blacktransarchive.com (2020). The site is an immersive work by Brathwaite-Shirley that also functions as an archive. Viewers enter as though they’re players in a first-person game, moving through a landscape in which they are asked to make self-reflective choices. It’s the gamification of accountability: an attempt to use first-person design as a way for players – especially those who are not Black trans people – to take responsibility for their actions: ‘THIS IS NOT A PLACE WHERE WE MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER!’ Multiple-choice questions lead players through graveyards, spas and libraries. The landscape is jagged, sometimes twisted. ‘I really hate soft silky renders,’ Brathwaite-Shirley tells me: she prefers to use early 3D render tech, and finds the limitations presented by old video-game engines useful. ‘When we’re working with a finite palette, it’s more creative; it’s not just about being smooth and having sheen.’ The artist is not interested in things looking very clean or very expensive: ‘That’s just boring,’ she says. Brathwaite-Shirley’s work is more about testing form than it is about building recognizable worlds. Her creations have raw, cracking edges that are alive and seething. Ultimately, she says: ‘We’re trying to record our lives.’

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT / blacktransarchive.com, 2020, screenshots, JavaScript Blender Fruity Loops and Premier Pro. Courtesy: the artist

In the early 1990s, first-person games were known as corridor games because the tech was considered too crude to furnish the complexities of open environments. Narratives would play out in long, endless passages; environments were constructed purely as mood. Brathwaite-Shirley forges a sprawling, unfastened scenery. Each layer of the game-world reveals itself slowly and purposefully, with a dense visual language. Grass pulses, eyes flicker on the bodies of shifting creatures, skies are filled with swirling patterns and text. The artist still works with that early corridor tech: no slick dimensions, just landscapes that bend volume and light and, while we are flung into open space, we tunnel deeper into the world with each action and choice. Brathwaite-Shirley’s work is guided by a simple impulse: to build an archive, one that can be entered, updated, negotiated and, importantly, function as a thing that stays alive. The first-person game format helps achieve this: through our immersion and interaction with a landscape codified with histories, we participate in keeping them sentient.

At the start of blacktransair.com (2020), we are back in a car, driving toward **THE CITY OF DREAMS**, a place that will let us be, and do, as we like, the game explains. ‘YOUR NERVES HAVE TAKEN OVER YOU,’ the emerald text glows as we move through a tunnel, views blurred by speed. When we arrive, the city is grimy, covered in a thick yellow fog. The text points out how the city is, at first, disappointing: it’s nothing like what we’ve been told it would be. At the border, we are asked to turn over a clear indication of identity: ‘I’M SORRY YOU HAD TO CHOOSE A TICKBOX OPTION.’ A barely-there figure with buttery eyes says: ‘YOU MUST BE TIRED OF SEEING FORMS WHERE YOU HAVE TO IDENTIFY YOURSELF.’ In the city, there is a pharmacy, a nightclub, a hotel, a temple. Misty shadows run along the streets, chanting; later, we find out that they are headed toward a Black Lives Matter protest. Brathwaite-Shirley sets up the city as both a promise and a fallacy: somewhere to which players have travelled to find the abstractions of freedom, only to be confronted with a different set of tyrannies to those left behind. This undoes any utopia suggested by cosmopolitanism and, as we roam through the city’s corridors, we skirt a deadly edge: things may easily tip into cruelty.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Below Dreams, 2014, from ‘blacktranssea.com’, 2021, screenshot, Blender 2.79, FL Studio, JavaScript. Courtesy: the artist

‘REMEMBER, YOUR IDENTITY IS RESPONSIBLE FOR WHAT YOU WILL EXPERIENCE,’ the yellow-eyed figure at the city’s border has warned and, oftentimes, we encounter ethical riddles in which selections must be made. For instance, on a visit to the club, we are offered a choice: a person is dancing alone – do we approach them, or leave them to it? If the former is picked, the game asks: ‘DID YOU THINK CREEPING UP ON SOMEONE WAS A GOOD IDEA HERE?’ It’s a piercing reminder: curiosity can be violence.

Brathwaite-Shirley uses images of the people she works with to texture her game-worlds: skies are made from skin, grass from hair, clothes from old family photographs. Every object, person, animal or scenery encountered is the meticulous aggregate of personal memory, representation and movement. Many of the works are conceived and designed in workshop-style community gatherings where Brathwaite-Shirley will ask people to share stories or memories. ‘I think of myself as a mediator,’ she explains. Once someone has articulated through language what they would like to document, the artist works with them to figure out how to visualize it in the game-world. Usually, Brathwaite-Shirley will make a quick render that she continues to edit and tweak until everyone is happy with the result. ‘I’m trying to build environments that can hold our words. Each world is a fortress for the words that I’m hearing from the people I work with; it’s where we not only collect them but keep them safe.’

Games, by default, build community in and around them, transnational networks that congregate online. Brathwaite-Shirley uses the same logic and, for her community, togetherness is an archival technique. In what is considered a seminal text on gaming culture, Coming of Age in Second Life (2008), Tom Boellstorff writes: ‘Virtual worlds show us how, under our very noses, our “real” lives have been “virtual” all along.’ But what of lives that are not considered to be ‘real’ in the first place – what of a world in which the binaries of ‘real’ and ‘unreal’ innately uphold structural violence? Brathwaite-Shirley’s work blasts open a new level to have this conversation.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, THE VOICE OF A LOST GOD RETURNS, 2022, Blender Render and drawing on paper. Courtesy: the artist

With blacktranssea.com (2021), the artist takes on history in an archive game that is, at first, critical fabulation: here, the ocean itself resists the journeys of colonization and slavery that attempt to make use of its surface. And, in particular, it will not permit the harm of Black people. ‘THE WAVES REMEMBER YOUR BODY,’ it begins, ‘BUT THESE WATERS ARE NOT THE SAME ONES YOU ARE USED TO. THANK GOD.’ Upon commencing the game, players are asked, quite simply, whether their ancestors were colonizers, or those who were carried across the sea. As I come from a history of indenture, I click on the latter, and am taken to a speckled black and white shore, with a glitching curtain of fog hanging on the horizon. ‘YOU HAVE BEEN GIVEN A SHIP,’ the game says: it’s a cargo full of history and the ship’s purpose is to keep its occupants safe. We slip into the fog and onto choppy water. An activity is proposed: would we like to scam a nearby vessel? On the deck is a computer console which begins a hack, downloading an image of a stolen relic found on a ship nearby. ‘WHERE DO I SEND IT?’ the console asks, as the hack reaches completion. The only available reply is: ‘I DON’T REMEMBER WHERE ITS HOME IS.’ A single, open eye gleams on the console, and the thrill of the hack is loaded with the burden of its premise: this history is not one that has been easily recorded, nor is it one that can be neatly undone.

In the installation Haunting Alongside Our Shadows (2021), shown at QUAD in Derby, Brathwaite-Shirley pulls the blacktranssea.com game-world into a gallery space: there are life-size figures, flickering skylines comprised of numerical code, and a long smooth roll of print sweeps over the floor like a tidal wave. A cast of glyphs and motion-captured dancing figures move in and out of a large screen showing the game, which is entirely determined by visitors to the space. Along one wall are several arcade-like setups, loaded with individual games. One of these is When your eyes meet mine (2021), a spill-over from the archive. The game opens with a bursting landscape and players are asked to choose an island. Each patch of land is a place, or even just a fleeting feeling: a street after a protest has taken place, or that gentle space held by looking into someone’s eyes.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Decision Maker, 2021, from ‘She Keeps Me Damn Alive’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Arebyte Gallery; photograph: Dan Weill

She Keeps Me Damn Alive (2021) is also a game inside an installation. When the work was shown at London’s Arebyte Gallery in 2022, visitors could pick up a fleshy, bubblegum-pink gun with grooves that resembled smashed brain matter. ‘I NEED YOU TO ASK YOUR­SELF WHY YOU ARE EXCITED. WHY DOES THAT FEEDBACK FEEL SO GOOD?’ the game asks, referring to that moment after a gunshot when the tremor carries from clenched palm through the body. Brathwaite-Shirley uses the weapon to jolt people’s capacity for switching to violence. She moves it forward: from gun fetish to questioning why the gun is in our hands. A curtain opens to a room shaded in marine blues. Blusters of water flicker in columns, light seeps in from the aqueous ceiling. This water temple has a labyrinth of inner rooms encased in light-drenched turquoise walls. Figures are dancing, and a gentle stream of synthetic music washes over them.

The world of She Keeps Me Damn Alive was primarily built through movement: Brathwaite-Shirley continuously filmed the artists Marikiscrycrycry and Ebun Sodipo for nearly two hours, and every part of the game is sourced through this footage. ‘From the sunless sea to the ocean, the movement is the foundation,’ the artist tells me. This is accompanied by special music, through which she deftly handles mood. Like all her work, sound is produced on the free version of the digital audio workstation Fruity Loops on which the artist can’t permanently save files, just compose songs quickly in one go. ‘There’s something in the quickness,’ the artist observes, ‘about capturing feelings immediately, and turning them into tangible record.’ She makes an inventory of snatches of sound, fragments of speech and singing – of her own voice and of others – and turns these into instruments which she then plays in different notes and keys.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Tribute to MarikisCryCryCry, 2021, from ‘She Keeps Me Damn Alive’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Arebyte Gallery; photograph: Dan Weill

Brathwaite-Shirley tells me about Méwilo, a game that came out in 1987, just two years after Super Mario Bros. It was made by Martinican videogame designer Muriel Tramis, who used it to tell an intricate story of the island’s brutal history. Players are ‘experts in paranormal phenomena’ who arrive by ship to Saint-Pierre in 1902, the day before Mount Pelée erupted, its lava seeping through and destroying the port city. Caused by a single pyroclastic current, the explosion was considered to be the deadliest of the 20th century, with a death toll of nearly 28,000. Ghosts roam the town and players must solve puzzles to decode what has happened to them. It’s the type of game that eventually died in the face of speeding cars and bountiful artillery but, to the artist, it is a template for how games can function outside of a market bias that inevitably tends toward unchecked violence and compulsions of destruction. Brathwaite-Shirley proposes games to be so much more than their mainstream manifestations: hers are spaces in which to hold tenderness, to bury the dead that did not receive burials, to forgive those that hurt us, to leave the past behind and emerge renewed. As players reach the end of She Keeps Me Damn Alive, a crimson-hued deity outstretches their arms toward the screen and it flickers, the floor’s bricks curling apart. ‘MY HEART WELCOMES YOU, HOLDING YOU CLOSE,’ they say, as the screen turns to black.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 231 with the headline ‘Profile: Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’.

Main image: Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Demon Baby, 2021, from ‘She Keeps Me Damn Alive’, installation view. Courtesy: the artist and Arebyte Gallery; photograph: Dan Weill

Skye Arundhati Thomas is a writer. They are co-editor of The White Review, and their essay-length book Remember the Details was published this year by Floating Opera Press.