Danielle Brathwaite–Shirley

Text by Wong Binghao
(Bing)

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley dislikes passivity. In their interactive artworks, which often take the form of functional video games, the first of which they precociously made while completing their Bachelor’s degree at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, they make every effort to ensure that no audience member is an apathetic, silent observer of their work. “I really want to put the viewer in the hot seat,” Brathwaite-Shirley, who uses they and she pronouns interchangeably has said of her artworks. In the past, this has meant getting audiences to input their names and perform their identities in order to generate (or close off) specific gamic pathways, make group decisions in order to advance within the game’s narrative, and interact with props and devices within an exhibition space. The consequences of not acting or participating are very real. Most infelicitously, not being able to continue experiencing Brathwaite-Shirley’s artworks. It would not be farfetched to deduce that Brathwaite-Shirley would likely endorse one of the foremost observations that Alexander R. Galloway proclaimed in his book on gaming: namely that “video games are actions.” Without actions, Galloway argues, video games can only remain in the realm of abstraction. Brathwaite-Shirley’s prompts for action take on greater socio-political resonance given that her multimedia artworks—comprising such elements as code, animation, video, sound, and performance—aim to portray, spotlight, ratify, and archive a spectrum of Black trans experiences.

Representation alone is not, however, Brathwaite-Shirley’s endgame, despite their ostensibly polemical approach. They are, with good reason, skeptical of the saturation of so-called identity politics in art and culture, which often delivers little more than lip service and is characterized by emblematic, supplemental additions into archives, media, and exhibitions. In contrast, Brathwaite-Shirley is less concerned about what a Black trans person might look like, and more with the breadth and depth of their lives and experiences. The artist’s nuance and lucidity around recognition and respectability politics are reflected in her aesthetic choices. Most notably, the characters, objects, and environments in her video games—though often drawn from real-life scenarios, memories, and people—are intentionally rendered with early and obsolescent 3D technology, and are therefore lo-fi, amorphous, ephemeral, and not readily identifiable.

For their first solo exhibition GET HOME SAFE (2022) with David Kordansky Gallery in Los Angeles, Brathwaite-Shirley further experimented with the politics of representation by translating motion captures of their Black trans friends into ASCII text video portraits which were deliberately nebulous and abstract despite their newfound readability. In the same way, the voices and songs in their video games, which Brathwaite-Shirley composes themselves, are modulated with layers of distortion, sounding at once harmonic and discordant, narrative yet indecipherable. Brathwaite-Shirley’s artworks exemplify Whit Pow’s methodology of writing a “trans media history as a history of unmediation,” one that is cognizant of who and what “cannot be saved” and “will always evade documentation [and knowability],” and pays attention to that which “has not been recorded or cannot be recorded in relationship to media.” (emphasis Pow’s own). Given her aesthetic sensibility and sensorial retractions, to neatly conclude that Brathwaite-Shirley’s work ‘challenges’ or ‘resists’ hackneyed stereotypes of Black trans people would be premature, to say the least. They move the needle on this socio-cultural platitude, compelling spectators of their work to ruminate about why they might have certain assumptions about what a Black trans body looks or sounds like in the first place. In this way, Brathwaite-Shirley’s artworks hold abolitionist potential.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Brathwaite-Shirley finds a sanitized aesthetic sheen (or what they have called “soft silky renders”) baleful and “boring.” For them, beauty, in an everyday context, is an equally tricky and thorny ideology, especially when it comes to the relative privileges of passing (or not) for trans people. Brathwaite-Shirley reiterates, in her many interviews, that there is “power in not passing,” echoing media and trans studies scholar Allucquère Rosanne Stone’s seminal 1987 formulation of posttranssexuality. The glitchy, hybrid, and self-proclaimed “demonic” creatures and characters in Brathwaite-Shirley’s games might therefore be taken as politically charged allegories of this philosophy. In the same way, by presenting player-spectators with polarizing, difficult, and even impossible gamic choices, Brathwaite-Shirley firmly dismantles the tacit expectation, in art historical debates, of an aloof contemplation of refined art objects (and people-as-objects). Case in point: for Brathwaite-Shirley’s 2022 solo exhibition She Keeps Me Damn Alive at London’s Arebyte Gallery, player-spectators had to correctly identify and shoot villainous portents in order to protect Black trans people, but were then admonished for carelessly perpetrating gun violence. And when the main antagonist finally reared its slimy figure, the shooting function was disabled. Elsewhere, when player-spectators are rhetorically asked, in a climactic scene of Digging for Black Trans Life (2019), if they want to “resurrect this body,” they are then told that they have “no choice” in the laborious matter.

Yes, Brathwaite-Shirley’s artworks repeatedly, frustratedly, and forcefully call for a more just and accountable world. But paradoxically, her games are not designed for success; they are not moralistic, heuristic devices or triumphant stories about empowerment and overcoming adversity. Quite the contrary: players will likely fail the grand missions of Brathwaite-Shirley’s video games. Futility and helplessness to change the status quo—that is the very real, empty, sinking feeling that players of Brathwaite-Shirley’s games will be left with, the same feeling, the artist seems to suggest, that Black trans folk have or may have felt at some point in their lives. Now that emotion sits with the player-spectator, who will, hopefully, be spurred to act on it so that they—and no one else around them—has to feel that way again. This affective transposition is the sui generis quality of Brathwaite-Shirley’s work: it talks the talk and walks the walk.

DANIELLE BRATHWAITE-SHIRLEY (b. 1995, London, UK) is a Berlin/London-based artist. They received a BA from the Slade School of Fine Art, London in 2019. Brathwaite-Shirley works predominantly in animation, sound, performance, and video game development. Their practice focuses on intertwining lived experience with fiction to imaginatively retell the stories of Black Trans people.

WONG BINGHAO is a writer, editor, and curator.

SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE, installation views, Arebyte Gallery, London, 2021 Photo: Dan Weills All Images Courtesy: the artist