Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley uses Digital Art to reimagine the archive as an interactive experience. Will you centre Black Trans lives or be a passive trans tourist?

Sarah L. Roberts  |  Ed. Peter Traynor  |  10 January 2022

Womxn in Digital Art - Artist's Profile: Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley - Agora Digital Art

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley is a London-based artist who creates work that archives the lives and experiences of Black Trans individuals. Combining New Media techniques such as animation, sound and performance and video games; she preserves and records the narratives of the Black Trans community. Brathwaite-Shirley creates digital environments which centre Black Trans bodies and document those living, those that have passed and those that have been forgotten. Graduating from the Slade School of Fine Arts with a BA in Fine Art in 2019, the artist has exhibited works and conducted solo performances at the TATE, Barbican and the Science Gallery.

Current Event

18 Nov 21 – 19 Feb 22: She Keeps Me Damn Alive , Arebyte Gallery, London, UK

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, She Keeps Me Damn Alive (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

What’s next?

Brathwaite-Shirley’s latest endeavour was commissioned by New Media gallery Arebyte, using web-based archives, ressurectionlands.com, blacktranssea.com and the blacktransarchive.com as the inspiration. She Keeps Me Damn Alive (2021) is an interactive point-and-shoot video game and gallery installation. The viewer is handed a 3-D moulded gun and invited to shoot at a video projection in quest-style gameplay inspired by retro horror and arcade games such as The House of the Dead

This immersive Digital Art invites viewers to reconsider how their choices and actions impact the black trans community, whether directly or indirectly. The viewer is held accountable and instructed to use the guns but to protect the lives of Black Trans people through their gameplay choices. How players identify directly impacts their experience in the digital space, as they play through multiple environments, using their weapons as protection. In situ, the work adds dimensions of accountability and surveillance, visitor interactions are broadcast via live stream both within the gallery and via gaming platform Twitch.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley - SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE, Exhibition Trailer from arebyte on Vimeo.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, She Keeps Me Damn Alive (2021) © Courtesy of the artist.

Did you know?

Brathwaite-Shirley centres the Black Trans body in her Digital Art as she weaves the bodies of herself and her peers into the very fabric of the virtual archive. The artist transforms images of black and trans individuals; using their hair, skin and nails to render 3-dimensional backdrops and natural textures; making the grass and skies of her gaming environs. Embedding these bodies into the ecology of the archive, each work is uniquely designed to hold the black trans body.

Featured Projects

TheBlackTransArchive (2020)

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley (2020), theBlackTransArchive, Animation and Interactive Archive. © Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Courtesy of the Artist.
Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley (2020), theBlackTransArchive, Animation and Interactive Archive. © Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Courtesy of the Artist.

The BlackTransArchive is a web-based work that compiles the lives of black trans people who have been forgotten and erased by traditional archival practices. Brathwaite-Shirley’s ‘archives’ combine New Media techniques of video, sound and animation. The artist deliberately uses low-resolution aesthetics reminiscent of early arcade and text-based adventure games. Citing early console games as influences, the artist creates blocky avatars and pixelated spaces that will remind millennials of their childhood PlayStation One and Nintendo 64 games. These technologies enhance her practice by making her Digital Art highly adaptable; enabling it to be held by internet browsers and increasing public access.

However, the ‘low-res’ aesthetic also has a deeper significance. Techniques echoing a nostalgic gaming era, once shared and used by primarily white cis-gendered men, are re-adopted to create compressed graphics. In an interview with BerlinArtLink, she highlights the archives’ primary purpose to fight against erasure. The narratives that are translated via text communicate far more than a smooth glossy visual could.

In a feature for ArtNews, Legacy Russell (author of Glitch Feminism) describes the BlackTransArchive as a “homecoming site” for black trans people. Deliberately changing the experience according to user identity by asking them to consider their own identity when entering. A white cis person can expect to see and encounter a wholly different archive from those who identify as Black, Trans or both Brathwaite-Shirley addresses all users. Speaking with BerlinArtLink, she explained, “we don’t want cis white people to play as if they are ‘stepping in our shoes, it’s not about that, because you couldn’t, it’s impossible”. Those who step into the archive are not automatically trusted with this information or the lives of those it reflects, recreating the embodied experience of living in a world where access and freedom are always built with conditions.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley (2020), Resurrection Pro-League. Installation and Interactive Game, 38 Minutes. © Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Courtesy of the Artist.

Re$$urrection Land (2019)

Re$$urrection Land is a digital installation and interactive online game, accompanied by a 40-minute animation walk-through that premiered at Les Urbains festival in 2019. The ‘lands’ are gaming environments occupied by stylised avatars whom the viewer must save and resurrect. The gaming characters are almost monstrous, appearing with cubic shaped heads, long limbs, or devilish horns. They have a sinister beauty, that doesn’t remind the viewer of anywhere earthly. In the animation walkthrough, the viewer’s avatar bears a hooded cloak; seemingly recalling the image of white supremacist groups and brutality.  

Brathwaite Shirley has embraced the freakish and the monstrous aesthetic, as if reclaiming the demonised treatment that trans people, especially those of colour, receive in conventional media. The artist searched for stories of her ancestors in conventional archives, only to find sparse records, perhaps one or two documents that criminalise or perpetuate the fearful stereotype of the “predatory trans-sexual”.

Combatting this; Shirley builds her games on the foundations of the black trans experience and the suffering they have faced. Still, she is not simply retelling the stories of trauma and pain for the viewer’s consumption. Re$$urection Lands is an archive that actively challenges the viewer, building a storyline of resistance against ‘trans tourism’. The artist is actively fighting images of black pain, and black trauma in the media, which are repeated and shared without committing to real activism and change. As our Instagram explore pages are filled with empty hashtags and “blackouts”, the artist questions the virtue signalling and passive activism that accompanies these actions. Brathwaite Shirley resurrects those that have suffered as ethereal avatars, but the archive is protected. You as a viewer can choose to assist or corrupt this mission.

TRANS-PORT ME (full version) from Danielle Brathwaite-shirley on Vimeo.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley (2019), Trans-Port Me, Digital Animation, 12 Minutes. © Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Courtesy of the Artist.

Trans-Port Me (2019)

Trans-Port Me is a video artwork that expresses the feeling of moving, transporting oneself around the world in a body deemed as “other”. It explores the inherent insecurity and emotional imbalances of travelling while trans; an experience that is so often unsafe. The work is a ‘karaoke’ of sorts, combining on-screen lyrics in neon text with the artist’s animations. An accompanying soundtrack of muffled, syncopated vocals tells a personal testimony in half-spoken, half-sung phrases. The voice sounds as if it has been garbled by animatronics, perhaps deliberately referencing the limited sound frequencies of early video game technologies, re-adapting them towards black trans visibility. 

In a 2019 interview with design publication, It’s Nice That, Brathwaite-Shirley expressed the idea that music becomes an empowering tool to build confidence. The wall of sound in the video is reminiscent of this adoption of music as armour. The colours and graphics of the work are vibrant, lurid and aggressive- paired with the sound they make for a sensory overwhelm. She also expresses her feelings of disjointedness and danger within the world. “My experience is an overload. I don’t ease into environments, so neither does my work. It’s loud, angry and busy. It needs to be”. The video is richly animated with glitchy textures, two-dimensional black bodies and neon colours. 

Key achievements

In 2020, Brathwaite-Shirley was named QUAD International Digital Fellow and was named a Net//Work digital artist resident at the Wysing Arts Centre. The artist has led several workshops on the role of interactivity in Digital Art and contributed to panels for the Royal Academy of Arts, Tate Britain, Bloomsbury Theatre and Photographers Gallery. In addition to this, in 2020, she performed solo at the TATE Modern. Brathwaite-Shirley has displayed works Southbank Centre, Barbican and ICA. Apollo Magazine recently named her one of their 40 under 40 in Arts and Technology, and she recently participated in the Ars Electronica podcast and The Serpentine Gallery Podcast.

Recent shows

Solo Shows

2021, Haunting Alongside Our Shadows, QUAD, Derby, England

2021, She Keeps Me Damn Alive, Arebyte Gallery, London

2021, Re$$urection Lands, Skanes Konstforening, Malmo and Online

2020, Solo Performance, Zanele Mulholi at TATE Modern, TATE, London

2020, We are Here Because of Those That Are Not, Science Gallery, London

Group Shows

2022, 3 Sept – 27 Nov: In Transfer – A New Condition, Esch 2022, Austria

2021, Difference Machines, Albright Knox Gallery, New York

2021, Meta-Bolic, Image Media Text, Bournemouth

2021, By Any Means, V.O Curations, London

2020, Trans-Port Me, Arebyte Online, Arebyte Gallery, Online

2020, You Are Being Let into Space, BBZ Graduate Show, Copeland Gallery, London

Fairs and Festivals

2021, Peer-to-Peer Festival, Peer-to-Peer Exchange, UK/Hong Kong and Online

2019, Re$$urection Lands, Les Urbaines, Lausanne, Switzerland

2019, Digging for Black Trans Life, 4:3 Boiler Room, Lesbiannalle, London and Online 

2019, You are Being Let into Space, Afrotech Festival, London

2019, Digging for Black Trans Life, Queer and Now: from Stonewall to Queertopia?, Munchner KammerSpiele, Munich

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