The digital media artist on challenging the art world’s exclusion of Black trans people and creating art through interactive technology.
While the possibilities of who we can be are endless, digital embodiment comes with its risks and dangers, especially for those who inhabit marginalised bodies. Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s intervention into the discourse of bodies and technology takes the form of the construction of a Black trans archive that allows her to memorialise those who have come before her, documenting their lives.
This work of remembrance cannot be detached from the work of imagining the future‚ and in her multifarious practice, which spans film, animation, painting, sound design, performance, and video game design, she does just that. Having studied art at Slade, exhibited at Focal Point Gallery, and performed at Tate Modern, Brathwaite Shirley is an artist challenging the art world’s exclusion of Black trans people from its master narratives.
Her first solo show, She Keeps Me Damn Alive, at arebyte Gallery in London, debuted last year to wide acclaim, and she shows no signs of slowing down. Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley is a vital presence in the digital media landscape.
This feature was originally published in Fact’s S/S 2023 issue, which is available to buy here.
Gazelle Mba: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you became an artist?
Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley: How I became an artist. Oh lord. I went to art school and during art school I was around the cabaret scene quite a lot because a lot of my friends were Black trans performers, Black queer performers, and so I would go around and see them. It was quite inspiring to see them, to be honest. One, making money, and two, continuously putting things out into the world. They were extremely prolific. They would do one, two, three performances a week. It was something that wasn’t so common in the art schools— that people were making work to be shown that quickly. But at the same time, I would see their work and really appreciate their work, but not see any of them within the art school, or within the art context at all—which was very frustrating. I’d started trying to archive them.I’d make films like Black Z, and to try and archive the people I was meeting. Slowly this led me to make my first major work, which was Digging for Black Trans Life (2009), which was a forty-minute animation film along with the forty-minute performance and an eleven-minute VR piece. I think this was the beginning of my career because it showed me what I needed. I got into making interactive work; that piece was essentially a prototype of an interactive work that wasn’t currently interactive, but had interactive, fake elements baked into the video. The next work I made was The Black Trans Archive.
GM: What is the role of memory and remembrance in your work?
DBS: I see my work as a diary of what I’ve been doing and going through. I use it as a way to archive my thoughts, feelings, pain, happiness, sadness. I also try and use it to archive others as well in the same way. To me, it’s all about capturing a soul, an essence of something, and imbuing the work with the world: the phrases, the word, the characters with those essences so that the soul of whatever was being felt in the moment lives on, in a small nugget within the work created. I see the work as almost a gateway to memory because I can remember exactly what was happening at the time I was going through and making them because so much of it went in there. Sometimes it’s really hard to look back at the work because it was speaking to something so personal that maybe not everyone would understand exactly, but I know exactly why it’s written in that particular way or who it’s speaking to or about.
GM: Do you see your work as a challenge to traditional archival practices?
DBS: Yes, I see my work as a challenge to traditional archival practices as I think archives failed. Archives actually failed. Black trans people, trans people in general, Black people in general too. A lot of our culture and history is gone and what we call archives now is more of a, at least, where I live, which is in the West, more of a Western approach to archiving, which is very rigid and very expensive and very kept. It’s all about material goods, and I’m writing down those materials in a particular way and giving people access or not depending on the circumstances they’re in. I feel the method of our coping I currently see around me isn’t very good and fails to really actually allow those who are being archived to have control over what information about themselves is being collected and what it will eventually turn into and how the information may need to change. I think an archive should be autonomous in some ways and be able to fight back against those people trying to use it for their own gain. What is amazing about oral archives is that the person can suss you out and decide if they want to tell you something or not.
GM: A lot of your work is concerned with gaming and uses interactive technology. What can gaming teach us about Black trans experience?
DBS: I don’t know if gaming necessarily teaches you about Black trans experience. I don’t know if anything does. I think it can give you a window into an experience, but for me, gaming can teach, or an interactive work at least, can teach you about the actions that you make and continue to make unknowingly. It often gives you a mirror to look back on your actions and judge yourself. I’m not interested in me judging you. I’m not that kind of figurehead. But in interactive works you could judge if you failed or if you did the right or wrong thing, depending on how the work responds to you. I think it can teach you a lot about your experience, who you are, the decisions you did or didn’t make, or are now being confronted with, and what that may say about you.
GM: What do you see as a relation between technology and embodiment in your work?
DBS: We have to really be careful about what we consider technology and what we consider obsolete. Often, we define older technologies as obsolete and therefore useless. For instance, board game technologies may not be considered modern but are still tech, are still advancing the technological landscape, or they did. I think that for me, the newest technology is not necessarily the best technology to digitally embody a particular individual. It is a case of finding the right technology whenever it existed or originated. And so that could mean finding an engine from the 1970s, like a text-based SK engine rather than an engine for producing visual images, because that is the most appropriate choice. My art looks at the landscape of technology as consisting of unearthed gems that have been used in particular times and places but have not reached their full potential and finding ways to repurpose them.
GM: Do you see digital embodiment as a form of survival?
DBS: The main issue is doing it yourself and control. It is making sure you have control over where you put digital bodies and information. Can it be censored? Can it be deleted in a moment’s notice? Is it an Instagram account, a Twitter account, a Tumblr account, or your own website? Do you have the code for your own website? Did you write it? Can you fix it? I think those things are more important because digital embodiment doesn’t just stop at an image or the words you’ve written. It also begins with the code that underlies everything. If you have no understanding of the edge code base, or at least no understanding of how it’s built, or a way to build it, if it disappears or storage of your own digital embodiment moves elsewhere, you don’t own and cannot control that embodiment. Often, I think, digital embodiment is used to saying: Please see me, I exist. But we are also slowly erased because we don’t have control over the sites that allow us to easily digitally remember ourselves, what we go through, and, what we archive. And so, for me, it’s a form of ownership when we know what to do with code, so if anything breaks down, we can bring it back. It is more like a shoring up for the future so that those of us in the future can have something to look back on, rather than just resisting Instagram. I don’t want to be born out of resistance anymore. I want to be born out of my own thoughts and feelings and wishes and wants. I think we’ve been born out of resistance for so long that I’m not merely wanting to survive. I’m wanting others to thrive and jump well above anything that I’m doing, which I think they already are.
GM: What are you working on now?
DBS: I’m working on a vampire rhythm game that will be released online in October, as well as a solo exhibition for Studio Voltaire which uses VR but in a way that’s not obvious and in a way that counters the idea of playing VR alone and the fact that VR is often very isolating. I am working on a new technique of animating, which is animating off flat 2D images, which is like anime but more akin to the Flash games made during the mid 2000s, games like Exmortis 3. Finally, I’m playing around with this old, slightly abandoned engine then trying to build something with it because I love the engine so much.
GM: What are you looking forward to this year?
DBS: I don’t even know. The release of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. My baby growing up to be three.
WORDS: Gazelle Mba
This feature was originally published in Fact’s S/S 2023 issue, which is available to buy here.
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