Open City Documentary Festival

24th–30th
April 2024
across London

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley is a London-based artist working across media including moving image, animation, performance and print. Using a range of digital tools, particularly early 3D game engines, Brathwaite-Shirley’s practice creates worlds that serve as archives of black trans experiences designed for black trans audiences in the present and future. Her digital environments reconfigure historical power relations to allow voices from the black trans community to be centred, speaking to each other across temporalities and geographies whilst ensuring that spectators who are not part of this community acknowledge their culpabilities in its historical erasure and ongoing marginalisation. In Focus: Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley presents three recent works by the artist in London for the first time, covering formats ranging from film to interactive video games. 

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley has had solo exhibitions at Arebyte, London; David Kordansky, Los Angeles; QUAD, Derby; and has performed work at institutions including Serpentine, London; Tate, London; ICA, London and Raven Row, London. In Focus: Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley marks the first retrospective programme of the artist’s work and is the festival’s first In Focus programme to feature an expanded realities artist. The programme is available to view for free at our Festival Hub throughout the week of the festival as part of our Expanded Realities exhibition.

 

Resurrection Lands 

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley | 2020 | UK | 39’ | Digital | English spoken 

Reckoning with how to resurrect erased black trans memories without placing them in the same context that had caused this erasure, Brathwaite-Shirley constructs a digital world that acts as a spatial archive of black trans memory and a conversation between the memories of black trans ancestors and the present. Using elements from e-sports competitions, RPGs (role-playing games) and game walkthrough videos, the film tackles the tensions between making black trans spaces accessible whilst resisting exploitation and appropriation from outsiders. 

 

Into the Storm 

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley | 2021 | UK | Variable runtime | Interactive film | English spoken 

A mysterious storm begins to form in the ocean, with a boat being sent to explore the phenomenon. As the boat’s crew broadcast the scene across the world, a mother and her child watch on. This animated, collaborative play asks viewers to make decisions, giving them control over whose perspective they follow and how the characters respond to their situation. As the storm continues to grow, it transforms social and individual ways of being in the world, with the viewer needing to decide whether to embrace this liberatory change or to try and outrun it. 

 

Get Home Safe 

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley | 2022 | UK | Variable runtime | Game | English spoken 

Tasking the player with ensuring that their avatar safely makes it back from a friend’s house, the game serves as a digital manifestation of the risks that black trans people face when navigating the public sphere. Danger lurks both in being alone and in relying on strangers whose intent is always under question. Controls that are at times counterintuitive or frustrating force the player to rethink ways of acting which may have been taken for granted as they play a character for whom even tasks such as going back to their home are loaded with risk. 


The Terms and Conditions in Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s Worlds

By April Lin 林森 

Passivity is not an option in Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s works. As a viewer and witness of the worlds unfolding before you, you are asked and expected to make choices — choices that precipitate excavations of self; choices that diffract into reflections of your relationship with power. 

That’s not to say that Brathwaite-Shirley’s works are dour or dry. If anything, play is the other side of the didactic coin, and as you travel through the artist’s seamed and seamless digital dimensions, entertainment is key. A cheeky sense of inverted spectacle bubbles to the surface, as common storytelling tropes are made self-aware within a game engine powered habitat. In Into The Storm, an interactive film work populated exclusively by metallically earthen insectile alien-humans, a scene of a newscaster reporting live from the yawning portal of an apocalyptic disaster cuts to a family clustered around a screen, watching said broadcast. A reality TV gaze is doubled, familiarly evoking Gogglebox and “x reacts to y” Youtube videos being stretched to its uncanny antithesis. Comedy peeks through fellow dissonances, such as when the alienoid cast pull out their Nokia 3310 brick phones, or when their dot eyes glance nervously across the room, movement animated in a Microsoft Paint register on an otherwise smoothly polygonal body. 

Another recurring pillar in Brathwaite-Shirley’s oeuvre is onscreen text displayed in all caps lettering, functioning as clear statements of the in-game world, often doubling as exposition. Resurrection Lands, a film that unfolds like a gameplay video, opens with “DECADES AFTER / OUR ANCESTORS WERE ERASED / FROM EXSISTENCE”, continuing the artist’s exploration of Black trans ancestry and intergenerational transmission amidst the structural and emotional aftershocks of the transatlantic slave trade. In these onscreen statements, words are used to build a space of refuge and empowerment, declaring values and experiences that will not tolerate being questioned nor defended. 

This digital stronghold is fortified via artistic process when considering that Brathwaite-Shirley collaborates with close kin and community members in the worldbuilding process. By holding discussions exclusively by and for Black trans people and feeding recordings from these sessions directly into the work, the artist assumes an archiving role. When you participate in the works, pay close attention to how they fold in a facilitation and documentation of Black trans knowledges, realities, and dreams and in so doing, reshape the archive into a transparent, emotive, and playful access point for the people it serves to represent. In these works, a portal is created for Black trans people to place themselves in the spotlight, on their own stage, at their own pace. 

Watching Resurrection Lands, the viewer is presented with several Terms and Conditions. Around halftime, you are faced with “ENTERING THIS SPACE MEANS YOU AGREE TO HOLD UP THE BLACK TRANS EXPERIENCE AND PUT IT BEFORE YOUR OWN!” with two options, to ’Accept { }’ or ‘Decline { }’. Returning to Brathwaite-Shirley’s refusal of passive engagement, here, the audience must reflect on their own agency, even though the film is not interactive and the choice has already been made for them. Indeed, above the two options, another maxim flashes back and forth in a bright red glow: “IT’S NOT ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT”. Eventually, the film chooses to accept and moves on, and the viewer is again given the chance, and the choice, to contend with how their own position in the world ripples across into their position in Brathwaite-Shirley’s world.  

Of course, if you would rather not participate, your options are to exit or to stumble in detachedly, at random. The works will make it clear, however, that these too are decisions that you have made, and that escapism is as agentic a choice as any embrace of self-awareness.