Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley Challenges Video Game Audiences

I had the opportunity to see Chicago-based exhibition space Wrightwood 659’s Difference Machines: Technology and Identity in Contemporary Art that showcases the work of 17 contemporary artists about technology and art. One of the pieces that particularly hit me was Artistic Technologist (or TechNerd) Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s video game piece WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT (2020). 

Using bold yellow text, the game first asks the player to self-identify as either “Black and Trans,” “Trans,” or “Cis.” Depending on your answer, the game will take you on different paths through the highly stylized game where the player interacts with avatars and environments along with auto-tuned voices in song or speech.

I reached out to Danielle to talk about this piece as well as her work. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Elisa Shoenberger: Why do you use video games in your work?

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley:  I see video game engines* as mediums that can be used to move another medium, which is the audience. That is the main painting I’m trying to make. I’m trying to paint the emotions inside of you and to get to something real within you and move a little bit of that soul an inch, two inches. 

I like this idea [with video games] that you have to put energy in. The work also will consider what it gives to you, depending on what you choose and how you’re interacting with it. How it’s considering your choices, if it considers your choices [to be] nice/not nice or negative/positive. You leave with the sense of sometimes failure or you made the wrong choice. You leave with an idea or a memory of the decisions that you made.

ES: You talk about your work is about archiving and working with Black Trans people.  What made you decide to use these video game engines as the means to make the archival material?

DB: It’s the way I record things. I’m very used to people telling me stories or allegories. I often think that an archive gives you a glimpse into someone’s life but when you see a storied version of that person, they feel more alive than they did in the pages of the book.

With Black Trans people, we don’t have any files. We have court documents because [trans people] went to jail or in court and the occasional anti-trans poster. You’re not really wanting to use the archival practice of the West to archive a group of people that haven’t been seen. 

The way in which I want to archive is to do it from my perspective, which is a Black trans perspective, and doesn’t just explore the visual identity code within trans politics.  There’s a lot more archival stuff [about trans and/or Black trans people] going on but a lot is based on how we look, how beautiful we are, how great we are in films. It’s a superficial examination of our bodies.

I’m more fascinated in how we would tell a story, like how to archive Black trans thought, the way of constructing stories, [and] how messy it could be. 

Click image to enlarge.

ES: How did you conceive of WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT?

DB: In university I made this piece called DIGGING FOR BLACK TRANS LIVES, which was this 40 minute animation and performance with a casket made out of a boiler cut in half and body made out of bicycle tubes that you could wear. I would stay in the room just to observe the work for eight hours a day. 

But I remember someone said to me, “I really liked your work, because it feels like I can just fade in the visuals and ignore what you’re saying.” I don’t want to make that kind of work. I don’t want you to be able to avoid the reason I made it. 

I [decided to] make a FMV [Full Motion Video] game, which is like a game that was a popular genre in the 90s [where] you watch a clip, and then you have a choice, then a clip, then a choice. So I said, Okay, I’m gonna make one of those.

I wanted to make my own archive to archive all the Black trans people I had met in my life at that moment, which was a lot of folks in the Burlesque scene at the time. I also wanted to build a temporary team, feed them, basically have time in a room with them where everyone’s being paid for that time.

I didn’t know what the game should be and so we would just pose those [questions to the] groups and we said, we want the archive [to be] accessible. Someone said it should be online. Okay, it’s gonna go online.  It’s going to be very personal or not personal. Someone said, ‘Well, what happens if a non-trans person wants to look at it?’ Of course anyone can look at it. So we decided to put the identity at the beginning. All the choices for the archive were made like that.

ES: Could you talk about the aesthetics of the game? It’s quite abstract and the voices are autotuned. 

DB: If you give someone a small, brief glimpse of an idea or have an issue, they fill in a lot more than you need to. Then that image becomes a lot bigger or stronger to them, because they have to infer it.  

In WE ARE HERE, most of the characters were designed by Black Trans people that we worked with. They would design a character and talk about what they would like to archive about their life, which is an extremely hard question. If I asked you right now, what you’d like to ask about your life, you wouldn’t even know what’s worth it. You think you think the bigger things are better than the smaller things or the more interesting things, quirky things but it’s anything, everything at will in the minutiae is really interesting. 

They designed these characters, and I went back and rendered** them in [the graphics program]. It was often textured with images of them. That’s something that’s crucial to the work that I don’t often make clear in the work is that a lot of the world is textured by pictures of the people who are involved in making. You wouldn’t know its lips, I’m just using it as a base texture to add another layer of archiving. The world is built from a body but that body is so big you can’t even tell it’s a body anymore.

Danielle summed up her work:  I often say now that I’m not trying to make art, I’m trying to change art.  For me, it’s not about making something beautiful. We can all make beautiful paintings or make pretty things. It’s time for art to ask some really difficult questions and make the audience feel uncomfortable or challenge them to think about who they are and what they’re doing. 

*Video game engines are software that can make video games, where software developers have a host of engine specific tools to make their work.
**
Rendering is making of the character, item, etc. that you want to see in a video game.

© Elisa Shoenberger (2/10/24) – Special for FF2 Media ®

LEARN MORE/DO MORE

Learn more about the exhibit at Wrightwood 659.

Read more about Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley at Wrightwood 659. 

Check out WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT on the Black Trans Archive.

Visit Danielle Brathwaite-Stanley’s website that includes several of her games.

CREDITS & PERMISSIONS

Featured photo: Danielle Brathwaite-Stanley photographed by Laura Schaeffer. Courtesy of Danielle Brathwaite-Stanley.

Middle photo: Danielle Brathwaite-Stanley’s She Keeps Me Damn Alive (2022) at the Arebyte Gallery, photographed by Dan Weill. Courtesy of Danielle Brathwaite-Stanley.

Bottom photo: Danielle Brathwaite-Stanley at her exhibit GET HOME SAFE at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Museum of Art. Courtesy of Danielle Brathwaite-Stanley.

Tags: Black Trans Identity, chicago, contemporary art, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Elisa Shoenberger, Interview, Q&A, Video Game, WE ARE HERE BECAUSE OF THOSE THAT ARE NOT, Wrightwood 659

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