When Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley creates new, bodily spaces through video games, transsexuality, technology, and pirates are just some of the building-blocks. Text by Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor.

Game space still from THE RESURRECTION LANDS. ©Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley


You are taken to a dimly lit space where a blue-gloved bouncing figure cradling a giant worm-like sac informs you that a virus has infected the central computer. The virus comes in the form of a file that you must open. Once the file is open, you are given the option to choose who your ancestors are: Those who were carried across the sea or Colonizers. This is the heart-racing beginning of one of Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s (born 1995) interactive game spaces, BLACK TRANS SEA (2021). Brathwaite-Shirley creates alternative universes in which the player faces confrontational questions that examine identity, privilege, and the ways in which they are complicit in oppression.

The spaces that BrathwaiteShirley creates aren’t carelessly provocative. Players have the opportunity to rewrite history and in turn resurrect Black transgender siblings. BrathwaiteShirley provides a sui generis level of worldbuilding that not only provides a necessary escape from the global suffering in this current state of ideological, biological and climate crisis but also offers a path to imagine a more generative and humane future. 

Jessica Lauren Elizabeth Taylor: You’ve worked with several mediums over the course of your career; from sculpture to black and white line drawings, animated music videos to live performances and now you’re working with majority video game spaces. All of your work seems to be centered around body politics, meaning it works to gain back control over the rights of Black transgender bodies. What would you say is the foundation of your work and which medium do you most enjoy working with? 

Danielle BrathwaiteShirley: The foundation of my work is recording. Everything comes from an actual experience rather than something that pops into my head. The thing that I’m most drawn to or the medium that speaks to me the most currently is interactive art; that means art that you can’t be passive around, that you have to be active in order to experience it.

Artist with 3D printed sculpture See-er (2021). ©Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley

JLET: Your interactive game spaces are often “choose your own adventure” in which players are not only tasked with operating in worlds that may be foreign to them, but they are also tasked with agreeing to rules like: “You must agree to protect Black trans people if you want to reap the rewards of being in their presence.” How do you approach UX design [UX: User eXperience] and are there possibilities to apply these rules into our society?

DBS: I usually approach UX design in that I’m working with a bunch of Black trans(gender) people, so they are the audience. So, when I start building the user experience, a lot of my friends or the people I’m working with don’t actually play games, and games are actually quite a strange concept for them. And I do a lot of testing, like handing people different controllers and watching them play in my home and seeing them often fail. Instead: How you choose to respond should be the boundary.

For me, a lot of the inspiration comes from those ‘choose your own adventure’ books, where you’d read a passage and then flip to the page that it says to go to, because it’s so simple, the instructions are right there.

It means that the focus (is on) lulling the audience into a sense of relaxation. They’re like: “Wow, the visuals are beautiful, the sounds are really nice, I am not scared of playing this game.” And then hitting them hard with: “These are the rules that you must obey, this is what you have to do to enjoy this. If you are passive this experience ends.” When I say to people: “I make video games”, they respond: “I’m not interested in video games.” Because the people the gaming industry wants to market towards is a very particular audience that usually alienates a lot of people. Which is why I usually say ‘interactive art’ or ‘archive’ because you need to lull people into the expectation that this is not a conventional game.

JLET: Your game space THE RESURRECTION LANDS (2019) explores archiving as remembrance and historical recordkeeping. Typically, the purpose of archiving is to memorialize events for people in the present to be able to contextualize the past. Your work queers the use of archive by using it as a rebirthing ground. Feminist scholar Sara Ahmed suggests that “We can be queering use, or showing the queer potential of use, when we enter spaces not intended for us.”1 I see your game spaces as memorials to transgender siblings that have passed on, and in this way, the act of archiving is queered. How do you define archiving?

DBS: At this moment, I would say keeping the memory of someone alive. Slash, keeping them alive. [By archiving the stories of Black transgender people, Danielle’s work aims to keep their spirits alive, author’s note.] When I think about it, people don’t exist unless someone remembers them. When I’m trying to archive something or I’m looking at archives, there’s a communication that’s happening.

I’m learning something from the people I ‘meet’ there in the archives.

I’m able to see what they looked like, how they dressed, how they talked, how they communicated, why they communicated. What they did. Maybe I can infer something from that. There’s a whole learning base of archives, of the ability to see someone who existed in the past. When I am archiving someone or looking at archives again, I feel like a part of that person is being kept alive for us to draw from and keep in our bodies as we keep in our minds. There is a transmission going on. And although they’re not directly speaking to me, I do believe that archives allow that sort of transition to happen. So, if I find a trans (gender) person archived in the past, what they pass on to me is how they did it then.

Game space still from BLACK TRANS ARCHIVE. ©Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley

JLET: Do you have access to large public archives?

DBS: I’m less interested in government archives because the way they document is not really the way that I like things to be documented. I’m more interested in an alternative way of archiving. The reason I swap mediums so much is I don’t believe the same (archiving) format can be transferred to someone else. You need to create a whole new format, which is long and tedious, but is important to make sure you gather the correct information from those you are trying to archive. Being given the opportunity to work with people around me and ask what they need. How can we do this to make sure it’s representing us properly?

The current climate of trans(gender) people in art is that people (only) find us interesting because they’re looking at our bodies in comparison to theirs and they say: “You’re interesting now because I am taking something from you.”

Often that means the way that (transgender) people have to secure funding defines how they make art. So, I want to build a structure that doesn’t do that and just has a pool of money that already understands Blackness and transness and doesn’t have to circumvent all these strange desires or fears in order to actually make a living.

JLET: The history of art institutions deciding what kind of work is most valuable from Black artists is long and storied. And often, the original artistic vision is compromised in order to conform with the guidelines of curators/directors. As you mention there is an act of ‘taking’ when the funders try to control the art that is being made, they are compromising the agency of the transgender artist. How do you reconcile working with predominantly white institutions? Do you feel like you need to be properly seen and understood or are they just a vessel to showcase the work?

DBS: Part of the work is not meant to be ‘educational’ at all. They don’t need to understand anything. They just need to stay out of my way. [Laughs] When I made my first piece the gallery didn’t interfere but wanted to interfere. Their interference would have affected that project and made everyone [in the work] anonymous. It would have made the audience unable to know who (the transgender people) were and it would have been centered on trauma, which is what the gallery wanted. And I said: “Absolutely not, that’s not what I want.” And since that day, we banned anyone who is not a part of our team from being in the room. So, that means no gallery person is in our team when we’re making the work.

You have to trust me with what you’re giving me — and that’s it.

It’s about trusting the way we’re thinking rather than having to see some result in order to appreciate what we’re doing. If you don’t trust what’s being made, don’t fund us.

JLET: The movement of the figures in the game spaces are so rich with breath and vitality. The characters embrace one another, dance ecstatically and shapeshift. How do you work with physicality? How do you direct the motion capture2 of real people in your studio to create this choreographic movement score and translate it into a video game character?

DBS: It’s such a weird one. Something I’m a huge believer in is when to say something and when not to say anything. So, during the motion capture process, I say nothing. I say: “Do what you want to do right now I’m going to book a studio for you, and I’ll book the space and set up all the equipment, I can be in the room or out the room, can give feedback if you want it, but you lead.” In SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE (2021) all that motion capture was done with no input from me. They asked me if I could write a list, so I wrote a list.

YOU DONT HAVE TO PASS/A tribute to Black Trans Family, part of a mural in collaboration with Calvin Klein in August. ©Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley

JLET: Is there music for those folks in the studio?

DBS: If they want it. I don’t give them anything apart from what they want from me. I want to try to capture them in their essence because something that’s a big myth is that the way people process information is not an important thing to be archived. And when you give someone the chance to just do whatever they want, that’s a chance to just see how they process that moment. I capture (what) is innately them, and anytime I’m adding feedback I’m making it ‘less them’ — which is not what I want when I stitch this all together. Where I really become a director is when I get all the data, all the archive material and I say: “How can I make this make sense in terms of the story?” My job is not to direct them as individuals, but to direct how the data flows and how it’s being fed to the viewer.

JLET: A lot of the text in the game space is lyrical. You describe the landscape for the audience in a form that not only defines the physicality but also mood and tone. Do you write poetry? What is your writing process?

DBS: Oh god, the writing process is the hardest thing. It’s even hard to describe. It’s not a great process. Usually, I’ll have something on my mind, for example in BLACK TRANS SEA there’s a scene where if you choose “the Black Trans” option or the option “where your ancestors are carried across the sea”. There’s a scene where you can listen to people on the boat, and they sing this song about being a Black trans mum. It’s one of my favorite scenes, but difficult because at the time I was thinking what it actually meant to be a Black trans mum, having recently become a mum myself. And I couldn’t really put it into words because I didn’t quite understand how I did feel yet.

I’m worried about what becoming a mother means outside of this parenthood, this communication between me, my child, and the co-parent. The first thing I wrote was: “I’m a Black Trans mum” over and over and over again.

No other words came to me until I sang it repeatedly. And then I played it back to myself and pressed record and everything I sang is what the song became. Often the writing process doesn’t start and end; it starts, and another kind of process takes over to finish it because I think I have a problem in trying to get everything out, something stops me when I’m trying to get everything down. Maybe I don’t think my writing is good enough. That’s when the music takes over and says: “Whatever comes out of your mouth will be the take, just do it.”

JLET: There’s a line from that game: “Will I lie to my daughter or tell her the truth?” How has your work changed since becoming a parent?

DBS: Obviously there’s less time in the studio. She’s become a big part of the work, too, as a lot of the motion capture done for my most recent game, BLACK TRANS SEA, was done holding her. Which is why this first character you see is bobbing up and down, because I was on the bouncy ball with my child. She’s become a huge part of it, I’ve made songs of her in it. A lot of the videos I have now is her crying or laughing in the background. I really like working with materials where I just don’t know if they’re going to be useful at all. She’s become a permanent fixture in all the work, and I think everything I’ve made has her in it now. In one of the games, I made a room that’s a tribute to her. In the other one, she’s a hologram. One of my dreams is to have her there when we have a show. It’s a fairly simple dream, having her run around the show when we open and causing a ruckus. That’s my star curator, the only person I want to see and be in the room. Who I’m making the work for has changed. Instead of just the people in the present I’m thinking about her in the future, others like her in the future, whether she is trans or not. You’re part of the history I’m in so I need to make sure that I can include you — and you can feel included.

Game Space Still from SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE ©Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley

JLET: What is the research process like for you in, for example, the textbased adventure game BLACK TRANS SEA. There’s so much historical material there. Are you a research person?

DBS: I was listening to a podcast about pirates. I only had experience of pirates from (the motion picture series) Pirates of the Caribbean. I learned that countries used pirates almost like a special force, to cover up crimes they wanted to do elsewhere. And that’s where I also learned that they had their own code; the captain wrote it, and everyone would go by that code. So, theoretically you could have a Black ship, and everyone would have to be Black and trans(gender) and must treat everyone with respect. You could have a code like that. But at the same time, I was also reading how there was a history of Black people and water before slavery. And how Black people were used as sailors and fisher people and had such great skills on the water and now we don’t have any of that information.

A lot of my research went into recreating a story on water for us that wasn’t centered on pain or slavery. Even now there are large parts of America (USA) where Black people don’t have access to water or white people restrict Black people’s access as a way to get rid of them.

I didn’t want to make a project that was about pain. Instead: an alternative history which was just a straightforward history of reacting to water. To change the lens.

JLET: It’s a transcendent history. Something that is everpresent in your work is grief and longing. When I’m inside your game spaces, I often feel this longing. Especially in Let Us Keep The Memory of You Now You are Gone (2018) there’s a line: “We are here because of those that are not.” How do you approach grief in your work?

DBS: The first thing is not waiting to recreate the moment of trauma that made the grief happen. And the second way, while holding that, is that I want to build a whole world in which this wouldn’t happen. Because this happened, everything changes. The game I CAN’T REMEMBER A TIME I DIDN’T NEED YOU (2020) was made after a time in which my friend passed away. That game is made by me following my friend’s journey to that city and that whole city being completely changed because of their death. And there is this fog that comes up and destroys anyone that would have made this death happen or allowed this death to happen.

Grief is used as a moment to make something better, to say “This could not be the end” or “Because of this death, everything must change to make it better.”

Although there is a lot of grief in the work, I don’t think the work is very traumatic. It doesn’t show scenes that are horrible or violent or painful to watch. It feels like someone’s holding your hand through it. And it carries you to an end which is usually much lighter than the beginning. That’s a very consistent theme: you’re not alone. You start alone with the grief and at the end it’s turned into some sort of celebration in which the world I’m making is better or more supportive.

JLET: That’s a very Black diaspora thing, African diaspora, Caribbean diaspora. Black American Southern experience which is my upbringing. Transforming grief. The funerals are a celebration.

DBS: When someone dies in a Caribbean family — my family — the funerals become a learning experience of that person’s life. Everyone’s taking the piss out of them and they’re dead. It’s such a strange moment in that this person is no longer here and you learn about ‘the good’, ‘the bad’, ‘the ugly’ — every single thing. Not just how this person died. “Let me tell the length and history of who this person actually was for you to judge who they actually were and for us to celebrate.” We’re crying and laughing at the same time.

JLET: Do you identify as an Afrofuturist, meaning someone who subscribes to the Afrofuturism movement of using science or technology to reimagine the history of the African diaspora?

DBS: No! I love Afrofuturism. I don’t want to take that space. It’s a very beautiful space but I don’t think that’s exactly what I’m doing. But if Afrofuturism is leaving markers in the present for those in the future to look back on, then yes. In some way I want to leave a mark for Black trans people to look back and say: “Oh, you did that as a starting point, I can do better.” Or: “That’s an alternative way of looking at a future we can work towards.”

JLET: I see your game spaces as a guide for time travel. I saw the interview3 that you shared with Muriel Tramis, the first Black female game designer. I’ll end by asking the question that was the title of the series: How does game design manifest the future?

DBS: Muriel Tramis has done what I wanted to do from 1987 when she made the game Méwilo4, a story on her home island about how slaves were used to bury gold and then was killed and never found. The history of the island and the volcano. She archived all of that in her game. She’s literally used gaming to archive this story she’s been told her entire life. At the genesis of gaming, the same year Super Mario Bros. (1985) was released. When I heard about Muriel Tramis, I thought this means it can work! It has already been done. There is a lineage to it. Thank God, and the lineage is amazing. The aesthetics already exist. Seeing her aesthetics of archiving Black people in a digital form that’s interactive was just outstanding to me. Making sure she tells the story of her people in her language from her childhood to adulthood as a tripleA developer in the mainstream. It was a confirmation that this medium is ours. At the genesis of gaming, we were already there.

Go to the latest game at https://www.blacktranssea.com ©Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley

First published in Billedkunst #4, 2021.

1 Sara Ahmed (2020), ‘Ideas of Queer Use’, Irish Museum of Modern Art Magazine (IMMA), 12 April 2020. The article can be read here: Imma.ie
2 Motion capture refers to a group of technologies that records the movements of people and objects and transfers the corresponding data to another application. To capture motion, sensors are placed all over an actor. These track and record their movements, allowing them to be mapped on a computer screen in real time as a virtual ‘skeleton’.
3 “HOW DOES GAME DESIGN MANIFEST THE FUTURE”, Art + Technology, season 4, episode 7, part 1, YouTube online video channel, 12 September 2021: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiKPlTTacsM
4 Muriel Tramis (1988), Méwilo. See Hall Of Light online platform: http://hol.abime.net/4767

Author’s note:
The conversation has been edited for clarity and coherence.