IIt's a quiet morning in a London gallery studio voltaire And Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley invited me to prototype her latest artwork. It's a horror-inspired video game in which players fight to overcome the issues holding them back, from fear of failure to addiction. This is also the centerpiece of her first organized solo exhibition with the theme of change. I worked on the game, but by the fourth round I was still crap. Artificial screams echo around the empty gallery. “That must be super difficult!” laughs Brathwaite-Shirley. “It's all based on what I'm trying to overcome or have overcome. It didn’t take one turn, it took many.”
The Rebirthing Room is Brathwaite-Shirley's latest participatory work. The idea came to me after a conversation with a curator about the usefulness of Art Her Gallery. “We were talking about how we could do more with the space. What could we do with it other than just showcasing work?” she says. “That’s when I thought, “It would be great if you came to the gallery and left a different person.'
The 29-year-old started making interactive art in 2020 after misguided comments from visitors made her question the purpose of her work. At the time, her portfolio consisted of videos and animations documenting her London burlesque scenes and her black transgender peers. The work, rendered in what she describes as her “beautiful retro aesthetic,” created an alternate reality for community members. It is an unconventional archival method to fill in the blind spots in historical records. “Someone said to me, “I really like your work because it allows me to be visual and ignore what you're saying,'' Brathwaite-Shirley recalls. “I thought, “This is the best feedback of my life, because I can't do that anymore!''
Since then, she has started incorporating choices made by the audience to advance the work. In 2022 she released her Get Home Safe, an arcade her-style game inspired by her own experiences wandering around Berlin at night. The player is tasked with guiding the protagonist safely through dark streets. Meanwhile, “I Can't Follow You Anymore,” released in browser-based last year, asks audiences to navigate a revolution and decide who will be saved or sacrificed. “In interactive work, you have to make an effort to see something,” she says. “What fascinates me is the choices people make and the feelings they leave behind. I think that's when the real works of art start to emerge.”
Keen to prioritize content over aesthetics, Brathwaite-Shirley's new work takes advantage of the rudimentary pre-rendered graphics of early computer games. It's intentionally lo-fi, built from 2D animation, iPad drawings, and old software, with a VHS-style finish. The forest grass on the screen is made from edited photographs of her hands, and the sounds are an extension of her archival project, developed from recordings of her screaming into her mobile phone. . “I never want to touch this super shiny stuff,” she says. “I like to make people's brains work a little bit more.”
With disorienting sound effects and low lighting, Rebirthing Room is a fully immersive experience. Surrounding the screen and handmade controllers operated by the audience are giant trees covered in cloth and rows of real corn, a reference to the horror movies she grew up watching.
“What I love about horror is that it makes you want to experience experiences and emotions that you would never experience in normal life,” she says. “If a movie is really good, there's something about it that sticks around. It's that perfect balance of being really scary, but also interesting enough to keep you watching.”
In addition to being a nifty device to “fool” viewers into their own values and beliefs, Brathwaite-Shirley's digital universe, full of demons, villains, and gore, is well-suited to the current climate. You can feel it when you are there. She says it's important to highlight not only the hostility from her outsider group, but all the “nasty nuances” that exist within her own self. She said: “I feel like we're in a very censored time; [where] Even speaking about views that your particular political group subscribes to feels dangerous because you feel like you have to say it the way they want to hear it. Therefore, for me, presenting a utopia in the environment we are currently in is a huge waste. ”
Challenging audiences is something she would like to see more of in the art world, but she feels it prioritizes too much of a fun, Instagram-friendly experience. Her purpose is not to make her people enjoy her own work. She finds the more visceral and emotional responses more interesting. She told me that when she finishes a show with nothing but praise, she feels like her work is of no use.
She is interested in how viewers will respond to Room of Rebirth. Will they play until they succeed? Or will they just give up like I did? only time will tell. “I’m looking forward to seeing how we can go even further next time,” she says.