“It’s meant to be challenging!” – the digital game that compels you to confront your inner struggles.
On a peaceful morning at Studio Voltaire, a London gallery, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley invites me to test her newest artwork. It’s a video game inspired by horror that challenges players to conquer their personal obstacles, such as fear of failure or addiction. This piece is the centerpiece of her first solo exhibit in an institutional setting, centered around the theme of transformation. I struggle with the game, but even after four rounds, I have not improved; the sound of artificial screams fills the empty gallery. Brathwaite-Shirley laughs, “It’s meant to be extremely difficult! It’s based on my own experiences of overcoming challenges. It didn’t happen in one try, but through many attempts.”
The newest piece by Brathwaite-Shirley, The Rebirthing Room, was inspired by a discussion with a curator about the purpose of art galleries. Instead of just showcasing a piece, they explored ways to make the space more impactful. This led to the idea of transforming visitors into different individuals before leaving the gallery.
After receiving a comment from a visitor that made her question the purpose of her work, the 29-year-old artist began creating interactive pieces in 2020. Her previous portfolio consisted of videos and animations showcasing the London burlesque scene and her Black transgender community. These were presented in a visually appealing “retro-aesthetic” style, offering a different perspective on archiving to fill in the gaps in historical records. Recounting the comment that sparked a change in her approach, Brathwaite-Shirley explains, “Someone told me they enjoyed my work because they could focus on the visuals and ignore the message. That was the best feedback I’ve ever received…because I can no longer do that.”
From that point onward, she began incorporating options for viewers to select in order to advance through the piece. In 2022, she unveiled Get Home Safe, a video game reminiscent of arcade style, which was inspired by her own personal experiences of walking through the streets of Berlin at night. In this game, players are challenged to guide the main character safely through dark streets. Additionally, her browser-based project from last year, titled I Can’t Follow You Anymore, tasks the audience with navigating a revolution and making decisions about who will be saved or sacrificed. She explains, “In interactive works, one must put effort in to truly see anything. It’s the choices people make and the emotions they take with them that truly fascinate me. That’s when the true artistry begins.”
Focused on emphasizing substance over appearance, the latest creation from Brathwaite-Shirley utilizes basic, pre-rendered graphics reminiscent of early computer games. The intentionally low-resolution aesthetic is achieved through the use of 2D animations, iPad sketches, and outdated software, giving the final product a nostalgic VHS-style look. In fact, even the grass in the virtual forest is constructed from manipulated images of the artist’s hands, while the accompanying sounds are derived from recordings of her own screams into a phone – an extension of her ongoing archival project. “I have no desire to create something overly polished,” she explains. “I prefer to challenge people’s minds a bit more.”
The Rebirthing Room offers a fully immersive experience, enhanced by disorienting sound effects and dim lighting. The audience-operated controller and screens are surrounded by large fabric-draped trees and rows of real corn, paying homage to the horror films of the creator’s childhood.
She explains that the appeal of horror lies in its ability to compel individuals to undergo situations and emotions that they would typically avoid. A well-made film has a captivating quality that keeps the viewer engaged, striking a delicate balance between being terrifying and intriguing.
In addition to serving as an intriguing tool to provoke introspection of personal values and beliefs, Brathwaite-Shirley’s digital realms featuring demons, villains, and violence are fitting for the current state of affairs. Along with facing animosity from external groups, it is crucial to acknowledge the complexities that exist within oneself, she explains. In this highly censored era, even expressing a viewpoint that aligns with one’s political affiliation can feel risky as it must be articulated in a specific manner. Therefore, presenting a utopian vision within our current circumstances seems futile.
She desires to see more provocative content in the art industry, rather than the popular and visually appealing experiences that dominate. Her goal is not to simply please viewers, but to evoke a raw and emotional response. She shares that if her work only receives praise, she believes it has not achieved its purpose.
She wonders how the audience will react to the Rebirthing Room. Will they keep trying until they succeed? Or will they, like myself, give up? Only time will tell. “I’m eager to see how I can challenge it even more next time,” she expresses.