Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s Black Trans Archives

Colonization of the digital space

By Virginia Ivaldi

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Black Trans Archive (2020).Installation Shot. Photo courtesy of the artist.

While digital archives have existed since the internet, the digitalization of art during the pandemic feels like a quick and (too) easy response to this global crisis. This rush towards digitalization has created only flat commodities, undermining the work of artists that have long since relied on the internet to develop and broadcast their work. Virtual spaces, for example, have been used by creatives to give context to the speculative queer theory of fluidity. The post-internet era destroys the boundaries and dualities that have always been challenged by the LGBTQ+ community — online identity, indeed, is inextricable from offline identity and virtual and physical spaces melt in the reality of everyday life. Because virtual spaces have been used by members of the LGBTQ+ community as an alternative to a reality that discriminates them, digitalizing all art and life to respond to a health emergency means to colonize the foreign space of the ‘other’ for the benefit of the dominant classes (white, cisgender, bourgeois).

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s work seeks to archive Black Trans experience and discuss gender and colonialism in online and offline spaces.  The artist employs virtuality as a place for self-narration, which is not limited by a physical body defined by chemical, anatomical, and social fixities. Brathwaite-Shirley’s archives are fully interactive, combining film and gaming, poetry, and music. More than an archive, Brathwaite-Shirley’s artworks are a full world designed to hold Black Trans ancestors, those who have been hidden and buried, “those living, those who have passed, and those that have been forgotten.”[1] Moreover, the archives are interconnected by the notion of Trans Tourism that explores the cultural politics of “din[ing] on Black Trans trauma.”[2] The artist states, “Throughout history, Black Queer and Trans people have been erased from the archives. Because of this, it is necessary not only to archive our existence, but also the many creative narratives we have used and continue to use and to share our experiences.”[3]

Everyone is welcomed to explore Brathwaite-Shirley’s artwork, however, the archives will confront the viewers with their identity, creating multiple experiences that differ depending on the viewer’s identity. Every project by Brathwaite-Shirley starts with a questionnaire about gender and identity as a legitimate form of security against Trans-tourism, to avoid whoever engages with the artwork to consume Black and/or Trans trauma as a commodity the labour of being studied.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Black Trans Archive (2020). Photo courtesy of the artist.

In Black Trans Archive (2020) the artist offers the possibility to explore the archived material after the viewers identify themselves. The storyline of this project unfolds differently depending on whether one identifies as 1. Black and Transgender; 2. Transgender or 3. Cisgender. As a cisgender individual, through entering Brathwaite-Shirley’s universe I am faced with my own privilege and historical fault, rather than with Black Trans trauma. The cisgender player is requested to assist the construction of the archive by using his/her privilege to help the Black Trans community both in the day-to-day and in the resurrection of their ancestors. Task 1 asks the player to resurrect a Trans-Black ancestor while Task 2 asks to help a Black Trans woman walk around undisturbed.  Brathwaite-Shirley explains “My work often has terms and conditions which require you to centre Black Trans people, because if you don’t centre Black Trans people, you are not welcomed to view my work.”[4]

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Black Trans Archive (2020). Photo courtesy of the artist.

Resurrection Lands (2019), is an ongoing archive project that blends queer and postcolonial theory, aiming at resurrecting Black Trans ancestors. However, the project does not ruminate upon Black/ Trans traumas but aims to resuscitate Black Trans ancestors and create a speculative universe that can hold them. The viewer is introduced to Resurrection Lands by a mechanical voice saying “ […] how is it possible to store you in a place that once erased you, so we decided to build this place the Resurrection Lands, an archive designed for you, by others like you […] People found out that we had brought back our Black Trans ancestors and wanted to meet them, so few designed a way for those to access the archive, but not everyone that used the archive had good intentions […] it was misused, hacked, re-appropriated […].”[5] This introduction points out an earlier attempt of cis-gender/white people to invade the sacred space of the Other; the burial ground is a space that some want to explore for their own profit.

In 2021 (two years after the artwork was developed), during the COVID-19 pandemic and after the BLM/TBLM movement exploded, Resurrection Lands assumes new meanings that point to the threat of obsolesce looming over digital art resulting from the over-digitalization of every art form during the lockdowns and the repercussions of using civil rights as an online trend. In Updating to Remain the Same, Wendy Chun describes how updates save things by destroying and writing over the things they resuscitate. The writer explains “what it means when media moves from the new to the habitual–when our bodies become archives of supposedly obsolescent media, streaming, updating, sharing, saving. New media as we are told exists at the bleeding edge of obsolescence. We thus forever try to catch up, updating to remain the same. Meanwhile, analytic, creative, and commercial efforts focus exclusively on the next big thing: figuring out what will spread and who will spread it the fastest.”[6]  Describing politics of colonialism and ‘otherness’, Brathwaite-Shirley’s archives attempt to protect themselves not only from the cultural politics that exploit Black Trans trauma, but also from a new reality built on consumerism dynamics. In front of a reality forged on constant updates, fast-consumerism influences the danger for ‘resurrected’ individuals to be used as a disposable commodity and later being re-buried under millions of data – created for the sustainability of the main class (and of the art luxury market).

Brathwaite-Shirley’s archive projects create a world that can resurrect and hold Black Trans ancestors. While still struggling to bring all the ancestors back to life, the archive project is already threatened by the possibility of being re-buried under millions of data once again, cancelled by constant updates. In 2021, after the lazy decision of digitalizing the world to sustain it as we know it, Brathwaite-Shirley’s artwork highlights a new invasion of privacy, of space, of storage. It symbolizes a loss of trust – there is no solidarity in exploring Black Trans experience, only personal satisfaction. While Black Trans individuals are circulating new discourses, the society they try to change is already thinking about the next big thing.

[1] Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Black Trans Archives, 2020.

[2] Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, “Dining on trauma: Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley talks trans-tourism, motherhood, & being a “Freaky Friday everyday” interview by Tamara Hart, AQNB, August 10, 2020, https://www.aqnb.com/2020/08/10/dining-on-trauma-danielle-brathwaite-shirley-on-trans-tourism-motherhood-and-being-a-freaky-friday-everyday/

[3] Meet the “Artist:Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, QUAD, last modified October 26, 2020, https://www.derbyquad.co.uk/about/news/meet-artist-danielle-brathwaite-shirley

[4] “Meet the Artist: Danielle-Brathwaite Shirley”, QUAD, last modified October 26, 2020, 54s: 1m05s, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fR56AK7Cr5A

[5] Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, Resurrection Lands, 2019.

[6] Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Summary” in Updating to Remain the Same, (MIT press), 2016. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/updating-remain-same

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