Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley On Video Games, Empathy and the Role of Discomfort in Art

"I’m not sure I need everyone to come and be on my side. I just need them to be more aware of what they’re doing"

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley puts a lot of effort into installations with the expectation that audiences will put in just as much or even more. The artist, who prefers not to use pronouns, creates works focused on Black trans experiences that actively engage viewers in a way that upends the traditional gallery narrative. “Usually the artist works and works and works,” Brathwaite-Shirley explains, “and the viewer says ‘Thank God someone put all the work into this so I can just take it in.”

A woman wearing a headscarf sits on a swing in a dark space
Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley. Rob Battersby Photography

By making audiences active participants—as choice makers in the artist’s video game installations, they become part of those installations—Brathwaite-Shirley pushes them to reckon with art in a way that isn’t necessarily enjoyable but is illuminating. “I think it helps visitors really think about what it means to live outside themselves,” said Haley Clouser, an assistant curator at SCAD Museum of Art, which is currently hosting the artist’s second solo exhibition in the U.S., “GET HOME SAFE,” curated by Brittany Richmond.

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“GET HOME SAFE” is immersive, participatory and unabashedly discomfiting. In the installation, which includes text-based animations and a playable video game—viewers explore what it means to walk home at night in certain bodies—a potentially eye-opening journey for those with bodies that allow for nighttime strolling with no baggage attached.

Observer caught up with Brathwaite-Shirley at the SCAD Museum in Savannah to talk about video games as art, using discomfort as a tool and more.

How did “GET HOME SAFE” come to be?

This whole show was made because of my experience on this particular street in Berlin I’d walk down, where I kept getting catcalled and stopped. Sex work is legal in Berlin to an extent, and I think because I was trans, they all thought I was a sex worker. It happened often enough that I was worried about my safety a little bit, and I started making these songs so that when I was walking home I could pretend I was on the phone. Then I needed a place to put them, and this game about getting home safe and the potential dangers of walking home alone at night started developing out of that.

Eventually, I started building a whole show around it, but the aesthetic, which is very tech-space, all came from research into the first video games. The first games came out of universities and they were on computers that didn’t have graphics systems, just text, and developers started making graphics out of the text. For me, there’s something amazing about that—to use language and conversation in a way that it’s not necessarily meant to be used. I built a system that converted 3D images into text, and everything kind of snowballed from there into this text-based world built around getting home safe.

An installation view of Brathwaite-Shirley’s ‘Get Home Safe’ in SCAD Museum of Art’s Experimental Gallery. Aman Shakya / Photography Courtesy of SCAD

I know you work in several mediums, but you gravitate toward the digital and video games in particular. What do video games offer as a medium that’s so compelling?

For me, it’s about being active. I often think in gallery spaces, we are very passive observers—we go through, we see something, we appreciate it and we also throw our own references on top of it. Why it’s meaningful to us lies in our passive interpretation of it. With a video game, you actively have to start it, stop it, fail at it, restart it, and there’s a correlation between how you played it, how much you played it, whether you tried again after you lost and your experience. There’s something about that work ethic— you have to work with the art to get something out of it.

That’s something I really, really enjoy, but I don’t often see art that has any agency when it’s put in a gallery. Most art is very much based on the pleasure of the viewer’s experience. Even if the art is hard to look at, the viewer is put in a comfortable position of seeing everything without doing anything. With video games, you have to take action. I want to see that in galleries, rather than just things that are ghosted through. Something about the video game engine for me makes the choices have a lot more impact; a video game makes you feel a lot more and think a lot more about yourself rather than the artist. That separation is important.

You mention comfort as a potential negative—what role would you say discomfort plays in your work?

The work I referenced is mostly done inside of the audience. The work is the thing that you feel inside of you and the decisions that you start making in that space. The best way to prompt that was to immediately throw off the idea of what a gallery experience should be like. That’s why the walls in “GET HOME SAFE” are painted black. It’s super dark in here. You really can’t take a good picture of anything, and there are terms of conditions for the work, which makes no sense. It’s not something you usually have to think about; here you have to consider why you’re in the space, and I think that discomfort sets you up to think about yourself. Then that’s the reference I’m putting on you, instead of you coming in and putting your own reference on a bit of paint. Your discomfort guides your understanding of the work.

I was constantly finding that with work about people who are trans or Black or women or anyone who is not like the stereotypical neutral idea of what an artist is, there was a degree of separation. Something amazing about artists who don’t have that is that they can get into the audience a little bit more and the audience starts thinking about themselves rather than looking at it from a distance. It’s no longer ‘Wow, that’s so tough for them’ because the discomfort allows the viewer to start questioning their own life choices: who they are, what they’ve done and if the work is about them, too. It just gives a bit more breadth to the experience versus a passive experience.

‘GET HOME SAFE’ comes with a disclaimer. Aman Shakya / Photography Courtesy of SCAD

Your work touches on very complex issues of identity and experience. Do you think art itself can lead people to experience real empathy for another person or is it more of a gateway?

I work in games but my main medium is the audience—I’m painting with the audience, but my goal isn’t to paint a picture that says, ‘Feel for me; I’ve had such a hard life.’ I’m not interested in you having a pity party. I don’t care about that. And it’s also not really about you forming empathy towards me. It’s about you—a window or a mirror into yourself because you’re having to make those choices and then the work you’re doing should hopefully reflect those choices back at you.

And I do think generally that art is able to accomplish that, but I also don’t think many artists now even try to do it, to be honest. I think it’s much more of a kind of self-advertisement. Let’s make it pretty for Instagram. Let’s sell as many copies as we can. And that is just the world. Nothing negative or positive about that, it’s just the world we’re in. But for me, the most important thing is that you leave my exhibit thinking about yourself within a particular scenario.

Here, it’s about getting home safe. It’s a concept everyone can associate with and understand, and I’m hoping that the art does inspire a change in the individual—not necessarily positive change for my community but hopefully positive for the people around them. I’m not sure I need everyone to come and be on my side. I just need them to be more aware of what they’re doing. For me, it’s not a conversion. It’s not a change. It’s not about the adaptation of an individual. It’s a stopping moment where I can reflect some of your choices back at you. Who are you? And did you even think about making those choices?

Have people responded to your work differently in the U.S. versus in other parts of the world?

Yes, and no. I think words mean so much in the U.S. You can have one simple sentence and people go nuts. In Europe, people don’t really care. People here, because it’s so hard, are looking for a space anywhere. What I find fascinating is that a gallery can be that space that you want to come back to. I don’t think America has many of these social spaces where people can go and feel like they’re being represented or feel like it’s theirs.

That’s something I’ve begun to adapt my practice to: seeing what a space can be. For example, although I was using all these game engines, I realized that people like the game engines and they like the experience, but they also feel detached, like they don’t feel they could ever get into them. I also felt the same way at one point and taught myself to do everything that’s in here. In response, something I’m starting to put in galleries is a room where people can learn those skills, too, as part of the work. Then it’s not just about coming and liking and leaving, but coming, liking and taking something back with you that you can use for yourself. I want to build a legacy of people making something.

I think something galleries fail at is empowering people because often mediums are so abstract and you don’t know where to start—especially with digital work. I’m working towards giving all the assets of the game away for free so you can use them, giving you the foundation so you can edit it and there’s no copyright and you can do what you like. What we’re moving towards is this space where not only are people thinking about themselves but also about how they might use the same tactics I’m using in their own communities.

GET HOME SAFE” is on view at the SCAD Museum of Art through January 7, 2024.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley On Video Games, Empathy and the Role of Discomfort in Art