A Letter to Inaction

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley at Studio Voltaire

May 21, 2024
By Tram Nguyen


Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, THE REBIRTHING ROOM, 2024. Installation View, Studio Voltaire, London. Commissioned and produced by Studio Voltaire. Courtesy of the artist and Studio Voltaire. Photography Sarah Rainer.

It is 7pm. We are sitting at the cafe at Studio Voltaire waiting for Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s performance to start, which takes place in her solo exhibition, THE REBIRTHING ROOM. A staff member signals that we can enter the space. The exhibition space is dark, lit only by three screens on which Braithwaite-Shirley’s eponymous video game work is projected. We walk through shrubs and angular columns that break up the uniformity of the space, an environment that prepares us for Braithwaite-Shirley’s performance. The columns are covered with images and texts that mirror those in Brathwaite-Shirley’s video game being shown on the screen.

The artist stands at the center of the screens. In front of them are a mic stand and a strange looking console in the shape of a mannequin’s head that is adorned with a headscarf. They are already in the midst of a mesmerizing vocal performance. We slowly take our places, standing and sitting, alone and together, watching in silence, partly hidden in the shadows and partly illuminated by the screens.

Brathwaite-Shirley speaks to us through an audio distorter, their voice distinguishable yet unfamiliar. We listen and try to make out what she is saying. As she continues to speak, the artist asks someone, anyone, to act, to do anything in order for the performance to proceed. We all wait for someone else to make the first move. We are confused in our own inaction until an audience member emerges from the crowd and presses a button on the console to move the performance forward. Thank you, says the artist. This performance, like Brathwaite-Shirley’s other works, confronts our inaction in a world that enacts violence towards Black and Brown Trans bodies. Knowing this, most of us still hesitated to act.

Thus far alone in our discomfort, we are now asked to turn to our neighbor. I’m sitting close to another lone attendee to my left. I turn to my right and see that the next person is too far away and that they are looking in another direction. I turn back to my left. We make friendly, shy, and uneasy eye contact. Brathwaite-Shirley asks us to maintain eye contact, a violently intimate interaction. She asks if we would fight for each other. Uneasy, nervous laughter. Yeah? We shrug and nod, shifting in our discomfort of a collectively shared intimacy in the room.

Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, THE REBIRTHING ROOM, 2024. Installation View, Studio Voltaire, London. Commissioned and produced by Studio Voltaire. Courtesy of the artist and Studio Voltaire. Photography Sarah Rainer.

We play Brathwaite-Shirley’s video game in real time. The artist asks audience members to step up and participate, to prove our willingness to fight for our fortuitously chosen new friends. One by one, we step up into the light of the screens, approaching the console ready to take action. As with Brathwaite-Shirley’s video games, in the performance each player is confronted with choices and pathways. In this performance, they are: addiction, self-doubt, anxiety, fear of failure, low self-esteem, and intolerance, among others. Instead of fighting for each other, the game makes us confront these choices as our own inadequacies. We watch each other navigate through the game’s swamp of darkness as shadowy figures relentlessly attack our characters. Each player uses the console to find their way through the darkness of the game, hoping to protect themselves and kill the ever-present shadows. Throughout the performance, lines of text flash on the screen asking intimately personal and confronting questions, almost therapeutic in their violent rawness. They range from: “Do you feel safe to say what is on your mind?” to “ Do you view transness as a way of living or a way of being?” These questions, which most of us are likely too scared to say aloud in our everyday lives, have now been exposed to collective scrutiny.

In Brathwaite-Shirley’s performance and video game, death and failure appear to be inevitable outcomes. We watch as, one by one, each player succumbs and fails. As we continue to play and witness a losing game, we start to wonder – is the point of Brathwaite-Shirley’s game to win? Isn’t rebirth just death over and over again?

As the evening draws to a close, the artist suggests that they will pick the game’s unchosen and remaining pathways for us. One option states that the artist will sing us love songs. Braithwaite-Shirley picks individuals from the audience, asking them to share their names before looking lovingly and intently at them while singing her digitally distorted and improvised serenades. Finally, a timer starts and audience members are asked to come up to where the artist stood to speak. The timer starts, and the mic is empty. As the timer continues to tick, I watch the empty mic stand anxiously as prompts for conversation topics pop up on the screen. I run up and mumble “I am jealous of AI that gets to write poetry while I file paperwork.” Soon, others walk up to share their thoughts, whether personal and generic. Someone says “Free Palestine.” With 10 seconds remaining, one last person runs up and exclaims “AI will never suck dick better than me!” before we finally finish, sharing in laughter and applause. Through this performative activation of Brathwaite-Shirley’s work, a group of strangers has been collectively rebirthed.

Performance still by Tram Nguyen

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