SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE, by Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, landed with a bang at arebyte on 18th November 2021.
Continuing arebyte’s 2021 programme Realities, this new exhibition is brimming with energy, vibrancy, and violence. Behind closed curtains, the centre of the exhibition experience is a game experience in the vein of classic 1990s first-person shooters, built around it lie artefacts contributing to an understanding of how to play, win or lose, the game.
Upon entry there is an undeniable and unstoppable pulse carved aurally from musically leaning sound design of the entrance VDU presentation, presented in Arebyte’s typical AV hi-fidelity, beating asynchronously along to a background rhythm of the chaos of the audience engaged out-of-sight in the shoot-em-up action. The sonic plateau of the warzone is not yet visible, but its gunshots are absolutely within earshot.
The entrance presentation, playfully titled Health and Safety greets the audience into the space to both prepare them for the impending violence and disrupt ideas of power; the essence of this work is to present an object of power – the gun, central to the game and concept – and then question whether that possessor of that power has the right to use it.
This initiation to our weaponry also necessarily introduces us to our main character as, both a digital and physical avatar, while the 1990s game aesthetic continues to bestow upon us the Health and Safety guidelines for power and violence; with a contemporary electronic compositional style resplendent with richer detail and a more effective stereo image than the monophonic, 12-bit airline safety videos it intends to parody.
Sliding alongside Health and Safety’s aural beckoning with its metronomic blips, are the timely unravelling of the snake charmer-esque dance of the avatar, presented in the format of a perfectly polygonal 1990s 3D game engine. A nostalgic aesthetic that called to mind hot-to-touch PlayStation 1 consoles with The Prodigy at #1 in the UK music charts.
Adjacent to the digital avatar is the “real deal”: in the non-digital sense at least, where an almost-army camouflaged, and furiously fashionable scarecrow-like figure stands guard by the simultaneously hi and lo-res VDU. The artist’s scarf-clad scarecrow-avatar stands silently and menacingly as overseer of all who dare enter, and this static figure compels the audience to obediently follow the games commands to pause and stare into the yellow dot.
Stare in the yellow dot.
The tension mounts.
Let us meet the violence head on.
A hypnotic rotation is conjured up of the weapon we are to be granted, and this transfer of power and violence, along with commanding and unambiguous instructions set the tone of the show. Receiving instructions. Accepting violence. Following instructions. In Danielle’s world, imperatives, certainties, and uncertainties dance together in a waltz of the metaphor and literal. SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE indeed, and in the game and show there are also the characters who do the exact opposite. It is the mission of the audience to understand who the villains of the piece are.
A spectacular, ritualistic, and beyond-human figure presents an array of tablets depicting the biographies and avatars of a plethora of the creatures and characters that live within the game. A modern mythology is traced through these beasts; and like classic mythology, some of these actors-beasts are benevolent, while the others symbolise grotesque apex-or-otherwise predators rotted down to the kernel.
The act of learning which is itself a performative dance of education on black trans power and white supremacy. Choreographed by gleaned insights into the game’s 3D polygonal creatures: these monsters, metaphors, dancers – what they look like, how to identify them, soaking in how they move, studying how they think, and how their stories and behaviours have built a legacy of history demanding dismantling.
The game itself then challenges the audience to demonstrate through their action and choices that this choreography has been learnt. Upon pushing apart the curtain, and entering the ballet armed with this knowledge, forewarned – and most vitally – forearmed.
So, to the game then, the pivot and Maypole dance through nu-myth and gargoyles.
The 15ft-wide game screen intro is wide and inescapable, paying homage to light-gun staples of the 1990s arcade, with a shooter-and-shot-at configuration, a la Namco’s Time Crisis and Sega’s House of the Dead. One important distinction to make is that the violence exhibited towards us from within the game is almost invisible: in its place an insidious decay into being covered in flies.
Entering the arena of war by pulling aside the curtains, meaty 909 kick drums pound the senses from the off. The audience crowds in a natural semi-circle, keystoned by whoever possesses the gun.
Yes, the gun. That gun. The gun we were taught about during Health and Safety; it is real, and it is loaded. And it is in our hands.
Who do you shoot? How much attention did you pay to your learning before entering the combat zone? Time to find out. There are three levels to play, each with their own psychedelic and pulsating environments populated by Danielle’s beings, swaying both beautifully and terrifying in time with an exquisitely hyper-pop soundtrack.
In-game analysis measures the audience’s actions, like gunshots and toward whom they are aimed at. Ultimately weighing up volumes of violence, non-violence, resulting in either the erosion or permission of white supremacy. The game itself is a paradoxical “safe space” for violence; the underlying tone of instructions on screen seem at odds with the gentle swaying of the creatures. The actions inside the game have consequences, and those bleed out into the “real” world.
Making that real-world – and Danielle’s game world – an inhabitable and safe space for black trans people is the name of the game. There is a lot to learn in this exhibition, an experience which directly and impactfully seizes vital and timeless social problems which demand addressing immediately. Problems which require us all to ask questions of ourselves and of each other.
“Which ones am i supposed to shoot?”
Learn first, shoot later.
Check it out.