SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley @ Arebyte
Emoji summary: 🔫🌀😶🌫️
The gallery is low lit, spotlights on steel floor panels. The room feels cool, industrial and clean. I am at Arebyte to see Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s show, SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE. There are some red curtains and a sign warning you that your actions will be watched on the other side, there are cameras broadcasting to twitch. I peel the curtains apart and enter. A floor to ceiling screen faces me, the light reflects off the steel floor.
To the right there’s a plastic gun. It’s bubblegum pink with a bright yellow zipper running in a stripe across the middle. It looks fun, like a fun toy in fun colours. It’s resting in a black velvet cushion, there’s a perfect shape hollowed out for it to nestle into. I pick it up and it is light in my hand. It’s long, like a shotgun, and the butt is a bobbly chewed up texture. Along the side, where you’d load the magazine, there’s a strip of yellow text protruding: ‘HOW DO WE PROTECT OURSELVES’. Well… with this, surely? I know it’s a toy, it’s too light and plastic so it must be hollow. But it’s a game, right? We’re only playing.
Music is blaring out the speakers. I look back up at the screen. There’s a menu with the exhibition title in green text: SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE. This is a first person shooter game, arcade vibes where you can have a go at being Rambo. It’s a format you probably know from your childhood or adolescence. I remember playing zombie shooters with my friends, sticky arcade carpets, sugar high from slush puppies and aerosol high from impulse body spray. SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE, it feels like the name is an instruction. Because that’s the aim of the game. You’ve got to protect black trans people, with a gun. I’m not being cocky, but I’m a good shot. I have good aim, good reflexes. I can do that. I want to do that.
I shoot the screen to start and three heads pop up. All three voices speak at once, in tandem. They say, ‘DON’T SHOOT’. I pause, I’m standing incredibly still. They continue.
I WANT YOU TO LOOK AT THE GUN YOU ARE HOLDING AND THINK ABOUT WHY YOU WERE EXCITED TO BE PLAYING A GAME WHICH HAS A GUN AS A CONTROLLER. WHY IS IT SO EASY TO SHOOT THINGS IN A GAME. WHY DOES THAT FEEDBACK FEEL SO GOOD. IN THIS GAME I WANT YOU TO FEEL NERVOUS TO PULL THE TRIGGER. I WANT YOU TO THINK ABOUT EVERY SINGLE MOMENT THAT TRIGGER IS PULLED AND IF YOU MADE THE RIGHT OR WRONG DECISION. THERE ARE THREE LEVELS TO CHOOSE FROM AND YOU HAVE TO SHOOT THE RIGHT THINGS IN ORDER TO GET THE GOOD ENDING. BUT IT IS UP TO YOU TO DECIPHER WHO TO SHOOT. YOU HAVE TO DETERMINE AND JUDGE WHO NEEDS TO BE REMOVED BY YOUR HANDS. DOING NOTHING IS NOT AN OPTION HERE. YOU’RE EXPECTED TO DO THE HARD WORK HERE. YOU ARE EXPECTED TO PUT ENERGY IN HERE. YOU ARE EXPECTED TO SHOOT PEOPLE. LET’S JUST HOPE YOU CHOOSE THE RIGHT ONES. SELECT YOUR LEVEL.
I wasn’t nervous until just now. Now you’ve mentioned it, I am quite nervous actually. The gun feels heavier in my hand. I feel guilty for not taking this very seriously before. I feel like I’ve been told off, like something deflated within me. How did the game know I was genuinely excited to hold the gun? That I was excited to play, excited to prove myself?
The level screen pops up and I have a choice: underwater, city or dungeon. How did the game know that sometimes I close my eyes and dream about real life violence? That sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat from the scene unfolding before me? That’s fine, that’s normal. I think everyone has dreams like that sometimes. I am only a passenger to these dreams.
I choose the city. Maybe it wasn’t speaking directly to me. Everyone is angry nowadays. I have been very angry for a lot of my life. I think I dream of real life violence when I feel powerless. I want to exert force, press my knuckles into the velvet soft crunch of cartilage as a way to feel powerful. Because combat is a harsh meritocracy of the body.
The game zooms into the player’s body. My palms start to sweat, my face feels flushed, I am hotter than I was before. It’s up to me to decipher who to shoot? I don’t know how I’ll choose, what information I’m meant to pay attention to, how I’m meant to make that kind of decision. I dream of real life violence, my hand against the sturdy curve of a windpipe. I used to be so angry all the fucking time. It was an energy that had to go somewhere, inside or out. This is a game, but it feels heavy. My decisions have the weight of judgment. I have to slow myself down with second guessing. And what even is a good ending? What is The Good Ending? I’m nervous and scared. I don’t want to fuck up but I don’t know how to NOT fuck up.
Narrative text pops up, sets the scene: YOU TOOK THE BUS TO THE CITY AT NIGHT. The city opens out in front of us. It’s all wide brown roads and nondescript shopfronts, nightclubs, anonymous buildings. A heavy dark yellow sky hangs low and present overhead, the colour of dehydrated piss, slightly green. This is an alienating city, I think.
The field of vision starts moving. We swing round, and see figures. Some are these enormous stony liquid bodies, formless and flowing with large pointed heads. Some are basic bodies with swollen red limbs and ridged torsos, smooth heads. I don’t know what they are, I don’t know what they mean. I have no way to read them, no way to discern if I should shoot or not. What happens if I shoot them, and they’re the people I’m meant to be protecting? What will happen to me then? What happens if I fuck up?
The game gave me an objective: ‘MAKE THE BUILDING SAFE FOR BLACK TRANS PEOPLE’. Everything becomes a blur. I panic. My hands are sweating, trembling, my finger is slippy on the trigger. I have to make a choice because the field of vision is swinging around, and if I do nothing I will lose too. I have to do the hard work. I line up the red crosshairs and shoot at a red-limbed figure. My heart is pounding in my chest, my breath is shaky. There’s a flash of yellow. The counter at the top of the screen flips from 0 to 1. It was the right call. This cool wave of relief washes over me, I exhale and unclench.
There are a few more of these figures all scattered around. They’ve got to go. I can take them out too. I have good aim and I can do that. Is this what power is? When people talk about agency, is this what they mean and is this what it feels like? The power to act, the power to take action. Now I’ve got it in my hands, I can see that it’s a specific kind of action. The power to take an action that will have affect. I shoot and shoot and shoot. The yellow flashes fill the screen, the number at the top goes up to 12. This must be what power feels like.
That’s when the viewpoint swings round into a different kind of space. Different figures pop into view. I am trigger happy, cocky from the bloodlust rush. As I’m shooting, I don’t notice that some of the figures I’m shooting have faces. They move differently, it’s so slight. But after a couple of shots, I think I hear a scream over the music. I look up to the top of the screen and I’m in minus numbers now. I don’t know how that happened. I don’t know who I just shot, but it was the wrong person. I killed the people I was meant to be protecting. I killed a lot of them, surely, for my hit count to plummet this low. It’s just a game, but I feel real dread, real sadness. I’ve got to keep shooting so I can make up for it, make it better. But I am fighting back tears now, and I can’t really see the screen too good. I know it’s just a game but I’m crying in the gallery because I don’t know what happens when you fuck up, but I think I’m about to find out.
The game switches. The crosshairs disappear and it pulls me out. A tentacled monster appears, close up and then the viewpoint zooms back. The monster is shovelling blood and guts into its disgusting gaping mouth. There are plates in its many tentacled hands, and it is feeding from them all at once. The game tells me I’ve fucked up.
YOUR ACTIONS HAVE MIMICKED THE DANCE OF WHITE SUPREMACY. YOU LAID THE TABLE AND NOW YOU’RE WATCHING IT EAT. WATCHING IT GROW. EACH ONE OF THESE PLATES REPRESENTS A GROUP THAT WHITE SUPREMACY FEEDS ON.
I feel sick and dizzy. I’m not exaggerating, the full force of my failure hits me. It’s been a long time since I felt grief, but I remember it feeling a bit like this. Heavy, bad, slow mo. I wanted to be the hero. I want to be a good ally, an accomplice. I want to help those who are powerless because I know what it feels like, to swallow an anger that has no release valve. I dream of real life violence because that is where anger goes when it has nowhere else to escape to. But what is violence? Is it destructive desire? Is it about affect, power, hurt, intention? Is violence an action? Like a verb, doing word. Do you have to enact it or can violence happen in being still, doing nothing? Do I have to mean it? Can violence be a mistake?
We all want to be good allies, be helpful, make change. Danielle handed me a gun and asked me to get on with it. It is more comforting to think about yourself as a person that takes action. Actual action is hard. I want to be the hero, but that desire is still something that needs to be inspected. Desire alone isn’t good enough, because in reality it only amounts to wishful thinking. Desire has to make the transition into action, it has to be manifested - by me. I have to make it real. And where does that desire even come from? Is it a benevolent intention to do good, or am I a morally grey hero? If I dream of real life violence, am I just using this as a way to make myself feel better about my destructive impulses? Am I just looking for a way to release my anger and be congratulated for it?
The monster fades out to a screen full of red squirming tissue, bodies or guts. YOUR ACTIONS HAVE CAUSED YOU TO BE REMOVED. YOU HAVE FAILED TO SUPPORT BLACK TRANS LIFE HERE. YOU MUST LEAVE. YOU DON’T DESERVE TO BE HERE.
I have to find my own answers. The game won’t provide them. I’m used to having my hand held a bit more than this. I’m used to tutorial screens, screen recorded walk throughs and cheat codes - I’m a lazy gamer. This game isn’t invested in my success within it. It doesn’t care about me feeling accomplished, completing the levels or even having a good time. This isn’t fun. Every decision I’ve made has been full of fear and dread. Even when I figured out that the red-limbed figures had to go, I still second guessed myself. What if there was someone I was meant to protect in the crowd or caught in the crosshairs, what if I jump the gun and misidentify someone as a threat, what if I take action before realising what it fully means, what if I’m too slow? This is a losing game. But if I give in and accept the inevitability of my failure, I feel like that is even worse. Trying and failing is well intentioned but collapsing into apathy feels morally bankrupt, especially when I have been given explicit instructions. USE THIS GUN TO PROTECT BLACK TRANS PEOPLE. It is worse to never even try, worse to cling to your own safety, worse to never take the risk because even if I fuck up, it’s not me dying.
The game returns to the menu screen. I choose the dungeon. I shoot and shoot and shoot. I fail again. This time my minus number is even lower. I feel sick, I’m sweating. I go back to the city. I think I can make good on my second go, I can learn from my failure. I don’t. I fail again. My number isn’t in the negatives, but I’ve been too hesitant to shoot. My lack of action means I still fail. I knew that could happen, but I let doubt creep into my decision making anyway.
In the midst of all my failures I start to realise: the game isn’t the hostile entity. It’s me. I’m the one that’s a safety risk, I’m the liability and the threat. The game let me in, offered me a chance to help, gave me very clear instructions. I failed and failed and failed. I’m not the hero, I’m the antagonist. It isn’t real, it’s just a game. I was prepared for a fun time. I entered into the liminal in between space of the game’s world with a kind of arrogance. I dream of real life violence, but this isn’t what I wanted at all. I assumed this wasn’t serious, that I would be able to point and shoot and never have to think about my mistakes. If you’re playing a game, the very format kind of implies that the stakes are low. It’s a game, you’re just playing. I never really bothered to think about having responsibility for my actions. It didn’t occur to me until the game booted up and made every single one of my choices heavy with accountability and consequence. Now I have to think about my failures to protect the black trans people I was tasked with keeping alive, but also, my failures are being broadcast to Twitch. It isn’t the discrete failure of stumbling over a pavement slab, other people can see that I have let people die. I don’t resent the game for this. I think this feels like a kind of dark justice. I think this is a haunting, where the ghosts of those I have failed follow close behind.
There’s one last level I haven’t tried: the underwater level. I try and toe the line, shoot carefully and watch for consequence with even more care and attention. I don’t know what it must be like, to be an actual soldier, an actual shooter. But I feel a hypersensitive awareness to everything on the screen. I am concentrating with a kind of painful intensity. I lose my own body in this focus. I go blank, become a vessel for the images and sounds playing out on screen. I almost don’t want to tell you this, because it would be embarrassing to present this information like it’s a happy ending. But finally, on the underwater level, I got The Good Ending. I shot on target, eliminated enough of the threat. It wasn’t a perfect run, I still shot some people I should have been protecting, but I made up for it. That sounds so fucked up to say, like what kind of cosmic score system even is that? But I didn’t really care about it being fucked up. I wasn’t concerned with the morals of the game doing all this to me. I believed it.
At some point in all my runs through the different levels, I forgot that SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE was just a game. It stopped feeling like fiction or theatre or art, the distance between me and this work just collapsed up as it swallowed me. Immersive feels like a flimsy word, it doesn’t quite describe the way this game literally absorbed me into itself, the way I was so completely inside it. After the heavy lesson of failure after failure, eventually I started taking it seriously. I stopped dismissing it as Just A Game, I suspended my disbelief and entered into it with willing sincerity, falling headfirst into the ride I had to take myself on. SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE didn’t transport me, it asked me to transport myself. I wasn’t a passive recipient, I wasn’t experiencing things, things weren’t enacted upon me. I picked up the gun and I had to take action again and again and again. I had to do it right, carefully, with focus and clarity. If the game asked me to say BLACK TRANS POWER, I said BLACK TRANS POWER. If the game asked me to say it again with my chest, then I repeated it louder, firmer. As it judged me for the weight of my decisions, I opened myself up to its scrutiny.
I didn’t want to stop. I felt like I still had something to prove, to myself or to the game or the anonymous people watching on Twitch. But I also want to go out on a win. I don’t want to find out if that was a fluke. I put the gun down into its velvet casing, walk out into the cool early evening air. This part of London is so weird - City Island and Canning Town. It’s all motorways and overpasses. Low tide riverbeds, high rise new builds, empty courtyards with manicured grass. It’s a kind of city space that doesn’t feel real at the best of times, but as I try and reenter real life, it feels even more uncanny. I focus on the feeling of the wind on my face as I walk down the empty streets. Over a bridge, I stop halfway. The wind picks up again, it stings my eyes with the force and the cold. They feel red from the low light and bright screen. The sky is red too, blushing as the sun sets to meet me. I dream of real life violence. It’s a premonition. A sign of unrequited anger, violent desire that has nowhere to go. That’s for the best. It can’t stay in, it can’t go out, but it must go somewhere. Maybe dreams are the best place for it. Dreams are a liminal in between space, a sticky middle where you suspend your disbelief and become a passive subject. I do not trust myself to take action. A dream is just a dream, it’s not real life. I would rather be the passenger.
SHE KEEPS ME DAMN ALIVE is on until 5th March 2022, at Arebyte. There’s a lot of extra content around the show, including a conversation between Gab & Danielle, where they play Apex & chat through some thoughts - I recommend watching it because it’s really interesting and insightful! You can watch it here, and there are a few other videos on Arebyte’s Youtube channel here.