Resurrection Lands by Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley
Before we officially gave up™️ (recommended coping mechanism for lockdown!) and then caught covid (oh...wait) we went to see 'To Dream Effectively' at Focal Point Gallery, based on the themes of Ursula K. LeGuin's work. We were greatly affected by Danielle Braithwaite-Shirley's 'Resurrection Land'. You can play the work online and we suggest you do so if you haven't already. This writing will be about our thoughts from visiting the irl installation. We hadn't planned to write anything about the work, mainly because we aren't black and because the work says everything it needs to say, but something about the work's framing device stuck in our mind in a way that feels worthwhile putting words to.
'Resurrection Land' is incredibly refreshing because it prefigures its context (in this instance, a white cube public gallery attached to a library in Southend, Essex). It's a celebration of black trans life that also acknowledges the 'awareness' some white, cis, non black people now theoretically have of the oppression black trans women face.
The work speculates on the ways in which 'awareness' can become surveillance and interference by placing us in an imagined world where a black trans cyberspace has been overrun by tourists. On entering the space - of the gallery or the game - one is made aware that if you aren't trans and black you embody the fictional colonisers/tourists of the work.
Like all good sci fi - like Ursula K LeGuin - it uses a speculative space to talk about what's going on now: that black trans people's spaces, language, aesthetics are treated like a theme park by outsiders. This is as much true of the internet we inhabit, where ballroom slang is rebranded as 'internet slang' and the memes, archives and words of black trans people are plundered, as the world the artist has created. Whether we acknowledge it or not we experience a culture shaped by black trans creativity. Many of our ideas of queer 'community' and politics come, famously, from sex working trans women of colour. This in itself has become a disclaimer of a catchphrase, to be said in rooms where the idea of the politics are present but perhaps the sex working trans women of colour are not.
The work answers a question I've been grappling with this year: how do you make trans art that doesn't pander to a cis gaze, that is for trans people, when cis people (and white people) are looking? More than that, when you might need cis, white, upper class people to fund it, approve it, allow it?
Danielle's work manages to hold both things at once - it is an overwhelming, soothing immersive space with exciting imagery and sounds recognisable from subcultural life and also a space which challenges those who are not black and trans. The game is not tailored to the usual assumed 'average' viewer. This is reinforced by the work existing online as well as onsite, so it's accessible to experience from your bedroom rather than the fraught gallery space. This is a choice that should definitely become a standard practise galleries must take up.
On entering the game, you are asked to choose whether you support black trans people. If you click no, you are kicked from the game and have the option to sit through the intro again and reconsider your choice. I imagine most people clicked yes - I hope we all meant it.
The game rejects martyrdom - a mode many have come to expect of black trans women - in favour of resurrection. Here, living black trans people become video game avatars, echoing a rich history of trans people figuring out their identities online (with varied results: Craigslist hookups, second Life alter egos, chatrooms, choosing the 'other' gender game character to Tumblr and twitter drama and Instagram sponcon). It harks back to a free-er pre internet time before cyberspace was dominated completely by corporations which monetise our 'content', which in fact monetise the aforementioned cyber-mourning of black trans death. The archive is not a stuffy archive of things long dead, it is a living space in a time when irl spaces have been under threat long before covid-19, and url space is being censored through anti sex work laws.
In one section of the game, a radio presenter with a hilariously accurate journalistic manner demands details and trauma from their trans guest, who refuses to comply. Instead, the guest plays their song, which has all the information you could need, if you would listen. It's a good metaphor and a good piece of advice: reject the legibility of mainstream media, of sob stories and transplaining, in favour of making art for you and others like you.