Indira Allegra’s “Blackout”: The Warp of White Supremacy, The Weft of Black Grief

A still from Indira Allegra’s “Blackout” (2015)

What does it mean to black out?

As a noun, the word blackout carries several meanings. The darkening of a stage during a performance. A temporary loss of vision when subjected to strong accelerative forces. A (usually temporary) loss of memory; an amnesic gap. A failure of electricity supply that results in darkness.

Used as a verb, to black out means to “obliterate with black, as a form of censorship or protection.”

In these definitions, blackouts can be caused deliberately, happen accidentally, or be incidental. They can be triggered by a variety of forces — the result of intoxication, a failure of underfunded infrastructure, or a theatrical flourish.

In these definitions, blackouts can be used both as a form of suppression (censorship) and as a technique of fugitivity (hiding), a tool for oppressors and the subjugated alike.

In these definitions, blackness is mobilized as erasure — as a withdrawal from “normal” functioning, visibility, easy access, or comprehension.

***

In her recent digital-weaving installation Blackout (2015), Oakland-based artist Indira Allegra takes up the mechanism of the “black out” as both a metaphor and an aesthetic strategy to think about blackness, Black grief, and Black life in a world where antiblackness exists “as a total climate.”

Mounted at Yerba Buena Center for the Art’s group exhibition Take this Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area in San Francisco in Spring 2016, Blackout consists of six black-and-white videos that loop on modestly sized rectangular screens. The work was installed in an angular black room that secluded you in a meditative space away from the rest of the show.

Indira Allegra, “Blackout,” 2015. Installation view of “Take This Hammer: Art + Media Activism from the Bay Area,“ Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 2016. Courtesy Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo by Charlie Villyard.

In each video, Allegra intertwines statements made by families who have lost loved ones to police violence with digital renderings of serge, a type of twill fabric commonly used to manufacture police uniforms across the nation. Serge weaves are notable for how they create prominent diagonal lines or ridges on both sides of the cloth.

How serge is woven

In an interview video for the Yerba Buena Center, Allegra explains that twill is a sought after material for police uniforms for multiple reasons. It’s durable. It remains freshly pressed during use. And, hauntingly, bloodstains wash out easily from the fabric.

In a promotional video for the 5.11 PDU Class A Twill Shirt, which the company boasts “consistently exceeds the expectations of law enforcement officers around the world,” a trim, headless white man demonstrates the virtues of the product by dumping a water bottle on himself and watching the liquid repel forcefully off the fabric, and by running his fingers down his pecs and torso in a surprisingly sensuous performance to demonstrate the “permanent creases” that give the shirt a “crisp, professional appearance.”

In Blackout, the patterning and textures of Allegra’s twill become frayed and deconstructed, creating a canvas that at once reveals and conceals. In the videos, digital renderings of twill are layered over one another palimpsestically in varied shades of grey and black and in differently sized and shaped rectangular blocks. Like a digital collage. Like a QR code.

Sometimes twill is rendered so close up it becomes a pixelated abstraction. Sometimes we see the diagonal parallel ribs of the twill’s patterning. Sometimes twill is manifested as opaque blackness.

A still from Indira Allegra’s “Blackout” (2015)

Allegra then weaves families’ statements about their murdered loved ones into this already-woven digital cloth. In the videos, the text of these statements appears heterogeneously. Blocks of text appear in various sizes, layered both over and under bits of digital fabric. The texts scroll at differing speeds in disparate directions.

We thus read these grief testimonies through relapses of total darkness — through diamonds and rectangles and lines and layered pixels.

An excerpt from one of the six videos from Indira Allegra’s “Blackout” (2015)

On the level of my body, this produces a sense of harried alarm. I rush to grasp the traces of this testimony before they slip away.

But it also produces a feeling of slowly growing intimacy. These traces of grief do not immediately or wholly reveal themselves to me, but if I am patient and spend time with them, I can sense their textures ever more.

***

In this way, Allegra mobilizes blacking out in at least two directions.

On the one hand, we might understand the blackness in Blackout as a meditation on white supremacy’s antiblack violence.

The blacked out grief testimonies in Allegra’s videos recall, for one, the US government’s long history of antiblack surveillance, pathologization, and criminalization. On a formal level, they remind us, for instance, of the thousands and thousands of redacted FBI files the US government produced during their McCarthy-era surveillance of Paul Robeson, the famous Black actor and Civil Rights activist who was interested in Communism. (In his film End Credits (2012), Steve McQueen projects scanned pages of Robeson’s copious FBI files; Robeson’s file is so large that McQueen’s film runs for six hours.)

A page from Paul Robeson’s FBI files

Allegra’s blacked out testimonies also index the ways that white supremacy inflicts violence and death on Black bodies, and then seeks to hide its tracks. Her videos recall heavily redacted police reports of police brutality, such as the first incident report the Ferguson police department released after white police officer Darren Wilson murdered eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 (much of which was entirely whited out).

Page two of of the heavily redacted incident report the Ferguson Police Department sent to the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri regarding the Aug. 9, 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown

Thus Allegra’s videos ask us to see — if we don’t already — how the blacked out bars of police reports aren’t just abstract shapes or benign bureaucratic formalities, but are tied to histories of brutal white supremacist violence, to Black social and actual death, to grief and loss.

In this, Blackout pushes back against those that would see cops, as Pepsi’s recent dumpster fire of a commercial hyperbolically illustrates, as hunky white beefcakes who only want to help us and who are totally nice to protestors upon receipt of a cola.

A meme riffing on Pepsi’s now infamous Kendall Jenner commercial

In the wake of white supremacy’s allegiance to the notion of cops as benevolent, eternally innocent, and there to “serve and protect,” Blackout weaves histories of police brutality, and the Black grief it engenders, into the very surfaces of cops’ bodies, materially indicting them.

Riffing on the shared etymological roots of texts and textiles — both are from the Latin textere, which means “to weave” — Allegra entwines textual traces of Black grief into the warp and weft of (a digital abstraction of) cop uniforms.

An diagram of the warp and weft of weaving

We are thus asked to see antiblack violence as part of the very skin of the criminal justice system — as an integral ingredient of the everyday clothing cops encase themselves in when they go to work. Here, antiblack violence is not incidental to being a cop. It is part of the structure of being in uniform. Whatever “good intentions” individual cops may have is beside the point.

Yet, on the other hand, following the work of Christina Sharpe, we might also read the blackness in Blackout as a form and an ethics of care.

By which I mean, these videos use darknesss and opacity as a way to metaphorically and tenderly “hold” Black grief.

While Blackout allows us — strangers — to catch glimpses of its grief testimonials, its redactions also ensure that viewers are disallowed from having a full “panoptic” picture of the statements on display.

We cannot read these testimonies in full. We don’t know who is speaking them. We are thus denied the grounds from which we might feel (problematically) like we fully “know” these speakers or their grief.

Instead, we are left with only traces. A felt sense of other people’s loss. A felt sense of the ubiquity of antiblack violence and police brutality. A felt sense of knowing something without knowing everything, and of being aware of this fractured incompleteness.

This might be why Allegra turns to digital weaving for Blackout. In other weaving pieces, which she calls “text/ile sculptures,” Allegra creates material cloth works out of newsprint, out of leather that spells out words, and so on.

However, in turning to the digital, Allegra can make her texts move in her textiles, making these grief testimonies not static but fleeting and time-based. There and then not.

As Blackout shows us, sometimes there is a care in withholding, in refusing. In showing us something is there without exposing it permanently to unknown and possibly already grief-laden / possibly hostile eyes. This can both be a care for the subjects of representation and a care for their viewers.

Blackness in Blackout is a way of seeing, of knowing, of feeling. A manifold and shifting tactic of care, remembrance, and visual activism. A way of taking stock of the world while also imagining a world otherwise.