Introducing their Grammar of Grief Handbook (all works 2020), Indira Allegra writes that “loss is a normal part of lived experience.” Small scale losses happen daily: our keys, a favorite earring. We may pause for a moment, but quickly move on. But how do we cope with losses of greater magnitude, or with dimensions that are harder to map? Allegra’s online handbook, created during the Adjacent’s Virtual Residency at Minnesota Street Project in San Francisco last fall, offers a set of performative actions to process loss. Divided into four different categories—Sound, Movement, Writing and Environment—each action is easily done with everyday materials. Particularly resonant during a time when many of us are grieving changes both manifest and existential due to the coronavirus pandemic, Allegra’s Handbook invites us to inhabit our bodies to process bereavement. Though done alone, in the private spaces of our homes, Allegra’s performative practices offer the possibility of transcendence of the individual to a more connected moment of community mourning.
Most of the actions Allegra offers in Handbook are simple and underscore a bodily connection to grief. For each, the online project instructs us to perform the action, then reflect on how we feel. In Breath, Allegra’s invitation is to “hold your breath once a day. For as long as you can. Feel your heart thundering. This too, is a memorial.” As I inhale deeply and suspend my exhalation, I feel my heart’s increasing panic, pounding in my chest. The moment of release comes as relief, as my heart returns to its normal rhythm. Here, Allegra gives the user a tangible physical sensation to link to grief: the loss of our breath results in feeling our heart’s desperate thumping. Likewise, in Missing Touch, the artist asks us to open a window and expose to fresh air a part of our body which has not been touched recently. In this instance, the air is a ghostly surrogate, caressing our bare flesh in place of a loved one. As in Breath, Allegra grounds the abstract experience of missing and longing in the physical body.
As of my writing in February 2021, nearly 430,000 people have died from the coronavirus in the US since the first cases landed here in early 2020. In that span, many of us have lost jobs and freedom of movement, in addition to the loss of life from the virus. We’ve lost time: to celebrate birthdays and holidays, to mark milestones and achievements. The pandemic has hit hardest in Black, Indigenous, and other communities, while our country is having a national reckoning with a long and ongoing history of systemic racism and police violence that targets these vulnerable communities. In response to the tension of our moment, Allegra’s Handbook answers with Legacy. Here, the artist gives us 8 minutes and 46 seconds to consider and list our legacy, the same amount of time that George Floyd had in his last moments to reflect upon his life as he was pinned down by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. In this performative action, Allegra painfully invokes us to inhabit our bodies and minds, as we make sense of something as intangible as a whole life in just a few minutes.
Allegra is mindful of the common forms of expressing grief, noting in her introduction to Handbook that “memorials are typically thought of as stone structures rising above eye level in a public square.” They are also rituals and ceremonies that in normal times we attend in the company of others. Judith Butler, writing after 9/11 in response to the public grieving that came in the aftermath, explains, “loss and vulnerability seem to follow from our being socially constituted bodies, attached to others, at risk of losing those attachments, exposed to others, at risk of violence by virtue of that exposure.”1 Mostly isolated in our homes for all of 2020, and under a Trump administration that refused to acknowledge these tragedies on any level, the connectedness we seek in collective mourning has been noticeably absent. In moving the grieving process to the virtual world, and in finding individual actions that can be done easily at home, Allegra’s Handbook fills this void. Maybe we don’t need to see rows of lanterns standing vigil in front of the National Monument, but we do need 8 minutes and 46 seconds to reflect on a life lived.
1 Butler, Judith, “Violence, Mourning, and Politics,” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4 no. 1 (2003): 10.