A former Riot Girrl, Becca Albee’s photography unpacks the politics of color.
By Annika Klein
In early October, when I spoke with Becca Albee about the roots of her artwork in activism, feminism, and ’90s punk, little did we know what was ahead: an upset of an election and a resurgence of mainstream feminism, including “Pussy Hats” on the runway. Rooted in a curiosity about physical materials from negatives to newspapers, Albee investigates the mechanisms of history. Her most recent work, now on view as prismataria at Et Al in San Francisco, considers color—seemingly formalist, but deeply political. When color, or a sensitivity to it, has been long associated with women, what does it mean to be neutral?
Annika Klein: How does your musical background—specifically feminist punk and Riot Grrrl—influence your approach to photography?
Becca Albee: Playing music in the early ’90s, when I was living in Olympia, Washington and attending Evergreen State College, was formative. In part because of the political climate—there was a sense of urgency, and with music, there was almost an immediacy in communication. I was self-taught and learned from, and created with, my friends. I was able to blend together my interests in biography, art, and politics within a larger community. When writing lyrics, I could reference an individual or an issue, and through metaphor, layer the narratives. The music originated from a feminist core—which is to say, placing feminism at the center of my work, rather than patriarchy. There was no separation between what was and was not my art: I made zines, I made songs, I made images.
In the late 1990s, when I started to make more visual art than music, I hung on to the same starting points that I did with songwriting, which was a concept that was initiated by an impulse: experience, historical, material. Those were all things that I was making music with and about, and ultimately is how I start my projects.
Klein: Your series Radical Feminist Therapy: Working in the Context of Violence shares its name with a book by philosopher and feminist therapist, Bonnie Burstow. What is your relationship to Burstow’s book?
Albee: At Evergreen, I took a course called “Women’s Health and Healing.” Radical Feminist Therapy was one of my textbooks from that class. A foundation of the book is that there should be a general understanding that the patriarchy is a violent society, and the importance of recognizing the impact of oppressions and multiple oppressions. I still have my copy of the book, where I wrote numerous notes in the margins with color pens. For this print series, I removed all of the printed text and left my marks: the underlines and notes. Each print represents all of the markings from a single chapter.
Klein: Most artists, especially photographers, want their work to be shown in perfectly neutral lighting. In your most recent exhibitions, why did you install a light that changes colors?
Albee: There is a Works Progress Administration mural in San Francisco called the Prismatarium, which was created in 1939 by Hillaire Hiler. It’s a circular room, with gray walls and a color wheel painted on the entire ceiling. Hiler was a psychoanalyst, color theorist, and painter. For him, color is about psychology. The Prismatarium was originally purposed as a ladies’ lounge. In the WPA proposal for the mural, he wrote that everyone knows “the fair sex” has a higher connection to color. The proposal also references a light fixture that would rotate through cyan, magenta, and yellow—which he considered to be the primary colors. From all accounts, that light fixture was never made. So, I fabricated this rotating light fixture and created photographs that are meant to be viewed in this cyan, magenta, and yellow light.
Klein: You mentioned that the Prismatarium was intended only for women, and you have also have photographed color-based products, such as Aura Soma, that are clearly marketed to women. How does you interest in color relate to you interest in feminism?
Albee: I researched different lifestyle-oriented, color-related methods or therapies, looking at the gender constructs surrounding the marketing of color and its relationship to capitalism. For Aura-Soma, you go to a specialist, and there are numerous bottles with two different color liquids presented in a lighted grid, and you pick the three or four bottles that you’re drawn to. It is clearly marketed to women—the perfume bottles, the colors. The session is somewhat like a Tarot card reading, but you’re supposed to buy your selected bottles as “color therapy for the soul.”
What do you do when you are both attracted to and repulsed by something? In some cases, I created photographs in the most desirable way possible because I wanted the work to exist within this paradox around color: you can be circumscribed and exhilarated by it; limited and animated by it.
Klein: Newspapers are a recurring theme. What attracts you to this analog media?
Albee: I am interested in how we experience information, what actually gets filtered through and presented, what images we are shown, and not shown. The handheld newspaper is a historically important format that I first used for a project called Newspaper & Flowers. In 2006, I started to digitally replace journalistic photographs from newspaper clippings with photographs of flowers taken by my grandfather, Ellis Albert Resch (1903–1974), who had worked at the New York Times as a low-level assistant in his late teens. In the years before his death he took hundreds of photographs of flowers, which I obtained a decade later. At the same time, I was collecting articles that angered me—most were about the Bush Administration and U.S.-involved conflicts. Eventually, I merged the two together.
Klein: Your series Joan Lowell: The Only Woman also considers the historical impact of news by referencing the scandal of Joan Lowell’s fraudulent memoir, The Cradle of the Deep.
Albee: The project began after I read a paper that my father, a historian, wrote about Joan Lowell’s 1929 literary scandal. Lowell was a twenty-six-year-old actress who wrote a bestselling autobiography about growing up on a ship with her sea captain father and an all-male crew. In her book, Lowell positions herself as a child heroine, defying her gender expectations. In a review, Lincoln Colcord, proved that Lowell did not grow up at sea. This review initiated a very public demise. Ultimately, I created photographs, sculptures, and a video performance using Lowell’s constructed biography, the scandal, and related objects as material. Lowell was a complicated character and I was interested in her construction of her own biography and her adamant life-long defense of her narrative. And also how she was scrutinized and brought down and who was able to capitalize on her failure. Who’s benefitting from this?
Klein: Do you think that, in general, women are told that they’re fake or that their credentials are questioned more often than men’s?
Albee: You could look at the U.S. presidential election as the most glaring and blatant occurrence of this double standard—which in this case is so publicly violent and where an unqualified misogynistic, racist, classist, narcissist is even being considered for the most powerful elected office in this country. So yes, absolutely.
Annika Klein is the Editorial Assistant at Aperture magazine.