Becca Albee

Deep Time
Reading time 7 minutes

Images from an upcoming project by Becca Albee. Companion essay by Sarah Workneh.
Creative direction by Monika Uchiyama.


Chapter 1: Michael

There is a bench at Plumb Beach in Brooklyn. This bench, painted green, sits in solitude as a memorial to a single human life, Michael Sandy, and in solidarity with those killed through violent hate crimes. Michael’s existence on this planet was brief: just twenty-nine years to the day, almost. This bench – not his tomb, but a marker no less – sits sandwiched between Jamaica Bay and the Belt Parkway, where he was hit by a car while fleeing from a group of men who lured him to the desolate beach at night to rob him. They selected him because he was gay and they thought he would put up less of a fight.

On either side of Michael Sandy in the moment of deciding where to run to was the bay – mysterious, full, unending – and a Robert Moses-designed speedway heavy with cars and humanity, maybe bogged down with its designer’s notorious impact on the city, maybe not. I wonder if it made sense in that moment to run towards people, if it was an instinct, a split-second decision in an extraordinary and un- fathomable moment – even if he knew as he was running that humans weren’t safe.

Chapter 2: The Belt/The Bay

We live our lives in moments. Many of us, including myself, talk about trying to be “present.” But presence, at least in that sense, isn’t mu- tually exclusive of history. It is also not divorced from our environment, which itself bears the physical traces of our present, our history, our history’s history. The particular location where the Belt Parkway and Plumb Beach meet each other is one of deep juxtaposition.

To the north: man’s supposed “mastery” of city planning, envisioned in the 1930s – ages ago to us who live here day-to-day. And to the south: a watery habitat, home to ninety-one species of fish, 325 species of bird and seemingly endless numbers of less countable reptiles, inver- tebrates, and organisms.

Along with talk of being present, in similar circles we talk a lot about the Anthropocene – the age of human impact on the Earth. So, along with living things, we can also assume the Bay is home to inert objects such as trash, plastic, chemicals and the other effects of our relatively brief but aggressive existence on this planet. The Belt/The Bay: ene- mies and bedfellows; moments and eons.

Deep time, as a concept, is rooted in the geologic study of changes to the Earth. I think it was mostly referenced when talking about natural shifts – continents moving, sediment building, the way water carved out the Grand Canyon, or how Jamaica Bay itself came to exist. More recently, it relates to the Anthropocene. How we, as humans, have changed the natural world. How we have enacted vulnerability and precarity on what surrounds us. Geologic and organism; moments, but not eons.

Chapter 3: The Bay/The Birds

It seems to be common knowledge out on Plumb Beach that birds are more popular than Atlantic horseshoe crabs. Each year, in May and June, people gather there to count the horseshoe crabs that emerge from their homes on the ocean floor and crawl onto the shore under the new and full moons to spawn – to deliver their half-billion–year existence into some kind of future.

Becca tells me the counters are often people interested in ensur- ing the survival of horseshoe crabs so that their eggs, laid in wet sand and the end result of all of this spawning, can feed migratory birds. Although the horseshoe crabs (or variations thereof) have existed longer than birds, they have lost their evolutionary status. They are the feeders. 

Fans of the horseshoe crab and their seemingly indefatigable past, yet vulnerable present, faithfully take stock of the invertebrates because their population numbers are dropping quickly and steadily. Blame the birds, but the horseshoe crab has human predators.

Our blood is red. Horseshoe-crab blood is blue. It is a constant mys- tery to me how we figure out what to test in science, but somehow in our comparatively short cohabitation with these animals, we have figured out that that blue blood is something we need. We may have created that need ourselves, I don’t know, but it exists all the same. And in the deep-time/short-time sense, we may exhaust it. Life deci- sions made in moments.

Chapter 4: Becca

I don’t know much about horseshoe crabs myself, and Michael Sandy became for me a way to think about humans living in deep time, resist- ing deep time. Michael Sandy wasn’t what brought Becca to Plumb Beach. As with much of her work, she follows the trail. He and his bench were there.

Becca is almost a time capsule herself – a collector of stories, of ephemera that often go unnoticed by others. The blue blood of horse- shoe crabs, extracted directly from their living hearts and used in med- icine, was part of what captured Becca’s attention. Formalism and function, cruelty and life-saving, a half-billion–year-old unknown his- tory. This inquiry developed alongside visiting the archive of her former professor, mentor, and friend, the conceptual artist Robert Blanchon, who died of AIDS-related complications at the age of thirty-three in 1999. In her research process, Becca found a postcard that she had sent him as an announcement for one of her shows. The image is of frozen water marked by humans in ice skates. Temporary, momentary, but even if that particular mark was fleeting, many others aren’t.

Through her investigation of these precarities – both human and ani- mal, both material and materials left as traces; in this case the seem- ingly disparate lives of a species over time (again, a half-billion years) and an individual in a specific time (1965-1999) – Becca speaks to preservation and exhaustion; what we have brought on ourselves and what we have fallen victim to as we move in a present. Histories un- investigated (horseshoe crabs) and histories intentionally obfuscated (Blanchon). In drawing together moments and eons, Becca, through photography – often photos where her own hand is present – freezes time, so that we, too, might stop for a moment to see our work.

Chapter 5: Deep Time

Those men who tried to rob and then pursued Michael Sandy were more or less kids. The range of their maximum sentences, I just re- alized, are essentially, and I assume coincidentally, the same range of their ages on the night when they chased him out onto that dark roadway: seventeen to twenty-one years. Michael Sandy’s bench has sat there twenty-four hours a day, so far, for almost a decade. It will sit there, noticed or unnoticed, for as long as the materials or the planet last. His life stands in deep time of a different scale than the horseshoe crabs, different than the material consequence of our existence. Differ- ent than Robert Blanchon and different than Becca, who has survived them all. It’s not geologic – but hate and tragedy; love and memory; and the will to preserve vulnerable life can also grow imperceptibly over deep time.

— Sarah Workneh


Becca Albee is an artist based in New York City.
The photo-based worked presented here are works in progress and research images Albee took in preparation for her upcoming solo exhibition at MIT’s List Projects, on view from December 12, 2019-February 9, 2020.

Video stills and research photographs: Becca Albee Essay: Sarah Workneh
Creative direction: Monika Uchiyama

Becca Albee has an upcoming solo exhibition at MIT List Visual Arts Center in Cambridge, MA, December 12, 2019–February 9, 2020.

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