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Patty Chang – Milk Debt
Installation view of Patty Chang, Milk Debt (2020), 18th Street Arts Center Olympic Campus Main Gallery, Santa Monica, CA, October 19 - January 22, 2021Courtesy of the artist

Patty Chang’s Milk Debt channels society’s biggest fears with breast milk

The life-affirming video installation voices secret fears and pandemic anxieties with lactating mothers, with milk as a metaphor for empathy and understanding during a time of worldwide crises

The very experience of being a human can, at times, be fundamentally lonely. We are, each and every one of us, a single consciousness inhabiting a body. No one can exactly share our feelings because they're experienced through the prism of our own selves. We’re alone in our own heads, forced to rely on the arbitrary and flawed system of language as the primary means of communicating our experience to others. Becoming reconciled with this aloneness whilst making meaningful connections with other people is part of the struggle of the human condition. And, the miraculous thing – despite this existential angst – is that it is possible to find moments of genuine communion with other people, as if meeting on a shared plane of existence. 

Patty Chang’s Milk Debt (2020) offers us a chance to overcome this innate existential isolation, with human connection and compassion. Gathering our collective anxieties – ranging from profound fears about the prospective death of the planet to secret worries about embarrassing ourselves during sex – the LA-based performance artist and filmmaker’s latest work presents us with comprehensive lists of daily worries contributed by a range of different individuals. The experience of entering this immersive, five-channel video installation is like stepping into a shared consciousness in which the collective concerns of humankind are presented as rolling text and spoken word.

The recognition of our own secret fears – written in black and white or voiced by anonymous women, narrating their lists on film as they pump breast milk – offers us the chance to relinquish sole responsibility for these worries. There’s solace in being reminded of how universal our private, intimate feelings are. Chang tells Dazed: “In bringing out sentiments that we usually keep hidden from others, we realise how common our experience is and that we are not alone.” 

For Chang, the act of breastfeeding represents a moment of heightened connection. “It is when a human is closest to crossing over to being another organism,” she tells Dazed. “It’s a reminder of not being separate from other humans or organisms.” Breast milk – so rich in the hormones which ignite feelings of bonding and love – becomes “a metaphor for empathy and understanding during a time of worldwide crises.”

The work takes its name from a tenet in Chinese Buddhism, which states that a mother should be recompensed in the afterlife for the production of her life-giving breast milk. ”I believe that the act of producing breast milk and lactation is an empathetic act,” she says. “Biologically, breast milk is created when the body starts to produce the hormones of prolactin and oxytocin. Oxytocin is a hormone that is produced when someone is in love. The act of producing breast milk allows the woman to engage in this state of being, which some might describe as being more connected, being more open and accepting, and not thinking of oneself first.”

Take a look at the gallery above for images from the upcoming iteration of Milk Debt at New York’s Pioneer Works. Below, we talk to Patty Chang about empathy, the range and scale of our most potent fears, and how she created this heartening, life-affirming artwork. 

Please could you tell us about how Milk Debt came into being? 

Patty Chang: After moving to Los Angeles from the east coast in 2017, environmental anxieties were really on my mind. Drought conditions, the reliance on fossil fuels, heat waves, and fires. In 2018, temperatures were close to 117 degrees Fahrenheit near my house, and fires were raging, which is not abnormal in the dry season. I was researching at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California – the former mansion of the railroad baron, Henry Huntington – and I made a list of my fears because it was hard to focus on other research. 

Also at this time, I was thinking more about the act of lactation. I had made some photos of my discarded breast milk while working on The Wandering Lake (2009-2017) project and was revisiting it as a state of the body and an act of care in relation to the very contentious period in the US. 

In 2019, I started working with the actor Kestrel Leah in performing the simultaneous acts of pumping breast milk while reading lists of fears. The first lists were her own and my own. It made more sense to accumulate the fears of many people instead of having them be from any individual. 

In the spring of the same year, I was visiting artists at Hong Kong University and worked with students to gather the fears of people in their families and communities, thinking about the shared or individual fears of people in a specific impacted geographical region. These fears were performed in a live performance and at a protest. I was thinking about spaces where people express themselves, and protests are very public and democratic spaces to do that.

In Los Angeles, I then started working with Anuradha Vikram at the 18th Street Art Center in Santa Monica to extend this project to multiple performers, including lists of fears gathered from many populations across Los Angeles. We shot in locations that reflected the city’s history – with water geoengineering, public spaces like the Metro, as well as online video chat platforms once the Covid-19 lockdown went into place. 

“There were so many poignant fears, common fears, and ridiculous fears... and seeing great and small fears flowing in and out of each other feels so human” – Patty Chang 

For those who sadly won’t be able to attend the exhibition, please could you talk us through the immersive experience?

Patty Chang: The piece is a five-channel video installation that surrounds a single space. Three of the channels are large scale projections, one monitor is on the wall and the other is on the floor. The video is 53 minutes long. It begins with the monitor on the floor of a person pumping breast milk over Skype and reading a list of fears while directly addressing the camera. A different list of fears begins to scroll on a projection. Performances pop up on different screens around the room intermittently, sometimes singularly, and sometimes with another performance. The lists of fears are also presented as scrolling text videos that play simultaneously with the performances and sometimes on their own. Sometimes the viewer is surrounded by all five screens, and sometimes it is just one screen, moving between overwhelming and intimately focused.

When you began gathering together the lists of anxieties, do you remember any particular worries that struck you as particularly poignant or striking?

Patty Chang: There were so many poignant fears, common fears, and ridiculous fears. And the combination of them – or the train of thought – was really interesting when fears like dying of cancer and climate change would be followed by something like the fear of farting during sex. They are all real and seeing great and small fears flowing in and out of each other feels so human.

Is there consolation in recognising the normalcy or universality of our own anxieties? 

Patty Chang: When I made my own list, I printed it as a zine with Wendy’s Subway.  A young guy actually did the printing with me on a Risograph.  While he was printing, he told me that reading my list of fears was comforting to him because he could relate and saw that someone else had the same feelings as he did. It was the first time that I thought a list of anxieties could be comforting to others, which was especially surprising because he was a young man. 

In bringing out sentiments that we usually keep hidden from others, we realise how common our experience is and that we are not alone. The scripts are in the first person, so reading them is an internalising and intimate experience as opposed to the performances of the lists, which is more an act of witnessing.

Broadly speaking, would you say Milk Debt is concerned primarily with a female experience of anxiety? If so, how would characterise this? 

Patty Chang: The fears are gathered from all different types of people. It was not limited to women. I don’t think it reflects a female experience of anxiety, as all people have their own fears and situating fear as gendered I’m not sure is helpful. But I will say that when I put out a call asking for women who were lactating to read lists of fears, there was an overwhelming response of lactating mothers who had a heightened level of anxiety due partially to the hormonal response of lactating, but also to the responsibility of keeping a newborn baby alive. 

Breastfeeding is such a powerful, miraculous, loaded act. What does breast milk symbolise to you personally? 

Patty Chang: It is food. It is the only time a human is able to produce food for another animal, like a fruiting tree. It is when a human is closest to crossing over to being another organism. It’s a reminder of not being separate from other humans or organisms.

What would you like visitors of Milk Debt to take away from their experience of visiting the exhibition? 

Patty Chang: To be moved and to feel compassion for oneself and others.

Patty Chang’s Milk Debt is showing at Pioneer Works from March 19 – May 23, 2021