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Patty Chang’s recent shows have both featured breast milk. Bodily fluids (milk, urine, tears) continue to percolate through her practice. I have oft-conceived of Chang’s practice as a semiaquatic mammal of its own: watery and bodily, helical in flow.
Chang’s new exhibition at 18th Street Arts Center, Milk Debt, takes its title from Chinese Buddhist notions of filial piety, wherein children owe a lifelong debt to the mothers who suckled them. In the five-channel video installation, lactating women pump their breast milk while reciting lists of fears, which Chang collected by surveying communities in Los Angeles, where she lives and works, as well as Hong Kong and New Mexico, where she has recently completed artist residencies. Chang then chose a handful of women to lm while they pumped breast milk— constellating women across various cities through this shared act.
The inventory of fears begins with Chang’s personal list, first drafted in 2018. Upon moving to Altadena in late 2017, Chang, who had recently given birth, found her anxieties over the environment and climate compounded by her own postpartum. Many of the fears in Chang’s list are eerily prescient: the fifth fear is “ re, burning in a re”; two fears later is “smog”; then, “113 degrees everyday.”
I previewed Milk Debt just three days after the recent San Gabriel earthquake, the very night of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. As my personal fears became increasingly tangible amidst a milieu of unrest, eroding democracy, and an overworked planet, I was soothed by Chang’s performers; speaking over the mechanical suck of the breast pump, their stated fears felt more collective than isolating.
Last month, as we sat in distanced chairs in Chang’s backyard to talk about Milk Debt, I told Chang that I like to think of the solace I found in Milk Debt as a form of successful affect labeling. Affect labeling—
an implicit emotional regulation strategy of verbalizing feelings, or more specifically in this case, fears—is a form of linguistic processing. Milk Debt grounds pandemic-era fears by allowing them to linguistically congregate in a commons. In this way, Chang forges a reservoir in which visitors can bathe in their fears—the porosity of one’s anxieties intermingling with those of others.
stephanie mei huang: I wonder, how do you think about the way the pandemic has really transformed collectivized fears? I’ve heard you use the phrase “communal text” in regards to the list of fears that is read in Milk Debt.
Patty Chang: I think maybe an environmental difference [between] now and when we were building our list of fears is that [now, fears are] much more socially on the surface. So, people are actually feeling these and then vocalizing them, whether it be in an intimate setting or in a public setting. I think that when I made my personal list and then when we were collecting the fears, we thought of these [fears] as things that people thought but didn’t speak. It was much more internalized … like there’s a sort of low, humming anxiety, but maybe we can’t name what it is because we don’t want to. So perhaps that’s one of the differences that Covid has revealed.
smh: Were your fears being amplified after you had your son, Leroy, and you were responsible for another life?
PC: I think that this idea of looking at my fears started from being pregnant and having a child. When I had the baby, I found that I just had so much anxiety about everything. It seemed over the top, but I couldn’t separate it from the experience of giving birth and trying to keep the baby alive. Trying to keep this baby alive extended to basically everything … So I think starting from that point, I realized that I was having really intense fears about things that we could imagine, that are rational or irrational … I think it’s just part of the biological response on one level to start to fear everything or to be concerned about everything.
smh: I know that the ethics of care were so crucial for you in this work. Given the intimacy involved in the act of breast pumping, which is an act rooted in care and nourishment, I’m wondering what the shift was like for you, from filming your performers in person to virtually on Skype or Zoom during the pandemic. What was it like to engage with such a visceral bodily act over these virtual platforms?
PC: It definitely felt different. I think there was less of a connection. When we were in-person in the beginning, we did it many, many times, and we shot many times in different locations. It was a much more extended experimentation and learning curve for what the experience would be like … So it definitely felt like it was much more connected in terms of immediately responding to someone and having an audience in some way. We would be there watching and witnessing the performance. And then once we decided we shouldn’t meet in-person anymore, it was interesting intellectually, because we were all moving onto online platforms. There were so many features about recording through the technology that I was interested in. But after a few times, it kind of became boring. I felt like my witnessing them was very different in a way. The first one I did with Haejung, you see my image at the top of the Zoom. [It is] so weird for me to see that there, because I’m standing by the camera and I look like I’m performing this function—I have a job. It very much points to the process of filming, filmmaking, and artifice, and it’s really strange.
smh: Right, well I still really enjoyed that. There is just one trace of you. And then Leroy appears behind the laptop screen with his violin.
PC: I think they’re interesting to look at and to consider in the present moment … the shift from so much being in-person— especially in art and performance—to this mediated platform. I think it speaks to our time and that is why it’s interesting, but in terms of [the embodied] experience, it feels a little lacking.
smh: You also have a solo show on view at the San Francisco space, Friends Indeed—the synergistic timing of these two exhibitions is really impactful. In the Friends Indeed show, you’ve included still images of discarded breast milk in empty vessels like cups and fish tins photographed in Uzbekistan. How do you see these two shows working in dialogue with each other?
PC: The first thing I think of when you bring that up is the idea of movement and flow. In Milk Debt, the milk is moving. It’s active, but images of Letdown are stagnant. They’re in a discarded form. They’re not going to be used and they feel like puddles or stagnant pools.
smh: And in your book, The Wandering Lake (2017), you talk about a “sympathetic loss of flow.”1
PC: Specifically, [I was] pumping milk while going to the Aral Sea [on a film shoot in 2014] and thinking about this fluid that has a function and that is being left in a place and will not be useful in the way it’s meant to be. Whereas in Milk Debt, the piece is more about the production of [milk] versus the discarding of it. It’s coming out [and it’s] unclear if it’s going to be used or not. The milk is what’s being produced by the hormones, and the hormones are being activated in the body. And those hormones, oxytocin and prolactin, are coursing through the women’s bodies, and those are the hormones that create this feeling of love or openness and affective response. It’s kind of an opposite relationship.
smh: Would you say breast milk is abject?
PC: I guess that’s about context, maybe. I mean, if you think about it, the fluid that comes out of the body, once it leaves the body, it’s not of the body, so it’s othered from the body. So, in that sense, it could be abject if it’s not going straight into a baby’s mouth. But there’s something about the machinery—the pump—that lends to this idea, the abjection, the possible abjections, because it’s pulling the fluid out of the body in an artificial way. And I guess if the baby was doing that, we wouldn’t see [the milk]. It would just be a logical conclusion of the milk going into its mouth. The part of the abjection is not the milk, but maybe the apparatus.
smh: Do you think there is a sense of healing in the act of lactation as bodily release?
PC: I think so. Yeah. And I guess also healing for whom—the body that’s lactating or the body that needs the nutrients or needs the love? I guess that’s why I was drawn to the gesture. We talked about the question of abjection in relation to breast milk, but at the same time, I think that the gesture itself is also inextricably linked to love and to caring. And so, if there’s abjection, there is still always love, you know?
smh: Definitely. Especially when I was thinking about oxytocin, which triggers lactation. I mean, falling in love is the best feeling in the world because of that amount of oxytocin and serotonin. And I’m like, wow, is that what breastfeeding feels like?
PC: Maybe for some people.
smh: Bodily expulsion and bodily ingestion have both had a lengthy history in your work. Astrida Neimanis, who you recently had a conversation with through 18th Street, writes that “we are all bodies of water” and that the feminist subjectivity is in fact “watered” and that embodiment is “watery.”2 Can you recall the moment and motivation when you began to more explicitly explore the intertwinement of humans and bodies of water?
PC: I think the logical answer for me would be The Wandering Lake (2017). But I was just thinking back about other projects that I’ve done about water. And one of them is the piece I did with [my partner and collaborator] David, Flotsam Jetsam (2007), about the building of the Three Gorges Dam and the subsequent flooding of the landscape. I guess in some ways that piece linked [my] thinking about dreams [with my] thinking about what happens to a place when it disappears and becomes submerged by water and enters [the] imaginary.
smh: But what drew you to that? What was the moment or shift for you in moving from bodily fluids to bodies of water?
PC: I’d say maybe it was a process that took time. I don’t think I just got there. These [works] all seemed like evolutionary steps along the way. I think before you can enter a geological body, you have to exit your own body. There’s kind of this process of leaving one’s own body in order to be able to think within other bodies, geological or otherwise.
stephanie mei huang is an L.A.-based interdisciplinary artist. She sees slippery, chameleonic identity as a form of infiltration: a soft power reversal within hard architectures of power. She uses a diverse range of media and strategies including film/video, writing, sculpture, and painting. Recently, she completed her MFA in Art at the California Institute of the Arts (2020).
Patty Chang is an L.A.-based artist and educator who uses performance, video, installation, and narrative forms when considering identity, gender, transnationalism, colonial legacies, the environment, large-scale infrastructural projects, and impacted subjectivities. Her work has been exhibited nationwide and internationally. She teaches at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 22.