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LOS ANGELES — Since February of 2019, the artist Patty Chang has been sending out surveys for people to share their everyday fears. The idea came to her in the summer of 2018, when she was feeling especially anxious about the political environment in the United States and the toll of climate change. To cope, she made a list of everything she was afraid of, including “death,” “burning in a fire,” and “smog.” “It was a relief to know that some of my fears were irrational, but it was equally scary to know that consequential things were out of my control,” she’s said.
Chang circulated her survey in communities in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, New York, and along the Texas–New Mexico border, all regions where she has upcoming exhibitions. Chang had been working on a script based on the answers she collected in the Los Angeles area, to be first performed at Santa Monica’s 18th Street Arts Center this May. That is, until COVID-19 happened.
Since the pandemic and its ensuing lockdown, Chang has decided to reopen her call for fears. “Perhaps fears and anxieties are more on the surface for everyone now,” she told Hyperallergic over email. She plans on rewriting her script in light of the new fears and collaborating with fellow performers working remotely. The end result will either be performed live at 18th Streets Arts Center in the summer (fingers crossed) or streamed over video.
Participants can submit their fears in Spanish, Mandarin, or English, and submissions have already started trickling in. Some seem particularly poignant for the times, like fear of “unemployment,” “something unknown,” and “running out of time.” Others are almost comforting in their more quotidian nature, like fear of “rollercoasters,” “cats,” and “not having the right grammar in a professional email.” If you wish to add your own fears, you can fill out the survey here. (Chang will initially focus on answers collected from people in Los Angeles, but participants based elsewhere are also welcome to participate for future iterations of the project.)
By voicing these private thoughts in a public space, Chang hopes to transform these individual experiences into more “communal” ones. She sees the project, called Milk Debt, as a kind of “channeling” — the title refers to an idea in Chinese Buddhism that “a child is forever indebted to its mother for the milk she gave.” In the final performance, women will pump breast milk while reciting the lists of fears. As Chang sees it, producing milk is “an empathetic act” that challenges one to be “more open and accepting.”
In keeping with this generous spirit, Chang encourages us to share any and all fears, however big or small, because “everything is valid.”