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LOS ANGELES — 2020 has robbed me of the ability to pinpoint, let alone process my feelings. A simple “how are you?” sends me careening from upbeat positivity to guilt and anger to existential despair, all in the space of a second. I’m not even sure I can feel my feelings — despite my efforts to sit still with my emotions and articulate them, I realize that I’m coming up very short for words or, really, any other form of expression.
That’s why I gravitated towards Patty Chang’s video project, titled Milk Debt. The project began with an open call for people to share their fears, offering a way for us to channel our collective emotions. This list of fears is then recited by various lactating women who are simultaneously pumping their breast milk. Milk Debt culminates in a multichannel installation, now featured in a solo exhibition of the artist’s work at 18th Street Arts Center. I hoped that something in this collective outpouring of fear, unease, and anxiety would name whatever it was I was feeling.
Upon first watching Milk Debt, I was struck by how jarring the video is. The words uttered do not match the text on screen, creating a discordant litany of fears that seems to roll on indefinitely. While the fears themselves express intense paranoia and terror — worrying about the pandemic, the economy, the decline of democracy, the possibility of an apocalypse, and death — the performers’ tone is devoid of emotion. This monotonous recital is punctuated by sharp, halting periods at the end of each sentence, creating a heightened sense of anxiety. This is what doomscrolling would look like, if it were embodied.
Considering that these fears were collected in March during the first month of the pandemic, this sensational quality makes sense. Now, during the eighth-going-into-ninth month of the pandemic, however, I find that my feelings have settled into a vague sense of unease, much more ambiguous and unnamable. The very real fears voiced in Milk Debt (“isolation,” “being touched by strangers,” “the unknown”) have now crept its tendrils into the tedium of everyday life, imperceptibly manifested into daily actions, like refreshing the news feed or bickering with friends and family.
Chang recognizes the ambiguity of these general negative feelings, affirming, “I’ve always dealt with certain anxieties, undercurrents of ugly or minor feelings.” Here, “ugly or minor feelings” are not just general descriptors — they reference the book Minor Feelings by poet Cathy Park Hong, which itself references theorist Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings. In the latter, Ngai examines “sentiments of disenchantment,” such as envy, irritation, anxiety, paranoia — as well as two new ones, coined by the author: “stuplimity” and “animatedness.” According to Ngai, stuplimity describes the feeling of simultaneous shock and boredom, while animatedness describes feelings of envy, irritation, anxiety, paranoia, etc. within a racialized context and characterized by a lack of agency.
These last two are the ones that resonate most with me, both in interpreting Chang’s Milk Debt and in understanding my own feelings in the world right now. The video’s endless litany of fears reenacts the feeling of shock and boredom as described by “stuplimity”; likewise, the pandemic’s devastating consequences (not to mention the current political landscape) — too many to renumerate — turn from sensational to dull through sheer repetition and exhaustion from repetition. Meanwhile, Ngai’s concept of “animatedness” points to the fact that feelings are just as affected by external factors as they are by internal ones. The lack of agency that many have already felt before the advent of COVID-19 is now being experienced collectively. Nothing we do can change the reality of the situation around us. Perhaps this is why catharsis can’t come, no matter how much I try to put words to my emotions, no matter how much breast milk is pumped out.
Patty Chang: Milk Debt continues at 18th Street Arts Center (1639 18th St, Santa Monica) through January 22, 2021. Open by appointment only.