Unpacking call centres, labour and colonialism with José García Oliva
How May I Serve You? sheds light on subjects such as “the structure of call centres, the relationship between labour and identity, concerns about automation, and the ways in which outsourced companies surveil employees' chats,” José tells us.
- Joey Levenson
- 6 June 2023
We often take our call centre interactions for granted. When we’re on the phone to a large conglomerate attempting to troubleshoot our tech or online-related queries, we’re rarely thinking about the agent on the other side. Yet, beneath the surface-level interaction, we’re often acutely aware that these call centres and online services are outsourced to remote locations, sometimes thousands of miles away from where you’re calling from.
London-based Venezuelan artist José García Oliva first started noticing the interrelation between identity and labour when he started studying at the Royal College of Art in London. “The first Latinos I met at the university were the cleaners,” José tells It’s Nice That. “During the first half of the lockdown, I began unfolding these parallels that had always called my attention, like the ‘coincidence’ that some of the countries providing these services have been previously colonised by the countries requiring them.” For José, this revealed a deep relationship between customer/vice and coloniser/colonised that he wanted to unravel even further with this project.
Exploring how corporations continue to generate products and services with the lowest possible expenditure with a global hierarchal model, How May I Serve You? is no ordinary graphic design and art project. In fact, it was done in collaboration with call centre agents themselves. “As I was in London then, I decided to focus on the UK context and worked with Pakistani call centre agents,” José says. “Through a friend from Pakistan, I was introduced to Malik Ayaz and Saadia Abbasi, who worked in the call centre industry in Islamabad. From then onwards, we haven’t stopped working together.”
The visual construction of the book and exhibition is endlessly fascinating. The tone and aesthetic of online browsers and live chats are seamlessly transformed into contemporary art; overlaid screenshots, typefaces, colours, bubble chats and scripts create a two-way feedback loop in which perceptions affect an environment and the environment then affects perceptions. “For example, for the exhibition, I tried to recreate the call centre following the pictures and descriptions Malik and Saadia were sending me,” José explains. Aside from that, great care has been put in to how the audience will become co-authors of the work. “In these live-chat conversations, the active spectators and the agents have the opportunity to decide which questions they want to ask or to answer, and this format alone enriches and elaborates the dialogues,” the artist tells us.
The book’s printing was crowdfunded through Kickstarter, and all profits from the book were sent to Malik, Saadia and The Pakistan Workers' Federation (PWF). It is truly art by workers, for the worker. “As it is currently occurring, globalisation is growing and continues in some aspects to pixelate those working in Low-Cost Countries Sourcing (LCCS),” says José. “We created this book to present, raise awareness, publish and archive this knowledge.” Ultimately, the project supports the people working on the other side of the screen, raising discourse on the exploitative nature of corporations who enlist these services and deploy them to us, the people. “We’re spreading awareness on how colonial systems continuously materialise and mutate within different hierarchical structural organisations,” José concludes.
GalleryJosé García Oliva: How May I Service You? (Copyright © José García Oliva, 2023)
José García Oliva: How May I Service You? (Copyright © José García Oliva, 2023)
About the Author
Joey is a freelance design, arts and culture writer based in London. They were part of the It’s Nice That team as editorial assistant in 2021, after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.