Making the invisible visible in an Amazonified World:
A conversation with artist Hiba Ali and Czarina Mendoza during a time of lockdown.
October 22, 2021, by Czarina Mendoza
While reflecting on Ali’s video work, Abra (2018), the artists touch on the timeliness of a global pandemic, the ways it has shaped Ali’s expansive research on the structures of Amazon and its effect on working people. The video is featured on LEFT Contemporary’s website as a pivot to digital programming, alongside collected articles by Ali called the Amazonification reading list. https://leftcontemporary.com/exhibitions/hiba-ali/
CM: So how did you first become interested in Amazon surveillance? Your video Abra is interesting because while focusing on these concerns, you're engaging with Amazon's customer service mascot named “Peccy”.
HA: Prior to addressing Amazon in my work, I had been making video art installations, sculptures about the history of global shipping. And the kind of global networking that it requires, which generally happened in the 60s in North America. Tracing how things move, how products move so quickly and how capital moves so quickly, and how people can’t, was a real interest. So, I did this earlier work about, you know, what, who can move and in what ways? And what kinds of products move and whose interests are they serving.
I had done earlier work around this history. I was asking myself the question of, you know, what is the most contemporary form of globalized shipping that isn't what we know, that we access, and that we use every day? Because a lot of systems or infrastructure are purposefully invisible. It kind of goes into the idea of one of Amazon's initial first names called “Abracadabra”.
And so it's this whole idea of like, a box magically appearing on your doorstep. Looking into the history of networks and shipping and satellites drew me to ask this question to myself, what's the most contemporary form of shipping?
Prior to graduating my MFA program and starting the Ph.D. program here in Queens in Kingston, I worked at the Amazon warehouse in Texas, and did temp work. So, in this way, it wasn’t like a theoretical practice, it was like an embodied practice of seeing, feeling, and going through. Also, because I needed money to move to see how basically work sets up our whole life in this contemporary reality, and just the kind of abuses and power that are very much part of the structure and not an aberration or outlier.
CM: What strikes me the most about that video is how this customer service mascot would never have an internal conversation with its own employees. I like how that has reinforced this conflicted idea of invisibility - as my first takeaway from the use of bubbles... Like, there's this surveillance specific to Black and brown people and yet there's the oppressive erasure. Can you talk about this kind of relationship where a body is being more focused on and yet barely seen ever, all at the same time?
HA: Yeah, it's like the duality of being - both encountering the hyper-visible and invisible at the same time. I remember my first encounter with the Peccy was while moving some carts of boxes within boxes. And I would see these dated posters hanging on the wall, like, “Peccy loves customers! Here are some customer service tips!” And I was like this is such a weird cartoon character. I don't really see it all over the warehouse. I was like, this is a strange mascot. And this mascot has this whole genealogy of being customer service obsessed and like, smiley. That smile that the cartoon character has is on all the boxes. That's where the [Amazon boxes] smile comes from.
The way that Peccy exists, is very much about doing “good” corporate work, like the do-gooders. “We make the world a better place and keep order for Amazon. We take care of our workers!” And that's been the same talking points received again and again to the public during the pandemic, even though on the private level, the company’s taking all efforts they can take to sabotage unionizing efforts, both in Canada and the U.S. It is the kind of configuration that is at all odds with the actual people who power the engine of the company.
Basically, the non-managers in Amazon are predominantly folks of color. And, like the higher percentage of the managers at Amazon are white. The kind of race and gender data sets are available and updated every few years. I think that is a crucial piece that is not really made available - that a lot of part-time gig workers, or precarious people, are positioned into, as this is the only job that they can work at that will hire them. The way in which the job works is to really hurt people.
Our bodies aren't designed to do repetitive work. It's like taking strains on our muscles. It's designed around maiming people as it’s really work that's made for robots to do. What does it mean to treat people like objects, you know? Like the right objects for shipping?
CM: Yeah, it’s awful. More disposable than just cogs in a machine. I’d like to focus closer on one of the terms - what is “Amazonification”?
HA: I'm using this term in my dissertation. To kind of redefine it, or define it by its undoing. This word Amazonification was popularized in the early 2000s by Business Journal’s saying, “Whoa, Amazon is buying up the whole industry!” And it was a word that illustrates the immense work that Amazon was doing at that time. And this growth is specific. And this kind of growth was like basically eating up other companies and monopolizing.
So, for example, with the book publishing industry, Amazon completely changed that model, and kind of devalued independent publishing, because of the way it sold books. So, if your local store, let's say, -mom and pop shops, were selling a book for $10, Amazon would come in and say - Oh, you can buy the same book for $5 and free shipping. So now you have this book that you want, but it's way cheaper to get it from Amazon who offers free shipping. We can make an assessment and know what that's going to do to your local bookstore economy. Small stores can't handle that kind of immense pressure from a big conglomerate, and they shut down. Amazon has done that across so many different industries to basically decimate them and that's why they've grown so big alongside lenient corporate taxes, etc.
Amazonification, as a term, was used to celebrate the growth of the company. But within that “celebration” is like basically demolishing a lot of industries. It's the growth of a monopoly. Amazon is the monopoly.
CM: It's taking advantage of that type of convenience. Which is super scary, because on top of hyper-algorithmic data that's being both fed and collected, that seems to only escalate it more.
HA: Yeah, Amazon is very good at that. As part of their PR strategy too is to have the politics of fear, and paranoia because fear helps control people. If we are so afraid of the corporation, then we're not going to organize, we're not going to figure out local forms of resistance, things like that. And they really use that against their workers who are organized and able to use that against people who speak out against Amazon.
CM: That’s a good place to ask my next questions. Fear. Especially surrounding the pandemic. I'm sure you were doing this research before the pandemic hit. This must have been massive where, you know, major problems involving socioeconomic inequity and inequality are surfacing. So, I'm wondering if you could touch on specific events or any readings you remember, seeing or hearing that sparked to deepen that research?
HA: During the pandemic, I had just been waiting a lot. I was reading a lot and taking note of how I was going to restructure my dissertation because the previous framework didn't quite fit. Everything was changing so fast. It was a lot of the periods of research and seeing what articles would hold. But what has really been impressed upon to the wider public is the level of disposability that a lot of warehouse workers work under and the conditions of precarity and willful disregard - I say willful because they design it to be this way. It's not like, “Oh, they forgot or like they didn’t know....” No, no, they're very much aware of creating an infrastructure of illness. Basically, a lot of corporations default to think like- “Why spend the money to take care of workers? There’s so many and they are replaceable.” This perspective might not be said out loud but it's definitely what we see done in their actions.
CM: It’s so severely tiered which is well - it's evil.
CM: I’d like to talk about how you might have envisioned this as a physical exhibition. If, in an ideal world this was installed at LEFT. Were you looking to install more alongside the video work?
HA: Yeah, I wanted to show the Abra work. So, one thing about Amazon is that it's marketed to us as a public good, and almost like a public service. Amazon will take the place of your errands, your groceries - just click on buttons online and everything, you know, shows up. As it grows more and more, Amazon wants to start delivering all your mail. That's where a lot of their technological interests are going. I say that because my work, and a lot of other scholars' work, is to make visible these purposefully hidden systems of surveillance and labour. As a physical exhibition, I would set up the gallery to become different “zones.”
One zone would be where the Abra video would play, and there'd be cushions on the ground, to view the work. I was thinking about putting together a timeline of workers liberation and or including material from organizations such as Amazonians United and CCAEJ, they're based in the Inland Empire in California. That region of the US has the most warehouses out of California and there's a lot of environmental pollution. Illustrating both the kind of environmental and societal drain of surveillance found in Amazon.
I really make visible workers' history and union efforts and for there to be a platform for us - for all of us to know that we can do this. I think a lot of times people are thinking: “I'm not a warehouse worker. Why would this be important to me?” When unions are stacked against very intense roadblocks for getting better wages, getting a better livelihood, it impacts everyone. So, making these tools really visible and accessible is important as well.
[img: Amazonians United]
CM: Yeah, totally. I’d like to touch on accessibility. I like how you mentioned the use of visual tools to make things visible to the wider public. Oftentimes public access to knowledge or culture are vulnerable to the systems of gatekeeping in different communities. What's it like to be showing and engaging with work in a union city like Windsor and does the selection of work you decide to show change for other exhibiting locations?
HA: Yeah, I think the conversation with Amazon is just as important for smaller cities or towns as it is for bigger cities. Because often the warehouses for Amazon shipping and delivery are located just like right outside the metropolitan area. And that's usually in places, for example, right outside of Windsor or close to Windsor. In Toronto, there's a warehouse in Scarborough. It’s not downtown, but it's just close enough so that it can service the interior Toronto area. Amazon does this deliberately. Amazon will pick like working class communities of color to locate to. And why? Because that’s their “ideal worker”. There's a supply of, basically laborers that will come and do the work. These are your regions and spaces where the warehouses are located and are often in a double bind when Amazon is one of the major suppliers of jobs but also the only place to get the items and products you need because all the independent stores have closed.
So, when I say, “boycott Amazon”, and people ask me, “well, what do you mean, Amazon is the only place where I can get this thing that I need?” In bigger cities, there are more choices and alternatives available. But in smaller cities, Amazon is this thing where it's the only place where you can get a good job. And it's the only place where you can order from. I feel like it’s a financial entrapment because it limits people's choices. So, in those situations, it can be extremely hard to boycott Amazon.
CM: I see, so in terms of access to your work the very subject matter is accessible since everyone’s encountered it. I guess the crucial and more difficult point is creating more awareness of the harm involved. Now on another note, with Detroit being across the border and in recent news, I think they have gone ahead with one of the proposals to bring in a processing center or a distribution center? And, the only people that are talking about, the “no tax breaks and no incentives” are smaller, publicly funded newspapers versus, you know, like msn.com commenting all the ways that it is “good”. Seems typical for an outsider to not understand the context of the city.
HA: I believe it was 2018 Amazon planned to open an HQ2 with a proposal in Queens, New York. With a lot of Black and brown working-class people living there - they will potentially be the, you know, Amazon warehouse workers if the HQ2 were to open there. And people have the same questions and are asking what kind of jobs are these? What is going to be the minimum wage? How will you protect us? There's this required rate, like basically you must hit this number of boxes per day or you're being lazy or you're not being a good worker. How are you going to protect workers with things like that? And Amazon, I believe, God, almost got over like 3 billion, some ridiculous number of tax breaks from the state, from the city. And I remember this precisely because I remember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being like, why is this huge company getting a tax break? When there's no money off their back. We're basically bribing them to come to our state.
CM: Oh god. Such a gross amount of money. Can we talk about location and migration? It’s fascinating how regionally specific labour can exist. Because just from living and working in different provinces, and of course from travelling - it’s quite clear how reflective these things are of the local economy. I think it challenged how I saw myself, and in terms of representation, plus the expectations led by a dominantly white lens when discussing these issues. I'm just curious about places you've moved to and how those experiences have left an imprint on either your research or navigating your practice?
HA: I did a lot of customer service work when I was a teenager. Food service work. Based in like, Chicago, and suburbs. Work has been a constant in my life. And also, my parents' lives. With my research on Amazon and thinking about how work, through labour, structures the lives of Black and brown people, it's something that, for example, where warehouses are located in working class neighborhoods are specifically chosen so that they can have people come in and work and also pollute the very area with trucks and other delivery vehicle coming in and out of the warehouse. This, of course, is not the case in upper class and more whiter areas
I connected that, through looking at CCAEJ’s work, specifically, their Billions Off Our Backs campaign, of course it makes sense that the demographics of the workforce reflects the neighbiourhoods that Amazon is choosing to pollute - and I say choosing to because there won't be a warehouse in a gated community. I think it’s about how precarity forms and how work and labour are structured to maim workers.
CM: Can you tell me about an upcoming or current project?
HA: There's another mascot Amazon has called Danbo. And it's more popular in Japan. It’s basically a mascot made of boxes.
What Amazon does is make a lot of “fun” graphics on their website to deter unionizing, like a dog playing a record player, or you know, a fun orange blob like Peccy. It makes corporations look cute and not at all like what they really are. In an upcoming work, I've taken the image of Danbo and I'm having Danbo laugh and cheer at pro-union messages. There's a quote like, “Global Workers Unite!” and Danbo has their arms out and they're kind of cheering. Something like children’s public access programming - like PBS but for the Union for workers, and for unionizing. I’m reappropriating and refashioning them to speak back to corporate aesthetics. I want to show a video that addresses these things called, “Danbo and Me” like a kids show, but for everyone.
How Amazon Crushes Unions https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/16/technology/amazon-unions-virginia.html
amazonification: reading list 2021
2. The Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice. https://www.ccaej.org/
3. Amazon HQ2 and NYC: A timeline of the botched deal: How the deal came to be, and came to fall apart.
4. Amazon Pulls out of Planned NY Headquarters (paywall)
5. Billions Off Our Backs campaign. https://www.ccaej.org/post/ccaej-collaborates-with-esri-for-billions-off-our-backs-campaign
This conversation took place on March 11, 2021
Hiba Ali is a producer of moving images, sounds, garments and words. They reside in many time zones: Chicago, Toronto and Eugene. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, they belong to East African, South Asian and Arab diasporas. They are a practitioner and (re)learner of Swahili, Urdu, Arabic and Spanish. They work on two long term art and publication projects: the first being an art-based ph.d project that examines womyn of colour’s labour, and architecture of surveillance as it exists within the monopoly of amazon (corp.) and the second being project that addresses music, cloth and ritual practices that connect East Africa, South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula in the Indian Ocean region.
They are an assistant professor of New Media Artist/ Geminist discourse at the College of Design in the Art & Technology program at the University of Oregon, Eugene, OR. Currently, they are a PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen's university in Kingston, Ontario. Their work has been presented in Chicago, Stockholm, Vienna, Berlin, Toronto, New York, Istanbul, São Paulo, Detroit, Windsor, Dubai, Austin, Vancouver, and Portland. They have written for the following magazines: “C”, The Seen, Newcity Chicago, Art Chicago, Art Dubai, The state, Medium’s Zora, rtv, and Topical Cream.
Czarina Mendoza is Filipina-Canadian interdisciplinary artist currently based in Windsor, ON. Born and raised in central Alberta, the rural landscape deepened her exploration around the construction of identity and both preserving and reciprocating cultural legacy. Her material-based practice repurposes found objects and mass consumer goods to explore ideas centering around labour, inherited cultural memory and the mediation of transnational ties. She has presented in group shows, assisted in panel moderating, programming and workshop development with local organizations Left Contemporary, Artcite Inc. and Arts Council Windsor & Region. More recently she has worked as a facilitator and coordinator assistant with Centre 3 Arts (Hamilton).
LEFT Contemporary is a grassroots arts organization in Windsor, ON. Beginning in a garage in Walkerville in 2017, LEFT moved to a Downtown storefront in 2019 before departing it’s physical location in the Spring of 2020 and moving its programming online during the Covid-19 pandemic.