The work of artist Hiba Ali, who also performs as H1BA, bears witness to the Amazonification of human life. The controversial state mega-subsidies for the company’s so-called “HQ2” — which will be split between Crystal City, Virginia, outside D.C., and Long Island City, Queens — are just the latest testament to its reach and power. It seems to get whatever it wants, despite, or perhaps because of, its treatment of its workers, suppliers, and competitors. There have been journalistic exposés, but not as much art about the company has so far entered public discourse, despite Amazon’s presence in almost every aspect of our lives. Ali’s work is an urgent corrective, because Ali knows Amazon: she worked at one of the company’s fulfillment centers, herself.
In a 2018 video performance she presented with Lilia Taboada at the Visual Art Center at the University of Texas at Austin, titled “To Be a Box,” Ali dressed up as and took on the “voice” of a cardboard Amazon delivery box, an object made of the very stuff rapidly disappearing from the company’s namesake rainforest. Ali-as-box relishes in the consumer’s obsession with her contents and speaks with sadistic glee of the state of the workers that physically manipulate her/it: “At the warehouses, people push me around and have to beat the clock … if they don’t … bwa, bwaaaa, fired.” From the box’s perspective, human bodies are tools. They are tracked and regulated — reportedly prevented from even going to the bathroom or taking a seat — not unlike the packages they send out.
Ali’s “To Be a Box” reminds us that exploitation with a smiley logo, no matter how convenient and consumer-friendly, is still the same old exploitation. As has been repeated ad infinitum as of late: The system isn’t broken; it’s working just as it’s intended to. And besides, Amazon, like all the efficiency-obsessed companies aiming to “disrupt” the world as we know it, is counting on the idea that, eventually, most human “tools” can, and will, be replaced by artificial intelligence, robots, whatever’s next. The precarity is built in to their business model.
Ali, who was born in Karachi and relocated to Chicago when she was 8, is a new media artist, writer, curator, and musician. She took a summer job in a Texas Amazon fulfillment center to earn money between grad programs, after the performance of “To Be a Box.” (She is now a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University, Kingston, Canada). There, she got firsthand experience from the inside, acting as the unseen and unconsidered labor behind the blithely pressed “Buy Now With 1 Click” buttons that have leveled entire industries. “It’s extractive of people’s labor,” Ali tells me, over email, “like sucking the life force out of someone and spitting them out.”
This December, she’ll unveil a video installation entitled “Abra” at the Ori Gallery in Portland, Oregon. In the installation, which is in response to her fulfillment center experience, she will conduct an interview with Peccy, “Amazon’s customer service-obsessed mascot,” as a part of a show called “Alienated Labor.”
“I use humor in my work, through extreme satire to make the facets of life we ‘normalize’ absurd, because they are,” Ali says.
The Amazon box’s unrelenting smile and the goofy orange blob Peccy are appropriated by Ali to highlight the uncanniness and absurdity of the company’s ingratiating attempts to be relatable. By emblematizing a publicly traded corporation whose practices are rife with labor and environmental abuses with smiling characters, Amazon attempts to becloud all the bad stuff with a friendly face. Ali is not alone in trying to turn Amazon’s ubiquitous visual language back on itself, of course: During a protest on Prime Day this past summer, workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Leipzig, Germany, walked off the job, along with workers in Spain and Poland, and created a giant box-person bearing that distinctive arrow-mouth and the words “Make Amazon Pay!”
Heike Geissler, who worked in the Leipzig facility, described her experience in Seasonal Associate, the translation of which Ali recently wrote about on the website Topical Cream. Ali explained that Geissler’s book “joins earlier efforts to expose the e-commerce giant, like Vanessa Veselka’s ’In the Wake of Protest: One Woman’s Attempt to Unionize Amazon’ (2011) and James Bloodworth’s Hired: Six Months Undercover in Low-wage Britain (2018). There have been other explorations that take a more poetic approach like Of the Subcontract (2013) by Nick Thurston, which compiles poems written by underpaid subcontracted workers commissioned through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service.”
At this point, Amazon has become so ubiquitous it can almost no longer be seen. It has reached the scale of — as Ali’s box tells us, laughing — “unfettered-behemoth-U.S.-healthcare-arms-industry-mortgage-crisis-rolled into ONE!!” A flat expanse of increasingly complex logistics, technical apparatus, and floating plastic waste, Amazon’s digital and physical existences expand beyond our range of vision; hypervisibility and invisibility operate as two sides of the same coin. Each order and each click sets off a chain reaction you never need to know about. Your package simply arrives two days later. “Erasure overrides production as consumption overrides environmentalism,” writes Ali in her review of Geissler’s book. You can’t see the air you breathe.
While so much of the exploitation we sanction as consumers is hidden away, Amazon is one of the most admired companies in the country, trusted by liberals and conservatives alike, making shopping easier while further cozying up to us by producing purportedly “subversive” streaming TV shows like Homecoming, all while Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is hailed as a savior of quality journalism for his (relatively newfound) ownership of the Washington Post.
And so Amazon gets what it wants. Sucking up to Bezos seems to be the one thing Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo can agree on. The city’s developers, who turned LIC into a citadel of banal, glassy high-rises, will be happy. The rest of us are being asked to make do with free shipping. And Ali-the-box just laughs.