Yesterday, I received an email from street artist Xylo who has started mounting fake iPhones to walls in London. The cement objects look quite realistic in the photos and they are surfaced by black and white paintings that depict suicides, which Xylo says, is in reference to the recent news stories about the shocking suicides at a Chinese electronics factory.
It should be noted that China generally has a very high suicide rate, but this story directly ties the shocking incidents to devices that people in affluent societies use everyday, and that association makes the facts feel more powerful.
He pointed me to the online post that prompted his response, which includes this passage:
The Shenzhen plant in Guangdong province houses 400,000 workers, making products from iPhones and iPads to PlayStations for international brands like Apple, Sony, Hewlett-Packard and Dell. Analysts estimate that about 70 percent of Apple’s products are manufactured there.
Most of the 13 workers who tried to kill themselves [since January] jumped from buildings because they were unable to bear the stress, alienation and humiliation they experience daily.
Xylo’s visual response is a combination of curious and skillful. He has taken something that most people have a positive association with and revealed a more sinister side to state-of-the-art technology. He seems intent on making electronics consumers realize that their buying power impacts people around the world. As an iPhone user myself I found the images quite disturbing, and they evoke a very real feeling visual association I didn’t have when I first read the reports about the suicides last week.
Xylo, who has been creating street art for a few years but still hesitates to call himself an artist since it the “term feels a bit pretentious and elitist somehow when I apply it to myself, plus I don’t sell the things I make, so it’s not a profession,” answered some of my questions via email about his latest fake iPhone series.
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Hrag: Why are you concerned about the death of electronic workers?
Xylo: When I saw the news reports about this wave of suicides I felt very disturbed about the militaristic prison camp type conditions and abuse these workers have to endure. It feels like a hidden dystopian nightmare has been created that contrasts sharply with the affluent consumers I see every day in London staring vacantly into their phone screens, seemingly oblivious to the suffering embodied in the devices they have increasingly become slavish to.
Shortly after this I then saw a much greater amount of news coverage of people queuing overnight to buy the latest versions of these items and upon having made their purchase and exiting the store some were even punching the air and repeatedly kissing the box that contained the phone in a triumphalist act of devotion. I was shocked by the skewed sense of priorities that appeared to be in effect and felt a strong sense of injustice that made me decide to attempt to redress the balance in whatever small way I could.
H: Are your street sculptures designed to influence people’s relationship to electronics?
X: I’d hope they will make some of them consider the choices they make regarding the social and environmental implications of all the products they use, whether electronic or not.
H: Tell me about how you crafted these. They look like pretty realistic sculptures, but they’re casted, aren’t they? What are they made off?
X: I made a mould of an iPhone and then cast them using a smooth cement type mixture that I concocted myself. Once they’d dried I then painted the pictures and other details onto them by hand.
H: How many have you put up and any idea how people are reacting to them?
X: I’ve only just started putting them up in the last few days, The reactions I’ve encountered so far have mostly been quite perplexed. It seems that hardly anyone here has even heard about the suicides and maltreatment of the workers, as it didn’t really seem to be a priority for the media.
Someone said to me that they had interpreted the depicted suicide victim as being the phone user. I found this to be an interesting way of looking at it, especially considering a recently published scientific report which concluded that the proliferation of technology has made people more isolated and lonely.
H: Why use stark black and white graphics on the faces of the iPhones?
X: As the subject matter is so psychologically dark, a bright color scheme might have seemed joyful, and therefore somewhat inappropriate in the circumstances.
H: What do you think is the role of street art?
X: I think it offers a very necessary arena of expression free from the constraints of commerce, and has an important role to play in providing a physical manifestation of dissent. This in turn then makes people feel slightly more liberated by it’s presence, perhaps looking on it as something essential to the human spirit which defies an increasingly sinister type of sanitization and control of public space.
On a more personal level, I’ve found that making it can help lessen feelings of alienation and powerlessness that arise due to various negative aspects of society. Hopefully through the use of street art to highlight some of these issues people will become more aware of the need for change and thus form a critical mass of consciousness to overcome inertia.