Don't Enter "The Conference Call Simulator" If You Work In A Cubicle
ConferenceCall.biz is an online art project that may be too painfully familiar for those who've clocked hours in a corporate office environment. The site, created by a .GIF artist Zach Scott, asks visitors to "join the conference call," an offer that turns into a surrealist vortex of ergonomic chairs, flow diagrams, business casual attire, employees huddled around cubicles, and other corporate tropes and cliches in .GIF form.
The imagery is overlain with audio snippets of idiosyncratic (and often awkward) interactions recorded during conference calls. The loop of monotone requests to "speak up" due to poor reception, juxtaposed with images of seemingly-endless Excel spreadsheets is humorous, but things get dark the moment you see a part of yourself in the corporate abyss.
Underneath the recorded chatter is a quiet layer of ambient music, possibly demonstrating what would happen if David Lynch directed a re-make of Office Space.
Scott talked to The Creators Project about how he got the inspiration for these #corporatejobproblems, and why ConferenceCall.biz feels like all the speakers are vaguely addressing the same thing, but no progress is ever made. It is a Monday, so maybe save this Q&A for your lunch break.
The Creators Project: What was the inspiration behind the infinite Conference Call? Have you ever worked a corporate, 9-5 job?
Zach Scott: I work with corporations, but I don't work for a corporation. Conference calls are part my work, almost every day. Sometimes I lead them, sometimes I'm a necessary participant, and sometimes I'm just listening in with no expectation of needing to say anything.
After you sit through hundreds of these calls, you notice that certain events occur regularly, almost like holidays. There's the ritual of calling in and taking attendance, the interruptions in the background, the distortion and inevitable technical problems. These events are novel at first, but as they repeatedly occur they become sort of surreal as every call begins to resemble aspects of a call in the past. This creates a psychedelic experience that is completely at odds with the formality of a conference call where every minute or participation is being invoiced. I thought it was worth documenting.
Where did the footage and audio come from for this project? How long will the audio loop play for before restarting?
Fifteen friends recorded the voice recordings for me. I wrote down about 50 lines of script and sent it out to them. Some of them recorded what I wrote verbatim, but others improvised and put it into their own words, which was great. Currently there are 62 lines of dialogue, which are randomly selected. Each of the 62 recordings will play once in random order, and then it resets, so that it never ends. I think the 62 clips add up to about 10 minutes, although I'm in the process of adding another 15-20 clips to the final version.
I made all of the .GIFs for ConferenceCall.biz, and they came from a variety of sources. Some of them are modified from Google searches like "conference call agony," and others are based off of photos of the people who contributed the voices.
While the .GIFs I usually create need to be under 1000kb to fit under Tumblr's file size limit for .GIFs, in this case I limited myself to about 125kb or less for each image, so that the images would load quickly on the fly for whoever visits ConferenceCall.biz.
I checked out your Tumblr and you have a wide-array of GIFs and net-focused art. Are you commissioned to make these projects, or are these created as personal projects?
For the most part, the GIFs are just for my own amusement. I've started making them about four years ago and never stopped. Normally I just post them to weinventyou.net as I finish them, but in 2014 I'm trying to post a .GIF every day for the entire year.
At first I made them for the amusement of people on a messageboard, and then in the following year or two I kept going because I felt myself noticeably improving and it was kind of exciting. I think a lot of excellent art comes out of constraint, and GIFs are full of constraint--256 colors max, and in the case of Tumblr posts, 500x500 and 1MB or less. It forces you to limit the final GIF to the most essential frames.
Why did you pick the specific ambient soundtrack that coincides? What about ambient music adds to the conference/office environment? Personally, I think it adds a layer of impending doom or some Lynchian aspect.
Thanks for mentioning Lynch--he's my very favorite director and a huge influence. The intent of the ambient soundtrack was to create an unsettling atmosphere. I included quiet supermarket sounds at the beginning and end of the loop because I want people to subliminally feel the influence of money and transactions.
In many conference calls, time really is money, and every distraction and interruption begins to add up monetarily. The participants' inefficiencies are tangibly costing someone money, and it becomes stressful.
I had a few alternate backing tracks that dramatically changed the whole experience. One of them was a loop of a few cheesy hold music smooth jazz clips. I didn't use it because I thought it made the website too funny. I wanted to make people feel a little uncomfortable, and smooth jazz is just too funny. The backing track is really important in setting the tone--if the backing track was the sound of chatter and work and keyboards then the resulting vibe would be more industrious. But I wanted people to think about the absurdity of the conference call and feel a little despair.
How would you imagine someone immersed in this corporate environment to respond to this project? Have you sent it to any friends in the corporate world?
I haven't directly sent it to anyone, but I've seen reactions from those in corporate world. Some people that are human resources gurus have retweeted it, saying things like "Are your conference calls like this? They shouldn't be!"
In general, it seems like those that have to endure conference calls on a regular basis view the project as depressing and dystopic. But others outside of that world see the humor in it, which makes me happy!
I think there's a comedic aspect to ConferenceCall.biz, but it comes across with repetition, and it reveals itself after being played for several minutes. It's a side of ConferenceCall.biz that most visitors probably don't see--my analytics show that most people don't make it more than 30 seconds in.