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Key details


  • 23 November 2023

Read time

  • 6 minutes

José García Oliva is a Venezuelan artist based in London. He is currently the 2023/24 Participation Residency Artist at Gasworks, London, where he is exploring the intricate connections between migrant labour, diasporic identity, and oppressive systemic structures.

After completing a BA in Fine Arts at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid, José came to the RCA to study Visual Communication MA. This transformed his practice, introducing participatory methods and performance as ways to connect and collaborate with local groups of people and audiences.

José García Oliva

Since graduating he has published How May I Serve You? (2023), based on his RCA graduate project on call centres. This investigated the relationship between labour and identity, raising concerns about automation and employee surveillance in outsourced companies.

In 2020, supported by Live Art Development Agency (LADA) he developed White Vinegar a project exploring gender, race and identity through the lens of cleanliness and its presence in art history. This led to the development of Traces in 2022/23, a year-long project commissioned by Lancaster Art realised in collaboration with the cleaners at Lancaster University.

Alongside this, José won the 2021 UK Ibero-American Visual Art Prize (VIA Art Prize), and he has taken part in residences at Casa Wabi, Oaxaca, Mexico; SOMA, Mexico; and The Muse Gallery, London. He is the course leader for MA Visual Communication at Ravensbourne University and is an associate lecturer at Kingston School of Art.


How has your time at the RCA prepared you for your career since?

The main thing I gained from my time at the RCA was understanding how to position myself as a collaborator in socially engaged practice. When working with a group of people, I gained a better understanding of my position and how to question ethical approaches when working collaboratively.

Before coming to the RCA you studied fine art in Madrid. What drew you to studying Visual Communication MA at the RCA?

I found the fine art industry very individualistic, with a lot of emphasis placed on the artist's style and brand in order to sell. I’m more interested in what we can create collectively, seeing art as a process rather than a mere decorative product. I also wanted to use the Visual Communication MA to expand on the media I was using.

“Visual Communication at the RCA was more about understanding the subject, its context and being flexible in the way that you respond to it.”

José García Oliva Visual Communication MA alumni

Fine art in Madrid was very traditional and material based. Visual Communication at the RCA was more about understanding the subject, its context and being flexible in the way that you respond to it. The programme opened up so many different ways of working – from doing a performance to creating a sculpture or video piece. That’s what Visual Communication is really about, finding the format that best communicates the message.

How May I Serve You How May I Serve You

What was your experience of studying at the RCA? Did it meet, or differ from your expectations?

I was impressed with how self-led the programme is; at the RCA you learn what is important to you. For example, I was interested in using typography within a fine art practice – so I learnt about typography, lettering and editorial design, which I used to design thebook I published.

The Visual Communication programme creates a space where you have really interesting conversations. You are surrounded by people who are experts in fields different to your own. That is amazing.


During your time at the RCA you made a performance in collaboration with the cleaning staff where participants could mop the floor to temporarily reveal a text that read “Latinos are very serviceable and people here like that.” Could you talk through how this work came about?

It struck me when I came to the RCA that the cleaners were from South America (Ecuador, Colombia and Bolivia). They were the people that I felt comfortable talking to in my own language; it was really nice to have lunch with them. After a while I started to question why they were all from South America. I realised it is not only the RCA, but that many institutions in the UK employ Latinos in the cleaning sector.

Through conversations with them I was reminded of this stereotypical idea we have as latinos, that we are good at services and cleaning. That’s where the project started. I realised there is a clear relationship between identity and labour; and in many cases, your identity can shape your occupation.

“That’s what participatory performance can do, it can reveal things that you don’t know will happen.”

José García Oliva Visual Communication MA alumni

There is a common idea that cleaning is something degrading. People at the RCA are privileged in terms of financial status. I wanted them to be the ones to mop the floor and be recorded doing that. Interestingly it was women who came forward first to mop the floor. That wasn’t planned. That’s what participatory performance can do, it can reveal things that you don’t know will happen.

People here like that

Where did your interest in performance and live events come from?

One book really influenced me, Conflictual Aesthetics: Artistic Activism and the Public Sphere by Oliver Marchart. He writes that in order to understand a subject, you need to participate in it, you need to experience it yourself. That’s where my interest in participation and getting people involved came from. The artist or designer creates the tools, but the people that interact are the ones that make the work itself.

I became obsessed with performative work. I wanted to continue the cleaning project but COVID happened, and it didn’t make sense online. So instead I continued exploring the idea of identity and labour but looked to the parallel of call centres for UK businesses based overseas.

Through a friend from Pakistan, I was introduced to Malik Ayaz and Saadia Abbasi, who worked in the call centre industry in Islamabad. We worked together to create an online platform for people to participate and have open conversations using a live chat. After graduating, the work was shown at SET Kensington with the support of Axis Web and Arts Council England. I also produced a book documenting the project, which was published this year by Sold Out Publishing.

How May I Serve You, website How May I Serve You How may I serve you

You have continued making works around the invisible labour through a project with Lancaster Arts and cleaners at Lancaster University. How did this project develop?

I was introduced to the cleaners at the university, and at first they were very suspicious. I visited for weeks at a time, over several months. I started helping them clean the library. When we were cleaning we had conversations about everything: the job, how they were feeling, where they got materials. They said they felt their pay grade was not enough – it was not so much about their salary but more about them feeling a lack of recognition of such vital work. I came to the idea of creating a monument for the cleaners and by the cleaners, so that the cleaners could materialise the invisible traces of their labour.

I wanted to make visible what they do every day at the library and to use the materials they work with. We got a big canvas for them to paint on using the mop and bucket they use to clean with. We chose blue paint because in the cleaner’s colour code the blue represents public spaces.

They hadn’t seen each other as a group for two years, so I wanted it to be a reunion, a celebration, alongside the performance to create the work. It was important that the cleaners were involved in the decision of where we placed the finished works. They wanted them to be displayed on the staircases which connect the floors of the library.

Traces Traces

What are you up to now?

The work with Lancaster Arts is ongoing – I have just done a participatory performance, and I’ll be having an exhibition there in 2024 with all the work done with them so far.

I’m also a resident at Gasworks in London at the moment. I’m working in collaboration with various independent unions to discuss and raise awareness about workers’ rights, specifically with the Latin American diaspora, and translate them into collective action through creative means. Held in English, Spanish and Portuguese, the sessions aim to shed light on poor working conditions and foster solidarity and advocacy.

But S(till) I Have a Job

“The best outcome is the conversation that can happen during the process, at the show or after the show.”

José García Oliva Visual Communication alumni

Do you see your work as a form of activism? Are you hoping for a particular outcome or to change something?

I don’t think it changes the problem. It’s more about raising awareness on a specific subject or issue. But also, it is about archiving and witnessing the social conditions that are happening today. If history is not written or materialised you’ll never know what, or why, or how it happened. Hopefully, the people who experience the work understand the perspective of the other people who are not in their position. The best outcome is the conversation that can happen during the process, at the show or after the show. It’s not about making change but about shaking people so they can make the change.

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