Urban Accessories: the questionable nature of call boxes in times of need


One of the features that tour guides always point out during campus tours at Occidental College are the call boxes scattered around campus. Simple and intuitive, they are meant to be freely used by students to call for help whenever they feel unsafe on campus.

However, more often than not, they seem to ultimately serve as nothing more than urban accessories, only there for show. Many students that I asked about the call boxes had forgotten they were there in the first place. Even if they were aware of their existence, they often said that they would trust their cellphones before they trusted the call boxes to supply aid in an emergency or time of need. Some students even doubted the call boxes were real or actually worked.

Similarly, there are many “call boxes” set up in places like Occidental College. They are institutional systems that were set up for the purpose of receiving and being accountable to responding to people’s calls for help. This could be the systems and procedures set in place to report anything from sexual assault to racial discrimination, hate crimes against the LGBTQ community and feelings of depression or suicide.

But many of those systems fall through for the people they are meant to help—rape kits go untested and victims are accused of “asking for it” or being overly “sensitive.” Too many people’s cries for help, for whatever reason, end up being lost in bureaucracy or deliberately tossed out, like trash or sewage. Thus, these systems of accountability ultimately become nothing more than names and institutional accessories. They are there for show, as opposed to actually being facilitators of justice.

In this piece of artwork, titled “Luminate,” I have replicated a call box as seen on the Occidental campus. However, the speaker and buttons on the call box that are meant to be used to call for help have instead been replaced with sewer grates and lids. Instead of “call received,” the script on the box reads “call received never.”

As a final touch, faint blue hand and fingerprints have been stamped on the call box. It is representative of the blue light usually found illuminating the call boxes. But it also evokes the blue light that luminol gives off when it has contacted where blood may no longer been seen, but has been before.

Too many “call boxes” have blood on them. Too often they have been the scene of many crimes, where people have in a sense called and called again, dialed and hung up, and pounded until they bled, but still weren’t heard. It may not be visible, but the marks of their struggle and their pain are still there. We need only to shine a little light to see it.

Perhaps, we might even listen for once.