In a retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London, Christopher Kulendran Thomas wonders if network technology can create a real utopia.
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LONDON — Can art change the world? For all the possible answers to this question, the fact of war seems to sweep it away: Has “Guernica” ever stopped a bomb? As humanity shambles on, the artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas takes up the question again, but from a perverse angle: a tech start-up spun off a defeated revolution.
Kulendran Thomas’s video “New Eelam” traversed the art world in 2016, appearing in showroom-like installations at major biennials. The work tells the story of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a militant Marxist group in Sri Lanka that, between 1983 and 2009, attempted to build an autonomous community called Eelam in the island’s northern jungles. For Kulendran Thomas’s purposes, a nascent internet helped Tamil Eelam explore nonhierarchical forms of self-government. A flood of western arms to the Sri Lankan army sealed the Tigers’ fate, and another revolution ended in blood.
Kulendran Thomas, an artist of Tamil descent whose family fled to London during the violence, watched the denouement while studying at art school here. He also observed the aftermath: Along with the global capital rushing into peacetime Sri Lanka came a flush of white cube galleries and art fairs.
Politically minded, didactic art rarely has solutions or next steps; Kulendran Thomas had an app. The “New Eelam” video veers into an advertisement for an apartment-sharing scheme, also called New Eelam, that would allow members to live in a pool of commonly owned flats in desirable neighborhoods from London to Los Angeles. Stateless, horizontal communism would become a reality one user at a time. Kulendran Thomas seemed to pursue the project, seriously if cynically, as both a legitimate start-up and as a work of art.
Since “New Eelam” debuted, a handful of non-art, unironic flexible living brands have bloomed. Now, Thomas and a collaborator, Annika Kuhlmann, are making a slightly different pitch with “Another World,” which is running at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, in London, through Jan. 22, 2023, and in a parallel presentation at the K.W. Institute for Contemporary Art, in Berlin, through Jan. 15, 2023. New Eelam’s website now redirects to a venture called Earth. But the core, accelerationist concept remains: a ploy to surpass capitalism by making more of it.
The London exhibition comprises two video installations on two floors. Upstairs, there’s transparency, the city, the white cube; downstairs, reflection, a jungle, a black box.
The jungle comes first. Through a yellow curtain, framed diagrams of Tamil Eelam buildings face a floor-to-ceiling projection of a jungle representing the forests of Tamil Eelam. In the middle of the space, a wooden scaffold supports a fragmented bank of monitors. Mannequins in ghillie suits stand guard in the shadows.
Called “The Finesse,” the work incorporates portions of a Tamil Tigers propaganda video from the 1990s, in which a soldier puts the value of decentralized information systems and the ironies of Western democracy in plain terms. (Quaintly enough, she portrays Yahoo as a reality-distorting media behemoth.) In a later section, A.I.-generated “deep fake” footage has Kim Kardashian describe the consuming effects of social media on our society and our brains. The video cuts out suddenly, at key points, to reveal the viewer’s own body, reflected with the slowly panning trees on the glossy screens. You are implicated; you are also enmeshed, a part of the electronic jungle. In what might be the video’s climax, a slow-motion, smeary animation of a figure in a fluorescent ghillie suit starts raving to deep, pulsing bass. Collective reality, generated through technology? It’s happening now.
The other video, “Being Human,” cuts out, too — the same trick in a different register. Upstairs, the galleries are conventionally appointed with groups of abstract paintings, terra cotta bas-reliefs, and kinked steel sculptures on plinths. “Being Human,” a reworked version of a 2019 video, is projected onto a glass wall bisecting one of the rooms. When the image drops away, yet more art appears on the walls behind — indistinguishable, in any meaningful way, from the art on your side of the scrim.
The video mixes the story of how Kulendran Thomas’s uncle founded a short-lived human rights center in Tamil Eelam, with monologues on politics and contemporary art from C.G.I. avatars resembling Taylor Swift and the painter Oscar Murillo. In a flesh-and-blood appearance, the Tamil curator and artist Ilavenil Jayapalan advances an argument against the nation-state: Since countries like Sri Lanka or the United States use the protection of human rights as cover for power grabs and repressions, he says, then the concept of human rights should be undone.
In a way, Kulendran Thomas’s approach is refreshing. While some artists treat art as an opportunity for moralizing, morality belongs on Kulendran Thomas’s list of humanist fictions, along with democracy, creativity and individuality.
He has begun to rework the humanist reality — beginning, as artists do, with creativity. The twisted sculptures in the show, the sprightly watercolors, even the thick paintings gouged like tank-torn battlefields — most are bloodless iterations produced by an A.I. weaned on JPEGs of contemporary art, then executed by Kulendran Thomas’s studio. There’s also at least one work of inoffensive market formalism, a welded steel polygon, credited to Kingsley Gunatillake, that Kulendran Thomas had purchased from a Sri Lankan gallery, then imitated.
If Kulendran Thomas genuinely aims to offer new political possibilities, count me as a skeptic. If his goal is to ruin contemporary art, he just might. Kulendran Thomas’s big idea is to rebut the precious, humanist, nation-state-upholding concepts of creativity and individuality by making the most pretentiously mindless art possible.
Which brings us to back to Earth. In August, the Earth website seemed to be offering New Eelam’s dream of a high-end work-from-anywhere bohemia, with “Homes starting from $400,000” (or cryptocurrency equivalents) in Brooklyn, Berlin and Yucatán, Mexico.
Around the time “Another World” opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art, in October, Earth’s website changed again. In its current build, the dream of collectivized housing slips under a sea of crypto-capitalist logorrhea: The website’s copy challenges you to let go of past illusions and bet your all on “cities unbound from geography” — an uncertain future underpinned by blockchain technology, or at least plenty of its lingo. “If you’re into building cooperative economies,” it says, you can shoot the collective an email.
“Real democracy isn’t about elections,” the Tamil spokesman explains in “The Finesse.” “Real democracy is about being able to choose between different systems.” If you’re rich — say, rich enough to risk half a million dollars in an artist’s stateless housing scheme — that’s pretty much already your reality.
Not to mock a world-building project — I’m not convinced that’s what this is. Theorizing the “self” or the “individual” to death might be politically positive; art, like other metaphors, can have powerful, concrete effects. But Kulendran Thomas loses me at “cities unbound from geography.” At least until technology lets us set our bodies aside, pesky facts like wars and famines and poverty will continue to shape reality. And even then, the most world-beating killer app will still be limited by who can afford access, so that New Eelam via earth.net remains not so much a transcendent socialist system as a private island fortress of the mind. The ad is better than the product: The ad is real.
Through Jan. 22, 2023, at the Institute for Contemporary Arts, in London, and through Jan. 15, 2023, at the K.W. Institute for Contemporary Art, in Berlin; ica.org.uk, kw-berlin.de.