by Martha Barratt
On a square, Instagram-ready screen in Spike Island, Bristol, an advert for a housing scheme plays on a loop FIG. 1. It promotes a subscription-based service, where for the equivalent cost of rent members may live in any number of cities in which the developer manages a building, moving freely between apartments across the world, their smart-home settings ported ahead of them to their next destination. The scheme is called ‘New Eelam’, taking the Tamil word for ‘home’ as well as the name given to the self-governed Tamil state that was overturned in 2009. In its business model it reflects the recent market trend towards subscription models over ownership, for music, flexible gym memberships or city bike rental schemes. And yet it goes beyond this entrepreneurial mission to stake a political and philosophical claim: to imagine what a self-generated State could look like if it was a network of individuals across the world rather than a ‘territorially bounded place’. The subscribers to New Eelam would become citizens, able to move across the world without the permission of any nation state; an alternative power structure formed of equal members.
New Eelam is a work of art and a business created by the artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas and his team of expert collaborators – an ‘interdisciplinary team of specialists from the fields of technology, real estate, art, architecture, finance and design’.1 The exhibition in Bristol consists of the aforementioned square screens, which show aspirational marketing films for the project; the video 60 million Americans can’t be wrong, which puts forward the philosophy behind the project FIG. 2; some works on the wall (paintings or digital prints); and ‘hydroponic sculptures’ FIG. 3, which look like flat-pack furniture, filled with plants that are being constantly watered by a system of automated hoses FIG. 4. But New Eelam is also a real-life functioning start-up, with three full-time employees and seed funding to launch this year in London and New York, ‘on a very small scale’.
It began, presumably, as pure speculation, as a science fiction. And fittingly, that genre is one of the places from which the exhibition takes its aesthetics. Large backlit panels, for example, combine images with photographic borders of the type popular on social media, geometric cut-outs and compass coordinates in a typeface that looks like it was created for a space arcade game in the 1980s FIG. 5. This retro-futurist style illustrates, perhaps, Kulendran’s intent to ‘model alternative ways of living’ in the work, aping the aesthetics of speculative fiction to suggest a political basis for showing such a project within a gallery space. The other current that defines the look and feel of the display is more disturbing: the hypergeneric language of luxury corporate branding. The adverts playing on the square screens, for example, combine stock images of metropolises at night or the sunrise across a desert to the most generic of soundtracks, a gently rousing electronic piano in a forgiving key. It is the copy, however, that stands out most sharply, in its mimicry of the kind of branding language that so skilfully achieves the feeling of heritage, trust and social responsibility without saying anything at all (The team behind New Eelam, for example, will be ‘Working for their users rather than their advertisers’).
What makes this work so compelling is that it is difficult to grasp, not only as a work of art but also as a political position. In 60 million Americans can’t be wrong, for example, a voiceover gives a potted Marxist history of the world since prehistory, breezing through the industrial revolution to reach our current age, one ushered in by the fabled beginnings of Big Tech FIG. 6. It is matter-of-fact, unnuanced. This is the case and these are the solutions – the language of ‘blue-sky thinking’, the persuasive assurance of the advertisement. And yet, Thomas has no interest in dismantling capitalist structures. Instead, he wants to use those structures to create a better way of living, for some people (‘But what about the people in the middle?’, one screen asks). The longer one watches the film, the more questions it prompts: Is it disingenuous to invoke utopia when putting forward a system that only works for ‘those in the middle’? Or is it simply that Thomas is taking a political stance different from that which we expect (the generally leftist, anti-capitalist position pronounced by most actors in the global contemporary art world)? If New Eelam does not offer the promise of transformation, what is the alternative way of living it is putting forward, and why is it being shown in an art gallery?
Furthermore, why this gallery? Although it presents an impressive programme of international art, Spike Island is a proudly local gallery, embedded in its community (an area that has seen steep gentrification over the last few years) with established artists’ studios and outreach programmes. Although this work might feel at home in the context of the international contemporary art world (indeed, the surge in market growth for contemporary art in Sri Lanka is one of Thomas’s starting points), its core message seems hostile towards the sort of institution that is Spike Island. New Eelam’s model denounces the local (or ‘territorially bounded’) as irrelevant to its goals – a sort of sub or alter-community to be bestowed upon by the philanthropic entrails of the New Eelamers in their towers, through independently managed ‘community wealth funds’. Such a model would surely only serve to exacerbate the social problems capitalism has sustained in the West – gross inequality, economic precarity (what if you can’t afford your subscription one month?) as well as a separation of the body politic that is arguably one of the key causes of the global spread of right-wing populism.
This is a work that is difficult to take at face value, which invokes both admiration and anger. Is Thomas taking the piss? And if so, at whose expense? If we take Thomas at his word, that this idea can be used to model ways of living, then discussion is an essential component of the process. The below contribution responds to both this introduction and the argument put forward in 60 million Americans can’t be wrong.
by Audrey Samson
Indeed, this piece is both masterfully seductive and deeply upsetting. Although one could argue that it simply echoes the pedestrian aesthetics and mantra of technologically driven prosperity, its sheer violence of form is confronting. For the viewer, the question of whether it is ‘real’ resounds against the realisation of the futility of this very enquiry. Reality cannot be defined within the necropolitical assemblages of network protocols, smart objects, predictive analytics, biometric-enhanced border security, automated news outlets and AI art.
In a talk given at Concordia University in 2013,2 Thomas put forward that contemporary art is a function of ideological formation, a cultural expression of neoliberalism. Understood in this context, this work both inhabits and denounces art’s complicity in gentrifying forces. It positions itself critically with regard to the violent gentrification of Sri Lanka, aptly denunciating the ‘corroborating outward performance’ of the new contemporary art market there as a symbol of economic prosperity that retroactively justifies ‘the very violence upon which that prosperity was founded’. And yet this comment on economically fuelled ethnic cleansing is followed by a celebration of the ‘New World’ in the following chapter of the film.
‘America’ is introduced by way of video game aesthetics and Trump rallies. The indigenous genocide is mentioned in jest, and quickly glossed over by an optimistic proposal of the alternative possibilities afforded by the movement of people in search of a new home. This provocation is further instigated by the incendiary title 60 million Americans can’t be wrong, justifying the genocide in one fatal swoop. A rhetoric of simplification reminiscent of Trump’s repeated assurance that ‘walls work’,3 placating the viewer with the seduction of an unquestionably simple logic that foregoes the possibility of dialogue. If Thomas considers spectatorship as ‘material’ (as has been the case in his former work), we are doubly complicit in this formulation of New Eelam. It is an astute move by the artist, in which we become co-producers of this new social contract.
New Eelam proposes a model of citizenship based on a self-governed distributed network, rooted in the proclaimed emancipatory potential of technology to dissipate accumulations of power. In practice, however, the promise of self-determination fuelled by decentralised technological advancements, such as blockchain on which cryptocurrencies run, have replicated the structures of centralised power with even deeper fervour.4 The proposed cloud-based housing for a reverse diaspora of global roamers predicated upon the maxim of ‘owning less and doing more’ emerges as a socialist-Thatcher-Reagan hybrid monster which dreams of freedom of mobility. Could borderless citizenship be based on anything other than capital? A deeply hierarchical citizenry model governed by market operations?
The networks that are lauded in Thomas’s film for their potential to transcend geographic boundaries represent the frictionless flows of capital against which a backdrop of migrant bodies is thrust up against, a mesh of sensors and cameras which materialise borders in novel, violent and distributed ways.5 Each promise of a new technology that could enable forms of ‘liquid citizenship beyond national borders’ is creating a tension between this utopia and the world’s current, exponentially rising, border securitisation (33 billion is set to be invested by Europe alone between 2021–27).6
Self-determination and mobility are a privilege for the few. The seemingly immaterial cloud fuelling New Eelam’s social contract is the ultimate obfuscation and distraction from its material conditions of production. The violence of resource extraction, precarious labour, and mountains of hardware (and consequent electronic waste) hosting these Googols of data disappear in a hazy polluted pastel cloud from which the New Eelam logo emerges. The film sustains this ambiguity throughout, thrusting the viewer in the sordid recursive loop of self-determination, technology, finance and power. Much like IKEA stores in China whose showroom bedspreads were reportedly (mis)used by locals to actually sleep, one of the more ingenious uses of these displays, one may dream of a slick New Eelam being itself subverted for the rogue purposes of an alternative sub-nation.