1.Christopher Kulendran Thomas’ family is from a place that no longer exists. For three decades during the Sri Lankan civil war, “Eelam” was self-governed as an autonomous state led by a neo-Marxist revolution. But this uprising was crushed in 2009 by an authoritarian government protected by the cloak of national sovereignty. In the immediate aftermath of that violence, and the consequent economic liberalisation that followed, a new local market for contemporary art emerged. Developed in collaboration with curator Annika Kuhlmann, Thomas’ exhibition features original sculptures, paintings and works on paper by four of Sri Lanka’s foremost young contemporary artists: Muvindu Binoy, Asela Gunasekara, Prageeth Manohansa and Dennis Muthuthanthri. These original artworks have been purchased recently in Sri Lanka’s ‘peacetime’ economic boom and then reconfigured by Thomas for international circulation within his own compositions, which in the past have been included in exhibitions such as “Bread and Roses” at Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (2016), “Co-Workers: Network As Artist” at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2015) and “Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making” at Tate Liverpool (2013). Thomas’ work manipulates some of art’s structural operations, the means by which the circulation and distribution of art produces reality. His ongoing operation translates what counts as contemporary across the global contours of power by which the ‘contemporary’ itself is conditioned and draws on the outward performance of democracy by which nations can evade international accountability.
Late at night on March 1st 2016, Canada’s Citizen and Immigration website slowed to a crawl as thousands upon thousands of Americans reacted in despair to the results of the US Republican primaries. Now about half of the American electorate has cast their ballots in a way that has already prompted others to consider leaving the country. Is this a symptom of a post-truth democracy that is becoming increasingly divided? A place where political deliberation has been replaced by reactionary debates that inflame polarized prejudice? Does this US Presidential election constitute a revolutionary attempt by the demographically disenfranchised? Or might this all indicate a more profound crisis in liberal democracy itself?
The idea that democracy may be an insufficient form of government has existed at least since Plato attributed the execution of Socrates to the ignorance of the mob. This type of political system can engender prejudice even when it does function; and when it doesn’t, democracy can offer the perfect smokescreen for the rule of clever elites. In his 1970 treatise “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty”, German-born economist Albert O. Hirschman posits that exit – leaving – is the ultimate political choice possible in a liberal democracy. Citizens, he suggests, demonstrate loyalty when the system serves them well. They exercise their democratic voice when they believe the system is open to change. And if they realize that the only way to change the system is from the outside, by finding something better, they leave. This is exactly what Thomas’ family did, leaving behind the occupation of their homeland and abandoning a corrupt pretence at democracy in order to look for a better life. Centuries earlier, it was also this type of exit that was, in Hirschman’s view, the founding imperative of the United States itself; and it has remained a crucial way of ensuring political accountability ever since. But in 2016, to where would a dissatisfied American electorate go? Canada? Really?
Influenced by Hirschman’s writings, the Silicon Valley blockchain entrepreneur Balaji S. Srinivasan has suggested that America could be seen as the “Microsoft of nations”: its code base (or constitution) is written in an obfuscated language, it systematically propagates fear around security issues and it behaves ruthlessly towards key suppliers whilst favouring its rich corporate clients – and the world has no choice but to buy it anyway. But Srinivasan proposes that today’s exit might take a different form: by providing opt-in alternatives to incumbent systems, technological innovation can reduce barriers to exit, amplifying democratic voice reinforced by the ease of leaving. Threatened by increasingly mobile constituents who can transfer their loyalties to the cloud, democracy will be forced either to recover or to face collapse.
Given diminishing public confidence in existing political institutions across many parts of the world, how might a more liquid form of citizenship be imagined in an age of technologically accelerated dislocation? For his exhibition at Kunstverein Harburger Bahnhof, Christopher Kulendran Thomas presents a startup called “New Eelam”, founded by the artist to develop a global housing subscription based on collective ownership. Together with his founding partners, Thomas proposes a long-term strategy for how a new economic model could evolve, without friction, out of the present system – through the luxury of communalism rather than private property. This proposition was recently introduced at the 9th Berlin Biennale and the 11th Gwangju Biennale and will be further explored by Thomas in forthcoming exhibitions at Hamburger Bahnhof – Museum für Gegenwart (Berlin) and Tensta Konsthall (Stockholm). Functioning initially through contemporary art’s transnational networks and through art’s role in prototyping new lifestyle formats and new forms of immaterial labour, his post-capitalist venture imagines the future of citizenship beyond national borders. Presented here within an installation that draws on interior design, New Eelam’s extended promotional film takes the form of a speculative history documentary that asks how a brand might communicate as an artist and how a state could be constituted in corporate form. It may be worth remembering that some of these questions of citizenship are in any case formed through social and economic processes that evolve over timescales that transcend presidential terms. The need for political imagination on this scale might indeed present one of the urgent challenges of our time.