As virtual worlds become increasingly ubiquitous and algorithmic, we have never been more connected yet dislocated. Our networks are continually subject to change and, as globalisation accelerates, so are the intrinsic structures of identity, nation and power. The artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas investigates these shifting structures in relation to one another in ‘Ground Zero’, an exhibition which moves between fiction and documentary, personal history and simulation.
In collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann, ‘Ground Zero’ is stylistically impressive within the grand space of Schinkel Pavillon. A transparent screen intersects the middle of the gallery space, upon which the video work loops. We are shown shots of the Colombo Biennial, Sri Lanka, before a young Tamil artist discusses the market for contemporary art which boomed in the country following the Civil War. ‘Supposedly,’ says the artist, ‘arts created a way for this country to heal.’ The Civil War saw the Neo-Marxist state of Tamil ‘Eelam’ destroyed by the Sri Lankan army and tens of thousands of civilians murdered. Amongst those displaced were Kulendran Thomas’ own parents, who forced to flee as the violence grew along with his uncle―a family hero who founded the Centre for Human Rights. In the aftermath, the economy of Sri Lanka boomed, tourism soared, and the first international art galleries began to open their doors. The artist points to the seemingly democratic spaces these white cubes provide, occupying a complex position in the economy from which they emerged.
At certain stages within the film, the images fade to reveal a collection of paintings and sculptures by prominent Sri Lankan artists, Upali Ananda and Kingsley Gunatilake. Through Kulendran Thomas’ repurposing of their works in ‘Ground Zero’, the viewer is asked to consider the place they occupy, within both the fissures of the country’s recent history and the global contemporary art market. The film work moves to a simulation of the Colombian artist Oscar Murillo, who posits that contemporary art embodies equality in theory, but is ‘mediated by unequal powers.’ The art market is a microcosm of the uneven powers at play across territory and sovereign states.
Alongside Murillo is a simulation of Taylor Swift, who similarly guides the viewer through a hyperreal journey, moving from the geopolitical state of Sri Lanka to the technology accelerated across the world. Kulendran Thomas actively incorporates the same machine-like processes explored in the narrative in his realistic simulations against a soundtrack that reverses producer Max Martin’s pop-music formula. As artificial intelligence becomes increasingly intrinsic and digital algorithms more sophisticated, how is the role of the human itself affected? In one series of clips, the viewer sees what can be loosely described as a Generation Z montage. As the clips of young people accumulate, a certain performative pattern of behaviours emerges. As the virtual Taylor Swift suggests, ‘maybe simulating simulated behaviour is the only way we have of being for real.’
The terrifying consequences of this sentiment were enacted through an attack on Sri Lankan Muslims earlier this year. Hate messages were intensified online through Facebook algorithms and spilled into reality, causing riots, the burning of businesses and the death of a civilian. How can our reality harmonise with the divergent realities offered to us by technology? How can these realities co-exist, if at all? The treatment by the narrator is speculative; he wonders how a distributed network would work, replacing the tightly-bound territories of nations. What future possibilities could this unlock, in our experiences as humans? What affect would this have had on the state of Tamil ‘Eelam’? Not providing any answers, the work loops. It repeats its meditation on the changing fabric of our current time and the different ways through which we structure it. Through the wide and discursive narrative of ‘Ground Zero’, Kulendran Thomas takes a speculative approach to the potentialities of our future, both digitally and physically, immersed in the complex and shifting experience of being human.