British/Sri Lankan artist Christopher Kulendran Thomas has an answer to the contemporary housing crisis. Fusing the powerful mythology of Eelam, an imaginary utopia from pre-civil war Sri Lanka, with the stark inequality of the global property market, Thomas has worked in collaboration with curator Annika Kuhlmann on a new property model that takes cues from radical social theory and ideas of liquid citizenship as well as from Apple’s philosophy of universal standardization and the sharing economy reified by companies like Airbnb. Mousse catches up with the artist ahead of his solo show at Spike Island in Bristol to discuss the future of New Eelam and why the project sits so well in both the art world and start-up cultures.
ALICE BUCKNELL: What was the basis for your project New Eelam?
CHRISTOPHER KULENDRAN THOMAS: New Eelam first emerged at the 2016 Berlin Biennale as a long-term collaborative project between curator Annika Kulhmann and myself. It is focused on developing a new form of housing for global living based on collective co-ownership. The project evolves through the operating logic of the art world. New Eelam treats each exhibition space as an incubator: a place to research and develop new ideas in the same way a car company might develop a concept car. Over the years, New Eelam has grown into a start-up real estate technology company, comprised of a team of specialists whose expertise extends across real estate, architecture, art, finance, and technology. This venture developed from an understanding of what art actually does in the world—structurally, rather than subjectively. Contemporary art has been seriously affected by processes of globalization and the drive to develop new ways of living in the twenty-first century. It has also established itself as the highest benchmark of connoisseurial consumerism, promising a universal standard of good taste. New Eelam came out of asking the question, what can happen if you take the operating logic of the art world into the property market?
AB: What’s next on New Eelam’s agenda?
CKT: We’re launching as a corporation in early summer and introducing a subscription model that enables users to live anywhere in the world for the same price as rent. This fee is priced at the bottom decile of rental prices between New York and London. New Eelam properties offer an affordable luxury; subscribers incrementally earn equity on their revolving property portfolio, so they eventually can become owners. By incorporating a variety of preexisting housing models, including the rent-to-buy scheme in the UK and the global “home-sharing” platform of Airbnb, we aim to soon implement a better and more equitable housing model out of those already operating on the market—one that takes into account the biggest problems it faces today, namely the colossal divide between home renters and buyers.
AB: Can you talk a bit about the historical concept of Eelam?
CKT: “Eelam” literally translates from Tamil as a version of home. The concept originates in Sri Lankan folklore as an autonomous, universally equal state that was wiped out at the end of Sri Lankan civil war. Using this lost utopia as a jumping-off point, New Eelam reimagines the idea of self-governance as a distributed network rather than a centralized state.
AB: How do the aesthetics of corporate luxury feed into the project? From the houseplant and the millennial-pink lighting to the HAY furniture, New Eelam’s installations seem to nod to the calculated minimalism seen in the offices of Silicon Valley start-ups.
CKT: You might not believe this, but the pink lights are actually highly utilitarian—they’re grow lights. For the exhibition at MCA Chicago, Annika designed a hydroponic irrigation system that we are continuing to develop and expand with each new installation. The car model analogy I gave earlier really sums up how we treat these exhibition spaces: as new opportunities to further develop both concepts and technologies we are thinking about between each show. We like to reframe the institutional space as a more open and discursive platform; it’s an idea that refutes the preciousness of the gallery space. With that said, we are also interested in how a brand can communicate as an artist, or how the space of art can be used to experiment with commercial or political communication strategies. I believe that art can offer more depth or nuance than would typically be possible with other communication forms.
AB: How is your current exhibition at Spike Island organized?
CKT: The installation from MCA Chicago gives a good idea [of] what the presentation at Spike Island looks like. It features three hydroponic home-farming systems presented here as living sculptures, creating an immersive environment in which visitors can sit down, relax, and watch our film 60 million Americans can’t be wrong (2018). The concept space is decorated with a painting from my ongoing project When Platitudes Become Form, which incorporates original artworks by artists who have become successful in Sri Lanka’s regional post–civil war art boom, and asks what counts as contemporary in different contexts. In addition, light boxes featuring New Eelam’s image campaign are displayed around the perimeter gallery, along with smaller photographic works decorating the main gallery. A series of eight newly commissioned microvideos that borrow their form from social media campaigns are displayed on square screens around the perimeter.
AB: From Brexit to Trump’s election, a lot has happened since you began working on New Eelam. Where does this project situate itself amid contemporary politics and the new era of austerity facing the United Kingdom post-Brexit?
CKT: If nationalists exert increasing power over our countries, then maybe it’s up to the rest of us to build a different kind of future beyond national borders. Our ambition in developing a global housing platform is to democratize something that is available right now only to the very wealthy. It tackles one section of the stack of contemporary global crises, the housing part, and uses the competitive logic of capitalism to grow a different model of real estate. New Eelam congregates the contemporary antagonism between renter and owner—a classic dilemma a lot of people face between the perceived security of home ownership versus the relative flexibility of renting—and the idea of housing as an investment. For the very wealthy, that real estate is part of a diversified portfolio of investments, whereas for most owners, it’s the whole package. We want to reduce this binary by incrementally increasing collective home ownership.
AB: The project proposes a new collective of home ownership; what, if anything, is the role of the individual in New Eelam?
CKT: Existing technology platforms have greatly distorted our perceptions of self and collective. The so-called sharing economy is a misnomer; it’s not about sharing but [about] renting every part of your life. Current sharing economies are great at creating a bond of trust between buyer and seller, between host and guest and driver and rider, but they’re very bad at analyzing the whole picture, including their impact on the preexisting system. We are interested in what an actual sustainable sharing economy can be at the level of ownership, and we are currently developing a way to apply the profits to community projects in the neighborhoods where real estate value is increasing fastest.
AB: So New Eelam is more about creating an optimized platform for future living?
CKT: We are interested in different kinds of standardization—what you have when you see a near-perfect market for short-stay holiday rentals; the common denominator is the minimum viable apartment, which becomes the kind of standard for what writers have called “airspace.” The iPhone is another reference point—it was a giant leap in what a communication device could be. But now every smartphone looks the same and maintains the same platform. What’s significant about the iPhone is the whole ecosystem that has been enabled by it. Even though the form factor is standardized, people are attached to their phones because of the infinite level of personalization that can come from that ecosystem. Our design challenge is to make the iPhone or Tesla of housing.