‘How do you tell the story of the losing side of a conflict when history has already been written by the winners?’– Christopher Kulendran Thomas
Opening at the ICA in London and KW in Berlin, Christopher Kulendran Thomas: Another World explores an alternative approach to technology through the prism of the defeated revolutionary struggle for an independent Tamil homeland.
During the Sri Lankan Civil War the de facto state of Tamil Eelam was self-governed by a liberation movement that, in the early years of the World Wide Web, used the internet to coordinate a globally distributed parallel economic system amongst the Tamil diaspora. However, the movement’s political ambitions were eclipsed by a bitter military conflict and the autonomous state they led was brutally eradicated in 2009 by the Sri Lankan government.
Like many Eelam Tamils, I grew up having to negotiate wildly different views of our history. We saw our liberation movement re-labeled as a terrorist organisation, and so we had to come to terms with how reality can be shaped by narrative fictions. For me these histories that didn’t get to play out are interesting as alternate realities – as ways of glimpsing, beyond the assumptions of the world we know, the possibility of other kinds of societies.Christopher Kulendran Thomas, Artist
Developed together with longtime collaborator Annika Kuhlmann, the exhibition features a major new commission, The Finesse (2022), that examines some of the lost legacies of this liberation movement in Kulendran Thomas’ family homeland.
‘The struggles of stateless nations are one important prism through which to think about the possibility of a world after nation states. For a few hundred years, citizenship around the world has been organised by nation states that guaranteed protection and organised public goods for their citizens. Many of these states were in theory constructed around the idea of the ‘individual’, but in practice often at the service of a ruling class. Could our era of planetary-scale computation though bring about a new kind of social contract? Will it be defined by tech monopolies, by AI superpowers, or is there an alternative future in which civic technologies are organised cooperatively and owned by us all? And if a collective alternative is possible, how might this shift the idea of the individual that has underpinned the nation state?’Annika Kuhlmann, Collaborator and Artistic Director of Earth
The immersive film installation melts pop culture into political science and combines archive footage with AI-generated avatars, choreographed across multiple screens and projections to form an architectural hallucination. It traces the influence of Eelam Tamil architect Manmahal through the 1990s and her attempt to imagine a cooperative economy based on renewable energy, communal ownership and computational coordination. Blurring the boundaries between historical research and a sci-fi proposition for an alternate reality, The Finesse looks at how the art, architecture and technology that were lost with the defeat of the de facto state of Eelam could today inform a radically different idea of the future.
Installed in the upper galleries, Being Human (2019) takes the viewer on an elliptical journey around Sri Lanka, from the fallout of the civil war there to the biennial of contemporary art founded in its aftermath. Narrated by Tamil artist Ilavenil Jayapalan, it combines real people’s lived experiences with algorithmically synthesised characters, featuring various guests of the Colombo Art Biennale, including a world-famous pop star and a renowned painter, as well as Kulendran Thomas’ uncle, a family hero who established the Centre for Human Rights in Tamil Eelam.
Alongside the two film installations, the exhibition presents a series of newly commissioned paintings that extend Kulendran Thomas’ use of artificial intelligence technologies. Exhibited alongside works by Anankuperuntinaivarkal Inkaaleneraam, a leading light of the Eelam artistic resistance, the paintings
are made using machine-learning algorithms trained on the work of Kulendran Thomas’ Sri Lankan peers, artists influenced by the Western art historical canon who have become successful in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan Civil War.
Here in the jungle we understand that we are our environment; we understand that we are the jungle, we are the sum of its lifeforms, not the ancestral roles reinforced by our colonisers. We must reject the hierarchies of domination imposed by one caste over another. Then only we can imagine together other possible worlds, experimental kinds of kindred, unexpected possible selves.Anankuperuntinaivarkal Inkaaleneraam, Artist
A variation of the exhibition will run concurrently at KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin, opening 21 October, with a public programme on decentralised societies and stateless nations hosted jointly by ICA London and KW.
These exhibitions also mark the launch of Earth, a new multidisciplinary studio established to devise shared tools for new ways of living. Throughout the exhibition at the ICA, studio members will be working in the ICA’s lower galleries, convening a research community through a programme of workshops on civic
technologies for cooperative economies, informed by the exhibition and hosted by the ICA & Earth in partnership with the RadicalxChange Foundation.
Another World by Christopher Kulendran Thomas is produced in partnership with Kunsthalle Zürich and KW, and realised with the generous support of Filecoin Foundation and Filecoin Foundation for the Decentralized Web, Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in Fine Arts and Henry Moore Foundation with additional support from Adam Hall Group
Christopher Kulendran Thomas: Another World in collaboration with Annika Kuhlmann featuring Anankuperuntinaivarkal Inkaaleneraam 11th October 2022 – 22th January 2023 ica.art
About the artist
Christopher Kulendran Thomas is an artist, of Tamil descent, who spent his formative years in London after his family left escalating civil unrest in Sri Lanka. Seeing, mostly from a distance, how an ascendent contemporary art scene in Sri Lanka blossomed from the ashes of ethnic cleansing on the island, Christopher began examining the structural processes by which art produces reality – by which art transforms cities and builds nations. Often utilising advanced technologies, Christopher’s work looks at various, as yet unrealised, possibilities at the intersection of culture, technology and citizenship. His work is represented in major collections, like that of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and recent exhibitions include Oh, Gods of Dust And Rainbows, Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art (2022); Uncanny Valley: Being Human in the Age of AI, de Young Museum San Francisco (2020); and Time, Forward!, V–A–C Zattere for the 58th Venice Biennale (2019); as well as solo shows at Schinkel Pavillon, Berlin (2019); Institute for Modern Art, Brisbane (2019); Spike Island, Bristol (2019); and Tensta konsthall, Stockholm (2017). Kulendran Thomas’ work has been included in the 7th Bi City Biennale, Shenzhen (2017); the 11th Gwangju Biennale; the 9th Berlin Biennale; and the 3rd Dhaka Art Summit (all 2016); as well as in Alternatives for Living, Kunstmuseen Krefeld (2019); I was raised on the internet, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2018); moving is in every direction, Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin (2017); Bread and Roses, Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw (2016); Co-Workers: Network As Artist, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2015); and Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making, Tate Liverpool (2013).