Long used as a site for social critique, SLEEK examines how young artists are reshaping ideas of the home in the age of Airbnb
At the opening of the DIS-curated 9th Berlin Biennale this summer, an assemblage of sofas, plants and television screens materialised on the second floor of Berlin’s Academy of the Arts. At first glance it looked like a business suite or an image from an IKEA catalogue; yet in fact it was “New Eelam”, a speculative artwork by Christopher Kulendran Thomas and curator Annika Kuhlmann. Envisaged as a collectively-owned housing subscription service, it offers “members” access to a portfolio of homes around the world, advocating for the “luxury of communalism”. Inspired by the violent displacement of Tamil people from the Eelam region during the Sri Lankan civil war, and the increasing mobility demanded by our current economy, Thomas, an artist of Sri Lankan origin, probes the urgent question of how artists deal with belonging’ in a time of globalisation, and can art effectively propose alternative ways of living?
It’s no coincidence that contemporary artists are actively redefining the home. The creative economy, populated by an army of freelance digital nomads including painters, film-makers, sculptors, directors, writers and curators, is characterised by a demand for extreme flexibility. One day they’re hot desking in studios, the next they’re renting temporary accommodation via Craigslist and jetting off on budget flights to collaborate in far-flung destinations. Consequently, their sense of sense belonging has splintered in correlation with the multiplication of their working and living spaces, leading to what artist and architect Luis Ortega Govela has called “the death of the home and the rise of transient living”.
“Our company is not based on the ambition to build a new society from scratch, but on an alternative strategy of rewiring existing trajectories of capitalism”
“The art world has always been good at pioneering new lifestyle formats, such as loft living,” says Thomas. Fifty years after artists began renting derelict lofts in grimy parts of downtown New York, repurposed industrial spaces have become the ultimate luxury real estate commodity. Yet, as with loft living, the current conception of the home hasn’t been around forever either. Rather, it’s an ideologically determined notion predicated on changing attitudes to national laws, economics and social conventions. The conservative dream of a property-owning democracy – a fantasy that ran rampant in Thatcher’s Britain – privatised large quantities of public housing previously reserved for the working class. By the turn of the century, houses in many Western countries were no longer places people simply lived, but objects they could profit from. More recently, the rise of Airbnb has exacerbated this trend in new ways, pushing rents up and forcing local residents out.
As a radical alternative, (artist) communes proposed forms of collective living based on the sharing of property and economic means. Some of these flourished during the hippie years in Europe and America; most famously Otto Muehl’s Friedrichshof Commune, a leftist art cooperative outside Vienna that experimented with collective forms of living, and art-making until it was shut down in 1992 due to cases of sexual abuse.
Artists also contribute, too. In Ruth Glass’s pioneering 1964 analysis of gentrification “London: Aspects of Change” – the study that coined the term – the German- born British sociologist identifies artists as the shock troops of gentrification, transforming quarters once deemed unsightly by middle class tastes into locations ripe for investment by making them trendy. Thus, it’s often difficult for creatives to engage with this issue without seeming hypocritical. There are, however, numerous exceptions. Martha Rosler, for instance, accurately addressed it in 1989 with “If You Lived Here”, a seminal three-part exhibition at the Dia Art Foundation in New York. Working closely with advocacy groups, artists and urban researchers, Rosler created a vast repository of documents investigating themes of housing and homelessness. Later, in the 1990s, Andrea Zittel questioned the social construction of domestic space through her series “Living Units”, as she attempted to reduce all human needs into a compact, mobile system (her one-woman corporation, A-Z Administrative Services, even set out to make them commercially available to consumers). More recently, Palestinian artist and film-maker Alexandra Handal has investigated the displacement of her fellow nationals from West Jerusalem in 1948 via “Dream Homes Property Consultants”, an interactive real estate website that provides those eyeing up the former homes of refugees the social and personal histories of the families that once lived there.
In the early 21st century, however, gentrification has become a major issue for artists, as space for studios and project galleries becomes scarce and they are priced out of housing. Thus, real-estate speculation once again returns as a subject rife for artistic exploration. Thomas and Kuhlman’s pseudo-tech start-up is a prime example. An amalgamated artwork-as-business, a flat-rate monthly subscription gives its hypothetical members access to a portfolio of homes around the world, while all ‘revenues’ are re-invested back into the corporation. Real-estate speculation ensures an increase of value for its notional citizens, developing an ever-expanding share of housing around the world. Eschewing the private property model, Thomas borrows from the legacy of the commune, applying it to a globalised future in which“ homes are streamable, just like music”, as the hyper-aestheticised advert for New Eelam proposes.
“Our venture began with the thought experiment of asking what the idea of Eelam could have been if it had been based on a recent reading of Marx, rooted in his understanding of the emancipatory potential of the technologies of capital,” Thomas explains. “So what could a New Eelam be if it was understood as a distributed network rather than a territorially bounded nation, a place where citizenship is a choice rather than a hereditary privilege? Our company is not based on the ambition to build a new society from scratch but on an alternative strategy of rewiring existing trajectories of capitalisation.” Of course, technology has been changing everyday life for years through dating apps, health gadgets and digital camera filters. But what sets Thomas and Kuhlman’s project crowd-funded, cloud-sourced social housing art venture apart is the fact that its supranational digital outlook undermines one of capitalism’s oldest inventions, the nation state.
Granted, this position has its limits: it is after all an aesthetic rather than material project presented in the playful guise of a business. And their undoubtedly utopian vision glosses over important issues like implementation, security, access and stability – something that would likely drive off investors if it ever actually launched. Yet it is also precisely this idealism that makes the enterprise so evocative: behind their plans for a networked solution to the global housing shortage is a stark reminder of the dystopian effects of neoliberalism. In this sense, Thomas is both drawing his audience’s attention to this matter while tentatively proposing – or at least toying with – solutions, no matter how workable. And in this way he and his cohort prove that artists can stimulate change through their ambiguous register. “Perhaps the future of work will look increasingly like what artists do,” Thomas concludes. “The more that jobs are automated, the more it could be the home, rather than the factory or office, that becomes a primary site of production.” If so, perhaps New Eelam will look more like a blueprint for its radical potential than an artwork.