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Núria Güell and Levi Orta, The Aesthetics of a Property Map, Syria (Part I)

16 June 2018 - 7 October 2018

The Barcelona-based artists Núria Güell (b. Spain, 1981) and Levi Orta (b. Cuba, 1984) examine power structures and relationships through their collaborative practice. Güell leverages her privilege as an artist and as a white, middle-class, European woman to challenge hegemonic legal and moral systems. Orta investigates the ‘creative’ dimension of the political by appropriating or simulating established protocols to reveal their constructed nature. They create ‘analytic replicas’ to critically translate, into the field of art, strategies deployed by neoliberal capitalism to maintain social inequalities. They use this technique as a way to empower individuals by exposing injustices and creating tools to help redress them.

In ‘The Aesthetics of a Property Map, Syria’, the artists examine the business interests linked to the appropriation of housing in Syria in the context of the Syrian civil war as well as the provision of it in Teesside to those seeking asylum there. In doing so, they bring together two sites of the ‘refugee crisis’, suggesting that a mechanism of profit-making runs through this situation, and inferring that all people seeking asylum in the United Kingdom share the same condition: namely, social dispossession.

They also consider the role and status of museums as cultural influencers, specifically the ethical questions around their engagement with communities from refugee backgrounds, using Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art as an example. They believe that museums risk aestheticising the plight of people seeking asylum instead of employing their power to challenge the root causes and effects of the ‘refugee crisis’.

This display documents the first stage of the project. The works are organised into three sections: ‘prologue’, ‘operation’ and ‘research’. A set of texts articulates the artists’ collaborative practice, the project and the key social themes that emerge from the works.

‘Prologue’ comprises a letter from Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art inviting Güell and Orta to undertake the project and a film by the artists about Middlesbrough. The former presents the rationale behind the museum’s mission and how the artists’ collaborative practice complements it. The latter briefly outlines Middlesbrough’s economic evolution, and elaborates on housing provision as a key contemporary business related to the ‘refugee crisis’.

‘Operation’ consists of a video made from audio recordings of interviews with Syrian men who are living in Teesside after fleeing the Syrian Civil War. The interviewees describe the landscapes and living conditions of their hometowns in Syria – Aleppo, Damascus and Homs – and reflect on the current geopolitical situation of their country. It also features an advert placed in a Middlesbrough newspaper announcing the artists’ intention to buy property in Syria.

‘Research’ includes interviews with representatives from a local charity and the museum’s senior management team who were each involved in the project. They discuss the aims behind, and ethical implications of, their work with refugee-background communities, and the larger questions surrounding artists’ and museums’ engagement with this population.

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