Winner of the TED 2011 prize, anonymous French street artist JR’s “wish to change the world” consists of a massive humanist art project. JR grants that art, while not meant to effect change in practical terms, instead changes the way people see the world. “The power of an image is really strong,” and by “making invisible people visible” you can take the power back from the media. While the undertaking is a big one—”the world is fucked up,” as JR simply puts it—think of the interventionist artist as a master marketer, substituting such ambitious ideas as “civilization” and “culture” in place of brands, working to build awareness worldwide, one project at a time.
Using cities as his canvas, JR began writing graffiti at age 17 as a way to leave his mark on society. After finding a cheap camera on the metro, he started documenting his friends on their graffiti adventures. He started pasting the pictures on the city streets, outlining them with colored paint to differentiate them from advertisements. “The city is the best gallery I could imagine,” he explained during his TED talk.
JR fully realized “the power of paper and glue” during the 2005 civil unrest in Paris, when he took portraits of four residents from the poor neighborhood of Clichy-sous-Bois and pasted them around the rich areas, along with names, ages and even home addresses. Responding to media coverage of these individuals with his giant posters, JR inserted his message into the public dialog, adding his own layer of meaning to the depictions seen in the press.
JR took his project and a team beyond France when traveled to the West Bank where he created his “Face To Face” project, documenting two people doing the same job—one from Israel, one from Palestine. Using 20,000 square-feet of paper, JR’s crew pasted the massive portraits around eight cities on both sides of the conflict and found most people couldn’t decipher who belonged to which country.
With the success of this campaign in full force, the horrific slaying of three students in Rio’s most dangerous favela, Providência, became the setting for JR to start a new initiative called “Women Are Heroes.”, after hearing about the unjustified. Photographing the mothers and grandmothers of the students, JR posted the giant resulting images on the walls of the favela, with residents permission. The portraits, were visible from the city but inaccesible to media, creating metaphorical frisson between the media and the anonymous women.
In Kibera, Kenya, JR showed how art can more directly change the world by printing his standard jumbo photos on vinyl instead of paper, enabling them to function as roofs for houses in the poverty-stricken area. Showing an image from Google Earth during his talk at TED, JR said “Now when you look at Kibera, they look back at you.” Because pasting is culturally and legally impossible in India, team JR took advantage of the country’s dusty streets and posted white canvases which had been painted placed glue. As the dust began to blow, the image revealed itself.
Summing up his wish for the world, JR states, “Stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and together we’ll turn the world inside out.”
Working with L.A.’s Phantom Galleries (veterans of converting unused commercial space into temporary art galleries), JR put together a two-day photobooth installation in Phantom’s gallery that prints huge posters you can paste anywhere.
The photobooth reportedly heads to NYC next, but to ensure even greater democracy JR worked with the agency
Huge to create the Inside Out website, where you simply upload a black-and-white photo and the team will mail back a giant poster for you to paste within your community. As JR believes, “when we act together, the whole thing is much more than the sum of its parts.”
See more images from JR’s TED talk and photobooth in the gallery.