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JR on Art, Experimentation, and Keeping Your Freedom

JR on Art, Experimentation, and Keeping Your Freedom
Published March 28, 2011 by Ariston Anderson
At this year’s TED conference in Long Beach, CA, a young, semi-anonymous French artist took to the stage, posing a single question to the assorted audience of visionaries across science, business, design, technology, and entertainment: “Can art change the world?” JR's message was heard around the world as the video spread like wildfire across Hulu, YouTube, and Vimeo in the coming days.
Playing to a rapt crowd, JR shared his stunning work: Giant faces brought to life through moving trains, building blocks, river stairs, and shanty roofs across India, Brazil, Kenya, Palestine, and China. His is a different kind of street art - less focused on the artist's mark as an individual and more about drawing attention to places and the people who live there. The presentation closed with JR revealing his biggest project yet - otherwise known as his TED wish - whereby he'll turn his method over to the masses so that anyone can help shape their own environment. To participate, one must only take their own portrait, upload their statement to the web, send away for their own poster, and paste it up in their own community. The Inside Out Project was born.Full disclosure: I helped plan the inception of at the Dumbo-based interactive agency HUGE, where I met up with JR to pick his brain before he dashed off to Tunisia to help paste up the first round of photos. The artist shares his strategy for life on the road, why he doesn't consider himself a photographer, and why he operates sponsor-free.

What was your first project ever?

Ten years ago when I was 17, I was doing graffiti, and I started photographing my friends doing graffiti, in the subway tunnels, rooftops, and pasting that in the streets. I framed the photos with some red paint, and wrote ‘Sidewalk Gallery’ on them. This evolved into portraits. At the time, there was a lot of graffiti everywhere in France. Then they started this zero tolerance law, trying to be more like New York. If you got caught, you were in  serious trouble. Nobody then was really using images in the streets like that. I just started pasting them around and making sure to use them in places where the only images you saw in the street were advertising. jr_2_550

What do you look to capture in a photo?

I’m not that much about street photography. I used to be, used to always have a camera on me. Sometimes I’m just taking photos with my phone to remember stuff. But I’m more about entering the moment so I take less and less photos this way. I only use the photo that I need for pasting, but it’s actually more about the pasting. The pasting is the art for me. That’s why I’m not a photographer.I think it’s really about the moment where I start to paste. That’s the actual process. We involve community when you start touching the wall. That’s really the moment where the art comes to life and the experience appears on the wall.

What’s the first thing you do when you get up in the morning?

I’m traveling a lot so the first thing when I wake up in the morning is I ask myself, ‘Where am I?’ Then it’s OK, I’m in this place, and I go out into the street. You know, it’s really about gathering people, working together as a team, as a group. I constantly jump from one place to another, mostly with my friends. Sometimes I travel alone, but then I meet other groups of people.  And once I’m there, I’m really curious, so I have more questions to ask than answers to give. So it’s always about trying to dig up more and experiencing more.
I have more questions to ask than answers to give.

Your projects all run on an enormous scale. How do you keep everything on track?

We’re a small team of friends who have been dedicated to this for years. And there are always a lot of volunteers that give a bit of their time to help the entire project. So, that’s the beauty of it in a way. I’m not even that much at the studio. When we travel, we’re all gone. We’re all on the plane.  And it’s about being in the action more than being in the studio.Of course you can be really quickly taken if you set up a huge studio, whatever. And commercially, that’s why we don’t have many books, we don’t have many prints, whatever, because we don’t take time for it. But that’s what allows us sleep. So we try to balance that, most of the time. Eighty percent of the year, we’re just on the road. jr_4_550

How do you stay organized on the road?

I try to check emails once in awhile. My main concern is where to find glue or where to print. The rest is just making sure I stay free enough to respond to the project one way to another, just as we’re doing the wish in Tunisia. We don’t accept any corporate sponsorship of projects, because we want to have the freedom to keep the project elastic. And I’m making sure I don’t give myself too much responsibility during the year, like exhibitions and stuff, so that I can keep that freedom.

Why is the group aspect so important in your work?

First of all, when you see the size of the photos I’m pasting, you’ll see that I always need hands to put them up. I was doing graffiti when I was 15, tagging my name on walls. Now what I’m doing is tagging other people’s names. I’m tagging faces of persons. They are the ones responsible for their image. When the people react to the project, it becomes their project. When you go and ask them why they wanted a photo that big, they have their own statement on the project. And I think that that’s the big thing about a project is that it’s about others and that’s why I try and stay as anonymous. It’s much more interesting to see how people are using images in their society.
It’s about being in the action more than being in the studio.

The Inside Out Project has big aspirations.

Yeah. I mean it’s definitely about reaching places that I have never reached. It’s about discovering stories and images from all around the world. And the street becomes the reality and the website is just reflecting that reality. And it it’s a much stronger statement to actually say ‘I put my photo in the streets and I stand for it,’ then just to say, ‘I like this on Facebook’ or whatever. That’s a different step.I’m curious to see what will happen. It’s an experimentation like any art project I do. Every place I went to in the past was new. We just went there and tried. Inside Out is exactly that. And we can say to everyone, we’re printing for all of you, whoever you are, even if you don’t have money, we still can send you a poster. So whatever’s going to happen, we’re looking forward to it. jr_3

What’s the hardest part of your job?

I realize that more and more people think that it is walking in Liberia, walking in the Favelas, that is the hardest thing. But I think that actually it’s deciding to go there. Deciding to make that step is much harder because you’re here, in your daily life and you’re like ‘Let’s wait until, I don’t know.’ And you wait for a sign. But sometimes there’s no sign, and you need to push yourself and go into those places. Now I’m more into jumping into something and then reacting to it. That’s the beauty of art: you got no real plan so you just respond to one thing or another, and just do it from there. Submit your own portrait and story at

More about Ariston Anderson

For over 10 years, Ariston has been covering all things culture: art, film, fashion, travel, and music. She is a leading identifier of current trends, a sought-out speaker, and a frequent contributor to numerous blogs focusing on art, entertainment, and luxury. She is an expert in digital strategy and marketing.

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