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JR: From “Arctivist” to “Superstartist”

Local Activism Becomes Global Collaboration

Tracing the French street artist’s history of community-involved projects, and checking in on how the support from his TED Prize is turning the world “inside out.”

By Arts & Culture

Artist JR

Artist JR

JR, French, 31 years old, describes himself as an “arctivist,” a hybrid between an artist and an activist.

He started as a graffiti artist when he was a teenager, but his fortuitous encounter with a camera someone had forgotten on the Parisian metro in 2001 truly marked the starting point of his career. JR began taking photographs of his urban surroundings, which he then pasted on walls in the streets, framed them with spray paint, and tagged the whole thing with the words “Expo 2 Rue” (Sidewalk Gallery).

JR’s first noted work was 28 Millimètres, a three-part photographic project. The very first of the 28 Millimètres sub-projects, called Portrait of a Generation, which took place between 2004 and 2006, brought him recognition in France. The social context at the time certainly played a significant role in the success of 28 Millimètres. In 2005, a series of riots took place in the suburbs of Paris and other major cities plagued by unemployment and insecurity. Twelve days after the first riots exploded, the government declared a state of emergency that was maintained for three weeks. These urban hostilities were the most important since May ’68, both in terms of the damages caused and of its geographical extent, since the riots spread in various regions of the country.

From the 28 milimètres project in Les Bosquets

From the 28 Milimètres project in Les Bosquets

For the first sub-project of 28 Millimètres, JR took photos of young residents of Les Bosquets, a social housing estate of the commune of Montfermeil, situated in the eastern suburbs of Paris. Les Bosquets were severely affected by the riots, and JR sought to make the faces of its young population visible to all, giving participants the opportunity to be represented as they wished to, and not as the media represented them. The portraits he made were first exhibited on the estate buildings in an illegal exhibition. Since no one, apart from its residents, ever passes through Les Bosquets, JR quickly realized that his message could have a greater impact if displayed elsewhere. He took his oversized portraits and pasted them overnight in the chicest neighborhoods of Montfermeil, where the Bobos (Bourgeois-Boheme) and well-off families live. The impact was immediate. Whether supporting or criticizing the spontaneous illegal exhibition, France started talking about JR.

The second component of the 28 Millimètres project was Face to Face, described as the “largest illegal exhibition” ever mounted, which took place along the border separating Israel from Palestine. Face to Face aimed to put side by side citizens from Palestine and Israel to highlight how similar they are despite the conflict that tears them apart. The photographs were pasted on both sides of the walls separating eight different Israeli and Palestine cities.

Face to Face

Face to Face

The final component of the 28 Millimètres project was Women are Heroes. This segment took place in several countries that are known to be facing violent conflicts, such as Sierra Leone, Brazil, and Cambodia, and was designed as a tribute to women living in these conflicts.

Following these fully “arctivist” undertakings and several other international projects, JR was awarded a $100,000 TED Prize in 2011. Upon receiving his award, he claimed that his goal was to “change the world” and turn it “inside out,” which is precisely the title of his latest project. Presented as a “large scale participatory art project,” Inside Out aims to offer individuals the opportunity for self-representation. It does so by covering the walls of a neighborhood or urban landmarks with the faces of its residents, and inviting them to reclaim some public spaces that are either zones of conflict (such as the Israel/Palestine border) or places where people pass by and rarely communicate (such as Times Square in New York). JR’s new artistic undertaking bears his mark although it slightly differs from his previous works.

First, instead of photographing people, JR lets participants take the photos themselves, with their own cameras or using the Inside Out photo truck that has been touring the globe since 2011. People then send their shot to JR’s team, who print them in big format and mail them back. Participants finally congregate at a given place and time to paste their photographs on a landmark building, plaza or crossroads. Previous locations include New York’s Times Square and the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris.

Secondly, individuals can also launch their own Inside Out action by pitching their idea of a location and a (good) cause to JR. For instance, Quebecker actress Charlotte Lebon organized an Inside Out action in Lyon, France, to commemorate La Marche (The Walk), a spontaneous anti-racist protest by 100,000 young people in 1983. Although the organizers’ names do not appear anywhere, group actions are always mentioned in the Inside Out project newsletter and shown on the website.

Then, the Inside Out photo truck doesn’t venture as far off the beaten tracks as much as JR used to; rather, it is placed in usual artistic and intellectual venues such as the Palais de Tokyo and the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, as well as the Perrotin Gallery. The trademark grimaces visible in the 28 Millimètres projects are now often traded for big smiles and pretty faces.

Finally, JR also took the initiative to produce a documentary following the progression of the Inside Out projects. It was broadcast on HBO, as well as in the ten MK2 Theatres, all located within the walls of the French capital.

JR now multiplies collaborations: Pharrell Williams, Art Spiegelman, Spencer Tunick, Alfonso Cuaron, David Blaine, the New York City Ballet and David Lynch just to name a few. A successful transition from “arctivist” to “superstartist.”

One Response to JR: From “Arctivist” to “Superstartist”

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