Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Talking imagination and participation with JR

JR calls himself “an artist, until I find a real job”.  I was really honoured to be able to talk to him, by phone, as he cycled around Paris on his bicycle.  Amazingly, he never got out of breath over the 30 minutes we talked, and I never heard any passing cars.  At least, he told me he was cycling around Paris.  With artists you can never be sure.  Anyway, it was fascinating.   I asked him first to introduce himself [here is the podcast, or the edited transcript below]:

“Basically I take photos, or sometimes photos that are not mine, and I blow them up on buildings, on facades, on rooftops with paper black and white images.  It’s more about what we do with our images today than how beautiful they are.  It’s about the meaning in the location.  My artworks are always hand-pasted with sometimes a couple of people, sometimes hundreds of people.

It’s all free of rights, there’s no copyright.  Anybody can do it.  Even if people can’t afford it, I’ll offer it for free.  So I have different projects.  One project is called Inside Out, where I basically involve people, wherever they are in the world, and if they want to highlight an issue that’s theirs, I will print the image for them and we paste them in the community, wherever it is in the world.  [Here is a TED talk in which JR gives an overview of his work and his story]:

For all of us, and especially for artists, there is always an easy route and society today is pushing us to always take the shortcuts, to choose the easy ways.  It’s interesting because it always sounds like the best option.  But I’ve made it a rule in my artwork to take the longest way.

For example, when I have to enlarge a photo on a wall, sometimes there are conditions where I could just print it on a banner, and put a few hooks, and then I would put it up with two or three people in just one or two hours.  I take the other option.  I’m going to print hundreds of little pieces of paper and I’m going to make handmade glue, and then we’re going to hand paste it.


One of the main things today between imagination and our contemporary society is that people have the feeling that of course they’re being inspired with everything they see on social media, by the fact that you can support any cause in the world just by clicking and staying at home behind your screen.  But that is a way to be more and more disconnected from each other, and that’s why any kind of project, and any kind of process that I try to build, is always incorporating the physical aspect.  The fact of meeting people for real.  And then of course people are allowed to share it on social media.  But if we lose that physical aspect, we’re losing something essential.  So everything I’m trying to do in the work I do, I always incorporate it in the front side of the process.

28 Millimeters, Women Are Heroes
Action dans la Favela Morro da Providência, Kids in Providência, Rio de Janeiro, Brésil, 2008

Much of your work is either about looking at the present of a place in a different way, or looking at reconnecting to the past of a place in a different way.  Have you done any work which is about looking at the future of a place in a different way?  And how might you approach that?

Not really.  I think a lot of the artwork that I’ve done I connected to the present, and often it assumes even more meaning in the future.  For example, the first time when I was 18 years old and I pasted in the suburbs of Paris, a project right on the north east of Paris.  And then a year later the French riots that exploded in 2005 actually did explode.  The first car that burnt was in front of my photos.

I was on the cover of the New York Times, the front page, and I was 19 years old! They had no idea what were those artworks on the background of what is the largest riot since the French revolution.  When I shot that short film on Ellis Island and did that project, it was way before the migrant crisis.  Then when the migrant crisis exploded in Europe especially, it became such a subject that Ellis was just a way to remind people of the humanity behind these people.

Unframed. Ellis Island. 2014.
Unframed – Ellis Island – 2014. Children treated in the Ellis Island hospital
Unframed – Ellis Island – 2014. Hygiene Conference Delegates

But I never have the talent or the vision to see what could be done in the future.  I just have this really strong feeling that if we take off the physical component, the fact that the best part of the process for me in the actions that I do, and the images that I do, is the fact that we’re pasting them together.  It’s the fact that people are involved.  It’s the fact that it’s always about the adventure and the process of making it.

If it creates a great image, amazing.  If it doesn’t, it’s still amazing, because the process was made to create the links between a lot of people.  And that’s always what I remember and I know that the people that participate in the projects also do remember.  The future is in there somehow in the art work, but in a way that I don’t control, and that I don’t try to control actually.

Why does it matter that we reclaim our history, and how does that make us more imaginative today?

I guess we have to understand our past to leave the present and approach the future.  For me, talking about the migrant issue, that has always been happening.  And it will always be.  That’s a subject that will be never ending.  It’s the history of our planet.  The reasons have changed but the fact that people are travelling and moving, they will always look for a better place to live.  Sometimes by choice, sometimes because they have no choice.

So for me, Ellis was an incredible way to use Ellis Island as a symbol of what’s going on around the world.  It can be understood anywhere in the world, even if they’ve never heard of Ellis Island.  I’ve always had amazing inspiration from archival images.  I’ve done a project called Unframed, where I use archival images and past them back on walls.

To give you an example, I was once in the south of France, in Marseille, in one of the most popular melting pot neighbourhoods, La Belle de Mai of Marseille.  There’s a lot of tension between Arabs, blacks and French, and there was an old French man that lived there and didn’t have that many friends because he lost the way to connect with the youth.  I asked everybody in the neighbourhood to give me a photo that makes sense to them, so some people gave me a photo of their childhood.

Some people came by boat to Marseille, and never had any photos, so they find a photo that made sense to them.  This old man gave me a photo of when he was in the French Marines.  So I paste him, really handsome, with other people all in the beautiful suits of the Navy, and I remember when we were pasting him and he was there, a lot of the youth in the neighbourhood were like, “Oh my god, is that you?  You were in the Navy – which countries have you seen?”  Then he was very proud and then telling them, “I’ve been to this…  I’ve been to Algeria, to many other places..”.

I remember him at the end of the day telling me, “I’ve never talked so much with the people around me in this neighbourhood.  I’ve never had a connection with them.”  It’s amazing to see sometimes what just a little bit of paper, a little bit of photography and image, sometimes enlarged a little, but replaced in a different context, can create a whole different meaning.

I remember pasting in Switzerland once, some archival photos that I found in the Museum of Photography, and I’d looked at photos that they were not using any more.  I just pasted them in the city and pasted a beautiful Man Ray picture on a church.  I pasted a beautiful Giacometti photograph of nuns running in the snow on the other side of the church.  And the reaction from the people from completely different parts always amazes me, and using archival images for that, it’s common ground.  It’s something we don’t discuss anymore.  It was something that had happened that there’s no discussion about it.  And now it’s about memory.

Inside Out: Tunisia, Police Station of La Goulette, 2011

Everybody is reading an image depending on their own history.  And that’s the most important part, you might be touched by Ellis because your whole family were migrants, and so you’ll be touched a certain way, or you might be touched by Ellis for completely other reasons.  Just because of the graphic, because of the number of people, because of how you’re connected to the issue.

But it always connects to your own approach of that subject.  And that’s something I’ve learned in the street.  I can paste the exact same images but in two different locations and because it’s a completely different story, the people won’t receive it the same way.  That’s something that I like doing in my work, just to observe the impact of an image in one situation and another.

Have you seen that people who’ve got involved with projects have felt more imaginative, more empowered?  When you’ve finished, when you’ve done your project and they’ve been involved, worked with you for a month or two or whatever, and they’ve seen all these amazing pastings going up all over their neighbourhood, how does that change them, do you think?

The beautiful thing in art is that you can never measure in the same way an NGO does or any kind of accountability of how much it impacts, but the truth is, sometimes you do see the impact of the art work.  In communities where I’ve worked over the years I have seen how people have been proud and it’s mainly a feeling of pride at being recognised.

Let me give you an example of that neighbourhood I was talking about earlier, where my artwork was photographed by the New York Times 10 years ago.  Basically I came back, and I kept on working in that neighbourhood, all the way up to now.  What was interesting is that last year I started doing a mural the same way that Diego Rivera has done it in Mexico.  I’ve done a mural the exact same, but in black and white … so representing everybody.  Actually from the Mayor to the drug dealer to the fireman.  Everybody was represented in it.

Then I went and saw the Mayor and said, “Look, you’re part of this now, like everybody else.  Would you find me a wall to put it in the city?  And I’ll paste it myself and it would stay permanently here, ideally here, in the middle of the neighbourhood.”  So he found us a wall and then we pasted it, and the incredible thing is that the French President came and inaugurated the mural, and say now this is part of our French patrimoine [heritage].

Now in this neighbourhood, in the suburbs of Paris, there has never been a President that has come where there hasn’t been any tension or rocks being thrown.  That day was a completely peaceful day, where he came to recognise that this place, that is forgotten, that is not heard, where the people don’t feel they belong to the French community.  Now he came there just to say, “Okay guys, we recognise you.  You’re part of our patrimoine.  This is a French village like any other one.”  You should have seen how people were so proud to be part of this neighbourhood.

This mural is still there today and hasn’t been touched by one person.  Everybody’s represented there.  Basically what it does is make them visually part of the history, the same way when you look at the murals at the Louvre, or in a lot of museums, or a Diego Rivera mural.  You understand a part of history through the people that you’re seeing through that mural.  For me that’s one of the great ways to bring dignity back to people, by making them part of history.  Making them feel part of history, not left aside.

One of the biggest problems we’re seeing in France, and also it’s something in the UK, is a question of integration.  It’s something that we’ve failed to do, in that young kids my age who come, like me, from a certain generation of migrants, don’t necessarily feel French because France has never really recognised them as French.  And that creates something of a feeling where you don’t feel Tunisian or African, or whatever, wherever your parents come from, because you’ve never been there, but you also don’t feel French in a country where you’ve been born.

That of course creates feelings where you feel apart, and I think that’s one of the projects that I’m the most involved in, to work and involve people into their own history.  I will keep doing murals like that.  The next one will be in Chicago, in the US.  And then who knows where next?

One of the questions I’ve asked everybody that I spoke to was if it had been JR rather than Macron who was elected as the President last month, and your campaign had been based on the idea of ‘Make France as Imaginative as possible’, we want to see our towns, our cities, our people as imaginative as they could possibly be, I wonder what you might do?  I wonder what might be some of the things that you would do in your first 100 days in office?

[Laughs] You know I won’t even get into that because the way I process, and I think the way my mind is also made, is that I’ve never been involved in politics.  I never even supported a politician.  I don’t even ask for authorisation in the work I do.  The way I function is by asking the people directly.  So it would never even come to my mind.

I can’t even put my imagination to think of what I would do as President, because that’s not for me as an artist where I feel I can make change.  The change that I feel that I can see, where I can see results and excitement, is by working directly with the people.  That’s why most of the work I do is without authorisation… I don’t say it’s illegal because I do ask the people I’m doing it with.  For me it’s like doing a mini referendum.  If everybody in the street, I ask them, they say, “Yes, you can take my wall.  Yes you can take my picture.  Yes, you can paste here.”  It means that basically I’m doing it legally.

The same way I don’t work with brands.   I don’t do any of that.  And the fact that I don’t have to even put my brain into that, into brands, or into politics, gives me so much more time to think about just art.  Just about people.  I don’t have to negotiate with all those people that try to incorporate you into their short-term marketing plan.  I can walk into some art work where I have the right to fail, because I only engage myself and the people’s faces.  Everyone knows that from the beginning that it’s just an art project.  I don’t know what it’s going to do.

Unframed: Marseille

And then sometimes, yes, it has an amazing impact.  But most of the time, I can’t predict it or know it.  That’s part of also why I’m doing it.  I love seeing over the years, and following all the projects that I’ve been to, and seeing what the results of those.  It’s a kind of a sociological way of working.  So I really can’t put myself and my head into the political process.

So what do you think might need to change in order to make the imagination more able to flourish? Or actually for you it’s just a question of we just don’t need anyone’s permission, we’re just going to get on and do it…

Making people realise the power they have, and the impact they can have.  Images is what I focus most of my work in.  So recently without asking anything I’m in a kid’s school book in France.  In a couple of years they have to study why I did the wall, and who are the Palestinians, and who are the Israelis.  They have to study me at school!

I often ask them, I say, “Damn, I haven’t even been to school, and now I’m becoming a problem you have to solve in school!”  I find that pretty interesting.  In that Inside Out project that I was telling you about, I’m really focusing it on education.  The best projects I have seen so far of people using their images to share their ideas and values and making project was in school, in US, in France, all over the world.  So we have dedicated most of the project into that now because we were seeing a lot more results.

I do believe that if we can’t work on changing the minds that fast of the current people that are controlling the world and making the biggest companies of today, I think what’s more interesting as an artist is to go and tap in to the youth, into schools, into helping them to access art projects, to show them that there’s other ways to express, to share, to see the world.  I used to do much less interviews, and not show myself at all, and then I realise that most of the people didn’t understand that I didn’t want to have any branding with it.

For them it could be financed by whoever, it would be the same, and I made sure that that was not the case, and that it would not be the same.  In today’s world where everything is financed by brands, and even if we go to the Seiko Stadium or the whatever stadium, that’s a big fight to try and make art work showing that it can be done also with art.

When I did the Louvre last year, they didn’t have any budget.  They invite you as an artist but they don’t have any money.  So I told them, “Don’t worry.  Let me find a way.  Create a chain of people so that we’re going to do that without any of those partners.  We’ll want to use the energy that we’ve built over the years with all these communities, and to use them as promotion, and that I want to keep for what it is.  For something that no-one can buy.  And that the people own.”

JR makes the Louvre disappear.

For you as an artist, how different an experience is it when you create art with hundreds of people than when you just create art on your own?

I’ve never really created art on my own, so I don’t know!  From the real beginning, I’ve always had the help of friends.  I’ve always put myself in the situation where I needed people to make it.  And then I created situations to need actually much more people to do it.  That’s what I found the most interesting and the most fascinating.

Are there elements of your childhood that you think made you more imaginative?  When you look back, are there elements in your life that you think have contributed to making you the imaginative person you are today?

In my personal case I would say the fact that I’ve always had freedom to be in the street, and go on rooftops, and in tunnels.  I never really saw art.  I didn’t know that there were Art museums or galleries before I started doing graffiti, and it was called vandalism.  So it’s only years after that people tell me, “No, you are an artist.  That’s what you’re doing.”  I had no idea, for me when I was 18 years old and I pasted really small pictures on the Champs Elysées, I’ve made it.  I couldn’t go higher than that.  There was nothing more interesting.

So I think just a kid from the suburbs with a really closed mind that happened, really travelled, but I was open to going to other neighbourhoods.  I was open to going to the north of Paris and in the south, in the west and in the east.  But I haven’t even thought bigger than that.  And then suddenly with the time, then I’ve always tried… And today, too, I’m always looking for the place where people will say, “No, that’s not a place for art”.

I’ve been in tons of places around the world.  I was even in Somalia a couple of weeks ago.  And it’s great that people invite me to do more, in communities and get themselves to create more.  I find that amazing because in a lot of places people put a wall into their own mind of, “No, it wouldn’t be possible over there”, and I’m like, “Okay, maybe it’s not.  Let me go and try.”  And when I go and try it’s actually possible.  But it’s only by trying that you could know this so I’m always trying to see how I can push the limits further than where we think they are.


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