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Features / October 2, 2015

JR Reclaims Public Space

Famed street artist JR speaks about his working process, artistic references and wide travels ahead of his project in Toronto’s Scotiabank Nuit Blanche.

JR could easily be the art world’s most frequent flyer, although he works almost entirely outside the international circuit of biennials and commercial fairs that often drive this peripatetic nature. His travels take him to places off the jet-set trail, from housing projects in Paris to favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Once in these overlooked, occasionally dangerous locales, he sets to work in the streets, embarking on a process of meeting, photographing and pasting images of the residents. You’ve likely seen the outcome of this process on Instagram or Tumblr—piercing eyes emblazoned across entire train cars, or weathered faces appearing on the equally worn roofs of shantytowns.

JR’s passport will be getting another stamp this fall when he arrives in Toronto to install a series of projects for Scotiabank Nuit Blanche. Most of the installations will be a continuation of projects with a long lifespan, including Inside Out (2011–), which invites participants to take, share and paste their own portraits. To this end, a photo-booth truck will be installed outside at City Hall, inviting visitors to add their portrait to the installation. At other locations in the city, including the City Hall council chambers and the Design Exchange, JR will screen short films and documentaries to offer a thorough look at his past projects. The evening won’t be entirely focused on looking back, though, as a new series of projections will animate the Campbell House Museum and reflect on the history of the location.

Although JR’s work is widely known, the artist has managed to retain a relatively low profile, enabling him to continue his (sometimes illegal) work unperturbed. As we spoke on Skype, he maintained his signature sunglasses and hat, like an escapee from the old comic strip Spy vs. Spy.

CMF: You work in varied contexts—new cities in different continents. Recently, you’ve been invited to work in some important historic sites and buildings: the Panthéon Paris, abandoned buildings on Ellis Island and the Campbell House Museum in Toronto. How does the history of these sites influence your work within them?

JR: It depends. In some places, I’m able to work depending on the history of the place, like the Panthéon. The whole project was built because of the monument. But most of the time I work because of the architecture of the place, rather than the history. I always adapt my work depending on the architecture: the size of the photo, the way I screen or project something inside, or I use the structure of the building. I’m attracted by architecturally interesting buildings because they add so much to the work—they are a canvas.

CMF: With a project in a historic site, such as UNFRAMED Ellis Island (2014), is there a level of archival research that distinguishes the work?

JR: There is a lot of preparation for each project. In some cases, like the Panthéon, we made all of the photos, so we created the texture. But in the case of Ellis Island, we used found images. We went to a lot of archives and the Ellis Island Museum. With a project like Ellis Island, I learn about a place through the photographic research.

CMF: Even when you aren’t working with, say, specific historic monuments, you are constantly negotiating specific political and social contexts. With a project such as Women Are Heroes (2008–10), you installed the work in India, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Kenya and more. But women in India face a very different reality from women in Cambodia. How do you account for the specificity of these places, given that you’re working within the same project?

JR: I go to the places and I discover and get to know the condition of people in them as I walk. I observe what’s happening, how people are reacting, how they are talking. This observation makes me realize, better than any media depiction, the issues of the people.

With Women Are Heroes, I saw that I was going into cities where the men were ruling the street, but the women were the pillars of the community. But even then I didn’t know all about their issues and what they are facing in their everyday life. Only by interviewing them and pasting their faces could I realize what it meant for these women to be seen. I always use my work to get to know a place, rather than bringing an answer to a place.

CMF: How long does the process of getting to know a place normally take?

JR: It varies. There were some countries I had to visit twice. With most of the Women Are Heroes projects, I went once to take the photos, then left to print them, and then returned to install them.

Even with this process, the fact that nobody is expecting the project is also a key to ensuring that the projects happen. There’s always a big risk that the project won’t actually happen. In communities you might have people—drug dealers, or traffickers—who oppose it. So when there’s an element of surprise, that’s when the art is stronger. That’s when people say yes to stuff they never would have usually agreed to—because it was not brought by the city, or by an organization, but just an artist who comes and wants to paste something.

CMF: Your work isn’t always created in communities, though. Since 2005 you have shown frequently in galleries, museums and other institutions. How do you approach institutional shows differently? What function do these shows serve?

JR: I always try to adapt what I do on the street to the gallery. For example, when I was in Brazil I documented a whole favela with a time-lapse that went through all the houses, all the streets, all the pastings and all the people that I met. I made a 60-minute time lapse that was presented inside the gallery. Gallery visitors could walk in the favela and actually get inside the piece. It was like getting inside the place. My work outside is really ephemeral, so exhibitions become the last trace of the work.

But the shows don’t solely serve a documentary function; often they’re installations I couldn’t have done in the street. When I translated the project I did in Israel and Palestine to a gallery, you could get the full scope of the project, on both sides.

CMF: You are often positioned as a street artist, but do you look to other photographers and, more specifically, portrait photographers for influence? Do you see yourself in a lineage of photography?

JR: I don’t really see myself as a street artist, but that is the term that is usually applied to me. I’m an artist, and as an artist I can use the street, I can use the museum. Most of my work has to balance the two.

Photographer is also a term that I am uncomfortable with. For me, photography is a means. My approach to photography is really different to someone who shoots and says, “That’s the frame and it should not change.” For me, it’s just the bucket of paint, and I’m going to use a little bit more or less, depending on the building. Maybe I’ll crop the image or put only part of the face up. The template—the first image that I take—it’s just the texture for me, not the final artwork.

In terms of references, I’ve discovered most of the photographers I admire late, because I didn’t study photography or art. Even Gordon Parks (I was awarded a prize by the Gordon Parks Foundation last night)—I didn’t know much of his work until last year. Then I dug into it and recognized the similarities between our work. At the Gordon Parks Foundation gala they projected one of his films, from the late ’60s, and it felt so contemporary because we are still fighting about the same rights and issues. When I see those works, I realize that sometimes it’s a constant circle, and artworks in different times work around the same subjects. But it’s necessary.

CMF: You recently created a piece in collaboration with the New York City Ballet, which seems like a major shift. How do you place this dance piece within the rest of your work? And, reflecting back on that work, are there elements of the performance aspect that you’d like to keep working with?

JR: The main connection is narrative, as the main story focuses on the 2005 Paris riots, largely based on one of my first images of a guy holding a video camera like a weapon. That image is still really important in my work today, and I wanted to tell the story of an artist struggling to make up his own vision inside a violent context.

In general, most of my works and projects are not prepared as far in advance as the New York City Ballet project—they’re more spontaneous. Yet at that time, I was still working, 10 years later, on that same suburb. I love continuing projects about the same place over the years, especially when it’s becoming stronger as time passes. Eight years after I pasted in that Paris suburb, they began breaking down the buildings I had pasted faces inside of. So when the buildings were destroyed, the faces would appear. This is also documented in a film we’re going to show in Toronto.

CMF: One of the most visually striking aspects of your work is your use of scale—you often achieve a monumental, awe-inspiring effect. Do you ever start out with an image and decide that you want it at a particular scale? Or does the architecture exclusively inform the images’ size?

JR: It’s always the architecture that informs it, definitely. In the streets of Liberia, for example, everything is so much smaller, but when you cover a building it’s still really impactful on the street level, because everything is slightly lower. But in New York, you have to cover a much bigger surface area to have an impact. So the overall architecture of the place determines the scale.

CMF: Most of your projects span long periods, such as Inside Out and Wrinkles of the City (2008–15). Does your relationship to these extended projects change over time? Do you feel differently about them?

JR: Yes, when you look at the first iteration of Wrinkles of the City in Cartagena, and compare it to the recent iteration in Istanbul, where I actually ended the project, there is a lot of similarity—both are portraits, and texture wise I’m looking for the same types of buildings—but I evolve and try to find different architecture, or something a little more complicated that I’ve never seen, so I make each project unique. But they’re around the same themes and the same subjects. That’s how you can compare the cities. There has to be enough similarity to read the stories.

CMF: You mentioned that Wrinkles of the City ended this year. How do you know when a project’s done and when it’s time to end?

JR: Yes, I just finished it in Istanbul, before that it was in Berlin, Cuba, Los Angeles and Cartagena.

I can just feel when a project is done. They could all continue forever, but I can feel when they’ve come full circle. When I’ve gone to enough continents with that project, or if I would begin repeating myself, it’s time to end.

CMF: You mentioned arriving at your photographic references a little late, maybe even retroactively, but what about the political history of postering? It has a strong connection with events such as the 1968 student uprising in Paris. Is this political impulse important to you?

JR: I was born a long time after ’68, so it’s something I learned about later. I didn’t know about it when I started—I was 17 or 18 and pasting photos with no context whatsoever. Later I started to get interested in who had done this before, and how it had been done. That’s when I found the history of postering in France. The walls in cities have always been places of expression, both for the people and to the people, and it felt right to me to use it and give it back to the people.