French artist JR is making quite a name for himself in the realm of “pervasive art” meets design for good. You may recognize JR as the winner of the 2011 TED prize for the Inside Out Project, which involves postering a community with black-and-white portraits of its residents.
Dubbed “the people’s art project,” Inside Out’s goal is to give a voice to the people within their communities. The large-format prints act as a platform for sharing personal stories and discussing values and beliefs. According to the Inside Out website, an impressive 120,000+ people have participated from more than 108 countries, including Ecuador, Palestine and Nepal.
In some cases, the portraits help illustrate a cause by showing the faces of the victims or involved parties. For example, a project in North Dakota features the faces of Lakota Tribe members with the message “We Still Exist.” In South Africa, 30 orphaned children with HIV/AIDS are showcased in an effort to remove the stigma of the disease. Other times, the project’s statement is more subtle, such as “The time is now, YALLA.” This project in Israel features the portraits pasted in the streets and other city surfaces in Tel Aviv.
But if a trip to Johannesburg or Medellin, Columbia seems a bit out of your budget, the latest exhibit in Cincinnati, OH, might offer an opportunity to see JR’s work up close. Held at the Contemporary Arts Center through Feb. 2, 2014, JR’s first solo museum exhibition will feature a number of his works, ranging from photography to sculptures to video projections. A mobile photobooth, which is housed in a van, will also be housed at the exhibit before traveling to various locations throughout the city. Participants who had their photo taken in the booth at the exhibit opening or another time before Sept. 23 and 24, had the opportunity to be a part of the JR installation on Fountain Square in downtown Cincinnati.
Although the HOW staff couldn’t make it to the event, local artist Mary Clare Rietz volunteered at the photobooth and was able to give us the inside scoop. Here’s what she had to say about JR’s project:
What can you tell us about the photobooth?
MCR: I volunteered on the night that the CAC’s donors, board members and other major supporters came out to meet JR, see the exhibit and get their large-scale portraits taken. The photobooth looks like it may have been a delivery truck in an earlier iteration, re-configured so that folks climb a few steps to get in the back door, take a seat on a stool, look at the screen in front of them, tap it, use the six seconds of delay to choose what whimsical face they want to make, and type in their name and e-mail. Then they climb back down, go around to the side to receive their picture, which emerges from a slit cut into the van where the large-format printer spits out the poster-sized images to the delight of the subject and anyone else who’s around.
What are your impressions about the project and how it came across in the exhibit?
MCR: JR’s several projects exhibited at the CAC right now might be the most effective and impactful street art the world has ever seen. It’s certainly the most powerful and inspiring I’ve witnessed. I think this success is largely due to the fact that JR has developed, as a central part of his art practice, the cultivation of genuine relationships with the community people who are the focus of his work. He seems to have a real understanding and appreciation for the challenges and dignities, the struggles and the strengths of those who are marginalized by society because of economics, age, politics, religion and gender. My understanding is that, at this point, because of the global scale of his work, he has others doing work for him. He can’t always be present, but he seems to have chosen a team with the same sensibility, as far as making authentic connections with folks in communities.
How did people react to the exhibit?
MCR: JR and his team encourage people to ham it up for the camera, so when the portraits are posted, we see images of people with silly expressions, funny faces and creative poses. JR’s work creates a kind of visual democracy because no one portrait is more important than any other. Everyone ends up with the same size, all black and white, no names or titles or demographics or information about what neighborhood they live in or what school they went to—none of the labeling that can separate us. People seemed to really enjoy being part of this global project, and they seemed to appreciate being placed in a kind of equalizing grid of human images. Maybe people liked being relieved of the constrictions of the social constructs of identity and, for a few moments, just got to make a goofy expression and thereby join a community of faces for Cincinnati residents to enjoy.
What about JR’s work stands out to you?
MCR: His projects focus on different groups—immigrant residents of the outer neighborhoods of France, elders, women and members of Palestinian and Israeli communities—but his intention is the same. Simple and powerful, his focus is to invite people to join him in making images of themselves. He places them large-scale in public so that they can’t be ignored. Viewers are forced to deal with groups of people and realities that some might rather not think about. JR’s work insists that we not relegate to the margins of our awareness those who are often oppressed, misunderstood or disrespected. As an artist interested in art that happens in, with, by and for communities, I aspire to this combination of social practice aesthetic and ethic.
For more information on the project, watch the video below.
JR’s exhibit included some interactive works that are sure to excite. If you have some that are equally mind-blowing, we’d love to see them in the HOW Interactive Design Awards. Deadline to submit entries is Nov. 1, so don’t delay!