power to the people
interview by SVEN SCHUMANN
photography by GIASCO BERTOLI
French street artist JR seems to be omnipresent. His large pastings of people’s faces on buildings around the world populate countless Instagram feeds. He recently released the short film Ellis, starring Robert De Niro. Phaidon published an in-depth monograph of his work. During the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, he and American film director Darren Aronofsky projected a huge video on the façade of the National Assembly building — multiple faces turning and moving their eyes in harmony.
Despite his international success, JR’s work is not about his name, signature, or identity; it’s all about the people: their face, their message, their community, their local issues, their hopes, and their reality. In that sense, JR is just a medium — his art is a visual possibility for the urgent issue of direct democracy.
SVEN SCHUMANN — In the past, you’ve said you don’t necessarily consider your art political. Isn’t it automatically political, though, since it’s illegal in many cases?
JR — I think my art is political just by the fact that it’s in the street. Sometimes, I like to say that my work is not illegal because I believe that even if I don’t ask for authorization from the government, I ask the people. Asking the people in the community is like organizing a small referendum. So, in a way, they give me the authorization. I feel like I’m working within the constitution,
but the one of the street.
SVEN SCHUMANN — But sometimes you do reach out to governments as well, no?
JR — I recently did a project in Istanbul, and we tried to do it legally, but the mayor didn’t even want to meet with us. They never said no, and they never said yes — they just never gave us a meeting. We were lost in the bureaucracy. So, I was like, “Okay, at least we tried.” And we went for it. I can’t say it wasn’t political, since it was pasting random people in a large format in the street, and out there that is really political. But it was nothing against the government.
SVEN SCHUMANN — What was the government’s reaction?
JR — The state was not really happy about it, so they sued us. But the people in the street supported us. Someone sent me a photo of a piece that the police had covered up, so I posted a before-and-after picture, which got retweeted all over Turkey. It became so big that the city contacted us to apologize, and they are dropping every fine. They just wanted us to stop posting about it, and then they’d give us
the authorization to do another wall and even pay for it. So, it’s really interesting how doing something in the gray zone and involving
everybody in the discussion got them to bend to allow the project to happen.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Did you go back and redo the project after that?
JR — No, I just wanted to bring them to that stage. And then, you know, I felt it was okay; there had been a real interaction. I have hundreds of stories like that.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Some of the pastings from a project you did in Berlin a couple of years ago are still visible today, and I am pretty sure nothing got covered over by the police. Do you feel like the reaction to your art is more immediate in a place like Turkey, where democracy and freedom of speech are more restricted?
JR — In a place where the tension is higher, some pastings get covered up right away. But my work is not there in the street to be protected. It’s there to be part of the discussion. I’m actually fine with them being scratched, peed on, painted over, or whatever. It belongs to the people, and I have to let it go the minute I paste it. It’s not there to impose itself on people, but rather to blend into society. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s all part of the art process. I would like to be in the middle of all of those discussions. That’s my dream: being in every street at the same time.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Can you get a sense of how democratic a place is by looking at its streets?
JR — All the countries where I have felt there was no democracy are the countries where the walls are very clean — no graffiti, no posters, nothing. When no one can express themselves on walls, it’s usually a sign of not much democracy. Those are the places where I’ve been the most scared. Of course, it can be too much when everybody is writing on the walls, and it feels like Barcelona 10 years ago — which was beautiful, by the way — but there’s a good compromise between those extremes.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Why do you think the street is such an important place for people to have their voices heard?
JR — The streets have always been where an open, constant discussion that is independent of any media, that is outside of any political party, can take place. Art is definitely part of the process for people to express their vision, and in some countries it’s the only way that some messages can be passed on. What interests me the most when I travel is to observe the reaction depending on the context — the same black and white photo can be a crime in one country and a piece of art in another.
SVEN SCHUMANN — You are most famous for pasting the faces of regular people in a large format on city streets, whereas the only faces we normally see plastered throughout the city are either from politicians or advertisements.
JR — When you see the poster of a politician, there’s the name and the party, so the answer is on the poster. In the case of my art, there’s just a face. It’s up to you to make the rest of the connection, to find out who the person is, what she wants, and why that photo is on the street. And that creates a whole different interaction. It means that you’re going to have to talk to your neighbor or to the guy who owns the wall to try to find out who it is. Just by looking at it and thinking about what it means to you, what those eyes mean to you right now in the street with no explanation — that changes a lot.
SVEN SCHUMANN — The people you paste on the streets might represent the public better than the politicians, anyway. Is real democracy even possible in a political climate dominated by elitism?
JR — It used to be only people from the elite could access those positions because you had to have the money to actually make your voice heard, but that is changing. Now anybody who voices a strong statement can be heard by millions of people. If the statement is strong enough, it doesn’t matter what background they’re from. What matters is how much it touches the people. In Spain and in other countries, we’ve seen politicians rise from the people and get into power.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Your art often aims to give a voice to people who have lost theirs. How do you approach these people on the street and get them to take part in your projects?
JR — Either I already know someone, or I will meet someone that I can trust. In Brazil, for example, I was walking around the favela and met a 60-year-old woman who asked me why I was there (the place is kind of unsafe when you are not from around there). I told her I’m an artist from France, and it was like I said a password! She was like, “Oh, you’re an artist? We need artists! Tomorrow just come to see me. Don’t bring any cameras or bags. Just bring your book, and tell people my name.”
SVEN SCHUMANN — I assume that worked?
JR — Yeah, the next day I literally crossed the whole favela, passing kids with guns and lots of crazy stuff, just with a book and her name. When I got to her, that’s how the whole project started. So, you know, sometimes we underestimate the power of art in places, even to someone who has never been to a museum, like those kids with guns who are not interested in art in the typical ways. I don’t know why, but they were the ones who actually let it all happen, you know?
SVEN SCHUMANN — Probably because you included them in the making of the project and let them take part in every step of it.
JR — Yeah, because they have full power over it. It’s their faces, their message, their community. I’m just an enabler. It becomes their art project. It couldn’t be more theirs! It’s a completely different thing than an artist just working by himself with a camera and taking photos.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is that also the reason why you usually step away from a project once it’s up, in order to make the conversation about the people rather than yourself?
JR — All I’ve been doing with my work is figuring out how to step out the most, how to create more and more distance between myself and the projects so that it spurs conversation. That has been a really important point. By letting this happen, many more discussions take place, and they are based around the subjects and not around me.
SVEN SCHUMANN — In the beginning, this meant that you would leave a place right after everything had been put up. But over the years, you’ve been removing yourself more and more.
JR — Yes. To give you an idea, if I go to paste in Afghanistan or in Pakistan, for example, where the American drones fly and sometimes kill civilians, and someone else puts a big photo of a kid who has lost her parents, it’s much better than if
I go there and do the project alone. Then the whole discussion would be about an international artist raising this issue. But if I don’t do it, and
I just give them the tools, and it’s their project, and they decide to do it, the focus stays on them. In those specific cases, they even printed it themselves.
SVEN SCHUMANN — So you were barely involved?
JR — Except for them using the codes of my project, I literally did nothing. When the media called me the next day, when it hit the cover of the newspapers, I was like, “I’m in Paris, I have no idea what you’re talking about.” They see that I have no information for them, so they have to go and find this person. The discussion was much stronger because it happened from the people. When it starts from local to local, it’s much closer to the truth, I believe, than when it’s from the global to local. And I believe local action for a local impact can also have global repercussions.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Although you have done a lot of projects where you were directly involved.
JR — In a lot of the places I worked when I was younger, like in the Middle East and the favelas in Brazil, they couldn’t have been done from the inside at the time. No one in Israel or Palestine could go on both sides the way a foreigner can. In the favelas, I realized for the first time that I could help them print and paste, but it remained about the women from the community. They had to take the lead, so I could disappear after that and let the discussion happen.
SVEN SCHUMANN — And then with your Inside Out project, which became the biggest art project in the world, you took it to the extreme. The project was completely out of your hands, and you let people choose which photos should be used and where they wanted to paste them.
JR — People always say, “This project needs to happen in this or that poor neighborhood,” but I’ve always worked with people regardless of whether they are from a poor or a rich neighborhood. So, I wanted to see where this would happen if it was in people’s hands, and it happened in 130 or 140 countries around the world in more than 20,000 cities — places I would have never gone, places I would have never had the balls to go to! I’ve seen amazing Inside Out projects in a retirement home in Switzerland — because they wanted people to see that they’re still there and alive! — and in Pakistan and places where people are fighting for their lives. Both are just as important for me.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Do you think that by taking your art to the street, you are democratizing it?
JR — Art is not only owned by the art market and the curators, galleries, and collectors. Of course, there’s one physical painting, and that is owned by the museum or the collector, which is fair. But if I want to have it in a book here, or print it or frame it in my house or have a poster of it, I can still enjoy that work. It doesn’t matter. I guess with my art it’s the same. I just went into the streets and pasted and shared the real physical piece with people. No one can own it; it’s just there in the street.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Of course, some of your pieces are also sold in galleries…
JR — In a way, the art market becomes a shadow philanthropist of all my work without knowing it. I let the piece go there, and people find the value and make it theirs. I made a trade with them. But I’m reinvesting the money I made with it to make more art, to actually disturb the streets, to disturb certain places where art has never happened, and to constantly recreate that discussion.
SVEN SCHUMANN — Is it the same approach when you make a film? You recently released a short called Ellis for free on the Internet.
JR — Yeah, I left it open. It’s on iTunes; you can download it for free. But even before it was anywhere online, I said: “You can screen it. Let’s make screenings anywhere in the world.” And I had hundreds of people writing in and universities all across the US organizing debates, sometimes with hundreds of people there — I have the photos! It’s insane! It was for free; it was given to the people. In the end, nobody put it online until I did. And I sent a real physical DVD! So, it’s possible. Some people think the way the corporate world does things is the only way, but there are other ways. You just have to create them.
SVEN SCHUMANN — For example, by trusting people.
JR — Exactly, normally everybody is just too afraid of losing out on something. The only place where I don’t allow free copyright is when brands use my work in their own commercials. I always fight those people in court, and sometimes I actually get a lot of money from suing them and that then finances new projects as well.
SVEN SCHUMANN — The first retrospective monograph on your work was called Can Art Change the World? Based on your firsthand experience, what’s your answer to that question?
JR — You can change people’s perceptions. I’ve really experienced over the years that by changing the perceptions we have about the Middle East or the favela, it changes your perception of other places.
So, for me, changing the perception of a place, or people, or things, is already a way of changing the world. And I think that art does that brilliantly.
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