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Interview: JR

Born in 1983 in France, JR began his career surreptitiously tagging around Paris. In the last decade he has reached audiences all around the globe, carrying out public projects focusing on the human face and its symbolic power.

After he won significant financial support in the form of the 2011 TED Prize, JR created the Inside Out project. A documentary by the same name follows JR around the world as he encourages communities to define their most important causes through powerful and giant black and white portraits pasted in the street.

JR’s most recent project, UnframedEllis Island, recently opened to the public. George Slade spoke with him by mobile phone while he was working on the installation on a late morning in August.


George Slade: So where are you?

JR: I’m taking the boat to go to Ellis Island. I’m working on Ellis Island. It was the port of entry for immigration a hundred years ago. They open half of the island for tourists, which is what millions of visitors visit every year. But other parts have never been seen by the public since they closed it. So you have half of the island, which is completely abandoned, with hospital facilities, offices—everything is completely closed. We are working there, placing artwork there.

The visitor will be able to walk through and see it on a guided tour. It’s a really special project for me because it’s the first time that on such a site I’ll be able to do an exhibition that will actually be visible to the public, instead of doing artwork in this kind of place and then later showing the photo in the gallery. This time, people will really be able to go in this historical place to see the work, and I love that.

This is a project commissioned by the Ellis Island Museum. Will it be somewhat more permanently installed, or will it be wheat paste and paper?

The pieces should be semi-permanent. They are going to open on the first of October, and our contract says that we need to re-paste in case it gets damaged. It’s going to be the first time they show this place, and if things go well, they’re going to keep it running all the time, and those artworks will be there for good. So, for me, it’s fascinating to suddenly work jointly with a national monument or museum to leave something that generations can see.

Why had this part of the island not been open before? Because it was dangerous or unimproved?

First they thought they would have the financing to restore and reopen it, but it’s massive, and it’s been decaying over the years. The structures are not holding up that well. So they realize that they would never have the money. Then Hurricane Sandy damaged the structure, and they were like, okay, before we completely lose it, we better find a way to open it. They’re going to be able to take groups of 10. So it’s pretty controlled because it’s a really dangerous area.

Who are you using as collaborators in this project? Who have you gotten to be faces for you?

The photos come from the archive of Ellis Island.

When else have you used archives, faces of people who aren’t living anymore?

I did a project in 2010 named Unframed, and that project was about archive images that are not mine. It was also a way to show that I’m not only a photographer, that most of what I do is reinterpreting and using the walls or the open landscape. Basically, photography is just a medium for me, so it doesn’t matter if I take the photo or not. It’s where I place it and how I place it that matters. Those photos only make sense in this time and in this way on those doors, on those places where they actually were taken and belong to. I thought that I would only be able to do it and then people would see it in the book or a gallery, and I was really surprised when they told me that they’ve managed to secure a perimeter so that the public can actually see it.

I think photography is really just a vehicle for you, a way to convey the really important information, which is something about presence and the public.

Yeah, it’s definitely that, and it’s also definitely about connecting people and creating interactions—all kinds of interactions. In a project like Inside Out, it’s about physical interaction. I don’t take the photos, so I don’t even care how good they are because what I’m looking for is how the people will actually connect and how the people will actually paste together and have a little chat about what they’re sharing with me and the world. That’s what we’re trying to create with that project: interaction.

On a project like Ellis Island, I’m working with my team, and with the medium there, and the inspiration, and then—boom, it’s open to the public. So it’s a more classical way of working, even if on a nonclassical place, but the interaction will be more historical. It will be more what message it conveys to people, especially in this time when immigration is such a strong subject. How you put in place what happened a hundred years ago here and how we were welcoming people onto the land, how history can actually connect with the youth of today and how they can see the parallel in their own eyes.

What other projects have you done in the United States?

I’ve done a few projects here: The Wrinkles of the City in Los Angeles, the Inside Out project in Times Square. The New York City Ballet project was quite a big project—we adapted a ballet there; that was a whole experience for me. But let’s say that this is a one-of-a-kind, first project in the United States just because it would actually be a “forever” project on a place that is so important to the United States, and I’m really blessed and honored to be able to work on this one.

This brings up a question about boundaries. Can you talk a little bit about how your artistic practice crosses boundaries? Not just the accomplishment of pasting images on both sides of the Israel-Palestine wall, but more conceptual boundaries like private ideas to public realization, or illegal to permitted, or from stereotype to unique character. You’ve made a pretty fascinating transition from anonymous street artist to renowned anonymous street artist.

I think boundaries are the whole line of my work, the whole direction of my work. It’s always searching for boundaries. All my earliest projects until now basically speak about how the limits are never what we think they are. And I’m not saying I know where they are. I’m just looking for them, and the journey to look for them is the artwork. It’s not necessarily the final piece, but the journey—literally, to go in Israel, to go in Palestine. To try to paste there because everyone said it would be impossible, and then it happens to be really possible. And then I think, okay, maybe I have the wrong vision about a place.

So what I’m trying to do is raise questions, not give answers. I guess that’s always what I am looking for. I was always really surprised how much more open people were than I thought. So I’ve always questioned myself. I’d be like, whoa, I thought that would be impossible, and actually, people are helping me to do it.

Well, it seems like you’ve expanded boundaries, or at least moved them.

Exactly. Most of the time, it’s the boundaries people have in their head that are not real ones, and those are the most dangerous ones.

I love being surprised, and only art can create that surprise. Because real surprise can scare people, and that’s why they don’t take risks. But I think real artists should always look for real surprise; it can be sometimes good and sometimes bad, but that’s why, as an artist, you have to take risks.

In the Face2Face project, the one where you asked people to make funny faces, or unusual faces, or do something uncharacteristic—that was a great use of surprise.

Definitely. I asked them to do those faces because I wanted them to play the caricature of themselves, how they’re seen through the media by “the other.” So they were actually playing their own caricature, and then I always told them that they would be pasted next to an Israeli or a Palestinian, depending on the site, but always the two of them. What’s extraordinary is I thought that no one would let me paste, but people let me paste. Then I thought, when I tell them who was on the photo, they would not let the project happen. But then they actually helped paste it, even though they knew that in one of those two photos was one of their supposed enemies.

People helped so much on that project. It completely changed my vision about the place. It’s hard to believe that when you see it through the media. But when you actually experience it, then the art becomes the proof, and the journey becomes the proof. And that’s what I love working on, is those kind of projects where the journey is more interesting than the final artwork.

It was very interesting, in one of the TED Prize videos, to see the pictures of you working on the roof, working on a chimney way, way above the ground. I like the sense that gives of working in a very surreptitious way at a distance, but also establishing perspective for the newer works, the really big works.

Exactly. It’s always been about trying to have another vision from the same place. So when I was doing Paris it would be from rooftop antennae. Then in another country it would be from how I approached people and how I pasted them. But it has never been about doing illegal stuff to do illegal stuff. It was more that in some countries that was the only way of working because, especially in Israel and Palestine, we couldn’t have any authorization. Also, it wouldn’t have made sense to have authorization because, you know, suddenly, the project by government wouldn’t have the same power there as if it was brought by people.

But when I can—like here, for example, on Ellis Island—we do everything by the book because it’s another kind of project. It’s another approach, and I adapt to it. Working with institutions can still have as much impact as not working with an institution.

That reminds me of the idea of trying to make art by committee. Death by committee, you know? Your art represents the success of anti-committee art-making.

Most of the time people say, “Oh, yeah, but that was only with authorization.” The truth is that when you do something in the neighborhood and you ask everyone there if they want it and you do it with them, for me, it’s like doing a mini referendum, and so, technically, you actually have your authorization, but not legally. That’s what I like about it. When you don’t have authorization, you actually need more permission than when you do—you see? It’s because the people feel much more content because they’re going to decide and vote on the spot. So when I do works like that, everyone in the street comes, and asks questions, and interacts, and it better sound right to them because they’re going to decide if this should be up, because no one else will give you a permit; they are giving you the permit.

In the favela, if you had had police permission, you wouldn’t have been able to do that project.

Exactly. So it had to make sense to the people or the traffickers or whoever is really in control there. If not, they would have never let a project like that happen. And the police—you know, I couldn’t interact with them because they don’t have the power there. They’re the external force power, but they’re in conflict with the locals, and so there’s no harmony there, you can’t actually have a normal conversation. So you have to only have them with the people.

Do you feel in league with urban explorers?

I do. I love it, but the only thing that maybe separates me from the urban explorer is that I sometimes leave a trace behind, where they don’t. But the way I do it is that it doesn’t damage the wall. It doesn’t leave a mark that will damage the historical site. So, like here at Ellis Island, we use a special glue that can stay forever, but when you take it down, there will be no trace. The urban explorer, they’re really about discovering places no one went to, which I love and admire a lot.

But also, to give you an example, here at Ellis Island, this abandoned half will disappear slowly if they don’t have the money to renovate it. I’m pasting in some rooms that won’t be able to receive visitors for very long. They’re on the upper floor and maybe in 10 or 15 years the structure won’t be strong enough for anyone to go up there. Maybe in 25 years the building will fall and no one will have ever seen that piece of artwork. But the photo of it will actually be all that remains, and that’s a way to convey the story.

So, for the last 70 or 80 years, no one has been able to walk in that part, and no one has ever seen it. Now, today it’s going to be possible with those art walks, through those guided tours, and it’s going to re-attract interest about the site. And for me, also, the power of art is to basically talk to a younger generation, people that wouldn’t get interested in going to a museum, people that have never been to an exhibit. [It’s] the same way that I’ve done it at New York City Ballet, by re-interesting a public that normally would never go to ballet because they think it’s boring.

I want to bring the youth because maybe some of them think, “Oh, it’s cool. There’s going to be art in there. I want to go and see it.” By going and seeing this art, they can actually learn about their own history and maybe find another angle onto whatever question is raised right now about immigration.

You are, in a sense, updating the archeology of the space. You’re contributing to the history.

You know, I’d like to think that. I see the responsibility I have when I get places like that, how I approach every room, every pasting.