TED Prize-Winning Artist JR: Why He's Putting Your Face All Over the World An Interview with Street Artist and TED Honoree JR: We Are the Wish
Right after announcing his "wish," The TED-prize-winning artist JR tells GOOD about erasing the distinction between art and street art—and re-imagining your presence all over the world.
What I am looking at while I write this is something I have never seen before. Taped to my wall is a poster-sized portrait of myself. In fact, It’s a little disturbing, It’s the largest image of myself I’ve ever seen. My whole life I have never been larger than I actually am. The biggest it gets is life-size in the mirror. We’ve all been conditioned to miniature representations of ourselves. More recently, I see myself reflected back in a tiny thumbnail profile image connected to my online life. I use the same little image for everything. This is how everybody else sees me, too. A few pixels across x a few pixels high. Now, here, in my living room, is my face rendered three feet across x five feet high in glorious, antiquated monochrome. It looks like a Nadar daguerreotype—oddly flattened—and it makes me look instantly historical and important. I like to think I’m important, but this portrait conveys importance on another level. I am forced to contemplate myself more directly when confronted by this black and white evidence.
The real story of this portrait is the story of the artist JR, the 2011 TED Prize-winner who on Wednesday revealed his TED Wish at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California. Each year, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design), a global online-offline community made up of thinkers, dreamers, and innovators, awards the TED Prize to someone who has had a significant, positive impact on the world or has the potential to do so. The prize is $100,000 and “One Wish to Change the World.” One of the highlights of the Conference is the unveiling of the prize-winner’s “Wish.”
Just before JR revealed his Wish on Wednesday night, he recalled how he was terrified at first and didn’t want to accept the prize. “How can I fix the world, I thought. I am just an artist.” He called the prize director and said he didn’t think this would work and that maybe he just wouldn’t show up. “No, no,” the director said. “You don’t need to fix the world. You just need to change it.” When he understood all he had to do was change the world, he realized he could probably handle that and accepted. He put the phone down and started wishing.
His initial hesitation was well-founded. Winning the TED Prize brings a lot of responsibility and expectations are extremely high. Last year the prize went to celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver for his mission to protect kids from obesity. Past winners include Bill Clinton, Bono, and author-publisher Dave Eggers. All brought change to significant numbers of people and have furthered the goals of human rights and justice.
I have followed JR’s work and assumed I understood its relevance and social dimensions. I tried to imagine what he could possibly do along the lines of what he has been doing in different cities around the world, from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to Shanghai. His massive art projects have empowered and made visible communities that historically remain invisible, impoverished, and disenfranchised. Could he take this to another level and what would this look like? Whatever it was, it was bound to be big and somehow involve photography, his passion since the age of 17, when he found a camera on the Paris subway.
After taking the audience on a tour of his earlier projects he made a drum-roll sound and said, in a dramatic made-for-TV moment, "I wish for you to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and together we'll turn the world...INSIDE OUT."
INSIDE OUT is the project that takes what JR usually does with small communities and distributes and decentralizes it to a global network. The project is set up so people can upload portraits of themselves, receive a poster-sized print by mail and then go and paste it out in their communities. As JR said, “This is not about me. The people become involved and the Wish becomes theirs.”
"I am just the printer in this operation," he demurs. It’s Thursday morning and I’ve managed to pull him away from Ashton and Demi, into a corner of the gallery where his Wish has just officially launched. He stands a little too close for American personal space, but this way I am able to peek behind his signature sunglasses. "Look. You can see my eyes," he says, as if to show he is a real person. "But I always keep the glasses on."
I asked him why the glasses even though, like his subjects, he has been made extremely visible through TED. "I wear them because I don’t want to be seen when people photograph me." Ironic. But it makes perfect sense coming from the context of street art, where identities need to be hidden because of the subversive and illegal nature of the work. JR, however, does not easily fit into the category of stealth street artists. In fact, he considers the label "street art" derisive. "It’s art."
His methods are of his own making. Rather than being a midnight bomber who subverts laws, property rights, and urban space, he enters the fray of the communities in which he works and builds trust and relationships. The people he comes to know become the basis of his photographs.
Perhaps the glasses are just part of the character "JR" (I still don’t know his real name), a way to distance himself from the work. He likes to step aside and let the subjects tell their own stories with as little mediation as possible. For the TED Wish he steps back even further to let the masses do the photographing. So in this sense the Wish is the logical extension what came before.
"For me, I am an artist and I am just doing art," he says. "Whatever happens from that I do not control. I am not doing a humanitarian project. I’m not an NGO. It is an art project and if it goes beyond that to generate some change then that is good."
When I ask him how far he envisions the project going he says, "I would like it to go as far as possible, even to places without the internet. I would like to see people pasting wherever they can, showing what is important to them."
In my car in the free public parking space provided by the City of Long Beach (thank you broken machine!) I’m scrolling through my photographs. Not enough, I think. So I head back in. The celebrities have departed. The gallery is quiet and nearly empty. It’s spooky with all those giant eyes staring at me. JR looks more relaxed, leaning against the wall chatting with some patrons. He seems just like a conference attendee rather than the center of attention and I think he prefers this. His assistant, Erin, approaches. "Have you tried the booth," she asks. I had been avoiding it, but now that the crowds had dissipated I didn’t have an excuse anymore. The booth she is referring to is a giant portrait booth, like a blown-up version of the sort you find in amusement parks or malls. You sit behind a curtain, it takes your photo, and then spits out a huge black and white poster.
It was only after sitting in the machine and seeing my own portrait come put that I really began to understand JR’s Wish. Before this, it was all abstract. Now that I have this thing, I need to figure out what to do with it. Should I paste it up on an overpass? Maybe I should reproduce it and put it up all over. What does it say? What would your poster say about you, about the world? Have one made and find out.
So, as I stare at my JR portrait, hanging by blue tape on my white wall, I think, This is the Wish. JR is facilitating presence, the re-presentation of ourselves, and he’s challenging us to share this presence with the world in immediate and perhaps risky ways. "It is up to people to decide what to do with these, where to put them," he said. "People always ask me, will this change anything and I always say, 'I don’t know. It’s not up to me.'"