The Power of Glue and Paper: JR’s “Inside Out”
“Can art change the world? Maybe we should change the question: can art change people’s lives?” JR asked in his 2011 TED talk. A street artist whose projects have spanned geographic, cultural, political and socio-economic boundaries, JR has used the world as his canvas for over a decade.
Finding inspiration in the people he meets, JR has captured the expressions and faces of thousands of people, from Paris (where he is based) to Kenya, Brazil, Liberia, India, and Cambodia, through the basic tools of photography, paper and glue. JR’s work has explored complicated tensions, such as in the Israeli and Palestinian project Face 2 Face, recognized the humanity and dignity of women within areas of violence and poverty in Women are Heroes, and given a platform to those who are marginalized in Portrait of a Generation.
“12 years ago I was in the street writing my name to say I exist,” he said. “Then I went to taking photos of people to paste them on street to say they exist.”
In his first solo museum exhibition in the US at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center, many of JR’s compelling portraits are wheat-pasted on gallery walls, and his past projects, or actions, are documented through photography and video installations. As debated in 2011’s massively successful survey exhibition Art in the Streets at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, transitioning street art into the boundaries of a gallery space poses contextual challenges. The CAC successfully engaged Inside Out 11M beyond the confines of the museum, through a project inspired by JR’s world-wide initiative Inside Out. Taking place in downtown Cincinnati, Over-the-Rhine and Rabbit Hash, KY, portraits of the community were printed and pasted to the façades of various buildings.
Inside Out, an international participatory art project that documents people and their communities was initiated by JR in 2011 when he was the recipient of the TED prize. The prize awarded $100,000 to realize Inside Out. “A subject you are passionate about, a person who you want to tell their story or even your own photos—tell me what you stand for,” JR said about the project. As of December 2012, over 120,000 people from more than 108 countries have participated. Cincinnati’s own participation in the project is through Inside Out 11M, a focused sub-project aimed “to represent the diversity and unity of people that can call America home” and spark a conversation about the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
In early August, Dayton was the third stop in a nation-wide tour to capture the portraits of communities for 11M. Run by a handful of core organizers and dozens of volunteers at each destination, Inside Out 11M has created over 8,500 portraits since July 2013. Starting in Washington DC, the tour has traveled to San Antonio, Selma, Phoenix, Roanoke, Oakland, and many more destinations.
Meryam Bouadjemi, based in Baltimore and one of the 11M project’s producers, was stuck by the engagement that people have had with each other and with the project. “What has been remarkable is that it is interactive, fun and people from all walks of life are drawn to it,” she said. “We are coming to communities and celebrating them. This puts the focus on communities and gets people to interact with one another in a way that doesn’t happen very often.”
“This project creates a mosaic of the community,” Bouadjemi said. “Dayton was fantastic. People were warm and accommodating.” The portraits, installed at Missing Peace Art Space and Synergy Incubator, brought hundreds of Dayton residents together. The mobile photobooth, a van outfitted with a camera and printer, allowed each participant to control their own portrait and have it printed almost instantly as a 36 x 53 inch black and white poster, to be wheat-pasted in designated public spaces.
With the timeliness of the project and Dayton’s nationally recognized initiative Welcome Dayton, 11M had a direct impact on the local community. “An immigrant family participated in the project at Missing Peace Art Space. It was their first day in Dayton, having moved from Florida. This project made them feel welcome,” Bouadjemi said. “Some places are newer to the immigration issue than others, like Oakland, which has a very vibrant immigrant population, and Dayton, which has a different conversation.” Dayton resident Amy Kennedy was drawn to the project with her own family, “I thought it would be a fun activity for my daughter and me to participate in and a creative way to highlight the interesting people in our community.”
With Inside Out projects taking place throughout the world, JR is committed to the power of these portraits and his work. “It doesn’t matter if it’s your photo or not,” he said in his 2011 TED talk. “The importance is what you do with the images, the statement it makes where it is pasted.”
Documenting the expressions of thousands of faces has propelled Inside Out to be a platform for numerous communities to demonstrate what they stand for. “Art can change the way we see the world,” JR said. “Actually the fact that art cannot change things makes it a neutral place for exchanges and discussion and then enables you to change the world.” From Dayton to Cincinnati, the impact of this street art initiative has forged new connections and new conversations. And perhaps changed people’s lives along the way.
JR is on view through February 2, 2014 at the Contemporary Arts Center, 44 East 6th Street, Cincinnati. Learn more about the exhibition at http://contemporaryartscenter.org/JR. The Inside Out 11M project, which includes the portraits taken in Dayton and Cincinnati, are at www.insideoutproject.net/11M. Visit the Dayton portraits at Missing Peace Art Space (234 South Dutoit Street) and Synergy Incubator (200 North Jefferson Street).
This article was originally published in Art Everywhere of the Dayton City Paper, October 29, 2013.