Collective Brush Strokes: The Community as the Canvas
By Samantha Michaels
Can art change the world?
That’s what street artist JR asked himself last year when the TED conference said it would award him a $100,000 prize to change the world. A photographer from Paris, JR has made a reputation for pasting giant photographic portraits on urban surfaces like buildings, trains, bridges and rooftops. Working mostly in poor neighborhoods such as the slums of Kenya and the favelas of Brazil, he befriends local residents and uses them as models for his public art projects, which tell stories of the downtrodden or voiceless.
Of course, JR is not your typical community do-gooder. The photographer – who only goes by his initials because his work often involves criminal trespassing – got his start as a 15-year-old graffiti artist, writing his name on Parisian rooftops with a few good friends. After finding a cheap camera on the subway, he decided to document their graffiti adventures – taking photos, making photocopies and plastering them on building walls. “The city was the best canvas I could imagine,” he told audience members during his TED talk in March.
Eventually, JR turned his artistic focus outward and began to document other people. In the past few years he has plastered colossal portraits of Parisian thugs in bourgeois French neighborhoods; juxtaposed images of Palestinian and Israeli faces on security fences in the Middle East; and showcased photographs of dignified women in areas of conflict, places where females are often targets of violence.
Today his work is spreading, and with funds from his TED prize, JR is getting more people involved. Through his Inside Out Project, he invites people to send him their own photographic portraits so he can enlarge them and mail them back. In Tunisia, participants pasted portraits on billboards that used to boast images of their former dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Brooklyn, photographs of 11 immigrant shopkeepers are displayed on uneven steps in Parks Slope, protesting a nearby development project that is forcing them out of business.
Brooklyn’s Inside Out installation is just one of many interesting public art projects in the United States right now. In Boston, artist Tim Devin hangs posters on phone poles and other public fixtures to feature poetry, demographic data (like income level by neighborhood), or community-driven questions (“Do you identify with where you live?”). In New Orleans, artist Candy Chang transformed an old abandoned house into a giant chalkboard on which locals can write what they hope to achieve in their lifetimes. Called “Before I Die,” her art project has drawn a wide variety of response – like “I want to live in another country,” “go 200 mph,” “finish school,” or “tell my mother I love her” – helping people see what matters most to their neighbors. (Visit Chang’s website to see her other art projects, including the Hypothetical Development project I blogged about a few months ago).
So from oversized portraits to posters and chalkboard houses, can art change the world? Can it change our communities? “Art is not supposed to change the world [or] change practical things,” said JR in his TED talk. But, he added, “It changes perceptions.” Posted on rooftops, stairs and walls, his enlarged photographs force local residents to confront uncomfortable questions about gentrification, discriminations and poverty, and they create a powerful statement about the community’s identity for passing visitors. They also give people with little money or power an opportunity to attain their own creative agency – not just viewing the art, but making it themselves.
Whatever form it takes, I think public art can give us a better understanding of the communities we inhabit, the people we share them with, and our potential to connect with one another. “What we see changes who we are,” said JR. “And when we act together, the whole thing is greater than the sum of its parts.”
Samantha Michaels is a senior at Northwestern University with a double major in journalism and international studies. A Chicago native, she hopes to become a foreign correspondent or travel writer someday, and during college has tried to see as many new places as possible.
You can read her posts on State of the Re:Union’s website every other Wednesday.