How to unite people through art (with JR) (Transcript)

How to Be a Better Human

Monday, June 27, 2022

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Chris Duffy:
You’re listening to How to Be a Better Human. I’m your host Chris Duffy.

Today on the show, we’re talking to one of the most famous street artists in the world, J.R. He’s got this iconic look where he always wears dark glasses and a hat so no one knows exactly what he looks like.

And even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve almost certainly seen his work, whether it’s a giant photograph of a baby that appears to be peering over the border wall between Mexico and the United States or the cover of Time Magazine featuring 100 people in Lyiv, Ukraine holding up JR’s enormous canvas print of a young girl smiling and playing, an act of artistic resistance that could be seen for miles by drone and airplane.

In JR’s work, he takes photos of humans who are too often seen as powerless or invisible and he makes their images monumental and iconic. The sheer scale of his art forces us to consider the stories of the people in the pictures. We look into their eyes. And we’re pushed to reconsider our own perspectives.

So today on the podcast, we’re going to be talking about how we can all use art to connect to others, see the world differently, and take action.

Here’s a clip from JR’s most recent TED Talk, where he discusses his newest art project, which took place at a supermax prison in California.


We arrived there. And of course, you know, it's not that easy to get there. It's like fences, electric fences walls, and you add more walls and more people that check your IDs. And my god I get all the way to the yard and it's looked like some army guy with like bullet proof jackets and heavily armed who say, all right, this is going to be very simple.

There's some people waiting for you in a gymnasium. We get us some inmates. You cannot approach them. You cannot touch them. You can sit at the chair that we designated for you, and we're going to surround the area of the gymnasium. That sounds fun. I enter the room and we do this thing in France. I don't know if you have that, but you shake people's hand, you know, so I started shaking, people's hand, hello, how are you?

My name is JR. What's your name? And go around the table. And then I sat. And I spoke with them. A lot of them have been there since they were teenagers. Some of them, even from the age of 13 and I never seen anything like it. And so. I told them about my art and about the idea. And they asked me a question, they say, but what is the purpose of your art?

I was like, well, you know, that's a good question. I don't know if I can answer before trying a project.

Chris Duffy: We’ll be back with JR, right after this.

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Chris Duffy: We’re back with today’s guest, JR.

JR [00:00:00] My name is J.R., and I'm an artist from France. I say that I'm an artist until I find a real job. But I do paper and glue. I paste giant images on buildings and cities around the world.

Chris Duffy [00:00:12] Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing and how that helped you to develop empathy and maybe a willingness to understand different perspectives?

JR [00:00:21] Yeah, I guess, you know, I grew up in the projects outside Paris and I've never knew anything about art, let's put it this way. There were no artists in my family. Photography was a rich sport. There was no digital at the time. I’m 39 now. I guess. When I found graffiti, which was a form to express myself and to leave a mark on society, to say, I'm here, I exist. Then when later, I found a camera in the subway and I started photographing my friends who were doing graffiti to kind of tell those incredible stories that we would have, going in subways and turnarounds on rooftops. I just printed them on black and white photocopies like Xerox photocopies and pasted them in the street. I didn't realize that this would be called art or street art or however people wanted to call it. I had no idea what I was jumping into. I really jumped into this in a really naive way, and I'm glad of that. I had no idea about galleries and museums. I just thought this museum would like for artists who died a long time ago. So it's really just a just a kid not really realizing what that world was. And then suddenly digital arrive and low cost flights arrive, and then the world was all open to me. And then that's what I ended up doing in my whole life.

Chris Duffy: The people you grew up with and started doing graffiti with - There were other artists in that group, too, like Ladj Ly who is a very successful film director. What do you think it was about your particular crew of friends that led you to have this artistic success?

JR [00:01:49] I think, you know, none of us were known or anything like that. It's just that we followed each other for the last two decades, of course, in the group, you know, by pushing each other, by being an inspiration to each other. You know, a lot of us then ended up in different form of art succeeding. And so that that's, I think, is the key and the power and the luck that I had that I was always surrounded by friends and and people that would push me, that would open my perspective so that I didn't get stuck. And sometimes when you're alone doing your art in your own corner, you don't you don't have that chance to actually be challenged. And a lot of the artists that I actually admired, I realized I always had, like this group, this tight group of like pushing in tandem and really trying to get the best of each other.

Chris Duffy [00:02:36] I always think that that's one of the biggest things that people misunderstand about art, is they think it's just this one solitary genius working alone and not understanding that it actually is part of a community of people who push and inspire and challenge and all of the pieces that that make art social as well as individual.

JR [00:02:54] Oh, yeah, 100%. This was a big part of what would push me and keep me going is to do it with others. So when I made that, I've developed my practice in a way that I would only have to engage other people and groups and communities around the world to do it. And I really create my projects depending on that. I quit project that are so complicated to put together that I could never do that by myself.

Chris Duffy: in your 2011 TED talk "Use art to turn the world inside out”, you said that '”what we see changes who we are'". How does that actually inform the work that you do?

JR [00:03:23] I realize I haven't traveled that much when I was a kid and so I wanted to see the world. So by going in places that I sometimes here in the media, seen in the media, I would just go and see by myself and not as a journalist, just as a citizen who just want to understand and really ask naive questions. And I developed a lot of my practice around that, just going to see and talk to people in a very simple way and asking them to explain me what is the context and telling them that I know nothing about it except what I've heard on TV.

And that was an amazing way for me and still today to approach a lot of contacts and go around the world and try to understand and and then we share those images. And then other people would then write me and say, Wow, I had no idea about this. I was just in Mauritania last week in the furthest refugee camp in the world. It's like at the end of the desert. So you have to drive 26 hours to the desert to get there. Most people wrote me and say we had no idea there were like 80,000 refugees right there. You know, we just don't know. We hear about the one in Ukraine right now, but we forget that there’s lots of refugees around the world.

Chris Duffy [00:04:31] I want to talk to you more about that, because it seems like when you choose subjects for your art, you're almost always choosing people who are seen in a very limited way in the media. And there's actually an irony in that you're creating two dimensional images, but it seems like what you're trying to do is actually create a more three dimensional image and more nuanced representations than what most people normally would see.

JR [00:04:52] I never paint famous people. It's always people you've never heard about, and just people I meet around the world that had incredible story, like all of us, but that never get to be on the front line of the news and I don't even do a casting is just a randomness of like these incredible people that I've met around the world and then I enlarge them so big that I have to involve sometimes hundreds of people to paste that image or sometimes hundreds of people to carry that image, like physically, like a giant top that you have to be 2 to 300 people to carry through, through the city. What's interesting is that there's few layers to this. There's the process, which for me is the art, the process of it, of in studying, enlarging that image is the actual art. And then the more you involve those people that sometimes come because it's just fun to pay stuff, it's cool to carry that image, then realize the message that's behind it sometimes. But really, honestly, the people realize it when they're in the process of the action. Sometimes they just came because it was fun. And then I was on my good idea. Now that we were raising that issue today, that's amazing. I have no idea. And then you have that image traveling through social media. So people to museums, galleries who books, you know, in any way possible. And that creates another change of reaction. So really, it's a work That's always alive, it's always moving. I never know when the projects end.

Chris Duffy [00:06:14] How do you approach a community or an individual and get permission for them to make art involving them? I imagine that most of these people, they may not be familiar with you in your work. So how do you actually get that trust and make it so that they understand what you're doing?

JR [00:06:35] I'll tell you, the secret is very simple. I just say hello. I just say bonjour. And then we shake hands. And then, of course, like anyone that you meet in the streets of New York or in the street of Mauritania, in the sand of Mauritania, or should I say people want to know who you are, what you do, and that's the same. So it's really always like that. They ask me, What are you doing here? And I said, I'm from France. And then after that they say, But what are you really doing in? And I say, Well, I'm an artist, so what do you do? Then I show some images and then I explain what I came here to do it and in a conversation stop the fact that I come with an idea that might not be the final idea. It's just that when I come there, that's the idea I have, and then they get involved. They gave some input and often the idea really changed because of that. And I love that. I love the process of exchanging and knowing that a bigger part of the unknown in the project is there. So there's always more risk of failure than success in every one of my project. That's when I create a project. I know it's interesting when it's just more risk that it fail than it succeed, then I know I'm into something that no one have ever tapped into. And so I really always keep that in mind and in the way I work.

Chris Duffy [00:07:43] But another part of the process is to not have brands or sponsorship, to not have logos on your work. Did you talk about that piece of of your values when it comes to work?

JR [00:07:55] Yeah, to me, finance is a big part of it. I think it's it's just that there's so many hidden message into everything we see every day today in commercial. It's like subliminal. Everyone's trying to sell something or brand ideas to everything, and I try to keep the art as the most purest form. The same way you go to the Louvre and you see La Joconde and and you know that, you know, that's it. He painted an image, maybe with a lot of subliminal image from the time, but there was no like brand. He's not trying to sell you anything than just really getting your attention in the painting. That's what I'm trying to do with my work. And so for that, I make sure that the financing of it doesn't interfere with the message so that it's not powered by any brand. It's not a projects on the people of their to then try to sell you this or that. It's really just that story and that person and that's it. So that's why I've never made collaboration with brands in any way. And, and so I self-financing with the sales of my artwork. So I always set a couple artworks per project then that pays for the next one. And I've always been into that journey. I had great mentors like Christo, who also did that for years, then Jean Claude, and then they were financing all their projects so that they, they could say, Well, you know, that you like or you don't like the projects. We didn't ask the government for money, we didn't ask the people for money. We actually used our own money for the sales of our works. So this way they were totally free. And I feel that same freedom today.

Chris Duffy [00:09:19] I wonder is your kind of personal image and the the presentation of your self part of that? Because you have a very distinctive style, right? The hat and the glasses, people don't see your eyes. Is that part of the idea of letting it be about the work and not messages about you and brands, or is that just it's easier to have a distinctive style?

JR [00:09:37] No, it's it started because what I did in the street for all those years and still today in lots of places, not everywhere, is illegal. So you have to pay fines for it. And then I remember one day I had to do an interview and some guys from Holland were there with their cameras and they said, Look, we can't film you for one day with this on your head. And so I went to the supermarket and I just bought a hat and glasses. I said, Well, now fill me like this one. I'll take them off. No one will know it's me. And it worked. And I kept on doing it until today. So it gave me that freedom that when I did the project at the bottom, Mexican US, instead of that giant kid overlooking the world, basically, when I would cross the border, the Border Patrol would not recognize me because I would take off my glasses. And then as soon as I put them on, then people recognized me.

Chris Duffy: I have a question about this project, Tehachapi: The Yard, that you did in a supermax prison in California. How did that come about? And also, how were you able to get the prisoners to be able to tell their own stories, the people inside of this prison? How did that actually get them outside of the borders of the prison, which they can't physically leave?

JR [00:10:44] Exactly. The maximum security prison in the middle of the desert, I don't know. One would come and see these because you come into this prison. I knew also that it's such a rough climate there that the image would not stay that long. And I needed concrete and concrete you only find it in the maximum security prison, and then I would have to find a way to capture it so that the image could travel, but that the story would travel also.

So that's how it came about, how to create an image that involved everybody. So the guards, some victims by some of those gangs from those prison and also some of the guards. So inmates, victims and guards into the same image. And that's like about 50 people into the image. And then we can only see from one point that point being from the sky. So we sent a drone. And so to kind of get that perspective. To get their story to answer your question, I told them, look, we're going to create that image a bit. That's going to be visually very impacting, but your story needs to travel through it. As much of that story at that as that image travels, I need you to embed into the visual your story and how to do that is not through an interview. A tweet is who you're going into one room and recording your story and explaining a guy like me who's French, who don't know how you grew up, who don't know the different neighborhoods in Los Angeles. And and you have to explain me, like if I'm a child and you're trying to explain me what you went through, because a lot of those guys actually that I selected were minor or I ended up in a three strike. There was a lot of like things that got them into those long sentences and not necessarily a murder. And then I told them, you tell your whole story, and they did. And they recorded the audience sometime for 30, 40 minutes, which they never had a possibility like that to do before. And then we created an app which is totally free. It's called JR murals, and you just go on it and you click on any single face and you can hear what they have to say. And that went a really long way. I'd really like crossed every walls even inside the prison, like the guards and not the inmates, because they couldn't have access to phone. But like the guards, the wild and then their family, their kids and stuff got to hear it. And that changed a lot of things within their own space. And then also people at the other side of the planet would suddenly get to hear about them.

Chris Duffy [00:13:01] In a way, one of the things that you've done is taken this building, which obscures all of the humanity inside of it. Right? It's this big concrete block. And instead now we're forced to look and see, Oh, these are human faces inside of here. And those people are inside of here.

JR [00:13:15] Exactly. And that's what my work is always about, is putting faces on walls to kind of humanize any places. And prison is maybe the hardest place to humanize. But anywhere around the world, you realize that people have lack of dignity and and photography's such an amazing way to do it. And yet I'm not a photographer, and photography is just a small part of my process. I spend more time mixing the glue than actually taking the photo. It's the pasting. The process and that process within the prison was also fascinating because we pasted all together and that with different gangs, different race, different ethnicity, the guards started to come to pasting and they don't have normally the right to get so close from them. And that's where the wall really fall. And those walls are not visible. You can't touch them. But yet those are the walls the most important work that I actually felt felt doing that project.

Chris Duffy: Coming up we’ll hear more about how the impact of JR’s art reaches far beyond the images he creates


Chris Duffy: We are back with the artist JR. In addition to creating large scale art pieces, J.R. has worked on projects like a free film and arts school, and a social kitchen dedicated to reducing food waste and serving communities in need. So J.R., I’d like to ask you the same question you posed in one of your TED talks: Can art change the world? I know it’s something you think deeply about.

JR [00:14:19] It's a huge question, can art change the world. But actually over the years I find a way to actually deconstruct it. Each one of us living in our own world. So your world is not my world. And yet we all live in the same world, but yet we all the blending of where we grew up, our frame of reference. We still live in our own world, in our own bubble. It's really a question of perspective. Perspective is what And we live it really right now as people don't want to over see any other perspective. They want to just stay in that perspective and believe that that's the truth.

This is the moment more than ever that we need to remind people that the world is interesting and not because it's just black and white. That's why I work and I work in all those shades of gray. And I always make sure in my art that I even confront my own perspective. And and so I constantly push myself into places where I don't know anything into worlds that I've never heard about. As long as there is fear into walking into that world, I know that's the right place to go.

Chris Duffy [00:15:30] Are there instances where people have reached out to you and said that your work has helped change their perspective about something in their lives?

JR [00:15:37] Oh, a thousand times. A thousand times I've been approached. And it goes from a simple story of of one in May to tells me, look, I could never talk to my daughter. She's 14 years old. She didn't want to come and visit me in prison. And now she heard my story on the app and she visits me every week and he say, my problem is I could never had 40 minutes with her to actually explain her what I went through. So she never heard it and she just said I was a criminal. I was in prison. That's it. And now that she heard me and she saw the humanity in me, she comes and visited me all the time.

JR [00:16:09] The warden of the prison, the guards say, I've never saw them as human. I saw them as animals. And now, because of the art project, I saw their humanity and how they think and and the love that gave that life sentence because of the project. Three years later, one set of them got freed because the guards and the warden like sign on the paper for their board meeting that those guys had really changed and they saw their witness it and they vouched for them. And that will never happen without the excuse of the art to just reveal that they don't really have change. But it's just that there was no way in the system that they could prove that.

Chris Duffy: In 2007, you had a project titled "Face 2 Face" which was murals with side-by-side portraits of Palestinian and Israeli people. Do you see any parallels between the work that you did on the border wall between Israel and Palestine and the border wall in the southern US-Mexico border and all these other projects that you've done, including the walls of a prison, is there a through line through all of those?

JR [00:17:16] Those walls separates people anywhere in the world. And so that's that's the I think the connection between those walls that happen in very different contexts. But there's still walls to divides people. It's just the most physical way of like separating people, literally. And so to me, they appear like the one in Mexico. I've just installed a giant kid at one place and it represented the whole debate there and the humanity of like just kids who this kid was like one year and a half and studying him on the wall. And so as a kid, you don't see walls. It's just that he has his house was right behind that wall. He don't realize the implication of it.

In Israel and Palestine. I've done it on the wall, but actually installed the portraits of Israeli and Palestinian doing the same job. So two taxi drivers, two teachers, two students, two hairdresser and and people couldn't recognize who is who. They would only see the two taxi driver, the two hairdresser. They're like, But why are you painting those two people? I said, I would say, Well, because one is Israeli and one is Palestinian, and people couldn't recognize they were like, Oh, I wouldn't know how to recognize my border. That's the Palestinian. I was like, I tell you wrong, that's the Israeli, but I give you another chance and we did this all over the region.

Chris Duffy [00:18:28] Well, I'm curious. I ask about that because there are sometimes in your work in real life, there's obviously certain power dynamics where certain person has more control and more power and is more oppressed versus less oppressed. And sometimes people have objected to the implied messages of that in your art. The idea that when you put two people side by side and one is in a lot more power than the other, that it makes it look like the only difference is that we just need to see that we're all the same, whereas there are actual systems of power and oppression that are in place, right? So it's not just about seeing each other as people. It's also we need to change some of the the underlying systems of oppression, I guess I would say.

JR [00:19:06] Oh yeah, no, I in all my work, I've always kept my I'm an artist. So I. I raise question. I don't really bring answers. I don't think that's my my place. I think activism is a much stronger form to actually bring answers. I'll say this is how it should be done. All I could be known as is when I put people side by side in Israel and Palestine. I actually did it so that people, you know, would play with them. And I thought that they would actually be destroyed the next day in like ten years, 15 years later, they're still there for most of them, which is kind of crazy. You would think. So you would say bet that they are destroyed. They are on one side and stuff and they didn't.

JR [00:19:42] And the idea is to raise questions, but not to kind of bring a message that everyone is the same and equal. It's much more intricate than that. But people were like, Who do you think you are to that? We wouldn't deserve having art. They were like, Of course, we deserve art. The same way anyone else in the world deserves it. And I was, you know, of course, very naive and it just proved me run the world and how people want want to use the island to show that there exists, that there and that sometimes they misrepresented or or I've opened a project in 2011 at TEDx actually, which is called Inside Out. Then people can send me their photos and I will print it in a giant size and ship it back to them wherever they are in the world for free.

Chris Duffy [00:20:26] For people who aren't familiar with Inside Out, can you just give them a quick overview of what that is?

JR [00:20:31] Yeah, Inside Out now it's [around] 500,000 posters sent around the world in 140 countries, and people pasting hundreds people of their community into walls and to the floors and to buildings in each of those places, raising a different issue. But really, when you look at all of it, it's just people. But yet those posters on the wall because it goes be beyond my work, it becomes the people's project. So you know that I continue that not it's I don't own it anymore. It's really it's really in their hands. And you would think it would only happen in poor country or in conflict areas. And actually now everywhere in the world, people wanted to actually express themself and and raise issues and and show that they exist. Even in a small village in Switzerland, very calm village, the people install their photos from an elderly house to show that they still exist, but they have been forgotten within their own village. You know, and I love that it shows you that we all have this need of of existing, of leaving a mark, of leaving a trace in our own way. But we all are.

Chris Duffy [00:21:33] Thinking about that, that we all have this need of leaving a mark and leaving a trace and how art can fill that. How can people who are listening right now make art in small but meaningful ways in their own daily lives?

JR [00:21:51] I think you have to see art as a process. So it's just an excuse to interact with other people. So let's say if you decided to then make your whole the whole way of the building that everyone's sharing to a color whatever blue for just five days you find a way that every wall, everything is going to be blue and then you can remove it. If it's in paper or whatever it is, you would have to ring at every door. You have to explain that to every single person. Then you realize that that neighbor you never talk to is actually much more interesting than you thought. Then you realize one will block you, but then somebody else will have some ideas that a whole journey of just making your whole hallway blue will become an incredible like journey. And that's what you'll remember of it. Even if the photos are not that interesting, that's what you actually will stay with.

Chris Duffy [00:22:39] I think I love the idea of thinking about that as art because that feels so much more accessible. Sometimes people get stuck on the end product of I have to be Picasso. I have to have this perfect painting that's in a museum at the end. And it seems like so much of your career and your success has been rejecting that 100%.

JR [00:22:55] Yeah, because I realized that the strongest part in art nowadays to me, I mean, you know, in the art of creating with communities and stuff, it is that process that just allows and and create so much interaction between people. And I just make sure that this can happen with or without me. And that's why I often engage communities at the other side of the planet without being there. Because you'd have to walk without me. If not, then it would be it would become such a smaller concept, and it can happen with or without my art also. That's what I'm trying to say here.

Chris Duffy [00:23:27] One thing that I'm really struck by in your work and I think is very powerful to me, is how you balance practical needs with artistic and expressive ones, right? I'm thinking about the fact that some of your projects have not only been art and visual, but they've also replaced roofs that leak on homes or created a restaurant to feed the hungry. How do you balance that, that question of fixing people's immediate, basic needs with their artistic and expressive ones?

JR [00:23:54] So it's a very important question. I always at first I go and do art and I always I'm always really honest. I'm like, I don't know if that's going to change anything, but let's see. And so we're always going on a journey with totally unknown and it doesn't matter if it doesn't work. So I love that because also it moves out all the pressure. But then after that I, you know, I think there's more to do in and so in some places, yes, I've created restaurants, I might have been in school. In some areas I've created awareness around an issue, but that comes in a second time and then it becomes how how to create more social impact into the place where we've done art. So anything is just creating more, more way of showing that art actually have an impact. And so we went from can art change the world to can art change the war and that was in Ukraine. I realized after going there that I could just stop there. And I created a lot of awareness and it made it the cover of Time magazine. I could actually continue and because of all the people I've met and all the, the the network I have, I could actually deliver trucks every week to Ukraine. And that's what I'm doing now since the beginning of the war.

Chris Duffy [00:25:02] For yourself, for me, for everyone who's listening, how can we use art to become better humans?

JR [00:25:08] Well, I think whether the insane into art or anything else is into the process is into doing around your community about what's around you before changing the world, change the world around yourself. So that means in the few people that that lives around you, that's your inner world. And then this is where you start. And I realized that after traveling the world and someone told me now at the beginning say, Well, the hardest thing is often the people around you and it's true, but that's where you can see the actual impact of it and see, Oh, wow, okay, I did that and that actually impacted my community and so I would start from there.

Chris Duffy [00:25:45] Well, J.R., thank you so much for being on the show. It's been an absolute pleasure.

JR [00:25:48] Thank you so much.

Chris Duffy: That’s our show for today! Thanks so much for listening. And thanks to our guest, JR. You can find more from him at JR DASH ART DOT NET

On the TED side, our show is brought to you by audio artists Sammy Case and Anna Phelan.

From Transmitter Media, Gretta Cohn, Farrah Desgranges, and Leyla Doss are all wearing dark glasses to preserve an air of mystery.

And from PRX, Jocelyn Gonzales + Sandra Lopez- Monsalve have worked on this episode fully Inside Out and Face to Face.

I’m your host Chris Duffy! We’ll be back with more next week. In the meantime, share this episode with someone you think would love it. Thanks again for listening.