JR puts on a show of faces for public causes

by Verena Dauerer

Special To The Japan Times

When French photographer-turned-street artist JR visited Tokyo in May, he commented, “I love the vibe here but I don’t see enough art in the street.” His latest project, “Inside Out,” may lead the way to help change this.

Earlier this year, JR received the TED Prize, a $100,000 grant awarded annually to help fund its winner’s work on a collaborative project that mobilizes people to take action for a common cause. As TED — the California-based conference to which inspiring thinkers are asked to present their ideas — explains it on their website, the prize was designed to bring to life its winner’s “One Wish to Change the World.”

JR’s wish is, ” … 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.”

Recently, JR has received a lot of media coverage for his signature, large-scale portrait posters that he and his helpers have been pasting on walls in towns and cities all over the world — from Brazilian favelas to areas in Israel and Palestine. He posted his work in a crime-ridden area of a Brazilian favela even journalists and NGOs would think twice about going to. And he pasted his “Women are Heroes” portrait series on the Louis-Philippe bridge in Paris, which disgruntled some of the more conservative locals. He has even displayed work on the separation wall between Israel and Palestine. After years of posting illegally, his monochrome photographs finally made it into mainstream art, having just been unveiled as part of his “Photo Booth” installation at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Still, JR prefers to remain anonymous due to the nature of his activities.

For “Inside Out,” a collaborative project with the public that began this March, he is asking for worldwide participation. Over a period of one year, anyone wishing to join in can send JR and his team a portrait photo of themselves, a member of their family, a friend or even an acquaintance, to share something of the subject’s personal identity and send a message to the world. For a contribution of $20 per photo to help cover costs, the submitted images are printed as 90 x 135-cm black-and-white posters. This is done at the temporary Inside Out office in New York, from where the prints are sent to participants in their respective countries. It’s then all up to the public to find a suitable — and legal — wall to put up their posters.

In order to promote this latest venture, JR visited Tokyo last month to talk about the inspiration behind “Inside Out.” “It came from the logic of my precedent project (“The Wrinkles of the City”), which was to involve more and more people at each step. Now I’m letting them rule over the actions,” he explained, referring to his belief in the importance of collaboration. “The main rule about ‘Inside Out’ is that people join voluntarily, and they mobilize together because they are excited about an idea that touches them.”

As with his previous projects, JR puts the subjects and their issues in the limelight. “The ones who have something to say will be able to realize it, and they are the heroes of the project,” he stressed. And for this particular project, for which the participants take the photos, he said, “Don’t forget that I am just the printer!”

“Inside Out” is a clever grassroots movement that allows people to express themselves publicly. It could be criticized for losing some of the rebellious nature that JR’s previous illegal posting retained. But, as a public initiative on such a huge scale, inciting participants to break the law is of course an impracticality. Instead, “Inside Out” is dependent on volunteers who have resources, spare time or free walls.

In Tokyo, Genevieve Tran has become one such dedicated participant. The Canadian, who teaches at Waseda University, met JR last month and was immediately inspired.

“I just want something awesome for Tokyo. I want to work at something that will stir up funds and resources, and attract creative people to do something great,” she said, explaining her involvement. “Tokyo needs more public expression of art and social messages.”

Tran has been recruiting volunteers through Facebook and other social networks, compiling portrait photos and tirelessly searching for legal walls to display images for three social issues that she feels should be represented in Tokyo: volunteering in Japan; increasing the birthrate in Japan; and an initiative from schoolgirl Maya Reyes, who wants to address the bullying of “ha-fu,”children of mixed racial descent.

She also persuaded the TEDxTokyo committee, TED talks’ satellite event in Japan, to additionally fund the projects she is organizing to reduce printing costs to $7 per photo, and she is now approaching companies in her search for spaces to accommodate the posters. Though this is proving tougher than hoped, she has aroused the interest of some architects, including the renowned Edward Suzuki, who has expressed an interest in the project.

One difficulty is that the wall spaces need to be large. Robert Purss, an Australian consumer researcher at the Nielsen Company, who is promoting the Japan birthrate project, is approaching companies for potential spaces by appealing to their social corporate responsibility. “This is a great opportunity for them to be involved in a special cause, ultimately benefiting their business in the longterm,” he said.

“Inside Out” may only be a one-year project, but its scope and impact could inspire participants, viewers and others to get more involved in social awareness issues in the future.

“Inside Out” is accepting participants until March 2012. For more information, visit www.insideoutproject.net. Photos from Japan are listed under the “future” tag. To participate or help, join the Facebook group at www.facebook.com/pages/Inside-Out-Tokyo/121270297958464 or write to insideouttokyo@gmail.com.