JR at TED: Can Art Change the World?


French photographer/street artist JR has garnered considerable media attention for his community-minded public art in recent years. Last week, for example, the New York Times chronicled his rise in an article titled “Supercolossal Street Art.” The Times and other news organizations care about JR because, back in October, the TED organization announced that it was awarding the artist with its annual TED Prize of $100,000:

JR creates what might be called “pervasive art.” Working with a team of volunteers in various urban environments, he mounts enormous black-and-white photo canvases that spread on the buildings of the slums around Paris, on the walls in the Middle East, on broken bridges in Africa, and across the favelas of Brazil. These images become part of the local landscape and capture people’s attention and imagination around the world.

In this video from his recent Ted Talk in Long Beach, California, JR talks about his experience of working on art in impoverished, violence-ridden neighborhoods in countries such as Kenya and Brazil (among other topics during the 30-minute talk). While humor and wit are central to the artist’s charm, what seems to set him apart from his often-gimmicky, pop-art contemporaries (i.e., Banksy, Shepard Fairey, etc.) is a genuine empathy for the people living in the neighborhoods where he works. He’s not leaving anonymous missives in stencil on city walls, or posting up satirical artwork with vague messages that claim to speak truth to power. JR seems to be searching for truth through experience by examining the roles of personal and community identity in places where survival is often a daily concern.

During his talk in Long Beach, it was also announced how JR would be using the $100,000 TED Prize: to launch a global art initiative dubbed Inside Out, which is described as “a large-scale participatory art project that transforms messages of personal identity into pieces of artistic work. Upload a portrait. Receive a poster. Paste it for the world to see.” It will be interesting to see what influence, if any, the project will have.

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