Women: JR

Curator: Rule29
date: September 14, 2011
Categories: Environmental Design, Experience Design

In essence, design expresses. It says something. But “social art” or “social design” takes it one step further—the hope is for it to actually do something, or cause something. The starting point shifts subtly, and a new (old) question emerges. Can art and design cause you to behave differently?

It would be difficult to explore this question without exploring the work of the recently famed French artist JR. Even if you are an infrequent visitor to TED, you are likely familiar with this artist, as he recently won the TED Art Prize 2011. I first encountered JR’s work quite unexpectedly last year in Africa. And I know most classify this as art, and it is for sure, but the design of how it is implemented, and the process behind it, makes me feel it is a gray issue. Let me paint the scene.

We were shooting a documentary in Nairobi, Kenya. We had decided to follow one of our subjects home from work one night. He happened to live in the Kibera slums (one of the largest in Africa). Throughout our trip, there was one primary rule we had been given: “Don’t hang in the slums at night.” Not only did we decide to travel through Kibera that night, we chose to carry large film equipment, including a giant battery-powered LED light (which I happened to be holding over my head). “Standing out” would have been an understatement.

We moved quickly through a number of alleys and streets and eventually came upon a path that led to the elevated train tracks that ran through the slums. As we walked along the tracks and began to head down the other side of the hill, we encountered something captivating. The one lone light shining over the slum’s rooftops revealed a series of roofs with large images pasted on them. We paused. It was as though the roofs were staring back at us suddenly. There were large eyes and close-up faces grouped together in some sort of massive graphic collage.

It wasn’t until I returned home and randomly stumbled upon the TED talk that I realized this was the doings of JR’s “Women” project (which was featured in his recent documentary Women Are Heroes above). JR’s talents are nothing short of changing the world through the art of beauty, juxtaposition and the absurd. He has chosen to celebrate humanity via a familiar craft, in unlikely spaces and with subjects that matter— in this case, the heroic women of our world.

Inspire a shift. Inspire a change. And in the end participate. Isn’t art and design at its best when this occurs?
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