Saturday, October 5, 2013

Global Anonymity

JR has a show at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center, part of an overarching project called "Inside Out."  JR is a famous street artist from Paris, and simply typing in that bio feels kind of icky to me.  Not sure why, except that his whole gig seems to be about a sort of utopian populism in which getting your picture taken and plastered somewhere in the city constitutes -- well, I'm not sure what.  The whole endeavor is predicated on the fact that fame, no matter how it is instituted, is worth it.  The kind of fame JR deals in, sweet and esoteric and empowering, is actually the same kind of fame that is dealt out via the internet, TV, radio, and any other platform.  Your image becomes your identity.  So what is the difference between getting your photo taken by JR and his project-workers and getting it taken by paparazzi or even doing a little selfy on Instagram?  In the case of JR's project, it must be that his presence as a "famous street artist from Paris" is what makes it different.  Plus he's not making a shitload of money from the image.  Plus the image is not of someone who is already famous.  Plus it takes the concept of "selfy" and rarifies it, turns it into a status beyond self-promotion. 
In the case above, JR and his project workers pasted the portraits they took on the concrete around the fountain at Fountain Square.  So, I guess, people could walk on them while enjoying them.
Which brings me to Inside Out, the overarching project.  This is from the Inside Out website, from its "about" page:
"On March 2, 2011, JR won the TED prize at the TED Conference in Long Beach, California, and called for the creation of a global participatory art project with the potential to change the world. This project is called INSIDE OUT. Inspired by JR’s large‐format street "pastings," INSIDE OUT gives everyone the opportunity to share their portrait and make a statement for what they stand for. It is a global platform for people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art.  Each INSIDE OUT group action around the world is documented, archived and exhibited online. Over 120,000 people from more than 108 countries have participated.  The INSIDE OUT project has traveled from Ecuador to Nepal, from Mexico to Palestine, inspiring group actions on varied themes such as hope, diversity, gender-based violence, climate change..."

A project that is built around being "a global platform for people to share their untold stories and transform messages of personal identity into works of public art" looks kind of odd when executed like the picture above.  The portraits become plastered litter on the ground, peeling away from the weather and from people actually walking on the faces.  No messages are delivered this way, I don't think.  When I was looking at all the faces I just thought about the faces of missing children on milk cartons or on bulletin boards in Wal-Mart:  an anonymity intervenes.  You can't help that.  When people's images are grouped and plastered on the ground there's a sort of unintended irony, a message about the uselessness of portraiture. How does having your picture taken and then pasted on the ground with other pictures of people inspire group actions around "hope, diversity, gender-based violence, climate change"?   

Or maybe the art happens when the project happens?  When people are having their photos taken, and everyone is having a good time?  Is that the art?  Maybe the end result is just a weak echo of what actually occurred? 

Still trying to figure it out. 

I saw the Ai Weiwei retrospective at the Indianapolis Museum of Art earlier this year, and I was a lot more impressed with the way he blended art and activism.  In one elegant, epic piece he and his project-workers pounded out miles of rebar to form ocean-waves of meaning.  The rebar came from the shoddily-constructed schoolhouses in Chinese villages where kids died during an earthquake in 2008.  And in the ether inside the museum was a recorded voice reading off the names of the dead.   There's an intended irony here of course, and a seriousness about how anonymity creates throw-away lives, but then also hearing those names and seeing that repurposed rebar becomes a celestial experience:  both aesthetic and political, without indulging in fame or even rhetoric.

I don't know.  I guess you shouldn't compare the two.  But I am.