JR interviewed by Jean Nouvel: “A world apart”

Domus guest editor 2022 retraces with the artist, also French, the genesis and stages of the project in Tehachapi Prison, reflecting on the effects of globalization.

This article was originally published on Domus 1073, November 2022.

Jean Nouvel Urban globalisation is one of the world’s worst afflictions. The same things and objects are repeated over and over again. This globalisation also influences the products we find everywhere. Everything that relates to globalisation in the sense of importing products, of needing more than what can be found locally, of failing to understand that each place has its own richness and identity. Character can only come from a series of distinctive situations, and this is what will enrich the world rather than shrinking it.

For many years, Edgar Morin has adopted a stance that I greatly admire, arguing that globalisation is positive for one main reason: communication between individuals, who are able to speak to one another, have opportunities to speak to one another, see each other, get to know one another from a distance and exchange ideas. This is vital. It’s the most important aspect of globalisation today, far more so than any of the drawbacks we are all aware of – these cloned situations you can find anywhere that make no sense, those products spreading when we don’t need them, purely for reasons of profit and capitalism.

I propose that each of you talk about these issues in your own way, reflecting your own thoughts, actions and experiences, and explore these ideas regarding urban globalisation and its drawbacks, showing that we are not anti-globalisation and that globalisation can even be positive in some cases. 

JR I completely agree with Edgar Morin’s argument that the fact that globalisation enables communication between strangers around the world is perhaps one of its only benefits. Like in any great innovation, there is strength but there is also huge weakness. Many people no longer leave their homes because they can talk to one another online. My work focuses on two very specific points. The first is making people want to leave their homes to meet, and that is one of the hardest things these days because you have the option of visiting Peru with virtual reality, and you can talk to people on the other side of the world using FaceTime. There are people who are friends but have never met. For me, one thing that can never be replaced is the physical human relationship, and even though these channels can perpetuate this human relationship, there is a physical aspect that is necessary and vital. 

JR, 28 Millimètres, Women Are Heroes, Action dans la Favela Morro da Providencia, Escalier, Rio de Janeiro, 2008
JR, 28 Millimètres, Women Are Heroes, Action dans la Favela Morro da Providencia, Escalier, Rio de Janeiro, 2008

JN This information and contact encourage travel, because they encourage people to go and meet friends they’ve never seen in person.

JR Exactly. They allow people to maintain those connections. I’ve based all my work on this because the Internet was just taking off when I was 17 or 18. I discovered it before mobile phones or social media. My artistic work evolved during that period. I’ve always sought to include people I don’t know in my work, people I meet online and invite to participate by throwing a message in a bottle into the sea. People come and work on participatory collages. When they leave, it’s not so much the artwork itself that they are proud of, but rather the people they encountered during the artistic process. For me, the artwork is the process of making the artwork. The specific example I’d like to talk about is that of a high-security prison in California called Tehachapi.

As a level 4 high-security prison, it’s cut off from any interaction with the outside world. Even inside, it’s difficult for prisoners and guards to establish relationships. When they are not shut up in their cells, the prisoners are only able to speak to one another in the yard. There’s a wall between the prisoners and the guards, not a physical wall but a real one nonetheless. My opportunity to work at the prison came through the governor of California, who, by chance, had participated in one of my mural projects before being appointed governor. I was authorised to enter the prison with my mobile phone. Initially, I set out with the idea of producing an artwork with the prisoners. I thought it would be interesting to involve the guards as well as the victims of the gangs whose members are in prison, giving all these people a voice on a single mural and recording the stories of each individual we would see on that mural. Once I was inside the prison, I realised that my phone was an incredible tool that I could use to take the project further, as it offered a kind of communication that didn’t exist in a place like this. Social media played a central role in the project as I was able to share the discussions I had with the prisoners online. It came instinctively. That’s often how I develop my projects.

One of the prisoner participants was called Kevin. He had a swastika tattoo on his face, which I’d never imagined seeing on a real person. The first question I asked him was: “How did you end up with that on your face?” and he looked at me as if he’d forgotten it was there. He told me it was the symbol of a gang he represented in prison and that if he could, he’d have it removed. I posted a portrait of him on social media, which triggered a wave of comments. I showed him the comments. He’d been in prison for more than 17 years, so I explained the principle of social media to him. People on the other side of the world would have no idea of the background behind the tattoo (although there’s really no legitimate explanation for it), so I asked him to tell people how and why he’d got the tattoo and why he wanted to remove it. For three or four days, I made a series of videos that I posted live from the prison before reading him the comments. I saw the impact it had on him: he’d never received so much attention, love and hatred all at once. The videos were watched by people at the prison, the guards, family members and Kevin’s own family, as well as by people from all over the world.

For three years, I visited the prison to see Kevin, who still had the tattoo on his face. He couldn’t get it removed in prison but this “human chain” of support on social media made it seem more possible. Unfortunately, the Covid pandemic brought the process to a halt but I was still able to visit him. I asked the prisoners about the impact of the free “JR Mural” smartphone app, where their spoken accounts of their lives were stored. On the app, you can click on a face and hear the person’s story. The prisoners aren’t allowed mobile phones in prison so the app made more of an impact on their families than it did on the prisoners themselves. Kevin’s 18-year-old daughter never went to see him as she thought he was undeserving of her love. Then she listened to his story. Kevin told me: “She listened to me expressing myself in a way I’d never have been able to if she’d come to the visiting room to see me. During the 40-minute voice recording, I opened my heart, I cried, I explained where I’d come from and how I’d ended up here. After that, she came to see me every week. Ask any of the prisoners in the group, most of their families have got back in contact with them.” Other people on the outside, including the prison guards and the director, listened to their stories and began to speak in turn.

People come and work on participatory collages. When they leave, it’s not so much the artwork itself that they are proud of, but the people they encountered. For me, the artwork is the process of making the artwork

Suddenly, they were no longer seen as animals but as men. Of course, I made sure that rapists, murderers and anyone else who might shock people on the outside with their crimes were not included. In my group, there were people who had been in prison for 15 to 19 years. They’d received long sentences for various reasons, in some cases because they were involved in gangs and in others because of the three-strike law in the United States, which sentences anyone who has committed more than three crimes to life imprisonment, and so on.

Thanks to this project, which was launched exactly three years ago, 100 per cent of the prisoners I recruited for the project were transferred to lower-security prisons – level 2 or 3 – and one-third were released for the simple reason that art had shown how much they had changed. The guards even argued for their release, which was crucial when their cases were examined by the board of parole. Kevin was one of the ones who was released from prison. The first thing he did on the outside was get his tattoo removed. I was with him that day. He did it at a community centre. Tattoos are removed in several stages but the first is very important, especially on the face where it’s even more painful. At the end, the doctor said to him: “Who better than me, a Jewish woman, to remove your tattoo?” It was very moving; he was ashamed.

It’s interesting how other prisoners from different backgrounds didn’t see him as an extremist. They knew he’d changed so the tattoo meant nothing to them. Meanwhile, in society outside the prison walls, people avoided him in fear. He realised he could no longer live with his tattoo – he urgently needed to get it removed. This project focuses on the idea of giving and accepting second chances. But above all, it’s about the communication that took place with people whom he would never meet but who believed in him at that moment. This would have been impossible in an earlier, less global world. His family would still have struggled to visit, the guards would still have looked at him in the same way, with his tattoo on his face, and nobody would have given him a chance. These communication links allowed him to get out of prison. Everyone took an interest, even the state, believing that maybe this man had changed because of how well he expressed himself. He must have done the same before the board, but perhaps they didn’t believe him.

My work exists because of globalisation. The fact that I can send printed portraits of pople all over the world, who have themselves sent these portraits to me without ever meeting me, who are keen to defend a public garden or their freedom of expression in Iran or democracy elsewhere – it becomes their project, they add the components to the collage – this kind of project is only possible thanks to globalisation. However, I have some very strict rules when it comes to my projects. My only defence mechanism to protect all the other elements you listed at the start is to avoid accepting funding from brands or governments and ensure that my projects are completely independent. My role is to spread these stories far and wide and make sure that they are not used for the benefit of another, unrelated product.

JR, Tehachapi, The Yard, 2019
JR, Tehachapi, The Yard, 2019

JN These stories are at the very root of economic globalisation and are just as open to criticism on the human and philosophical level, as Edgar Morin says.

JR Exactly. That’s why I haven’t adopted the narrative of “Down with capitalism!” We haven’t come up with a better model yet. I try to make my process as pure as possible, even though my funding comes from selling my works. I think it’s important to talk about this aspect. I reinvest what I’ve sold in my projects, which gives me complete freedom to decide where, when and how I carry them out. This is the method that works for me. This project at the prison would have been different if it had been funded by Chanel, Coca-Cola or Nike, for example. These people are sharing their stories for no reason other than a desire to share. The strength of art lies not in selling a cap or a T-shirt, but in prompting people to think and question. Once you’ve sated your hunger and thirst, the only question that remains is: “Why am I here?” I think art is one of the most powerful ways of questioning what we leave behind.

The strength of art lies not in selling a cap or a T-shirt, but in prompting people to think and question

JN Eliciting emotion.

JR Exactly. The prisoners gave incredible, really profound interviews. They’re not interviews as such. I’m not a journalist and I’m not there to judge or interrupt the participants. To prepare them, I tell them that the story they’re going to tell will reach someone like me who doesn’t know them. I didn’t even know that these high-security prisons existed. I thought they were just something you saw in films. They had to leave behind the world they’d grown up in and try to explain what had happened in their lives to end up here as if they were speaking to a four- or five-year-old. All the stories are told very simply.

That’s the example I was especially keen to talk about because at the end of the day prisons are the most closed places on the planet and they’re untouched by globalisation. What’s striking when you speak to the prisoners is that their ability to concentrate is 100 per cent. They don’t have phones so they aren’t bothered by things every two minutes. When you talk to them, they’re present. It’s as if you were speaking to people from 20 years ago. It makes you realise that our concentration has changed. I was exhausted at the end of every day because I was constantly 100 per cent switched on. I was there in the midst of real conversations. In prisons, there’s no advertising or other distractions. You’re constantly immersed in human relations, especially in projects like this. For once, you’re able to talk all day without being interrupted by the prison’s brutal schedule.

This project isn’t the only example of my community work. Sometimes, my projects last for 15 or 20 years. But there’s something quite striking that paradoxically occurs because of globalisation – communication links – in this microsociety that mirrors the outside world but is cut off from globalisation. I know that this may not happen again because of the potential for abuse, but the fact of being able to bring a telephone into the prison and provide a link to the outside world changed things. This example is currently being studied by the American government. They came to visit during the three-year project to observe the impact on the prison, the changes that took place and the programmes that the project gave rise to. This gives me great hope. I didn’t conduct interviews, I just posted videos on social media. People discovered the app by chance.

Prison is a whole other world, with all the people who are linked to it, families, etc., so the “giant hole” I opened up in the prison allowed the image to travel around the world. Of course, not everyone has listened to the stories. It’s like with films: lots of people are familiar with the poster for a film but the number of people who actually go and see the film is much lower. I don’t really monitor the figures; I’m interested in the impact. How many people have listened to the accounts doesn’t matter that much. In the prison, they’ve made enough of an impact for family members, guards and government officials to have listened to them, and sharing the prisoners’ stories has changed their perceptions.

We’ve also carried out other great projects. I couldn’t go back without an idea, something. There are mountains and desert behind the prison, with walls all around it, and I affixed photos of the mountains to the wall with the prisoners. When you look at them, the walls disappear. It’s an optical illusion. They didn’t let me stick the photos on the bottom of the wall because it’s so high-security that the guards don’t even venture into the yard. They’re in the lookout towers with their weapons, and whenever there’s a brawl, they shoot and then wait until everyone is on the ground before intervening. I used black-and-white photos because if they were in colour it would really look like there was no wall. In black and white, it’s like an initial stage on the path to the outside world, but the wall is really there. When winter comes, the snow on the mountains makes everything black and white and the fake wall becomes real. It’s often the guards who send me photos.

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