Interviews

JR’s Digital Mural Features 1,200 San Franciscans, Telling a Story of a Diverse City

The artist says he wants the 107-feet-long mural at SFMOMA to get people to interact with one another.

JR, The Chronicles of San Francisco, 2018 (detail) (courtesy JR-art.net)

The French artist JR, who started out tagging buildings in Paris as a teenager before shifting to photo work, has unveiled a digital mural, The Chronicles of San Francisco, at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Displayed on screens 107 feet long and 16 feet tall, the mural is in a ground-floor gallery free to the public. The gallery also has iPad kiosks with audio interviews of the subjects for visitors to listen to.

Inspired by Diego Rivera’s murals in San Francisco, JR says he wanted to represent a whole city through his art. He and his team converted a 53-foot trailer truck into a photographic studio and parked it in 22 different locations around San Francisco. They invited anyone walking by to participate. The mural, which JR calls a living painting, has more than 1,200 people, including the state’s Governor Gavin Newsom, activist Cleve Jones, Golden State Warriors basketball star Draymond Green, and members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, along with protesters, doctors, swimmers, homeless men and women, shop vendors, drag queens, and other city residents who were filmed, photographed, and interviewed.

JR talked to Hyperallergic about how he wants the mural to get people to interact with one another and how having their photo in a museum makes people feel part of something. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Inside JR’s Studio truck, 2018 (photo by Marc Azoulay, courtesy JR-art.net)

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Hyperallergic: With The Chronicles of San Francisco, you say you were trying to capture a whole city. Was that exciting or did it sometimes seem like too much?

JR: No, it was not too much. It was addictive, I would say. You want to tap on everyone’s shoulder — you want to stop this guy and that guy and that person and that woman. I was planning to do 760 people, and I did 1,200, which actually changed the whole shape of my work because the screen was not big enough, and I was like: I don’t care. I want to keep shooting people, I want to keep meeting people, you think maybe we don’t have these people or those people. I wanted to keep going. It was really addictive to answer your question. [Laughs.]

H: What made you reach out to more well-known people, such as Governor Gavin Newsom, Cleve Jones, and Draymond Green? How did you get them to participate?

JR: The way the mural worked is that we grabbed people out of the street completely randomly. But then there are certain people you don’t get, like the governor or the firefighters — they don’t just walk the street so you can stop them. So we sent invitations to the governor or whoever. If they didn’t answer, it doesn’t matter because the mural can be done without them. But the ones who answered the invitation, then they were in the mural.

H: How did you decide to have the Gay Men’s Choir, for example?

JR: People would come in to be part of the mural, and they would recommend some people. They’d be like, “Oh, my gosh. Do you know about these people or those people?” That’s how the Gay Men’s Choir came on board. Someone mentioned them. I said, “Of course, please, can you invite them? I’m not from San Francisco, so can you tell them?” and it was a very special moment because they came, and I think it was the last shoot and the last day and the last thing we ever shot for the mural.

Eyal Levy interviewing a mural subject in San Francisco, 2018 (photo by Marc Azoulay, courtesy JR-art.net)

H: Having audio and film of people moving seems difficult logistically. How did you do that?

JR: We didn’t even know how to do it. So we were just really meticulous and really organized. When you come in, I photograph you, and that’s the photo. Then I film you, and that’s the video file. Then you come out and we record your audio. Then we have to add your name and a number. It was very precise.

H: Why did you want to have the audio?

JR: To be honest, I regretted that I hadn’t done it on my past murals. The first one I did was in the suburbs of Paris, and I regretted that I didn’t record people. I was like, “Oh, my God, imagine if I could press on any person and I could hear them.” So I thought, “OK, let me do this in San Francisco, so we just started doing it there, just pointing a mic at a person. We said, “OK, this should not be an interview, this should be very open, and however you want to be remembered, you can say it here, but we’re not going to push.” Some people would be like, “Well, it’s great. I saw the truck, and I wanted to see what it was and you have a great day,” and some people would like, tell their life story for 25 minutes.

JR Studio truck in Chinatown, San Francisco, 2018 (photo by Lyle Owerko, courtesy JR-art.net)

H: What about San Francisco made you want to do this here?

JR: One day I realized the United States didn’t have a contemporary version of this, like Rivera’s murals, and it was a great way of capturing a city, a time in history. San Francisco was the first city I would do it in because in a small town, which is seven miles by seven miles, you have the most amazing minds that have changed the shape of the world, but you also have the poorest people living in the street, and you have this crazy disparity in one city. I was curious to see a city that had a bunch of hippies and tech guys and people in the middle of this and from all parts of life, what is so special in a city like that, what brings so much freedom that inspired so many people to create all those incredibly inventions? It seemed doable because it was seven miles by seven miles, and I was really curious about how a city that could change the world, could not even solve their issue with homelessness.

H: Did you come to any conclusions after doing this project? 

JR: What I realized is most people think that San Francisco doesn’t have that energy [to be innovative] anymore, that that energy is gone. The truth is it’s there; it’s just that no one looks at each other anymore. Everyone is in their own bubble. But what happens when you tap someone on the shoulder and ask them their story you realize, oh my God, people are coming from all parts of life and there’s all kinds of energy and ideas. Everyone tells me that’s gone, but if you stay in the street and tap on everyone’s shoulder and talk to them, you realize it’s still there.

H: You have said you want the mural to connect people. Have you heard stories about people connecting or seen that?

JR: When we did the opening, it was pretty incredible. It was a night that I’ll never forget. There were maybe hundreds of people, and we passed the mic to the people in the room, and people started talking and saying, “Hey, I’m in the mural,” and I would say, “Well, tell us what you do.” They would say like, “In the mural, I was homeless at the time, but I’m not anymore,” or I was this and now I’m that. People were taking the mic and telling their life story like that, very openly. You realize OK, I’m part of that, this is my community. You realize what you’re a part of. That part of the museum is free, so anyone can come in and spend some time and listen to audio, which is on a few monitors. There’s not that many, so basically, you have to listen with someone else. If there’s no other place to listen, then I’m going to listen with you, and we’re going to have to talk. The whole piece is about creating interaction. I want people to come and the homeless to come and hang there and explain to you why they are part of this mural. It’s to create more interaction to make sure that people reconnect with one another, and really that’s the purpose of this thing, and that’s what I did it this way.

Installation view of JR: The Chronicles of San Francisco (2019) at SFMOMA (photo © Matthew Millman Photography)

H: What does it mean to you or to people to be in the museum rather than the street? 

JR: It might end up being on the street, but for such a big mural, I wanted it to be under the umbrella of the museum the same way I’ve done it in France. I did a mural in a suburb of Paris, which is one of the toughest neighborhoods, where I started when I was 18. Before I installed it in the neighborhood, I installed at the Palais de Tokyo, which is a big museum in Paris. Everybody came, and they were so touched and proud that they made it to the museum and after that, I put it in the neighborhood. So that was so important. because being in the museum first, even the French president came. The people in the suburbs sometimes don’t feel they’re French because they come from second-generation immigrants like me. They were citizens, but they never felt welcome. Being in the museum, they feel part of the history of the country.

The Chronicles of San Francisco is ongoing at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (151 3rd St, San Francisco, CA).

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