Some 450,000 people across Israel took part in the March of the Million last weekend, but there were more than 450,000 faces protesting on the streets that night.
As a sea of people marched from the Habima Square in Tel Aviv, a sea of disembodied faces – poster-sized, in black and white and pasted onto pickets – floated over the crowds and onwards to the protest site.
The spectacle was the brainchild of the French street artist, JR, an up-and-coming albeit decidedly mysterious figure in todays art world.
Often touted as a modern-day Banksy or the Henri Cartier-Bresson of this century, the 28-year-old Parisian, known simply by his two-letter moniker, has been making headlines and raising eyebrows across the globe not only for his visionary displays of public art, but also for the humanitarian ethos of his work.
JR is an urban activist. The streets are his canvas, the camera his tool, humanity his subject and fearlessness his modus operandi.
JR began his work in the aftermath of the 2004 riots in the suburbs of Paris. While the media reported impersonal stories of hoodlums burning cars and wreaking havoc, he photographed the faces of young residents of the banlieues, up-close and posing for his camera with funny faces. He then pasted the oversized images across the affluent neighborhoods central Paris. Beyond statistics and broadcasts on the riots in the periphery, Parisians were forced to face the human faces of the suburbs.
It is the human face is the raison d être of JRs art, and it is the relentless drive to reveal humanity that fuels the globetrotter work. Since 2004, working with a team of friends, volunteers and local residents, he has pasted his oversized black-and-white portraits everywhere from the slums of Nairobi, to the favelas of Rio, to the rambling industrial neighborhoods of Shanghai. On roofs, the sides of buildings, water towers, broken bridges, he brings art to wherever he can reach.
Last weekend was not the first time JR brought his work to Israel.
In 2007, in what is largely thought to be the largest illegal photo exhibition in the world, JR and grassroots community volunteers painted giant black-and-white canvases of Israeli and Palestinians face to face, on both sides of the security fence/separation border.
Among the photographs are the iconic images of a priest, an imam and a rabbi, each posing comically for the camera. "It's about breaking down barriers, JR told The Guardian. With humor, there is life."
This unflinching barrier-breaking has garnered JR a whirlwind of international attention. In addition to the slums and streets of the world, his work has been featured at the Tate Modern, Venice Biennale, Centre Pompidou, and Cannes Film Festival; but what sets him apart is the social activism of his art, an idea that he calls pervasive art.
The TED conference, the prominent California-based lecture series on technology, entertainment and design, took notice and awarded JR its annual prize for 2011. The prize – whose past winners include Bono, Bill Clinton, biologist E.O. Wilson, and celebrity chef James Oliver – is granted to movers and shakers, figures with catalyzing and world-changing ideas.
TED gives its recipients $100,000 and, more importantly, the chance to make a wish. One Wish to Change the World is the prize motto. Oliver used his wish to support a worldwide campaign against obesity. Clinton focused on establishing a sustainable healthcare system in rural Rwanda.
And in March, JR unveiled his TED wish to the world: "I wish for you to stand up for what you care about by participating in a global art project, and together we'll turn the world...INSIDE OUT."
Inside Out is a large-scale experiment in civic engagement, and JR hopes to make it the worlds largest participatory art project. The concept is to digitally upload black-and-white snapshots of faces (either from JRs traveling photo-booth or from home), make them into posters, and paste them immediately on location (as was seen in Tunisia and Tel Aviv) or send them back to the projects participants to exhibit in their own communities. The exhibitions are then documented, archived, and viewable virtually for the world to see.
JR wasted no time on his TED wish. Just after announcing Inside Out, he and his team traveled to Tunisia in March to get to work. As bold as ever, they torn down portraits of the dictator Ben Ali and pasted images of Tunisian citizens on top. The move was a testament to the power of the people, and art as an expression of individuals turning injustice inside out. It was art as a symbol of revolution and democracy, for the people and by the people.
And revolution is just what brought JR and his team to Tel Aviv. All over the Middle East, the people are calling for democracy. Revolution, Marco, JRs business partner, told Haaretz. And we all thought Israel was a democracy. But now, we see, its not so sure. Now, who knows?
JR set up shop at Habima Square just before the March of the Million last week, parking his mobile photo-booth at the top of Rothschild, among the tents lining the boulevard.
Helping him were dozens of volunteers, not only from Tel Aviv and JRs hometown of Paris, but also from Brazil, Switzerland, London, India, and beyond.
Excitement was tangible and community spirit was in the air. Young and old, hippies, yuppies, and even homeless waited together in the heat, talking about the imminent Million Man March, the UN vote on September 20, and how they would pose for the camera. At one point, an older man – having waited in line nearly an hour – was turned away from the photo booth, because he did not have an email address, which was required in order to be photographed.
A fellow participant stepped in quickly, telling one of JRs team members: This is socio-economic discrimination! Not everyone has access to a computer or email! The man was eventually able to have his photo taken. Once it was printed, he swiftly took his poster and began marching with it down Rothschild.
Also present at the Habima was JR himself: a French hipster wearing a fedora, quirky sunglasses, sneakers, and a huge smile. Rushing around his make-shift workshop, he chatted with people in line and took in the scene around him.
At one point in the afternoon, he ran across Rothschild with two posters and a bucket of glue, pointing to the green street sign ahead. Allez-y! he yelled, A gauche, plus haut! A few minutes later, the photos covered both sides of the sign, one facing Marmorek Street and the other looking toward Ben Zion Boulevard, perhaps pointing Israel in a new direction.
And it is not solely Israel that JR is targeting. In fact, the initiative is officially called InsideOut Israel/Palestine: Time is Now, Yallah! and volunteers on Saturday reminded participants that the word Yallah, roughly meaning 'Let's go!' is the phonetic combination of the Jewish and Muslim names of God: Yah and Allah.
JR and his photo-booth took off for Bethlehem and Ramallah later in the week, giving residents there the same chance to take and plaster portraits across their communities.
The goal is to tap into the collective humanity of Israeli and Palestinian communities and to recognize the uncertainty of the moment shared by both.
Protest in Israel, and then the vote [on Palestinian statehood] in just three weeks. Again, who knows, Marco said.
At least one thing was certain on Saturday. As strangers crowded the JRs photo-booth, collected their portraits, and marched together to Hamedina Square, a breath of revolution was in the air.