Who JR Shot: The Chronicles of San Francisco at SFMOMA

The museum installs a gigantic public-art mural that’s the result of 1,200 interviews with San Franciscans of all stripes.

In the pantheon of globally important street artists whose work has changed perceptions of entire peoples, the French artist JR is at the top. For most of the last two decades, in different cities around the world, JR has commandeered buildings, railways, bridges — anything in the street or public realm — to showcase his photos and catch “the attention of people who are not typical museum visitors.” So when JR talked to SFMOMA about a new mural project that would be nestled inside the museum — specifically, in its ground-floor Roberts Family Gallery, which Richard Serra’s Sequence anchored until recently — the discussion hit a turning point after JR learned the gallery is free to visit and welcomed everyone, including those who don’t ordinarily go to museums.

JR’s digital project, an “animated mural” and “digital photo collage,” is unlike anything ever shown in a San Francisco art space — or any space, for that matter. In January-February 2018, JR and his team drove around San Francisco in a specially equipped, 53-foot trailer truck that functioned as a high-tech studio, interviewing 1,200 people, including the homeless, young children, new moms, retirees, tech workers, waitresses, celebrities, athletes, activists, politicians, and virtually every profession and status type there is in the city. The Chronicles of San Francisco collages all 1,200 people into a series of seamlessly connected group scenes that’s a very long, single frame, and it makes it seem as though all 1,200 worked out exactly who went where, and who’s facing whom.

Eyal Levy interviewing a mural subject in S.F., 2018. Photo: Marc Azoulay, courtesy of JRart.net

It didn’t happen that way. JR’s team did 1,200 separate interviews, but through the magic of digital technology, they populated each person into the rolling mural. That’s right: The Chronicles of San Francisco moves across its background of screens, and as it moves, many of the 1,200 people also move individually — whether it’s dancing, singing, swimming, kneeling, sipping a drink, protesting, or something else. Every area of the digital mural has a theme that’s apparent when visitors use the gallery’s iPad kiosks, which let every person in the mural — all 1,200 — give their thoughts on whatever they thought was important. Visitors just click on the person’s image to hear their words.

“What I’m showing you has never been seen before,” JR, wearing his trademark hat and sunglasses, said at last week’s media unveiling of The Chronicles of San Francisco. “What you’re looking at is a moving mural — it’s actually what I wish I could see when I see a painting at the Louvre and when I see Diego Rivera’s work in San Francisco. I wish I could tap on the shoulder of every single person and hear their story.”

One area of the mural has a cluster of people related to homelessness, including a native San Franciscan in his 20s named Zachary Green, who sleeps on the street after getting evicted. Jeff Kositsky, director of San Francisco’s Department of Homeless and Supportive Housing, and Salvatore Cordileone, who’s San Francisco’s Catholic Archbishop, are also present. At the top of another cluster is Warriors forward Draymond Green, who throws a basketball into the air — which is then caught in another cluster by a young girl named Fatima who lives in the Bayview.

“My big dream,” she says in the mural, “is for me to become the first female president, because I’d like to make a difference, and build like homeless shelters for people on the streets.” Fatima never met Draymond Green in real life. And Zachary Green may never have met Jeff Kositsky, either, but in JR’s mural, they do, and we meet them and hear their stories. The Chronicles of San Francisco, JR says, is designed for art-goers to meet each other at the kiosks, and to meet some of the mural’s 1,200 people in person since they’ll also be visiting SFMOMA’s gallery.

JR, The Chronicles of San Francisco, 2018 (detail). Photo: Courtesy JR-art.net

“We have all these [kiosks] with no headphones, so you have to listen with other people,” JR said. “We could have put 30 screens so more people could listen, but we put only a few so that you have to sit with someone else.”

In other words, The Chronicles of San Francisco was born of a utopianism and an idealism that used to be San Francisco’s trademark, but which has been lost, many critics say, with the influx of high-tech salaries, still-skyrocketing real-estate values, and a marauding gentrification that is displacing artists, low-end workers, and people who could once easily afford to live here. (Among the mural’s major supporters are Marc Benioff, Salesforce’s founder and CEO, and his wife, Lynn, who have given millions to combat homelessness. It was Benioff, a friend of JR’s, who called SFMOMA director Neal Benezra about hosting the mural.) 

In its timeless, black-and-white photographic tones, The Chronicles of San Francisco shows that San Francisco remains a community of disparate people, JR says. (That he is French adds another wrinkle to the title, because Les Chroniques de San Francisco is the translated title of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City.)

JR’s previous public art projects have humanized residents in the poorest parts of Paris’ outskirts, celebrated women in a Rio de Janeiro favela that most Brazilians shun, and put giant photos of Israelis and Palestinians next to each other — laughing, at times — on both sides of Israel’s controversial separation wall. Now living in New York, JR has also made celebrated films, including the Oscar-nominated Faces Places with Agnes Varda, in which both artists travel around rural France in JR’s truck to meet people, take their photos, and post them publicly.

In San Francisco, the process of doing 1,200 interviews and integrating each one into an interactive digital work that matched everyone’s body position was, JR joked, “a fucking nightmare” that forced him to “remember the movement of every single person” and make thousands of other decisions. But, he says, the nightmare was worth it because, “When people see themselves in the museum, they think they exist that they’re part of the city, they’re part of the community. That’s something that the streets don’t necessarily give you.”

Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was a deep inspiration for the project, JR said. In the mid-1900s, Rivera painted murals throughout the city, helped in that work by SFMOMA. The Chronicles of San Francisco will remain in place for a year — until it’s replaced in fall 2020 by a Rivera mural called Pan American Unity, which coincides with a major SFMOMA exhibition on Rivera. The connection between JR and Rivera — and between JR and San Francisco — is personal, the French artist said, after witnessing all sides of San Francisco, including people injecting themselves with drugs.

“I got every perspective of people. And if you look at this mural, no one is more important. Draymond Green is not more important than the person who’s looking at his computer down there,” JR said, pointing to that part of his digital mural. “Everyone is in the same light. Everyone is represented by the same size.” 

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