Temporary Sites of Memory & the Spectacle: The Performance of JR's Unframed Project as Cultural Identity

Curator's Note

Street art can be an affective means for civic engagement in displaying the performative nature of identity and culture through temporary sites of memory. The temporality of the chosen sites (on street corners and in and on dilapidated buildings) are political in nature in the way they physically transform space and urban landscapes. Simultaneously, these sites reunite the stories of our collective American past with the realities of our American present through the visual. JR uses scale as vision in order to provide a voice for those whose concerns remain invisible to certain parts of society. Sites of memory, in this way unite communities on a local level due to the universal human experiences that they exhibit. I invite you to examine and comment on the French street artist JR’s Unframed Projects. In a departure from his previous work, JR began creating large-scale public photographic installations, refocusing his work by using recycled and archived images for his street exhibitions instead of his own. In Unframed, JR enlarges, reframes and stretches ‘rediscovered’ photographs onto outdoor façades. In this way, he challenges contemporary notions of the popular and the social by re-visualizing collective memory and redistributes those memories and images in both physical and virtual spaces (ie: on Ellis Island or on Instagram). A series of questions that I’ve had will shape this blog post, including the following: How can the notion of temporality push at the descriptive boundaries assigned to sites of memory while simultaneously question the functionality of how one classifies it? What happens to the iconographic repertoire of the Unframed photographs when the circulation of the self disappears? Do the newly constructed collective and social memories created by JR morph into something other than their intended forms when one inserts the iconic image, which might re-imagine the established narrative? The Unframed Project uses representations of iconic images culled from archives, and I argue that street art as social practice positions itself ideally between ‘low art’ as some would call it, and scholarship. Street art, in this middle space, can help us to further examine how memory, space and performances of identity affect the narrative and reading of these particular temporary sites of memory in urban spaces.


These are such striking pieces of art! You weren't kidding about scale. The Marseilles ones seemed especially striking to me because of the way they look like conventional wheat-paste posters, just blown up to enormous size. (True of the DC one in your Prezi too.) For me, these images seem to lose most of their context, or at least their referentiality. Instead, they make me think of Walter Benjamin's idea that buildings are perceived by "tactile appropriation." I think these JR pieces are perceived by people on their way from one place to another. They carry a trace of the original photo's power, but that's it.

Sunny, thank you for your insight and comments. You know, I do agree that the Marseilles Unframed images are intriguing for the very reasons that you mention. They are absolutely enormous in size, and consequently impossible to ignore for a moment or two as one passes by. Still, I would question whether, just as you stated, the recycled use of the images lose their potency and power as JR re-contextualizes them in public spaces. In my opinion, the wheat pasted images in D.C. and at the Ellis Island hospital hold a bit more historical clout than some other Unframed projects. Could these photographs seem more iconic or memorable to me be because I am American, and the memories and narratives surrounding the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers strike (and consequent assassination of MLKjr) are a part of my history? I am not sure. I haven't thoroughly researched the Marseilles images yet, but the iconic nature of the photographs don't resonate in the same manner as the "I am a Man" image or the general immigration - "American Dream" narrative does. I chose to focus on these two narratives in my prezi, for this very reason; they are relevant to me. JR also says that that is the beauty of this type of work. It is hard to predict who will be affected by which images, but collective community experiences do unite. For example, I have no doubt that the residents in this D.C. neighborhood identity with #IamaMan since riots exploded at 14th and T streets in 1968 after King's assassination. Becoming visible through SCALE is also quite relevant today as many periphery communities feel as if their voices aren't heard, as if their lives don't matter as much as others (hence the #BlackLivesMatter). The image in D.C. is a more special case than some others, since it references events that shook this neighborhood and reflects the general reverence that many American communities have for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the photographer (the 'First Civil Rights Photographer') who shot it, Ernest C. Withers.

One of aspect of these types of works that fascinates me is how they draw communities into conversations about art, identity, and public space - conversations that seem heightened by the temporality of the works themselves. I'm reminded of a documentary from years ago showing town hall debates in a small Colorado farming community where Christo and Jeanne-Claude were preparing to construct their Valley Curtain piece in the 1970s. Regardless of the individual positions, it seems that the artists' ability to evoke a debate about the function of art among the town's residents constituted as much an achievement as the piece itself. I can see how JR's project would have spawned a thousand unregarded conversations that might have never occurred otherwise.

Fascinating stuff, Imani, thanks for sharing! There's something jarring about seeing history pulled out of books and newspapers and photo albums and interjected into the everyday of the here and now. What's interesting to me is the large-scale (literally) imposition of history on the present and the narratives of passers-by. Your comment on the use of iconic photography is interesting--do you know if there is any sort of marker or device to contextualize the photograph? Absent iconicism or some sort of connection or marker, I think, along the lines of Sunny's comment above, the images lose some of this affective power. Though I think that they can still have an effect if the image is arresting or explicit enough in its message. Both of these situations risk re-imagining or shaping the narrative in their image (some pun intended), but this is the point of such displays, I think.

The affective force of these images arrives, as Imani and others here have commented, from their evocations of collective memory and the collision of different temporalities, from scale, and so on. As Ryan mentions, there's something about the documentary image in space that also lends to this vitality. I also think there's something about the incongruence of flatness and three dimensional space, of the static time of the image and the dynamism of lived time, that is affectively arresting - that asks us to read/experience the landscape differently.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.