By RANDY KENNEDY
It’s not common for important philanthropic prizes to go to people whose work involves criminal trespass and who make statements like the following: “You never know who’s part of the police and who’s not.”
But the TED conference, the California lecture series named for its roots in technology, entertainment and design, said on Tuesday that it planned to give its annual $100,000 prize for 2011 — awarded in the past to figures like Bill Clinton, Bono and the biologist E. O. Wilson — to the Parisian street artist known as J R, a shadowy figure who has made a name for himself by plastering colossal photographs in downtrodden neighborhoods around the world. The images usually extol local residents, to whom he has become a Robin Hood-like hero.
For most recipients, the value of the six-year-old award has less to do with the money than with the opportunity it grants the winner to make a “wish”: to devote the funds to a humanitarian project that will almost inevitably draw donations and other help from the organization’s corporate partners and influential supporters. The chef Jamie Oliver, the 2010 prize winner, recently proposed setting up an international effort to further his campaign against obesity; Mr. Clinton’s wish has channeled significant resources toward the creation of a rural health system in Rwanda.
Reached by telephone on Wednesday morning on a bus in Shanghai, where he was headed to work on a largely unauthorized photo-pasting project to draw attention to the city’s demolition of historic neighborhoods, J R said that he had learned of the prize only two weeks ago and that he had not yet had time to think of a wish.
But he said that it would undoubtedly involve his kind of guerrilla art, which he has been creating with the help of volunteers in slums in Brazil, Cambodia and Kenya — where the outsize photographs, printed on waterproof vinyl, doubled as new roofs for ramshackle houses. “I’m kind of stunned,” he said of the prize. “I’ve never applied for an award in my life and didn’t know that somebody had nominated me for this.”