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D.C.’s second annual By the People arts festival is coming our way. The citywide arts celebration is filling all four quadrants in D.C. with a mixture of international, national and local art. From art barges in the middle of the Potomac to Smithsonian takeovers, it’s going to be unlike anything you’ve seen before.

The festival officially kicks off on Saturday (and goes until June 23), but in order to get you excited for everything to come, we did a little digital correspondence with Jonathan Rosen (who you may know from all over the Internet). Read all about his upcoming installation at the Arts and Industries Building, his thoughts on the world of advertising in 2019 and his favorite typeface below!


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How did you get involved with By the People?
The festival curator, Jessica Stafford Davis, saw my work at the Spring/Break Art Show in NYC during Armory Week 2017. That was actually when I debuted my new mirror series, which will be featured at By The People. Jessica never formally introduced herself to me in 2017. She apparently filed my name away until she had the right project for us to collaborate on. And, of course, I’m very happy she did!

Can you tell us a little more about Walking on Clouds, the project you created for By The People?
I’ll be showcasing three new interactive mirror pieces. I’ve shown mirrors before in high-traffic installation environments like Refinery29’s 29Rooms, but this installation at the Smithsonian’s Arts + Industries Building is the first time I’m transforming a space at such a massive scale. Attendees will begin by walking through a sea of calf-high fog to reach the mirrors at the center of the space. Then, by simply taking a photo, the mirrors will pair their reflection with a dream or desire, reminding them of forgotten dreams – or perhaps launching new ones.


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Your mirror art took social media by storm. How did you decide which phrases to use? (P.S. my favorite is “I See Dead People.”)
Ha! Yes, “I See Dead People” is a great one. I’m always surprised what people get and then end up posting, as it’s so random! The selfies are really the art, the mirror is just the vessel. I’ve actually been screen-grabbing people’s selfies with the hopes of one day making a book. There are some really powerful images I’ve collected already. So, if you attend this exhibition, please tag me on instagram @jonathanrosen_art so I can collect yours!

In terms of the selection of phrases… Each mirror has a root phrase that is static with a flashing second line that randomizes 500-1,000 phrases. That database is built over weeks, sometimes months. The more I have the better, as it gives viewers the sense of surprise that they are receiving this unique portrait of themselves. I know a collection of phrases are complete when it fully explores both the positive and negative; words with multiple meanings; pop culture, slang and historical references; and when I’ve literally exhausted the thesaurus. 😉

Your I Want series uses collage and texture in ways that are almost overwhelming in a in-your-face kind of way. What attracts you to that type of art?
Coming from the advertising world, I was always attracted to big headlines and visuals. These collages are essentially dream confessionals with several layers of meaning. First the viewer sees the text from afar and only when inspecting it close can they see what the piece is made of, which often can change the context of the piece. The source materials come from my personal collections (concert tickets and movie stubs), other people’s collections or pop-culture artifacts that are rich in meaning. When used in quantity and placed together like wallpaper, the materials often lose their meaning, much like our dreams. As a personal rule and challenge to myself, I never use the same material twice.


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What’s your favorite type face?
Well I have to go with my signature “I WANT” stencil-art face that I created to use on both my collage works and mirror series.

Does your past in advertising affect your current art?
Yes, very much so. Instead of manufacturing dreams for others, I try to find what dreams are authentic to me and to others.

Does bad advertising/good advertising still catch your eye?
Yes, for sure! But advertising (like a lot of industries) is changing rapidly. As consumers, we now have the tools to bypass most traditional forms of advertising. But good concepts are still king (no matter the media). Right now we’re seeing this convergence of advertising and art through big experiential branded activations. This is both very exciting and scary, as it provides funding for great ideas but can also sometimes lean too commercial, which can dilute the substance. It’s a careful balance.

What was the last website you visited?



Featured image: Installation view of Jonathan Rosen’s “I See,” an interactive 2018 installation created for the Powerlong Museum in Shanghai.” Photo courtesy of the artist. 

Part of the BYT Art Census 2019 series