Valérie Jouve

Valérie Jouve’s Synopsis d’un territoire (Synopsis of a Territory), 2003, could be described as the story of the Val-de-Marne, an administrative département southeast of Paris. Or as the story of a public commission for twelve or fifteen photographs which became an installation of 170 images and an accompanying sound track. Or also as the story of a museum in the making, namely the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Vitry-Val-de-Marne, which, in anticipation of its opening in 2005, has created a temporary exhibition “pavilion” on the construction site. However you choose to see it, Synopsis d’un territoire is a remarkable work of analysis and intuition, documentation and poetry, observation and movement.

During a four-month period in summer and fall 2003, Jouve explored the Val-de-Marne by following not only its main transportation arteries, the avenues crossing the ring road that separates Paris from its greater metropolitan area and the highways cutting through the industrial zones, but also the streets of Vitry and other towns and the roads of the residential suburbs and the countryside. Her use of both standard-reflex and large-format cameras allowed for a combination of spontaneous and carefully constructed shots, all singularly devoid of any pretension to an insider’s-eye view. On the contrary, Jouve’s status as outside observer was made explicit by the walls, poles, tree branches, and fences (not to mention the windows of the bus or the rearview mirror of the car she was traveling in) that chronically intruded into the visual field. Translated into a variety of print formats, this multitude of scenes created a rhythm that was not simply visual but corporeal as well. Paralleling Jouve’s displacements throughout the Val-de-Marne, visitors were physically drawn into filmlike flows of images grouped together in horizontal or vertical sequences, above or below eye level, against an audio background of sounds recorded along the way.

The content of Synopsis might have surprised those whose mental image of a peri-urban area like the Val-de-Marne is limited at best to commuter trains and housing projects, at worst to street gangs and burning cars, for Jouve chose to focus on everyday settings and situations invisible on the nightly news: the interior of a bus on a quiet summer afternoon, the changing colors of the countryside in autumn, the Marne river, the always impressive approach to Orly airport, the apartment blocks at the edge of Paris seen from the ring road, the ginger-bread-like houses that were the country homes of nineteenth-century Parisians, the workers’ row houses attesting to the industrialization of the rural villages, and the museum construction site itself, present at the very beginning of the installation like a visual equivalent of “You are here” on a map.

The other surprise Synopsis offered was for those whose mental image of Jouve’s work is limited to the life-size “characters” (personnages) that have been widely exhibited over the past decade. Notwithstanding this trademark, Jouve’s work has always addressed the notion of peripheries, the relationship between urban and rural areas, and the hybrid suburban territories between the two, like the former mining town near Saint-Etienne where she grew up, the Lyon suburb where she began experimenting with photography as a sociology student, or the no-man’s-land outside of Marseille where she made her first short film, Grand Littoral, 2001–2003. What sets the Vitry installation apart is not what is seen in the photographs but how the photographs are seen: as a quasi-filmic environment in which the viewers themselves, coming from both sides of the ring road, become the characters. This re-creation of a social space, “to build something together,” as Jouve says, makes Synopsis of a Territory much more than the sum of its stories.

Miriam Rosen