Located 200km from Paris, at the heart of an oasis of greenery in the Loir Valley, Zone i generates cultural spaces dedicated to the image and the environment. The letter “i” stands, first, for image but, depending on the season and the event, acquires other meanings. The municipal area of Thoré-la-Rochette is vulnerable to various natural hazards, and Zone i was originally a flood zone. Over the years, Mat Jacob and Monica Santos, artistic directors of Zone i, have transformed the space. Santos, a graphic designer and scenographer, and Jacob, a photographer, have created an unbelievable, mind-boggling, unsinkable zone. In an open field, Zone i hosts installations, photography exhibitions, artists’ residencies, and cultural events. The zone is infinite because it is deliberately incomplete. “Zone i must evolve and learn to walk, like a child, but without growing too much,” says Jacob. “That would be destructive for the site; we prefer to remain modest and free.”
Over the course of a weekend, Rencontres Image et Environnement disturbs the calm and serenity of the site. Every year, the festival welcomes image professionals, environmental experts, and musicians. Under the open sky, surrounded by music, photographers, enthusiasts, and onlookers come together and dialogue. They dance, play music, and talk about life and art. Ideas flow as does local wine.
For Mat Jacob and Monica Santos, “every year is kind of the first time, because we work with different formats. We wanted a varied program, both festive and intellectual. And it was a success.” The fourth festival featured tours, projections, concerts, and meetings-debates, with various activities on offer from two in the afternoon till midnight. During the day, we strolled through the famous Zone i Labyrinth, a piece of land art developed by Jean Philippe Mauchien and composed of 700 reused doors and windows. In the evening, we embarked on an immersive journey of sound and image cum photo projection. Edouard Ferlet’s experimental music accompanied the photographic narratives: S’enforester by Andrea Mantovani and Zoom by Dolorès Marat. Mantovani did a project on the last primal forest in Europe, while Marat stirs our imagination with dream-like photos. The latter artist closes Rencontres Image et Environnement with a conversation around a documentary about her, shot by Thomas Goupille. Entitled Dolores, the film shows her life simply and without embellishment. Full of anecdotes, it does not exhaust Marat’s life experience or creativity. “It is photography that gave me my voice, now I am chatty … but I only talk about photography!”
At Zone i, image and environment go hand in with poetry and new horizons. As a project straddling photography and ecological concerns, it is natural that it should approach its subject from an artistic angle. While Mat and Monica’s commitment has an even stronger resonance at what is—from an ecological and societal perspective—a particularly troubled time, it is above all about personal sensibility to environmental causes. To bring together photography, territory, and environment, they restored an old mill and transformed it into a photographic residence. Redolent of the past, the place seems tailor-made for exhibitions. We strolled among burlap sacks of wheat and old mill stones. This year, the photographer Julie Hascoët spent three months there as part of a creative residency “Terre et Territoires.” She exhibited Entrer en matière, a story that literally penetrates the stone: ruins, constructions, breaches… the shapeshifting rock.
Rencontres Images et Environnement is also an opportunity to reinvent the photographer’s profession on board an authentic 1950s’ train. Between the whistles of the Loir Valley tourist train and the Vendôme landscape that unfolds outside the windows, we discussed free photography. Photography: work or leisure? What is the photographer’s status today? Is it still possible to practice this profession without compromise? Very quickly, two opposing visions emerged in the car: that of the free-thinking photographer who refuses to serve an idea, and the reality, which might be at times disappointing. For Jacob, this is above all a personal question: “There is a fragile balance between economic issues and freedom. This is true of any profession. But photography is special in that it serves ideas. It can be an instrument of propaganda. It is thus necessary to make concessions, artistic choices.” Hence the importance of confronting ideas and creating together. The photographers’ collective Tendance Floue, of which Jacob is a co-founder, has understood this well: What if photography is only a pretext to get together and question the world?
For Jean-Christian Bourcart, photography is in any case a pretext for transgression. Ma vie comme un chantier [My Life as a Construction Site], a commented projection of his photographic works, plunges the viewer in the artist’s universe. Taking his camera to swingers’ clubs in Paris or Camden, NJ, the most dangerous city in the U.S., he breaks down the barriers to representation, even if it means taking risks. Spontaneous, provocative—creative freedom knows no bounds.
Laying the groundwork
Close to the city and yet far from urban noise, Zone i reminds us of the importance of relocating photography away from centralized, urban environments. In the middle of nature, we encounter another definition of photography. For Jacob, “it’s a way of laying the groundwork. Maybe when we have cleared everything away, we will have more reason to exist.”