The above quote is from a film called Stalker, made by a renowned Russian director. The man himself cites that the inspiration to make it came from a novel called Roadside Picnic, finished in 1972, written by a famous duo of Russian sci-fi authors. Roadside Picnic has a facet of its premise that has really stuck with me. It may well mark the first widespread cultural reference to the concept of renegade-navigating a quarantined, alien, ever-changing, ruinous and consequential zone to seek a reward of something mysterious, intangible, yet just possibly providential. Much of it has happened silently and clandestine, but the practice of this concept, since Roadside Picnic, has at the reigns of a small number of dedicated individuals quite literally transcended from the realms of science-fiction to reality. Myself, I’m merely one of them frequently thinking about and trying to immerse myself within the aforementioned – a kind of obsession with the zone. Below are to be found some findings thus far; images and artefacts from rural and urban zones around Great Britain, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere. Such zones are earmarked by existing in a state of isolation, cordoned off from, or fortified against society, within which lies or once lay infrastructure deemed to serve in a public best interest at some identifiable point in history. Ultimately destined to cease existing in their entirety, they are not kept there by any official heritage organisation like the premises of the famed, but by grace of the tedium required in getting rid of them and their confidentiality from the general public during their time in use. They are museums in their own right insomuch as. At a ‘Zone’ Museum, an entry fee is merely a figment of imagination, but in order to reach the interior of the zone from before its threshold, a rather one-of-a-kind practice and resolve is demanded by the environment and terrain ahead. The providence of the journey that will unfold once one commits to navigating the zone creates an always fervent force in perspective-changing for a bespoke reason, and the complex magnitude of engineering and design to bear witness to is of a level seldom seen in the artificial environment. This space, as a project, is constantly seeking and filing such navigations, reasons and monuments. More thoughts and discourse to follow.
Sounds and music that resonate with a state of mind when in the zone.
I suppose the approach to this business has to start with a foundation of historical appreciation for both labour efforts and structural function in a social context. Unlike in Russian science fiction, our real life Zones don’t appear out of nowhere. Throughout human history; grand, complex structures reserved for society’s most elite were built at the expense of immense work. Palaces, manor houses, castles, ministerial chambers; residencies of the influential and the remembered, scenes of drama and cultural fame, are unmistakably the most common recipients of a certain type of fate: deemed integral to world heritage, they undergo and process to official, curated, maintained museum status and preservation. Yet anywhere one goes today in an urbanised environment, one can be surrounded by immense structures and Zones with intricate aesthetics and cutting edge engineering feats, welcoming use by or serving a purpose for the wellbeing of any member of society. The scale of these efforts – completed by people just like any other – are hard to comprehend and eternally overlooked. Entire livelihoods were shaped by these certain buildings, and in some cases even the course of political history. Countless of these Zones, however, are banished. Deemed unfit for purpose in an evolving society, they are orphaned in a state of inertia, pointlessness, defenselessness and disregard, or fortified: quarantined, patrolled, plated with armour, sealed, and given a serious bark and bite toward any visitor that may pass by, only to be reduced to rubble a relative blink of an eye later. Not a soul thinks the product of said labour work to bring anything within this zone to life is of any use to anyone any longer, nor worthy of preservation for historical legacy/heritage, nor should anyone be physically able to get within a stone’s throw for good measure. From this concoction, a Zone is born. Taking a long hard look at the context of the setting one finds oneself in, and the rarity of the design one is now exclusively beholding, is merely the nucleus of the idea once somewhere described above is given some time and thought by a passerby. And time one often will need to take to get acquainted.. – Zone navigation is a discipline of such breadth and complexity as to warrant shelves-worth of discourse in its own right. Navigating a providential yet forbidden and precarious Zone – whose visitors seek some kind of metaphysical reward shrouded in mystery in the seemingly unlikely event they return unscathed from its uncharted and trap-ridden interior – is a calculated practice, and punishes the slap-dash. That commonly uttered idea of being ‘in the zone’: humanity refers to it often – it’s taken tongue-in-cheek in English, and is a phrase of such versatile application, yet means most commonly focused, resolute, etc.
Challenges of Zone navigation are never mechanical or black and white. Focus and resolve is always demanded by the environment – whilst planning is essential, in some cases it can only go so far. Whilst the length of the journey as the crow flies is sometimes the main event: on foot through aggressive terrain or war torn nation-states for days, other times a relatively relaxed yet very discrete path to the motherlode is what the Zone asks for, and the knack of spotting it is what rewards the curious. Occasionally the game is dead easy and the Zone welcomes a visitor with open arms after a hard day’s work and can offer some curiosity at least. The most intriguing Zones, though, are those that keep a visitor on a knife’s edge. Outside the zone, just inches before its threshold, one could just as well be in one’s garden – the Zone will not affect. But as soon as the threshold is crossed, everything is different. Normal service of thought train and physical movement ceases. Some zones afore-pictured are amongst the most heavily fortified and actively guarded areas one can find in the world, some going to such Orwellian lengths as to have their own form of defence internet constantly ensuring not a soul may work their way anywhere near the cluster of redundant, otherwise abandoned buildings; with pulsating electric fences 20 feet high, sensors reporting back to a all-seeing all-knowing nerve centre whenever something larger than pigeon comes nearby, infrared cameras watching cameras watching cameras for miles, regular Alsatian patrols, and razor wire strewn throughout any possible path to boot. For dedicated Zone Navigators, these ‘puzzles’ of sorts are bread and butter. They are possessed to find a way to the ‘wrong’ side of the fence; part enjoyment problem solving in the field, part adrenaline rush, part pioneering spirit. Once on the other side, a game is afoot to reach a certain geographical point, if you will. If their presence is confirmed by anything; man or machine, the game is over, and depending on the ante they’ve gone in for, things could develop rapidly into rather more serious consequential realms. When one finally reaches the point undetected, they are free to interact with the point on their own benign terms – be it a local viewpoint or vital national infrastructure, a deep dark tunnel under an inner city or a jungle of decaying institutionalism – they can bask in whatever historical or aesthetic or atmospheric (the list goes on) it is that has drawn one through the zone to reach it – and that is never universal. An (I hope) understandable dimension of motivation is added to the work after considering this. Another core facet to understand about this work is the fact that Zones are indefinite. Much like the safe passable routes through them, they have a half-life and are constantly changing ecosystems. Zones can appear and disappear very quickly, or can remain in their place for decades and gradually morph into something recognisable. Either way, there will be a window of time throughout which the zone utterly changes how it interacts with each of a visitors’ senses, and as such the experience of it has a renewed set of features to compel with. All said, we seem to reach a triangle of interests. The balance of desirable Zone navigation experiences, versus the worthiness and otherness of what exists within the Zone to behold on their own terms within, versus the significance of the zone in a historical and social context, must align to elevate the visit, and the axes are different for each person. And so, unsurprisingly, the awry extremes of this balance contribute to an incredibly rich tapestry of Zone navigation and documentation that by all accounts should be revered. This space as aforementioned is simply one body trying to contribute behind that reverence.
Those who have been squadron members on various expeditions or have gone above and beyond in the practice over the years. The world’s best at this – the ever-infesting Instagram fad scene can not hold a candle remotely near them.