Sounds and music that resonate with a state of mind when in the zone.
The Right Side of the Fence
The prose above comes from a film called Stalker, brainchild of renowned Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. The man himself cites that the inspiration to make it stemmed from a novel called Roadside Picnic, finished in 1972, written by a famous duo of Russian sci-fi authors called Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. These works have a facet of their premises which, for more or less the total sum of the torrential academic assessment of them that has surfaced in literary circles since, are handled as a purely fictional and fantastical thing. Roadside Picnic may well mark the first widespread cultural reference to the concept of defiantly navigating a quarantined, alien, ever-changing, ruinous and consequential Zone – a geographical area with a border in simplest terms – to seek a reward of something mysterious, intangible, yet just possibly providential. A Zone guarded, fortified, on paper impregnable, and in theory deadly, hazardous, and able to pro-actively punish those that step foot in it.
In fact, these pundits, to put it bluntly, don’t have their fingers on the pulse. 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. By normal individuals from all walks of life, but united by a kind of obsession with the Zone. In reality, the thought that such places matching all the criteria described by the Strugatskys and Tarkovsky may seem far fetched, but they do, basically, exist. Such ‘real life’ Zones are, much the same, earmarked by existing in a state of isolation, cordoned off from and fortified against society, within which existing some kind of material terrain, which is, as if a living thing, patrolled and monitored. They are museums in their own right insomuch as – there are within them spectacles to behold that, although not curated in a ‘traditional’ set, are in their design for those that enter the Zone to try to catch a glimpse of them reputed to astonish and evoke all kinds of emotion. 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 infrastructural engineering and design to bear witness to within is of a level seldom seen in the artificial environment. Burdens carried with crossing the threshold and entering the Zone are much like in the universe of Soviet science fiction; it goes without saying that the journey will be testing of character, potentially permanently scarring, socially taboo, physically demanding, but, most crucially, highly unpredictable.
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 a process toward official, curated, maintained museum status and preservation. Yet one can find today totally distinguishable, seldom thought about, totally protected 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. The application of the term Zone to the whole spectrum of the urban environment access to which is unauthorised cannot be described as exact science – calling anywhere that you’re basically ‘not meant to be in’ yet enter and return from undisturbed by anyone or anything is not wrong by definition. But, some Zones are by all measures more of a deal than others. The most evocative Zones 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. It has no power. But as soon as the threshold is crossed, everything is different. Normal service of thought train and physical movement ceases.
There is one particular vein where the existence of such Zone providence and impenetrability arrangements is richer than anywhere else, and that when first putting pen to paper studying the concept of the Zone and its navigation in real life, represents the paramount case study: anywhere related to oil or power generation in the British Isles. Zones of this kind are amongst the most heavily fortified and actively guarded to be found the world over, 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 more often than not redundant buildings; pulsating electric fences 20 feet high, sensors reporting back to an all-seeing all-knowing nerve centre, infrared cameras watching cameras watching cameras for miles, Alsatian patrols, and razor wire strewn throughout any possible path to boot. As complex as they come: impregnable by design, definition. The power of this on a sense of topophilia, for myself and the likeminded at least, is overcoming.
For dedicated wayfarers, these puzzles of sorts are bread and butter. Over a million pounds sterling has been paid by something or somebody to erect said fence, and before it stand the rouge visitors, possessed to find a way to the wrong side of it for all different variables and compounds of rationale, all contributing to their obsession with the Zone. Approaching, demented by the scarlet glow from dotted chimney lights, basking if in hinterland in the immense aura of the uniform 117m high curvaceous cooling towers, before, in the small hours of the morning, slinking off the road into dense woodland or open fields, on a straight flight path to the fence. Maybe or maybe not knowing the details of how exactly it will be done, but knowing somehow there will be a way to reach the other side of any kind undetected. Once before the fence, they will wait and watch every slight thing that’s happening yonder. In my firm opinion the greatest Zone navigator to ever do it once told me: “If I’m interested in a Zone, what i’ll do is go and look at it, for hours”. The preliminary investigation into the Zone begins.
Sometimes, in the sea of the civilian world, bumping into passers by on their phones and buying their coffees, someone with heavy thoughts of Zone on their mind might remark upon the variety of opinion on this practice those who do not partake in it will have of it. To some, a pure nuisance; trespasser, criminal, loiterer. Others might think worthy of employment for testing the cracks of securitisation much like big tech companies hire the sharpest hackers to test their digital defences. Some might think the whole thing is absurdly dangerous, others a stone’s throw from burglary. All but a few will say it’s ‘odd’, nevertheless it is really not a practice that crosses the mind of the general public unprompted. To be fair, a curtain twitcher in a rural locality, seeing someone slink off into the woods toward a fenced off building known to be a hotspot for metal thieves – perhaps their nosiness can be forgiven. Generally though, and with heavy industry Zones no exception, with the right distance and routes plotted it is easy to cover one’s tracks in terms of making one’s end destination unfounded to guess from an onlooker. The Zone-obsessed are few and far between, lesser are those within the general public that are weary and wise to the movements of the Zone-obsessed… And this probably has a lot to do with the legality and morality of trespassing in general. Trespass on the grounds of working power stations and oil refineries in the UK is taken as serious as to elicit a full terrorism response; armoured vehicles, police helicopters, men with assault rifles swarming your position in the Zone to wrench you out: getting ‘stuck’ in the Zone meaning a permanent black mark on one’s life-long paperwork and all manner of tedium waiting to pop up in the stream of extra-Zone (or ‘normal’) life. Moreover many decommissioned stations and rigs carry High Court Injunctions, a request from the landowner to the High Court to elevate a site’s by-default civil trespass status to contempt of court by simply being there. The Zone must be respected, otherwise it will punish – it’s non-fiction.
Whilst ‘don’t get caught’ in the ‘complex system of traps’ is an apt opening paragraph of the Zone navigators’ bible, there are two types of traps in the Zone to know; animate and inanimate. In terms of the chess game being played out in there, animate traps are the back row of high value pieces you want to take in order to check the king, so to speak. They are those things with a power to send the Zone into lockdown by way of setting of a chain reaction to alert other humans to your presence; cameras, infra-red sensors, vibration sensors, trip sensors, workers, contractors, security guards, etc. A wink out of them and the game goes feral. Inanimate traps are those that are not causal and reactionary as such, but still pose a danger to wellbeing and firmly stop a path through the Zone. They are the wall of pawns on the board, physical obstacles and the techniques to overcome them beyond the right side of the fence are rather part and parcel of all this. Significant bodies of water, precarious ladders, dense razor wire, locked doors, quicksand-esque damp coal expanses, claustrophobic and intensely hot crawl spaces, holes in the floor and 40m+ high guy ropes are amongst the un-negotiable terrain the Zone can conjure en-route to its interior because of where it chooses to be and what it is able to see. Safe places become impassable, and the way flitters between easy and confused beyond words. The lack of choice but to traverse such terrain is a simple reaction to the paramount rule of thumb once beyond the fence: to never compromise the Zone knowing where you are. Meeting with said obstacles as unavoidable parts of the flight plan frequently causes visitors to turn back, and return another night with a fresh set of tactics and equipment. It ought to make sense, for just a split-second glimpse of a visitor’s presence from one of the dozens of CCTV cameras or sensors that litter every Zone or the official personnel tasked with securitising it makes, contingently successful and fully-committed breakneck exit from the Zone or not, everything endeavoured thus far a lead to a dead end – this constant possibility reinstates the fact that the risk is never fully diminished until the Zone is exited. Arguably, the key to the Zone is simply staying invisible. Constantly moving with a headspace of ‘if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it’ – too many clues left with each step during a wayfaring can send the whole Zone into a frenzied lock-down. Assessing this all begins on the right side of the fence. Whether it’s a case of going over, under, through or around, the next bit, however remarkable, just sort of happens.
The Wrong Side of the Fence
From the outside looking in for somebody with entering the Zone on their mind, perhaps they will speak of varying degrees of threatening or menacing exterior appearance per power station, oil rig, oil refinery, drillship etc. Infrastructure whose Ankylosaurus-like armour and actively operating defensive behaviour are fully working reactionary relics to environmental activism break-ins of yesteryear, might perversely not raise the heart rate of an approaching visitor by grace of their verdant Yorkshire countryside setting, per-say. A couple of stations elsewhere were notable for their ‘glass cathedral’ design of a totally transluscent shell surrounding their cavernous innards, sat by the seaside reflecting sunlight off their walls and onto passing leisure craft on a clear-skied day – hardly offputting to even local dog walkers passing very close to the fence. Others, however, just simply have something striking about them, that raises the hairs on one’s arm even from afar. You can’t quite put a finger on what it is… Some have a kind of dusty, grim, pauper tinge to their boiler houses, or are wrapped round by train tracks for coal deliveries, or whose perimeters are lit up by deep crimson lights similar to those on their chimneys. Some refineries have this kind of fictional, futuristic cityscape about them – think that 2005 animated film ‘Robots’ or the intro to Futurama. Some jack-up oil rigs might be colourful and suave looking, like a big jungle jim, whilst others a mangled intestine of metal as big as a small town on stilts. There can be many tiny things that contribute, few that can be attested to by the scientific process – it is inexplicable emotional provocation.
For those who have entered the Zone, though, even a docile looking exterior has no say in how the Zone will behave. Jack Nicklaus, the world’s most successful golfer, once said “the more I practice, the luckier I get”. Just as any professional skateboarder will tell you that the more time you spend on the board, the better you’ll get, simple as. This game though, doesn’t quite work like that. There are too many variables. Judgement, knowledge, foresight, all gets a bit more acute with more and more time spent in the Zone, but any number of outcomes are possible. Just one in a million for example: once on the wrong side of the fence, mental abstraction takes a hold as the wayfarers lay prone in shrubland besides the former coal yard, oil depot or dockyard, watching as they hope the patrol Alsatian a hop skip and jump ahead does not have a sense of smell one bit too acute. When the time is right, they will make the long dash – their route around or over obstacles in their immediate proximity already carefully calculated in the preceding minutes. This part of the navigation is an experience difficult to put into words, but by the end of it, they hope to reach a cubby hole they choose suitable to catch their breath, and/or, if the station has been disconnected from the grid in its retirement, wait for daybreak in silence. The squad falls in…
Now deep into the Zone, its interior is just around the corner. This luxury expanse; the humid jungle, lush meadow, coral reef – is the turbine hall, pipeline network, helipad, drilling platform, blast furnace, strip mill… The Zone suddenly teems with life. Depending on the Zone, the visitor could be shouting at the top of their voice to their partner for them to be at a loss of any communication besides lip reading, or they may be able to hear a pin drop. This serenity, or lack thereof, goes far to or not to provide a clear head for the visitor, whose heart rate will now be at the command of the vista unto which they behold. Either way, this represents the first layer of the sight they have come to catch a glimpse of, and as such with this motive, they are invited to reflect on the shapes and sizes of the specimens themselves, as well as other varying features around the space. In the Zone, this ‘lush expanse’ not only represents the first museum-type exhibit to stare wide-eyed at for the visitors, but it is also an unavoidable destination in the standard cartographic route through it. It is like a checkpoint. Before reaching it, the variables in play affecting decision making are like an intense heat searing all sensory receptors; fight or flight muscle reflexes, a constant intake of knowledge supporting each side of the ‘does it know we are here’ coin, pre-assessment of what all the potential things waiting around each corner could mean for the trajectory, and a sharpness of hearing only the Zone can raise to pick up and digest every single iota of sound in all directions, are but some phenomena occurring constantly for the visitor until now. Although, once the ‘lush expanse’ is reached, enough time has elapsed and enough evidence obtained toward confirmation that this checkpoint has been reached undetected – the previous hours’ work is rather cast into the job done pile.
Moreover, the turbine hall or drilling platform and its roof/adjacent exterior ledges/helipad, for instance, provide ideal vantage points for the visitors to stay up to speed with and assess just what’s changing in the rest of the Zone. There are decisions to make as a team at this intermediary destination regarding the next steps of the journey: the feasibility of what more the Zone can give, and how to get to it unseen. All axes of the three dimensions remain open for travel. Needless to say, for any Zone comprising still-operational infrastructure, this is as far as the journey into the interior goes. Any further into the cave, and the bounty sought after will, in this state by definition, punish profusely. It is now time to make a way back to the fence, carefully, but rapidly. Nothing is to be celebrated until everyone is over that fence unseen, unscathed and unharmed. For contemplative types like me, the practice of keeping one’s whereabouts to the restricted knowledge of those that one chooses could be considered something of a pursuit of Zen. Consider, in this day and age, knowing people’s whereabouts is a real staple of everyday life. Everybody close to you – family, friends, colleagues, are interested in this knowledge, and it goes without saying we all now carry smartphones that constantly give off a honing beacon to technology companies, service providers, and several governments around the world. When in the Zone, it is best to park all of this. Eliminating the possibility of technology and conversation telling anybody about a whereabouts is not really prerequisite to avoiding punishment, but it’s best to keep the game a bit more authentic. Using purely sensory ways of mapping the terrain is the only way a visitor can to get to know all the particulars of the Zone, and it’s preferable to keep this mutual in terms of it knowing where a visitor is. The interior and subsequent navigation is now everything that matters.
In a summary given by an essayist on a popular ‘cult movie’ website analysing Stalker: “The Zone is the location of an alien visitation where there is to be found mystical artefacts, the most important of which is The Room, a place that grants the deepest wish of whoever enters it. This is the end destination and ultimate goal of those that dare to enter the Zone. The problem, of course, is that no one really knows what their deepest wish is, nor has anybody ever seen the results of The Room’s power. It is Stalker’s and other’s faith in The Room, not its actual power, that’s important.” In essence, The Room is an entity that is meant to hammer home, cap off, cherry the icing of the entire Zone endeavour – the idea of it alone being the reason for meeting the risks of it head on all along.
In our Zones of real life, deeply providential as per, one does not have to stray into the realms of overly-tenuous interpretation to understand that there are equivalents. The first type of entity to do well in matching the criteria of The Room is, predictably, a Control Room. The Control Room of a power station or oil refinery is a unequivocal entity, a mixed bag of design with not one worthwhile piece of architectural or functional history literature existing about them. Truly representing some of the most awesome and mesmerising spectacles of design the planet over for anyone in their right mind and taste, what to make of them once they are reached for a visitor is a notably free and pure experience. There is a vague dial shape and colour scheme continuity by decade, believe it or not, but besides that, they pack an element of surprise. The Control Room – the nerve centre of the whole Zone – is also the rarest thing to find any trace of in any kind of PR done by those that preside over the Zone, and is the most unknown quantity within it in terms of it being a kind of museum exhibition. A vague guess, merely imaginary speculative visualisation, is often solely what is borne with a wayfarer before the threshold of The Room, channelling the idea that no one has a conception about the Zone, so it will be a sensation.
More often than now, this is the end of the line in the Zone: there is most seldom indeed an entity further to travel for that would not feel like retracing steps hereinafter, such is the terrific detail of the terrain ahead in The Room. Every switch, knob, dial, lever, screen, guage, button carries its own label, design, flavour and function: inspecting the intricacies like an auctioneer their china or silverware is simply an activity of a timeframe the Zone is usually not in the mood to warrant. Power stations and oil refineries of a mid-late 20th century era were built by hand down to the acutest facet of all their systems, and each of the hundreds of gadgets on each work desk sends a nervous impulse down hundreds of miles of neurons comprising circuitboards, piping, wiring, vents, axels, valves, batteries, bulbs, cogs and blades. Before computer science was a thing, to change the function of each of these components at the myriad of pinch points for stuff to fire around the boiler house, turbine hall, distillation tank, flue stack etc, first class labelling for the constellations on the desks really was vital. 1960s coal-fired control rooms of the United Kingdom were built at a time when Thunderbirds Are Go was the vision of the future, JFK was briefly still alive, and England won the World Cup with highlights commentated over by British Pathe. In some cases, since then, little more has been brought in but a few more tables, computer monitors, cups of tea and lightbulbs. And the decades kept producing their own oddities in The Room as they went by. Each experience of it is bespoke.
Though, the Zone still reserves its power to punish here, it is by no means a sanctuary, and in some cases, there is no Control Room to experience in the Zone. It could be totally occupied by personnel, or just simply does not exist. Nevertheless, there is always a geographical point within the Zone that fills the metaphysical role of The Room without corresponding to the word’s literal definition – a point that represents the nucleus of the idea of why a visitor finds themselves amidst it. And it’s usually up. I will call this other type of room the ‘Observation Deck’.
It’s rare there is not a structure within the Zone that distinctly towers above everything else; chimneys exceeding 200 metres or flare stacks and drills the height of inner city apartment blocks the usual suspects. Reaching their summit goes to much the same length in experiencing the concept of The Room as the Zone intended. The Observation Deck requires a fair bit more physical exertion than the Control Room to reach. Ascending a hundred-or-two-odd metres of ladders is a taxing undertaking, but in the same way those that endeavour to climb Everest ‘because it’s there’, the anticipation of the summit drags the visitor up regardless of what their very own cardiopulmonary system has to say about it. With the right precautions to overcome the inanimate obstacles in this endgame, ascending away from the animate obstacles can be empowering. But despite this, they cannot yet be ignored. A real common ground when undertaking any pucker Observation Deck journey is light. It’s a coin toss whether the rig, chimney, flue stack etc is lit up, and the silhouette of one’s person will be conspicuous to the Zone and inviting of punishment during the ascent. It can be one of the most treacherous and uncertain parts of the navigation, but predictably discomforts, equipment, strain, muscle and precision employed and endured to reach the Observation Deck fall by the wayside at the opportunity to glimpse the east-west and north-south panorama of the Zone in all its detail and movement.
Whether just a coincidence or that Tarkovsky was superbly clairvoyant, the very first scene filmed for Stalker was the characters’ final approach toward The Room through some kind of culvert and sand-covered hall, within which the protagonist (the guide) is at his noticeable peak of resolve and alert to the anticipated traps just ahead. The characters have travelled far, for over 90 minutes of screen time in Tarkovsky’s Zone, but the director himself seemed to feel compelled to start bringing his visualisation of the Zone to life with the tense eve of The Room. Whether just inside or outside The Room, in fiction or reality, its influence on a visitor is irrefutable.
Those who have been squadron members on various expeditions, provided invaluable insight and wisdom into this practice, and have gone above and beyond in the practice over the years. The unequivocal world’s best at this, and always will be.