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.
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. 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 a criminal offence, 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.
Well, whilst ‘don’t get caught’ in the ‘complex system of traps’ is an apt opening paragraph of the Zone navigators’ bible, 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 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
Sounds and music that resonate with a state of mind when in the zone.
Those who have been squadron members on various expeditions or have gone above and beyond in the practice over the years. The unequivocal world’s best at this, and always will be.