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Post-Stalker: Notes on post-industrial environments and aesthetics

As Andrei Tarkovsky’s seminal film Stalker marks its 40-year anniversary this year, architect and urban planner Ryan Madson reflects on the aesthetics of the post-industrial and looks at how the film can help us speculate about a world in which the human condition is increasingly circumscribed.

Still from Stalker

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is as enigmatic as it is visually arresting. The film, celebrating its fortieth anniversary this April, still retains the power to mystify and confound contemporary audiences. Its philosophical meditations and spiritual themes seem as relevant as ever. Stalker’s mesmerizing imagery and slowly unfolding cinematography continues to inspire artists and filmmakers. Among those elements which are essential to Stalker’s identity and reputation are the depictions of post-industrial landscapes and environments. Tarkovsky radically advanced artistic representations of the post-industrial, while updating and complicating existing aesthetic tropes. In many ways we are still trying to be Tarkovsky’s contemporaries.

With Stalker, Tarkovsky also originated a post-Soviet and post-industrial genre of photography which seeks to document sites of decay and abandonment, today widely consumed on the internet and in magazines and glossy photo books. Stalker’s characters move through poetically-charged landscapes of industrial ruins and resurgent nature, with Tarkovsky’s camera often lingering on abandoned artifacts and apparently contaminated landscapes. This imagery simultaneously inaugurated and transcended a so-called “ruin porn” aesthetic that similarly features industrial ruins, abandonment, architectural decay, and urban failure. Stalker’s oneiric representations of post-industrial landscapes, however, are arguably far more complex and nuanced than the imitators which followed, and they speak to loftier concepts and emotions.

Like Metahaven’s Digital Tarkovsky project, which uses Tarkovsky’s films and cinematic methods as a prism for critiquing technology and human perception, here Tarkovsky and his 1979 film serve as an entry point for discussion of post-industrial aesthetics and environments. Yet Stalker is much more than a muse. We also recognize in the film a degree zero, sui generis work which established a new visual language to represent landscapes and the built environment, and within them our human attempts to grapple with the spiritual ambiguities of a post-urban, post-industrial condition.

 

The Zone

Still from Stalker

The screenplay was adapted from a sci-fi novel, Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. The novel was stripped of much of its narrative and reduced to one section of the story in which a stalker—a professional guide—brings two men into a forbidden region known as the Zone which has been cordoned off from society with its entrances heavily guarded. And whereas Solaris exhibited the trappings of the sci-fi genre, here Tarkovsky removed overt genre elements in favor of thematic and scenic purity.

Shot principally in the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic, Stalker’s locations are as vital to appreciation of the film as its human protagonists. The landscape and settings possess a screen presence equivalent to that of Tarkovsky’s actors. In the novel the Zone is a place visited by advanced extraterrestrial life and littered with fantastic objects including a magical box, supposedly discarded by the aliens, which can fulfill human wishes and desires. The novel’s title refers to the haphazard nature of this intergalactic visitation, but in Tarkovsky’s screenplay the backstory is gone. The Zone and its mysterious artifacts become ineffable, lacking context, and thus able to project and absorb multiple interpretations.

Tarkovsky’s cinematic version of the Zone is a postmodern creation. It contains the detritus of modernity but appears ambivalent, or perhaps silent, in its commentary on the decline and failures of industrialized society. At first glance the Zone might be interpreted as a Romantic landscape. But Stalker contrasts significantly from the picturesque tradition by way of our experiential understanding: whereas the Rousseauesque wanderer in the landscape garden is lost in reverie, the Stalker and his company do not have the wherewithal to savor Romantic notions of the picturesque and the sublime. The Stalker’s path through the Zone is arduous, menacing, and fraught with danger. Film critics have proposed reading the Zone allegorically, perhaps representing the gulag or the militarized borderlands between the Soviet bloc and the West. But such readings are ultimately too restrictive, and Tarkovsky famously resisted overtly symbolic or single-metaphor interpretations.

By the late 1970s there was plentiful evidence of devolution in the physical infrastructures of the Soviet Union. Tarkovsky had intended to film on location near Isfara in Soviet Tajikistan, an ancient town situated at the edge of a high desert in remote Central Asia. But an earthquake that wrought havoc to the region during Stalker’s pre-production made filming there impossible. Costume designer Nelli Fomina, who worked with Tarkovsky on several films including Stalker, had seen location shots from Tajikistan which she described as “ghastly and forbidding—it would have been our undoing.” Unfortunately this footage has been lost but one can imagine Tarkovsky initially seeking a forlorn and desert-like landscape in a state of advanced decay along the hinterlands of civilization.

After researching numerous potential locations across the Soviet Union, Tarkovsky and his team found a suitable alternative site—an industrial district along the river Jägala outside of Tallinn. Here Tarkovsky discovered the ruins of a power station destroyed during the second world war. Nearby was an abandoned oil refinery and a working paper mill that belched its waste into the river. Tarkovsky and his crew also filmed several scenes in a functioning power station in central Tallinn.

The landscapes around the Jägala river were treated as-found, with the small addition of railroad tracks for dolly shots and to create the now-celebrated sequence in which the Stalker and his companions travel by motorized trolley deeper into the Zone. These post-industrial landscapes with their artifacts and detritus, not least the abandoned power plant, provided much of Stalker’s atmosphere and visual texture.

 

Picturesque Ruination

Ruins of The Monument House of the Bulgarian Communist Party built in 1974. Photo: Mark Ahsmann

In the ruin porn genre of photography the visual textures are all surface effect, at service of the fetishization of abandonment. Technically the genre photographs are often quite accomplished. Some of the photographers appear to follow in the tradition of the Dusseldorf School with its detached, documentarian formalism, championed by Bernd and Hiller Becher and Andreas Gursky. The detailed vastness of Edward Burtynsky’s industrial landscapes and wastelands, for instance, may be considered a technical peak. However, the real achievement, and part of the attraction of ruin porn, occurs off-screen in the act of a photographer travelling to remote and sometimes dangerous and forbidding places, negotiating with the authorities or otherwise dodging them, setting up expensive camera equipment on site, and finally capturing the prized, publishable image (of an abandoned nuclear power reactor, or a crumbling port on the Black Sea, or a turbine hall with its roof cracked open to the sky, et cetera).

Part of the romance of these images is in getting there to capture them, wherever “there” is. The armchair explorer thus gains access to exotic locales across the former Soviet Union and eastern bloc (and elsewhere in the post-industrial world). She can explore the ghost town of of Pripyat, wander the steppes and tundras in a quest for abandoned space satellites, sneak into dry-docked nuclear submarines, descend into disused quarries, and afterwards pay a visit to her acquaintances who reside in towering apartment blocks at the urban periphery.

We can drive or drift through the suburbs of Moscow, Tashkent, or Yerevan, gazing in melancholic wonder at the abandoned factories and hotels, or we can tour the expressionistic monuments of former Yugoslavia or the whimsical concrete bus shelters of the ‘stans. But if we leave the armchair to actually visit some of these sites we realize that “dead space” isn’t really. Spaces are places. And post-industrial places are always in flux, either regenerative through natural succession or transformative through socio-economic or technical endeavor.

Photographs in the ruin genre capture only a moment in time and they typically aestheticize the ruin as a postmodern picturesque, today with Instagrammable composition and immediacy. They represent nothing more or less than a new spin on the cult of the ruin, a cult almost as old as architecture itself which has enjoyed cycles of fashion in the West since the Renaissance rediscovery of classical Rome.

Perhaps a more honest photographic representation of the ruin would be a visual timeline. This would necessitate archival research as well as return visits to document a site over months and years. But who has time for that? While many of us derive pleasure in looking at images of post-industrial ruins, much of that pleasure is voyeuristic and lacking in historical, political, or geographic context for a given image. The viewer wouldn’t know it from looking at the photos but there are sometimes thriving, even bustling, urban communities or agrarian activities just beyond the edge of the frame.

Conversely, we may find that the related genre of architectural photography specializing in brutalist and socialist (Soviet and eastern bloc) buildings is more ethical and convincing, as these images comment directly or obliquely on socio-political aspirations of architecture as well as the optimism and utopian ideologies that often sponsored socialist building programs.

Hotel Polissya in Pripyat, Ukraine. Photo: Matti Paavonen

An important distinction between Stalker and the genre images is the obvious structural qualities of cinema as a time-based art versus the static purity of photography. In cinema there is (usually) the (simulation of the) moving image, plus sound. Tarkovsky, for all his reputation of being a father of “slow cinema,” invests his images with carefully choreographed movement and animated mise-en-scène, often subtle but at times dynamic and vivid.

Tarkovsky’s landscapes are alive with elemental forces. Sun and rain, wind and fire, and tangles of vegetation animate his long takes and complex tracking shots. His cinematographer’s fixation on limpid currents of water is a notable example. Nature is a tangible and vital force in Tarkovsky’s cinematographic language.

“Often we remove nature from films because it seems useless,” Tarkovsky said in an interview. “We exclude it thinking we are the real protagonists. But we are not the protagonists because we are dependent on nature. We are the result of its evolution. I think to neglect nature, from an emotional and artistic point of view, is a crime.”

Another important distinction between Stalker and the ruin genre is the absence of people, and of human agency, in much of the genre photographs. This is the flip side of Tarkovsky’s statement above, as he is the odd humanist who does not always appear to place mankind in the center of things—physically, morally, or spiritually. Ruin porn offers dereliction and decay where the romance of the picturesque ruin is amplified by the absence of people. Civilization has apparently forsaken or forgotten these places.

At their best the genre photos exude a compelling “world without us” pathos. But this easy romantic view lacks the nuanced critique of recent post-humanist philosophy, nor does it typically engage the complexities of actual societal responses to abandonment and failure. Stalker prompts our imagining how quickly we could slip into post-oil / post-economic collapse or some other prelude to dystopia or apocalypse. During times of conflict, economic crisis, or geopolitical uncertainty, as in today or at the close of the cold war, such scenarios are all the more disturbing. An undercurrent of eschatological anticipation also exists in many religious communities and Tarkovsky, as a lapsed orthodox Christian, would have been aware of these in his time.

 

Embodied Labyrinths

Alexander Kaidanovsky as the Stalker. Still from Stalker

Stalker, unlike the genre photographs, enlivens its post-industrial settings with the presence of actors, with their dialogue and purposeful movements through the landscape. Tarkovsky’s mise-en-scène is dependent on the actions of the protagonist to give meaning to the Zone, an otherwise inscrutable environment. The Stalker, the professor, and the writer, having trespassed into the Zone, must encounter and explore this strange setting in order to come to terms with, or at least to better understand, their own psyches and desires.

Within a post-industrial landscape that is by turns banal and lethal the Stalker appears to possess some limited agency. The Zone is literally a minefield, a labyrinth, a trap. The Stalker guides his companions through a post-industrial wilderness with its own rules and rites of passage. And their passage is physical, an embodied experience that relies on all the human senses and not just the visual. Tarkovsky’s camera lingers upon the trio as they glide along a railroad track, wade through industrial canals, and trudge through tunnels. An earthiness and pervasive dampness is conveyed throughout, helping the viewer, if not to empathize with the characters, then to experience their journey more viscerally. The film’s soundscape is carefully constructed and brings together sounds from field recordings of the natural environment as well as manufactured sound effects. Use of non-diegetic sound is minimal. The sound design subtly reinforces the characters’ physical journey into the Zone.

Stalker, as with all of Tarkovsky’s films, deals with humanistic themes, especially human consciousness, memory, spirituality, and the struggles of keeping faith despite a secular society in a modernizing world. His imagery shifts in emphasis and scope from sweeping landscape vistas to intimate studies of the human figure. It has been noted that Tarkovsky filmed the human head in ways that it had never been filmed before, rendering it “monumental, sculptural, and philosophical,” in the words of film critic Mark Le Fanu. The rugged head of the Stalker, for instance, becomes its own cinematic landscape. The actor Alexander Kaidanovsky’s face becomes a landscape of scars and scabs, worry lines, and dirt. His hair is brutally shaved, as if he were a prisoner or soldier. The wardrobe, too, as it becomes increasingly soiled over the duration of the film, reflects his journey into the Zone.

Buildings and landscapes are often used by filmmakers to reflect the emotions or inner conflicts of a character. This is famously illustrated in the 1960s films of Michelangelo Antonioni, whose alienated protagonists inhabit isolated, austere, and frequently industrial or post-industrial settings. Cinematic language has increasingly and uniquely developed this synthesis between subject and object, between protagonist and place, in ways which may have more in common with architecture and design than with other artistic modes such as painting, theater, or literature.

 

Post-Stalker Environments

Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson. Image: flickr.com/mediachef

Prior to Tarkovsky’s film the post-industrial aesthetic probably bore its greatest fruit in the work of Robert Smithson in the 1960s–1970s, in particular his non-sites, his photographs and studies of industrial landscapes, and in writings such as “The Monuments of Passaic” (1967). For Smithson the infrastructural sublime merges with the picturesque ruins of late modernity. His art celebrated the cyclical process of demolishing and becoming. Many of his works reference geological time and seem to evacuate cultural concerns in favor of an obsession with entropy and the material qualities of as-found artifacts inspired by minimal art.

Potteries Thinkbelt project (1966–67). Courtesy of Cedric Price Estate

Beyond art, in the disciplines of architecture and environmental design, there were few precedents until the 1980s of rigorously-imagined proposals for the post-industrial landscape. Notable exceptions include the Potteries Thinkbelt project for North Staffordshire by English architect Cedric Price. This project sought to transform abandoned factories and kilometers of abandoned railroads into an experimental high-tech university campus whose facilities would be networked, mobile, and flexible. Price proposed to add the minimum interventions necessary to create classrooms and laboratories while retaining the industrial ruins until such time as they could be recycled or reused.

Seattle Gas Works Park when it opened in 1975 was among the first public parks of its kind to preserve industrial artifacts for adaptive reuse as well as aesthetics. The designer, landscape architect Richard Haag, fought a long public battle to retain parts of the decommissioned gas plant on the site. Many residents did not understand Haag’s embrace of industrial heritage and they opposed the rough-and-ready appearance of the park.

The remains of Seattle Gas Light Company gasification plant at Gas Works Park. Photo: aimintang / istockphoto.com

Stalker anticipated a recent emphasis on regenerative landscapes and the increasingly popular acceptance of unmanicured nature in cities. Today we can detect traces of optimism in this return-to-nature aesthetic, a dirty realism of resilience and ecological succession. Prompted by Tarkovsky’s humanist themes and our entanglements with the post-industrial world, we might go even further to locate a new kind of post-Stalker humanism or metaphysics in the regenerative landscapes of urban and industrial ruin.

Perhaps the most popular example of this natural aesthetic is the High Line in New York City, designed by James Corner / Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and plant design by Piet Oudolf, a garden designer who takes inspiration from the spontaneous growth of plant species in disturbed habitats. The High Line re-created and aestheticized the pre-existing conditions of the abandoned elevated railway, including rebuilt fragments of the railroad tracks. Vegetated areas by Oudolf were inspired by the volunteer plants found on the High Line prior to the renovation of the site, as celebrated in photographs that could themselves be considered part of the ruin porn genre.

The High Line is also a powerful demonstration that the most sustainable contribution of architecture is in choosing to preserve and reuse rather than to demolish and build anew. When the present manifestation of the High Line has become outdated and reaches the end of its maintenance, the ongoing legacy will be the successful preservation of this extraordinary post-industrial remnant within the dense urban fabric of lower Manhattan, for the use and enjoyment of future generations.

The High Line park on Manhattan. Photo: zxvisual / istockphoto.com

French horticulturalist and landscape architect Gilles Clément refers to the left-over spaces outside of cultivation and human use as “Third Landscapes.” Like Oudolf, Clément has been at the forefront of landscape design practices that privilege the spontaneous dynamics of nature and a preference for naturally wild aesthetics driven by ecological imperatives. Clément describes the third landscape as “an undetermined fragment of the Planetary Garden [that] designates the sum of space left over by man to evolution—to nature alone. Included in this category are left behind (délaissé) urban or rural sites, transitional spaces, neglected land (friches), swamps, moors, peat bogs, but also roadsides, shores, railroad embankments, etc.

“Compared to the territories submitted to control and exploitation by man, the Third Landscape forms a privileged area of receptivity to biological diversity. Cities, farms and forestry holdings, sites devoted to industry, tourism, human activity, areas of control and decision permit diversity and, at times, totally exclude it. The variety of species in a field, cultivated land, or managed forest is low in comparison to that of a neighboring ‘unattended’ space. From this point of view, the Third Landscape can be considered as the genetic reservoir of the planet, the space of the future.”

Clément describes a singular example in Lille, France, realized in 1995 to his designs. Parc Henri Matisse, where a central plateau built of concrete and rising seven meters above the surrounding park has been planted with a “model forest” in a natural setting. The plateau is an urban refuge for biodiversity. A visual landmark, it is inaccessible to humans but monitored for ecological functioning. It serves as an index for “the most economical management possible of eight hectares of public park.”

 

From post-Stalker to post-human

Still from Stalker

“Central to Tarkovsky’s formal principles,” writes John Gianvito in the introduction to an English translation of interviews with the filmmaker, “is the conviction that cinema’s most distinguishing characteristic, in comparison to all other art forms, is its literal ability to capture and preserve the flow of time.” Tarkovsky’s cinema addresses the built and natural environments as temporal subjects and not merely as scenery. Architecture, objects, and landscapes are elemental yet fragile components of his cinema.

The post-Stalker aesthetic which this essay embraces involves transformation, duration, and flux, and cannot readily be reduced to a static image or monolithic representation.

Tarkovsky forces audiences to experience the passing of time with his long takes and infrequent cuts. Thoughtful viewers may reflect on the passing of time, on duration and human perception, or on the distinctions between human time, natural time, geologic time, and cosmic time. And here is a poetic but indirect resonance between Tarkovsky’s cinematic language and the post-industrial environment: such places are defined by mutability, each place having its own site-specific spatio-temporal conditions with strong or weak ties to society and a complex relationship with human protagonists.

Tarkovsky’s immersive cinematic world opened new ways for perceiving and thinking about our relationship to the built environment, our fears and anxieties around abandonment, failure, and the unknown. With Stalker he unintentionally developed an aesthetic of the post-industrial, an aesthetic which still feels contemporary.

Post-Stalker aesthetics and environments lie in two possible continua: natural succession with limited or no human agency, and transformation to new uses for people. Ruin porn captures a moment along either continuum, often emphasizing picturesque abandonment and nostalgia for lost futures, or what critics like Mark Fisher have called hauntology. Tarkovsky’s film captures sequences from the former continuum and helps us speculate about a world in which the human condition is increasingly circumscribed.

At one end of that continuum where nature succeeds the machine lies the romantic notion of “the world without us.” Post-humanist philosophy tries to understand the perspectives and moral positions of non-human species, and even of objects, of things hitherto regarded as non-entities. As articulated by philosophers and ecological theorists such as Jakob von Uexküll and Timothy Morton, post-humanist thought may offer insight into post-urban and post-industrial scenarios in which people have more or less permanently left the scene. Our ability to confront the scope of environmental damage wrought by massive industrial processes is an important first step along either continuum.

We will probably never be able to fully clean up our messes and restore putative nature, but we must collectively acknowledge these failures and begin to atone for them. We must seek to remediate the environment and deliver environmental justice (for human and non-human species alike) whenever and wherever we can, and hopefully learn better for the future. Post-industrial sites, and monumental works of art such as Stalker, serve to remind us of our need for atonement.

To deepen and complete this analysis of post-Stalker aesthetics we must discuss the realm of the spiritual and immaterial in Tarkovsky’s cinema. His films are overtly concerned with spirituality and the struggles many of us experience when reconciling the sacred and profane, the transcendent and the immanent. Tarkovsky’s cinema achieves what Francis Bacon said is the primary task of the artist: “to deepen the mystery.” Stalker largely conveys human struggles and spiritual themes through dialogue, yet the minimalist and elliptical narrative together with the film’s post-industrial settings speak to them no less powerfully.

Stalker’s central characters—the Stalker, the writer, and the professor—make a sort of pilgrimage through a hostile yet hauntingly beautiful environment to find a room in the heart of the Zone, a sacred place that purportedly grants wishes. Yet the Zone is devoid of human life apart from the Stalker and his fellow trespassers. Perhaps all of (spaceship) earth is one vast planetary Zone in which industrialized society is the trespasser.

We might ask where can spiritual content be found in this post-industrial landscape? Would the “world without us” still retain places that are sacred? If a god falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, did it really happen?

On the other hand, could there be anything sacred left in those posh, post-industrial sites of adaptive reuse and architectural “upcycling,” those fashionable urban districts and enclaves which have recently emerged—for example, across central Moscow, or within the arts precinct of the former industrial site in Tallinn where Stalker was partially filmed—in which factories have been converted to co-working spaces, boutique shops, ateliers, residential lofts, and creative happenings? Such environments do indeed nourish the collective spirit of the city and its inhabitants, although the successional economic processes of gentrification and real estate investment may ultimately neutralize any social benefits.

In Stalker the landscape appears sentient. It might be a minefield but it is also a place where powerful and mysterious natural and perhaps supernatural forces thrive. Gilles Clément and other designers working in an idiom of barely-mediated natural systems would probably find resonance with this notion of non-human sentience.

If Tarkovsky were making Stalker today, what would he have to say about the sixth mass extinction coinciding with the fourth industrial revolution, as global warming continues apace? Would his already melancholic view on the human condition be further diminished, would his characters be rendered with more fragility and sympathy? For Tarkovsky’s audiences, we are left with more questions than answers but also a more open-ended and challenging vision of our role in the post-industrial world we’ve created.

Ryan Madson is a landscape architect and urban planner. He lives in Savannah, Georgia, United States, where he researches and teaches urban design and emergent modes of preservation / conservation at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

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