Stalking the Biennial Zone

This essay was published in the catalogue of refinerymonastery, the 2022 Biennial of Art in Pančevo curated by Maja Ćirić.

Looking for the tower

A criminal, his alcoholic friend, his elderly father, and a prostitute speed down the highway in search of the Bell Tower that is rumoured to grant eternal happiness to those select few pilgrims who succeed in reaching. To be granted the gift, travellers must only contend with the journey whose destination may well be no more than hearsay, they also need to open their hearts and minds. What that means, precisely, nobody knows. For Sanya the killer, the first challenge in reaching the Tower is to maintain control of his SUV on the road while sharing a bottle of vodka with his passengers. 

The existence of the Bell Tower of Happiness is an open secret: Sanya knows of it from his criminal contacts, but everyone has heard a version of the myth. The Tower itself is not marked on official maps but the Zone in whose interior the Tower lies is easy to find by the checkpoints that surround it. The men in dishevelled military uniforms who guard the Zone’s perimeter take their assignment only half-seriously and do as much as attempt to dissuade the pilgrims from their quest. Can one truly stand in the way of another’s search for happiness and meaning? The only warning the guards issue to the travellers is that no one has ever returned from the interior to tell the tale. God bless and good luck.

The further the characters penetrate the Zone, the more barren and apocalyptic the landscape around them becomes. The countryside bears the scars of a war or of an industrial cataclysm. They proceed. Snow falls, the ground freezes. The roadside is spotted with abandoned cars and bodies of earlier pilgrims who failed in finding their fortune. They pass dilapidated buildings, they encounter wild animals. The musician’s father passes away in the night. Alisa shivers with cold and tears. The atmosphere is eery but not so eery as to be wholly alien to them. The Zone once knew the life they knew outside, in the metropolis. They proceed, resigned, yet determined.

Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012

This road trip is the plot of Aleksey Balabanov’s 2012 film Me Too  (that is ‘I, too, want happiness).[1]Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012, The characters are the down and out and the fallen and in that, they are for Balabanov nothing but ordinary. Sanya’s confidence may be broken after his latest criminal ruse has gone awry, Alisa may be running from an abusive pimp, the old man has little but death to look forward to, while Oleg barely made it out of hospital. They are filled with submission more than with hope and their search for happiness is more a biological imperative than a rational choice. In a world in which the reproduction of desire is relentless, what else is there to be done? it is almost a wonder that many more are not trying to reach the Tower.

The art biennial – if you forgive my already bursting the bubble of this thin metaphor, the first of many in this text – has long been a site of pilgrimage much like the Zone. Its existence is no secret: the grandmother of all biennials, La Biennale di Venezia, was founded in 1895 as a publicity initiative for both the city and the art on display. Today, there are over 300 biennials or triennials in cities large and small,[2]Shwetal A Patel, Sunil Manghani, and Robert E. D’Souza D’Souza, ‘Extracts from How to Biennale! (The Manual)’, On Curating, 2018, some are metropolitan, some peripheric, others nomadic. The attractions in Venice or Pančevo are, in principle, open to all and anyone is welcome. But just as with the Tower, not everyone gets to partake in them in the same way or to the same end. Like any art form, the biennial has its cognoscenti, its guests of honour, and its critics. The biennial also has its weekend visitors just intrigued by the novelty. And because biennials often adopt and adapt urban infrastructures – schools, warehouses, civic halls, factories, or even churches – to serve as their temporary museums and galleries, many idle passers-by enter the biennial Zone unwittingly, too. These pilgrims have not been initiated in the true meaning of the Tower.

In Roadside Picnic, the novel by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky[3]Arkady N Strugatsky and Boris N Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic, trans. Antonina W. Bouis (London: Gollancz, 1978). on which Me Too is loosely based, zones were created through an act of extra-terrestrial visitation. We do not know what processes formed them, but rumours of their unexplainable and magical properties abound. If the art biennial is the zone, it is because the biennial is the conglomeration of influences, ideas, productions, manifestations, arrangements, and political and economic imperatives that act on and with the host city in spatially and temporally limited staccato. The biennial injects the city with intellectual energy and with capital in ways that are by design extra-territorial.[4]It should be said that some biennials have been making concerted efforts to become embedded in their cities through year-round interventions, commissioning of permanent public artworks, or community programming aimed at the local population rather … see more The biennial turns the city into the zone: it brings with it the industry, the commerce, and the thought of art without ever becoming synonymous with the city itself. That’s the promise, anyhow.

The biennial can thus be a space of liberation – a temporary autonomous zone, to borrow a phrase from Hakim Bey[5]Hakim Bey, T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism, New Autonomy Series (Autonomedia, 1991). – in which the limitations of spatial and formal procedures can be overcome by subverting the flows of information, production, and consumption. The biennial, just like the zone, draws a crowd because it carries the potential for the unexpected and the unexplained to occur. Much has been said and written about the inner workings of the art biennial as a force that has perfected the creation of zones. Yet for all this research, the precise mechanisms by which the biennial can bring its visitors ‘happiness’ remains about as mysterious as the extra-terrestrial visitation that created the Strugatskys’ zones. The draw of the zone is that events in it have the potential to bypass human reason and to make extraordinary demands of the visitors’ senses. In Roadside Picnic, the source of this potential is the extra-terrestrial. If the biennial has similar potential, the source of it must be art.

The art of happiness

If the zone is the biennial, what is Tower? What is Happiness? The biennial is a space in which art is shown, appraised, exchanged, and consumed. The biennial is the space in which art could do all the things that we like to believe that art can do: to deliver us from our daily concerns, to transcend the limits of our imaginations, to inspire us, to give us hope. Art, in Bablanov’s phrase, could be the elusive source of happiness.

Art could be all those things. But often, it isn’t. 

Back in Balabanov’s Zone, the Bell Tower of Happiness stands among the ruins of an ancient church, alone in the middle of a boundless, featureless, frozen plain. The bodies strewn across the landscape all face away from the Tower and it is clear that for those who fail to commune with whatever supernatural force the Tower is a conduit to, returning to the world outside is not an option. 

Alisa and Sanya, the two of our protagonists who are still on the road, cannot know whether the Tower is in fact a cruel joke and whether it ever granted their wish to anyone. By the time they entered the Zone, it was already too late to harbour any doubts. Would their pilgrimage be rewarded? By the end of the film (excuse the spoiler), only one of them is granted the transcendental passage into the next world they came in search of. Are one in five odds worth the risk?

Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012

I may have already tested your tolerance of metaphors here. Me Too could hardly be more allegorical, either. The Tower, marking the site of an abandoned monastery (or a parish church, but you’ll go along with me here) is no less the embassy of a god now than it was before the visitation that turned the Zone into a wasteland. Facing it, Alisa is the archetypal candidate for redemption, a sinner by circumstance more than by lack of faith. Sanya is the wayward son. Balabanov himself makes a cameo in the film that turns out to have been his last and takes on the role of a filmmaker. A filmmaker who dies. Me Too is the story of the oldest story in the world, that of man’s search for meaning in a world in which the infrastructures of life no longer provide lasting comfort. There’s a reason that we keep telling this story: all that we know of those who found happiness or of those who perished seeking it is art. There is no evidence-based research, there is no sure-fire method for maximising the chances of success. 

While Balabanov rests his own and his characters’ hopes on transcendence – the notion that salvation must be found outside the bounds of human experience – Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker,[6]Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker, 1979. the better-known adaptation of the Strugatskys’ novel, finds revelation in immanence. In Stalker, the Zone is at once the unknown and the worldly and it is itself the deliverance. The key to truth and the fulfilment of desire is not located in the centre of the Zone but is instead omnipresent in all its fabric, prime to be extracted by seekers. The task, however, is not without its difficulties and visitors are advised to seek the help of stalkers, priestly guides who have learnt to navigate the pitfalls and traps of a world that resembles the external in an only illusory way. 

In Tarkovsky, the title stalker leads the Writer and the Professor into the zone. These characters are more likely to be associated with the search for truth in the high culture of an art biennial than Balabanov’s criminals and prostitutes. The zone bears an uncanny resemblance to the city and its industrial zones over which machinery of indeterminate purpose towers. It is only by the lack of billowing smoke or noise that one notes the zone’s inactivity. Entering the area in search of absolution is risky but not so as to be the course of last resort.

Everything is art and art is everywhere

But I forget about art again. Who, or what is the immanent supernatural of the Zone? Who is art’s stalker? Does a visit to a biennial carry even the vaguest promise of communion with the truth? The correspondence between the biennial and the art within it is as much a matter of composition as it was for Balabanov and Tarkovsky. Balabanov comes close to revealing his divine source of transcendence but because he (in life or in his cameo in Me Too) is not one of the lucky ones who are granted happiness, he is unable to go beyond the strictly human aesthetic experience of observing Alisa’s ascension into the heavens. For Tarkovsky, the very search for the ultimate is the ultimate itself and he treats every stone and grain of sand in the Zone as though it held equal potential for an encounter with truth. Where for Balabanov there is only one work of art, for Tarkovsky, art is in everything and everything holds the potential to be art. At the Tower, Alissa must be a special kind of a soul to find god. In the immanent, all that the Writer and the Professor need to do is to immerse themselves in the potential of the zone. The same decisions shape the biennial zone: is art suspended in it as though aerosolised in the atmosphere or does it manifest at a series of singularities?

The very tension between the transcendent and immanent potentials in the experience of culture is at the heart of the questions that philosophers, critics, and artists (if not theologians) have asked of art for millennia. What does it take for art to be the kind of art that leads us towards the form of truth that withstands the march of time? Is art’s truth always to be constructed in its contingent relationships with artefacts beyond the zone? The art world’s workaround to the reductive binary of this question has been to rely on a cast of stalkers. My metaphor may jar a little here because artists, curators, and art world officials all have a degree of claim to being the stalkers who can bring lay supplicants closer to the promise of a truth that is art. But let me let everything be a metaphor for everything for a moment. Artists, on occasion, have believed that they alone commune directly with some divine. Museum trustees have all been called on to speak about the transcendental potential of art. Curators consider their audiences’ movements in the zone as though on a plane of immanence. Everyone could have been a stalker.

Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012

And there is no shortage of seekers ready to cross into the zone – the Venice Biennale, for example, received nearly 600’000 visitors in 2019. Many more will buy package holiday tickets to events in Bangkok, the Antarctic (!), Havana, or Gwangju. Many more still may seek out the zones independently and in so doing they may find opportunities to live out their versions of the Stalker experience. Often, the primary effect of such excursions is a headache induced by the sensory overload that occurs when the senses can’t tell the zone and the art apart anymore. Taking seriously my contention that Tarkovsky’s zone is the Deleuzian plane of immanence,[7]G Deleuze and F Guattari, What Is Philosophy?, European Perspectives: A Series in Social Thought and Cultural Criticism (Columbia University Press, 1996), pt. 1.2. we must consider the interactions between the elements of the zone, art among them. In their recent book Investigative Aesthetics, Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman[8]Matthew Fuller and Eyal Weizman, Investigative Aesthetics: Conflicts and Commons in the Politics of Truth (Brooklyn: Verso Books, 2021). coin the term hyperaesthetics to describe the situation in which every part of an environment becomes a receptor of an event (or ongoing events), let alone a potentially active actor itself. Fuller and Weizman’s solution to the cacophony is positivists[9]Weizman has disputed the characterisation of his work as positivist, a claim I critique elsewhere. and computational, an approach that is not only impractically challenging but also precludes the existence of art or god.

No wonder then that the Strugatskys, Tarkovsky, and Balabanov preferred to portray their zones as quiet and hovering at the edge of the world. The picnic in Roadside Picnic refers to the urban dweller’s penchant for weekend escapes into nature, except that here, the stalker guides his punters into the zone of exclusion rather than the forest. Our love for unsettling environments and ghosts of civilisation is clear from the preponderance of Instagram accounts that forever reproduce the strange charms of Chernobyl’s Pripyat or the spectral appearance of the abandoned military sea forts on the Thames.

Even in England, a country where most land is private, enclosed, and in which every wasteland quickly attracts the attention of property speculators, it is possible to reconstruct the plot of Stalker in near-perfect happenstance. All one needs is a weekend walking trip from the village of Rye to the fishing hamlet of Dungeness, a stretch of no more than twelve miles on the southern coast between them. If one is lucky, the path involves crossing through an expansive shingle beach and the country’s only desert littered with an untold weight of sea plastics, hurrying across an active military shooting range complete with burnt-out tanks, bunkers, and spent shells, trespassing onto the grounds of a nuclear power plant, encountering a crazed stray dog (the clincher in this metaphor since in Stalker a dog emerges from one of the character’s subconsciousness into reality). At the destination might be just in time to see the artist Derek Jarman’s seaside cottage by the headlights of a passing patrol car.

Dungeness, England. Photo: James Sherwood-Rogers

That the biennial reproduces that charged atmosphere of the power plant is partly a matter of form and partly the weekend trippers’ demand for spectacle. Biennials favour site-specific installations and expansive productions that would not easily fit in museums or homes. Because of their temporary nature, they tend to encourage artists to be bolder in their work than they may be within the confines of the studio. Biennials also favour novelty and are where ‘advances’, if such a crass term can be used of art practice, are showcased and evaluated.

Monastery, refinery

And what then of our encounter with art in the biennial zone? For whom does art’s bell toll? Do the zones of Venice of Pančevo recreate the temporary autonomy in which art can become what it once promised? If I stretch my metaphor to near breaking point and draw a direct line between art and the church tower in Balabanov’s film and between the Zone and the industrial smokestack that emanates an indescribable but unavoidable energy, Pančevo offers a set of uncomfortable hints and – finally – a pay-off to my belaboured parallels. 

The monastery in Vojlovica, built and restored many times since its foundation in the 14th century, was once at the centre of a community’s hopes for transcending their earthly limitations. In it, a cast of holy men devoted themselves to contemplation in communion with god. Today, the monastery is dwarfed by an oil refinery that has come to surround it and which employs many more thousands of workers than the monastery could ever attract worshippers. The petrochemical industrial colossus is at once the ghost and the alien of the Zone and the living embodiment of everything that our city has come to stand for. The refinery partakes in the transubstantiation of oil from one form into another and its metabolic labours are as intricately and imperceptibly arranged as the movements and machinations of the city dwellers at large.

The refinery in Pančevo. Photo: NIS ad/Wikimedia Commons

The refinery, however, is a different kind of zone. Its logic is not that of the Zone whose idleness becomes the plane of immanence from which truths can be written. Instead, the industrial zone risks becoming a free zone, deceptively so named because it is the very opposite of an autonomous zone. Agents in the free economic zone can rewrite protocols and codes but they do this entirely and solely to their own advantage, unencumbered by the prying eyes of regulatory devices or customs. The design critic and theorist Keller Easterling describes the free zone as a highly contagious and globalized urban form,[10]Keller Easterling, ‘Zone: The Spatial Softwares of Extrastatecraft’, Places Journal, 10 June 2012, a type of capital infrastructure in which all forms of exchange are permitted but to which access is strictly restricted. In the free zone, it is capital and not thought that can assume the shape it wishes. Should it be a surprise that the free port is the preferred space for storing the most valuable of the world’s art, away from the prying eyes of stalkers, curators, or tax inspectors?

Illusions of freedom

The free zone’s offer of freedom is not extended to everyone equally and its ideals spread most rapidly under the guise of art. Condemning this kind of freedom outright is of no help, however, because the monastery (here, standing in for the museum, a church for the 21st century) and the refinery (the city and its capital flows) are everywhere. In Pančevo, the monastery and the refinery share office space and, no doubt, some visitors. The church may have lost some of its primacy over the lives of city dwellers, just as the museum has ceded ground to other forms of cultural propagation and control, but the monastery remains not despite the refinery but in part thanks to it. In Pančevo, the refinery operator owns the ground on which the monastery stands and part of the rent it collects is in the form of bonds of protection (These bonds, alas, proved to be ineffective and the refinery was subject to bombing by NATO forces in 1999).[11]William Booth, ‘NATO Bombs Left a Toxic Slough’, Washington Post, 21 July 1999, Likewise, the monastery draws on the refinery: even the promotional YouTube video[12]light2tube, Vojlovica – Monastery in the Strangest Place in the World, 2021, for the church boasts that it stands in the strangest place in the world, a location that amplifies whatever aura the pursuit of gods still has. The transcendent monastery and the immanent refinery rely on each other in a symbiotic relationship that validates the claims of each to being an inalienable part of the truth. Without the refinery, there’s no god. Without the monastery, there’s no oil.

The monastery in Vollovica, “the strangest place in the world”.

Sometimes, such a relationship can be encapsulated in the single instance of the museum, for example, in the numerous contemporary art galleries built in disused power plants (London’s Tate Modern), factories (Brussels’ WIELS), or military infrastructures (the Estonian National Museum in Tatru ). The art biennial has likewise enjoyed the slippery relationship between the spiritual and the industrial; Liverpool Biennial’s history, for example, is explicitly linked to efforts of civic regeneration and gentrification under whose logic every factory is by fiat a church. The more industrial and expansive the zone, the more self-evident the need for the museum.

Oil remains a commodity capable of determining the fates and cultural alignment of millions. It does so as much through the order and progress that it helps to bring but also by the entropic destruction that it leaves in its path. The revolutionary nature of the industrial revolution may well stand in question[13]Emmet Penney, ‘Did the Industrial Revolution Even Happen? Ft. John Constable’, Ex.Haust, accessed 8 March 2022, but the industrial ruins of the 20th century would have already been visible to the Strugatskys in the 1970s. Why would today’s information revolution be any different? The flows of oil and gas contend with the flows of information and as I write, the internet standards organisation ICANN is mulling over a demand to bar Russia from accessing the network[14]Noah Shachtman and Kat Bouza, ‘Exclusive: Ukraine Pushes to Unplug Russia From the Internet’, Rolling Stone (blog), 1 March 2022, … see more while gas and oil continue to move unabated. With technical evolution comes control and the illusion of precision.

The zone without the city

Today’s technologies gamble on the boundaries of the needs and desires of their users with far more purpose than the Strugatskys could have imagined. What are the conditions for creating a zone in a world that subsists on information? Multiple experiments have tried to answer this question and some bear the promise of being able to cater to mass audiences while ostensibly offering all the convenience and none of the risk that the stalkers feared. One of the priests of the meta-zone is Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook and prospective pioneer of the Metaverse with its Oculus virtual reality headset serving as a personal portal into a zone. With the aid of these devices and their algorithmic stalkers, anyone could emerge within a zone whenever and wherever they choose. 

And it would be a zone and not the zone because Meta’s multiverse may well turn out to be different for everyone who experiences it. For the Writer and the Professor, the meta-zone may appear as it did in Tarkovsky, with visions of industrial wastelands and high-pitched sound environments. For others, Zuckerberg’s zone may instead produce phantasmagorical visions in soft CGI renders from pay-to-play video games. The zone, or zones, may be populated by multiple avatar inhabitants and visitors may not know whether these are fellow human travellers of adversarial features of the zone itself.

There’s no art in the metaverse. Not yet, anyhow.

Will the zonal experiences that Meta proposes to be transcendental to the kinds of bleak existences that films like Ready Player One[15]Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One, 2018, predict in which virtual reality is the only escape left for humanity entrapped in the zone, free or otherwise? Before we concede control over the future of desires, it may be prudent to consider the role that art – yes, art – and artists could play in shaping the immanent domain of the multiverse and the aesthetic experiences within it.

Boring art in the Metaverse. Meta corporate presentation, 2021

The critic Dean Kissick observes that technologists do not appear to have any clear ideas of what their multiverse could be and for whom, let alone what it would look like.[16]Dean Kissick, ‘What Will Art Look Like in the Metaverse?’, The New York Times, 1 December 2021, There is no immediate use that the Metaverse plays in the flow of information. Instead, its aim might be to expand the interface between information and the human. How might a multiverse do that? Meta’s corporate promotional materials released in 2021 leave much to be desired,[17]Orit Gat, ‘The Boring Art of Zuckerberg’s Metaverse’, ArtReview (blog), 12 November 2021, offering glimpses of life in banal home interiors rendered in cheap textures and ‘augmented’ by tedious animated street art. Zuckerberg, for sure, is no stalker yet.

Who then? Does taking on the challenge of the virtual zone require a new kind of artist? The philosopher of art Grant Tavinor argues that virtual reality is as much a picturing medium as Renaissance cityscape painting was. In his recent book The Aesthetics of Virtual Reality,[18]Grant Tavinor, The Aesthetics of Virtual Reality, Routledge Research in Aesthetics (New York, NY: Routledge, 2022). Tavinor demonstrates that there is, in fact, formally nothing new to VR, nothing at least that would be impossibly challenging to artists. If artists can reclaim expertise over the aesthetic – that discipline that deals with both perception and the composition of visual realities – it will be down to them to design the zones of the future. 

But that troublesome term aesthetics does not proscribe an art filled with animated emoji any more than it demands that artists exploring virtual realities and multiverses confine themselves to exploring four-dimensional abstractions limited by the computational power of their tools. The question at stake is more complex and answers are likely to take as many forms as they ever have: what does it mean to sense in a world where a singularity can be conjured within reach with a few lines of code?

The fantasy of experience at the limits of the regulated realm of technology has long held an appeal even to sworn Luddites. The nuclear disaster at Chernobyl established the world’s most iconic IRL zone fifteen years after Roadside Picnic was written and this zone has attracted no end of attention and countless visitors. The fire at the power plant at Zaporizhzhya may yet create another zone. Thankfully, artists have been more restrained in their zonal drive. Video games like the 2007 production S.T.A.L.K.E.R.[19]Andrew Prokhorov and Anton Bolshakov, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. (GSC Game World, 2007), based on Tarkovsky’s film merely simulate the apocalypse. Other initiatives establish autonomous zones in previously unoccupied lands: the 2020 edition of the Yerevan Biennial, for example, took place entirely on the dark web.[20]Clauton Schuster, ‘An Art Exhibition on the Dark Web Makes a Case for Internet Freedom’, Observer (blog), 31 October 2020, Such projects are still in their experimental stages. As they expand to explore the potential of art’s immanence, the relationship between the platform that supports them and their form will be key.

Back on the ground

But, again, what of the prospects for art in this multi-zone that plays out somewhere between reality and fiction? Returning to Balabanov’s adaptation of Roadside Picnic, our most contemporary, we are reminded that merely finding the Tower (or the museum, the biennial venue, or even the church) is no guarantee of finding happiness. As a strategy for the biennial, building towers seems a little foolhardy. Adapting Tarkovsky’s proposal for the mass market, on the other hand, risks turning the biennial into a space in which visitors browse for curiosities as though even the fabric of reality were part of the experience economy. 

Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012

Plenty of critiques have been levelled at the biennial and the process of ‘biennialisation’ of contemporary art that renders it inseparable from the zone.[21]For example, Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A Patel, and Dorothee Richter, eds., ‘Contemporary Art Biennials – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency’, On Curating, no. 46 (June 2020), … see more For an alternative, we may want to return to the Strugatskys. In their version, the stalker Redick learns to aestheticize his senses to recognise the potential benefits and dangers of the zone’s myriad features. He returns to the zone time and again intending to bring aspects of it back into the outside world for examination and in pursuit of knowledge. This, as for Redick, is the challenge to the biennial zone visitor as much as for the multiverse dweller: to develop the same aesthetic alertness outside as inside. And for the biennial, the task is not to turn into a free zone from which no knowledge can ever escape.

Main image: Aleksey Balabanov, Me Too, 2012