“How does all of this make you feel? Because most people experience the loss of Lyotard’s grand narrative not on an intellectual but an emotional level. Being lost in a strange, but beautiful world – it is an experience many of us feel rather familiar with.” (GZ)
Georg Zinsler’s self-published “The Sentinel Script” is a quite challenging and haunting book based around the historical interest point of Chernobyl as it weaves its way through the aftermath of its “decline” in 1986. Embarking from the point of the nuclear meltdown at Pripryat and the resulting devastation, often cited as a trigger point for the fall of the Soviet Union, the book emphasizes the ongoing trauma of the event as it percolates through cinematic narratives, but also video games adding an unholy luster to its use as a device in post-Cold War political en-spectre-ization. The Dystopia of Armageddon and the war of worlds are popular motifs in both cinema and video games, but Zinsler has re-worked the material through strange points of view, ir-real characters and something to the effect of a radiation feedback loop to produce a book in which the narrative and actors within are speaking from a zone of ghosts. They are not even real, but they are woven in between all points of reference to create a new dialogue in which the original event refuses to die. He has worked with the Discipula Collective in editing the book and the result is cold and begging huge questions about simulationism and the point of burgeoning history in which we find ourselves currently with Russia and Cold War policy. I am indebted to this interview in which Zinsler and Discipula Collective both answer my questions.
BF: The first things we need to speak about perhaps are appropriation, disaster, POV scripts and meta-narratives involved in the Entertainment Industrial Complex. Your book, aside from the obvious narratives of dissociation, dystopia and determined viewpoint leaves an incredible amount of questions regarding authorship. Within the framework of meta-narratives, we must examine Jean-Francois Lyotard’s inclusion of grand narratives left unrealized or avowed. Here, we look at Chernobyl as a political theater that is ongoing, re-organizing and continues to produce by its resilience to be flattened or erased as a post-apocalyptic monument, instead rendered as a place of incipit memory in which its function does not act as a monument only of the collapse of the Soviet Union a few years after its explosion into popular consciousness, but also as an enduring epiphet of nuclear necro-technology and its by-products of human waste, their economies, their motivations and their habits. That it will not “die” and continues to be transformed into an idea regarding late capitalism, ritual slumming, and extreme tourism in present day acts as a sort of open-ended meta-narrative in which it is increasingly difficult in the context of post-modernism to allude its meaning or significance as a staple of impermeable history. It shape-shifts. It creates a perfect location in which narrative continues to be soluble and open-ended. We are left as sentinels indeed. IT needs to be watched under the expansion of its development both in popular consciousness, both in its decay, but also in it’s attraction towards generating new possibilities. This radioactive techno-sublime creates a fog of permutations from which to draw history or its parallels-far exceeding it’s own history. When did you decide to get involved with working with the gaming footage from S.T.A.L.K.E.R, but also the movie “Chernobyl Diaries” for this project? You also worked with the Discipula Collective. Can you tell me how that came about and what their participation was with the book?
GZ: The beauty of a science-fiction novel lies in the medium itself. While equipping the storyteller with a huge variety of possibilities a sci-fi novel has a tendency of raising questions about the significance of the things we emphasize by taking a step back and acknowledging our existence in a bigger framework. Dark tourism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the burden of nuclear energy, the unbelievable impact on and the suffering of the people affected by the Chernobyl disaster – I didn’t intend to talk about these topics in particular, still they form the base layer of the story and that is simply because of my decision to choose Chernobyl as the stage for the play I had in mind. But if you want to talk about our environmental intelligence, our abusive behavior towards our planet or the global denial about this, then Chernobyl feels like such an obvious choice to make.
“The Sentinel Script follows traditional sci-fi patterns in alignment with Kierkegaard or Nietzsche’s existentialist thoughts on our struggle with apparent meaninglessness and our position as individuals in a confusing and unsettling environment.” (GZ)
Tourism in the zone – as a form of consumerism – as well as the mentioned movies and video games – the way Chernobyl is utilized in popular culture – speak volumes about our societal values today. I knew I wanted to embrace these two topics and let them become the main pillars for the project to rest on. The market driven entertainment complex, that appears to place profits before other values, consumerism and of course capitalism itself are topics that resonate throughout the whole book and it is no coincidence that the set of the play is the one location that maybe drove the final nail into the coffin of Communism. Also, I am fascinated by the apathy and desensitization of all of us towards the path our society is taking. I cannot help but think of us as pawns in the apparatus we created, especially when I look at the condition of the western world in the light of developments of the last two years. All of this reflects in the world of The Sentinel Script. And then there is one question that to me really forms the heart of the book, the question: How does all of this make you feel? Because most people experience the loss of Lyotard’s grand narrative not on an intellectual but an emotional level. Being lost in a strange, but beautiful world – it is an experience many of us feel rather familiar with. I think, we wanted to evoke this feeling and it is why we deliberately chose the novel-based format over a documentary approach. We wanted to draw the reader in. Marco (Paltrinieri, Discipula) called The Sentinel Script a multilayered narrative wormhole and for obvious reasons I love this term, because that’s exactly what it is.
DC: We first met Georg back in 2015 during a Discipula workshop in Paris in which he showed us the first sketches of The Sentinel Script. We really liked that material so it was with great pleasure that we received a few months later an email in which he was asking us to work on the project. We worked with Georg on each step of the process that brought to the book, from the development of the concept to its realization, trying to channel his ideas and build the best possible space for them to fully blossom.
If a sci-fi connotation was clearly present since day one, already embedded in the raw material that Georg gave us, it was after a series of conversations that we mapped the full range of references underpinning the whole project. For instance, the video game “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.”, from which Georg ‘sampled’ several screenshots, is titled after Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” a movie whose desolated landscapes eerily anticipated Chernobyl’s post nuclear ‘zone’. The screenplay of “Stalker” was written by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, loosely based on their novel “Roadside Picnic”, a mysterious sci-fi tale, and so on. We decided to create The Sentinel Script universe exploring, playing with and building on this Chinese box of references. We lost ourselves in it and we tried to find a way out by bridging multiple realities, both fictional and actual. Through this approach we created first a system of visual references and then a warped narrative structure aimed at sucking the reader in rather then directing her somewhere specific. Such opaque, self-eating and simultaneously self-generating narrative is functional to reflect on many of the questions well highlighted by Brad and Georg in the opening of this interview.
BF: So, to continue the first probing questions, the state we live in historically concedes a certain collective pathos about realities and histories and the complex interweaving of how we enable memory for entertainment from lived tragedy. We see this is the numerous Netflix Epsidoes that Quasi-Documentaries of fairly recent and unending tragedies. It almost capitalizes on an effect as if to suggest that in examining the events, such as the Flint, Michigan water crisis or the drug cartels along the Mexican/American border that we are somehow “looking back” on something that has not finished, seeking to perhaps add elements of faux-closure through use of an entertainment vehicle. In your work, the meta-narrative as an act is soundly hypothesized by the use of the footage of gaming stills from “S.T.A.L.K.E.R Shadow of Chernobyl”. Whereas one can also pinpoint revelations of the simulacra (glitch, gaming) or the espousing of late capitalist tendencies to turn sovereign tragedy into mirthful play and economy, the employ is a mix of interpretive possibilities for the never-ending ir-realities posited by the infrastructure of Chernobyl itself. We can also discuss this overarching polemic in your work. You have used the context of these entertainment formats to weave in a third narrative removed. You have placed yourself POV as author of the work by enabling the combination of two playful and impossible narratives in both cinema and game (I will certainly as a side note point out a fourth POV through Tarkovsky’s Stalker here only once) and in doing so, you have kept an illusion of both the Chernobyl history, but also its new condition of imaginative playground in the 21st century military entertainment complex. The glitches and text used in the frames give the book a space in which we perceive the value of a document, but it is also secondary in that it acts like a lost broadcast from the position of a second (not Zinsler) observer. With this cacophony of positions and morass of voices comes a de-stabilizing contra-effect to normalized tropes of narrative. The voices cascade in dystopian horror, almost as if lost to another new tragedy and their last transmission, etc. How difficult was it to choose which voices to promote, when considering the format of a book, which is linear to some extent? How did you choose to guide the narrative from such a distanced POV?
“We wanted to highlight the roughness and the noise present in many of Georg’s images, we wanted them to be like lost field recordings documenting some mysterious happening with a growing sense of dread” (DC)
GZ: While there are certainly lots of excellent artistic projects out there that deal with the aspect to find a closure, a settlement with disasters like Chernobyl, I am not hundred percent certain zombie stories qualify for this. Generally I wouldn’t regard the entertainment industry as particularly sensitive to matters that might go well with a little bit of extra sensitivity. And while it is legitimate to discuss the artistic value of these games and movies, the fact remains that they were primarily created to entertain and to generate money for the producers and distributers. Capitalism itself – like nature or physics – does not ask questions, it just follows its one rule, it follows the money. The structure seems simple enough, the question remains how do we interact and engage with our creations.
As for The Sentinel Script I see it in a long tradition of sci-fi works that examine these questions. Starting with “Roadside Picnic” by the Strugatsky brothers in the sixties to Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” in the late seventies-Apocalyptic Soviet bodies of work that seemed to have an almost prophetic vision of the future long before the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The Sentinel Script builds on them adding the narratives of cinema and game, but without changing so much the coloring but merely enhancing it. The narrative of The Sentinel Script follows traditional sci-fi patterns in alignment with Kierkegaard or Nietzsche’s existentialist thoughts on our struggle with apparent meaninglessness and our position as individuals in a confusing and unsettling environment: On the one hand you have the (to a large extend) faceless visitors of the zone, who seem to act like simulations of urban traffic planning, on the other hand you have the (also faceless) sentinel, who carries out the dual role of being a guardian of the system and being the storyteller of the book, a nice little contrast especially if you consider that this person actually fails in his role as sentinel. These two entities get interweaved into a dystopian cascade. Eventually leaving you puzzled, with the question, what it is that shapes our existence and what is it that remains after all. Is it more than the digital script of an unknown sentinel, who failed to do his job?
DC: Since Georg already provided useful details to get an insight on the conceptual speculations behind the work, I would rather like to focus a little on the use of different POV within the framework of a photobook. First of all, the idea to generate a polyphony of voices is a recurrent strategy in many of Discipula projects and I guess this is one of the reasons why Georg contacted us. We usually do this by combining different languages (texts, images of different kind) and by avoiding to attach to them well defined identities, characters or functions. These voices find their purpose only in the grand scheme of things and goals of each project. Apart from a series of more conceptual considerations, the decision to work this way is also more simply connected to the desire of creating works that can challenge the reader. As Discipula, we find many photobooks not very engaging or, to put it another way, unable to make the most of the book format. So, it is a point for us to try and create each time products that for a reason or another can surprise and puzzle you. With this regard, we are grateful to Georg for having put his trust in us, giving us room to experiment even further with his book. I can totally say that this mutual trust is what made our work on The Sentinel Script something more that just a commission.
BF: Apart from the notion of narratives and their build-up or decline, the images that you have used for this book are sometimes “sideways” or “absconded” images. In this, I mean that they are anything but deadpan and it’s hard as an audience at times to understand where I am placed. The POV is sometimes from behind people on stairwells, then it is sometimes shot from very high on a roof as if by a drone and then I look on almost face to face with an entangled mass of wires or a dead canine corpse. It is disorienting, but strangely so, it is disorientatingly consistent. How many images did you start with and was this consistency something that was natural in the process or something that took the process into an excruciatingly difficult task of editorial to achieve?
GZ: I shot the project on medium-format film, so I guess compared to todays standards the amount of photos was manageable, still there were about 1500 photos to choose from, not talking about the screenshots. I put my trust into Discipula as I felt at that point I was standing a little too close to my own project to keep a clear vision of the path we wanted to go. I can say though that I had a certain consistency already while shooting. I had this vision of the faceless visitor and the faceless crowd being followed by the viewer like a levitating shadow. I wanted to transcribe my own feelings concerning the loss of individuality in an impersonal, and sometimes clinical society. But then there was also another far more profound reason, that is to say that at that time I simply felt like my abilities to do a really good portrait were rather limited. So my intention was to make my weakness my strength and ultimately I can say, I feel rather satisfied with the result I achieved.
DC: After a long process in which we gained confidence and organized the images into typologies and categories, I must say that it has been relatively easy to build the sequence because by the time we started working on it our ideas where pretty clear about what to get and how to get it. First of all, we wanted to highlight the roughness and the noise present in many of Georg’s images, we wanted them to be like lost field recordings documenting some mysterious happening with a growing sense of dread. A discourse around the aesthetic of Tarkovsy’s Stalker then emerged and the movie became a crucial reference for the general mood we wanted to convey. This affected the decision of having always double-spread images in which the environments could always speak loud. Finally, regarding the sequence itself, we built it in a fairly simple way with images describing the visitors in their exploration of the zone and chronologically documenting a series of events. Such decision helped us a lot in the selection of the images/scenarios giving us at the same time the freedom to play with a variety of visual POV within this same narrative flow.
BF: The text in the book is also from a strange POV. It feels computer generated or at the very least like a log book-this device is often like an airplane Black box retrieval simulation, where in the wreckage we look for answers of the last moments before the looming doom. It creates a tension, just as HAL creates a tension in Kubrick’s “2001”. Was this script from the game (I have never played it) or was it a conscious employ to build the structure from your point of view and if so, how did you begin? Did you start, as the title may imply, with a script?
GZ: (Marco you are basically the mastermind behind the text, I think this one is all yours.)
DC: The text is something that came out once the sequence was done and it deliberately plays against it. That is, while the sequence, as I mentioned before, is relatively straight forward, the text is conceived on a completely different level and fictionally operates from another time/space dimension. In other words, it is some sort of meta-narrative layer. It is outside the course of the visual events but it interferes with it nonetheless. Such interferences are visually explicit through the glitches and distortions that you can see each time the text appears. The idea comes from the VHS dream/premonition sequence in John Carpenter’s ‘Prince of Darkness’, which we find very evocative and eerie. Regarding the contents of the text, it is not appropriated from the videogame but it is something that we wrote. From the video game we borrowed instead the template. The text is written from the point of view of an ambiguous entity (the title of the book has definitely something to do with such ambiguity), responsible for the security of the visitors in the zone. We like to believe that this sentinel is the real protagonist of the book. Someone, something that you can’t see, that you know nothing about, but that nonetheless is there, determining the course of the events.
“And what happens when we encounter the limits of our capabilities or when we suddenly get confronted with the demons we created? Cambridge Analytica is a very resent example. Does it concern us or are we back to the apathy I mentioned in the beginning”.(GZ)
BF: The cover of the book is indicative of the whole of the…story…I feel like the hands that are lying on the picture of Pripyat are perhaps my own as the scale and placement on the cover are about correct if a bit small. This before even opening the book leads me into the role of being complicit in the sequence. Was this intentional or are the hands that of a different protagonist or your own?
GZ: The hands are meant to be the hands of the sentinel. If you examine the cover carefully you can see the letters of a computer keyboard hovering over the cityscape. I am not sure it was intentional, but I liked the idea of the ego-perspective. Not only did it offer a possibility to draw the reader in, but it also raised this question of identification. I like to ask myself whether we are merely observers or whether we like to think of ourselves as guardians. And what happens when we encounter the limits of our capabilities or when we suddenly get confronted with the demons we created? Cambridge Analytica is a very recent example. Does it concern us or are we back to the apathy I mentioned in the beginning.
DC: I like Brad’s interpretation of the cover too. This said, we designed it inspired by the covers of a series of sci-fi books called Urania [if you want here’s the link], it was very popular in Italy in the 70s. On each cover you can find a drawing that visually sums up (some of them are really really weird) the story you are about to read. We just tried to do the same. We are totally into sci-fi and we are still after these beautifully designed books that you can find around for very little money.
BF: Have you been to Pripyat? Would your imagined coercion of its possible history weigh on you to go if you have not? Is it something of an existential parapet to look down from if you only know its value from the simulation it represents in your work and not its tomb-like realitie(s)?
GZ: Most of the photos are taken in Pripyat. I did a few trips, but basically I spent a month in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Comparing the simulation with reality is a fascinating experience. Both carry an almost mythical atmosphere. The obvious difference is reality summons it from the weight of history it carries, while the game is a very precisely and carefully created work of entertainment. The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series was created by an Ukrainian company with an incredible focus on detail. Many of the places in the game you can actually visit in reality. I once accompanied a gamer who I overheard saying, “This room is not supposed to look like that”. That was the moment when I knew I had to make this book.
BF: The horror and ennui present are sculpted by your take on the myth of Chernobyl to a large extent. It is impossible to sever the strings of lament from its grasp. I recently watched a BBC documentary about the area. It noted casually how the wildlife there is returning and is creating an oddly utopian, if still radiated wildlife refuge. Is it possible over time to defuse the horror this location represents?
GZ: Yes, interestingly yes. My working title while I was on location was “Beauty Lies Within”. The Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is a place, where time seems to have a different relevance. While the time for us basically stopped there in 1986 – leaving behind this weird Soviet wonderland – wildlife has indeed returned. Trees are growing through concrete and wooden floors. If you are in luck you can see elks, boars, wild horses or maybe the local city fox. And all of this basically became possible because man has made the area vastly uninhabitable to himself. It is a place that makes you doubt the significance of the human existence. Still beauty, if you care to look for it, you can find it there in so many ways.
BF: Ruin Porn. Bio-Robots. Lead. How extensive did you decide to research and dig into the original. I have looked into it quite a bit and the skin of what it presented misses a good bit of the historical due to its post-apocalyptic nature. Did the initial history(s) interest you or did you consciously delve into the story through these imposed meta-narratives from the entertainment field? If you have not researched much of it, perhaps that was also super important to let that lack of research development present the skin of artificially that may have been needed to enter into its history at this sort of point?
GZ: I am not sure you can make a book on Chernobyl without being aware of the history it presents. How many people died because of the long-term consequences? There are no numbers, nobody knows for certain. But the toll it took was enormous. You cannot simply tune that out especially once you have been there. I admit I was in doubt and questioning myself in which way my desire to work on this topic can be justified in comparison to the games and movies I was analyzing. But then if you examine my last sentence, the answer is quite obvious I think.
I was arguing for quite some time with myself whether the world really needs this book on Chernobyl. In the end I decided, yes it does.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Georg Zinsler.)