As summer settles over England's green and pleasant land, so her fields become a living gallery for the display of dozens of beautiful and enigmatic crop formations.
MARK PILKINGTON spoke to some of the artists formerly known as UFOs, plasma vortices, rutting hedgehogs etc.
What first inspired you to start circle making?
Rod Dickinson (RD): The gradual realisation that the formations were the work of human hands (in 1991) inevitably led to my first attempt at making a circle. I remember being convinced we had made a horrible mess, and I began to think I had been wrong, and that people couldn't in fact be responsible for any of the formations, until I saw the local paper a couple of days later...A well known local investigator claimed our horrible mess had all the hallmarks of the 'genuine' phenomena, bent-but-not-broken-stalks, flowing-crop-lay etc.
My view of the circles, the people or groups that attend them, and the media was turned upside down. Almost immediately after I had made this circle I realised that there was an extraordinary space that could be - and was best - occupied by artists. Later that year of course I realised that I was following in the foot steps of Doug and Dave, and other circlemaking groups.
John Lundberg (JL): Curiosity and the chance to extend my art practice outside the Gallery walls. Initially I was quite willing to believe that many of the circles were of non-human origin [be it a plasma vortex or some type of paranormal entity], and I was initially skeptical of Doug and Dave's 1991 confession in Today newspaper. But events such as the Crop Circle Making competition of 1992 initiated by Rupert Sheldrake, and Jim Schnabel's book Round in Circles helped convince me that it was indeed possible to create complex man made formations overnight. The main catalyst for me was meeting Rod. We decided to formalise a group committing the necessary time, money and energy that allowed us to see just how far we could push the envelope in terms of the scale and complexity of the formations we created. The possibility of creating an artifact that may well be interpreted as being of non-human origin was an intriguing proposition.
Wil Russell (WR): For me it was visiting a circle that appeared in my home village. It captured my imagination with regard to the UFO phenomena - the fact I could be so near to a landing site for a craft really resonated with me. Then, having seen the media expos?, I wondered if I could possibly make something closely resembling one of these landing sites.
Rob Irving (RI): Initially to test the claims made by so-called experts, that humans are incapable of creating anything so large and complex given the time and conditions in which they appear. The only way to surely know was to try it myself. After that I was overcome by pure artistic impulse; it's a very powerful experience.
Do you think that the sense of mystery around crop circles has faded in the last few years? If so, what's the role of the circle maker in the current climate?
RD: Perhaps in the eyes of the media circles are perceived differently to the way that they were ten years ago. But there is still a large core group of people who invest enormously in the circles - with their own journals, conferences, lecture tours. It's their beliefs that fascinate me.
JL: I think there is always going to be a residual belief in the non-human origins of crop circles. The media's interest in circles undoubtedly took a nose dive after Doug and Dave's revelations, but since then I think the sheer scale and complexity of many of the formations causes many people to question once again if they could indeed be of non-human origin. In recent years we've seen formations of mind boggling complexity appearing, spanning 1000ft and incorporating hundreds of individual circles.
I've met several people who have no real interest in the circles and who are quite happy to believe that I may have created some of them over the years. But suggesting to these same people that every crop circle formation is man made usually elicits disbelief.
Although it may seem contradictory to our perceived agenda, undoubtedly one of our roles is to encourage belief in the non-human origin of the circles. Doug & Dave's claim to original authorship and our subsequent claims have created an atmosphere well known to theological sociologists - that disconfirmation can lead to strengthened belief. For those who want to believe there are enough soft edges on our activities to allow their beliefs to perpetuate. We never lay claim to specific formations, we only claim authorship of formations in the round.
Some researchers see our claims to authorship as akin to those made by hoax callers who claim responsibility for actions they haven't committed, like people who claimed to be the Yorkshire Ripper. For the more paranoid believer they can weave intricate conspiracy theories around us casting us as shady disinformation agents in the pay of the government fighting against the rising tide of new age belief... or some such narrative.
WR: Our role is to continue to push the boundaries of what people think is humanly possible.
RI: The belief might fluctuate, but returns as strong as ever.
What do you think drives those who still seek mystery in your art?
RD: The circles function as what Hitchcock called a MacGuffin - the thing that propels the plot along, evoking a whole set of desires and beliefs and the promise of something bigger. In this way the circles confuse the distinction between reality and representation. They create rumours, tantalizing narratives, something you can't be sure about.
JL: The circles have become signs and portents of our time, huge Rorschach tests writ large on the fields of England. The circle prone area of Wiltshire is peppered with sacred sites. The circles themselves could be viewed as temporary sacred sites where people gather to meditate on their meaning, imbuing them with mystical and mythic significance. These people are helping to extend the meaning and reach of the formations which, in this context, can be viewed as mass participation artworks.
WR: That something 'fantastic' is happening, which they can be part of.
RI: The mystery of their own existence - the art serves as a mirror of dreams.People claim to have experienced a wide variety of anomalous phenomena while inside one of your formations. How does this make you feel and what does it say to you about the nature of such phenomena?
RD: I have a materialist view of the immaterial and the paranormal, not through skepticism or disbelief but because as an artist I deal in 'things' and the representation of things. One might expect the circles, as a Macguffin, to generate all kinds of impossible situations - so I don't find it surprising that people should want to reinforce their beliefs with this type of anomalous experience. I do sometimes think that people have an intense response to the circle they are visiting - a response to an artwork in effect, but not recognising it as an artwork they interpret their experience more literally as a paranormal experience.
JL: To be honest I don't have an explanation, other than that consciously - e.g. hoaxing footage, making up stories - or unconsciously these people want to contribute and participate in the evolution of our artworks and the myths associated with them.
WR: I feel happy that I've been able to contribute to someone's well being, on whatever level that might transpire. I don't actually feel there is anything strange going on if people feel particular sensations or experience a paranormal characteristic from a piece of my work. In fact we're no strangers to transcendental experiences ourselves, we just witness them from a different perspective.
RI: It reminds me how much 'anomalous' experience comes from within. I'm more entertained by those who try to force such phenomena into a scientific framework - the need to 'know' and explain to others, which tells me a lot about ego. Would you place circlemaking within any particular artistic tradition?
JL: I see our work as the continuation of an unseen tradition of artists working covertly in the realm of the paranormal, from the Turin Shroud to the Roswell Alien Autopsy film. Back in 1988 the Turin Shroud was carbon dated proving that it wasn't the ancient relic many had hoped it to be, but instead an artifact of the 11th or 12th Century.
In their book The Turin Shroud: In Whose Image?, Lynn Picknet and Clive Prince argue that the anonymous author of the shroud may well have been Leonardo da Vinci. He was known to have no love for those who worshipped relics: "Many are those who trade in tricks and simulated miracles, duping the foolish multitude; and if nobody unmasked their subterfuge, they would impose them on everyone". It is in the footsteps of the creator of the Shroud - whoever it was - that I see our work following.
In tandem to this I also see our work in the tradition of "Ostensive Performance". Ostention is a term borrowed from semiotics, referring to the communication of information through actions rather than words. Folklorist Bill Ellis uses it to describe the point at which legend becomes real and reality becomes legend. He describes how on numerous occasions individuals or groups have perpetrated "Ostensive Performances" of certain legends causing them to cross over from folklore into perceived reality.
RI: On one level, it's a collective concentration - at least in the UK, particularly Wiltshire - of large-scale land art; a decoration of the landscape using natural and available materials, not far removed from what, say, Andy Goldsworthy or Richard Long, or even our prehistoric ancestors might create. That's from the artist's perspective perhaps, but on another level the viewer's reaction puts the work solidly in the category of devotional art, having equally long and not unrelated traditions. The formations often inspire the same sense of sanctity, awe and mystery we feel when experiencing a cathedral or other sacred site.
Russia recently had its first crop circle, in Yuzhnoye near Stavropol. How do you feel about this global spread? Does it bother you that the quality of some newer designs isn't up to the standard of your own work?
RD: The crop circle phenomenon is like a strange sociological equation, with a number of key components. Somewhere in that equation sits a viral structure that encourages the idea of circlemaking to be replicated by different, disparate groups. In that respect nobody controls the genre of circlemaking. This is clearly evident in the 'evolution' of the designs of crop formations over the last decade - from simple circles to designs that reference non-linear mathematics and fractals. No one individual group is responsible for that development. Nor do any groups sit down and compare notes. Each development is expanded and improved by another circlemaking group once they have seen it sitting in a field. That circles appear in Russia with exactly the same sort of media reaction that the circles received here ten years ago seems to me to be a clear demonstration of this same mechanism.
JL: I am rather envious of circlemakers in other countries. Expectations about the size and complexity of formations that appear in the UK are now very high, whereas the rather shabby looking Russian formation made the national news. Even Vasily Belchenko, deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, was on site gushing about its origin: "There is no doubt that it was not man-made... an unknown object definitely landed there." If the same formation appeared in the UK it would undoubtedly be virtually ignored by researchers and the media alike. That said, I don't think anybody benefits from badly made formations.
WR: Everyone has to learn somewhere. Maybe the novices still believe an extraterrestrial force is at work - I remember making my first circle and thinking that they must be created by mysterious forces, as it was so much hard work and trouble for humans to do it.
RI: When I'm not totally ambivalent I'm sometimes disappointed, but that reflects my own artistic taste & prejudice.
How do you feel about people who exploit your work for their own ends, be they spiritual or material?
RD: I find other peoples beliefs far more fascinating than my own, so I am always happy to see beliefs or spiritual pursuits manifest because of our work. It is part of the function of the circles as I see them. My exhibitions attempt to catalogue bits of these processes: the responses that the researchers have to these designs - engaging a whole host of participants who have no conscious interest in art and often don't even realise they are studying artworks - evoking all kinds of extraordinary theories and stories. These are the things that really constitute crop circles, and make them an interesting subject for an artist.
JL: Our work is there to be exploited. Without public interest in our formations they would go unnoticed, as did the efforts of Doug and Dave for many years. They were on the verge of giving up just before their formations hit the headlines. The crop circle researchers and the media act as agents for our work, helping to propagate it and it's associated myths across the globe.
WR: It's all part and parcel of the phenomena. You provide the blueprints for someone to use for whatever creative of exploitive means. By stopping them you have to expose your work as fraudulent.
RI: It's a lesson in acceptance. It would be nice, though, if someone set up a circlemakers injury fund as compensation for my dodgy knees. Perhaps the farmers who profit so much from admission - which of course is their right - would kindly make a donation. Does it not bother you, as artists, that you can't claim ownership of your field works?
RD: Perhaps in many senses we don't own them. They are the result of a symbiotic process between circlemakers and researchers, a kind of supply and demand. As long as there are people prepared to invest emotionally in circles I am sure there will always be others who feel driven to make them.
JL: A few years ago art critic John McEwen mused that "The great thing about art, is that no one can define it, even if we all know vaguely what it means." McEwen who was writing in the crop circle enthusiasts magazine The Cerealogist, asked that the circles be admitted to this vague realm of art, since "whoever or whatever made them is an artist of genius". What differentiates a crop circle from a piece of land art is an act of perception. There is also the question of authorship. To equate crop circles with art is to undermine their mystery, their resonant significance of something unknown. For a circle to remain 'genuine' it must by extension remain authorless. The circles were never intended to be viewed as works of art, but somewhat paradoxically they were made by artists. Drained of their mystery the circles become mere specimens. But circlemaking is undoubtedly a creative act. So we are left with a paradox. The circles are created anonymously by artists, but to be effective they must not be viewed as art.
In The Book of Hoaxes Stuart Gordon said of the crop circles "Art takes many forms, and maybe the best are those which aren't even seen as such at first".
WR: No, though when people aim so much hatred and vitriol towards you, it is difficult to keep your thoughts to yourself. Sometimes silence is the best answer and administering this posture is a taxing test.
RI: No. There's a lesson to be learned about our obsession with authorship. It's too interesting to witness the reaction to mystery, and claiming authorship would affect that. We made it, so what?
This is an extended version of an interview that first appeared in Fortean Times Magazine (FT 138).