By John Roberts
Since 1991 Rod Dickinson has been involved in making crop-circles with other artists and friends. Under the cover of darkness, armed with string, simple wooden planks and an outline of their design, the group enter the field along the tractor lines, taking care to avoid any crop damage. Once in position - far away from potential surveillance from the edge of the field - they work fast by moonlight, working to a prearranged pattern, completing the design by sunrise.
Over the years these designs have become more complex, putting enormous strain on the group to finish the circles under darkness. This is risky, for there is now a 'price' on the heads of crop-circle makers. Pressure is being exerted by the National Farmers Union on local farming communities to prevent what is seen as a major irritant during the summer, although farmers themselves are not too keen to get involved directly as there are large amounts of money to be made opening up their fields to paying tourists. Moreover, there is some support from the UFO and crop-circle research or Cerealogy community itself for the "hoaxers" to be exposed. (As yet no one in Britain has been caught, no one arrested). For what divides the crop-circle watching community more than anything else is the division between the "hoaxes" and the so-called authentic circles, those circles that are claimed by Cerealogists to be made without human intervention. These designs, according to 'expert' scientific opinion, are those which could not be possibly made under darkness within a few hours. These complex designs are invariably man-made.
In the Cerealogist literature any suggestion that these designs were made by humans is met with incredulity and passionate denunciation. In fact a great deal of scientific evidence is marshalled to prove non-human intervention, for instance: changes in the cell structures of flattened stalks; consistent absence of entrance marks to the fields; alleged malfunctioning of electronic equipment in or near the circles; migrating birds swerving away from fields; observation and photographing of unexplained lights over the circles; registration of strange noises in electronic equipment in or near the circles; positive or deleterious changes to people's metabolism or state of being inside or near the circle. (1) This list is not exhaustive, but it gives a clear sense of what is of central importance for the Cerealogists: crop-circles are evidence of inexplicable forces which signal the wider impact of extra-terrestrial communications or paranormal intrusion in life on earth.
Milk Hill, Alton Priors, Wiltshire, Wheat,
Approx 278ft across, 8th August 1997
When Dickinson began making circles he was entering a tradition that was at least fifteen years old. In Britain the first circles were made by Dave Chorley (who died in 1996) and Doug Bower in the mid 1970s. Begun initially as enthusiastic reponses to the early conflation between New Age environmentalism and Ufology, their production soon became locked into outwitting the 'true believers' themselves. In effect Chorley and Bower initiated a new folk tradition of temporal 'art events', which drew on country lore and metaphysical symbols to create the raw materials for a new paranormal mythology. It was the obvious success of this process of mythologizing which attracted Dickinson. With little physical effort and little financial outlay, Chorley and Bower were able to find an audience and eventually a critical public for their circles. But in a sense this is to make Dickinson's debt to their work overly formal. For Dickinson's interest in the modern mythology of the crop-circle was precisely that of someone - unlike Chorley and Bower - who saw its implications from the position of a professional artist. In short, Dickinson came to the crop-circles armed with post-Situationist theories of art and social intervention, modern media theory and a post-conceptualist critique of the art institution, and not just a love of the English countryside and folk art and a passion for a 'good joke'. Yet, despite this, it is the very anonymous status of Chorley's and Bower's, and all other crop-circle work, that provided the scope for Dickinson's art: to re-think crop-circle making as the basis for an enquiry into the conditions of modern mythology.
The anonymity of crop-circle making provides a perfect metonym for the critique of artistic authorship and artistic value, but in a social setting which remains outside of the art institution. Hence as a crop-circle maker Dickinson is able to operate without any of the constraints of appearing not to be an artist, for the circles are made, first and foremost, for a non-art public made up of Ufologists, Cerealogists, New Agers, etc. There was no question therefore of the circles becoming a 'second-order' manifestation of artistic activity before they had a life outside of the art institution. That is, Dickinson produces crop-circles within an amateur tradition which makes no substantive claims for the artistic self-consciousness of its activities. In fact amongst amateur art practioners, such as Chorley and Bower, the most important thing worth attending to was whether the circles had been noted and categorized by the Cerealogists. In this Dickinson stepped into a rich tradition of amateur art, which had the power, as with early forms of folk art, to secure intellectual and aesthetic investment from an enthusiastic non-specialist public.
But, if all Dickinson wanted to do was produce a new folk art, if all he wanted to do was leave the art institution behind in the name of some spurious populism, then his activities would rightly be dismissed as opportunist and crass. Rather, what is significant about the crop-circles phenomenon is, in fact, paradoxically, their invisibility as amateur art or otherwise within the paranormal literature. For with the failure of the crop-circle writers to attend to the realities of human agency the notion of the crop-circle as amateur art or 'conceptual art' becomes the absent cause of their arguments. This produces a cleavage which is obviously highly suggestive in the discussion of ideology and modern cultural division. What is laid claim to amongst its practioners as a form of folk art is unable to be recognised as such because of the overwhelming need on the part of 'true believers' to affirm the extra-human at the expense of the human. Hence what is important about the crop-circle phenomenon for Dickinson is not just its status as a modern folk practice, but its cultural reception and misperception. That Cerealogist writers are prepared to argue for either the extra-terrestrial or paranormal creation of the circles is not simply perverse, but culturally significant, pointing to needs and desires which modern forms of rationalism cannot meet.
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