Crop Circles: The artistic view?

The 2010 crop-circle season opened last week with a military-badge-like piece near Old Sarum, and a piece just this past weekend about as close to Stonehenge as the makers might get. Obviously, that has sent many’s a heart a flitter, and the talk of ley-line connections between the two, etc., has already begun in earnest.

Below, I’ve tried to write a piece offering the Old Weird Albion point of view on the phenomena. The OWA stance is that man-made circles are far more interesting than any alien-made phenomena; that contemporary art criticism and ethnological folklore studies give us the appropriate tools to not only view crop circle’s through a more fascinating prism, but to appreciate the aesthetic and conceptual beauty of what must be the art world’s most radical practice.

This piece is, however, a  work-in-progress – comments and suggestions are beyond welcome!

My interest in crop circles comes from a very different perspective than many. It is not that of the ley-line hunter or the pseudo-science debunker; not of the UFOlogists, Glastonbury crystal-shop owners, or even the Barge Inn taproom conversationalists. I was never interested in crop circles when it was assumed they were the creation of higher powers, nor when circlemakers were thought of as mere hoaxers and leg-pullers.

It was really only after encountering Jeremy Deller’s show Folk Archive (which, I see, opened five years ago today!), and its accompanying book, that crop circles began to ring true with me as an appreciator of contemporary British conceptual artwork. Since then, I’ve followed them closely, met with and interviewed circlemaker John Lundberg, and generally found myself semi-obsessed with the beauty of the cirlces and the gorgeous artwork that is the symbiotic world of the “makers,” “researchers,” and “believers” of crop circles and their lore.

So it’s with great interest, and not a small amount of ‘tsk-ing’ shame, that I watched the recent TV and DVD documentary Crop Circles: The Hidden Truth, and the still-unfolding drama that surrounds it within the crop-circle community.

[[NOTE: Rather than simply embed the doc here as a video, I offer this link to’s post of it. Because I think the commentary written underneath the video is a really important look at the partisan views of circlemaking today.]]

In this documentary, beginning around at 32:40 into the video, producer Richard D. Hall begins his expose of what he, and many others, believes to be a purposeful, conspiratorial disinformation campaign headed by the CIA and MI5, and employing Lundberg and other circlemakers to create man-made crop circles in order to throw researchers off the scent of what they term “genuine” circles.

The first sections are an interesting look at contemporary circles researchers and their basis for determining “genuine” vs. man-made circles – a practice that can be seen as a form of criticism in itself, well documented in purely photographic terms in this lovely video of the new Stonehenge formation. (See the way the camera constantly veers down to examine the stalks of the laid-down crop – the points where it is broken, and where it is simply bent. These are the “10.0” vs. “7.5” Olympic-judge differences of the modern circles researcher – a bar set for the makers.)

After that, however, The Hidden Truth is given over to an almost bizarrely deep dig into Lundberg’s life, which finds a heap of circumstantial evidence for him having been recruited by MI5 in the early-1990s to make circles as part of this campaign. (The Lundberg-specific parts begin around 40:00.)

The Disclose.TV page with this documentary on it includes this bit of commentary within its notes:

MI5 made a big mistake in 2004 by paying for Lundberg to re-train as a film maker. This we believe was a gross miscalculation on their part and provides even more evidence that MI5 disinformation is what Lundberg is part of. If Lundberg was a true “artist” as he claims, why would he be interested in the “UFO” subject for his film making?

Lundberg’s artwork, as he and his cohorts have repeatedly stated in their artistic statements, is based on linguistic, semiotic, and philosophical concepts of ostension and indexicals. (I’ll put both terms into simplistic (apologies to my father and other linguists!) terms, and one that refers to artmaking specifically – mostly because the simplest, art-based framework is the only way I understand ’em!)

Essentially, ostension refers to the naming of something linguistically by the action of pointing: “that” (pointing at a dog) “is a dog.” By Lundberg’s definition, following on linguists and folklorists including Umberto Eco and Linda Degh, this translates into the study of folklore as a chicken-and-egg scenario: Something that occurs in folk legend, and then happens, or specifically is incited to happen, in reality. Therefore the pointing (the reality) actually occurs after the naming (the legend). To use Lundberg’s example from folklorists’ studies, the contamination of Halloween candy in America only occurred after at least 10 years of the circulation of the legend of contaminated Halloween candy.

An indexical, in extraordinarily basic  linguistic terms (again, all I could possibly understand…), is another ‘pointing’ concept. Indexicals are words whose meaning is based on their current frame of reference at the moment of use – words that are based on a philosophical ‘pointing’ at use. For example, pronouns (“He”) and position references (“here” or “over there”) are indexicals.

In a grand and artistic sense – and, I should point out, one of my own conception – these terms combine to create artwork the way that Thelonious Monk would strike two neighboring keys on a piano in order to “play” the implied, but not explicitly heard, third note in between them.

I’m reminded of this again recently by an article in the Guardian about Irish artist Gerard Byrne and his series, A country road, a tree, evening. This gorgeous series of photographs exploring Irish localities fitting Beckett’s famed stage setting for Waiting for Godot builds its beauty from a kind of ostension, imagining these locations to fit the bill for Beckett’s post-modernist exploration within his native Ireland. Like a crop circle, each photograph is aesthetically beautiful in its own right. But attached by its title and its composition to a near-infinite litany of associations – with Ireland, with literature, with philosophy, with the stark nudity of the 20th century – it becomes more than beautiful: it becomes legend. The pieces use their title as a string of indexicals, identifying these proper nouns with the pointing of the photograph – defining the undefined of Beckett’s instruction, a rather bold and wonderful move for an artist to make.

Circlemaking is one of the most succinct uses of these ideas in contemporary artmaking – and, I think it’s easily arguable, one of the most influential. Rod Dickinson and Gavin Turk, two of Lundberg’s early colleagues (and, in Dickinson’s case, collaborators in circlemaking) have gone on to become highly influential figures in the contemporary British art world. Turk’s appropriation of pop-culture imagery takes some of the ostensive character of circlemaking in the way it draws power from legend, though he reverses the anonymity 180 degrees, like Warhol on steroids. Dickinson’s establishment of re-enactment as an important part of 21st-century conceptual art, however, seems a direct descendent of circlemaking’s incorporation of legend and, just as importantly, ritualized conceptual conversation.

If folkloric ostension – the appropriation of legend through contemporary action – combined with aesthetic beauty is the primary characteristic of circlemaking as artwork, then certainly its close-running second is the contemporary art world’s love for “ritual.” But in the case of the circlemaking artists, it isn’t their own ritual that is as important as that of their collaborators: the crop-circle enthusiasts – UFOlogists, sacred geometrists, modern mythologizers.

The biggest mistake in criticism of this work is to take those enthusiasts as being “duped” or “hoaxed” by the makers. John Lundberg, from an interview I conducted at a London pub a few years back:

[In 1994, Lundberg and Dickinson were exposed by the circle-enthusiast community.] At that point we thought it was about the worst thing that could happen. And me and Rod had a meeting about it, and decided that there was no point in trying to deny it, so we just shifted our ground and thought about, “how is it interesting, how can it be used positively?” So we decided to start pushing the discourse, talking about why we’re making circles: that it’s not a prank. That was our shift, I think. We were the ones who realized that what we were doing was art.

The interesting thing about making circles as artwork is – whenever you think of an art work, you think of a Picasso or a Van Gogh or a Jeremy Deller; you think of the artist as the author. Art works are synonymous with authorship. And with circles, it’s a rather masochistic pursuit. For circles to function correctly, they have to remain authorless. So you have to remove yourself from being able to claim that this is your artwork. We’ve developed ways of getting around that – we talk in very general terms about what we make.

… [The] important reason to not claim authorship is because, if I say that, “[a circle] was made by us, here’s the diagram,” you immediately turn it into a specimen. Anything that made it interesting is just drained away. The researchers would just write it off as a man-made formation, and it loses all its power. [When doing a demonstration circle, as in for a newspaper], we actually try to let the researchers know what we’re doing, because I don’t want to make the researchers look like fools – I’ve no interest in doing that, although I’m sure they’d disagree.

There’s something really powerful about making these out in the wider culture, and though I am an artist, I love the fact that I don’t have to play to an audience of essentially 300 people who visit galleries in London and comment on each others work. I love the idea that the circles are completely outside of that, and have an audience of millions, and can have a much wider impact.

(The fact is, even Lundberg will tell you – and quite immediately – that he can’t explain 100% of crop circles; that there are certainly circles made that seem outside of the man-made explanations. (Albeit a very small percentage.))

And that relationship is perhaps what sets circlemaking apart from other ostensive artistic acts. Because the circlemaker doesn’t simply rely on the tried-and-true standards of legend for her mythological roadmap. The circlemaker must be circle enthusiast – even more so, she must be at the forefront of the researchers, understanding current streams of thought and playing with these myths in the ongoing seasonal conversation with the researchers. Is 2012 passe? Are Mayan glyphs making peoples’ minds turn at the moment? What locations – Old Sarum, Stonehenge, Avebury – make sense at this point in that conversation?

It’s for this reason that I (probably mis-) use “indexical” to describe this work: It is artwork which, besides that ostensive invocation of legend, is dependent on the moment of creation for its full meaning. What a circle “points” to in its reference can change over a season, and its meaning and importance, therefore, can change with it.

The artist’s nightmare: Not only is it anonymous, it is quite specifically not “timeless.”

I feel safe in assuming that John Lundberg either doesn’t care about, or revels in, the accusations of his spy connections and conspiratorial aspirations. But as a fan of crop circles as contemporary art, to denounce that artistic practice as an illogical “goof” on the part of that vast conspiracy strikes me as a tired anachronism.

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