Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics RoomLog 10 - The New Age
Log 10 - The New Age

Wheat dreams
Tessa Laird


Rod Dickinson is a London-based artist who has been involved in making crop circles for the last decade with two collaborators, Wil Russell and John Lundberg. In 1998 the three of them travelled to the South Island of New Zealand to make a crop circle for a US TV company. The circlemakers have an extensive website at http://www.circlemakers.org

Dickinson is currently working on a project to reenact aspects of lives and deaths of the seventies religious group The People's Temple, infamous for their mass death in Guyana in 1978. The Jonestown Reenactment begins on 26 May at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art), London. See

Crop formation Rod Dickinson, installation detail
[left] Crop formation, Windmill Hill, Avebury, Wiltshire, UK (1999) 300ft across
Photo: courtesy Steve Alexander
[right] Rod Dickinson, installation detail, Dominikanerkloster Stadtakademie, Frankfurt, Germany (1999)
Photo: Axel Schneider and Home Abroad e.V.

Recently Tessa Laird conducted the following email conversation with Dickinson:

Tessa: There's a piece of serious art criticism by John Roberts on the circlemakers' website which I was surprised and a little disappointed by. The writing seemed to negate the imagination unleashed by the work itself, and the fact that you've deliberately positioned yourself in this deliciously ambiguous space. Maybe I'm the one missing the point, but in your brief interview with Terrence McKenna, also available on the site, you start off by saying you're a "believer". Making crop circles doesn't seem to be a "smart-arse" thing for you, it's not about "duping" the public, but about you creating a dialogue with a range of different forces. Roberts' piece, to me, seemed to say that anyone who "believes" in crop circles is a new age nut with a gaping hole in their lives, a hole he seems to have happily filled with art theory. So my question is, do you still "believe?" Or, like me and Mulder, do you just WANT to believe?

Rod: In many ways I'm trying to avoid taking a position on my own personal beliefs. I find other people's beliefs far more fascinating than my own. Having said that I do have a fairly materialist view of the immaterial, though not through scepticism or disbelief but because as an artist I deal in 'things' and the representation of 'things'. Crop circles excited me precisely because of their material presence. Like everyone else in the UK who went to see them in the early nineties I was entranced by their 'there-ness'. Almost immediately after I had made the first crop circle I realised that there was this extraordinary space that could be occupied - and was best occupied - by artists.

This quickly became a way of being an insider to a phenomenon and inside the social groups that 'research' crop circles. I was able to gain a totally unique insight into their thoughts and desires - and then supply them (covertly) with what they needed. Despite its covert nature this has evolved into a very symbiotic process. This pattern has been repeated with many other circlemaking groups (most of whom I am friendly with). The pattern follows a virus-like structure, mutating and replicating where it needs to. And it is this that gives the phenomenon, and many other so-called phenomena, the semblance of having been created by a single intelligence; as if the phenomenon was an organism itself.

I increasingly think that this is a useful way to think about the structure of belief in general. That sets of belief, as they are passed from individual to individual are changed, tuned to that individual, and passed on. The key may be that the beliefs become so finely tuned to each individual's need that they are unable to imagine that they could exist without them. I've found this so many times during my forays into different groups and phenomena. It is also why I am so interested in how The People's Temple in '78 could arrive at a position where they believed they had no alternative but death. It's my hope that the Jonestown reenactments I'm planning later this year will journey somewhere near these ideas...

This process is also 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 (there are currently about six groups working regularly). My exhibitions attempt to catalogue bits of these processes, and the responses that the crop circle research groups have to these designs. As all of this takes place far away from the gallery - engaging a whole host of participants who have no conscious interest in art (and often don't even realise they are studying artworks). I try to drag some of that context back into the gallery - by displaying their material in the way it is displayed at meetings and conferences hosted by crop circle groups. This takes the form of low-tech information displays. Even the photos I exhibit have been taken by 'crop circle photographers'.

Tessa: So when did you get the idea of making your first circle, and what did you need to go through to start making them a reality? I think it's interesting that an artist's response is to want to intervene - I was recently looking at a circle website with some artist friends and their final response was "we have to make one of these". I was still struggling with the concepts, wondering "are these real?" It had never occurred to me that I could become an active part of the dialogue...

Rod: Before I started making circles in 199I I was already interested in peripheral beliefs - the edges of cultural activity. At the time I was making paintings that were derived from testimonies of schizophrenics and people who were said to be demonically possessed. Several instances prompted me to make my first circle, and carry on to develop it as part of my art practice. I visited a number of circle sites that year in Wiltshire, and on one visit I photographed this odd white disc above the circle I was in. By that time I was convinced that the circles (relatively simple at that time) were the work of people. So strange photographic anomalies seemed even more surprising. This gradual realisation that the formations were the work of human hands inevitably led to my first attempt at making a circle. Leaving the field in the early hours of the morning with my collaborator 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. I have come to realise it is legends and beliefs that drive these phenomena, not their material reality. And this of course is useful if you want to disappear, or become invisible as an artist when engaging these areas. Working this way - sometimes covertly, involving people who often aren't interested in art, actually working from inside a legend - seemed a fruitful path to pursue.

Tessa: On the topic of the People's Temple, is your fascination with that episode macabre? (I imagine many of the participants will be in irony rather than empathy mode). For example, there used to be a band in Auckland called "Jonestown Olympics" and it was a very Gothic, cut-yourself-up kind of outfit. Is your reenactment born out of a fascination with the aesthetics of death or are you genuinely trying to uncover the politics of the scenario?
Rod: My Jonestown project, whilst very different from the crop circles, follows some of the same ideas. The large reenactment in July will take place in a park, and involve hundreds of reenactors. Ultimately they will be people who have found me - and the project - and want to get involved. Some of them are artists - but most are not. In the UK historical reenactments are a part of popular culture in a similar way to crop circles. A kind of undeclared folk art perhaps. The Jonestown project was always going to be an in-depth journey into the People's Temple. The reenactment in July will include a narration over the PA system (to give the event a context) and a couple of small tableaux from Jonestown life along with interviews with key characters over the PA system. We're also going to do a one evening event on May the 26th to launch the project at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts). This will be a reenactment of one of Jim Jones' sermons, which includes a 'miracle healing' which he used to perform. The healing was a staged piece of illusionism, employing sleight of hand techniques and animal offal in front of a congregation primed with expectation. The sermons were passionate polemics against capitalism.

As with the circles my fascination is for the way in which representations become confused with reality. Like the sermons the White Nights suicide ritual was a rehearsed event. The People's Temple enacted their own suicide many times before November 18, 1978, sometimes actually ingesting tranquilisers with no poison - they didn't know if they would wake up again. This must have had a terrible psychological effect. Through their enactment these representations had a direct (and tragic) consequence for those that participated in them. (The sermons used the staged healings to recruit and proselytise their communist/apostolic message.) The reenactments will have this circularity as their background. Most of those who I am in touch with who want to take part in the reenactment have some interest in the Peoples Temple or related topics. And so far those I have spoken to at length see this as a sincere undertaking. Whilst I am undertaking the project with a respectful attitude, I realise that not everyone else will see it that way.

As a matter of interest I read in the Times on February the 19th that a company here is planning to stage a reenactment of the final day of the Waco siege in the US - with the US government funding it. Apparently they are not doing it for artistic or cultural reasons but to establish the level of culpability of the ATF in the deaths of the Branch Davidians. They appear to have a bigger budget than me ([sterling]5,000,000).

Rod Dickinson, Craft with Beam Crop formation
[left] Rod Dickinson, Craft with Beam, pencil on canvas board (1997) 6 x 8ft.
Photo: Andy Keate
[right] Crop formation, Winton, Southland (March 1998) 300ft across.
Photo: John Lundberg

Tessa: You said earlier that the space created by the crop circle phenomenon is "best occupied by artists". Why do you think this? Do you really see artists as being some special breed with unique gifts? Do you think that conscious art works can ever reach the intensity of "unconscious" works made in an atmosphere of faith (ie. the REAL Jonestown massacre)? Finally, do you think that all the crop circle groups characterise themselves as "artists"?

Rod: The simple fact is crop circles have always been made by artists. Before my activities Doug Bower and Dave Chorley who started making circles here in the UK were both landscape painters. Subsequently all of the other circlemakers of note, except one, have been artists in one form or another (not just visual artists - writers, photographers and designers). Having said this I would be the last person to argue that good circles could only be made artists. Much of my work is about excavating creative practices that have their origins in a non-art environment.

I'm also particularly interested in the genre of drawing that has emerged from UFO witnesses - and I've made my own contribution to that too. These areas are interesting particularly because the artifacts do emerge in an atmosphere of faith. They hold a profound and active social function for those that invest in them. Sacred art works if you like. To be able to make a contribution to that area, without being a believer myself, seems an odd and very fortunate position to occupy. It is a way of being inside the belief system without subscribing to it. My position as an artist allows me to reflect back on that faith and make observations that would be otherwise impossible.

Tessa: Would you continue to be interested in making circles if you didn't have the art community in mind for the final product (ie. the documentation)?

Rod: As far as I can see the art community here is mostly composed of very industrious and committed artists who are surrounded by mostly stupid (and often wealthy) art dealers, gallery owners etc. who pretend to know a lot about art and operate a kind of nightmare, conservative, pre-capitalist feudal economy in which artists are the lowest in the food chain. Ironic since British art is so often cited (here) as being at the cutting edge of culture. Do I make work for these people? Not likely. Here's to carving out a better space for artists to occupy.


Tessa Laird [Gemini Metal Pig] was born on the Sabbath Day (Bonnie and Blythe, Good and Gay). Tessa is a writer who has avoided paying rent and holding down a steady job for 18 months, and plans to continue to behave this way for at least another six.



Log Illustrated - a publication from the Physics Room