If something slightly weird was happening in the 1990s then Mark Pilkington was probably there. Amongst a small handful of other assorted eccentrics Mark was involved in the Crop Circle making scene which fascinated our British press and still continues to do so with awe inspiring patterns and a tight sense of secrecy as to their origins. Now though, Mark has published and edited the book, The Field Guide – The art, history and philosophy of crop circles which offers a unique insight into the world of Crop Circles. Mark also edits and produces the Journal Strange Attractor which boasts essays on the unusual through to the unpopular.
LH: Why did you want to produce a book about Crop Circles?
Mark: The book came about because since the late ‘90s I’ve been part of a team who make them. It’s something we talked about for a while, partly a book telling people how to make them and partly a history of the phenomenon, but written from the perspective of those people who make them.
As part of an art project in 1994 the authors, John Lundberg and Rob Irving, wrote a very brief guide to making your own crop circles and this evolved over the years. Two years ago they did a small paperback edition, which they asked me to write a forward to and through talking to them we thought we should do a proper book and expand it. That, which was called the Beginners Guide to Crop Circle Making, now constitutes one chapter in the book. The rest of the book is a mixture of history and theory about the phenomenon.
It has been 30 years since these things first appeared in the landscape, placed there by two men who were then in their fifties, Doug Bower and Dave Chorley. That was in 1976. It was in about 1988 that things really started going crazy in the media. So it’s time to put our perspective across. Also in this country, most people have come to accept that they are made by people, it’s different in America and elsewhere, but in this country the story has taken on a new dimension really, a new lease of life. Now the story is about how people make these things and then why people get obsessed with them, devoting their lives to studying them, analysing them, reading them and interpreting them.
LH: The people who are obsessed with them, are they the same people who are making them?
M: All the people I know that make them all started from the perspective of being fascinated with them, and wanting to know how they were made and whether it would be possible to make them themselves. People were going out, making their own, starting with very basic, simple circles, often potatoes rather than circles. The real spur is when you’ve made one and you see them being studied and announced as a formation that couldn’t possibly be made by people.
LH: The people who make them have to wait until they are photographed, as you can only see them from the air. Is it a bit of a double edged sword that you can’t actually see you’re own work?
M: That’s part of the fun and the frustration. Part of the skill is trying to relate a two-dimensional diagram into a three-dimensional space, which requires an incredible shape shifting, geometry warping mindset, which I don’t tend to have. Usually at the end of a construction I’ll have worked out what’s going on, but the other guys tend to have a much better idea of what’s going where.
You don’t know often up to a week later whether it’s going to look good; if it’s a success or not, or if you made any mistakes. You tend to know if you made any serious mistakes but there might be things that you’re not sure about and you won’t know until you see the photograph. Of course what’s on your side is that nobody else has seen the construction diagram, you’re the only people that know what it was meant to look like. Some of the formations that have had the most impact, culturally or visually, or you see people with tattoos of, or people have written books about, they can sometimes be ones which were considered to be total disasters by the people who made them, until they saw them from the air and realised, ‘Wow that really worked’.
The other thing to bear in mind is because you are working on such a huge scale, usually the smallest individual elements you are working with are probably the size of this table and so when someone’s seeing it from the air they don’t tend to be looking at the small details, they are looking at the bigger impact of the image. You are looking at the whole, rather than the details. But when you are a practiced circle maker and circle spotter you start to notice if there are tell tale signs.
Of course, you also have problems like the longer something is left, the more people will trample through it and ruin it, or if you have loads of trails running through your formation it ruins it a bit. Formations tend to stand up for a long while but they can sometimes get blown over if it’s windy. The other big worry is the farmers; some farmers really don’t like having them in their fields so they’ll erase them immediately the next day. One of the ones I worked on, which was actually quite a nice formation, never got seen by anyone; we worked through absolute driving rain and it was really quite miserable; cold, wet, everything. The next day the farmer erased it instantly in the morning.
In the summertime there are always people flying over so you can be pretty sure that if you’ve got it in a certain catchment area then someone will fly over and see it. There are rumours that some of the pilots are in cahoots with the circle makers, but I wouldn’t know about that.
LH: With that, can people tell whose created what? Is there anything like a signature?
M: Like a tag?
LH: Yeah, like a graffiti tag. I see quite a lot of parallels with the graffiti world but I was going to talk about them later.
M: Well there aren’t that many teams. There are probably no more than 10 teams around every year and there tends to be one individual on each team actually designing the formation.
LH: And do they know each other?
M: Yes, people know each other and if new people appear they tend to make contact with the established teams. You definitely recognise signatures; just stylistic signatures or a revisiting of certain themes, whether it’s fractural geometry or organic motifs, but some people will develop their own styles like wavy lines, or ribbons or two tone reliefs. Within the community people tend to know who’s done what.
LH: It’s so secretive and underground; how do people know about it and know about each other? How do people get into it?
M: These days there’s the internet but before, it was much more secretive and much more difficult. People on both sides of the equation would go to conferences and in the earlier days it was probably quite clear from looking around who was making them – certain people probably stood out, and you would just get to know them.
It was extremely secretive, which made it quite difficult to join the scene. Especially in the heyday; the government were talking about it, the military were interested, the police were interested, farmers were wandering out with guns; you had good reason to be secretive. Never forget that it’s criminal trespass and technically an illegal act. Although, only one person in this country has been caught crop circle making, and he actually admitted to doing it. In order to spite one of researchers he confessed to making it; the farmer then had him prosecuted for trespass and criminal damage.
The mystery and secrecy have always been part of the appeal. Even now, with our book and other people becoming quite open about how they make them, they will still never discuss specifics about which ones had been done by who, again partly for reasons of maintaining the illusion and mystery, and again for security. Back in the day, people just found each other. It was all incredibly localised. It was almost all happening around in Wiltshire so it was quite obvious who was on what side of the fence really.
In the early days, many people would go out, see that it could be done by humans by making one of their own, and never do it again. The die hards kept at it over the years. It’s actually a lot of fun. You are out roaming the fields at night – I love being out in the countryside with all the stars up above. When it’s not raining that is. It can be scary sometimes. The first ever time I went out with our team, rabbit shooters came into the field with guns and spotlights so we abandoned the formation.
These days crop circles are as much a part of English rural tradition as cricket and bowls, so in a way now there is a sense of responsibility, to maintain that tradition, to keep it alive.
LH: Talking about it being English and being part of this eccentricity idea, how is it different in other countries?
M: They are usually less advanced as they have had less practice. It’s different in different countries but they regularly appear in parts of Europe and the States. Three years ago now, Russia had it’s first big crop circle and that caused a sensation over there. America is different because you are talking about a much larger landscape. It’s not like England where within a mile or two there will be a town or city. You can go hundreds of miles and never see another soul. They are spreading. It’s about practice and if the people who are making them in other countries continue to do so then they will get really good.
LH: Do you think the public in different countries have different reactions to them?
M: In the States people are generally a bit further behind on the whole matter of formation. UFO culture is endemic in the States. It’s an incredibly important part of their national identity. Other nations might have their own folklore and traditions that might also be hatched in. In this country they work well because they tie in with the landscape and traditions of fairy lore, the lore of the land and also UFO lore. The areas they were originally appearing were known for UFO sightings and they were chosen deliberately for that purpose.
LH: Going back to similarities with graffiti, it’s an art form but people do it with no formal recognition. Do you think they’re a similar type of person?
M: There’s a definite cross over. Obviously one’s working in an urban environment and the other is working in a rural environment, but the question of authorship is very important in both cases. With graffiti, I get the sense that within that world people recognise each others’ styles and the artists are known within the community and it’s the same within the crop circle community. Both art forms have to be done anonymously for the same reasons. They are technically illegal but at the same time I don’t know if all graffiti disappeared, obviously the cities would look more boring but I don’t know if necessarily the economy would suffer. If the crop circles all disappeared from Wiltshire, about 60% of Wiltshire’s tourist economy is driven by crop circles and mytho-tourism, so that would be a bit more of a blow.
It might be that one of the reasons the crop circle thing never took a bigger hold in the art world is that there was no artist there for it. The art community needs the artist as much as it needs the art. The artist is essential to explain what they are doing and to be adulated or criticised and you need a focus for that.
LH: What do you think inspires somebody to do something in that way, in a non-recognition, illegal way?
M: Usually boredom isn’t it? I think partly it’s a way of expressing yourself and it’s a way of engaging with your environment. If you live in the countryside life’s pretty quiet and then you suddenly see these swarms of people heading towards these huge formations in the landscape; it’s pretty exciting. I can understand why people would be drawn to it. The graffiti thing is slightly different. There is a need to engage with the landscape and make a mark on your environment, by getting involved in graffiti you’re also becoming part of a community. You eventually find other people who do it or you go out with other friends. It gives you an identity and people start taking notice of what you do or respecting what you do and that’s certainly going to encourage you to do more.
Scale is important. Realising you are inside something that is so much bigger than you and the sense of not knowing how something has been made. I think that’s an important difference between crop circles and graffiti because whilst there are some stunning mural artists and graffiti artists and stencils out there you are rarely left wondering, “How the hell did they do that”. You sometimes wonder how they got somewhere, it it’s a tag at the top of a bridge, but there is a different sense of wonder to seeing something that is a third of a mile across.
LH: Do you think it’s got anything to do with the modern psyche of public space which has been taken over by advertising?
M: It’s definitely part of reclaiming the environment back from the advertisers. Somewhat tragically we have become part of the problem rather than part of the solution, with advertisers now hiring crop circle makers doing ambient advertising or whatever.
LH: And graffiti makers.
M: As always happens, the avant-garde or the underground gets co-opted and re-processed by the mainstream. That’s how the culture deals with things that are initially confrontational or risky. It welcomes them with open arms and absorbs them so that they no-longer become a threat. Then it’s up to another generation to provide that edge.
Then there’s things like people who work specifically with billboards or advertising hoardings. The Culture Jammers who are re-appropriating the work of the advertisers and turning that upside down, repossessing that territory and those canvases. A big juicy billboard is basically a perfect canvas for someone to work on and its the same in the field. If you are driving through the countryside with a bunch of crop circle makers you can hear them salivating as they pass a big open wheat field!
When you start making crop circles you’re entering into a system and a relationship. There’s you, there’s the landscape, there’s the artwork and then there’s the audience for it. The really important part is not so much what you make, it’s how people respond to it. You have people saying that they go into a formation and they are spontaneously healed of lifelong illnesses or equipment malfunctions or they suddenly realise they have been an extraterrestrial living here on Earth for years. How many times has that happened to people inside a gallery? This stuff is incredibly potent. It’s transformative. It’s magical. It changes lives and alters people. But that’s not the artwork itself; that’s about the cultural space that they occupy and the power that they are imbued with. Each time that someone says something happened to them inside a crop circle, they are contributing to this mythological reservoir – it’s like a huge battery.
LH: To talk about ‘Strange Attractor’ as a journal just briefly now, you call it a journal of unpopular culture, what does unpopular culture mean?
M: It’s a tricky one and sometimes I’ve regretted saying that! With “unpopular” people tend to assume it’s material that they won’t like but actually this is about stuff that people love – the Journal’s contributors are writing out of passion and enthusiasm. The main challenge for me is to try to find things that aren’t being discussed or written about elsewhere. It’s incredibly difficult to define what’s popular and what’s unpopular as these things are cyclical and always changing. One year legwarmers or twirly moustaches are totally gauche and the next year they are catwalk favourites – it’s the same with authors, Philip K Dick might be a good recent example.
I’m sure a lot of the things that’s discussed in the journal will one day reappear in the popular culture. Just by being published in a public forum, entering bookshops and peoples’ homes, the information and ideas in the journal, are all being launched into the wider world and that’s part of the point for me – keeping that kind of material alive.