Similarly, the common charge that creating false phenomena "muddies the water of serious research" is an impressive euphemism for fear of falsification. To quote Einstein, while no experiment can ever prove a theory right, a single reproducible experiment can prove it wrong. Artifice hailed as 'genuine' and 'impossible to hoax' simply - and scientifically - reflects the dubious prejudice and motives of the believers.
To mimic the divine is the very basis of scientific experimentation. This is why, as the world becomes disenchanted by science, such human pretension is regarded as illicit by those equating wonder with divinity. Today, our sense of art's value has little to do with the work itself; it is based instead on our fixation on authorship. This was recently illustrated by the pseudish reviews of William Boyd's biography of a non-existent painter Nat Tate. Tate's stature was accepted on the strength of Boyd's own as editor of a respected art magazine; if he thought the work worthy, it must be. Like all successful satire, it turned the mirror back on ourselves to remind us of our own irrationality. This attachment - driven by the same pseudoscientific gusto as cerealogy (which is also defined by its pursuit of authorship) - denies new ideas simply because they are new. It has no real value other than to give us some idea of consensus.
It is said that South Seas islanders were unable to see Captain Cook's ship because they had never seen anything so vast. This may be apocryphal but it reflects a real truth; perception is shaped by local and cultural environment in much the same way as a theatrical environment shapes our perception of a performance. Outside the 'correct' context, our experiences are no longer governed by familiar or given conditions. The islanders' 'blindness' was a cognitive dissonance; the same conditions operate when an unidentified flying object becomes a bird, or a fire-breathing dragon, or an alien spacecraft.
Given the relationship between art and perception, it is not surprising that it triggers 'paranormal' experience, a transaction that can be traced to primitive traditions of sympathetic magic and its laws of similarity and contact. Draw a circle around a stone and the stone becomes the incarnation of mystery; frame an image with belief and it defines the belief.
In Mexico City, during the total solar eclipse in 1991, a wave of UFO sightings were predicted. Sure enough, following the lure of television, many people shared their videos showing luminous objects in the sky, seemingly motionless as the skies darkened. Padre Manual Ferrare, described his experience: "I came out to take a video of a pine tree against the light... I saw a light appear over the mountain. It was not an ordinary light, it was blue and very intense. I have never been afraid of something like this - on the contrary, what I have been able to observe has been wonderful." Ferrare's description may have made for exiting television, but, alas, his footage shows a more permanent celestial body, the planet Venus. "Once a philosopher said..." by now, there's no stopping the Padre, "'If God is outside of the truth, I will stay with the truth' - to me there's no contradiction". This is a curious observation for a padre to make - as another philosopher said: 'A God who let us prove his existence would be an idol' - but he raises an interesting and valid point.
This sense of direct, one-to-one interaction between viewer and the viewed emerges as a common motif in UFO witness accounts. Reminiscent of the one-dimensional dot in E.A. Abbott's Flatland, rapture eliminates all other perspectives. An example of this is a description of Venus seen "playing peek-a-boo" between clouds - this interpretation displaying a typical Gestaltist tendency to impose order, and in this case 'intelligent' behaviour, on whatever we see, no matter how haphazard it is.
Following the Padre's experience beyond the realm of the empirical we walk an intriguing path, a continuum incorporating blind belief, or pious myopia, to varying degrees of deception, even hoax. Art traditionally transcends this boundary, the object of devotion providing an insight and clarity all too easily corrupted by the mundane; making real the unreal, no matter how artificial. As the Catholic art philosopher Maritain describes, visionaries turn away from nature in favour of an interest in themselves, in their own subjectivity. "Seeking after themselves", he writes, "they are carried along beyond the natural appearance of things in a desperate search of deeper reality".
As Maritain sees it, "this awakening of creative subjectivity" is a role played mutually by artist and mystic... "the classic visionary's conquest of consciousness, subsequently occupied by the mind of the many".
Conversely, this conflict between subjectivity and the claustrophobically objective has its downside. As the historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto observes, 'such truth usually comes with strings attached to human manipulators... disseminated by dubious experts and interpreted by self-conferred figures of authority. This is, of course, entirely dependent upon the willingness of others to accept that authority'.
There is little difference in this context between a classical painting of the dead Christ and modern-day videotape of a dead alien. When Anthony 'Doc' Shiels made his celebrated photographs of water monsters he was doing what artists have always done... creating a magical link between an image and an idea, between artifice and art. By modelling the monster he hoped to conjure up a real encounter, just as Palaeolithic hunters might stab a cave-wall drawing of a bison to evoke success in the coming hunt. Viewed in this context, it is ultimately ridiculous to judge these creations in terms of 'genuine' or 'fake', or 'hoaxed'.
As Fort observed, the bane of psychical research is that if such phenomena exists it must have its fraudulent twin. Naïve as they seem to us now, the Cottingley photographs of paper fairies and the ectoplasmic laundry of spirit mediums were enough to lure serious scientists into a world baffling to their familiar empiricism. Yet, these fairy-makers and ghost-makers were proto-surrealists, inspiring their successors. Today, image-manipulation is a viable and accepted means of making our secret visions visible.
Similar relationships can be proposed between cubism and the quantum nature of time as successive fragmentary moments; or between the graphic illusions of MC. Escher and modern fractal mathematics. The Surrealist 'simultaneity of experience' - the rearrangement of disparate objects, images, data, etc - is centred on challenging the tyranny of convention.
Festinger, Peckham, the science historian Thomas Kuhn, and a broad range of punditry on the evolution of knowledge, have stressed the need for a 'tension' to exist between observation and experience. Like any self-modifying system, crazy, erroneous ideas compete with consensual knowledge - and some survive. As Arthur C. Clarke observed, the incomprehensible magic of one period becomes the productive science of the next, despite the kicking and screaming of sceptics. This mutation is the raw material of change.
The recognition of false phenomena invites such crucial (and truly sceptical) questions as "What if it were real?" or "What is it about us that makes placebos so effective?" It encourages the discontinuous, paradigmatical leaps of scientific advance. These are often only achieved, noted the philosopher Paul Feyerabend, by irrational, counter-inductive and 'unscientific' methods. Whilst early modern science brought liberation and enlightenment, he believed it now inhibits freedom of thought: too many scientists today are devoid of ideas, full of fear, fixated by the status quo.
Paradoxically, just as we are beginning to realise the value of play in human development, the wider opportunities for it are diminishing. Rather than seeing value in error, we emphasise its correction, and to venture beyond accepted boundaries is to risk being labelled a fool. But in order to develop we need the constant stimulus of new ideas, even if this means we have to conjure them out of nothing. The artist fulfils this function, as do potty geniuses, pious imaginists and 'cranks'.
Dickinson and his fellow circle-makers follow an abundant tradition of people who have specialised in actively stimulating visionary experience. The sculptor James Turrell is another, his 1996 exhibition at London's Institute of Contemporary Art, for instance, was designed to "induce extraordinary visions and sensations, evoking the UFO as both sensory experience and metaphor".
Their playful interest in 'the supernatural', like the subject itself, creates elaborate forms out of disconnected myths, from which new truths may emerge. It is a theatre of interactive creativity in which to escape convention.
Metaphor is the key: we don't necessarily have to either believe in, or reject, the phenomena to gain from the vision. By presenting us with unexpected novelty which threatens, cajoles and ultimately ridicules blind belief and its mirrored twin, blind scepticism, we learn new ways to perceive it.
William Boyd, Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960 (21 Publishing, 1998)
John Cornwall, Powers of Darkness, Powers of Light (Viking, 1991)
Umberto Eco, Faith in Fakes: Travels in Hyperreality (Minerva, 1996)
Albert Farges, Mystical Phenomena (Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1926)
Felipe Fernåndez-Armesto Truth: A History and Guide for the Perplexed (Bantam Press, 1997)
Leon Festinger, A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance (Stanford University Press, 1957)
Morse Peckham, Man's Rage for Chaos: Biology, Behaviour and the Arts (Schocken, 1967)
Marina Warner, No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock (Chatto & Windus/Random House, 1998).
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Photo: Rob Irving.