In these terms his work is distinguished by its extension and reworking of a much older tradition of artistic engagement with the irrational and rational: the late nineteenth century practice of fake paranormal manifestations and photography. In fact, if Dickinson's crop-circles openly identify with their hidden amateur status, his general subterfuge and game-playing identifies his art as part of wider amateur tradition of artist-tricksters working on the edges of science. This is the artist as illusionist and mountebank, who in applying new technologies and optics via popular forms of entertainment - such as in magic theatre or vaudeville - is able to produce complex illusions in the interests of a 'science' of the paranormal. Indeed with the advent of the telegraph, the telephone and photography by the end of the 19th century - technologies characterized by their embodiment of the invisible - it was believed that the 'spirit world' existed in a parallel universe which could be communicated with using the right equipment and through the hyper-sensitive senses of a gifted medium. As the new techologies became the harbingers of the spirit world for believers, the technologies in turn were employed by illusionists to create the world that was said to exist just beyond the everyday senses. (11)
This faking of the 'spirit world' was particularly successful in the area of photography. From the 1860s in Europe and the US there emerged a professional photography of staged apparitions, in which the photographer, scientist and female medium - who acted as the embodiment of the spirits - colluded in the production of photographic documentation of things and persons from 'beyond the grave'. (12) Developing out of the Spiritualist movement of the 1840s, photographers employed the positivistic 'truth claims' of the new photography to announce the inexplicable power of photography to render the invisible visible. Ghostly after-images, ectoplasm and other manifestations became the stock-in-trade of this staged photography. This generated not only a sizeable following of 'true-believers' but a learned Spiritualist literature in which the tricks employed by the photographers (double exposures mainly) were taken at face value. As with contemporary crop-circle literature a similar picture emerges of the irrational 'reasoned'.
But if this history allow's Dickinson to treat his own moves as belonging to a popular tradition of illusionism, it also allow's us to connect this image of the trickster to its modern artistic identity in modernism. (13) That is, the trickster-as-illusionist is interesting only insofar as it questions the identity of the artist itself. This is why this tradition is not as marginal as it first appears, for the illusionism of spiritualist manifestations and photography fed directly into early modernism's obsession with the negation of the real and the demotion of the conflation between sincerity and truth in art. Both Duchamp and André Breton, were fascinated by spiritualist activities and fake spiritual photography, and what this implied for the creation of the 'critical illusion' and the dissolution of the artist as expressive subject. (14) For Breton the seance allowed for the production of the same kind of unconscious manifestations as did automatic writing. But if Dickinson is fascinated by the trickster because of its destablization of artistic identity, he is not interested in it as a means of access to the unconscious, or as a means of outwitting his audience. Consequently this is where his post-Freudian trickster meets the demands of post-conceptual art practice. Dickinson's faking of the paranormal identifies his trickster not just as an illusionist but as a corrupting presence within preexisting value systems. And as such is characterisable as someone who understands the cultural dynamics of the irrational and is able to penetrate its processes of mythological production 'under-cover', so to speak. Dickinson's trickster is corrupting, therefore, precisely because it allows him to transform his clandestine authorship into an objective, disruptive force outside its initial conditions of production, which means utlimately outside his artistic control.
Alfriston, East Sussex, Barley, Approx 250ft across, 31 May 1995
In these terms Dickinson's crop-circles and UFO photographs function essentially as a kind of virus within the belief systems of the Cerealogists. By dint of their extraordinary success as icons for believers, the revealed 'uncertainty' of their origins remains a troublesome anomaly, reflected in the literature's constant return to the threat of the "hoax". And, in turn, this is where the post-Freudian trickster meets up with Dickinson's commitment to a situational aesthetics.
Situational aesthetics can be broadly defined as those practices which exclude the authorial presence of the artist from the exhibition space, or question its autonomy. Derived from both Situationist and conceptual context-theories of art, it views the artwork as a disruption in a preexisting field or framework of meanings. In this way we might describe Michael Asher's and Hans Haacke's museum installations of the 70s and 80s as situational: above all else they promote the idea of the artist as a monteur of pregiven elements derived from various social contexts. (15) Dickinson's demotion of his own authorship and adoption of a form of spatial montage recognises the force of these legacies. As such in a period when the museum has become normalized again for younger artists, his work draws attention to the social and cultural divisions between the art institution and its publics and the value of 'acting otherwise' outside the conventional channels of exhibition and reception.
One of the necessary requirements of a situational aesthetics is its emphasis on reading interrelationally from one element to another, from one context to another and so on. The modes of attention it employs are inevitably discursive and interrogative. In this respect Dickinson's sequential presentation of his photo documentation and crop-circle literature, along with video material of the crop-circles, drawings and web-sites, is the standard cognitive model. By montaging predetermined elements together, 'author's meaning' is subordinate to social meaning. The demands of reading (and listening), take precedence over matters of aesthetic discrimination. But what makes this process in Dickinson's work particularly disruptive of the 80s museum-oriented version of this paradigm is the voice of the artist-trickster itself, who becomes the hidden mover of his discursive system. That is, the trickster provides a set of motivations and cultural references which are rarely encountered in this kind of practice, insofar as it provides a kind of voice for a discussion of cultural division, commodification and ideology which is not that of the customary critically-transparent 'interventionist'. By adopting the role of the trickster Dickinson is able to perform the effects of cultural division and modern myth from within the spaces and practices of popular culture and popular 'science' itself, rather than simply announce the consequence of their effects for a gallery going audience. If this in turn produces an interesting set of problems for the true-believer visiting crop-circles and the reader of paranormal literature, it also sets up an interesting viewing relationship for the sceptic and true-believer alike in the gallery, who are presented with a complex array of documentary and scientific materials which have been mediated culturally as 'the paranormal'. In other words, before the crop-circles enter the gallery as art their value has already been established by the media as 'inexplicable phenomona' . The result is that the acceptance or rejection of the mythological content of the materials is dependent on a primary process of mediation before their mediation as art. The spectator's relationship to the phenomenon is already sensitised, therefore, to the power of the media in this mythological process, insofar as the mainstream press and TV conspires with 'true-believer' culture in the interests of ratings and popular appeal. By faking the paranormal Dickinson appropriates this power, thereby producing the viewing conditions for a knowledge of the irrational in the everyday out of the work's own necessary collusion with the media.
To mimic the effects of the modern media in the work of art is of course nothing novel for art of the 80s and 90s. But in Dickinson's work we are given a complex twist, insofar as his practice successfully insinuates itself into the populist agendas of the media as part of a preexisting non-art world culture. This allows him to montage the voices of the irrational in the rational and the irrational 'reasoned' within the wider ideological setting of mass culture. In the gallery the performative contradictions of modern forms of ideology are themselves performed.
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