Rob Irving
Playing Puck: Performative Action in the Shaping of a Legend Landscape

The New Age fascination with ‘power places’ such as Avebury’s complex of prehistoric sites can be viewed as a kind of nostalgia, or homesickness, ostensibly for a past that is perceived to be lost or forgotten. (Or is it, as I argue, a past-most-­wished-­for?) Woven into this relationship is a particular set of beliefs and conjectures that arise from stories of direct encounters with paranormal phenomena. This stimulates a shared ‘sense of place’ that helps to enrich an existing narrative world, with its attachment to the idea of an English landscape alive with magical mystery, where otherworldly events are said to have occurred and spiritual presences (and absences) still dwell.These  circumstances  generate  a  range  of  responses,  often  broadly  religious  or  aesthetic,  which  involve  ritualistic,  artistic,  and,  above  all,  performed  engagement  where  myth  is  enacted into being and presented as fact, i.e., legend.

Since the 1960s, it has been possible to observe these processes with the emergence of various placed‐based  phenomena associated with modern myths of UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects, a popular euphemism for extraterrestrial spacecraft, ‘flying saucers,’ etc.) and Earth Mysteries – crop circles, ‘ley’ energies, balls of light – and the mystical tourism these have attracted to England’s west country. As Casey observed, the task of place is to congeal this poetic imaginary into a provisional reality.
From my insider perspective of an artist who has worked in this arena, my paper looks at the dynamics of this self-­‐reinforcing cycle of memory, imagination, and artfulness in the shaping of legend (or alchemical) landscapes, and vice versa.

As  perceptual  fields,  these  landscapes  are  crucibles  where  expectation,  complicity  and collusion are catalyzed into action by ‘a mercurial spirit, extremely subtle and supremely volatile, which is dispersed through every place’ (Newton, Notes on Alchemy, c1680). Newton’s metaphor is not only apt in terms of the Trickster-­like activity that precipitates events, but also in the meaning of metaphor as transit from one condition to another. In particular, I argue that concealment is an essential methodological tool of artistic practice, because it protects and preserves mystery. In this scheme, the priority of ‘truth seeking’ is to seek, but not find, answers, encouraging a plurality of interpretations  – a view consistent the collusive nature of artistic activity, including wyrd encounters, where both seer and the seen are agentive.

Rob Irving is known to Fortean Times readers through his occasional articles, notably 'Art & Artifice' (1996), which argued that deception is a necessary part of both science and art, and (with Peter Brookesmith) a three-­‐part feature: 'Hoax!' (2009). His interests are usually themed around the seepage and traffic between semiotic objects of modern folklore and contemporary art. During  the  90s  and  00s,  Irving  led  what  the  science  journal  Nature  described  as  ‘a growing underground art movement combining mathematics, technology, stalks and whimsy’, commonly known as the crop circles phenomenon. His PhD thesis, 'Playing Puck:  A  Study  of Performative  Action  in  the  Shaping  of  a  ‘Legend  Landscape’'  (2014, PLaCE Research Centre at the University of the West of England) contextualized this activity  in  terms  of  peculiarly English  notions  of  wyrd  that  spiced  1960s  counter-­‐ culture, with its attachment to the mythical terrain of an English landscape alive with magic and mystery. Irving  recently  appeared  on  the  BBC  documentary  series  Operation  Stonehenge,  as  an artist demonstrating  the sophisticated  geometry of the Stonehenge floor plan with a cord and rake on a Somerset beach. As part of Public Archaeology 2015, he is currently engaged in a practical exercise in deep mapping and spatial narrative interweaving scientific approaches and folklore, using archaeological survey and digital imaging techniques to disclose subterranean traces of vast ‘ley’ geometries.