The structural Language of LEGO (a short observation)

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What is LEGO? One answer comes from the often-misused plural use of the word LEGOs. Why is it incorrect to say I am building with LEGOs, and correct to say I am building with LEGO? The answer is that LEGO is defined as a system: a language of open interconnections between elements (pieces to you and me). LEGOs as a term is a misnomer, because as an individual element separated from the system, alone and unconnected, it is not LEGO. Of course an element holds the potential to become part of the system, based on its studs or other interconnective features; but it only truly becomes LEGO when operating with other pieces in the linguistic system of building. LEGO has a deep structural form. One in which the meaning or use of any element is not fixed. We may think a wrench piece unproblematically represents a wrench. However, its actual use is defined by the elements it is connected to, and the way it is connected to them. A LEGO wrench is not a wrench or even a representation of a wrench a priori. It is only a representation of a wrench if used in this way – held in a LEGO mini-figure’s hand.

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So a LEGO element on its own is not LEGO until it is connected to another brick. And a LEGO element has no set or designated meaning in the LEGO system until connected with other elements so as to disclose a given function particular to each build. All of which leads to a paradox. Can you make a LEGO creation with a single brick? Of course you can make a statement, or even a work of art with a single brick, but what relation does it have to LEGO as a system? What you find is that by denying an element its connections, it highlights the system of connectivity by its absence, or need to be connected. By not being LEGO an element can speak to us about the nature of creative associations, as an idea. By not being LEGO an element can show us what LEGO is. Whilst building, every time we scan and consider the unconnected element, we welcome in the idea of the potential free creative system of signification, and the spirit of LEGO’s creativity is reborn anew.

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Collective conventions and shared inventions: the case of Lego FebRovery

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Lego Moon Landing (1976)

 

First question:

Q: “Why does the Moon orbit the Earth?”

A: “To get to the other side.”

 

Second question:

Q: “Why does an AFOL build like everybody else?”

A: “Because they want to do things differently.”

There is a paradox at the heart of the Lego building experience. Certain combinations of pieces imply established uses or conventions. However, as soon as the Lego builder recognises these rules they seek to use these pieces in ways that push the convention as far as possible. Yet, no matter how extreme the deviation, the convention is preserved.

This is the joke at the heart of the Lego hobby. Like the joke about the Moon, that gives an impossible answer, that it orbits the Earth to get to the other side – there are no sides to an orbit only perpetual movement – the Lego hobby offers choices within conventions, which allow us to build together, to be different through our sharing of creative projects.

And of course I chose the joke about the moon, because instinctively it reminded me of this logo; the Classic Space symbol. But in this case the shuttle slingshots out of orbit!

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The Lego Classic Space symbol brick

All art forms have conventions, cultural forms that define them. The realist novel, pop art, atonal music and many others can be taxonomically defined based on stylistic conventions. What is different for Lego is that it originates from a design driven, or manufactured form. Pieces, even generic pieces that suggest multiple standard building uses, begin from a designed application. No matter how many new functions a specific piece can be turned to, it is the fact that it is turned to a new use that Lego cannot escape. And the original utility of the piece remains as a possibility no matter how far it is taken away from its designed origin. The croissant that can become a crab’s smile, can still find its place in the Lego Friends Downtown Bakery.

Many of the principles that pieces in the Lego catalogue were put to, are doubly designed. In that not only are they created to achieve a given use within a set or theme, they are also imitations of real examples of industrial design. Most obviously you see this in door, window or wheel pieces. Things become explicit when Lego starts to duplicate the shapes and forms of the space industry. Take set 565 Moon Landing, arguably Lego’s first foray into the space theme.   Its forms, pieces and structures all echo the technology of the space race era. As the theme of space and science fiction grew in popularity during the 70s so did the design of pieces based on real space exploration.

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Apollo 16 Rover during testing

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Lego Space Buggy (1979)

Possibly one of the most talented and important fan builders, the late and sadly missed Nnenn (Nate Nielson), achieved great things for the building community when he explicitly linked the design potential in Lego with an understanding of its conventions; that conventions are uniquely placed to inspire invention.

I personally came to the hobby after a long dark age, about a year after Nnenn’s death. Although I never had the chance to speak or meet Nnenn, his magnificent portfolio[i] of space and sci-fi designs immediately caught my eye. Here was someone who understood intimately what could be achieved with bricks. It came as no surprise to find that he was an academic working in the area of graphic design. The knowledge was writ large in every one of his pieces. In the words of Keith Goldman[ii] (another fantastic builder of everything space), writing on the Brothers Brick blog, ‘Nate showed me that our community, the we, are our best when we build. When we create.[iii]

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Nnenn’s Untitled Rover

However, what I think Nnenn’s most important contribution to the community was, as Goldman hints at, is the idea that a collective of builders can engage in a shared design process. By sharing conventions, and exploring them together, rather than this endeavor limiting creativity and inventiveness, it provides a framework for expanding it.

His most famous example was the presentation of the criteria for building spaceships. Taking the Viv Viper, the iconic craft from the Gradius [iv]video games, he set forth that this vehicle could be defined by a set of conventions:

  1. Twin forward prongs.
  2. A single dorsal tail.
  3. Two rear lateral wings.

 

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Gradius (1985)

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Nnenn’s Vic Viper conventions

I’m not sure whether this is true, but video game folklore suggested that the Vic Viper’s shape was determined by the need for the limited graphical capacities of 80s computers to create a roll animation. The twin front prongs giving a distinctive shape when seen from above or below, which sharply contrasted with the sleek side-on view. What Nnenn succeeded in doing was transplanting the design methodologies found in other disciplines, such as video game design, and present it to the Lego community in a way that was fun, informative and transformative in the way people approached what they built. I think the teacher in Nnenn was offering a way of helping builders better their craft (in both senses of the word). We all learn when we apply our creativity to problems and limits.

Nnenn’s legacy lives on in the yearly tribute to his influence. The month long gala of Vic Viper building, now known in reverence to the master of the art, as Nnovvember.

This way of thinking, although new to the Lego building community, is of course integral to all design-based creativity, but it is also present in non-problem focused creation. Take for example the literary movement, OULIPO [v](Ouvroir de littérature potentiell), which translated into English means something like, Workshop of Potential Literature. This group of writers that included the likes or Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Harry Matthews, began from a principle that by establishing writing conventions, experimentation, potential and importantly fun could be fostered. Techniques included the use of lipograms (writing that excluded a given letter) or snowball poems (verses in which each line is one word longer than the last). The results were dynamic and new ways of writing and making literature.

Lego as a medium, as previously noted, brings with it the type of convention challenges that the OULIPO writers had to impose. Lego pieces intrinsically enforce designed limits, which require our imagination to expand. The Lego community soon pushed against these design limits, through experiments like those set by Nnenn, and stumbled into the strange world of invention explored by the OULIPO writers. Being a Lego builder always means building with constraints, by continually imagining something beyond the constraint!

Where a design precedent was set, for example animation needs for the Vic Viper spaceship, once taken-up as a generative convention for the Lego builder, the original design aim of the Gradius graphic designers becomes something else. The Vic Viper is no longer a shape suited to 8-bit graphic technologies, but a pure call to explore how far a design principle can be taken. And the Vic Viper was mutated into ever stranger and more unexpected shapes.

Of course following Nnenn’s case study, many other conventions were taken up by the building community: the 100-stud long spaceship festival that is SHIPtember[vi] (The S.H.I.P, standing as an acronym for seriously huge investment in parts), or the currently running FebRovery[vii], a celebration of every type of lunar rover imaginable.

FebRovery is an especially good example of where conventions and shared invention are at present taking the Lego community. Set-up in 2011 by the irrepressibly inventive and hyper-productive space builder Crimso Geiger[viii], the event can be singled out from other convention building events on two grounds. It is not a contest, to see who can build the best variant of the rover convention; the project’s aim is simple, to explore the fun and joy of experimentation. Added to this, is the fact that the conventions for rover building presented by the event are more instinctive than fixed. No doubt this further expands the level of innovation possible. Taking a look at just a handful of creations made this year, one is struck by the variety and charm of the project.

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Billy Burg’s 4 Unity Lunar Rover

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Abram Harris’ The Anal pRover

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David Robert’s Big Wheel

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Crimso Geiger’s Rover #18

What FebRovery should be celebrated for, is that not only does it explore the creative potential of conventions, but through communal invention alters these conventions. After 4 years of FebRovery, the community’s understanding of what constitutes a lunar rover has changed. It is stranger, more colourful, less tied to the NASA launches of the 60s, or even the nascent thrill of the Star Wars films, than it was in 2011. Lego rovers have become a genre in their own right. Capable of displaying humour, surreal forms, pastiche and irreverence.

When we talk about Lego as an art form, it is easy to call on individual builders, or particularly interesting creations. However, we sometimes forget that the best examples of Lego as art, is found in the shared archive. The way builders, when they share in a project, expand understanding and creative potential. Artists like, Olafur Eliasson in his The cubic structural evolution project (2004)[ix], who I discussed in my first blog article[x], have explored this shared creative potential found in Lego. And whilst interesting, I would argue, the broader and more exciting projects are found in the self-establishing, shared ventures, such as FebRovery and Nnovvember.   In these catalogues of communal shared expression we see the living and breathing power of Lego builders. Few other creative practices so successfully join creative minds together in inventive processes as Lego does. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before a curator steps forward and takes a group archive such as the FebRovery portfolio and places it in the gallery context.

And all that is left to say is that we Lego builders do it best, when we do it together.

Endnotes

[i] See Nnenn’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/nnenn/

[ii] See Keith Goldman’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/61671941@N00/

[iii] Keith Goldman ‘Farewell to a Legend: Mourning the passing of Nate “nnenn” Nielson’, Brothers Brick 2010 http://www.brothers-brick.com/2010/04/13/farewell-to-a-legend-mourning-the-passing-of-nate-nnenn-nielsen/ (accessed 20 Februray 2015)

[iv] Gradius, 1985, Konami

[v] For an overview of the OULIPO see this article from The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/jul/12/oulipo-freeing-literature-tightening-rules

[vi] See the SHIPtember photo pool on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/groups/the-shipyard/pool/

[vii] See the FebRovery photo pool on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/groups/1841195@N22/

[viii] See Crimso Geiger’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/crimso-giger/

[ix] Olafur Eliasson, The cubic structural evolution project (2004)

[x] David Alexander Smith, ‘Building a case for Lego art’, Building Debates (3 January 2015) https://buildingdebates.wordpress.com/20150103building-a-case-for-lego-art/ (accessed 25 January 2015)

Lego Lilliput or the Politics of Scale

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El Barto’s Mt Olympus (2014)

Looking down on a world in miniature, the Lego builder has a unique perspective on their creations.  Able to take in all that they have made in a single sweeping glance.  In the case of the 2014 VLUG collaboration[i], a mini-figure scale diorama that retells Homer’s Odyssey, they are quite literally Olympian.

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VLUG collaboration The Odyssey (2014)

For anyone who has had the fortune to attend one of the major Lego conventions, although they will have had the opportunity to view many different building types, considerably outnumbering nearly all other genres are the displays of the world builders.  Multiple base-plate wide sprawls, revealing tiny universes of every variety.  And parents, children, enthusiasts and fans gather round, pointing out favourite details to each other, sharing in that strange vantage that the scale provides.

Why have so many AFOLs (adult fans of Lego) gravitated towards this type of building?  Initially you’d be forgiven for thinking this is obvious, the scale of Lego’s mini-figures dictate this creative direction. As soon as you start to cater for these little people, a certain scale is set. But are the world builders simply supporting these tiny plastic denizens?

Evidence would suggest that mini-figures don’t hold the a priori position in relation to the worlds created for them. Lego had been producing sets long before the invention of the mini-figure, and these already established a scale that sees the world in miniature. Many of the sets from the 1960s, rather than relying on figures for scale took die-cast cars as their starting point. And there is the case of Miniland scale; the scale used at the Legoland parks to recreate the famous cities and landmarks of the world. Although all three of these scales, mini-figure, die cast vehicles and Miniland differ from one another, they retain the same vantage for their builders and audience, able to scan and see a world from a bird’s eye view.

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Lego in the 1960s sold with die cast cars

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Miniland London

There is something about Lego I would argue that brings out the creative desire to make worlds. Mini-figures were created by Lego to supplement this urge, and have become a core part of the company’s identity as a result. So in fact the chicken and the egg need to be reversed. World building created the need for mini-figures.

This initiates a shift in question, one from a need to build in a certain scale, to one that asks what is it about Lego that makes it such a compelling medium for the creation of worlds. Perhaps there is a root in the way Lego operates as a toy. As the image above from the 1960s shows, and is typical of how Lego has consistently depicted children interacting with its products, play often begins from the ability for a small hand to hold a complex model. To manipulate and control a world from a vantage not often afforded.

Of course this type of play is not unique to Lego, toy soldiers, dolls’ houses and model railways all call for a similar relationship. What however is unique about Lego is that these are not just little worlds that the child can manipulate, but little worlds they have built themselves. Where the doll’s houses asked the child to play lord of the manor, or the toy soldiers presented a chance to act as a general, the Lego world asked for an additional role, they asked the child to be a designer, creator and benefactor to their worlds.

The Lego community often talks about ratios and scales, that three plates equal the same height as one brick, but the most important ratio is that between a brick and a human hand. That what we make can fit in the palm of our hands. And this scale propagates the generation of a world at a scale smaller than our own, one we experience first and foremost as its creator and not as a participant or character immersed within it.

Lego world building creates distance, a way of understanding a world, even caring for and about it, but importantly not being a part of it. It is this care without immersion that makes Lego’s creative potential unique. Compare this to the most commonly found world building experiences popular culture offers us, those found in video games.

Cases studies could be taken from any of the first-batch of world building games, such as, Populous[ii] the archetypal god game, Sim City[iii] the city building simulator or Civilization [iv] the game of generals and kings. All of which invest the player in the worlds they make; you struggle to overpower other forces, whether these be other player generals, other gods, or even nature and economics in the case of Sim City. Your world is not a safe one, and your intentional actions as a palyer are needed for it to survive and thrive. The Lego world builders are not playing these games.

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Populous

Sim-City

Sim City

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Civilization

Perhaps the best way of revealing this distinction is to compare the Lego world builders to the phenomenon that is Minecraft[v]. Erroneously Minecraft is often described as Lego realised as a video game. However, we can’t ignore the elephant in the room, which is the fact that Minecraft is a game. You begin as a character in a world who has to build a shelter there and survive their first night. From the outset the world-view is from the inside, of belonging to the world that you are making.

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Minecraft

When people asks why do we need a Lego Minecraft, the cynical voice might say, because there is a market. But the real question is why would the market, those people who play Minecraft, want to carry out this digitally immersive building experience in Lego? Perhaps an answer could be found in the scale it affords the builder, one that provides a distance, and an encounter with the tropes of the Minecraft universe without the investment of personal immersion?

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Lego Minecraft

These arguments are leading to an important question about the value of distance from a world, about a way of seeing that starts from the premise of seeing from a distance.

Take museums, which often provide dioramas of buildings or areas of archeological discovery, with the aim to show a world that no longer exists. The Museum of London[vi] for example offers a variety of experiences to its visitors. You have the immersion of a complete recreation of a Victorian street, replete with shop windows and a pub. But it also has exhibits such as a scaled diorama of aspects (the Basilica and Forum) of London as a Roman town. This recreation does not so much ask the visitor to feel what the ancient town was like, but understand it in a socio-political sense, in terms of architecture and the interaction this creates between its inhabitants. By seeing the town from above, you understand its political set-up, where the rich and poor lived, the importance of the barracks, the position of the trades people, and so forth. This is an understanding that can only be seen from a position as an over-viewer; and dioramas at this scale act as catalysts for this way of thinking.

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Basilica and Forum display at the Museum of London

Unsurprisingly, given the similarity between the projects of the Lego world builders and the museums’ diorama builders, Lego models are becoming ever more frequently found as displays. Ryan McNaught’s astounding Lego Pompeii[vii] being one of the most recent cases. McNaught has worked with the Nicholson Museum in Sydney since 2012, recreating the ancient world in brick form, Lego Pompeii being the most recent in this successful run of creations.

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Ryan McNaught’s Lego Pompeii

Craig Barker in his article on McNaught’s work, comments that the place of Lego in Museums is part of the tradion of recreative diagrams and exhibits. He notes: ‘Lego Pompeii and other models of this ilk are a fun and engaging tool for reaching audiences in an exciting new way.’[viii]

Whilst I agree with Barker’s proclamation on the validity of Lego in the museum, it opens up more questions than answers. Why does Lego, rather than any other model making form attract new audiences? And if it is attracting new audiences, is this because it is providing new experiences in the museum context?

Again, playing cynic, you might say Lego brings in a new audience of children and parents, fans of Lego, who traditionally wouldn’t consider the museum a fun destination. This I would agree is true, but can only really be made sense of if we understand further what makes Lego worlds connect so well with their viewers; that power that the museum is harnessing, normally only found in the Lego convention hall.

Perhaps an answer can be found in another tradition, where scale is used to critique, satirise and question our world rather than illustrate it.  I titled this investigation, Lego Lilliput, in reference the writer Jonathan Swift’s literary creation. In the tale Gulliver’s Travels[ix], Lilliput is the world the eponymous hero is shipwrecked on. A land inhabited by tiny people, who make Gulliver a giant in comparison.  He goes on to view their lives and ways of living, often with comic and satirical observations, from on high.

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Illustration from Gulliver’s Travels

To what extent are we stepping in Swift’s shoes when we build our Lego worlds? How many Gullivers trapse through the Lego convention halls?

Swift’s use of scale, as a device in Gulliver’s Travels, to open debates about the political and ethical concerns of his times, as well as the limits of human understanding, is well documented.   Gulliver appears as the mighty giant, but is ensnared by the little people, and his power harnessed by them to defeat their enemies. The idividual, the general or the leader, rendered the tool of the small folk. And the people themselves, the Lilliputians, are presented to Gulliver, as the most proposterously smug and self-satisfied race, whilst being the most puny and helpless. This parodic world embraces the bluster and hubris of humanity, small in the universe but determined to put themselves centre stage despite their failings and limitations.

Through the transmogrifying lens of scale, Swift satirises his own world, revealing how limited and small we all our in our abilities. By making a world small, it simultaneously makes it ridiculous but also reveals connections and socio-political relationships less easily seen from the point of view of someone immersed in day-to-day life.

But the Lego Lilliput’s of the Lego world builders seem driven by another aim than Swift’s satirical spirit. Whilst they appear to do more than illustrate a world like a museum exhibit does, they do not seem to ask us to reflect critically on our own world either. So what does building Lego worlds at this scale achieve? What political vantage, or new way of understanding do they offer?

The Lego Movie[x], offered what on the surface might seem a parody of our world. Where the city realised in bricks, exaggerated the rule of hegomony, and our unblinking capacity to follow the rules and consume without question. But unlike Swift’s Gulliver, Will Ferrell remains outside the tiny world, perceiving himself as a god, a crerator of a perfect utopian world. The utopian vision fails, because he does not allow it its created status.   Glue effectively denying Lego bricks their unique creative potential. The Lego world is asked in the film to be allowed to be Lego  This is the crisis it faces, a crisis in the little world, and not in the real world in which we and Ferrell live.

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The Lego Movie

And from this example comes an answer to the question what political perspective does the Lego world provide.  As previously noted, a child does not simply play in the world they create, they act as its architect and benign (or sometimes not) creator. Where Swift created a world we understood by mirroring it against our own, the Lego world is understood by virtue of its mode of creation, in itself, as something that matters as a creation.

Returning once more to my central thesis, as I explored it in my article, ‘Building a Case for Lego Art’[xi], Lego creations always simultaneously reveal their unbuilt, or aggregate state in their composed forms. And when we view them, we understand them according to the process of their being created, by continuously seeing and understanding their composition from parts. By proxy we all become creators of these worlds we view, because to view them demands an understanding and activation of our own imagination. This brings with it a condition of care, to feel for that which one has made.

A world from the past, a Roman fort, a Saxon Castle, or a world of future possibilities, of moonbases and utopian cities, are understood politically as possibilities, as things that can be and as such places that one can care for, without belonging to them. We are drawn to them, their occupants and little details, facinated as Olypian gods might be with what can exist. On these terms the Lego model in the Museum, not only tells us about the past, illustrating what it was like, but relates us to a minature world we care for.  It literally makes history matter for us; to care for a time and place we are not from.

In summary, the distance these Lego Lilliputs create, is not one of cold observation or satire, but one that puts you in league with the process of creation. It is a distance that allows the political position of caring as a creator does for their world.  An experience all too often absent in our lives of individual immersed self-interest.

[i] More images of the VLUG collaborative build can be found on El Barto’s photostream here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/52907196@N07/14569438525/

[ii] Populous, Bullfrog, 1989

[iii] Sim City, Electronic Arts, 1989

[iv] Civilization, Microprose, 1991

[v] Minecraft, Mojang, 2009

[vi] See the Museum of London website: http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/london-wall/

[vii] See Ryan McNaught’s website for more details: http://www.thebrickman.com

[viii] Craig Barker, ‘Museum recreates ancient Roman city of Pompeii — using 190,000 Lego blocks’ reposted on Rawstory, 2015. http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2015/01/photos-museum-recreates-ancient-roman-city-of-pompeii-using-190000-lego-blocks/ (site accessed 6 February 2015)

[ix] Jonathan Swift, Gullivers Travels, 1726

[x] The LEGO Movie, dir Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, (Fox Studios 2014)

[xi] David Alexander Smith, ‘Building a case for Lego art’, Building Debates (3 January 2015) https://buildingdebates.wordpress.com/20150103building-a-case-for-lego-art/ (accessed 25 January 2015)

Is there something funny about these bricks?: Lego and Humour

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Lego Batman gives a knowing wink in Lego the Movie

“I only work in black….And sometimes very, very dark gray.” says Batman in The Lego Movie[i], and a ripple of laughter spreads across the movie theatre. All at once the audience realises that Lego Batman is funnier and probably cooler than Christian Bale, Adam West, Michael Keaton and even George Clooney’s Batman. But why is this?

The Lego Movie has a sparking screenplay written by the talented team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and whilst I wouldn’t want to take anything away from their work (if only the Oscar selection committee felt differently), I feel this is only one part of the answer. Lego’s growth not just as a toy, but also as a cultural form, has been tied to its ability to carry a joke. Yet, this often-symbiotic relationship between Lego and humour has gone without serious discussion. So, what is it about the reflection of our culture in bricks that we find so funny?

One of the critiques against Lego’s recent developments has been its rush to embrace mainstream franchises, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Simpsons and later this year Scooby Doo. The critics note the crass consumer drives of this process, and the loss of a more innocent Lego era, with its smiling mini-figure faces, and imaginative building at its core. The more realistic take, is that Lego needed to make this leap, and develop a cross media approach or face the collapse of the company. It could be argued that the use of humour in the Lego branding process is one way in which the company sought to retain its identity amongst the overwhelming range of intellectual property it now represents.

Fiona Wright, Vice President and General Manager Lego UK, speaking at the AFOLCON in London last November[ii], made the link between the company’s franchise development strategy and humour: young boys, Lego’s core target market in the early 2000s, responded to humour in market research. The result was a light comedic take, as shown at the conference through a series of cinema adverts for Lego Star Wars. By adding knowing irreverence to its subject matter, whilst retaining warmth, Lego effectively found a new way to sell other properties under its own banner, and remain true to both.

This marketing approach soon became a standard for Lego. Sticking with Star Wars, the Lego Star Wars games excelled in finding this balance between source material and parody. Take the reworking of one of the saga’s most serious moments, Darth Vader’s paternal announcement, “I am your father”. In the Lego video game[iii], the mimed version of the necessarily vocal proclamation literally makes a charade of the scene. And we laugh.

The Lego video games made an unexpected decision when they put the process of building, which arguably is at the heart of the Lego experience, second to narrative and humour. At one level this seems obvious, the conventions of video games, or at least mainstream successful games, relies on the player taking on an intentional role. As such Lego video games start from the premise that they begin at the point when the Lego model has been made and play begins. What Lego got right was how this play should be guided, with irreverence, and a willingness to poke fun at the untouchable master narratives of these mega-properties they now represented.

So whilst the critics of Lego’s franchise model relegate humour in these ranges to a brute marketing strategy, deployed at the cost of the building experience, there is something more at stake. Something about how as consumers, we consume.  Not in the blind sedated way a critic might simplistically suggest, but in a knowing and often self-critical way. Put another way, being complicit with the seduction, allows one to laugh at the seducer, whilst still being seduced. From personal experience, the way Lego has handled its relationship with Star Wars, compliments my own life-long relationship to the saga. One that I often jokingly describe by saying: “you can only truly be a life-long fan of Star Wars, if you are a life-long critic of Star Wars.”

The re-presentation of the Star Wars universes, as a subtle self-parody, in Simon Critchley’s phrasing allows us to laugh at ourselves rather than laugh at others[iv]. It would be incredibly easy to write a biting analysis of the Star Wars machine, a loose flabby inconsistent narrative, driven through with poor and often annoying characters, all joined together with a mighty capitalist marketing machine. But Lego Star Wars is not satire, a call to us to name Star Wars an artistic failure, to sneer and chastise through nasty laughter. We embrace Lego Star Wars because we love Star Wars. We consume the products of the franchise and know we are being drip-fed a narcotic, part nostalgia part promise. And we do all this willingly. The humour in Lego allows us to laugh at ourselves, and our love of that which is patently ridiculous, but importantly be able to do this and retain love for the original.

Still, this doesn’t quite answer the question as to what uniquely about Lego helps it operate as a medium for humor. The heartfelt caricature is not unique to Lego. Perhaps Mel Brook’s magnificent send-up SpaceBalls[v] stands as the perfect parody of Star Wars. When we have Dark Helmet, why settle for Lego Vader?

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Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in SpaceBalls

If we go back to the original quote from Lego Batman, there is conceivably an answer to this question. The clue is that we understand and find Batman funny when he discloses his building style. That Batman’s imagination is limited by a colour scheme. In the Lego world everything can be reduced to an aesthetic. By clicking bricks together Lego renders even complex themes simple and malleable. We laugh at Lego Batman, because we understand him according to ridiculously reduced criteria, and feel the gulf between this and the deep and moody character of the comics and films. This is funny because it knowingly flaunts this reduction, and ironically leaves us with a character more essentially Batman than Batman.

This type of humour, where anything can be reduced to a style, and where styles can be exchanged like so many hats, is deeply embedded in the Lego building community. As builders we find Batman funny when he declares his adherence to the black and gray theme, because we know at once we can all build like Batman; every builder with black bricks in his or her box of pieces is Batman. Take for instance Kevin Ryhal’s stunning Batspeeder [vi]. Here, with the slightest whimsy we see just how easily Batman can fit into the Star Wars universe; with both the Star Wars aesthetic and Batman’s jet-black criteria being met.

Kevin Rhyal's Bat Speeder

Kevin Ryhal’s Batspeeder

This type of irreverence, displayed through design and aesthetic expression, whilst not unique to Lego, certainly finds a medium perfectly suited to this expression. This isn’t just parody, but parody through an imaginative understanding of design. And in the building community, this flexibility and ease of reverential irreverence, that strange balance between laughter and love, is so commonplace we often miss its unique quality. This isn’t the bold marketing driven humour of Lego’s franchise campaigns, this is the knowing nods of thousands of fan builders, venerating their subject matter, because they know how to build what they love, without feeling any compulsion to treat it with unjustified reverence. In fact because they know it intimately enough to build it, allows them to lovingly laugh at it. This is the same intimacy expressed when we find ourselves able to laugh at our own foibles, because we know them better than anyone else.

There is no better case for this type of humorous building than Louis K’s All Terrain-Ice Cream Transporter [vii]. Vader, make mine a 99!

Louis K's  All Terrain-Ice Cream Transport

Louis K’s
All Terrain-Ice Cream Transport

Yet this is just one genre of humour, and not the whole story as to why Lego works so well when it makes us laugh. The consistent way humour has been deployed by the company in recent years across its product ranges should not be confused with the full range of humour it can carry.

I still remember this 1980s advert from Lego, replete with voice over from the irrepressible Tommy Cooper, that markets Lego with a very different brand of humour. Here Lego keeps up with the flow of humorous associations, and the ludicrousness that such a train of thought can take us on. The mouse that calls forth the cat, that calls forth the dog, that calls forth the dragon, that calls forth the fire engine, and so on.

This charming advert tells us a great deal about the versatility of Lego. It is funny, not because it references another art form, a franchise or model to parody, it is funny because it illustrates thought. The slapstick repartee of Cooper’s back and forth dialectic, where his monologue continuously outwits itself (apart from when it unintentionally undoes itself by mistaking a slipper for kipper), is matched step by step, with Lego brick creations. The humour arises from us finding in the inanimate aggregate of bricks the wit and speed of Cooper’s comic mind.

Turning once more to Simon Critchley, and his short but wonderful study On Humour[viii], he notes Wyndham Lewis’ memorable quote:

‘To bring vividly to our mind what we mean by ‘absurd,’ let us turn to the plant, and enquire how the plant could be absurd. Suppose you came upon an orchid or a cabbage reading Flaubert’s Salammbô, or Plutarch’s Moralia, you would be very much surprised. But if you found a man or a woman reading it, you would not be surprised.

Now in one sense you ought to be just as much surprised at finding a man occupied in this way as if you had found an orchid or a cabbage, or a tomcat, to include the animal world. There is the same physical anomaly. It is just as absurd externally, that is what I mean.—The deepest root of the Comic is to be sought in this anomaly.’[ix]

What can be divulged from this analysis is that there is an anomaly experienced every time we encounter a pile of bricks and find through the power of our imagination, that this stack of plastic appears alive, even human.  The juxtaposition between the inanimate brick and Cooper’s thought process makes us laugh.  There is something essentially funny when a group of recta-linear bricks act like a cat, and even funnier to see them present a stream of consciousness.

From this observation, we may have stumbled across another key as to what makes Lego funny.  Mini-figures for example have an innate potential for humour because they present the inanimate brick as simultaneously invested with human characteristics, able to drive cars, sell ice cream, dance, cry and love, and still remain a collection of plastic parts.  The Lego movie gains its amusing core from this simple but universal comic root – to be human and free, and not, at the same time.

In the building community, this type of humour is most readily seen in what are commonly called brick built figures.  These comic creations imbue life into bricks in a way that not only surprises us, but also on occasion makes us laugh.  One builder whose work often exemplifies this theme is Riccardo Zangelmi.   He takes not only the inanimate brick, but creates inanimate objects, or animal life, that exude human vitality and character.  Although we see the simple bricks and pure building skill in his work, it is the fact that it always comes as a surprise to find these constructs inherently alive and in action that makes them special.  Like the cabbage reading Flaubert, the struggle of life and death or should that be between life and bread, between toaster and sandwich is fundamentally absurd[x].

Riccardo Zangelmi's  Mr. Sandwich and Angry Toaster

Riccardo Zangelmi’s Mr. Sandwich and Terrible Toaster

As before with the case of Star Wars, although it is possible to find a comic operation in certain building techniques, are these unique to Lego?  Surely when we see a face formed by a house’s door and windows, or laugh at a cat on YouTube dancing in a tutu, we experience the same operation of the imagination?

Returning to my proposition on Lego art[xi], what helps us understand the unique nature of humour’s operation in Lego is the fact that Lego is always simultaneously understood as being in two states.  Our imagination sees both the formed thing, and the unformed aggregate of bricks that make it.  Viewing Lego enacts a state of paradox, a permanent visual pun.

So, when we find a Lego creation funny, either because in the case of Lego Batman we find the complex image of Batman simultaneously representable by simple basic aesthetic conditions, or where we find life and character in a collection of inanimate bricks, in both cases we are sustaining a paradox.  Humour that operates on the principle of seeing one thing whilst also understanding another is aided by the aesthetic form of Lego.

In answer to the question what makes Lego funny the following case could be presented.  Lego is not innately funny, but its aesthetic conditions, boost, support or act as a catalyst for humour, by putting our minds in a state capable of holding opposite or contradictory conditions together.  And when we find these associations funny, Lego only helps enliven the thought processes that achieve this.

I’d like to close this brief encounter with Lego humour by returning to the earlier Wyndham Lewis quote.  The first condition of his anomaly being that we find the inanimate acting as a human funny, the second that we should equally on these grounds take the human acting as a human funny.  When we laugh at what Lego makes us think, by holding contradictory conditions together, we actually get a chance to find our own human imaginative capacity ridiculous.  As humans we create contradictory worlds, conceptions of others, and ourselves; and we normally treat these inventions as stable and true.  When they are rendered in Lego they reveal their contradictions, the artificiality of their being made.  Lego allows us to laugh at our world and ourselves, because we understand that it and the Lego creation are both made and understood from the position of our own contradictory inventiveness.

Endnotes

[i] The LEGO Movie, dir Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, (Fox Studios 2014).

[ii] See the AFOLCON website http://www.afolcon.com/news/.

[iii] Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, Travellers Tales (2006)

[iv] Simon Critchley, On Humour, Routledge, London (2002)

[v] SpaceBalls, dir Mel Brooks, (MGM 1987)

[vi] Kevin Ryhal, Batspeeder (2013), https://www.flickr.com/photos/57996423@N06/9315005865/in/photostream/ (website accessed 25 January 2015)

[vii] Louis K, All Terrain-Ice Cream Transporter (2011) http://www.mocpages.com/moc.php/247503 website accessed 25 January 2015)

[viii] Ibid 2002.

[ix] Wyndham Lewis, The Meaning of the Wild Body, Harcourt Brace, New York (1928). P.248.

[x] Ricardo Zangelmi, Mr.Sandwich and Terrible Toaster (2013) https://www.flickr.com/photos/rickbrick/9422228965/ (website accessed 25 January 2015)

[xi] David Alexander Smith, ‘Building a case for Lego art’, Building Debates (3 January 2015) https://buildingdebates.wordpress.com/20150103building-a-case-for-lego-art/ (accessed 25 January 2015).

Authentic/Inauthentic Lego or what’s the right way to build?

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Emmet’s instructions for life from The Lego Movie.

Is there a right way to build with Lego?   Doesn’t this question stand in stark contrast to the creative ethos at the heart of the Lego experience? You might well think so, but it is precisely this question that motivates recent critiques about the way Lego has changed, since the launch of its initial range of basic bricks. New themes, film tie-ins and a host of specialised pieces are all supposedly detracting from Lego’s creative potential.

Justin Parkinson provocatively titled his recent article for the BBC ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?’[i] The report summarised some of the common misconceptions expressed about Lego’s recent developments, drawing together from various sources the arguments against the changes the company has implemented. But do these arguments hold up, is Lego now promoting a toy that falls somewhere short of an original ‘authentic’ way of building? I don’t believe so, and will show in each case why Lego continues to propagate our children’s and our imagination.

So what are the cases for the demise of Lego’s creative and imaginative potential? Loosely speaking Parkinson breaks things down to three key points:

  1. The instructions provided in current Lego sets dictate single builds, rather than offering a child the opportunity to explore with their own imagination;
  2. Specialised pieces, that have one specific use, limit the number of creative possibilities open to the child;
  3. Lego is too simplistic and doesn’t help a child develop their building towards an ideal form, primarily with engineering and scientific application.

Starting with the principle that single sets of instructions hamper creativity, Parkinson cites blogger Chris Swan, who is recorded as saying: ‘Single-outcome sets encourage preservation rather than destruction, and sadly that makes them less useful, less educational (and, in my opinion, less fun)’[ii]. And on this out of context quote[iii] hangs the whole of Parkinson’s case. If you take the time to read Swan’s article, there is a more nuanced position. He in fact argues that children find it harder to dismantle Lego, and engage in creative re-imaginations of the bricks, if they are channeled towards models to collect and keep.

Swan is fundamentally wrong however, when he suggests that there is a preferred or more authentic way of building with Lego. Consider the irony in the statement he makes, which suggests the best way to build is to avoid the rules and work from intuitive imagination and individual creative application, when it in turn becomes a rule by which to establish value judgments about the types of ways a child can interact with Lego.

For many of us who build with Lego, the creative experience Swan explains mirrors our own enjoyment of the medium, and this gives it an unfounded rhetorical conviction; unquestionable in the Lego community. But this isn’t the only way to build, and other ways, including sticking to the instructions, are not necessarily, less fun, or less imaginative. Swan exemplifies the type of morally high-minded adult validation of Lego, that sees it as best understood as a way of educating a child, developing certain transferable skills, and activating a free creative spirit. Whilst Lego has the potential to do all this,  it should not be reduced to this alone.

Building from instructions has been part of the Lego experience from its inception, and is a core part of its imaginative potential. If we were talking about any other creative medium, the need to develop skills through instruction or imitation would be taken as a given. For example, imagine trying to compose music without first learning how to play an instrument, read music and practice scales. Unless you have a prodigious talent, it would be folly to turn your back on this wealth of experience.  The lessons learnt by following the instructions in a Lego set, develop these skills in one’s own building.

Take Emmet the everyman construction worker from the Lego Movie[iv], who carries latent master builder skills, through his long-term adherence to the instructions. His construction mech, realised at the film’s finale is an expression of all those learnt techniques redeployed. And behind this narrative we have Will Ferrel’s son, who is implied to have played with his father’s Lego display according to the rules set for him, and only once his imagined narrative required new creations, does he find the courage to build his own way. Just like Emmet’s complete submission to Lord Business’s hegemony, his skill is based on the knowledge he had acquired from his interaction with his father’s world.  As the film notes Lord Business was the greatest master builder after all.

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City building from the instructions.

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City building Emmet’s way.

This example exposes Swan’s child, who builds a Lego set and then methodically destroys it, as an idealised fantasy. Possibly this occurs from a filtering we all have, as to how we ‘think’ we played with Lego in our own childhood. How quickly we forget that Lego lets a child build a toy: racing cars to be raced, houses to be lived in, spaceships to explore distant galaxies with. The games in which the child engages in, is often the missing catalyst (which Swan misses) for inspired creation.  And you need to build and keep sets to create this arena for inspired play.  Rather than imagine the perfect creatively driven child and a set of abstract bricks, how many of us in fact relied on the themes of more experienced and better builders  than ourselves (normally professional Lego designers) to step forward with our own imaginative endeavors. Some of us as adults still collect and build those classic sets of our childhood to display, but then add to them with something of our own. Jon Blackford’s wonderful Classic Space display[v] shows this principle in action.  A complete set of original built sets surrounding a fantastic new creation of his own.

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Jon Blackford, Command Centre Layout 1 (2014).

Swan’s further assumption in his article is that Lego as a company is moving towards a range dominated by single outcome sets. This is simply not true. Lego in reality has consistently diversified its types of building experiences. Whilst core areas such as Lego City, Star Wars and Lego Friends do indeed present single outcomes sets, they are supplemented by the 3 in 1 Creator sets, Technic and as of last year the highly successful Mixels range, all of which encourage multiple builds from individual sets. Taking Mixels as a case study, here is a toy that seems to refute Swan’s perception. Its name itself inspires the idea of mixing and rebuilding. The urge to collect small pocket-money sets, off-set against a principle that smaller sets can be broken down and combined with others to make ever bigger and stranger creatures.

LEGO-Mixels-Mixed-Up

LEGO-Mixels-Mixed-Up

A deeper argument though, is not simply that there is a diversification of building styles and options being offered by Lego, which necessarily would seem to suggest an increase in the ways in which our imagination is being activated, but that the purported dictatorial single outcome set is not the negative anti-creative experience it is portrayed as. Taking the extreme examples of this type of build, the large modular town sets, the architectural building range or Star Wars Ultimate Collector Series, there are a number of positive things to be said. As the complexity of these models increase, so do the techniques required to build them. As a learning experience these sets share a huge amount of knowledge with a novice builder. Far from being a lesser educational experience to that of free invention, they simply offer a different one.

This still hasn’t answered Swan’s main claim though that single outcome sets reduce imaginative potential. The problem arises from a common misconception that Lego is a pure participatory experience. One has an authentic experience of Lego when one is building; reflection on that which is created is of a lesser order. In my last article where I built a case for Lego art[vi], I challenged the lack of analysis given to the act of viewing and responding to Lego creations. My conclusion being that Lego activates the imagination by simultaneously revealing to the spectator its built and un-built state. So if a child builds a set that inspires reflection and wonder of this kind, and this relationship is one they seek to maintain, is it fair to consider this relationship a negative or inauthentic one?

When we look at other creative mediums, we almost never distinguish levels of authenticity between making and responding to work. If you listen to a piece of music and do not immediately decide to respond by composing music of your own, would this then make your relation to music an inauthentic one. If you read a novel, and are not moved to write, has the experience diminished your imaginative experience of the work? As such, it is possible to build a Lego set from the instructions and not feel a need to build something of your own, and this too is a valid experience.

The problem Swan exposes is that we often try to pigeonhole what good play is, and consequently how imagination should be employed. When we try to reduce Lego to an ideal type of engagement, we miss so much of what it can be (in this case a source of wonder and speculation). Lego as a company has grasped this and is offering an ever widening range of experiences to its audiences, including that of collection and reflection. Those commentators who want to step back in time, put the genie back in the bottle and deny these new experiences for a perceived more authentic earlier one, are doing anything other than defending Lego’s imaginative potential.

The second case given by Parkinson involves the use of specialised pieces. Like the case for single outcome sets, this issue relates to the reduction of authentic building opportunities, created this time by the introduction of new elements. The argument is presented here through a historical perspective, that Lego in the early 2000’s got things wrong by producing sets with too many specialised pieces, which led to ‘instant gratification building’. Lego realised its mistake and has since rectified the balance. Quoting David Gauntlett’s sensible opinion regarding the shift away from this type of product, the article effectively sets up a second authenticity claim. Lego has a duty to keep its sets composed of mainly, pure, or traditional, standard bricks. The mix determining whether the ideal building experience is provided.

Once more, the case for Lego’s deterioration is attached to an unsubstantiated claim as to what the correct way to build is. Specialised pieces as a result are defined as a necessary evil.  They are something Lego needs to embrace in relation to the representational needs of its marketed franchises (how else can you make a convincing R2 D2 dome), but of course there ought to be a minimization of these pieces. The rot is in Lego, and needs to be monitored at a healthy level, or so say the critics.

This is a wrong-headed way of looking at the introduction of specialised pieces. Rather than being perceived as a threat to imaginative possibilities, these pieces have been behind some of the most dynamic creative shifts in the Lego building community.

In the most simple of mathematical terms, we can see that the increase in piece types ought to equate to increased possibilities, not a reduction of them; so why the vilification of these elements? Well for a start an influx of these pieces causes a problems when it comes to us recognising what we think Lego ought to look like. Basic elements of Lego conform to a simple geometric uniformity and a primary colour range. Imagination, or precisely the imagination required to render according to these limits is lost when too many non-conforming pieces are introduced.   Some of these new specialised pieces provide short cuts to the rendering techniques required of basic bricks, and with it a very specific Lego aesthetic. So,paradoxically as the artistic options increase with the variety of pieces, a certain artistry is perceived to be lost.  But does this change amount to a loss of imaginative potential?

David Roberts[vii], an established builder and active member of the Lego community, was the first person to comment on my article on Lego art, he observed that the Lego that found its way into the category of art, almost exclusively was made of basic bricks. In answer I would say that the rendering skill displayed by builders such as Nathan Sawaya[viii] and Sean Kenny[ix], indeed helps their work find purchase, through the resolute veracity of its Lego geometrics. If Lego is going to be taken for art, it ought to be undeniably recognisable as such…or should it?

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Sean Kenny, Portrait

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Nathan Sawaya, Conan O’Brien

In reality Lego is not the stable geometric system of simple bricks that popular culture thinks it is. Rather a strange organic, constantly shifting collection of plastic shapes that connect together. From month to month different pieces are developed, or go out of circulation. Wonderful blogs such as Tim Johnson’s New Elementary[x] track all these introductions, analyse their potential for building and celebrate them. Far from being the stultification of imagination, these elements enhance, inspire and provide Lego with an ever-changing aesthetic terrain.

The imaginative potential of the specialised element can be seen writ large in the work of a builder like Mike Nieves[xi] who embraces specialised pieces. Although working in many respects in a way similar to Sawaya and Kenny, in that he seeks to render the complex through simple pieces, his selection of specialised pieces  produces a stylistic shift.   Much like witnessing the change in brush strokes implemented by the Impressionist painters, he alters the frame for Lego rendering. His new  style, reliant as it is on specialised pieces, aligns with the arabesque rather than the expected recta-linear form of traditional bricks. And yet still, they are very much Lego creations.

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Mike Nieves, Tiger V. 2

What is new in the way a builder like Nieves works, is that it opens up an additional experience for the spectator. Not only do I now say, “that is made of Lego!”, but I view each piece and take pleasure in decoding its origin. In the case of Tiger V. 2[xii] by Nieves, it is found in examples such as the use of racing car driver helmets for the construction of the head. The excited mind is forced to flip between the piece’s original use and its new deployment. These new pieces as such add a new imaginative operation, not just more creative options. All of which makes it seem even more ridiculous that they have been accused of Iimiting imagination.

The art historian Christine Poggi, in her seminal study of the development of collage in Twentieth Century art, In Defiance of Painting[xiii], quotes Picasso talking to Henri Laurens in 1948 about their experiments with collage in 1914. Picasso says: ‘We must have been crazy, or cowards to abandon this! We had such magnificent means. Look how beautiful this is – not because I did it, naturally – and we had these means yet I turned back to oil paint and you to marble, It’s insane!’[xiv]. In a way the introduction of specialised pieces into the Lego range offers similar possibilities to builders as collage did to the avant-garde artists of the early Twentieth Century. And like them, we have to question why we should turn back to a time before their existence, as if the traditional brick form was a more creative approach.

Lego creations made by the selection of objects, re-appropriations of the apparently single use element for other ends, like the experiments in collage, open up a new Lego language for builders.  For instance, when you look at a later sculptural construct by Picasso like Baboon and Young[xv], every child who plays with Lego will recognise the moment of inspiration where the toy car is reconfigured as the head of a Baboon.

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Picasso, Baboon and Young

The argument for the reduction of imagination based on the increase of specialised pieces fails because it fundamentally under-estimates a child’s or any builder’s imaginative capacity to see any piece as something else. In the Lego community this skill is referred to by the frequently used acronym NPU (nice piece usage), a useful stand in for the Lego builder’s ability to find a suitable gestalt for an unexpected piece. The talent is revered in areas like the Iron Builder contests[xvi] that pit Lego enthusiasts against each other, with the aim of finding as many applications as they can for highly specialised Lego elements. This capacity for ‘seeing-as’ means that the supposedly useless Lego croissant piece, may in fact be a crab’s claw, a strand of mermaid’s hair, a lion’s smile. We are not dictated to by the use implied in the set the piece was bought as part of. The new piece always offers fresh opportunities and the expansion of imaginative potential.

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Iron Builder Contest between Pasukaru76 and Volume X

I have left the final argument that Lego fails to support the development of young scientists, to last, because it seems on first inspection to contradict the previous two cases. However it will quickly become apparent that it shares the underlying fault with the two previously examined discussions: that it too perceives there to be an ideal or authentic way of building, and Lego’s failure has been in not advocating this. Parkinson makes this case based on statements quoted from the Nobel Prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto, who believe that Lego has an ideal application, which it is fundamentally ill equipped to deal with. This being to provide an educational building system for young scientists and engineers to learn from. He is quoted saying: ‘Children should start with Lego, which is basically a toy, and its basic units are bricks. We do not build cars and other machines out of bricks.’

Of course Kroto is ill informed to make these comments, seemingly having not looked at the range of sets Lego is currently prodcuing. Empirical evidence stands against any claim that Lego fails to cater for the technically inspired imagination. There are the specialised ranges such as Technic and Mindstorms. Beyond this, there are thriving organisations such as Young Engineers[xvii] who use Lego (as well as other building systems) to foster children’s participation in STEM subjects. And then there is individual cases such as that of Shubham Banerjee[xviii] the 13-year old engineer who has designed and developed a low cost Braille printer with Lego.

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Shubham Banerjee braille printer

Whilst Kroto’s ideal demands more specialised pieces, cogs, cranks, pneumatics and so forth, as well as more detailed instructions capable of teaching basic engineering skills, (the diametric opposite of the previous argued cases), ultimately there are more similarities than differences to the more culturally embedded critiques I’ve discussed. His perception of Lego’s loss of imagination is tied to linking Lego to a right way to build.

As long the critics perceive Lego according to an ideal, rather than an open system to be explored, they will bang their heads against the cases and ways it develops beyond those conditions. This is the conclusion of my analysis, that the cases against Lego’s current developments all rely perversely on a limitation of imaginative potential as a preferred alternative. They begin with untested assumptions as to what an ideal or good imaginative engagement with Lego is, and as a result fail to see the full scope of the medium. Crucially this means both accepting the reflective engagements with Lego as being as valid as the participatory ones; and that Lego’s aesthetic is not grounded in an ideal set of pieces or system of building. If you are open-minded enough to look, and really investigate what Lego is doing, and by proxy what the building community is achieving as a result, current changes are not limiting imagination rather expanding it, in unexpected and challenging ways.

Endnotes

[i] Justin Parkinson, ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?’ BBC (26 November 2014) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29992974 (accessed 11 January 2015).

[ii] Chris Swan, ‘The Perils of Modern Lego’ Chris Swan’s Weblog (26 November 2014) http://blog.thestateofme.com/2013/01/01/the-perils-of-modern-lego/ (accessed 11 January 2015).

[iii] Swan notes on the update to his Blog following Parkinson’s article: ‘I’m very pleased that this post has been referenced by Justin Parkinson’s piece on the BBC News site ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?‘, but I fear he may have misunderstood (or misrepresented) what I say about instructions. […] TL;DR  – instructions aren’t the problem,  they’re a good and necessary part of all sets beyond basic boxes of bricks, the problem is sets that only make one thing (like a dragon or something licensed from a movie).’ Ibid Chris Swan’s Weblog.

[iv] The LEGO Movie, dir Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, (Fox Studios 2014).

[v] Jon Blackford, Command Centre Layout 1, John Blackford’s Flickr Stream (9 February 2014) https://www.flickr.com/photos/heiwa71/12414091355/ (accessed 11 January 2015).

[vi] David Alexander Smith, ‘Building a case for Lego art’, Building Debates (3 January 2015) https://buildingdebates.wordpress.com/ (accessed 11 January 2015).

[vii] See David Robert’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidroberts01341/16252552785/.

[viii] See Nathan Sawaya’s website, http://brickartist.com/.

[ix] See Sean Kenny’s website, http://www.seankenney.com/.

[x] See the New Elementary http://www.newelementary.com/.

[xi] See Mike Nieves’ Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/retinence/.

[xii] Mike Nieves, Tiger V 2, Mike Nieves’ Flickr stream (12 April 2012). https://www.flickr.com/photos/retinence/ (accessed 11 January 2012).

[xiii] Christine Poggi, In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism and the Invention of Collage, Yale Universiy Press, New Haven/London (1992)

[xiv] Ibid, In Defiance of Painting, p.xvii.

[xv] Picasso, Baboon and Young, 1951, MOMA art collection. (http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=81119).

[xvi] The Iron Builders contest is hosted by the Builders Lounge forum (http://builderslounge.proboards.com/), and a collection of creations made as part of the contest can be found in this Flickr group, https://www.flickr.com/groups/2167827@N22.

[xvii] See the Young Engineers website, http://www.young-engineers.co.uk/.

[xviii] See this article from the Business Insider, http://uk.businessinsider.com/shubham-banerjee-braigo-labs-2014-11.

Building a Case for Lego Art

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Natan Sawaya, IN PIECES Installation view at the Openhouse Gallery, photo © Dean West



Jonathan Jones writing in the Guardian[i] on Nathan Sawaya’s recent touring exhibition The Art of the Brick[ii] says that ‘Sawaya’s Lego statues are interesting, but the people calling them art are missing the point. Lego doesn’t need to be art.’ It’s a valid position, but one that begs the response, is Jones missing the point? Jones confuses the argument as to who chooses what is culturally validated as art, with the argument as to what constitutes something as art. In one sense he is right, Lego creations don’t need to emulate the works found in galleries, but in another wrong, in that just because Lego doesn’t often look like so-called gallery art, or even if it does by way of a disguise (Jones’ position on Sawaya), this doesn’t mean it isn’t art.

His concluding remarks from the same article develops the point rhetorically, by asking every parent who views their child’s Lego creations, to ask, is this art? He argues this is patently ridiculous; this isn’t art, this is play; this is a toy. Because not every Lego creation is a work of art, does it follow that Lego is not an artistic medium? Jones implies that the galleries and hipsters appropriating this toy as art are missing all the fun. But is this true? There are a number of issues with Jones’ argument.

Let’s ask ourselves this: Is every child’s attempt to play Three Blind Mice on a recorder art? Is every school play performance an expression of dramatic form? Is every scribble pinned by a loving parent to the front of the fridge a masterpiece? Playing devil’s advocate, we could argue along with Jones, that just like a child’s Lego creation these too are not art, belonging to the era of play. However, the logic of the second part of Jones’ argument falters when applied to these more traditional artistic types. Because children explore music, theatre and painting in their play, it does not follow that they are excluded as mediums for artistic expression, at the highest level, later in life.

I would take a further step: childhood expression, born in the fervour of play, is still art. It may not conform to the complexity of work found in galleries, nor communicate as successfully to as broad an audience. Its context is limited to the world and life experience of the child, and their nascent skills, but it is still very much art. Talking autobiographically, as a student who studied fine art and who now works in a Drama Department in a university, on rediscovering Lego through my children, I also discovered how much of my artistic foundation began in the hours spent pushing these little pieces of plastic together.

Jones’ backhanded compliments to Sawaya come from the assumption that his Lego art is in the gallery simply because it looks like the type of work one would expect to find here. Sawaya’s pieces are resonant of Antony Gormley’s figurative pieces[iii], rather than being something unique, in the fact that they are made of Lego. Give up the pretension of being art, and be Lego, be awesome, Jones says. But, is this all there is to Sawaya’s work, a wondrous manipulation of bricks that seduces us with its playfulness. That and a sense that his figures might just look enough like art to have found a way into the gallery?

Antony Gormley, Construct, Firmament and Standing

Antony Gormley: Construct, Firmament and Standing

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Nathan Sawaya, Circle Triangle Square

Jones misses the point because he doesn’t ask the most pressing question; what is it explicitly about art that is made of Lego that makes it different from other artistic mediums? Instead he relies on all our shared experiences, normally our first experiences of Lego, as a toy, and suggests, that at best Lego in a gallery can reawaken the nostalgia we all feel for a distant childhood, for a time when we could play freely.

Before I go on to try to answer the question that Jones evades: what is unique to art works created from Lego bricks, I want to point out a few of the reasons why this question has not been seriously tackled. The major problem is that Lego was first conceived of as a toy. As a result it has no heritage as a valid artistic medium and no equivalent concept of the Academy.   And as a toy it has established its genres of expression in the games of childhood, dolls’ houses, model towns and vehicles, science fiction and recently massive media franchises with Hollywood films aimed at children. This has instituted a preconception, typically based on the Lego we were given as children and the things we made with it, as to what Lego can be. It is these shared cultural contexts that produces the association that Lego is hermetically linked to play and childhood.

This position has become further embedded with the development of the adult Lego hobby scene. Many of the most active participants in this community take the themes of childhood Lego sets and present them afresh at a technically sophisticated level. The builders of spaceships making creations more akin to science fiction illustrators or the model builders of Industrial Light and Magic[iv]. Those simple model towns now share more with the architectural models of professional town planners than nursery building blocks.

Whilst often stunning, this mix of highly developed building and a love of popular culture, holds Lego back from serious aesthetic consideration in academic circles. To add to the complexity of this issue, the Lego themes of yesteryear, Classic Space, Classic Castle, and so on, have attained their own status as popular culture[v]. When Lego’s own history becomes one inextricably linked with popular culture, it becomes ever more difficult to see it as a medium, which does not necessarily have to operate within the boundaries of the popular cultural forms it is sold as.

The view of the adult Lego community as a result has attained a status similar to that of a hyper-capitalist[vi], folk or outsider art. The participants although having creative skill and imagination are not trained as artists. Their expression is rather intuitive and culturally based.   If you take the archetypal adult fan of Lego as represented by Will Ferrell in The LEGO Movie[vii], there are many similarities one might draw between the business man who finds an outlet for his creative expression in his basement Lego town and the type of driven creative impulse shown in the outsider artist Ferdinand Cheval’s Le Palais ideal[viii] – a vast concrete and stone palace built by hand just outside his home town of Châteauneuf-de-Galaure. When commentators have tried to speak about Lego as a creative form, it has become first and foremost a cultural phenomenon, explained by a new exposition of folk art need, founded on the experience of childhood play and a shared artistic practice found in a simple child’s toy. The movement has gained momentum in an era where the traditional working class crafts of sign painting, needlework and folk song have ceased to find purchase.

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Will Ferrell in The LEGO Movie

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Ferdinand Cheval, Le Palais ideal

This idea of Lego as a shared cultural form, has been explored by the artist Olafur Eliasson in his The cubic structural evolution project (2004)[ix]. Eliasson is an artist who works in many forms, normally on large installation scale pieces, however, in this particular instance he chose to work with thousands of white Lego bricks. The installation is currently being displayed at the Auckland Art Gallery Toio Tãmaki, and asks visitors to build freely with the bricks, which are scattered across a 12-meter long table. The result is a shifting shared structural form that is broken down and constantly rebuilt during the time of its display. The artist’s choice of the singular colour provides uniformity to the build, which aims to express an accessible culturally artistic medium and allow the production of evolving collaborative forms to be realised.   The work has much to say about the innate creative potential we all have, and also the extent to which the simple concept of building with Lego has settled into our shared cultural identity.

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Olafur Eliasson, The cubic structural evolution project

Whilst this fascinating work of art uses Lego as a cipher for cultural creative expression, it doesn’t help us further an understanding ofhow Lego as a medium differs from other sculptural forms. Returning to Sawaya, in many ways his works seem far more familiar and conservative than Eliasson’s project. Certainly his works cannot be explained through the ideas of shared cultural practice, although his audience might.

A third artist working with Lego provides some clues as to how this question could be approached. Jan Vormann in a project he has titled Dispatchworks[x] has over a number of years travelled the globe, using Lego bricks to repair parts of crumbling walls and buildings; and an invitation given to anyone who wants to, to join him in this work. The result is a strange juxtaposition between traditional bricks and mortar and the brightly coloured patchwork of Lego filler. What is interesting in this process is the relationship we find between the buildings and walls we normally read as singular objects and the ephemeral status of the Lego brick. Lego constructions innately imply their own construction from parts, but equally their ability to be dissembled and reassembled as something new. The certainty of man-made architectural forms as ‘things’ is challenged by the presence of the Lego brick, which reminds us of the temporality of these structures,as well as the redeployment of their constituent parts. By allowing people a chance to imbue their serious grey cityscapes with this colourful and playful practice of building with Lego, Vormann marries the sense of communal activity and fun associated with Lego, to a particular cognitive process associated with the brick, that allows them to see their world afresh.

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Jan Vormann, Dispatchworks

Here is an answer to the question what is unique to the work of art made of Lego? Lego always presents itself in two states: we see the basic elements thathave been composed to make it, and the complex form that still announces its origin in these basic elements. Lego constructions wear the elements of their composition on their sleeve in such a way that you cannot see the unified whole and recognise it as Lego, without simultaneously recognising that it is a construct of basic elements that can be redeployed in different ways. The wonder and joy we find in Lego art comes from the thought processes we go through in realising both of these conflicting states in the same object.

A Lego aesthetic can be taken right back to a classic problem of Seventeenth Century rationalist philosophy. Leibniz the German philosopher in a letter to his friend and fellow philosopher Arnauld on the 30 April 1687, debates the problem of substance, in terms of things which have a unified substance, and those which remain simply aggregates of other substances.[xi] A pile of stones is an aggregate of stones and can be dissembled back into its individual elements, whereas a person is a combined unity of things, which is understood as a whole, and cannot be dissembled into basic substances.

Taking Leibniz’s argument out of the context of the debate it was intended for, the universality of Descartes’ conception of substance, it provides a useful way of approaching how we think of the construct we call a work of art, and more specifically a work of art made of Lego.

Normally we are used to an artist disguising the elements that make up their works of art; as a result we read these creations as unified wholes. Only under analysis are the structural forms of for example language, musical notations or brush strokes revealed. For a work of Lego art, things are quite different. The aggregated form of the work is always announced and is in fact essential to the work being a work made of Lego. As a viewer of a work of Lego art one is always aware that it has been built from individual elements, and could in fact be returned to these basic parts.   In this process the viewer is constantly made aware of the power of their own imagination, that they can see in a work’s aggregated basic elements unified forms. Equally they are made aware of the artist’s own imagination in realising this composition. The strange paradox found in the wonder of imagination experienced when viewing a work of Lego is that it also always forces imagination to fail. Because the work always presents itself as an aggregate of elements, it wrong foots imagination, forcing it to simultaneously see the uncreated pile of plastic.   This foil keeps open the speculative possibility of our imagination to unify the elements into coherent wholes. This duplicity explains the unique nature of a Lego work of art, in the ability to persistently activate the power of creative imagination in all of us by constantly presenting its aggregated state.

Understanding this simple process helps us to make sense of the two most common responses people make when confronted by a Lego work of art. One I would define in terms of a work’s ability to dissimulate, the other in a work’s veracity.

It is incredibly common when viewing a hugely complex piece of Lego art, to exclaim, “I can’t believe that’s Lego.” These Lego artworks seek to dissimulate and hide their aggregated nature by hiding the individual components of their construction.   However despite the aim to dissimulate, they actually work as art when their aggregate composition is revealed. The discovery that the unified object is in fact a pile of bricks is the moment when we become aware of the power of imagination required to realise it, by both the artist and ourselves. The more successful the dissimulation is, the more powerful the realisation of wonder and the power of imagination experienced when the work gives up its disguise.

At the other end of the scale, a work of Lego art may represent something we are familiar with in another context, a building, a figure from popular culture or even everyday objects, but do so with veracity to the fact that it is Lego. We respond by saying look at this or that thing made in Lego with a sense of wonder implied. In these instances, not only is the power of imagination felt in our ability to comprehend the Lego creation as a unified whole, but also in the fact that it operates at a subtextual level to disclose the unannounced use of imagination we initiate to make sense of our everyday world.

Returning to Sawaya’s work having established the cognitive cartwheels artworks made of Lego puts us through, we can answer the question Jones was unable to.   Yes, Sawaya’s figures do create a sense of wonder and the feeling of play experienced when the imagination is activated, but they do more than this. By choosing the unity of the subject, and the idea of a person and the constituent problems of identity this involves, the process of imagination required to maintain the unified image of Sawaya’s figures against the aggregate composition, attains an existential significance that could only be achieved by being built in Lego bricks. The images of the subject, here, even in their coherent forms, expose the disunity of the self, and the significance of the play of creative imagination needed to create our conception of identity. Sawaya’s works have made their way into the gallery, not just because they present a spectacle of Lego building skill, but also because they marry the process of viewing Lego as art with a cognitive process that resonates with the questions he is asking regarding what it means to be a person.

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Nathan Sawaya, Mask, photo © Erica Ann

The future of Lego as a recognised art form begins from an understanding of how it operates as an art form, something, which requires a more serious analysis than the journalistic appraisal that files it under fun and cultural novelty. There are already a host of talented builders out there in the Lego community pushing at the barriers of both technical skill and content for Lego creations. Mike Doyle’s curatorial project Beautiful LEGO[xii] is already starting to pull together the very best of this talent and present it in a form that unabashedly calls itself art.

Doyle being interviewed on the Lego podcast Beyond the Brick[xiii] ahead of the release of the second volume of his Beautiful LEGO series gave perhaps the clearest insight as to how the very best builders are starting to consider the relationship between Lego as a medium and the content it can deliver. Doyle announced his current project, a political response to the practice of mountaintop removal, a devastating mining technique currently being implemented in the USA. By rendering this practice in Lego bricks, he will potentially force the viewer to imagine the mountain, as the miners do, as an aggregate of resources to be exploited. The battle in the imagination between the useful pieces and the unified image replicates the societal struggle we make between respecting and exploiting our environment. By aligning this particular debate with the medium of Lego, Doyle is proposing a work which makes us not only realise, but carry out an intellectual struggle in our viewing of the work, which practically demonstrates the problem of seeing the work as both a representation of nature and the standing reserve[xiv] of bricks it is formed of.

Artists like Doyle and Sawaya are rapidly changing the perception of Lego as an artistic medium and utilising specifically its unique features to explore issues which only a few years ago would have been unthinkable. If Sawaya’s recent gallery success and Doyle’s publications are currently seen as novelty projects, which expose the versatility of Lego, in the future they may well be remembered as the forerunners of a new artistic medium and a cultural rethinking of what constitutes serious art.

Endnotes   

[i] Jonathan Jones, ‘Bricking It: Is Lego Art?’, Guardian (2014) http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2014/sep/23/is-lego-art-creative-play-sculpture-nathan-sawaya (accessed 29 December 2014)

[ii] Nathan Sawaya, The Art of the Brick, Old Truman Brewery Gallery, London, United Kingdom, September 26, 2014

[iii] See the homepage of Antony Gormley: http://www.antonygormley.com/

[iv] See the homepage of Industrial Light and Music: http://www.ilm.com/

[v] See for example the retrospective mythology created by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard in their Lego Space: Building the Future, No Starch Press, San Francisco, 2013

[vi] A folk art that is maintained because it is linked to an insatiable consumer habit – the Lego enthusiast can never have enough bricks.

[vii] The LEGO Movie, dir Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, (Fox Studios 2014)

[viii] Ferdinand Cheval, Le Palais ideal, Châteauneuf-de-Galaure, 1879-1924

[ix] Olafur Eliasson, The cubic structural evolution project (2004)

[x] Jan Vormann, Dispatchworks, http://www.janvormann.com/testbild/dispatchwork/ (accessed 29 December 2014)

[xi] G. W. Leibniz, ‘Correspondence with Arnauld 1686-1690) in Philosophical Texts, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, p.123

[xii] Mike Doyle: Beautiful LEGO, No Starch Press, San Francisco, 2014

[xiii] Beyond the Brick: Episode 139: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcpNchpBu28&index=4&list=PLdoWYTc3JobHRJDRTIVVk2LHhMqH8XMub (Accessed 29 December 2014)

[xiv] Standing reserve is a term used by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his 1954 essay ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, and is used to differentiate between human instrumental use of nature and nature as being. Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Writings, Harper, London, 1977

Thanks to matt and Tim for their input and support.