Q: “Why does the Moon orbit the Earth?”
A: “To get to the other side.”
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!
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.
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]’
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:
- Twin forward prongs.
- A single dorsal tail.
- Two rear lateral wings.
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.
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.
[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
[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)