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)

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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)