This article was first published in Bricks Culture 4, and responded to the then recent shootings in Paris.
It is the morning of the 14 November 2015 and I have just woken up to the news that a series of orchestrated attacks have taken place in Paris last night. With millions of others all over the world, I watch television footage and listen to reports of gunmen opening fire on innocent civilians in restaurants and music venues across the city.
Shocked and upset I open my social media streams to see if the people in Paris I know are ok, and to hear the voices of my friends, and listen to their response to the events. Amongst the academics, philosophers and professional artists who make up a large proportion of my social network are the LEGO writers, builders and photographers.
Only a few hours have passed since the news broke from Paris and already they are commenting via the medium of bricks. Harley Quin, a thoughtful and prolific LEGO photographer has quickly rendered a sympathetic Tricolore plaque[i]. Other builders quickly construct vignettes replicating this sentiment. As the day progresses they are joined by many others.
This phenomenon is not new. Ten months ago following the previous tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, the LEGO community along with creatives from every other artistic discipline, expressed the ideological need for art’s freedom of speech. Appearing in streams of images alongside satirical cartoons, photographs, illustrations and paintings, stood LEGO creations such as Jimmy Fortel’s Je Suis Charlie[ii].
These examples highlight a critical mass of builders, which when combined with the power of social media, gives LEGO bricks a new political responsibility. As a mode of expression, it is now for many the first port of call when responding to a troubled world. The dam burst some years ago regarding the constrained use of bricks as a model-making hobby. We are used to seeing artists’ LEGO creations respond to popular culture in all its forms, but it is only when a global political event occurs that the nature of this voice is understood. No one can be in doubt that LEGO artworks have been appropriated, and now constitute a way of visually, often in strikingly simple yet communicable terms, saying something politically charged.
This development has come about, not so much through the development of building techniques, rather through the establishment of LEGO building as part of social and cultural life – one could say through the sharing of creative endeavours. In 2001, there was no immediate response for the LEGO builder to the horror of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. In 2005, the bombing of London Underground trains and busses equally failed to generate immediate response from the LEGO community. On the day of the Paris terrorist attacks there is an immediate and embedded relationship between the LEGO creations and the voice of the building community. All of which goes to show the growing maturity of what we might call bricks culture.
The simple immediate builds of this morning, that speak to the violence and inhumanity of what has occurred in Paris, are not vaunted on building skill, or the notion of wonder that normally affords them space in the wider media sphere. Rather they are emotive, direct responses that carry the feeling of a whole community. There may be few better mediums for fostering the sentiment of solidarity and pathos than that of the universal building language that LEGO creations use.
Going back only a handful of years, and taking an example such as Todd Webb’s World Trade Centre model from 2007 this change can be noted in more profound terms. His large scale rendition of the twin towers burning moments after two jet airliners were flown into them, advocates model-making over socially communicating, and as such produces, for me at least, an ambivalent response – my gut wants to respond to the tragedy, but my aesthetic sensibility is being seduced by the builder’s talent. The model won best vignette at Brick World in 2007, and is considered an accepted masterpiece by the community, so why does it elicit these contradictory feelings in me. Webb in his blog article[iii], which records the creation and intention of the build as a monument, is obviously a principled individual. However, the distance from the events of 9/11 combined with the skill of executing architecture and smoke in bricks seems to skew the emphasis away from human tragedy towards aesthetic form. One is reminded of the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s warning regarding the aesthetic memorialisation of the holocaust: ‘To write poetry after Auschwiz is barbaric.[iv]’
If a LEGO artwork is going to tackle the barbarity of our contemporary world it cannot turn, in the words of the military strategists of the second Iraq war, on an affect of ‘shock and awe’ that dazzles and overwhelm the viewer’s senses. The relation to the work has to operate at a level beyond that of aesthetic excellence. The Polish artist Zbigniew Libera expressed this when he recreated a Nazi Concentration Camp as a LEGO set[v]. Using the common relation we have, looking down as omnipotent purveyors onto a LEGO model, he asks the viewer to carry out the problematic game of playing the death camp. To understand the work beyond a representation of huts and out buildings one has to think the role of the murderous minds that built and ran the camps, whilst also playing the role of the interned victims. In doing so, and explicitly as a brick built creation, it moves its audience away from the moral certitude of condemnation, by making them think the logic that made the holocaust possible; understanding and feeling the barbarity of the situation at a more complex and troubling level. As an artwork it indeed makes us confront, and in part appropriate, the barbarism of the 20th Century.
The model concentration camp as political gesture however gained many critics, who saw it as trivialising the Holocaust. Also Libera’s controversial statement printed on the fake LEGO set boxes, which claimed endorsement by LEGO, further complicated the piece, and to this day makes it hard to obtain rights to publish images of the work.
This would not be the last time that the LEGO Company’s association with political events would court outrage. For example in the case of the fake LEGO Rebuild advertising campaign that circulated the internet ten years-ago. The adverts in question took images including the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks and transposed them with the strap line “Rebuild it” and the LEGO logo[vi]. The adverts were never commissioned nor linked to the LEGO group, but this didn’t stop a host of rumours and re-postings of the images with counter information. In reality, two individuals working for the advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi China, had outside the company’s brief independently created the campaigns. Neither LEGO or Saatchi and Saatchi wanted to be associated with the adverts, leaving only unreliable traces of the image lingering across the Internet. What is interesting about the campaign, even given its fake status, is that as soon as the LEGO Company is linked to a political event, especially a tragic one, an instrumental link is made between business and politics. Any perceived statement, positive or otherwise, is tainted when linked to a disingenuous motive to make money. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the LEGO Company has resolutely steered clear of political advocacy.
However, steering clear of association and actually retaining neutrality are two different things. Without digging too deeply into the LEGO Company’s ethical stance, a political agenda is quickly ascertained. There is a ban in its product range around representations of war (of course there are occasional contradictions to this rule such as the Red Baron fighter plane set from 2002). Originally this was defined by a broad pacifist agenda, which many of us might recognise from the peaceful space exploration sets of the late seventies and early eighties. If this were not clear enough, this advert from the sixties makes the message emphatic. Today of course the stance has been diluted, so as to allow fantasy representations of combat in themes such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, but actual military hardware is still – mostly – vetoed.
Beyond the carefully considered political positions the LEGO Group has held, there have of course also been several high profile cases of the company inadvertently inciting controversy. For example, in 2012 following the launch of the new LEGO Friends range, a petition was set up on Change.org that sought to inform the company of its unenlightened gender politics. The complaints ranged from the colour range of pinks and pastels that the sets used to gender differentiate, through to the set themes of home making, pet parlours and beauty salons. But perhaps of greatest worry was the purported sexualisation of the female dolls in the series. Designed to look like teenage girls, the new figurines abandoned the mini-figure design for a more curvy ‘lady-figure’. Calif Berkley writing in the New York Times summed up the ill feeling toward the new range: “Today’s boys and girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers, employees, romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasise, reinforce, or even create, gender differences?[vii]”
What of course many of the critics of the Friends range failed to notice was that they tended towards a black or white reading of the LEGO sets, quickly implying a one size fits all reading that was used, not so much to value the sets as to further a broader social debate around gender equality. However, on closer analysis, as seen in this short promotional write-up for the LEGO Friends school set, the company evidenced a more progressive view of young girls’ career aspirations than many of the critics gave them credit for: “Be the star of biology class when Ms. Stevens calls you to the chalkboard to identify the different parts of the owl’s body!”
It was not only the LEGO Company that offered a more rounded view of gender aspirations, the LEGO community also pushed for a more comprehensive view of women through their own creations. The most successful of which was Ellen Koojiman’s Research Institute proposal, a model that comprised of three female scientists at work in their respective laboratories. Koojiman’s insisted that the professions of these mini-figure women should offer strong role models to young girls. The creation was subsequently submitted to LEGO Ideas, the crowd sourcing arm of the company’s operations. It obtained the required level of votes, and was released as an official set in 2014. This democratic process allowed the fan community through building, a way to steer the ideals that would underpin the sets the LEGO Company would produce. To LEGO’s credit they listened to their customers and delivered the models they wanted.
This use of LEGO brick’s ability to be reconfigured makes it a potent political device. In 2014 this was evidenced once more when Greenpeace created a video and petition designed to highlight what they saw as a problematic co-promotional arrangement signed in 2011 between the LEGO Company and the oil giant Shell. The video, a LEGO animation, showed both the plight of the Arctic at the hands of the unchecked asset stripping oil miners, as well as imitating the then recent and highly successful LEGO Movie.
Although relatively simplistic, the emotive tone of the advert proved effective. Where the LEGO Movie had asserted a core set of values, that creativity and personal expression should be prized over the norms of a contemporary hegemonic world, their spoof advert linked these LEGO creations to the destructive drive of unchecked business. Devastation provocatively replaced creation. Increasing the polemic irony, the upbeat theme tune to the film, Everything is Awesome, was supplemented for a cover version performed as a maudlin ballad. By doing all of this through the power of building with LEGO bricks, the video immediately appealed to the LEGO fans’ aesthetic sensibility, and Greenpeace as result applied pressure on the company where it hurt most, by speaking to its customers.
The campaign achieved its aim later that year, with the company announcing that it would cease its working relationship with Shell. By using LEGO brick’s ability to build anything one wants, Greenpeace rewrote the political narrative of the LEGO Movie in its own image.
Greenpeace was able to differentiate the political potential of building with LEGO bricks from the business operations of the LEGO Company, in a way that was rhetorically divisive. The link between building and critical perspective is obvious in this example, but when the political target is not the LEGO Company itself, what makes building with bricks a useful or more successful medium than traditional forms of political engagement.
Debbie Hickey’s set of LEGO photographs of mini-figures with their associated slogans, which argued for the yes vote in the recent gay marriage ballot in Ireland helps answer this[viii]. Hickey’s campaign was obviously part of a much larger set of political initiatives. What her particular choice of the mini-figure achieved was an immediate understanding of the intrinsic similitude between people irrespective of sexual orientation. Using the generic conditions that establish all LEGO mini-figures as having interchangeable elements that operate according to a universal rule, she provided an analogy for a society that must accept a range of differences under a general law of equality, or accept the failure of the law as a set of principles.
The system of building provided by LEGO bricks provides an interesting analogy for the dilemma our contemporary society faces. As part of a liberal democracy we expect the right to individuality, to express and be the person we are free of intervention. Yet, we also demand that our society provide laws and conventions that protect us from violence and hatred. Building with LEGO bricks provides a practical realisation of these requirements: a set of collaborative and connective rules that enable infinite difference. As long as we build with bricks, rather than break bricks, or as was seen in the LEGO Movie glue them together, we support difference and order at the same time. Perhaps this is the utopian message at the heart of this creative medium?
Possibly it was for this reason that the dissident Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei chose LEGO bricks as his medium for an upcoming exhibit ‘Letgo Room’[ix], which approaches the topic of free speech, at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. His work over the past ten years has grappled with his home country’s repressive stance on free expression and political voice. Risking controversy and arrest he has unrelentingly advocated resistance to the Chinese political system. What better medium than LEGO bricks, that innately refers to infinite difference within a system, to say this with.
However as things transpired, the desire to work with LEGO bricks created a different type of conflict. The Guardian newspaper reporting on the 25 October[x], noted that the LEGO Group had refused Ai Weiwei’s request to buy a large number of LEGO bricks from them wholesale. The reason being to protect their neutrality and not align the company with his or any other political agenda. The LEGO Group had been stung in the clamor around Libera’s Concentration Camp. A project, which they had provided bricks for, without knowing the artist’s intention. Possibly they wanted to avoid a repeat of this incident. As the Guardian went on to explain this had created a whirlwind of upset, with many people calling the LEGO Group out as being ethically irresponsible, and offering to donate their own bricks to the cause.
Within the LEGO fan and building community a different response resonated. There was an unwillingness to accept this rejection as silencing the artist. Although not able to buy the bricks at wholesale price, there was nothing to stop him buying them at the commercial rate as they had to – did his fame give him a privileged status. Beyond this there lingered a sentiment that neutrality remained important and that it ought to be the builders and users of LEGO bricks through their creations, not the company, that decided the political position of the product.
Of course, there was a misreading of Ai Weiwei in all of this. A provocateur and artist beyond his artworks, the rejection by the LEGO Group had allowed him to turn the situation into a wider debate about the right to remain silent on certain ethical issues. When wrong is being done, do you have the right to stick to ethical principles if it means closing your eyes to injustice? The aim of his dispute was not to obtain cheap LEGO bricks, but instead to highlight a debate about corporate neutrality and world politics.
Amongst the online chatter that surrounded this debate, my friend Paul O’Kane[xi] an artist, theorist and open political voice on the Internet, suggested that a response to Ai Weiwei’s position was for the LEGO community to participate in an outpouring of political LEGO creations. I asked myself why this type of building remains as rare as it is outside the moments of solidarity that events such as the recent Paris shootings instigated; and why O’Kane’s legitimate and interesting response was unlikely to be taken up?
There are very few artists working with LEGO bricks who have put politics and activism at the centre of their work. Maybe it is because there is something difficult about the aesthetics of building and the critical perspective that questions what we do in the name of politics, ideals and religions. However one builder, who chooses to remain anonymous by working under the name Legofesto, attempts this[xii]. Their work comprises of direct reportage combined with simple yet startlingly immediate LEGO creations. If Webb’s World Trade Towers clung to an impossible virtuosity and aesthetic response to horror, Legofesto embraces Adorno’s statement that a work of art has to be barbaric in an era of barbarism – effectively working outside the aesthetic register.
Although mainly working with themes to do with war and the troubles in the Middle East, which uncompromisingly depict the brutality of these conflicts, Legofesto regularly draws on issues that impact on our everyday lives. In Northern Rock: The Road to Nationalism, a comment on the inception of the current financial crisis and culture of austerity, we see the LEGO mini-figure once more used to represent the uniformity of the citizen. However, here the capitalist system is seen as the dominant force. The differences presented in the queue of figures are insignificant in initiating change. Change comes from global forces beyond any individual expression of subjective freedom.
In G20: Death at a Protest, which recreates the events of the G20 protests in London in April 2009, where Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller was brutally pushed to the ground by a police officer and subsequently died, she revisits the theme in more harrowing circumstances. Here the diversity of mini-figure protestors is seen confronting the black-visored LEGO policemen. The vignette operates as a stark realisation of an inflexible system that can all too quickly turn upon the democratic body.
Perhaps Legofesto is implying we can only build with the bricks the LEGO Company sells us, and our expression and our ambitions – in life as in the hobby – are ultimately limited by the number of LEGO sets we can purchase? The paradox is that Legofesto the LEGO builder reveals this limit critically through their LEGO creations; and in doing so answers their own question with a resounding no. Political voice is always possible irrespective of the uniformity of a system.
It is just under three weeks since the Paris attacks and in the UK the House of Commons is voting on whether Britain’s response should be to launch air strikes on Syria. My friends who are artists, philosophers and academics are debating loudly on social media about the rights and wrongs of this action. However, the LEGO builders who I was so proud to see responding through building to the tragedy of the 13 November are absent from this debate. Is it that LEGO artworks can only speak of solidarity and consensus? I think not, bricks have an immense potential to argue through showing and feeling. Its voice is often understood when reasoned argument fails. The aforementioned bricks culture is a new phenomenon, a nascent social dynamic with huge reach and appeal. The culture is growing and attaining greater social reach, but it is yet to fully realise its place and potential as a political tool; able to argue through a literal constructive showing. It is only a matter of time before builders fully deploy their political voice in brick form, and when they do, potentially influence opinions for the good.
[iv] Adorno, Theodor, W. Prisms, Cambridge/Massachusetts, MIT Press (1982), p.32.
[v] Examples of Zbigniew Libera’s artworks including the Concentration Camp set can seen at his artist profile page: www.raster.art.pl/gallery/artists/libera/prace.htm.
[vi] The story of the events relating to the Rebuild campaign, along with images of the adverts, can be read about in this Campaign Brief blog entry: http://www.campaignbrief.com/2006/12/saatchi-china-team-fired-apolo.html.
[vii] Berkley, Calif, ‘Should the World of Toys be Gender Free?’ in the New York Times, 29 December 2011.
[ix] Weiwei, Ai, Letgo Room, 2015.
[x] Kennedy, Maev, ‘Artist Ai Weiwei vows to accepts offers of Lego from around the world’, in the Guradian, 25 October 2015.
[xi] See Paul O’Kane’s website: ww.okpaul.com.