Political Bricks

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.

unnamed

Tricolore by Harley Quin

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].

16204049066_8c76599e6d_o

Je Suis Charlie by Jimmy Fortel

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.

6706333939_e9a30f4537_o

Twin Towers by Todd Webb

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]

20150325_RAST_3 001.jpg

Nazi Concentration Camp by Zbigniew Libera

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.

911_lego

The fake Rebuild it LEGO campaign

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.

LEGOpeace

LEGO Peace Advert

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!”

hqdefault

LEGO Friends School

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.

lego

Research Institute by Ellen Koojimans

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.

LegoYes-7-of-10-710x1024

Yes to Equality by Debbie Hickey

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.

Ai-WeiWei-Australia

Letgo Room by Ai Weiwei 

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.

2250474332_4ea3cde5b0

Northern Rock: the road to nationalisation by Legofesto

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.

3475620775_9587f08d00_o

G20: Death at the Protest by Legofesto

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.

Endnotes

[i] See Harley Quin’s Instagram page: www.instagram.com/harleyquin.

[ii] See Jimmy Fortel’s Flicker stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/7kyubi7/16204049066.

[iii] Todd Webb Blog: http://www.toddwebb.com/Lego-WTC.shtm.

[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.

[viii] Hickey documents the campaign on her website: http://www.debbiehickey.com/category/lego.

[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.

[xii] See Legofesto’s blog: www.legofesto.blogspot.co.uk/.

 

Simon Liu

 

23238133756_169ac7914d_o

CL4P-TP by Simon Liu

Simon Liu is a prolific builder and one of the most recognisable faces on the LEGO convention scene, displaying regularly across Canada and North America. Two years ago I had the opportunity to discuss the ethos of science fiction building, what makes the LEGO community unique and the challenges of collaborative building.

David Alexander Smith: All builders’ work is hard to define, and your work especially, with its coverage of so many of styles and themes.  Saying that space builds seem to be something you routinely come back to.  What is it that makes space building so appealing?

23238033166_943636111d_o

FE Junterr by Simon Liu

Simon Liu: The quick answer: because I’m good at it… The long answer, because that’s what I grew up with, watching sci-fi films and TV shows, reading science fiction, and playing space themed video games. In short I love Sci-fi, and when I build I tend to want to build things I’m most familiar with – I just enjoy building it, and I think that enjoyment is reflected in the final product.

Thinking back that enjoyment comes in part from being a kid, building robots and spaceships that I would fly around the house. At the time my collection, and abilities were limited. Now the size of my collection is no longer an issue I can try and build what I always wanted to … my ability on the other hand, well I’m still working on that one.‎

But perhaps there is an even longer answer: when I sit down to build, I like to construct what comes to mind. I have a fairly large collection, but it’s finite, and while I can order more bricks it takes time and breaks my creative flow. The space and sci-fi ‎creations I make are usually figments of my imagination, which allow me to work in a more intuitive way.

23264197105_e9997dcff1_o

Locust by Simon Liu

DAS: That’s interesting, I recently interviewed the Australian builder Karf Oohlu, and he said something very similar about the need to allow inspiration to take hold through pieces. Perhaps sci-fi building fits well with this creative approach?

SL: Perhaps, although I do take heavy inspiration from other sources, including builders I look up to, but ultimately everything gets filtered through my brain and personal inventiveness. In other words there are no ‘right ways’ to build I suppose, if you don’t have a specific piece, then you just use another.  And sci-fi building does seem to support this approach.

33150657050_12189e3b8c_o.jpg

Point Defense Fighter by Simon Liu

DAS: Its true, sci-fi, although often soaked in the aesthetics of technology and pragmatics, is actually more about the look of something rather than its real function. Maybe this provides the freedom to see pretty much any LEGO piece as part of a spaceship?

SL: Well, sometimes there are odd piece choices that I put into builds, and that’s usually because I don’t have a part. This works well for Sci-Fi builds, as the genre lends itself to maximum creative freedom. If I were building a car that leeway isn’t there.

This leads to a recurring joke I am fond of making: ‘any part, is a spaceship part’ – it all depends on how it’s used. Building Sci-Fi is really conducive to using parts in unintended ways to achieve your build. One of my favourite Sci-Fi elements is the 1×2 Masonry Brick, which is definitely intended for town and castle, but in the right orientation it creates excellent textures.

DAS: Expanding on this idea of ways of building, I’ve speculated in one of my other articles that LEGO encourages us as builders to explore the limits of design conventions.  I see this in many of your works, for example the revamps of Classic Space or Ice Planet conventions.

22896276199_9b1ffe53d4_o

ip s1 by Simon Liu

22968364850_437cb845ff_o

ip s2 by Simon Liu

SL: In the case of some conventions, like Ice Planet, it’s obvious; it’s the colour scheme. Whereas for others like Vic Vipers‎ (the two pronged spaceship), the design convention can be shown through a diagram. I think that many of the space building contests in the community have an innate ability to come up with a clear and flexible set of conventions. This allows for a cohesive and recognisable set of builds, but also allows individuals to challenge and bend the conventional norms.

For me, once you understand the boundaries that are expected a convention becomes ‎fairly straightforward to build in. The trouble with some design conventions is that they’re unclear or too broad, resulting in ill-informed creations.

22896340429_43dd460b86_o

UCS Benny by Simon Liu

DAS: This naturally brings up a question about the relationship between science fiction themes and the games builders play in the LEGO community, I’m thinking of course of the likes of Febrovery (the month of lunar rover building) and the yearly giant space building event SHIPtember (SHIP being an acronym for seriously huge investment in parts) that you’re well known for creating and running.

SL: I think during these themed months and contests people see this as an opportunity to apply the design convention from their favourite sources (sci-fi, video games or otherwise) and apply it to the convention established by the contest.

22870121027_bc0def35de_o

FE Junterr (Deep Space Carrier) by Simon Liu

The most obvious example is SHIPtember. Many people, including myself, built Homeworld (the real time strategy video game), or Homeworld inspired SHIPs this year. Another common example, which I’m also guilty of, is applying the classic space colours used in the sets of the late 70s and early 80s on other conventions. The trans yellow-blue-grey colour scheme accented with yellow and black bumblebee stripes is extremely recognisable in the community and as a result can be easily applied to pretty much any of the established conventions. Try it!

23264153285_f91b0c5d62_o

Moonbase 3 by Simon Liu

DAS: Yes I love pushing the classic space convention myself. But, have you ever pushed a convention or design principle so far that it became ridiculous?  For example your Si-Fighter I would think comes directly from the process of pushing an S-shape to an extreme.

22870177447_770268ec22_o

Si-Figher by Simon Liu

SL: I think it would depend on what you define as ridiculous … I do tend to borderline on the silly …  I think I have a predisposition to replace our beloved mini-figures with various animals, from frogs, to teddy bears and the like. There’s just something incredibly fun about the juxtaposition of my usual sci-fi builds with the addition of cute animals.

23264247455_f3055c0717_o

Clux Flapacitor by Simon Liu

Though I think I may have inadvertently ruined a convention by redefining it for my own purposes.  Before I came along, SHIPs had a pretty specific meaning: 100 studs long spacecraft, almost always mini-figure scale, with interiors. But when I created SHIPtember, I added a new constraint to the convention – having builders start and finish in a month. As a result this led to a gradual decline perhaps even erosion of the some of the old conventions to meet the new. Though hopefully I can try to push the needle back towards mini-figure based SHIPs next year.

DAS: As you’ve already mentioned in the case of Homeworld, you often build models inspired by video games, Borderlands and Starcraft lately.  Why is this subject matter appealing to you?

SL: What’s interesting is that the previous generation of LEGO fans took inspiration from books and movies, whereas for the newer generation it has become more about the video games they play.

It’s funny that you would think that I’m associated with this shift towards video game representation, as I’ve generally stayed away from building and recreating from pop culture, be it video games, or movies. It’s not that it’s not fun, but I generally like exploring my own little worlds, not to mention there are a lot of builders out there that are phenomenal at rebuilding from pop culture.

22637171873_76fe26bbb0_o

USS Sulaco by Simon Liu

But there are a few games that I feel particularly passionate about, Starcraft and more recently Borderlands. As for why they’re good subjects, perhaps for me its because there are a lot of grey dropships in these themes which I like building, which are also in films like Aliens and Avatar that I grew up watching. And I think my builds tend to reflect a lot of that space-marine ‎vibe you find in these properties.

22635760934_25639a9f4b_o

Master Chief by Simon Liu

22968330360_db930b610e_o

Dropship by Simon Liu

However I don’t set out to recreate certain popular cultural forms because they are popular or would work well. I think of it as less, ‘what would look good in LEGO’ and more ‘what do I want to build’. But I do admit that the audience and reception is different when you tackle builds based on video games, or other pop culture icons. There’s a resonance your audience and you share, a bond that comes from playing the game or of watching a film.

22635844004_ebb116b238_o

Calvin and Hobbes by Simon Liu

DAS: How do you feel about LEGO moving into the creation of sets around video game IPs? Obviously there has been Minecraft, and soon we’ll have Angry Birds. Is this a different cultural moment to say the collaboration in the late 90s with Star Wars?

SL: The response to video game IPs in LEGO really depends on your point of view. For many builders, it really doesn’t matter where the IP is from, the question is what’s in the box? Are the pieces useful and interesting? Is the cost of the set reasonable relative to non-licensed sets? For causal LEGO fans, it will depend on the inclusiveness of the LEGO fans to the video game fans.

For me, I like it. The sets themselves are not overly important, but I tend to look within to see the inventory of each set, and the building possibilities that can arise. But I really do like the fact that LEGO has been producing popular IPs. It allows me to give the gift of LEGO to a whole new audience that wouldn’t necessarily be that interested in a standard set. Over the past few years I must have bought everyone I know some sort of Ideas set for a birthday or other event.

I also believe that for the younger generation, who might be entering their dark ages, having that tie-in with games that they play may ultimately help prolong, if not solidify a life long LEGO passion.

DAS: You are also known as a key figure in the LEGO community.  What makes the LEGO community special and potentially different from other communities, both online and in real life?

SL: We all like LEGO, and it doesn’t matter who you are in the community, from the most famous of builders, to the newest teenage builder, or the set collector, we all share a common love. And I’ve noticed that especially in the builder community, we share a very similar mentality towards the brick and the joy of building, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this – and it’s independent of social or economical background. I’ve been extremely lucky to go to the four largest conventions across the United States and Canada, and it’s always the same, there’ll be a group of builders there that you can spend an entire weekend with.

And then there’s always that bag or bin of loose bricks, and one of the great joys is just sitting down and building. I think this ability to want to build together is the best way to describe our community. Many other hobbies or groups seems to be a little individualistic and self-centred, whereas this hobby as a whole may at first glance seem to be a fairly solo endeavour, as a community it is different, we play well together, and embrace each other’s abilities, ideas and ultimately each other.  Very few communities out there would so willing to share with everyone their so-called tricks of the trade, and to actively encourage newer builders, and that’s pretty cool.

DAS: Is there something about the universal language of LEGO that allows us to understand each other better than other more culturally embedded activities?

SL: I’ve had the pleasure of sitting down and building with people from around the world, from the United States, Europe, New Zealand, Australia, and it’s the same around the world. The stud goes into the anti-stud. It doesn’t matter what language you speak.

But even within local areas, it’s fascinating to see the actual lexicon of LEGO change. Have you ever asked someone what a 4070 brick is called? Depending on who you ask it’s an ‘Erling’ or a ‘headlight’ or a ‘washer’ or even a ‘half plate recessed SNOT brick’.

But even with the ultimate equaliser that is the standard LEGO brick, the resulting builds are unsurprisingly geographically diverse. If you look around the different areas of the world, there seem to be some trends that pop up in certain locales. It doesn’t mean that everyone from a given area or a certain group build the same way, but there tends to be a consolidation of styles, which LEGO users as an international community then see come together. That’s amazing.

DAS: LEGO building has a wonderful way of inspiring collaboration.  For instance I love the Protego Maxima build for the Symphony of Construction project you were part of.  Could you tell me a little bit about that project, and how successful you felt it was?

22968465050_140ddabb61_o

Protego Maxima by Simon Liu

SL: I almost think collaboration is my favourite part of the hobby. There’s just something wonderful about the idea of doing more as a group than you can individually, and I’ve made lasting friendships, and possibly some enemies by working on a variety of collaborations.

Symphony of Construction was the brainchild of Paul Vermeesch and Ian Spacek, two incredibly talented builders and composers (though I will take credit for coming up with the name!). The idea was simple: take the traditional LEGO ‘telephone game’ (where a builder would build a model, give it to the next builder, who would then build a new model based on the one they received). But instead of a standard cycle of building one thing and passing it on to the next, they literally added a musical interlude. A builder would not base their build on the previous build, but on a piece of music, which in turn, is based on the previous build. I must have listened to my score (written by Christopher Baldacci) a hundred times, even spending an entire work day playing it on an endless loop to try to get a feel for the music.

Unfortunately I don’t think it was nearly as successful from an audience perspective as I would have hoped; as to properly follow it, you would have to look at the build, listen to music (or watch a video), which may have exceeded people’s attention span. But from a participant’s view, it was most definitely one of the more fun ‘games’ I’ve been a party to.

DAS: With the aspiration of collaboration, what would you like to see the community try? Is there something that could potentially be said in a collaborative build that a solo builder could never achieve?

SL: Whenever you collaborate I feel you’re really forcing people from different perspectives to work towards a uniform whole.   The more cohesive the intended outcome the more you truly collaborate. It’s easy to create a standard and everyone build their section, but does that make a good collaboration?

It depends I think on the goal of the collaboration. Collaborations with standard conventions are a fantastic mechanism for getting people building and involved. Especially for new comers who have never participated before or maybe even attended a convention.

Whereas for some groups their goal is to create the most amazing creation possible. This usually involves complex standards, both in terms of structural as well as aesthetic cohesiveness. These collaboration giants, such as BrickTimeTeam, BrickToThePast, BroLUG, KeithLUG and VirtualLUG are the next level of collaboration where the creation is more than a sum of their whole. The combined might and effort that goes into these monster collaborations adds an extra quotient, an amazing multiplier that ends in utterly jaw dropping results.

While I’m thrilled to keep seeing new amazing collaborative builds form these collaborations, I would love to see how some of them would apply their group’s talents to different genres. Sometimes the most surprising builds comes from the least likely sources, there’s something to be said about taking on a new subject with fresh eyes and new perspective. And there is always something new to see at every convention.

22896377179_86b79cdaa8_o

Operation Olive Branch by Simon Liu

This interview first appeared in Bricks Culture 4.

To see more of Simon Liu’s amazing creations visit his Flickr stream here.

 

 

LEGO fables – telling stories with bricks

012

LEGO Fabuland

Two children found a termite nest on their father’s farm.  The oldest child became fascinated by the structures the termites created, and spent many hours playing, replicating them in drawings and models.  The younger child played a different game, visiting the termite nest daily, leaving cake crumbs and leaves for the small creatures to use.  As an adult, the oldest child designed aqueducts that brought clean water to her city, and was rewarded by the king for this important work.  The youngest child became a philanthropist establishing almshouses for the very poorest people, and was similarly rewarded. The moral: there are many ways to play, and each may lead to its own good.

This little attempt at a fable could be taken as an allegory for the way we think about the types of play LEGO bricks afford.  Unconsciously we attribute to LEGO certain types of play, which culturally have been considered consonant with the practical problem solving games of engineering[i].   And whilst there is no doubt that it provides a fantastic springboard for this way of thinking, there are indeed other ways of playing with bricks some of which require an active participation with the worlds they create.

One of the outcomes of this intentional interaction is that worlds built from LEGO bricks create a stage for a type of play that performatively encourages storytelling.  For an art form that predominately deals with static 3D models, the fact that it has become so conducive to narrative exposition is something that requires deeper investigation.

Rewind some thirty-nine years to the late 1970s and the advent of the now iconic mini-figure.   This inspirational design profoundly changed the company’s thinking.  By introducing characters to the range of elements sold as kits it altered the way in which LEGO bricks would and could be played with.  Crucially adding faces and articulation to the figures, allowed them to be more than the place-holders for characterisation that the earlier faceless figures had been.

1978

LEGO mini-figures on the cover of the 1978 catalogue

Of course figurative elements had existed long before the creation of the mini-figure.  There are brick built figures aplenty, like those found in the Moon Lander and the Maxi Figures found in the Homemaker sets.  However all of these cases still needed to be built and remained more of an adjunct to the model building process.  Whilst the maxi figures featured elephant trunk like articulation, their clothes and bodies were still built from bricks; actually playing with them proved more problematic than one would expect (the three-year old me could attest to this).

Figures

LEGO Maxi-Figures

The mini-figure on the other hand in no way attempts to be a figure built from LEGO bricks.  They are discrete entities, designed as a stand-alone system.  Yes, they do adhere to the broad logic of interchangeability, with their studded heads and hats and variety of trousers, but ultimately there is really only one – although that rule is often broken – way to build a mini-figure.

The characters’ success came from the ability of this new system to interact with the standard brick.  The anti-studded bottoms and feet of the mini-figure meant that its narrative and character driven system of play could intersect seamlessly with the building and model making potential of the traditional range of elements.  And in reverse, the clip logic of  the mini-figure hand introduced new connective elements to the standard range of pieces.

Sets that now contained a range of mini-figures altered the established idea of LEGO as a model kit.  Whilst models were still built, they were now constructed for the reason of providing a world in which the mini-figures’ stories could be told.  And a new realm of play between building and story telling was born.

Intuitively children grasped the concept that you could tell stories with LEGO bricks. The question ‘why build?’ had attained a new dimension and arguably a new audience.   The LEGO company also understood the value of  this new approach, and explored it in the Idea Book published in 1980.  More than just a collection of inspiring models to build, the book told the story of two archetypal mini-figures, and their journey across the then current LEGO themes.  From town to castle by way of outer space these two heroes offered a reason to build.   The replication of the real sacrificed in favour of a fantastical world of adventure.

Lego Idea Book 6000-5.png

LEGO Ideas Book 1980

But the mini-figure was just the first step into these new realms of play that aligned with narrative thinking.  Following quickly on the heels of the mini-figure LEGO developed the Fabuland range of sets.  Taking the aspects of characterisation that the mini-figure had opened, these sets saw the creation of an anthropomorphic group of friends.  The mainly alliteratively named Charlie Cat, Robby Rabbit, Ernie Elephant and others, living together within the eponymous Fabuland, put story telling play, and the play of the fable, at the centre of the LEGO experience.

Fabuland

Fabuland

The range has garnered both advocates[ii] and critical response over the years.  On the negative side, it is seen as reducing the LEGO building experience, in its employment of large pre-fabricated pieces, such as windows and scooters, which required no building.  It represented for these critics a ‘dumbing-down’ or ‘juniorisation’[iii] of the LEGO building experience.   Of course the sets were designed for the younger range of  the company’s audience, and the simplicity of the building experience offered, stood in contrast to the tastes and needs of the advanced builders who made up the vast majority of the critics  At the other end of the spectrum, the charming design ethos of the characters combined with the development of many new and ironically multi-use elements made the series a fascinating addition to the LEGO catalogue.

It could be argued that the critics had missed the point; that a deliberate choice had been made by the LEGO Group with regard to Fabuland’s range of elements.  These constituted a new system of play, in much the same way that the mini-figure had.  The notion that the sets were created to facilitate model making was replaced by the need to foster story telling.  Quickly utilisable objects and units such as windows and doors provided the best way of generating narrative play.

As with the mini-figure, the success of the venture stemmed from the retention of universal connectivity, which allowed Fabuland to adapt to both standard LEGO bricks and DUPLO bricks.  In this sense its system of play remained essentially open to the more recognisable LEGO building experiences, at both the younger and more advanced ends of the company’s demographic.

This freedom has seen a small but continuing engagement with the theme from the adult building community.  Many took the naïve forms, and accentuated their architectural tropes to create a unique and knowingly twee alternative reality.  Those skills that had been developed by the architectural and castle builders found new fertile territory in these works.  The advancement in techniques undermining the  perception that the simplicity of building must essentially tie the range to a younger audience.  Builders like Tikitikitembo[iv] prove the point when they take the fable element to its literal conclusion, using Fabuland combined with more advanced building techniques to recreate traditional children’s tales like The Three Little Pigs.  The anthropomorphic figures continuing a long tradition that uses the characteristics of the animal to explore our human foibles.

6337952387_85dea2135f_b

Three Little Pigs by Tikitikitembo 

So whilst the extension of the Fabuland theme by the enthusiasts explored the aesthetic terrain of the theme, by proxy they also continued to develop its affinity for story telling.  And not just any story telling, the animals that LEGO created being direct descendents of Aesop’s own creations.   The result a fusing  of the problem solving and creative building experiences with the narrative devices of the fable

This return to the fable is something of a theme in children’s literary of the late 70s.  Fabuland mirrored the terrain writers like Roger Hargreaves and his Mr Men books, and the lesser-known anthropomorphic Timbuctoo[v] series, had taken in embracing the fable and its ability to tell allegorical tales.

7802112798_35efe1d27b.jpg

Roger Hargreaves lesser known Timbuctoo series

Following the transition made by Hargreaves to Television, so Fabuland became LEGO’s first interdisciplinary foray.  Edward and Friends[vi] the Fabuland show, produced by Film Fair, the same company responsible for cult classics like The Wombles and the 1970s Paddington television series, shared the Mr Mens’ sense of storytelling.  Each of the animal characters explored moral problems through simple narrative dilemmas.   Fabuland in its translation from building toy, to more traditional narrative forms such as television and even a range of associated books, revealed just how versatile an aesthetic LEGO was for telling stories.

This resurgence of fable like stories in children’s literature and television can be tied to a larger trend in literary theory.  In 1967 the literary theorist Robert Scholes had written his seminal text The Fabulators[vii], which was followed in 1979 by a second volume on the theme entitled Fabulation and Metafiction[viii].  Scholes’ considers a range of novelists, such as Borges, Durrell, Pynchon and Barth, as actively choosing to create worlds that whilst referencing the real operated as alternative fabulatory constructs.  This shift away from a concrete notion of the real, allowing a fresh way of dealing with ethical and social problems aside from the realist literary movements.  He writes, “modern fabulation, like the ancient fabling of Aesop, tends away from direct representation of the surface of reality but returns toward actual human life by way of ethically controlled fantasy”[ix].  The fabulator’s narrative does not seek to show the conflicts between the individual and society, rather the struggle between a world and the ideas, dogmas and conditions that allow it to exist.

The genre of science fiction – another theme the LEGO Group and popular culture were embracing in the late 70’s – benefited from this theory.  It also reflected a changing public taste, where the modern myth would be played out in the alternative realities of other futures, galaxies far, far away and romatacised pasts.  In these self-contained mini-verses big ideas regarding what it means to be human and their ethical grounds could be explored as concepts.

The LEGO Group’s embracing of play that revolved around the creation of fabulous other worlds replicated this cultural movement.  Children were being encouraged to explore their world through the imaginative creation of their own fantastical constructions and characters.  And in turn were being asked to think ethically about what constitutes a world, and what those parameters mean for its inhabitants.

So far my exploration of the LEGO Group’s development of the narrative potential in their sets has spoken of the theme purely in the context of children’s play. That narratives are discovered in bricks through the children’s act of playing and telling stories.  And whilst this may be a place where many of the adult building community first started to explore narrative devices, the variety and complexity of their work now challenges the idea that play is a purely childish aspect of the LEGO art form; something that serious builders and artists outgrow.

To understand the importance of the role of play in a LEGO creation’s ability to tell stories it helps to think how it differs from traditional art forms.  In one sense you might think that LEGO artworks function as illustrative counterparts to narrative pieces.  The number of LEGO builds that realise a scene from a film or book would seem to support this.  The 2013 VirtuaLUG[x] collaboration, which saw the collective recreate in diorama form the story of The Wizard of Oz being a case in point[xi].   Does this piece only work if you know the story of The Wizard of Oz as a film or novel?  The answer is emphatically no.  Although an illustration, if one did not know the famous story, through its set-up it provides the components to allow one to link scenes together, to create a story – it just might not be the story that inspired its build.

9142001335_46f3b6a99e

VirtuaLUG The Wizard of Oz

This is the crux of the matter.  To tell the story present in the LEGO artwork, the audience has to play with the aspects of the build.  Inventing and playing with features of the creation, making creative and imaginative connections – telling new stories of their own.  Like the child who tells stories with the Fabuland world they have made, the audience who view a LEGO artwork, has to use those same skills, effectively remembering how to play and engage with an alternative world.  Play is the active component in this dialectic between static 3D creation and the temporal story.  Play makes every spectator of the narrative LEGO artwork an author too.

To anyone who has spent time studying painting this revelation tells them nothing new.  For example the allegorical painting of the Middle Ages require the active participation of the viewer to disclose both narrative and meaning.  However, narratives in LEGO further increase its audience’s intentional interaction beyond the two-dimensional image.  A LEGO creation that tells a story is never finished; the interlocking pieces and the placement of the characters, always remain open to reconfiguration, rebuilding as is the want with LEGO elements’ intrinsic malleability.

Taking the premise Mark Currie puts forward in his book on narrative time, simply titled About Time[xii], there is a conflict in the structure of a written narrative, and I would argue a similar issue in the narratives produced in film.  That the moment of reading, where we find ourselves part way through a story, not knowing what awaits its characters in the future, is an illusion of a future possibility; it is already structured as part of a finished whole – the story is already written.  Even the author who writes, and begins with open possibilities, must eventually relinquish this privileged position and commit their story to the block time order of a narrative.  However, should we concede that the audience of a LEGO art work which presents narrative possibilities, is not a reader, but already a potential builder, and re-builder of the work, how does this change the narrative scenario to that found when reading a novel?

The stories that LEGO artworks offer do so not through the traditional conditions of recording a sequence of events and happenings, nor through the active interpretation of events that have been established.  They begin by asking its audience to play with them.  To take on an intentional role, to tell stories with the figures and pieces present.  When we look at a LEGO artwork, which implies narrative, we begin by seeing all the physical connections that can be made, where figure may stand, where houses, castles and buildings may be restructured, and we begin to play and imagine what might be.

In the more traditional illustrative pieces of LEGO art, this capacity to play remains purely cognitive.  We become virtual builders.  The skill of the LEGO artist in these cases is to create a world that induces imaginative play and shows paths and associations of bricks and characters that an audience finds inspiring to think about.  As soon you find yourself saying “where are those knights going”, or “what cargo is being loaded onto that spaceship”, and start to answer your own question, then you are initiating a playful activation of the nascent story unspoken in every creation.

This focus on generating narrative has become a core part of the LEGO experience, no more so than in the official LEGO video games.  It might seem surprising that the actual act of building is so minimally represented in these games, that is until you understand them as forays into the art of play driven storytelling.  The analogue between LEGO building and the video game comes from the requirement that worlds are built so as to be explored and played within.

The LEGO video game presents these worlds made and ready to explore.  However, as is the constant struggle in video games, the dilemma between narrative exposition and compliance to the requirements of the game limits the range of stories that can be told.  So whilst the LEGO video games returns a tangible intentional quality to story telling, it does so at a cost, through the adherence of the narrative to the game’s rules; to competition and problem solving.

IceCream_02_720x405

LEGO City Undercover video game

Perhaps the video game can find some answer to its genre specific conflict in LEGO’s narrative potential.  The assumption regarding the generation of a narrative from an artist’s LEGO creation, is that these works are created, finished and only virtually engaged with.  If the LEGO builds of adults however reclaim the open play of childhood, where would this lead the narrative potential of the medium?  What would happen if an audience wasn’t only asked to look at a build, but participate, play, change and move components around?

This would extend the argument that Scholes’ has made with regard to fabulation.  The other worlds built from LEGO bricks, unlike their literary counterparts, don’t simply present the ideals and concepts in separation ready for investigation, they offer the possibility of changing altering and setting up new ideas and intentions beyond those that the original builder perceived.  Playing with a world, with the fluidity of an ancient god, puts not only the mini-figure back into the playful hand of the adult, but also the ethical responsibility for the stories they tell with them.  And here we end back at the fable that started this invesigation, with child who played with the termites as a benevolent deity, and subsequently learned the value of caring for their world.

Endnotes

[i] See Sir Harry Kroto’s infamous comments as recorded in The Telegraph article ‘Why Britain needs more Meccano and less LEGO’, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1333215/Why-Britain-needs-more-Meccano-and-less-Lego.html (accessed 30 May 2015).

[ii] See the Fabuland Builders Guild webpage, http://www.eurobricks.com/forum/index.php?showtopic=17396 (accessed 30 May 2015).

[iii]  According to Brickwiki, “Juniorization is a term used by Adult Fans of LEGO to both describe and criticize the inclusion of a few highly specialized elements in sets instead of already existing elements that could be assembled into the same configuration.”

http://www.brickwiki.info/wiki/Juniorization (accessed 30 May 2015).

[iv] See Tikitikitembo’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/64693712@N05/.

[v] Reference to add.

[vi] Links to the Edward and Friends episodes can be found here, http://lego.wikia.com/wiki/Edward_and_Friends.

[vii] Robert, Scholes, The Fabulators, Oxford University Press, Oxford (1969)

[viii] Robert, Scholes, Fabulation and MetafictionUniversity of Illinois Press, Chicago/London (1979)

[ix] Ibid, p.3

[x] See the Virtualug homepage, http://www.virtualug.org/.

[xi] See the Brothers Brick review of the collaboration, http://www.brothers-brick.com/2013/07/09/virtualugs-wizard-of-oz-diorama-will-knock-off-your-ruby-slippers/.

[xii] Mark Currie, About Time: Narrative, Fiction and the Philosophy of Time, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh (2010)

Classical Coupling: Matt & Linda Rowntree

Matt and Linda Rowntree are a couple that share a passion for LEGO.  For the past four years they have helped run online building competitions, contributed to large-scale collaborative builds at a host of conventions across America, as well as making a series of amazing film and popular culture themed creations.  Whilst Matt has often taken the lead in this activity Linda has been involved at every step of the process.  I asked the husband and wife team to work on a special build, an illustration of a Classical Greek myth, where their creative talents could fully work together for the first time.  This is what happened.

118-123-MATT-LINDATJ-2

Icarus by Matt and Linda Rowntree

David Alexander Smith: Both of you have been involved in the LEGO community for some years; how would you describe your different interests and how did each of you get hooked?

Linda Rowntree:  I was never interested in Lego growing up.  I became hooked the day I realised that I needed Matt to build (if he does not have a creative outlet, he is not a happy boy.)  It was hard to get him to build without me joining in; I think he felt guilty being by himself building.  I needed to build so Matt could build.  The sets that finally hooked me where the insectoids and the technic sets.  I think my interests are in the oddball, weird pieces that come together to make something fun.

Matt Rowntree: My interests are all over the place, I’ve always tried to consciously step away from comfort zones and identifiable styles.  I’ve been with bricks my entire life from the early 70s and never had an official “dark age.”  It was more of a “dim age” when I was in college and really couldn’t access my bricks practically with work, school, more work, Linda, more Linda, and more work.  And more school.  I was really busy then.  I found the community back around 2013 looking for techniques relating to my “first” SHIP (SHIP being the acronym for a 100-stud plus long spaceship, meaning seriously huge investment in parts).  Up until then, I knew the world was filled with crazy people but I had no idea that they could be concentrated into a couple websites called MOCpages and Flickr.

1362003941m_DISPLAY

The Ecosse (LL-928 “upgrade”) by Matt Rowntree

DAS: What is your build set-up like at home, and does it allow you work together?

LR: Don’t tell Matt but I see our Lego set up changing as soon as he finishes his new SHIP (currently being built for Simon Liu’s month-long building challenge SHIPtember).  Our Lego room is perfect for the one person sitting at the desk in the chair with access to everything.  If you are not the one sitting in the chair you need to ask for pieces to be given to you or try to find a working space.  A re-work will need to be done for our next project together.  Hint, hint.

MR: Fine!  I’ll get another chair.  Good grief!  The space has evolved forever and always will.  It has been conformed to fit my building technique and organisational madness, which tends to frighten Linda off a bit.  The organisation, that is, not the madness.  Actually I suspect that frightens her as well.  Come to think of it, it frightens me too.

IMG_2090

Matt and Linda in their Studio

DAS: How would you describe your respective styles and creative approaches?

LR: I like my builds to be whimsical; I don’t want people comparing my builds to the actual object.   My creative approach is still a learning approach, “Hey Matt, do you think that if I did this it would work to give this effect?” From there it starts a conversation and experimentation.

MR: Brick on brick.  I usually have a vague notion of a direction, but I try to let the pieces and colours do the work.  I do tend to corral it to maximise the fun for myself as it seems pointless otherwise.  It’s likely a major factor in how Linda and I work so easily together.

DAS: Is there a build of each other’s you really like and why?

16807556430_367647c1a3_o.jpg

Marvin the Martian by Matt Rowntree

LR: There are several builds I like of Matt’s.  The Looney Toon’s build was spot on and placed me back into my childhood (this was entered in Chris Phipson’s MocOlympics building competition).  The Emotitron build puts a smile on my face every time I see it.  The Perry Mason build, however, I would have to say was my absolute favourite.  It did not get a lot of viewership; however, I believe people were confused by the colours.  His goal was to use the wild colours to create the grey scale just like they did in the old black and white movies.

12664421184_c32b75fcdb_o.jpg

Emotitron 024 by Matt Rowntree

MR: Unfortunately, Linda hasn’t really put much together other than some interesting table scraps.  However, in the body of work that we’ve created together, I would have to agree with her about the Perry Mason build.  She came up with the brilliant idea and I built it strictly to get a solid smile out of her.  That tends to be the gauge of success in any build for me.

16872977701_f4c107d01c_o.png

Perry Mason by Matt Rowntree

DAS: Have you worked on a project together before?

LR: I am always a part of the builds.  This project however was the first project where I feel my vision was a part of the final project and that I showed up in the build.

1382846483m_DISPLAY

Inception by Matt Rowntree

MR: It would be much easier to list the ones that we have NOT worked on together to some extent.  Her critical eye and brilliant ideas are always present and keeps my tunnel vision in check especially if they are venturing off the rails.  She helped rein me in on the Inception build as well as the Forbidden Planet.  Our builds also tend to tell a story, so she is more of a proper editor in that light.

1380244665m_DISPLAY

Forbidden Planet by Matt Rowntree

DAS: I set you the challenge of illustrating a Classical Greek myth.  What did you choose and why?

LR:  Initially this was a solo build.  Matt chose the subject and built several of the elements before it became our collaboration.  I had never heard the story but instantly saw why he chose it.

MR: Icarus was the one that stabbed me straight in the brain.  However, I wanted to challenge the standard imagery of a young man contorted midflight as the feathers venture out in all directions.  Those iconic images usually focus on the sun and its power over the human element.  With this build, I wanted to eliminate the sun and rely more on the expression of hubris through a feeling of vertigo and that moment of realization as the first feather disembarks.  I felt that there was much more of a connection with the viewer in that respect as we have all found ourselves at that point when we realized that ignoring a certain bit of advice was not a wise decision.

DAS: How did you go about planning the project?

LR:  For me it was a lot of discussion with Matt about changing his vision to include my own.  I had to come up with solutions and present them to Matt in a way that opened his eyes to a new vision and welcomed it.  Trying to change tunnel vision is not as easy as it sounds.  Also, since the feather and wing were already done, I took the lead on the Labyrinth.

MR:  My initial idea was to build a framework of the wing with feathers and have a single feather falling away with a wax drip.  I knew it would tell the story, but it also relied too much, I feel, on the viewer knowing it as well, in addition to being led by the title and the challenge description.  I also added the element that is forgotten in the story about the advice Daedalus also instilled about complacency and flying too low by adding Daedalus in a smaller size about midway up.

DAS: Were there many problems along the way; how did you solve them?

LR:  The Labyrinth was probably the simplest element in the build but honestly it was our biggest challenge.  Since the wing and the feather were already done we needed to find a way to incorporate the old vision with the new vision without scrapping what was already done.  The solution forced the Labyrinth to be a specific scale to read as a Labyrinth without it being the focus of the build.  I think we built six different versions of it before we were happy.

28657870123_7695344d88_o

The Challenge of the Labyrinth

MR: The iterations of the Labyrinth were definitely challenging.  This final version was spot on with its smaller scale in comparison to Daedalus and the large feather and wing.  However, this also led to what became the most difficult challenge:  The photography.  It was built to be photographed from above in forced perspective to increase the vertigo and make the primary subject the feather, the lighting and focus for all the elements proved argumentative, to put it nicely.  In the end, compositing each element separately was the only way to get everything right.

30583760006_532fea3076_o

The unique photography set-up

DAS:  How do you feel about the final piece?

LR:  I think the final piece did what we set out to do; it does tell the story in a single image quite well.  I am happy with where my ideas took it and I feel it made the project more complete.  The initial vision was to only shoot the one feather with the wax dropping off of it.  With this version I see us working together for a more complete vision and I find that exciting.

MR:  I would say that it is our most complete vision fully realised.  Like The Thing movie poster, I felt that there really wasn’t much more to do other than sign it (something I have very rarely done being an artist never fully satisfied with execution exceeding expectation.)  I love how this piece of teamwork explored the entire process regardless of specific successes or failings.  To me, the conversation was always open and free to go wherever it wanted and it was fun to follow and watch it evolve.

ma2015-the-thing-029a1

The Thing Movie Poster by Matt Rowntree

DAS: If the opportunity arose would you work together on another build?

LR: I am happy to say that we have a very large project we decided to do together.  We will be starting it once Matt’s SHIP is complete.  I think working on this build together has allowed us to finally see eye to eye and has helped us to understand and respect each other’s visions in a way that now allows us to build together.

MR: No way!  Just kidding.  I don’t think that there is any other option but to work together; it is how we have done everything and will likely be the way we do everything to come.  I may have done the heavy lifting in the past, but I think with Linda’s comfort growing in the language of LEGO bricks and her receding intimidation of my organisational methodology, I see more equal time developing with the bricks.  Her visions have no boundaries developed through years of LEGO building trial and error; so, there is freshness that I love exploring and building upon.  Although, I’m not giving up MY comfy chair!

Check out more of Matt and Linda’s creations here.

This interview was originally published in Bricks Culture 7.

29867218020_0d35e44b1e_o

Irish Yoga by Matt Rowntree

Bjarne Tveskov

This is a reposting of my interview from 2015 with Bjarne Tveskov the legendary former LEGO designer and creator of several of the most-loved of the 1980s space sets. We discussed spaceship building, Minecraft, digital technology  and life as a professional LEGO designer.  (This interview first appeared in Bricks Culture 4)

IMG_5552

A selection of Bjarne Tveskov’s iconic 1980s space sets

Three years ago I was just starting to discover how welcoming the LEGO community is.  Not just the fellow fans, who quickly became friends, but also the talented individuals who have and still work professionally for LEGO.  Without expecting too much I dropped a speculative email to the LEGO designer Bjarne Tveskov, probably best known for his work on a number of the iconic eighties space ranges, including the Blacktron and Futuron themes.  A warm reply came back: yes he’d love to chat with me about the smaller pocket money sets he created.  And with this began my involvement in writing about LEGO.

Back to the present, and this summer Bjarne and I struck up conversation once more, after I posted a collection of my classic space LEGO creations online.  And as things often do, we soon found ourselves talking about design process, how LEGO is developing as a cultural phenomenon and the links between LEGO and digital creativity.  As before, when I suggested this might be the basis for an interview, he didn’t need much persuading.

Starting at the very beginning Bjarne took me back to the mid-eighties when he began working for LEGO.

“It happened pretty much by chance.  I was reading a local Sunday paper where I lived, and there was an advert in there, that I still have, where LEGO were looking for designers for LEGO Space and LEGO DUPLO.   And it didn’t make a lot of formal demands on your background… It asked something like: if you had done experiments with science fiction models, or if you could draw or paint and had a good sense of shape and colour, that was about it.  And I thought well that could be me somehow, so why not try.  So I made an application, probably the first I ever wrote for a job. I thought maybe it could be a freelance thing. I was 17 years old and still in school at the time, so it didn’t seem a realistic option as a full-time job.  I just had this vague concept that there would be people designing LEGO sets, and that it would be cool do to this, but what this black box of LEGO design was, I had no way of knowing at the time.

unnamed

The original advert Bjarne replied to

As well as LEGO I was also into the early home computer scene at the time, especially a lot of the stuff that came from the UK back then, the Sinclair ZX81, the Spectrum and suchlike.  So I put this in the application too. I think it was one of the reasons why I was called in for an interview, because LEGO was already starting to look into computers.  The first generation of video games were starting to get big in the mid-eighties, and my boss Jens Nygaard Knudsen could also see that this could be important for the company’s future.

LEGO was already collaborating with the Media Lab from Boston, which were one of the earliest sponsors of research into technology related to play and education.   So I think an enthusiasm for computers was my hook into the system, not that we were directly doing anything with it when I first started.  The work was still exclusively taking place in the company’s educational Department, where they were making these control products which could manipulate simple robots. But there was a sense that these digital developments could one day become a core part of the LEGO business. But sometimes my computer skills came in handy; I was working at creating alternate monorail layouts for the 6921 Monorail Accessory Track set. It was pretty tedious trying out many different combinations, so I made a piece of software for the Sinclair QL computer which enabled me to ‘build’ a lot of tracks on a screen instead of building on the floor. In 1990 I got to change my job from designing models to combining LEGO and computers.  I became a concept person, one of the first to look at how to combine LEGO models and digital experiences for the consumer market.”

$_1

6921 Monorail Accessory Track Set

Despite Bjarne’s interest in computers and love of LEGO there was something else that proved to be of even greater value to the company in the early days.

“I had a good interest in science fiction, the whole Star Wars thing and a TV show called Space:1999.  It was a big thing for me at the time to try to construct the weapons from these films, and the Eagle spaceships from Space 1999 especially.”

To land his job with LEGO, Bjarne had been sent a package of bricks and asked to build a space model to accompany his application.

“The model I built for my application was almost like an Eagle from Space 1999.  And this brings up a theme I think I’ll continue to touch on, how designers absorb ideas from other creations and recombine them, taking aspects from different areas and applying them to new ones.  Which really is a LEGO thing, but also my thing I would guess.”

IMG_5564

IMG_5562

IMG_5572

The model that landed Bjarne his job at LEGO

I wanted to know what it was like working for LEGO at this time.  How did the role of designing toys for the company differ from the model building he’d previously undertaken?

“It was a learning curve, but not as steep as I feared.  I jumped in and started doing things pretty quickly.   It was very much a culture of building and building and building.  And most of it of course was pretty useless, but it was still a process, where I tried to absorb some of the LEGO designers’ principles and get feedback on what I’d done.  I started by building some twenty spaceships, and I plastered them all with tiles because I thought it would be a cool look, but I learned it wasn’t really the way to go.

I started to pick up more by looking at the other guys who had been there for years, and the results they were getting.  And I tried to just imitate design tricks and techniques they used, I think this is also a great way to learn.  But you could never get all the way there when you tried to copy something, there still had to be some twist you added.

The other skill I learnt was the craft of building something that didn’t fall apart when you handled it.  You would take some models to a kids’ testing session, to see how seven year-olds put something together.  That was the biggest culture shock, realising that you were not building for yourself or other designers or marketing; you were building for someone else with different skills and abilities.  Children follow this development curve, where you can do certain things at certain ages.  Things like symmetry are kind of mind-blowing, if you are five or six you cannot really comprehend this.   This is a constant that is not changed, evolution maybe. As you grow as a designer you get that much more skilled, but the kids you are building for remain on the same level.  And every year there is a new generation of seven year olds.

As designers we have this craving for creating new things, and new design themes, but normally in a five-year span you gain a completely new audience who doesn’t know or care about what went before.  As a result this craving for doing the new stuff is accompanied by a process of doing the same thing over and over.  If you look at some of the space models from back then you can see the same themes are conceptually present today.  What a child can play with and how they build are not so different.  Which is also something nice, LEGO as a product changes but stays the same over the ages.  It is still amazing to me that it has been thirty years since I started, and I am still working with LEGO, although as a freelancer now, on products like Nexo Knights that will appeal to both new five year olds and at the same time reference older themes that adult fans will recognise.”

It seemed from Bjarne’s description that the design environment at LEGO was very free and open to creative experimentation.   I asked him how design briefs were established at LEGO.  Did the designers produce them through experimentation, or did the company develop specific themes or narratives, or stipulate the use of certain elements?

“The biggest limitation was price range and the need for us to replace sets at certain price points.  Beyond that there wasn’t a lot of pre-established story, in fact we tended not to talk that much about the back-story, which I also think was a strength.  This openness is one of the keys to the longevity of those early space ranges, in that you put your narrative on top of the sets.  Of course fans will speculate and deduct a lot of stuff on how it was meant to be, and there are some elements that you can pick out, but the overall story was very broad.  That was until we introduced Blacktron and Space Police and so on, where you had more defined roles.  In the beginning it was just engineers in space exploring, and there wasn’t a lot of briefing about what that model was doing; it was a lot more about the functionality and the look and design of the model.”

This affirmed for me something I’d instinctively felt about the early spaces sets, that the designs implied pragmatic use but in an oblique way that resisted any implied intention.  These explorers and engineers were exploring or detecting something, but what and why remained a mystery.  The success here had always seemed linked to specialised pieces and their use.  I asked Bjarne about this, who designed the pieces, and was it the designers or wider company policy that decided on which elements were introduced with each range?

“It is a push/pull thing with the design of new pieces.  A lot of the design was driven by the introduction of new pieces: this quest for newness or a new twist being generated by these new elements.  In the earlier years there were grey space models and blue space models and white space models.  It started to get more uniformed when I came in, in the mid eighties, when we started running more themed series with the launch of Futuron and the Blacktron ranges.  But the pieces these sets deployed very much came from my boss Jens Nygaard Knudsen, who was a great influence.  There was normally a budget for some new pieces to create some novelty every year, and he was driving forward all the time by proposing a lot different pieces.

Very often we would build around new pieces, as was the case with my first model (6884 Aero-Module).  It has this big blue piece specific to the Futuron range, and is basically this piece with wings so that it can fly.  These new pieces gave the designers the possibility of doing very different things to what had gone before.  As a LEGO designer you are driven by how to really utilise these pieces and how far you can push them.  I was never content with putting pieces in an ordinary orientation, and always looked to twist them and make interesting shapes.”

23290768844

LEGO set 6884 Aero Module  with its distinctive blue canopy element.

I suggested that the same principle applied to fan builders who revisit these themes.  In my own case I often look at the palette of pieces that the designers used at the time, and see if I can see things they didn’t do, or find new angles through the use of pieces that weren’t available at the time.  Bjarne expanded on this line of argument.

“I think this is unique to LEGO, that you can simply work with existing pieces.  I’ve always been somewhat envious of the guys who design the pieces, because it seems a higher level of design somehow.  On the other hand it is quite an art to put together existing things in a way that is new.  Basically you could do a whole year of new models without any new pieces, it is probably harder but it is possible.”

This love of new pieces, I suggested, was something that both fans and designers shared.  As a child I’d actually used the argument that a slightly larger set had more new pieces to persuade my mother to increase my pocket money allowance.

“I think that still works, you see the fans going through the new sets and seeing all the new uses for the new pieces.  This attitude says something more about this idea I mentioned before of combining things that already exist.   Although I have never really designed any new pieces, a lot of the newness I created happened by combing things that were already there.”

I reminded Bjarne of the example he had given me in his previous interview, that he often looked for elements in other ranges, and transplanted them into space builds in new colours or deployed in new orientations.

“This was a humorous thing, taking some castle pieces and putting them into space.  I always wanted to use a baguette piece in space somehow.  It would have been awesome.  I tried but I never managed to get that through to an actual set.  I think that is part of what I enjoy seeing in other peoples’ creations, where they are using really unusual pieces in new contexts.”

Perhaps I suggested this ability to find connections and mix uses of pieces defines the LEGO design process.  And I wondered if he noticed this in the development of LEGO design.   Is there so much of a distinction today between the builders using the product in the wild and the way designers working for LEGO combine themes.

“Information technology has become a thousand times more complex and multi-faceted because of the Internet.  Now you can look at many more creations online, which has amplified and crystallised the capabilities of the builders.  As a result there is a much bigger awareness of LEGO as a medium, and as a great creative palette.

To be honest we didn’t have a lot of contact with the outside world in the eighties, apart form the building sessions where children tested the products.  But on the other hand, it is a bit false to think of an inside and outside with LEGO, because all the people coming in are fans and have already taken ownership of the product.   It is very hard to say what is inside and outside; of course you can eat in the canteen and you get a paycheck, but on a broader level it is so much more blurred, with a lot of the new designers coming in being super-fans who in many cases already know more about LEGO than those of us on the inside.”

I noted that there is something wonderfully democratic about LEGO,  anyone can pick it up and use it intuitively, but also that it is not constrained by any specific design principles provided by the LEGO group.

“ I don’t think LEGO in any way would want to constrain its product’s use.  It is so much bigger as an idea than the company.  The LEGO group take care of the product, but everyone who uses it somehow owns it.”

LEGO seemed to me to be aware that beyond the production of toys it could be used in other contexts, as seen in the  development of Modulex.  And then there are the cases of LEGO being used to solve real problems such as the Braigo Braille machine.  It could even be seen as widely experienced education that now influences many designers who played with the product as children.

“Well there are several ways you could discuss this.  I could say that of course I have been influenced by LEGO for a very long time.  I had my education through LEGO if you will.  It influences everything I do outside LEGO.  The basic principle of trying to do quality stuff, to do something that works well, that is just ingrained into LEGO. I think that the modular way of thinking as an approach to designing is also learnt a lot through LEGO.

LEGO also lets you take your time.  In the early days there was a lot of time given to us to get stuff right.  Of course there was time pressure, but there was also time to develop things.  I think now things are much more compressed.  Back then there was a three-year cycle.  There is not so much times these days.  I recently worked on the first little micro scale Minecraft sets. The whole thing was so fast, it was something like six months from idea to product.

As for the broader impact of LEGO onto design, or the more specialised niche ways of using LEGO, of course these applications happen, but I’ve never really been so much into using LEGO directly in other contexts.  About ten years ago I was into creative process facilitation, but I didn’t really use LEGO so much.  I also tried Serious Play (LEGO’s methodology designed to enhance creativity in business), but it never really worked so well for me. It’s really more about the general LEGO idea and the values behind the product.”

I was interested in the ides of the speed of thinking that Bjarne had suggested LEGO offered as well as it being a way of training us in new modular ways of being creative.

“Yes, it is kind of like you have been marinated in this LEGO way of thinking, rather than using LEGO as such.  A lot has been said about LEGO’s influence on software design.  And interface design with the whole modular pixelated thing.  As well as thinking about object orientated software.  The canadian author Douglas Coupland had all these theories about this in the nineties that we were quite inspired by.  In his 1995 novel “Microserf” he describes a software called Oop! which is very similar to what you can do today with Minecraft or LEGO Worlds

I worked mostly with the combination of digital and physical products in the nineties.  And there was a sense then that LEGO could work as the operating system for a lot of this digital thinking, but the idea was probably a bit too early then.  You can a see a lot of it now coming back in a more mature way in the digital worlds where LEGO has found its place in games.  There is still a long way to go though in combining LEGO with digital technology at a deeper level beyond branding or IP rights.”

IMG_5590

For me, I suggested, the link between video games and LEGO has always been a difficult one to square.  Video games begin from a position of immersion, whereas LEGO tends to begin from a point of creating a world.  Perhaps the modular coding techniques found in introductory programme systems such as Scratch might be closer to the LEGO experience?

“Totally.  The thinking is quite similar, and was what the collaboration with the Media Lab has been all about.  The intelligent brick which turned into Mindstorms, the programming language for kids called ‘Scratch’ as you know came out of the Media Lab too.  LEGO is such a basic invention somehow, that it will probably exist in one form or another no matter what.  Back in late nineties LEGO lost the belief in putting models together; would kids still want to do that, or are they into instant gratification and video games and these other fast moving experiences.  But boy was that wrong.  It seems like such a big and encouraging thing that children still want to put together that police station out of 500 small individual pieces.

I think the brilliance of what Minecraft got totally right, that we at LEGO hadn’t managed, was to put the ‘why’ into why you want to build on a screen.  Like the early space stuff, there was not a lot of story in Minecraft, but just enough that you could start doing something. It has this, low threshold high ceiling, ideology we talked a lot about at LEGO, in that you can basically go on forever; there is always more to do.”

I suggested that you could see LEGO as an established way of playing that was joining with these new modular experiences such as Scratch and Minecraft and informing future generation’s creativity.

“You can also ask is LEGO a nostalgic thing or is it the future, I think it is both.  A lot of the territory we are moving into now is more fragmented, with more modular technology being established.   On the one hand we have a future orientated convergence where everything goes into the mobile phone, but then again we have this tinkering and maker culture emerging that harks back to something else.  I think here LEGO can and will play a part, in both convergence and in tinkering.

I guess it is a bit like the Back to the Future film trilogy.  What is fun about that movie and makes it timeless is its future nostalgia; that we now live in that story’s future – back to the future in that context is now the past.  In a way LEGO space is timeless in a similar way.  If you look at the stuff it still is somehow futuristic and somehow nostalgic and somehow out of time, in a way other sets might not be.”

I expanded on Bjarne’s theme, that the  space sets represented a dream of a future that never was, in the way they referenced the optimism of NASA’s space exploration programme.

“There is a lot of NASA DNA in LEGO Space definitively. You also start to see some of this ideology coming back in films like The Martian.  I’m hoping for a new era of ambitious space exploration.”

With the tantalising idea of a new era of LEGO space sets I asked Bjarne if he saw any influence of his own work, or potentially even this future nostalgia, in other designers’ work

“Sometimes I get to talk to some of these people, and I quite often get people saying they used to play with my models as kids, which makes me feel very old, but is also very nice.  I can’t point out design cues, if you like, in their work though.  In terms of hearing that people appreciate those old designs, and that it meant something to them, that is a very deep thing. We are all literally and figuratively building upon each others ideas. Kids, fans, designers, all sharing and adding to the same vast pool of creativity and knowledge. The LEGO system is both the ultimate concrete example and the best metaphor of how new ideas are born and developed.

I also wanted to note that the toys that you never got are a big influence for grown ups and a different sort of nostalgia – these have a big impact on what you build now.  I know that there were big sets that I didn’t have but that I looked at in the catalogue.   The LEGO catalogue is a great inspirator for kids both back then and now. There is a whole research project to be done into what your toys do to you as a grown up.”

As well as the catalogues, I suggested that the alternative models that LEGO produced for the box reverses also provided tantalising inspiration.

“It is coming back again, this focus on more open-ended creativity rather than only building from instructions.  And you can also do that more now that we have digital ways of communicating and sharing creations online.  A lot that is very interesting for the future of LEGO comes from the question of how to open this up.”

With this focus on a positive future for LEGO, that combines both a traditional understanding of the joy of building with bricks with the bright new world of digital expansion, we ended our conversation.  And if I had been in any doubt before as to the importance of Bjarne’s work in the development of LEGO, his thoughtful observations only went to further convince me that he would have as important a part to play in its future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Building the Essential: LEGO Hair and Other Archetypes

Baby Makes three

Baby Makes Three by Shelly Corbett

One of the most unexpected crossovers from the world of LEGO building to mainstream culture comes in the form of the vernacular expression ‘LEGO hair’.  A popular insult applied to a person whose hair is overly perfect, hair-sprayed to within an inch of petrification or which displays bizarre geometric angles.   Of course whilst the slang is based on a direct visual analogy, it suggests more: that to have LEGO hair is to be fastidious to the point of obsession, vain and uncompromising.

As an aspect of everyday speech this insult proved its full acceptance into our dialect when it found its way into the script of popular BBC television daytime soap opera Doctors[i].  In the aforementioned episode the prim and proper wig wearing Practice Manager Mrs Tenbee, was described as part of a character assassination as having LEGO hair; and we all knew what this meant.  An overt focus on an ideal external image might betray limitations in one’s ability to adapt and cope with change.

What is perhaps most fascinating about this description, is not so much its social application, but what it indicates about our understanding of LEGO building.  There is something about LEGO hair that exceeds the imperfect, bed headed, unruly hair styles we all sport.  LEGO hair is unlike any real hair; in its ideal plastic pre-formed way it is seen as the archetype of hair.

This link between beauty, perfection and the expectations we all have about creating an ideal self-image, has been explored explicitly through the medium of bricks.  Dutch art director Elroy Klee[ii] has created a series of immaculate LEGO wigs that resemble fashionable hairstyles, an African afro, short crop and blonde layers, using only black, red and yellow pieces.  These life-sized and anatomically engineered artworks were designed to be worn by three models as part of an advertising campaign entitled Mind Play[iii].

Picture1

Mind Play by Elroy Klee

The photographs of the three women make explicit connections between the idea and visual construction of beauty.   Fashion has long propagated a fantastical vision of the beautiful via a complex aesthetic process: the art of make up, photographic filters, lighting and other camera tricks and the digital editing-out of a model’s supposed ‘imperfections’.  The results being that the models we see presented on the pages of glossy magazines embody an imaginary ideal rather than any individual.  By taking one part of this process, in this case hair styling, and subverting it, these images play with the preconceptions we all have with regard to the aspirations of perfection manufactured by the fashion industry.  To fully control and model hair in this case means having it replaced by a brick built plastic alternative.  The result: a perfect layer cut, a perfect afro and a perfect fringe cut – but all unreal.  All three women look beautiful, but with a knowing nod to the archetype of beauty they have become: with this ideal literally being worn upon their heads.  Less than a critique this witty visual gag engages and opens up a space to think about what it means to aspire to perfection; and how much of that aspiration is linked to a desire to create an identity rather than accept the person we are– bad hair and all?

mind3

Mind Play by Elroy Klee

mind2

Mind Play by Elroy Klee

However, when we use the phrase ‘LEGO hair’, we are unlikely to be imaging the sculptural beauty of Elroy Klee’s creations.  It is far more likely that the first image that springs to mind is that of the original mini-figures’ brown or black bowl-cut hair element.  This simple piece of brick design being used for several years to stand in for all the hairstyles possible in the LEGO mini-figure world, alongside its pig-tailed female equivalent.   As a design exercise these LEGO elements boiled down the essential features of what makes hair, hair, creating an archetypal form in a single piece.

0891B771000005DC-2926444-Dennis_Wise_was_compared_to_a_Lego_character_after_he_appeared_w-a-2_1422267515505

Original LEGO hair

Interestingly the LEGO hair elements pre-date the perhaps most iconic aspect of the LEGO mini-figure, its ubiquitous smiling face.  The female pigtail variant was used in the mid-70s, when LEGO produced a number of sets with figures with non-articulated torsos and blank faces.  In this era the hair element not only signified an archetypal style but also a gender.  To differentiate the male figures, which were often determined by their hat and role – fireman, policeman and so forth – from the female figures, the LEGO designers used the hair element to signify all women.

Unknown

Defining a gender by their hair

Given our society’s current progressive views with regard to gender equality, this reduction of femininity to something as trivial as a hairpiece seems archaic and redolent of the time that produced it, but beyond the sexist overtones there is something magnificent to be said about the essential economy of the design.   If it is possible to define LEGO building as the exercise of using the imagination to create new and different creations from a limited stock of elements, then creating a single brick capable of representing one half of all people in the LEGO world bordered on genius.   As an aide to both play and creative thinking, the archetypal form of the LEGO hair element opened up a multitude of opportunities.

This focus on original elements in the LEGO system defines the path that the company took in the late 70s and early 80s.  As they moved away from a range of basic building blocks supplemented by a handful of specialist pieces, such as wheels and windows, they became increasingly interested in developing a universal LEGO language that would support children’s narrative play as well as their creative expression.  During this period the company introduced a number of iconic elements that are now synonymous with the LEGO aesthetic.  One only has to think of the LEGO cup, the LEGO wrench and the LEGO flower to start to see the direction the company was taking.

What each of these elements did, by embodying the essential qualities of the object they represented, was to create an immediate short hand that allowed access to a set of quick and easily transferable skills that a child needed to make a world.  By placing a unique element such as a LEGO steering wheel on almost any other brick, the child was able to create a vehicle with a cab that a mini-figure could sit in.

The LEGO designers made use of this newfound set of possibilities speedily creating within the smaller sets sold in the pocket money ranges a collection of archetypal models.  Using a tiny number of pieces, which crucially made use of these new archetypal elements, they made the very personification of a police car, a fire engine and a lunar buggy, amongst many other classic creations.  Crucially the children who bought these sets with their limited stock of elements could quickly achieve similar results.

Perhaps this development helps us understand one of those false arguments that persist within the LEGO community.   That today, with its almost viral propagation of specialist elements, LEGO sets have lost the creativity that these earlier toys had.  Of course this argument begins from a false premise: that the increase of building options reduces building options.  Patently this is untrue, with the unique and endlessly innovative use of new parts being made by builders within the community daily.  Still, there is some foundation to this argument, that is tied less to a loss of creativity, and has rather more to do with the corruption these new elements have on a pure archetypal world with its limited set of defining elements.

Those who mourn the passing of the LEGO themes of the late 70s and early 80s are grieving for the end of a short-lived perfect Platonic world.   Recalling Plato’s idea of the Forms[iv], which argued that all things in our world, which appear different and unique are defined by singular universal ideas, might be applied to the LEGO system of this period.  If Plato sought to answer the question of universality by noting that the multitude of individual horses in the world were all defined by an archetypal idea of the Form of a horse (four legs, a mane, hooves and so on), then these specialist LEGO bricks that stood in for all people, or all doors, or all flowers, literally created a Platonic world of Forms.  Fascinatingly the classic era of LEGO building might reflect the classical era of Greek philosophy.

Whilst the direct belief once afforded to Plato’s ideas has long since been challenged, modified or outright rejected, culturally its link to how we all perceive a notion of perfection remains embedded in our language and way of thinking.  It is of course no surprise that a generation of children presented with a building system that beautifully represented these ideas of perfection would cling onto the sort of idealised creations and ways of looking at the world it provided.  For the LEGO builder of a certain age these archetypal elements provide a wistful nostalgia for a lost Eden; a time when building meant contributing to a simple yet perfect world that relied on well-understood symbols and conventions.

As the inevitable shift in design continued within the LEGO ranges, developing ever more specialist elements, the relation between these elements as ideal Forms started to waver, and with it part of the purity of the shorthand building language that came with it.  Where once a hair element was enough to identify a gender, there were now hundreds of hair elements to choose from in every conceivable colour, shape and form.    Those who hankered after a lost Eden of ideal building saw a shift away from creating with ideal Forms being replaced by a process of selecting the most appropriate element.

If the diversification of hair elements revealed one problem, the creation of other pieces such as large purpose built aircraft nose cones, huge rock elements and all manner of pre-fabricated flora, exasperated the situation.  The call went out, this is not the pure-building we knew; this is directed construction of a highly unimaginative type.

However the problem was not with the creation of new elements, specialised or otherwise, but with a deep-set understanding as to what essentially LEGO bricks are.  For the critical voices who bemoan the diversification of pieces, the LEGO system is split in two: the bricks that are considered raw elements – plates and standard bricks, and specialist elements that have singular defined uses.  As long the former outnumber the later, the specialist elements simply help support basic brick construction.  However should they outnumber the former, they are perceived to determine what is to be built, with the raw elements simply supporting the ideas or Forms already established by these specialist pieces.

This is just one way of looking at LEGO bricks.  The more generous approach is to understand that all LEGO elements belong intrinsically to the same system, with no artificial division used to distinguish them.  As long as a brick has a capacity to be connected with other bricks it is considered part of the general economy of bricks.  As such, given this rubric, a hair element is only ever considered the personification of hair as long as it is connected to a mini-figure’s head as hair.  As all LEGO builders know a LEGO element always has a use that was never intended by the original designer.

Picture1

An innovative use of the hair element by Karf Oohlu

A builder like Karf Oohlu[v], who I interviewed to years ago [vi], exemplifies this.  As soon as new mini-figure parts are released he is busy building and experimenting with them; overturning the designer’s original idea.  The hair element being a particular favourite of his for this type of subversion.  This can be seen in builds such as Rage where a spikey red hair piece is used to represent the thrust on a bio-sentient spaceship and Ha Silly Billy where a similar red hair piece is used to recreate a camp fire.  Another builder Takamichi Irie[vii], takes this theme even further in his minimalist animal creations, where a LEGO hair piece is repurposed as a snail’s shell.

22299036334_3dce7e8681_o.jpg

Snail by Takamichi Irie

What this way of altering an intended use for a piece reveals is something akin to the way in which philosophers have come to challenge the Platonic view of the Forms.  If you take a classic critique of the certainty of truths in metaphysical Forms as presented by Nietzsche in his famous essay ‘On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense’, we find an argument that helps us better understand what the relationship between the original designed use a piece has and the multiple applied uses it can be deployed to achieve is.  Nietzsche argued that Ideas are not truths but actually ‘a mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms’[viii]: that rather than presenting stable ideas, metaphysical truths were in actuality the product of creative associations.  In conclusion he argued that there are no predetermined essential ideas, only the ideas humans make in an attempt to describe and understand their world.  The same is true of the LEGO system of elements.  There are no essential or true uses of pieces only the metaphorical use of pieces to create new models, new ideas and new archetypes.

So when we talk about building the essential, of finding something archetypal in the process of making, we are not searching for a singular or universal ideal that fits all.  Whilst a LEGO hair element can stand in for all hair, the essential nature of hair is approached in a LEGO creation from a multitude of equally valid techniques, whether this be the pig tailed mini-figure of a 1970s mini-figure to the elaborate afro sculpture made by Elroy Klee.

This notion of what it means to build and discover the essential with LEGO bricks has been something that the company has kept close to its heart from the outset.  An open and imaginative mind can find in even the smallest selection of pieces the right associations to create a metaphor or idea of what they believe is essential about something.  This is seen writ large in the LEGO commercial 15 Bricks in which two children create rockets, submarines and unicorns from the same fifteen elements.  Arguably through the constraints of piece limitation each of the children locate what facets of a rocket or a unicorn fundamentally make them what they are and locate the appropriate pieces to realise this.  The same principle is found repeated again and again in the marketing approach of the company: that the joy of LEGO building is found in its providing of the tools to make simply anything from the most basic of elements, aided only by the power of imagination.

If this approach is true for children it remains equally so for the adult building community.  Where often the media and fan forums celebrate the huge creations, the builds made from hundreds of thousands of pieces and the mind-boggling complex, there is equal skill displayed in those tiny creations that seek the essential in the smallest number of parts.  Take for example the e11even contest[ix] in which builders were challenged to make models with exactly eleven pieces.  The sheer variety of building was staggering.  From Custom BRICKS’s Eiffel Tower[x] to Kaptain Kobold’s Tardis[xi] the quality of imagination rivals anything we see from the super-builders with their million-plus piece studios.  Crucially they also present a way of building open to anyone who has ever bought a LEGO set no matter how small.

11630445384_477149c6be_o

Eiffel Tower by Custom BRICKS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Tardis and Dalek by Kaptain Kobold

One of the drives that makes LEGO building such a compulsive practice undoubtedly comes from the quest to uncover the essential.  These small pieces of plastic providing the tools that help us search for what is most important and archetypal about our world, from the homes we live in to the cars we drive, via nature, space exploration and anything else we can think of.  Yet it isn’t a fixed project, none of us are looking for the same perfection, or even the same hairstyle to appropriate.  The LEGO system of bricks is like all living languages, shot through with established conventions and apparent fixed meanings, but when any of us speak we do so with a poetic slant, we change and adapt the words to mean what we want to say, to invent and create a dialect for ourselves and our communities.  In the LEGO community a hundred builders might set out to build their idea of a horse, with the result that the idea of a horse ceases to be fixed to the LEGO element of a mini-figure horse, instead proliferating through a multitude of builds a shared cultural understanding of everything that is equine – there are even examples of hair piece horses.  In the LEGO community building the essential means expanding an understanding through the presentation of difference and diversity, and this principle might in itself be the essential factor behind every LEGO builders’ ambition.

10240771033_a3a212e244_o-2

Horse by Mosterbrick

4798112158_c338b5042b_o

Sleipnir by Mike Nieves

Endnotes

[i] See the BBC website Doctors page: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006mh9v

[ii] Elroy Klee website: http://elroyklee.com

[iii] More details on the Mindplay project: http://elroyklee.com/portfolio/mindplay/

[iv] See book 4 of the Republic. Plato, Republic in Plato: The Collected Dialogues ed. Hamilton and Cairns, Princeton University Press, New Jersey 1961.

[v] See Karf Oohlu’s Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/dragon55/

[vi] ‘Interview with Karf Oohlu’ in Bricks Culture Issue 3, Republic 66 Media, London 2015

[vii] See Takamichi Irie’s Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/legomichiiiiii/

[viii] Fredrich Nietzsche, ‘Truth and Lying in a Non Moral Sense’ in The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings ed. Geuss and Speirs, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1999 p.146

[ix] See the E11even Contest Flickr group: http://www.flickr.com/groups/e11even/

[x]  See Custom BRICKS Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/custombricks/

[xi]  See Kaptain Kobold’s Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/kaptainkobold/

 

This article was first published in Bricks Culture 7

Building in Two Dimensions

 

8468496990_07d93ab04a_o
Big Bad Wolf by David Alexander Smith

One of the more surprising claims I’ve made to my fellow LEGO enthusiasts over the years is that for me LEGO building is a cheap pastime.   This always seemed to fly in the face of AFOL convention. Everyday we are bombarded with images of fans’ bespoke building lairs, replete with hundreds of thousands of bricks. The forums cluttered with enthusiastic discussions about new sets and the addictive perils of Bricklink stores. Somehow amongst this consumer noise I have personally found myself spending very little on bricks, which isn’t to say that I wouldn’t have done so if the opportunity arose.

When I returned to LEGO building in my late 30s I was faced by, shall we say certain financial challenges: 2 small children and their associated nursery fees, as well as a new house with a big mortgage to pay. I couldn’t complain, life was good, and I was lucky enough to be able to support my family; but in the short term there was little left over for frivolous hobbies.

Around this time my wife gave me a bag of LEGO, rescued from my Mother’s attic as a nostalgic present one Christmas. A familiar story for our community quickly followed. What started as a bit of fun on Christmas Day turned into an obsession by the end of January! More surprising was the fact that it unlocked that childhood ability to create and play with whatever you have. The old 1980s LEGO company slogan, ‘a new toy everyday’, ringing more true than ever.

23314738644_3d6e3a3627_o

Christmas Scene by David Alexander Smith

I revelled in the fact that I had enough bricks to build what I wanted, and of course what I made could always be dismantled allowing me to make something new.   Combining this approach with the power of digital photography, I was satisfied with quickly amassing an archive of models. Whilst I started buying the odd specialist piece or small LEGO set, there was no desire to scale up and amass a huge collection. Besides my finances strictly prohibited this.

So for the first eight months of my new life in the LEGO community I satisfied myself with building space models and vehicles similar to those of my childhood.   I still do, as my space dinosaur series proves. But inevitably I needed to expand my subject matter; a certain creative itch needed to be scratched. There had to be a way to carry over into LEGO the work I had developed as an art student, and informed my life working in a university drama department.

Initially I was stumped.   To do what I wanted would require a massive increase in the amount of bricks I owned. I looked at the big brick artists like Sean Kenney and Nathan Sawaya, who combined a reverence to the form of brick building with artistic vision, and quickly realised that their scale of work was impossible for a brick-poor builder like me. How could I engage with the beauty of brick-built art with such a meagre collection.

The answer came as it so often does from working within strict limitations. I was determined to make a piece that paid homage to my series of drawings and painting of a phantom figure I had made several years before. Inspiration hit, a shadow only needed to be built in two dimensions, and this would allow me to build at a decent scale without heamorging elements. The result was my first artistic piece, Magic Cat, Lonely Boy, The Bird and Their Shadow, which captured something of the feel of my artwork. It also hinted at another way of celebrating the LEGO brick, rather than the simplicity of the 2×2 element it leaned heavily on the wonderful set of angles found in the slopped elements of the system.

8192965342_6d5d3dd7b7_o

Magic Cat, Lonely Boy The Bird and Their Shadow by David Alexander Smith

8169227864_4b8debbb1b_o

The Attic by David Alexander Smith

The next move forward in this development of two-dimensional building came a few months later when I realised how much I could build with only a handful of bricks. The small piece Musicians that followed was an homage to my artistic heroes, Picasso, Klee and Chagall. A simple and unique aesthetic, different yet similar to my paintings, was emerging. An aesthetic that celebrated the LEGO building system and at the same time required very few elements to implement.

 

8392000803_272eb3dd06_o

Musicians by David Alexander Smith

Work followed on two pieces in short succession that took this idea of building and applied it to popular culture. Luke and Vader, a recreation of the epic light saber duel from Return of the Jedi saw me work at developing a silhouette style that captured the archetypal images of popular culture. Batman at the Graveside polished the technique further, finding a way to capture more detail. As well as fun pieces like my two Wind-Up Robots, which spoke to many AFOL’s childhood.

8474803269_66ecf0efb2_o

Luke and Vader by David Alexander Smith

8520065585_978d226131_o

Batman at the Graveside by David Alexander Smith

9997230554_8fa5928fbc_o

Wind-Up Robot by David Alexander Smith

A path was now set, where I could quickly and effectively build complex brick images from a handful of elements. A sequence of works followed in the theme of silhouettes that explored the potential for LEGO to illustrate classical myth and literature, from Ancient Greece, to Marlowe and Arthurian legend.

9478453446_c267a0d4fa_o

Dr Faustus by David Alexander Smith

9382232005_6ae1fd0032_o

Stranger on the Road by David Alexander Smith

9472179334_3c12df63db_o

Oedipus and the Sphinx by David Alexander Smith

These works gained some traction in the LEGO community, ultimately ending up as a four page spread entitled ‘Shadow Play’ in Mike Doyle’s Beautiful LEGO: Dark book. The most successful of these pieces, a rendition of Plato’s parable of the chariot, featured as a winning build.

13031665293_41756db3cc_o

The Parable of the Chariot by David Alexander Smith

Later in this same year I took some of these creations to Brick 2014 in London. Despite my initial horror of having to display black silhouette pieces on black table cloths (quickly remedied with a white sheet), the show was a success. I also noticed myself at odds with my fellow contributors. When asked how many bricks did it take to make these, I repsonded with the unimpressive 200-300 pieces. How long did they take you, about an afternoon I answered. By the end of the show I had become evangelical about how much could be done with very little, and I was encouraging adults and children alike to consider building in two dimensions.

15175199603_3f7bb3eeac_o

The Strategists by David Alexander Smith (Displayed at Brick 2014)

After the success of these silhouettes I found myself at another impasse. Without investing in many more black elements the series could not be pushed further. That life sized silhouette of a Victorian lady would have to wait. Also I was becoming dissatisfied with the erasure of the brick quality of the builds. As I was becoming more successful at building silhouettes, the fact that they were made of bricks was becoming less obvious.

An answer came from the use of negative space and my love of folk art traditions. I found that by punching holes in my work, a paper-cut, print or lace like quality could be achieved. Initially these models were worked out in black and white, in pieces like The Owl and the Pussycat, Chinese Soldier and Portrait of Frankenstein’s Monster.

10535575405_104f8ba97c_o

The Owl and the Pussycat by David Alexander Smith

 

16753273311_d3b66f20b2_o

Chinese Warrior

30515411435_28dddd92e9_o

Portrait of Frankenstein’s Monster by David Alexander Smith

However what quickly became apparent was that the development of these negative spaces allowed the return of colour to my work. By utilising a double-layered technique I was able to colour-in and add patterns to my work. I looked to Russian folk art as a way of exploring this new technique.

23342889146_33c2b1af3b_o

Russian Composition by David Alexander Smith

29476492650_7ea664871b_o

Two Figures by David Alexander Smith

 

Five years in on this artistic journey, I still regularly turn to two-dimensional building as a way of creating what appear to be larger artistic builds from my still small LEGO collection. It seems to me to be a style  more regularly used by a whole range of builders, and a welcome addition to the huge creative options that LEGO offers. But perhaps more than many other forms of building, its true creative potential is still be fully realised. As an experimental adventure, it is a way of building I can see myself pursuing for years to come. – whether it be through more folk art or returning to pop culture themes like Futurama.

 

28828138305_b310338b44_o

Three Birds by David Alexander Smith

 

 

15505676915_64c13ce7a4_o

Futurama by David Alexander Smith