Tyler Halliwell’s Fantastic Visions

Tyler Halliwell’s creations have been stunning the Internet for the past 8 years. Whether building models inspired by gothic auteur Guillermo del Toro or popular video game franchise Pokémon, his art never fails to impress in both character and building skill.

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The Endless

David Alexander Smith You have been an active and inspirational part of the LEGO scene for some time now. What got you involved in the first place, and what is it about LEGO that continues to inspire you to create?

Tyler Halliwell My first taste of the online LEGO community came in late 2009 when I was looking for source material for my MOC (before I knew what the term MOC or ‘my own creation’ meant) of Boba Fett’s second ship, the Slave II. At that time I was a 14 year old Star Wars nerd searching for some pictures who just happened to stumble upon someone’s LEGO creation of the same ship. The creation was hosted on a website I’d not come across before: MOCpages. This, to me, was mind-blowing, as people here were sharing creations, commenting on each other’s work, and building things I could never have dreamed of making. From there, I started joining contests, building in different themes, and eventually volunteered to help in a ‘MOCpages collaborative’ for Brickworld Chicago 2011. That collaborative, with the future members of VirtuaLUG, was certainly the beginning of my current involvement in the LEGO community. Since then it’s been a combination of finding my own style as well as continuing to work with others to create new and exciting things.

As to why it inspires me, LEGO is the perfect medium for creating, in my opinion. You can build for hours, then leave your workspace for days and nothing will change. If you mess up, you can take a part or all of the creation apart and start over. LEGO can be sturdy or it can be flimsy. Any shape that you want to create  can to be achieved. There are so many possibilities with LEGO. However, it also imposes many restrictions. There are only so many colours. There are only so many pieces. At the end of the day, you can only put so much weight on a stud or pin before the clutch power will begin to fail. This combination, of complete freedom in conjunction with very definite restrictions makes LEGO a constantly engaging and fun medium.

DAS You have a certain reputation for building models that are macabre or uncanny in some way. What draws you to this subject matter?

TH As a child, I read a lot of fantasy literature. My father is an English teacher and has always instilled in his children a love of mythology, fantasy, and science fiction. Thus, it was not too surprising for me to fall in love with Hellboy, where Mike Mignola combines mythology and fantasy with a taste of horror. After finding two trade paperbacks of Hellboy at a booksale, I of course had to watch the movie. This was my first encounter with the work of Guillermo del Toro. His stylish renderings of the comic characters made me seek out more of his work. I found in del Toro a director who, like Mignola, respected fantasy and mythology and combined those with themes of horror. His work made me appreciate the creepy, the uncanny, and the macabre, and through my respect for his art, made me want to recreate these themes through my art, which just happened to be LEGO. However, I would be remiss not to mention that I also enjoy building things in LEGO that challenge the way people tend to think about the medium. First and foremost, LEGO is a children’s toy. If building a bloody ghost that has a broken jaw and a cleaver in its head makes people view LEGO in a new light, I am happy that I can help alter their perception of the toy.

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Lady Sharpe

DAS And then in creations like your recent Niffler and Oddish builds you seem to completely swing the other way towards a shamelessly cute aesthetic. Is this as important a side to your creativity as the more unnerving builds?

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Niffler

TH I must admit, while I’ve enjoyed dabbling in the cuter side of LEGO, these creations were both requested by my significant other. She desired some less-creepy builds to balance out my standard fare, as well as to see if I could even make such things. I cannot complain really as both creations were fun challenges, especially the Niffler. Who knows, this could be the beginning of a period where I only make adorable creations. Or I could go for a decomposing corpse next. It’s always a toss-up.

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Oddish

DAS I guess comic books might be seen as a connecting influence across your work, that draws the cute and uncanny together. What do you find so inspiring about this art form?

TH I’ve enjoyed comics for a long time. Hellboy will always be my favourite but Sandman has also influenced a lot of my work. While I enjoy those specific comics for many reasons, I think I most enjoy comics as an art form because of their accessibility. The stories are just as thorough as any literature but are easily picked up, put down, and reread. As a builder who does best when translating others’ visions into the brick, the art in comic books is very appealing when building. I love reading standard literature as well, I just tend to build from things that others have already designed.

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Hellboy (2)

DAS The other aspect of your work people might know you for is the medium of bust building. What draws you to this type of creation, and what challenges and opportunities does it raise?

TH My first bust was the Faun, based on the creature from Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. I needed to fill space on my little display table at Brickworld Lafayette, a small hometown exposition, and decided that the Faun would be a fun build. I’d recently built a giant based on Keith Thompson’s concept art and was in the mood for more large-scale figure building. I really hadn’t decided on scale specifics until I started building the nose and realized that the head would end up fairly large. Ten hours or so later, I had a bust and found the size and level of detail really satisfying. It was small enough that I had to use specific pieces to make shapes instead of basic-brick sculpting (a fairly common LEGO bust method) but large enough to allow for unique physical features.  Faun was a hit both at the expo and online. I realised that I’d found the scale I’d been searching for when creating creatures previously. With a bust, I could include a high level of detail without needing to produce a huge creation (though some have ended up quite large). I find the scale incredibly fun, and I never really know where each bust will take me. They’re entirely unplanned, I just start with a specific area that I think will be the hardest to replicate and, once that sets the scale, continue around to finish the creation. The biggest challenge has really been overcoming colour or part limitations. This was most prevalent when I made Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet, as the parts palette for gold and medium lavender are both quite limited, dark blue less so. However, that made the build a lot of fun!

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Faun

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Thanos and the Infinity Gauntlet

DAS Some of your pieces look extremely complicated. How do you go about planning something as insanely complex as your awe inspiring Monkey King?

TH This assumes that I ever really plan anything! Other than having an idea of what I want to build next and ordering specific pieces if I know I’ll really need them (dinosaur tails/tentacles for the hair of the second of the two Endless after the success of Dream), I don’t really go into a creation with any sort of plan. There is no sketching, I just pull up some reference pictures and go for it. For the Monkey King, I originally made what is essentially a pseudo-chimpanzee head, but in tan and brown. As that turned out well, I remembered liking the mythology behind Sun WuKong in the past and decided to continue my way on down the body. I made the front and back armour plates, chose white for the colour of the clothes (as I have a vast amount from my Red Queen’s Castle build in 2012), and got to work. I made the staff after the armour to set the scale, then finished the upper body. Due to weight concerns, I followed the suggestion of Matt Rowntree and settled on the lotus position. So, there’s really no planning. It’s probably not the best method as it has occasionally led to some urgent Bricklink orders, but overall it’s never been a huge problem. The most planning that I generally do these days is looking over what colours I still have lots of pieces in and letting that determine the next creation.

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The Monkey King

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Monkey King Work in Progress

DAS Having had a close look at the innards of one of your pieces I know from first hand experience how much you like to push what most people would consider traditional LEGO building techniques. Do you have any special building approaches or tips you’d like to share?

TH This is a difficult question, as I have no experience building in the way that anyone else does. I’ve just gathered the techniques that are out there (SNOT [studs not on top], etc) and apply things that I’ve used with success in the past. I certainly don’t care at all about ‘illegal’ connections. If a connection will help achieve a desired form and there is no better option, I will use it. I suppose my special approach is that I do whatever is necessary to achieve the preferred outer form. If the inside of my creation is a web of hinges and clips all fragilely connected to one another, so be it. Just don’t be afraid to use some unorthodox connections if the perfect shape can be achieved.

DAS Looking back over your work you see a clear point of departure in your work where these new techniques were implemented. Do you see yourself seriously returning to mini-figure scale building – although I know there are the odd pieces for collaborations you still make – or does your art now entirely rely on this advanced way of building?

TH While I am not opposed to using minifigures, I just don’t find that scale very engaging. I have much more fun at a larger scale and have found a niche there. Minifigures certainly have their use, such as in my recent Ancient Ruins moc, where the overall scene needs to be large and there is no room, or need, for a larger scale. However, I doubt that I will be making any macabre LEGO creations at minifigure scale anytime soon. It is fair to say that my ‘art’ relies on the larger, non-minifigure scale creations, but I occasionally find it hard to shake the appeal of the cute little guys.

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Ancient Ruins

DAS You are an amazing part of the LEGO community, what has your experience of it been like?

TH I’ve had a great time in the LEGO community. I may not have started as much of a builder, but it seems I have found my niche and since then have been very fortunate to gain my current following. I’ve been in magazines, Mike Doyle’s Beautiful LEGO books, numerous blogs, and recently have been invited as part of a museum show. I’ve also gained the notice of many artists who inspire me, notably Neil Gaiman, Mike Mignola, and Guillermo del Toro. I’ve made many wonderful friends, some of whom I have visited while abroad, and continue to be inspired by the wonderful art constantly being produced. It’s also been strangely effective at making me embrace my overall nerdiness, as my success in the hobby has made it difficult to hide this facet of my life. This has been a good thing, as my friends have accepted that I’m actually pretty good at this weird LEGO thing. My involvement in the LEGO community has definitely opened a lot of doors and led to some incredible relationships and opportunities. I have to assume that my parent’s didn’t expect it to be this successful when I decided to attend my first LEGO convention as a nerdy teenager, beginning to make his way into the online LEGO community.

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Anubis

DAS The community has led you into several high profile and exciting collaborative projects, with VirtuaLUG, the Rivers of Hell with Mihai Marius Mihu and the Exquisite Corpse project we worked on together. Could you tell me a little more about these ventures?

TH VirtuaLUG collaborations have been a constant throughout my time in the LEGO community. While these are always fun, Mihai’s invitation to collaborate together was a wonderful opportunity to work on a something that perfectly fit my interests. Mihai has always been one of my favourite builders, if not my favourite. I also adore Greek mythology and thus, while we departed quite a bit from the myths in the end, I could not have chosen a better theme. Mihai is an incredible artist and combines a similar building aesthetic to my own with extraordinary artistic vision. I can build, but I could never hope to come up with the brilliant worlds that he does. Luckily, he was brimming with ideas and produced a hauntingly beautiful version of Hell in which we dwelled for six months. Once we determined which rivers each of us would build, Mihai produced final concept drawings and we got to work. As I mentioned earlier, I am at my best when building something from an established design. This is quite apparent when my final creations are compared with Mihai’s concept drawings. Of the rivers, my favourite to build was Lethe, as it provided me with the opportunity to build a LEGO skull as the centrepiece of the landscape. While the rest of the diorama was dismantled, the skull has stayed together as one of my many display pieces. I would love to collaborate with Mihai again, as we worked well together and shared a single vision throughout the project. I wish the project had been a little better received by the community and elsewhere online, but I suppose it wasn’t exactly the most mainstream of themes.

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Lethe

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Styx

The Exquisite Corpse project was also very engaging, as I was able to build what I arguably am best at, a head. However, this did come with the problem of shipping the creation across the Atlantic, as you know well. I decided to build a very sturdy head wearing a tribal mask. I wish I’d gone for a somewhat less sturdy creation, if only to give you a challenge, David, but I did have a lot of fun making the mask. I loved the end result of the project, too, as Tom’s Popeye torso and Stu’s volcano section made for a fantastic sculpture. The end result was as gloriously surreal as I hoped.

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The Exquisite Corpse

DAS And finally, what is next, where do you see you future building going?

TH This is a good question. I don’t see much building taking place in my near future, as I’ll be on your side of the pond in Scotland come fall, doing my Master’s work in Anatomy at the University of Dundee. So, for those twelve months, I don’t expect to have much in the way of LEGO on hand or time to build even if I did. After that, who knows where life will take me. It could be the beginning of my ‘dark ages,’ we’ll just have to see. I suppose I am fortunate enough to have staved them off through my undergraduate years. I think there is still a lot to do at this larger scale, and will continue to make organic builds and hopefully push the medium whenever I can.

You can see many more of Tyler’s amazing creations on his Flickr stream here, and for a closer look at the Rivers of Hell project click here.

From Pixel to Plastic

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Atlas and P-Body Wedding Cake Toppers by Legohaulic

LEGO bricks and digital technology have become intimately connected. So much so, that trying to imagine a time before the two worked together is now unthinkable. The plastic brick and the digital pixel in a profound sense have become interchangeable.

An easy answer, which might explain this relationship, would see this connection reduced to prophetic business sense. Speaking with the former LEGO designer Bjarne Tveskov in 2015[i], he noted how his engagement with the early home computer scene corresponded with the company’s nascent project to harness digital technologies alongside more traditional building. This early investment has certainly proved important, whether it be through the highly lucrative partnership it has forged with the video game producers Travellers Tales[ii] or the development of the Mindstorms[iii] range, replete with its educational programming language; or its ability to link with innovative video games such as Minecraft[iv]. Today additional digital content is a staple of many of their ranges, from Nexo Knight power shields to the redeemable digital codes found in collectable mini-figure packs. Undoubtedly this is a trend set to continue.

Yet there is something resolutely material, real and grounded in the phenomenal experience of LEGO creations, that makes one ask how we got from the bricks we hold in our hands to the digital representation of  bricks on a screen. Are these two objects – one material, one not – even of the same type? Douglas Coupland, the Canadian, novelist, essayist and artist, put the problem succinctly when he suggested that ‘Aesthetic experiences and objects are now dividing into the binary categories of downloadable and nondownloadable.’[v] Taking Coupland’s thesis seriously the video game ‘experience’ of LEGO creations and the ‘objects’ that are built from ‘real’ LEGO bricks should gravitate to the polar axis of his binary distinction?

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Manic Miner by Dr Dave Watford

Yet, as is so often the case with proclamations that make extreme cases, in practice something else happens. It might in fact be possible to download the digital image in a unique way through the medium of LEGO bricks. For example Dr Dave Watford’s[vi] Manic Miner[vii] model of the eponymous 1980s video game produces a literal translation form digital to plastic representation, where one stud equates exactly with its associated pixel. Given the simplicity of Manic Miner’s 8-bit graphical style, where each pixel is easily definable, it  becomes a code that is effortlessly understood and replicated. The rectilinear form of this aesthetic language allows it in a straightforward way to be recreated via the medium of LEGO bricks

What happens in this process of transliteration between digital and brick languages is a change in status from interactive experience to phenomenal object. The movement between pixel and plastic becomes one of making ‘real’ in the material sense something that previously existed in the virtual realm. This encounter repeats a non-digital experience all LEGO fans have previously practiced: building from instructions. Taking a visual code and using it to build an object in real space.This relationship has come full circle in one of the LEGO Group’s latest ventures. At the newly opened LEGO store in Leicester Square you will now find a portrait mosaic maker. A customer enters a small photographic booth, much like the one you find in post offices and railway stations for taking passport photos. Once inside a picture of the sitter is taken. With the help of a little computer processing this is subsequently rendered as a plan, which can be used to build the mosaic portrait.   A few minutes later the machine deposits a box containing the thousands of 1×1 LEGO plates needed to do just this. As was seen in the recent Channel 4 documentary LEGO at Christmas[viii] this provided hours of enjoyment for the shop’s retail manager, as he diligently demonstrated the fun of translating pixels into plastic.

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LEGO Store Leicester Square Mosaic Maker

What makes this process interesting is more than the fact that pixels translate easily into bricks. It is something that many of the best LEGO fan builders have discovered when building models based on video games. When one builds a model of an existent thing from LEGO bricks there is always a sense that it is a representation of the real and tangible object. As amazing as the piece is it remains a dissimulation of the thing which it copies. On the other hand, the unreality of digital subject matter means that copying it is no longer about copying the uncopyable, rather instead it becomes about locating the code initially used to create it. Once this code is identified it provides a set of identical principles initially founded by the computer programer, and that can now be approached through the medium of LEGO bricks. Solving this puzzle, in and for itself, is pleasing.

Matt De Lanoy’s[ix] Bob-omb Battlefield from Super Mario 64[x] ticks all the boxes when it comes to this form of building. A complete recreation of the fist level of the much-loved game, this has everything you need, from launch cannons to Chain Chomp straining on his leash. Putting its subject matter in context, Super Mario 64 saw Nintendo place its iconic plumber into a true 3D world for the first time; and unlike the 3D worlds of today’s video games it wore its limited set of polygons on its sleeve. As such the code that underpinned it was as visible as the simple pixels found in the 8-bit Manic Miner, but now added the extra qualities of space and depth that called out for it to be made in LEGO bricks. There is a satisfaction both in the building and viewing of this type of model – an ability to see the code at work in both the original game and it LEGO  double. In fact the code becomes more visible because we see how it differs yet remains the same across both media.

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Bob-omb Battlefield by Matt De Lanoy

The spatial and geometric references that make De Lanoy’s creation so appealing is just one way in which the LEGO brick formula can work. For example Iain Heath (AKA Ochre Jelly)[xi] has in a similar way reworked the first Doom[xii] game in LEGO bricks. His sprawling diorama recalls the original pixelated demons and texture mapped Martian environments, right down to the perfectly rendered gore splatters and ammo pick-ups. In this case, it is the LEGO bricks’ ability to provide sprite-like details that holds the attention, and reveals the shared code between model and game.

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Doom by Iain Heath

Surprisingly even when a game’s graphical presentation reaches a level whereby its code is hidden to the player, the process of being translated into a LEGO model may still perform this function. Imagine Rigney’s[xiii] epic model of The Bank of the Prophet from the game Bioshock Infinite[xiv] is perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate this.  From its vast scale complete with emblematic sky rails to the huge Song Bird that perches at the top of its domed roof, it renders the lead designer Ken Levine’s world in a form that reminds us of its coded origins. At a time where the gaming world appears to be pushing ever harder for absolute immersion through the development of virtual reality and the race for pure graphical fidelity, LEGO models that remind us of the human code that made them possible, play an important role.

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Bank of the Prophet by Imagine Rigney

Often the supposed retro-graphics, which hark back to a simpler era in gaming’s history, are summarised in terms of fashion. Like the shifts in music and clothing, these games are framed as a stylistic reappraisal of that which was great and authentic about a scene a generation or two before. However, with video games there is another reason why a simpler aesthetic appeals; because again it reveals the code that founds it.

As video games have increased in visual complexity, this relationship to a code has become ever more distant. This growing gap provided the catalyst, which finally provided the LEGO Group with the mainstream success it sought in the digital market place. By teaming up with the games developers Traveller’s Tales they found a way of referencing this fascination for the visibility of a code in a game’s aesthetic without compromising on production values. They achieved this explicitly through a representation of another code, the code of LEGO bricks, within a game.

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Welcome to ‘LEGO’ Jurassic Park

The Traveller’s Tales franchise of LEGO games do not reduce their style to a blocky or retro form. Instead they revel in the high level of polygons used in contemporary video game graphics. Their worlds choose to render glossy 3d recreations of actual LEGO bricks, and by doing so use these as an analogy for the actual code beneath the shiny surface. As players we read the world dressed in studs and populated by mini-figures as coded by the building language of LEGO bricks even when the way they operate flaunts many of these principles. In fact these games use many elements that are explicitly not formed from LEGO bricks in their presentation. The gameplay too has little to do with the build-and-play experience of creating with LEGO bricks, relying instead on problem solving, narrative structure and item collection. What the LEGO language offers the game is a metaphor regarding its created other-worldly nature; a reference not lost on the designers during the creation of the LEGO Jurassic World[xv] game, which translates the story of a forgotten genetic code found in an amber brick into LEGO form. A code which allows the possibility of bringing an earlier prehistoric time back to life. Splicing bricks and genes becomes inter-changable in the dinosaur lab and allows the player to create a huge variety of prehistoric monsters through the metaphor of mastering a code.

Lego_Amber

However it is not the LEGO Group or Travellers Tales who have undertaken the most notable translation of brick language into digital form . In 2009 the developer Mojang released the genre defining game Minecraft. It took some of the recognised block building code from LEGO construction and inserted it into a new ontological context. Here the movement from plastic to pixels retained the creative aspect of the code but altered the rationale for building. Unlike building with LEGO bricks, where there is always maintained a perception of one’s inventions as models, in Minecraft a new status is established. In its biomes the player is completely immersed into to a block-built word and from this a new existential relationship arises.   The reason for building becomes innately connected to the world in which one finds themselves; and the competency of making and creating is as such tied to the needs of survival: building shelters from evil mobs and the elements, finding food and crafting tools and kit to better tame the environment.

The game through its use of code scratched many of the same itches that LEGO building does, and as such a link between the two seemed almost inevitable.   Starting initially with the LEGO Cusso Microworld range, The LEGO Group quickly developed its own assortment of mini-figure scale sets. These products effectively took the Minecraft experience, and once more through the sharing of a familiar code, moved the product back from pixels to plastic.

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Minecraft Micro World

As if to point out the truly symbiotic interaction between LEGO products and Minecraft, YouTube’s most popular advocates set about building the LEGO sets according to the logic of their game. In Grian’s 2016 video LEGO VS MINECRAFT – Which Can I Build Faster?[xviii] we see the difference played out in the construction of the LEGO Minecraft set The First Night, both in game and in LEGO bricks. The advantages and disadvantages of each are discussed and the nature of the translation between the two solidified. At this point, it has become apparent that it is next to impossible to decide whether the digital pixel or the plastic brick came first, but more importantly that searching for such an origin is unimportant.

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LEGO vs Minecraft -Which Can I Build Faster by Grain

LEGO bricks reliance on a code has meant that from the outset, whatever was built already invested in the building of ideas. In fact one cannot build with LEGO elements without already manipulating a code, and by proxy developing ideas. One could say, that the natural framing that a rendering of our world in the right angled form of bricks archives, is in fact already a digitisation of the world: an obvious ability that transforms the unknowable world of things into the instructions for representation. The thesis follows that LEGO bricks are already pixels – material pixels if you will – and our use of them requires a technological thinking that deals in the logic of coded manipulation.

In conclusion, whilst it was of course financially prudent for the LEGO Group to embrace the digital sphere, it already had a massive advantage over many of its competitors in the toy market. It had a language that did not so much need to be reimagined in digital terms, as it was already a code that a computer could manipulate. But perhaps more importantly it was also a way of thinking that aligned itself with our own technological evolution.

Endnotes

[i] David Alexander Smith, ‘Interview with Bjarne Tveskov’ Bricks Culture #4 (January 2016)

[ii] See Travellers Tales website http://www.ttgames.com

[iii] See LEGO Mindstorms website https://www.lego.com/en-gb/mindstorms

[iv] See Minecraft website https://minecraft.net/en-us/

[v] Douglas Coupland ‘On Craft’ in Shopping in Jail (Sternberg Press, 2013) p.2

[vi] See Dr Dave Watford’s blog Gimme Lego http://gimmelego.blogspot.co.uk

[vii] Play Matthew Smith’s classic Manic Miner here: http://torinak.com/qaop#!manicminer

[viii] LEGO at Christmas, Channel 4 (2016)

[ix] See Matt De Lanoy’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/pepa_quin/

[x] See the Super Mario 64 wiki https://www.mariowiki.com/Super_Mario_64

[xi] See Iain Heath’s Flickr Stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/ochre_jelly

[xii] See the Doom webpage http://doom.com/en-us/

[xiii] See Imaging Rigney’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/imaginebrickzone

[xiv] See the Bioshock Infinite’s webpage https://www.bioshockinfinite.com/?RET=&ag=true

[xv] See the LEGO Jurassic World page https://www.lego.com/en-gb/jurassicworld

[xvi] See Grain’s LEGO VS MINECRAFT – Which Can I Build Faster? video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUCr2UexTHo

Crimso Geiger’s Infinite Space

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Mysterion Mothership Interior

Crimso Geiger has been making space creations since 2006. Renowned for his seemingly endless stream of innovative and unusual creations in the Classic Space style, as well as being the founder of Febrovery – the month long space rover building event – there was no one better for me to discuss the art of science fiction LEGO building with.

David Alexander Smith You’ve been making amazing space models for several years now, but what initially inspired you to return to building as an adult?

Crimso Geiger Actually I’ve never ceased building since my childhood. In fact I don’t think I’ve really had what you might term a ‘Dark Age’. However what really got me back into more ‘serious building’ was my (late) discovery of the web, around 2003-2004. At first it was mainly a nostalgia trip on Lugnet, researching all the LEGO sets that had inspired my dreams as a child. Then around 2006 I discovered MOCpages, the LEGO fan-sharing site, and got a sense of what the community was making. At the time my true artistic hobby was abstract drawing, but very soon I felt the need to go back to LEGO building, and focus my creative energy there.

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Base Interior (7) – The creation that got Crimso noticed by the community.

DAS Your work is synonymous with the LEGO Group’s space themes from the late 70s to the late 90s.  What makes the design of these sets so special to you, rather than say the Star Wars range, which seems to have drawn so many fans back into the hobby?

CG For me the true spirit of LEGO building can be traced back to the designers of the Classic Space era: it shines through in their models. They built some truly unique spaceships, bases, etc, that didn’t come from a movie; and in design terms were really inspiring. As a child I felt that even the coolest science fiction movies had their flaws, whereas the unique appeal of the LEGO space ranges, and the aspect I loved, was the way you could tell your own stories through the sets.

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Classic Space Cargo

I have a very complicated love/hate relationship to the Star Wars franchise’s association with the LEGO fan community. In my opinion there are far too many fan creations focused on this universe. Science fiction is too cool and too wide to be reduced to a single universe, especially one that has become entrenched in the financial needs of marketing a brand. For me, a set like the Alien Moon Walker (6940) will always be more charming in its design than say an AT-AT Walker.

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Alien Moon Walker

Compared to today’s sets, classic space sets achieve efficient design with only a few bricks, for example in the mythical Moon Buggy (886) or the Mobile Lab (6901). Actually I think that my style of building is far removed from the Classic Space style in most cases, even if it remains as a guide for a certain design ‘authenticity’: my creations are Classic Space in spirit rather than Classic Space to the letter. I also love the modularity of the bigger sets and the simple yet efficient colour schemes they used.

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Silver Machine (4)

DAS What do you think makes a great science fiction model?

CG This is such a wide question! The first thing that comes to my mind would be personality. I want to see the individuality of the creator’s ideas in the model. Influences are fine, but it needs to be enlightened by something that only belongs to them. That’s why I don’t really care about replicas of existing science fiction themes from movies, although these often demonstrate awesome technical skills.

If we are talking about LEGO science fiction builds, then I admit I prefer studless models, although creations with loads of studs work in some contexts. I similarly love builders who are not afraid of bright colors. Also, I love strange shaping, like many innovative space builders do, but overall I’m more sensitive to nice texturing in a work. I’m more about patterns and part repetitions, and not necessarily ‘traditional’ greebles that are sometimes indistinguishable and even indigestible.

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Mazone Refuelling Vehicle (4)

DAS Obviously you see a strong design process at work in space building, but can science fiction LEGO be art and if it can what makes it distinct from other genres.

CG I don’t feel my LEGO work is in anyway different to my other artistic output: I draw and make electronic music. It’s a way for me to express who I am. More seriously, have you got twenty pages to give me, as that is what I need to formulate a serious answer. To be brief, I just see my work as a three dimensional version of the work of Chris Foss and other science fiction painters, and to the best of my knowledge they are considered as artists.

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Ghost Tiger (Crimso Remix)

DAS Your builds are full of imagination; you seem to be able to endlessly come up with new themes that the LEGO group might have devised back in the 80s and 90s – Biotron being my personal favorite.  How do you come up with these alternative ranges, and do you have any that are special to you?

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Biotron THC-500 Ambassador (4)

CG Each of those personal themes has its own particular story. I think they express various aspect of my personality, and all of them in this respect, are close to my heart. More generally I love the idea of themes for my builds, as it gives me guidelines for each creation. But it is also interesting for me to not be too precise in observing those guidelines, to remain free.

Most of my themes don’t have an official back story, rather they evolve in my mind every so often. For example, my Zorg Empire creations began as a standard evil force, but over the years I added more contrasted shades to this theme. On the other hand, Biotron are probably the most obvious ‘good guys’ in my universe, but they also have a more ambiguous ‘hidden message’, which might not necessarily be perceived by the viewer. It is important to me that these messages remain ambiguous and unexplained.

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Bronto-Zorg

DAS The other trend your work demonstrates is an ability to build multiple creations from a constrained theme; for instance seven or eight Space Police models in a row.  What is the reasoning behind this and how useful a creative strategy is it?

CG It’s probably linked to my childhood. I have a precise memory of discovering the whole Futuron range in the 1987 LEGO catalogue. I was ten at the time, and I spent the whole day looking at this fascinating new range. Now as an adult I get great pleasure in going back to my childhood and creating a whole range that emulates the childhood wonderment I felt back then.

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In Flight

On a more prosaic note, it’s simpler to keep available the parts in the same colors for a precise theme, rather than to switch between all the various colours.  It certainly makes sorting easier! That said, I don’t necessarily feel the need to make series of creations: on the contrary, I’m interested in a wide and various range of interpretations on an original theme.

DAS Febrovery (the month long space Rover event) was your brainchild.  How did it come about, what was the reasoning behind it, and why do you think it continues to be so popular?

CG To be perfectly honest, the whole thing happened as a kind of accident. I’d uploaded some classic space style rovers on Flickr, saying humorously in the description, “I could build these all day long”. People seemed amused by the idea and someone proposed it could be a theme for a month long challenge, another that a cool name for it would be FebRovery… So from that simple beginning it became a collective effort [lol].

That said, I think I’ve provided the true impulse for the process, through the numerous creations I’ve made for that event over the years. I also put the emphasis on fun, where other month long building challenges choose a more serious tone. The main point was not to create a contest; more a kind of party, with a theme that didn’t require too much time or parts to produce cool creations. I also avoided too precise guidelines, in order to give builders more freedom.

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CSR Set 607  – A reaction against the “serious spirit”in a part of the LEGO community

I really hope that this month long challenge will remain popular in years to come! It’s probably this month that gives me the most fun and pleasure; sharing my models with such a creative and friendly community.

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Snail Rover – final build Febrovery 2015

DAS Febrovery is indeed a fan favorite in the LEGO building community, which draws people together in a collective project.  How important is community building to the LEGO building experience for you?

CG I’ve always felt very isolated in my other hobbies (drawing, electronic music, etc.) so these collective projects in the Lego community have been a kind of revelation for me. I would define myself as a rather independent person, especially when it comes to art, but I’ve learned how pleasant it is to work in a collective challenge, thanks to the awesomely nice Lego community. I’m a big fan of NoVVember (the Vic Viper spaceship event) in particular. With some French spacer friends, I’ve done the RMX challenge this year and that was amazing. RMX is a version of the star fighter telephone game, one builder uploads a star fighter, and the participants have to build a similar star fighters, respecting the shape and colour scheme, but in their own individual style.

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RMX Starfighter Challenge

In general, I really love this kind of challenge, if – and only if – it’s not a real contest. I really don’t like the ego wars contests can create. That said, some true contest can be very cool, especially the ones on MOCpages, where, for some reason the proceedings rarely turn into a dogfight.

DAS I’ve noticed that you tend to shy away from large builds in favour of many smaller pieces.  What makes you want to work in this way?  Arguably the fans that commit hours to monumental works gain far more attention in the LEGO media.

CG The most important thing for me when building, is to have fun. Big projects often need you to work seriously on structural issues, and are sometime very hard to take good photos of. So it’s not really fun, at least for me.

I’ve got lots of ideas, and not that much patience, so small or average-sized creations suit my personality better than long-term behemoth projects. Also, I’m sure that true men of taste can appreciate smaller builds! Kaarf Oohlu is to my eyes, (and to the eyes of a very large portion of the community) a fantastic builder, very prolific and creative; and even his biggest creations are fairly small. But I don’t want to put limitations to my work, and I might build bigger creations in the future.

DAS Where do you see your building going next?  Are there any projects or plans you are keen to tackle in the future?

CG I would love to make more dioramas for my own themes, or for my beloved old classic space themes. However, it would not be a big departure from my usual style. I’m thinking about a more radical break in my style: I would love to create completely abstract creations, but I really need to think about it… nothing is  written at this point. I feel that abstraction is too uncommon in current LEGO building. My sci-fi style sometimes borders on a certain degree of abstraction, and as an ex-abstract painter and drawer, I feel that I may have a suitable pedigree to go into these little unexplored territories. I’ve got a strong will to go that way. Only time will tell!

You can find more of Crimso Geiger’s amazing creations on his Flickr page.

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Monochrome Interior #1

 

Space Dinosaurs

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Space Brachi0saurus

When I posted my first Space LEGO dinosaur on Flickr back in August 2015 I never expected the response it received. There was something about a stegosaurus built in the style of LEGO’s Classic Space sets that chimed with the community. Even before the popular LEGO websites picked up on the model, comments and likes were multiplying faster than I could keep track of. People I’d never spoken to before were asking if I could put the build on LEGO Ideas; they wanted to vote for it to become an official set! I was flattered, and a little confused; out of the many creations I’d posted online what made this one so special?

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Space0saurus

It wasn’t until I took three of the dinosaurs to Brick, the huge LEGO show in London, that I started to better understand things.   I’d like to say that it was the sophisticated building techniques I used that made it popular, but that would be a lie. Although competently made there were hundreds of better built LEGO marvels at the exhibition. Even the aesthetic design, whilst polished, borrowed heavily from familiar tropes and other recognisable franchises. What made them a hit was the simple fact that dinosaurs are pretty cool. Mix this with space age robotics and a splash of nostalgia and the wining formula was complete.

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Space0saurus (modular function)

A gaggle of children, normally under the age of ten would stop point, coo and exclaim: “awwwesome… look, space dinosaurs.” Standing behind them a dad who looked suspiciously like me nodded in agreement, and would sagely add: “look at those pieces, that’s the sort of LEGO set I remember.” Some would also throw in words like Zoids, Dinobots or Robotix, and we’d exchange further knowing looks.

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Space Brachi0saurus (rocket launcher)

Reflecting on the events of the show I dug a little deeper into what I build and why? There are definitely two sides to what I do as a LEGO builder. One is linked to the part of me who went to Art College and now works for a university, teaching art theory from time to time. His creations reference Ancient Greek art and folk traditions such as needlecraft and paper cuts. The other has unfinished business with the important task of a ten year-old who is still trying to build the most amazing spaceship possible!

As a young builder, Space was without a shadow of a doubt my LEGO theme. Each year the new catalogue was released and my brother and I would quickly turn to the Space page. We would point out the models we wanted, earmarking birthday presents and Christmas gifts in January.

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Space0dactyl

Our free building activities followed in the same vein. Spaceships, rovers, robots and lunar bases were our staples. Where I favoured the idiosyncratic look of science fiction models, which had scant regard for practicality as long as they looked beautiful, my brother focused on engineering challenges and functions. Between the two of us we made good progress in emulating our heroes, the designers of the official LEGO sets. It is with great pride that I remember mastering the tricky art of detailing a Space model with lights, panels and antennae, a task I considered integral to the official sets. I was rewarded when my friends from school volunteered the highest praise: “That could be a real set.”

In many ways when I returned to LEGO building in my late thirties, I picked up where I left off. My aim was to build in the style of the designers of my childhood sets, but now with the skill and artistic vision of an adult. Where before the ultimate goal was to build as well as the designers, now I had the expertise to match their work, but also the freedom to work outside the conventions of toy design. Even the most cursory of scans of my builds reveals an obsessional pursuit of this. How many three-wheeled space rovers can I make, what would a pyramid spaceship look like and how do you build a space elephant?

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Classic Space Caterpillar Rover

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Triangle Shuttle

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Cosmic Pachyderm

What I find fascinating about the Classic Space LEGO theme is how open it is as a design brief. It is more than the use of certain colours in particular combinations, which it is often reduced to. When I see a blue and grey science fiction creation presented online as a Classic Space model, most of the time I’m simply looking at a blue and grey spaceship. Conversely I’ve had to laugh at the pedantry of the community that has informed me I’ve made my models incorrectly based on arbitrary rules divined from a handful of sets. I’ll never forgot the horror some people experienced when I inverted the yellow and black stripes commonly found on early Classic Space sets on my Space Wedge Model. Black and yellow stripes in the right order do not make a Classic Space set.

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Space Wedge

The LEGO designers of the early Space sets certainly didn’t fix hard and fast rules for themselves. New colour combinations were constantly being introduced. In many ways the range portrayed a mismatched oddball collective of scientific space exploration vehicles. Yet, there is a tangible quality shared by them all. I think of it as a post-Star Wars re-imagining of the NASA programme. Taking the clunky technology of the 70s and 80s and mixing it with aspirations of an established lived-in future world as portrayed in the Star Wars films. The result is often quirky in its aesthetic rendering of pragmatic function. Space sets looked as if they had a purpose without being explicit what that function was. A great Space design for me is a model with lots of apparent scientific equipment on display without enforcing what any of it does.

This way of working leaves builders with several different ways of taking the theme forward. Peter Reid and Tim Goddard in their magnificent book LEGO Space took one route. Channeling the sleek spaceship designs of the first wave of Space sets and remodeling them with all the skill of modern building techniques. Importantly they spliced this with the direction science fiction design has moved in the era of digital design. The result is a wonderful alternative world of space exploration. On discovering their work it felt like finding a couple of kids in the next town who had come up with a different, yet equally brilliant space universe to mine.

My own take on Classic Space starts from very different sets though. The twin digger/grabber rover 6880 Surface Explorer, the crazy tower/robot/base 6951 Robot Command Centre and the AT AT imitating walking dinosaur 6940 Alien Moon Stalker sum up my LEGO DNA. It is a world where functional design is pushed beyond use into impracticality for the sake of whimsical design. It’s a way of working I feel great affinity for. When I start to build I tend to come up with an interesting exaggeration, a canopy design that pushes the parts further than they are supposed to go, or something as simple as placing radar dishes at certain points to insinuate a face.   For me these twists make a Space model infinitely cooler than any deadly armed star fighter will ever be.

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Ginger-Bread-Bot

I’m not alone in this approach. My kindred spirits are builders like Crismso Geiger, who makes sequences of creations by reusing small selections of Classic Space pieces, and my sometimes Space competition collaborator David Roberts, who mixes, space, whimsy and engineering functions. Together we seem at odds with the science fiction designs of today remaining resolutely attuned to an eccentric nostalgia for a future that never was.

All of this analysis still hasn’t fully answered my question though, what made space dinosaurs more popular than all my other quirky, inventive and unique Space creations? The missing ingredient is a simple child’s perspective. Where perhaps my other Space creations are over-designed, suffering from a complicating adult perspective that understands composition and design, the dinosaurs were my son’s idea.   Over the summer holiday we spent an afternoon building, and in a throw away statement he said: “Daddy, can you build me a space dinosaur?’ What a fantastic idea I thought! Why didn’t I come up with that?

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Space0saurus (Spine Cells)

Once the idea was set, I had a fresh focus for pushing pieces into new design purposes. Where before I was looking for innovative canopy designs, I was now looking for vintage Space pieces that could stand in for parts of a dinosaur. I looked first of all for the archetypal elements of a dinosaur, what signified each of the classic beasts. For a stegosaurus it had to be the dorsal plates. A flash of inspiration and I realised I could deploy classic angled yellow canopies to achieve this. As I continued to build, I remembered that other toy companies, specifically Zoids, had approached this idea and that it would be good to acknowledge this. As a reference to these great toys I borrowed elements such as the tail pilots. The finished creation took me no more than three hours to make, but despite its immediacy it had that intangible quality, a certain something that just worked.

I repeated the process with my other dinosaurs, looking again for archetypal elements that I could hang the design process on. The cones that were often used as rocket heads in Classic Space would make great triceratops horns. In a similar way, the old Technic gear rails would work as tyrannosaurus rex teeth. These new creations each became favourites on the forums alongside the stegosaurus.

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Tri-Space0tops

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Space0saurus-Rex

With the classic dinosaurs of my childhood exhausted I thought my next build would take an iconic monster from the recently discovered dinosaur fossils. A spinosaurus! Again, I looked for the defining characteristic, in this case the use of transparent yellow bricks to suggest the stretched skin between the spines of the creature.

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Spine0saurus

Now that I’ve found this new way of working, which uses anthropomorphic references to the animal kingdom in space sets, the future is full of new and original opportunities. I’m looking to move away from dinosaurs into new waters, and this time I’m taking inspiration from my daughter. As I continued to build more dinosaurs she interjected: “Daddy, why do you always build dinosaurs? Couldn’t you build a space penguin?” What a great idea! An Ice Planet emperor penguin anyone?

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Ice Planet Penguin (laying Egg-bot)

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Ice Planet Penguin (swim mode)

To see more of my space creations see my Flickr page.

 

 

LEGO and Photography

Two years ago I was given the opportunity of writing for the magazine Bricks Culture; a privilege which continues still.  This was my first article written for the publication, and featured in Issue 1 back in April 2015.  I’m still fond of the piece and its argument that draws the disciplines of building with LEGO and photographing LEGO together.  Print copies of the magazine, which features a whole host of other interesting articles, can be purchased here.

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I will be a Fisherman by Shelly Corbett

Several years ago I was lucky enough to interview Bjarne Tveskov [i], the iconic LEGO designer responsible for the creation of the much-loved Blacktron and Futron space ranges. He was talking to me about the process designers went through to create the alternative models shown on the back of the LEGO boxes during the 1980s. This is what he had to say about the Blacktron Alienator (6876): “Also I like how the box design guys made the footprints on the space surface for the image on the back of the box, even though the model isn’t actually able to lift its feet from the ground!”

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Blacktron Alienator designed by Bjarne Tveskov

What caught my attention in Tveskov’s statement was that LEGO’s merchandising of their product ranges often-exceeded direct representations of the toys. Creating through set design and photography believable worlds, places where for example the Blacktron Alienator really could walk. These photographs encouraged imaginative responses, where the truth, or limitations of the toys were put secondary to the stories, ideas and aspirations they conjured up.

Undoubtedly, the relationship between LEGO and its photographic representation is much more than a point and click affair. Here is a company that understood some 30 years ago that to sell successfully you needed to offer your audience a world that triggers and sustains the imagination. A product has to work as both a toy and as a work of art: as an image that demands and rewards repeated investigation.

The space ranges, such as Blacktron, developed through the dioramas and aptly focused lunar lighting a specific iconography. The yellow sandy dunes, undulating craters and starry sky, looking to all extent and purpose like every six-year-old’s romantic idealisation of outer space. More so than the individual box-art images, the collective catalogue spread photographs, where whole ranges were presented together, fully realised LEGO as a living and breathing environment. Looking back at space imagery from the early 1980s, those simple sets in situ still inspire awe.

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LEGOland Space 1979

The other ranges that LEGO ran at the time were of course subject to the same treatment. Castles were situated in perspective-angled hills so as to exaggerate scale. Pirates exchanged cannon blasts across choppy seas. And possibly my favourite photographed diorama, this magnificent town display replete with Space Shuttle launch, captured an undisclosed Florida cityscape and NASA test site.

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LEGOland Town

Whilst these endeavours were clearly driven by a marketing strategy, one that has to be acknowledged as highly successful during the 1980s and early 1990s, it also challenged the way future generations and returning adult builders would come to interact with LEGO. Even if we remain partially blinded to the fact, all of us now consume LEGO, not only through the process of building LEGO sets or creations of our own, but also through the proliferation of photographic images of LEGO we are exposed to.

I can personally link this shift, where I embraced the LEGO photograph, back to a very specific moment, one I’m sure many fans of LEGO, young or old, will identify with. The six-year old me was tucked up in bed with the new LEGO catalogue. By torchlight, deep under the covers I reviewed, examined and absorbed all those images of the current LEGO ranges. At one level this was driven by a consumer urge. Mentally I selected the big yellow castle as something that had to make it onto the Christmas list, but at another level the idea of possession was far from my mind. Ranges like Fabuland, Scala and the large train sets, which either were beyond financial reach or clearly not aimed at my demographic, garnered an equal focus as the magnificent new space sets.

LEGO realised quite wisely that no child would likely ever own all the sets in its ranges, nor were they likely to want to. So whilst the product instilled an inclination to collect themes or sets, as a totality the product range encouraged selection and choice. And whilst the ownership of actual sets might be limited, the aesthetic engagement with the full scope of possibilities did not have to be so. By taking the time to present its products, through artful photography, it created a secondary free product. Wonderful images which enthralled in their own right.

This investment in the photograph is most clearly seen in LEGO’s support of photographic imagery beyond the obvious merchandising points. Yes, we find some of the best LEGO imagery on box fronts, in catalogues and adverts, but places such as the back of boxes (unlikely to obtain more than a fleeting glance on the shop floor) and the published Ideas books also took extraordinary lengths to produce the highest quality photographs.

Tveskov brings home the point in the same interview I referred to earlier. He describes the alternative builds, and in fact the whole presentation of the reverse of the LEGO boxes, as a place where the designers, box artists and photographers could have fun. For the smaller sets, the possibility of reverse engineering the alternative builds was a real possibility, but not a necessity. On the larger sets, a task only really achievable by the more skilled and experienced builders. As such, the alternative builds were never considered as actual models one would make. Other sets, such as the Technic models included instructions when the alternative was thought of in this manner. Instead the alternative build was always to be considered as an image, as a photograph. Perhaps it is for this reason too, that the quirky impossible presentation of the Alienator, with its duck feet imprints also becomes a secondary image, one for the back of the box.

The idea of consuming LEGO as idea or an image, so as to inspire rather than to be made was most expertly realised in the Ideas books. These publications allowed the LEGO designers free range to work with elements currently available in the company’s sets. The books came with limited instructions for a few of the smaller builds, but ostensibly were glossy photographic catalogues of what you could do if you only had enough bricks. Taking up what the catalogues had introduced through the commercial need to sell, the Ideas books gave the child a selection of mind-expanding marvels that could be achieved in LEGO without subtext. For many of us these might have been our first art books, collections of the most stunning photography. A small chance to aesthetically reflect and expand our building ambitions.

I would argue that once cut loose from the necessity of neat, polished commercial products, the most fully realised examples of some of LEGO’s early genre experiments came to fruition in the photographs of the builds in these books. Compare the sprawling web of sci-fi wonderment presented in the Ideas book, to the space catalogue entries of the same period, and we are immediately struck by a shift in experimentation, complexity and scope.

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Images from the the LEGO Ideas books

Leaving the past behind, it seems clear that LEGO and photography had very quickly found a symbiotic relationship, one which now seems hard to disentangle. What importantly is revealed is that a sophisticated relationship to LEGO is never just about the craft and skill of building. It also includes a desire to express or show something through the process of making, and equally an enjoyment and value in reflecting on a LEGO creation as a realised image. LEGO when photographed fulfils both of these criteria. By distancing itself from its process of creation, the builder is able to identify what they wish to show: and the viewer removed from the context of the bricks, as components that can be dissembled, is able to concentrate on the creation itself.

The understanding of this particular interdisciplinary relationship further helps to refute certain myths about LEGO. Whether it can be an art form or not, and whether the creative or building experience constitutes its most authentic expression.

I have recently written on the question of LEGO’s authenticity[ii] and whether or not it is inextricably linked to creative activity . In this article I challenged the views of the blogger Chris Swan [iii], that were taken up by the BBC journalist Justin Parkinson in his controversial article ‘ Has the imagination disappeared from LEGO?’ [iv]  Swan’s argument hinged on the principle that the authentic condition for LEGO is always found in the moments we experience when building. Once complete, the correct response to a LEGO construction is to dismantle it and begin the creative process once more.

What Swan missed, and which this discussion relating to photography opens, is that the moment following the completion of a build, where the builder’s first impulse is to show what has been built, is as significant as the building experience itself. That joyful moment when the child runs to Mum or Dad, and exclaims “Look! Look what I have made!” Clearly in a creative act, as imperative as the desire to build is the desire to show. And by proxy we accept that there is something to reflect upon, something for an audience to see and feel.

LEGO cannot be perceived of as art if it must remain ideally as Swan argues an exclusively creative act, it must also be a showing, a site for reflection.

The problem for the child is that following the creation of a LEGO model they reach a troubling state of affairs. One we can all recall from our childhood. The need to show what has been made, and the desire to explore a new project, to show something else; both are valid positions, but cannot be mutually sustained. Enter photography to the rescue!

The potential ephemerality of the LEGO build is rescued by the possibility of its presentation as an image. The photography of LEGO allows us to both dismantle that which has been built and continue to show and reflect on what was made. LEGO’s engagement with its audience fostered this understanding at an early age, and I believe presents the possibility of a construction toy becoming an artistic medium shared by a creative community.

Returning once again to personal experience, I can pinpoint the second occasion in which photographs impacted profoundly on my engagement with LEGO. During the summer of 2003 I stumbled through a nostalgic Google search for classic space LEGO into the world of the nascent LEGO fan scene. Suddenly, before my eyes were hundreds of photographs of amazing fan-built spaceships. The expectation of seeing photographs of those old, but still wonderful sets from my childhood was supplanted by the thrill of so many new and fascinating images. The six year-old me had climbed back under the duvet and found a new multi-volume copy of the LEGO Ideas book, one that I had never known existed. To say I was excited was an understatement.

I consider this day, rather than the day I actually started building again, as the end of the so called dark ages, that period of life where you cease to engage with LEGO. I became a lurker on many of the main sharing sites, sporadically dropping in and seeing what new and amazing creations people were building. During this period that lasted some 8 or 9 years, I barely touched an actual LEGO brick or even saw one in the plastic as it were. My engagement with LEGO occurred via the Internet and the photographs I found shared there.

At first the photos I found were of a limited quality, often in low resolution, framed by the domestic clutter of dining room tables, carpets and bed spreads. However, as technology advanced, digital camera resolution increased and broadband Internet connections became commonplace, these photos increased in quantity and quality,

As I followed this growing scene I came more and more to see that photography was transforming what the LEGO experience meant. Rather than a bedroom hobby, an insular building experience, where completed models might be shared with close friends and family, it was transforming into a collective enterprise, where the raison d’être for building was to share what one had made. More and more the projects being completed were not made simply for the thrill of creative building, but as something explicitly to be photographed. Where photography had once rescued the builder from the dilemma, whether to dismantle or not, this question held less and less importance; the photograph was the conclusion of the building process and not the build.

Photographs of LEGO were creating in the words of the French novelist and theorist André Malraux, a ‘museum without walls’, the phrase also being the title of his seminal work on the relationship of photography and the museum[v]. In this book he referred to the way in which a public comes to view and consume the great works of art in the age photography, and how this would in fact alter the art world as a result.

Malraux’s theory begins by noting that in the 19th Century, even the most read and prolific writers, Hugo, Baudelaire and Verlaine, did not have full access to the artistic treasures of the world. Even if they travelled, the paintings of El Greco, Titian and Michelangelo may only be viewed once in a lifetime and then committed to the vagaries of memory. In contrast, through the ability to photograph these works, the archive of paintings, sculptures and monuments is made immediately available to us. No longer do we need a museum with walls to house these works, only our own curatorial imagination, which selects as it wishes works that interest and inspire as required. And in turn each of us imagines our own ideal museum.

When it comes to a new and emerging art form such as LEGO, which has no cultural heritage, no monuments, no churches or museums, the concept of the creation of a museum without walls becomes even more important than it was for the traditional arts.

The LEGO community’s emergence from a shared archival project, in the form of vast online folios of work, marks perhaps one of the first truly democratized art forms. An art where traditions are formed by the sharing and cultural connections of those who make and create the images, and not deep-set cultural institutions, academia, the museum and big business funding. Beginning from a humble origin, a toy that denies no one access based on training or craft, shared by the people’s medium of the camera, is created the unique artistic event that is currently happening on our doorstep.

In a spectacular synchronisation of technologies, these photographs presented within the photo sharing sites and social media applications, gives the individual via like-buttons, shared links and folders, the tools they need to articulate these archives as their ideal museum.

It came as no surprise to me having watched these developments, that when I took up the bricks as a creative medium, from the outset I thought about creating models that would be photographed and shared online. I was intentionally knocking on the door of the museum without walls with my bundle of digital image. And the sense of achievement I felt as I saw my work ‘liked’ and commented upon, taking its place in so many peoples’ ideal museums, explains a great deal about why LEGO as a creative hobby continues to grow.

This is where LEGO’s relationship with photography pushes beyond Malraux’s theory. It is not an archive that we passively engage with. To be a LEGO builder and photographer is to be part of a grand artistic experiment, a shared living breathing museum, which we influence, change and evolve with each new photograph we add to it. The museum ceasing to be just a receptacle for culture, becoming instead a greenhouse, a hothouse environment for creative experiment and growth.

As with all successful interdisciplinary relationships, LEGO’s embracing of photography changes what both art forms can be. LEGO builders recalling those first constructed catalogue vistas started to take on the LEGO box and photographers’ roles as well as the designers’.

We see this happen right across the LEGO community, where photographs are staged and organised to present theatrical and believable worlds. Some seek to replicate in their photos the work of those original box designers, however at the extreme end of the spectrum you find builders like El Barto[vi], who has taken this relationship to grand heights in his ongoing alternative Basttlestar Galactica saga and representations of Homer’s Odyssey. Through the uses of stage lighting, carefully ordered scenes and photo-shopped backgrounds he treats each and everyone of his builds as stills from an ongoing film. This is not simply a way of recording a building process, but the genuine combination of two art forms.

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Other builders, such as Tim Clark [vii], have used the translation of a LEGO build into a photograph as a way of accessing the toolkits available in photo editing software. The result, a further interdisciplinary encounter between illustration and LEGO, as found in images like his stunning City on the Undiri Moon.

 

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Undiri Moon by Tim Clark

The conclusions found in these new hybrid ventures are the inevitable creation of builds that actively exploit photographic structures in order to exist. Forced perspective building being one growing and popular genre of building/photography. Chris Maddison’s [viii] rolling farmland exemplifying what can be achieved when we use the camera to trick the eye.

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Do You Think My Tractor’s Sexy by Chris Maddison

Matt Rowntree’s [ix] recent reproduction of John Carpenter’s memorable film poster for the film The Thing again evidences a build that is completed through its photograph. Built on a glass table, so as to incorporate an iridescent effect, the conceit explores aspects of lighting central to the build that can only truly be seen in its photographic representation.

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The Thing by Matt Rowntree

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Photographing The Thing by Matt Rowntree

Where there is no doubt that photography is changing and expanding the creative possibilities open to LEGO, it equally brings a further levelling effect to the archive. As Malraux noted in his study, photography gave new emphasis to works of art that often went unnoticed in the gallery. Small intricate pieces could be enlarged so as to stand side by side with large frescos, and difficult to view art forms such as tapestries could be better displayed. The photography of LEGO does something similar, allowing smaller and unexpected genres to compete and attain the recognition they deserve against the huge and piece intensive creations, which ordinarily demand attention when physically displayed.

Another of the unexpected results of the ongoing relationship between LEGO and photography comes from the influence it is having on the discipline of photography itself. The scale of LEGO creates a unique subject for the creation of images. When mini figures or recognisable LEGO parts are situated in the world they alter the ratios we ordinarily expect to find. Snow becomes the harshest blizzard, water’s reflective details are magnified and a vista, which for a human might seem everyday and ordinary, becomes sublime when viewed from the perspective of a mini-figures eyes.

The seriousness with which this work is taken has found photographers who focus on LEGO being accepted into the gallery on the merit of this work alone. The recent exhibition at the Brian Ohno Gallery [x] in Seattle collected together some of the best work in this field from talented photographers like Shelly Corbett [xi], Boris Vanrillaer [xii] and Vesa Lehtimäki [xiii].

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In LEGO We Connect exhibition

Even in this briefest of summaries, the way in which LEGO and photography have grown from a relationship founded in the marketing strategies invested in 30-40 years ago, to become the essential presentational medium it is today cannot be denied. So successful has the relationship been it now seems almost impossible to separate the two art forms. LEGO as a community, as an artwork, as an archive and a site for experiment has been benefited form its correspondence with photography. So much so, that when we talk about LEGO as a cultural phenomenon we really ought to say ‘LEGO and photography’.

Endnotes

[i] David Alexander Smith, ‘Interview with Bjarne Tveskov’ MOCpages (22 December 2012) http://www.mocpages.com/moc.php/349429 (accessed 13 March 2015).

[ii] David Alexander Smith, ‘Authentic/Inauthentic LEGO or what’s the right way to build?’

[iii] Chris Swan, ‘The Perils of Modern LEGO’ Chris Swan’s Weblog (26 November 2014) http://blog.thestateofme.com/2013/01/01/the-perils-of-modern-LEGO/ (accessed 13 March 2015).

[iv] Justin Parkinson, ‘Has the imagination disappeared from LEGO?’ BBC (26 November 2014) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29992974 (accessed 13 March 2015).

[V] André Malraux, Museum Without Walls, Martin, Secker & Warburg, London (1967).

[vi] See El Barto’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/52907196@N07/.

[vii] See Tim Clark’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/timLEGO/.

[viii] See Chris Maddison’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmaddison/.

[ix] See matt RowntRee’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/104851154@N02/

[x] In LEGO, We Connect, Brian Ohno Gallery, Seattle, March 2015.

[xi] See Shelly Corbett’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/vanrillaer/index.ht.

[xii] See Boris Vanrillaer’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/vanrillaer/index.ht.

[xiii] See Vesa Lehtimäki’s bio: http://www.bryanohno.com/artists/lehtimaki/index.html.

The structural Language of LEGO (a short observation)

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

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

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Lego Lilliput or the Politics of Scale

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El Barto’s Mt Olympus (2014)

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

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VLUG collaboration The Odyssey (2014)

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

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

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

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Lego in the 1960s sold with die cast cars

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Miniland London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Populous

Sim-City

Sim City

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Civilization

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

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Minecraft

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

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Lego Minecraft

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

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

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Basilica and Forum display at the Museum of London

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

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Ryan McNaught’s Lego Pompeii

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

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

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

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

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Illustration from Gulliver’s Travels

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lego Movie

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

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

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

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

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

[ii] Populous, Bullfrog, 1989

[iii] Sim City, Electronic Arts, 1989

[iv] Civilization, Microprose, 1991

[v] Minecraft, Mojang, 2009

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

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

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

[ix] Jonathan Swift, Gullivers Travels, 1726

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

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