LEGO Representations of Nature

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Rose by Sean Kenney in situ

Suppose we had secretly played a trick on a lover of the beautiful, sticking in the ground artificial flowers (…) and suppose they then discovered this deceit.  The direct interest they previously took in these things would promptly vanish… [i]

Immanuel Kant wrote this in 1790 in the Critique of Judgment, arguably the book that began the modern intellectual engagement with art.  One of Kant’s philosophical aims was to differentiate between what is beautiful in nature and what makes a work of art beautiful.  He stated that art should never literally recreate nature.  Instead the flower that the artist crafts always announces that it is a representation of nature; the art being in how close the representation is, how near it seems to nature, without deceiving us in any way.

Sean Kenney’s[ii] LEGO sculpture Rose (2012)[iii], illustrates Kant’s point beautifully.  A LEGO flower planted in a landscape garden, which at first glance appears completely at home in its surrounding.  The bricks expertly arranged to capture the organic flourishes of leaves and petals.  Yet there is something uncanny about this picture; this rose is two meters tall.

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Rose by Sean Kenney

Kenney’s use of scale recalls the playful juxtapositions found in Claes Oldenburg’s sculptures, between over-sized everyday objects and the natural environment.[iv]   But where Oldenburg’s work makes us look again at mass-produced objects by removing them from the human scale of ready-to-hand use, Kenney’s work reflects on a different aspect of modern life, the humble LEGO brick.

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Vitra Balancing Tool by Oldenburg & Coosje

The choice of scale for Kenney is dictated by both artistic vision and the practical limitations of the bricks. To achieve the arabesques and fluid shapes of nature with basic recta-linear pieces, Kenney has to build at a ratio where the individual steps between parts are less pronounced when realised as part of a larger curve.

As a result the minutia, the dainty flower, the butterfly or the elegance of a tiny humming bird, if modelled in LEGO, to achieve an adequate approximation of its natural form has to be rendered at a giant scale.  This highlights for the LEGO artist the particular dilemma of trying to exactly replicate the natural form in bricks.  The LEGO artist becomes trapped between two forms of failure: to render at a 1:1 scale is to see nature as LEGO, blocky and determined by the shape and form of bricks; to try to break the conventions of the recta-linear form, the 1:1 scale must be exceeded.  But perhaps this isn’t a problem at all?

To represent nature in LEGO is always to begin from a position where exact replication is denied.  Accepting Kant’s thesis the LEGO artist does not try to deceive their audience by making dissimulations of nature.  LEGO creations explicitly show us that they are made from individual elements.

Kenney’s Rose works as an artwork to a large extent because its scale is compensated by the context in which it is shown.  By allowing the viewer the space to stand back and grasp it as a singular image it succeeds in representing nature.  But as with all such images it attracts its viewers to look closer.  As the viewer approaches the sculpture, the success of the representation is replaced by a demonstration of the artist’s LEGO building skill.  Standing in front of the LEGO flower they are confronted by a close-up view of thousands of connected pieces.  The wonder we feel here comes from correlating this detailed view of discrete pieces that no longer hold together as an image of a flower, with the previous unified perception.  The irony being that to show its true LEGO form, the artwork that represents nature has to give up its power to represent and instead declare itself made of bricks.

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Rose (close up) by Sean Kenney

The audience that attends Kenney’s exhibition applaud his talent when they realise that the representation fails to be a flower, only then can they declare “I can’t believe it is made of LEGO.”  And unlike Kant’s lover of the beautiful who no longer found interest in the artificial flower when its ruse was rumbled, the LEGO flower by openly declaring its constructed origin retains our interest.

This idea can be further analysed in the 2014 exhibition of prehistoric animals shown at Milestones Museum[v].  Created by Bright Bricks[vi] the UK based professional team of LEGO builders headed by Duncan Titmarsh and Ed Diment, these life-sized creations of dinosaurs and mammoths offer another encounter with the LEGO representation of nature.

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Mammoth by Bright Bricks

The huge prehistoric creatures of the Bright Bricks exhibition retain an expected relation to their viewer.  Unlike the flower, the scale of a real mammoth or dinosaur unsurprisingly dictates that we stand back from them so as to accommodate their whole form in our field of vision.  It is this hugeness that in part fosters our fascination with these archaic beasts.   Their rendering in bricks providing a way of aesthetically increasing our awareness of their size, in a manner that a traditional museum model might not.

As with Kenney’s work these prehistoric recreations also ask us to move closer and inspect them at a face-to-brick proximity.  As with the flower, as we approach the dinosaurs and mammoths, they give up their rendered coherence.  Standing shoulder to shoulder with the leg of a mammoth made of LEGO one is left confronting a wall of brown bricks.  Yet, this is not a negative experience.  By understanding the link between the mass of bricks and the previous image of the mammoth, we feel something about the complexity of pre-historic nature.

LEGO bricks when used to represent living things are perfectly placed to explore the concept of nature as a complex system, which immediate human sensory perception is ill equipped to understand.  Over the last two hundred years we have become increasingly more sophisticated in our scientific understanding of nature, as a way of overcoming these sensory limitations.  Stepping back from the unintelligible immediate encounter, and instead relying ever more on rational codes and scientific systems to explain what our senses have difficulty comprehending.  LEGO offers an important alternative to this conceptual knowledge, an aesthetic idea of the complexity of nature.  By showing us the disconnect between the discrete elements of a LEGO sculpture and the image the sculpture forms, it allows us to feel something about the building blocks of nature without deferring to a scientific system that stands in place of the contingent and real thing.

In the case of the long-dead creatures of the Bright Bricks exhibition, the feeling we obtain about the scale and complexity of these once majestic animals, allows us to feel something about a time we can no longer access.  Where a more traditional model of a dinosaur might try to convince us that it is as close a representation of a real dinosaur as science currently offers us, the LEGO model of a dinosaur activates a wonder and awe for their scale and majesty.   By remaining resolutely a LEGO creation and failing to fully realise the dinosaur, it lets us feel speculatively how much greater than our attempts to recreate it, the dinosaur must have been.

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Roaring Megalosaurus Head by Bright Bricks

To be a LEGO artist that chooses nature as a subject is to take on the challenge of nature’s complexity, knowing that they will fail to replicate it. It is for this reason, as Mike Doyle eloquently put it in an article published in the magazine Bricks Culture[vii], that we value the technical skill of the LEGO artist.  An appeal to virtuosity has special significance for the LEGO builder, as a large part of the encounter we have with a LEGO artwork revolves around the fact that it is seen simultaneously as a singular form and as something constructed from elements.  The artist’s technique is always exposed if it is recognised as LEGO, and consequently those skilfully articulated LEGO elements become a crucial structural component of the work.

This differs from more traditional art forms where on most occasions the virtuosity of the artist is put secondary to the unified vision they create.  It is only really the art historian who stands close enough to the Rembrandt self-portrait to delineate the impasto brush stroke of white paint that perfects the depth and form of the face.  With the LEGO sculpture, every viewer aims to get close enough to recognise that the form is made of bricks.  This dual state of comprehension, between image and individual elements becomes the foundation of appreciating LEGO art.

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Rembrandt Self Portrait 1660

Extending Doyle’s claim, technique is integral to the LEGO experience: but, building skill in itself does not define the LEGO artwork.  Although we marvel at the skill of a builder like Sean Kenney, it is not simply his skill we want to experience when we approach his LEGO rose.  Virtuosity is a handmaiden for a deeper experience.  To represent something as complex as a natural form in LEGO bricks requires skill.  Without the application of technical skill there would be no correspondence with nature.  However, for the work to succeed, the skill used to create it needs to fail and its original LEGO construction be exposed.   This is what makes the LEGO brick such an enticing creative tool, its utility and almost endless reusable ways of being connected to other elements also signifies why it can never be mastered if instated as part of a representational art form.  The LEGO brick understood as a part of a building system stands in opposition to an idea of an organic thing that cannot be separated into constitutive parts.

The importance of proximity between viewer and work is now more readily understood.  A LEGO sculpture of nature appears to succeed when the viewer remains at a distance, where individual bricks cannot easily be distinguished form one another.  However, once the spell is broken, and the discrete bricks are revealed to the viewer so too is another important issue pertaining to scale. LEGO bricks are made at a human scale; best understood by the relationship they have to a human hand.

When we are presented with a LEGO creation, and recognise that it is made from a collection of connected elements, this other understanding complements it: that the pieces of LEGO have been manipulated and connected by a person.  The complexity of the creation is relative to an act that can be manually carried out by us.  In this revelation our own powers of creation are compared to those of the natural world. It shows us the limits of scale available to the human hand, and by proxy how the real world exceeds our physical abilities.

Yet despite these limitations, there is for the LEGO artist a desire to make something natural from a host of manufactured bricks, a drive that sees a square brick and wants to build a circle.  A builder’s tenacious skill momentarily seems to make the square peg fit the round hole.  This human attempt is essential in the LEGO representation of nature. For an audience to continue to feel something from this encounter with the LEGO sculpture the point of failure needs to be approached again and again.  And the more skilful and complex the approach, the more it engages us and opens the possibility of the aesthetic experience of its failure.  To paraphrase the writer Samuel Beckett, the aim is to build better so as to ‘fail better’.[viii]

If this somewhat technical account of how we understand a LEGO representation of nature works seems a little abstract, it can further be seen played out, sometimes unconsciously, in the value judgments made by the LEGO enthusiast.  Take for example the debates that have perpetuated in both the adult fan community and the media more generally, relating to The LEGO Group’s development of specialised pieces.  There seems to be little conflict when a specialised piece is developed with the aim of replicating a form within the fields of industrial or architectural design.   I am yet to encounter the rejection of the development of wheel or window parts.  Equally when such parts are used according to their specified use, even when articulated by the most masterful of builders, a LEGO creation rarely receives negative feedback.  A wheel, is a wheel, is a wheel.[ix]  Whereas the use of specifically created rock or tree pieces is seen as lazy, lacking in skill and fundamentally falling below the bar of creativity expected of the LEGO artist.

As a result the big ugly rock pieces, as they are colloquially referred to in the LEGO communities, have become a focus for what is deemed undesirable in the building fraternity.  In its place sub-genres of landscape building have sprung-up, and the ability to form detailed rock formations or foliage has become a badge of success.

Whether it is a space base, built into a lunar landscape or a castle nestling in an idyll,[x] the comments that accompany the creations focus as much, sometimes even more, on the terrain the creation sits in, over the architectural forms.

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Peace Sells by Luke Watkins

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M:Tron Magnet Factory by Blake Foster

The LEGO builders who stick to building recreations of human designs, the car, vehicle and architectural builders, use LEGO bricks in a way reminiscent of Oldenburg’s project.  Instead of scaling-up, they minaturise the places we live and work in, and the machines we drive and use, so as to allow a fresh aesthetic perspective.  The bricks, cogs and axels they use still reflecting the original forms they draw inspiration from.  The builder of landscapes has other aims.

Thinking speculatively about the boundaries LEGO art might be crossing, the aspirations of landscape builders define one important expanding horizon.  It comes as no surprise that the third instalment of Mike Doyle’s curatorial project Beautiful LEGO[xi] takes inspiration form nature.  However, it is perhaps one of Doyle’s own creations that most successfully show us what building LEGO nature might achieve.

Speaking in 2014 on the LEGO podcast Beyond the Brick,[xii] Doyle explained that his LEGO creations always begin from a political basis.  And that he believed that they should not simply be a building experiment or declaration of skill, but initiate a discussion around an important issue.  The work he was completing at the time engaged with the ecological debate around mountaintop removal.

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Mountain Top Removal by Mike Doyle

Mountaintop removal is the process commonly employed in the United States, where mining operations asset strip natural resources by literally removing the summit or summit ridge of a mountain.  Controversy has followed this process, which suggests that after the removal of natural resources such as coal, nature reclaims the mined and damaged land.  Critics suggest that this does not occur in the ideal manner that the mining corporations suggest and that biodiversity is irrecoverably damaged as a result.[xiii]

Doyle by choosing this subject matter for a LEGO creation is able to use the medium to directly represent nature undergoing this assault, and by proxy also makes us feel something more about the ecological issue at stake.  Where scientists have been able to provide the rational arguments that show how the technique harms nature, the LEGO artists opens the door on a fallacy that sees nature as nothing more than a resource.  Building blocks ready to be used.

If as was argued, that the representation of nature in LEGO creates a perception where a viewer realises the extent to which nature exceeds his or her own creative powers, in Doyle’s work it also reveals the accepted truth about how we as a society think of nature.  It is common shorthand in a scientifically industrialised capitalist society to think of nature in terms of base elements, fuel and resources that can be utilised.  A way of thinking that the German philosopher Martin Heidegger presciently termed ‘standing reserve’.[xiv]   This concept sees existent things as materials with utility: the river that is dammed ceases to be understood as a river, and rather becomes a calculable hydro-electrical power source.

Of course the irony is that the LEGO brick reduces all representations of nature to reusable elements.  But in doing so, it not only allows us to feel something about the way nature exceeds our technical comprehension, it also exposes the limits of human understanding that seeks mastery through the application of productivity-validated systems over living things.

There is no doubt that science and technical understanding have done much good.  Our medical mastery of ourselves, and our material mastery of our environment, has made life safer, easier and longer.  But what a creation such as Doyle’s mountaintop removal does is make us feel something about how these skills might and ought to be used.  Understanding and mastery of nature is one thing, but how to deploy these skills ethically another.  How surprising then that such an opportunity to grapple with these questions should become possible through perhaps the most obviously manufactured and industrialised of creative mediums, basic LEGO bricks.

Thinking about how and why LEGO artists continue to seek to build and represent nature, the answer is perhaps a simple one?  The medium is so ill suited to capturing the sophistication of nature that it cannot help but present the impossible challenge of such a task in every built attempt.  LEGO representations of nature reveal a necessary human deference towards our world, through the willingness to fail, to make our representations of nature, just that, representations and not explanations of living things. They have the potential to temper the modern proclivity for the technical reduction of things to resource, and as such stand to remind us what might be lost in every failed representational attempt.

 

Endnotes

[i] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment, translated by Pluhar, Werner S., Hackett, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1987, p.166.

[ii] See Sean Kenney’s website Art With Bricks http://www.seankenney.com/

[iii] Sean Kenney’s Rose, installed at Reiman Gardens in Iowa April 2012, as part of the touring exhibition Nature Connects.

[iv] As evidenced in an artwork like ‘Vitra Balancing Tools Oldenburg & Coosje van Bruggen’. Photograph by smow blog (flic.kr/p/6t3gY4), used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), cropped from original.

[v] LEGO – The Lost World Zoo, Bright Bricks exhibition, Milestones Museum, February 2014.

[vi] See the Bright Bricks webpage http://bright-bricks.com/

[vii] Mike Doyle, ‘Plastic Fantastic’ in Bricks Culture Issue 2, 2015.

[viii] “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”  Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho, Grove Press, London, 1983.

[ix] Or as Gertrude Stein famously stated: “A rose is a rose is a rose” in the poem Sacred Emily (1922).

[x] See Blake Foster’s M-Tron Magnet Factory (2014) https://www.flickr.com/photos/blake-foster/14623286658 and Luke Watkins Hutchinsons Peace Sells (2010) https://www.flickr.com/photos/45244184@N04/5062189530/in/dateposted/.

[xi] Beautiful Lego is a series of coffee table art books curated by Mike Doyle with the aim of showcasing the best artistic LEGO creations being made today.  The first volume was published in 2013 by No Starch Press.

[xii] Beyond the Brick, Episode 139 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WcpNchpBu28.

[xiii] See, Howard, Jason, We All Live Downstream: Writings about Mountaintop Removal. Louisville, KY: Motes Books, 2009

[xiv] Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Writings, London, Harper Perennial 1977.

 

This article was first published in Bricks Culture No.3 October 2015

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.

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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

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)

Is there something funny about these bricks?: Lego and Humour

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Lego Batman gives a knowing wink in Lego the Movie

“I only work in black….And sometimes very, very dark gray.” says Batman in The Lego Movie[i], and a ripple of laughter spreads across the movie theatre. All at once the audience realises that Lego Batman is funnier and probably cooler than Christian Bale, Adam West, Michael Keaton and even George Clooney’s Batman. But why is this?

The Lego Movie has a sparking screenplay written by the talented team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, and whilst I wouldn’t want to take anything away from their work (if only the Oscar selection committee felt differently), I feel this is only one part of the answer. Lego’s growth not just as a toy, but also as a cultural form, has been tied to its ability to carry a joke. Yet, this often-symbiotic relationship between Lego and humour has gone without serious discussion. So, what is it about the reflection of our culture in bricks that we find so funny?

One of the critiques against Lego’s recent developments has been its rush to embrace mainstream franchises, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Simpsons and later this year Scooby Doo. The critics note the crass consumer drives of this process, and the loss of a more innocent Lego era, with its smiling mini-figure faces, and imaginative building at its core. The more realistic take, is that Lego needed to make this leap, and develop a cross media approach or face the collapse of the company. It could be argued that the use of humour in the Lego branding process is one way in which the company sought to retain its identity amongst the overwhelming range of intellectual property it now represents.

Fiona Wright, Vice President and General Manager Lego UK, speaking at the AFOLCON in London last November[ii], made the link between the company’s franchise development strategy and humour: young boys, Lego’s core target market in the early 2000s, responded to humour in market research. The result was a light comedic take, as shown at the conference through a series of cinema adverts for Lego Star Wars. By adding knowing irreverence to its subject matter, whilst retaining warmth, Lego effectively found a new way to sell other properties under its own banner, and remain true to both.

This marketing approach soon became a standard for Lego. Sticking with Star Wars, the Lego Star Wars games excelled in finding this balance between source material and parody. Take the reworking of one of the saga’s most serious moments, Darth Vader’s paternal announcement, “I am your father”. In the Lego video game[iii], the mimed version of the necessarily vocal proclamation literally makes a charade of the scene. And we laugh.

The Lego video games made an unexpected decision when they put the process of building, which arguably is at the heart of the Lego experience, second to narrative and humour. At one level this seems obvious, the conventions of video games, or at least mainstream successful games, relies on the player taking on an intentional role. As such Lego video games start from the premise that they begin at the point when the Lego model has been made and play begins. What Lego got right was how this play should be guided, with irreverence, and a willingness to poke fun at the untouchable master narratives of these mega-properties they now represented.

So whilst the critics of Lego’s franchise model relegate humour in these ranges to a brute marketing strategy, deployed at the cost of the building experience, there is something more at stake. Something about how as consumers, we consume.  Not in the blind sedated way a critic might simplistically suggest, but in a knowing and often self-critical way. Put another way, being complicit with the seduction, allows one to laugh at the seducer, whilst still being seduced. From personal experience, the way Lego has handled its relationship with Star Wars, compliments my own life-long relationship to the saga. One that I often jokingly describe by saying: “you can only truly be a life-long fan of Star Wars, if you are a life-long critic of Star Wars.”

The re-presentation of the Star Wars universes, as a subtle self-parody, in Simon Critchley’s phrasing allows us to laugh at ourselves rather than laugh at others[iv]. It would be incredibly easy to write a biting analysis of the Star Wars machine, a loose flabby inconsistent narrative, driven through with poor and often annoying characters, all joined together with a mighty capitalist marketing machine. But Lego Star Wars is not satire, a call to us to name Star Wars an artistic failure, to sneer and chastise through nasty laughter. We embrace Lego Star Wars because we love Star Wars. We consume the products of the franchise and know we are being drip-fed a narcotic, part nostalgia part promise. And we do all this willingly. The humour in Lego allows us to laugh at ourselves, and our love of that which is patently ridiculous, but importantly be able to do this and retain love for the original.

Still, this doesn’t quite answer the question as to what uniquely about Lego helps it operate as a medium for humor. The heartfelt caricature is not unique to Lego. Perhaps Mel Brook’s magnificent send-up SpaceBalls[v] stands as the perfect parody of Star Wars. When we have Dark Helmet, why settle for Lego Vader?

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Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in SpaceBalls

If we go back to the original quote from Lego Batman, there is conceivably an answer to this question. The clue is that we understand and find Batman funny when he discloses his building style. That Batman’s imagination is limited by a colour scheme. In the Lego world everything can be reduced to an aesthetic. By clicking bricks together Lego renders even complex themes simple and malleable. We laugh at Lego Batman, because we understand him according to ridiculously reduced criteria, and feel the gulf between this and the deep and moody character of the comics and films. This is funny because it knowingly flaunts this reduction, and ironically leaves us with a character more essentially Batman than Batman.

This type of humour, where anything can be reduced to a style, and where styles can be exchanged like so many hats, is deeply embedded in the Lego building community. As builders we find Batman funny when he declares his adherence to the black and gray theme, because we know at once we can all build like Batman; every builder with black bricks in his or her box of pieces is Batman. Take for instance Kevin Ryhal’s stunning Batspeeder [vi]. Here, with the slightest whimsy we see just how easily Batman can fit into the Star Wars universe; with both the Star Wars aesthetic and Batman’s jet-black criteria being met.

Kevin Rhyal's Bat Speeder

Kevin Ryhal’s Batspeeder

This type of irreverence, displayed through design and aesthetic expression, whilst not unique to Lego, certainly finds a medium perfectly suited to this expression. This isn’t just parody, but parody through an imaginative understanding of design. And in the building community, this flexibility and ease of reverential irreverence, that strange balance between laughter and love, is so commonplace we often miss its unique quality. This isn’t the bold marketing driven humour of Lego’s franchise campaigns, this is the knowing nods of thousands of fan builders, venerating their subject matter, because they know how to build what they love, without feeling any compulsion to treat it with unjustified reverence. In fact because they know it intimately enough to build it, allows them to lovingly laugh at it. This is the same intimacy expressed when we find ourselves able to laugh at our own foibles, because we know them better than anyone else.

There is no better case for this type of humorous building than Louis K’s All Terrain-Ice Cream Transporter [vii]. Vader, make mine a 99!

Louis K's  All Terrain-Ice Cream Transport

Louis K’s
All Terrain-Ice Cream Transport

Yet this is just one genre of humour, and not the whole story as to why Lego works so well when it makes us laugh. The consistent way humour has been deployed by the company in recent years across its product ranges should not be confused with the full range of humour it can carry.

I still remember this 1980s advert from Lego, replete with voice over from the irrepressible Tommy Cooper, that markets Lego with a very different brand of humour. Here Lego keeps up with the flow of humorous associations, and the ludicrousness that such a train of thought can take us on. The mouse that calls forth the cat, that calls forth the dog, that calls forth the dragon, that calls forth the fire engine, and so on.

This charming advert tells us a great deal about the versatility of Lego. It is funny, not because it references another art form, a franchise or model to parody, it is funny because it illustrates thought. The slapstick repartee of Cooper’s back and forth dialectic, where his monologue continuously outwits itself (apart from when it unintentionally undoes itself by mistaking a slipper for kipper), is matched step by step, with Lego brick creations. The humour arises from us finding in the inanimate aggregate of bricks the wit and speed of Cooper’s comic mind.

Turning once more to Simon Critchley, and his short but wonderful study On Humour[viii], he notes Wyndham Lewis’ memorable quote:

‘To bring vividly to our mind what we mean by ‘absurd,’ let us turn to the plant, and enquire how the plant could be absurd. Suppose you came upon an orchid or a cabbage reading Flaubert’s Salammbô, or Plutarch’s Moralia, you would be very much surprised. But if you found a man or a woman reading it, you would not be surprised.

Now in one sense you ought to be just as much surprised at finding a man occupied in this way as if you had found an orchid or a cabbage, or a tomcat, to include the animal world. There is the same physical anomaly. It is just as absurd externally, that is what I mean.—The deepest root of the Comic is to be sought in this anomaly.’[ix]

What can be divulged from this analysis is that there is an anomaly experienced every time we encounter a pile of bricks and find through the power of our imagination, that this stack of plastic appears alive, even human.  The juxtaposition between the inanimate brick and Cooper’s thought process makes us laugh.  There is something essentially funny when a group of recta-linear bricks act like a cat, and even funnier to see them present a stream of consciousness.

From this observation, we may have stumbled across another key as to what makes Lego funny.  Mini-figures for example have an innate potential for humour because they present the inanimate brick as simultaneously invested with human characteristics, able to drive cars, sell ice cream, dance, cry and love, and still remain a collection of plastic parts.  The Lego movie gains its amusing core from this simple but universal comic root – to be human and free, and not, at the same time.

In the building community, this type of humour is most readily seen in what are commonly called brick built figures.  These comic creations imbue life into bricks in a way that not only surprises us, but also on occasion makes us laugh.  One builder whose work often exemplifies this theme is Riccardo Zangelmi.   He takes not only the inanimate brick, but creates inanimate objects, or animal life, that exude human vitality and character.  Although we see the simple bricks and pure building skill in his work, it is the fact that it always comes as a surprise to find these constructs inherently alive and in action that makes them special.  Like the cabbage reading Flaubert, the struggle of life and death or should that be between life and bread, between toaster and sandwich is fundamentally absurd[x].

Riccardo Zangelmi's  Mr. Sandwich and Angry Toaster

Riccardo Zangelmi’s Mr. Sandwich and Terrible Toaster

As before with the case of Star Wars, although it is possible to find a comic operation in certain building techniques, are these unique to Lego?  Surely when we see a face formed by a house’s door and windows, or laugh at a cat on YouTube dancing in a tutu, we experience the same operation of the imagination?

Returning to my proposition on Lego art[xi], what helps us understand the unique nature of humour’s operation in Lego is the fact that Lego is always simultaneously understood as being in two states.  Our imagination sees both the formed thing, and the unformed aggregate of bricks that make it.  Viewing Lego enacts a state of paradox, a permanent visual pun.

So, when we find a Lego creation funny, either because in the case of Lego Batman we find the complex image of Batman simultaneously representable by simple basic aesthetic conditions, or where we find life and character in a collection of inanimate bricks, in both cases we are sustaining a paradox.  Humour that operates on the principle of seeing one thing whilst also understanding another is aided by the aesthetic form of Lego.

In answer to the question what makes Lego funny the following case could be presented.  Lego is not innately funny, but its aesthetic conditions, boost, support or act as a catalyst for humour, by putting our minds in a state capable of holding opposite or contradictory conditions together.  And when we find these associations funny, Lego only helps enliven the thought processes that achieve this.

I’d like to close this brief encounter with Lego humour by returning to the earlier Wyndham Lewis quote.  The first condition of his anomaly being that we find the inanimate acting as a human funny, the second that we should equally on these grounds take the human acting as a human funny.  When we laugh at what Lego makes us think, by holding contradictory conditions together, we actually get a chance to find our own human imaginative capacity ridiculous.  As humans we create contradictory worlds, conceptions of others, and ourselves; and we normally treat these inventions as stable and true.  When they are rendered in Lego they reveal their contradictions, the artificiality of their being made.  Lego allows us to laugh at our world and ourselves, because we understand that it and the Lego creation are both made and understood from the position of our own contradictory inventiveness.

Endnotes

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

[ii] See the AFOLCON website http://www.afolcon.com/news/.

[iii] Lego Star Wars II: The Original Trilogy, Travellers Tales (2006)

[iv] Simon Critchley, On Humour, Routledge, London (2002)

[v] SpaceBalls, dir Mel Brooks, (MGM 1987)

[vi] Kevin Ryhal, Batspeeder (2013), https://www.flickr.com/photos/57996423@N06/9315005865/in/photostream/ (website accessed 25 January 2015)

[vii] Louis K, All Terrain-Ice Cream Transporter (2011) http://www.mocpages.com/moc.php/247503 website accessed 25 January 2015)

[viii] Ibid 2002.

[ix] Wyndham Lewis, The Meaning of the Wild Body, Harcourt Brace, New York (1928). P.248.

[x] Ricardo Zangelmi, Mr.Sandwich and Terrible Toaster (2013) https://www.flickr.com/photos/rickbrick/9422228965/ (website accessed 25 January 2015)

[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).

Authentic/Inauthentic Lego or what’s the right way to build?

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Emmet’s instructions for life from The Lego Movie.

Is there a right way to build with Lego?   Doesn’t this question stand in stark contrast to the creative ethos at the heart of the Lego experience? You might well think so, but it is precisely this question that motivates recent critiques about the way Lego has changed, since the launch of its initial range of basic bricks. New themes, film tie-ins and a host of specialised pieces are all supposedly detracting from Lego’s creative potential.

Justin Parkinson provocatively titled his recent article for the BBC ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?’[i] The report summarised some of the common misconceptions expressed about Lego’s recent developments, drawing together from various sources the arguments against the changes the company has implemented. But do these arguments hold up, is Lego now promoting a toy that falls somewhere short of an original ‘authentic’ way of building? I don’t believe so, and will show in each case why Lego continues to propagate our children’s and our imagination.

So what are the cases for the demise of Lego’s creative and imaginative potential? Loosely speaking Parkinson breaks things down to three key points:

  1. The instructions provided in current Lego sets dictate single builds, rather than offering a child the opportunity to explore with their own imagination;
  2. Specialised pieces, that have one specific use, limit the number of creative possibilities open to the child;
  3. Lego is too simplistic and doesn’t help a child develop their building towards an ideal form, primarily with engineering and scientific application.

Starting with the principle that single sets of instructions hamper creativity, Parkinson cites blogger Chris Swan, who is recorded as saying: ‘Single-outcome sets encourage preservation rather than destruction, and sadly that makes them less useful, less educational (and, in my opinion, less fun)’[ii]. And on this out of context quote[iii] hangs the whole of Parkinson’s case. If you take the time to read Swan’s article, there is a more nuanced position. He in fact argues that children find it harder to dismantle Lego, and engage in creative re-imaginations of the bricks, if they are channeled towards models to collect and keep.

Swan is fundamentally wrong however, when he suggests that there is a preferred or more authentic way of building with Lego. Consider the irony in the statement he makes, which suggests the best way to build is to avoid the rules and work from intuitive imagination and individual creative application, when it in turn becomes a rule by which to establish value judgments about the types of ways a child can interact with Lego.

For many of us who build with Lego, the creative experience Swan explains mirrors our own enjoyment of the medium, and this gives it an unfounded rhetorical conviction; unquestionable in the Lego community. But this isn’t the only way to build, and other ways, including sticking to the instructions, are not necessarily, less fun, or less imaginative. Swan exemplifies the type of morally high-minded adult validation of Lego, that sees it as best understood as a way of educating a child, developing certain transferable skills, and activating a free creative spirit. Whilst Lego has the potential to do all this,  it should not be reduced to this alone.

Building from instructions has been part of the Lego experience from its inception, and is a core part of its imaginative potential. If we were talking about any other creative medium, the need to develop skills through instruction or imitation would be taken as a given. For example, imagine trying to compose music without first learning how to play an instrument, read music and practice scales. Unless you have a prodigious talent, it would be folly to turn your back on this wealth of experience.  The lessons learnt by following the instructions in a Lego set, develop these skills in one’s own building.

Take Emmet the everyman construction worker from the Lego Movie[iv], who carries latent master builder skills, through his long-term adherence to the instructions. His construction mech, realised at the film’s finale is an expression of all those learnt techniques redeployed. And behind this narrative we have Will Ferrel’s son, who is implied to have played with his father’s Lego display according to the rules set for him, and only once his imagined narrative required new creations, does he find the courage to build his own way. Just like Emmet’s complete submission to Lord Business’s hegemony, his skill is based on the knowledge he had acquired from his interaction with his father’s world.  As the film notes Lord Business was the greatest master builder after all.

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City building from the instructions.

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City building Emmet’s way.

This example exposes Swan’s child, who builds a Lego set and then methodically destroys it, as an idealised fantasy. Possibly this occurs from a filtering we all have, as to how we ‘think’ we played with Lego in our own childhood. How quickly we forget that Lego lets a child build a toy: racing cars to be raced, houses to be lived in, spaceships to explore distant galaxies with. The games in which the child engages in, is often the missing catalyst (which Swan misses) for inspired creation.  And you need to build and keep sets to create this arena for inspired play.  Rather than imagine the perfect creatively driven child and a set of abstract bricks, how many of us in fact relied on the themes of more experienced and better builders  than ourselves (normally professional Lego designers) to step forward with our own imaginative endeavors. Some of us as adults still collect and build those classic sets of our childhood to display, but then add to them with something of our own. Jon Blackford’s wonderful Classic Space display[v] shows this principle in action.  A complete set of original built sets surrounding a fantastic new creation of his own.

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Jon Blackford, Command Centre Layout 1 (2014).

Swan’s further assumption in his article is that Lego as a company is moving towards a range dominated by single outcome sets. This is simply not true. Lego in reality has consistently diversified its types of building experiences. Whilst core areas such as Lego City, Star Wars and Lego Friends do indeed present single outcomes sets, they are supplemented by the 3 in 1 Creator sets, Technic and as of last year the highly successful Mixels range, all of which encourage multiple builds from individual sets. Taking Mixels as a case study, here is a toy that seems to refute Swan’s perception. Its name itself inspires the idea of mixing and rebuilding. The urge to collect small pocket-money sets, off-set against a principle that smaller sets can be broken down and combined with others to make ever bigger and stranger creatures.

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LEGO-Mixels-Mixed-Up

A deeper argument though, is not simply that there is a diversification of building styles and options being offered by Lego, which necessarily would seem to suggest an increase in the ways in which our imagination is being activated, but that the purported dictatorial single outcome set is not the negative anti-creative experience it is portrayed as. Taking the extreme examples of this type of build, the large modular town sets, the architectural building range or Star Wars Ultimate Collector Series, there are a number of positive things to be said. As the complexity of these models increase, so do the techniques required to build them. As a learning experience these sets share a huge amount of knowledge with a novice builder. Far from being a lesser educational experience to that of free invention, they simply offer a different one.

This still hasn’t answered Swan’s main claim though that single outcome sets reduce imaginative potential. The problem arises from a common misconception that Lego is a pure participatory experience. One has an authentic experience of Lego when one is building; reflection on that which is created is of a lesser order. In my last article where I built a case for Lego art[vi], I challenged the lack of analysis given to the act of viewing and responding to Lego creations. My conclusion being that Lego activates the imagination by simultaneously revealing to the spectator its built and un-built state. So if a child builds a set that inspires reflection and wonder of this kind, and this relationship is one they seek to maintain, is it fair to consider this relationship a negative or inauthentic one?

When we look at other creative mediums, we almost never distinguish levels of authenticity between making and responding to work. If you listen to a piece of music and do not immediately decide to respond by composing music of your own, would this then make your relation to music an inauthentic one. If you read a novel, and are not moved to write, has the experience diminished your imaginative experience of the work? As such, it is possible to build a Lego set from the instructions and not feel a need to build something of your own, and this too is a valid experience.

The problem Swan exposes is that we often try to pigeonhole what good play is, and consequently how imagination should be employed. When we try to reduce Lego to an ideal type of engagement, we miss so much of what it can be (in this case a source of wonder and speculation). Lego as a company has grasped this and is offering an ever widening range of experiences to its audiences, including that of collection and reflection. Those commentators who want to step back in time, put the genie back in the bottle and deny these new experiences for a perceived more authentic earlier one, are doing anything other than defending Lego’s imaginative potential.

The second case given by Parkinson involves the use of specialised pieces. Like the case for single outcome sets, this issue relates to the reduction of authentic building opportunities, created this time by the introduction of new elements. The argument is presented here through a historical perspective, that Lego in the early 2000’s got things wrong by producing sets with too many specialised pieces, which led to ‘instant gratification building’. Lego realised its mistake and has since rectified the balance. Quoting David Gauntlett’s sensible opinion regarding the shift away from this type of product, the article effectively sets up a second authenticity claim. Lego has a duty to keep its sets composed of mainly, pure, or traditional, standard bricks. The mix determining whether the ideal building experience is provided.

Once more, the case for Lego’s deterioration is attached to an unsubstantiated claim as to what the correct way to build is. Specialised pieces as a result are defined as a necessary evil.  They are something Lego needs to embrace in relation to the representational needs of its marketed franchises (how else can you make a convincing R2 D2 dome), but of course there ought to be a minimization of these pieces. The rot is in Lego, and needs to be monitored at a healthy level, or so say the critics.

This is a wrong-headed way of looking at the introduction of specialised pieces. Rather than being perceived as a threat to imaginative possibilities, these pieces have been behind some of the most dynamic creative shifts in the Lego building community.

In the most simple of mathematical terms, we can see that the increase in piece types ought to equate to increased possibilities, not a reduction of them; so why the vilification of these elements? Well for a start an influx of these pieces causes a problems when it comes to us recognising what we think Lego ought to look like. Basic elements of Lego conform to a simple geometric uniformity and a primary colour range. Imagination, or precisely the imagination required to render according to these limits is lost when too many non-conforming pieces are introduced.   Some of these new specialised pieces provide short cuts to the rendering techniques required of basic bricks, and with it a very specific Lego aesthetic. So,paradoxically as the artistic options increase with the variety of pieces, a certain artistry is perceived to be lost.  But does this change amount to a loss of imaginative potential?

David Roberts[vii], an established builder and active member of the Lego community, was the first person to comment on my article on Lego art, he observed that the Lego that found its way into the category of art, almost exclusively was made of basic bricks. In answer I would say that the rendering skill displayed by builders such as Nathan Sawaya[viii] and Sean Kenny[ix], indeed helps their work find purchase, through the resolute veracity of its Lego geometrics. If Lego is going to be taken for art, it ought to be undeniably recognisable as such…or should it?

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Sean Kenny, Portrait

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Nathan Sawaya, Conan O’Brien

In reality Lego is not the stable geometric system of simple bricks that popular culture thinks it is. Rather a strange organic, constantly shifting collection of plastic shapes that connect together. From month to month different pieces are developed, or go out of circulation. Wonderful blogs such as Tim Johnson’s New Elementary[x] track all these introductions, analyse their potential for building and celebrate them. Far from being the stultification of imagination, these elements enhance, inspire and provide Lego with an ever-changing aesthetic terrain.

The imaginative potential of the specialised element can be seen writ large in the work of a builder like Mike Nieves[xi] who embraces specialised pieces. Although working in many respects in a way similar to Sawaya and Kenny, in that he seeks to render the complex through simple pieces, his selection of specialised pieces  produces a stylistic shift.   Much like witnessing the change in brush strokes implemented by the Impressionist painters, he alters the frame for Lego rendering. His new  style, reliant as it is on specialised pieces, aligns with the arabesque rather than the expected recta-linear form of traditional bricks. And yet still, they are very much Lego creations.

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Mike Nieves, Tiger V. 2

What is new in the way a builder like Nieves works, is that it opens up an additional experience for the spectator. Not only do I now say, “that is made of Lego!”, but I view each piece and take pleasure in decoding its origin. In the case of Tiger V. 2[xii] by Nieves, it is found in examples such as the use of racing car driver helmets for the construction of the head. The excited mind is forced to flip between the piece’s original use and its new deployment. These new pieces as such add a new imaginative operation, not just more creative options. All of which makes it seem even more ridiculous that they have been accused of Iimiting imagination.

The art historian Christine Poggi, in her seminal study of the development of collage in Twentieth Century art, In Defiance of Painting[xiii], quotes Picasso talking to Henri Laurens in 1948 about their experiments with collage in 1914. Picasso says: ‘We must have been crazy, or cowards to abandon this! We had such magnificent means. Look how beautiful this is – not because I did it, naturally – and we had these means yet I turned back to oil paint and you to marble, It’s insane!’[xiv]. In a way the introduction of specialised pieces into the Lego range offers similar possibilities to builders as collage did to the avant-garde artists of the early Twentieth Century. And like them, we have to question why we should turn back to a time before their existence, as if the traditional brick form was a more creative approach.

Lego creations made by the selection of objects, re-appropriations of the apparently single use element for other ends, like the experiments in collage, open up a new Lego language for builders.  For instance, when you look at a later sculptural construct by Picasso like Baboon and Young[xv], every child who plays with Lego will recognise the moment of inspiration where the toy car is reconfigured as the head of a Baboon.

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Picasso, Baboon and Young

The argument for the reduction of imagination based on the increase of specialised pieces fails because it fundamentally under-estimates a child’s or any builder’s imaginative capacity to see any piece as something else. In the Lego community this skill is referred to by the frequently used acronym NPU (nice piece usage), a useful stand in for the Lego builder’s ability to find a suitable gestalt for an unexpected piece. The talent is revered in areas like the Iron Builder contests[xvi] that pit Lego enthusiasts against each other, with the aim of finding as many applications as they can for highly specialised Lego elements. This capacity for ‘seeing-as’ means that the supposedly useless Lego croissant piece, may in fact be a crab’s claw, a strand of mermaid’s hair, a lion’s smile. We are not dictated to by the use implied in the set the piece was bought as part of. The new piece always offers fresh opportunities and the expansion of imaginative potential.

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Iron Builder Contest between Pasukaru76 and Volume X

I have left the final argument that Lego fails to support the development of young scientists, to last, because it seems on first inspection to contradict the previous two cases. However it will quickly become apparent that it shares the underlying fault with the two previously examined discussions: that it too perceives there to be an ideal or authentic way of building, and Lego’s failure has been in not advocating this. Parkinson makes this case based on statements quoted from the Nobel Prize winning chemist Sir Harry Kroto, who believe that Lego has an ideal application, which it is fundamentally ill equipped to deal with. This being to provide an educational building system for young scientists and engineers to learn from. He is quoted saying: ‘Children should start with Lego, which is basically a toy, and its basic units are bricks. We do not build cars and other machines out of bricks.’

Of course Kroto is ill informed to make these comments, seemingly having not looked at the range of sets Lego is currently prodcuing. Empirical evidence stands against any claim that Lego fails to cater for the technically inspired imagination. There are the specialised ranges such as Technic and Mindstorms. Beyond this, there are thriving organisations such as Young Engineers[xvii] who use Lego (as well as other building systems) to foster children’s participation in STEM subjects. And then there is individual cases such as that of Shubham Banerjee[xviii] the 13-year old engineer who has designed and developed a low cost Braille printer with Lego.

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Shubham Banerjee braille printer

Whilst Kroto’s ideal demands more specialised pieces, cogs, cranks, pneumatics and so forth, as well as more detailed instructions capable of teaching basic engineering skills, (the diametric opposite of the previous argued cases), ultimately there are more similarities than differences to the more culturally embedded critiques I’ve discussed. His perception of Lego’s loss of imagination is tied to linking Lego to a right way to build.

As long the critics perceive Lego according to an ideal, rather than an open system to be explored, they will bang their heads against the cases and ways it develops beyond those conditions. This is the conclusion of my analysis, that the cases against Lego’s current developments all rely perversely on a limitation of imaginative potential as a preferred alternative. They begin with untested assumptions as to what an ideal or good imaginative engagement with Lego is, and as a result fail to see the full scope of the medium. Crucially this means both accepting the reflective engagements with Lego as being as valid as the participatory ones; and that Lego’s aesthetic is not grounded in an ideal set of pieces or system of building. If you are open-minded enough to look, and really investigate what Lego is doing, and by proxy what the building community is achieving as a result, current changes are not limiting imagination rather expanding it, in unexpected and challenging ways.

Endnotes

[i] Justin Parkinson, ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?’ BBC (26 November 2014) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-29992974 (accessed 11 January 2015).

[ii] 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 11 January 2015).

[iii] Swan notes on the update to his Blog following Parkinson’s article: ‘I’m very pleased that this post has been referenced by Justin Parkinson’s piece on the BBC News site ‘Has the imagination disappeared from Lego?‘, but I fear he may have misunderstood (or misrepresented) what I say about instructions. […] TL;DR  – instructions aren’t the problem,  they’re a good and necessary part of all sets beyond basic boxes of bricks, the problem is sets that only make one thing (like a dragon or something licensed from a movie).’ Ibid Chris Swan’s Weblog.

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

[v] Jon Blackford, Command Centre Layout 1, John Blackford’s Flickr Stream (9 February 2014) https://www.flickr.com/photos/heiwa71/12414091355/ (accessed 11 January 2015).

[vi] David Alexander Smith, ‘Building a case for Lego art’, Building Debates (3 January 2015) https://buildingdebates.wordpress.com/ (accessed 11 January 2015).

[vii] See David Robert’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/davidroberts01341/16252552785/.

[viii] See Nathan Sawaya’s website, http://brickartist.com/.

[ix] See Sean Kenny’s website, http://www.seankenney.com/.

[x] See the New Elementary http://www.newelementary.com/.

[xi] See Mike Nieves’ Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/retinence/.

[xii] Mike Nieves, Tiger V 2, Mike Nieves’ Flickr stream (12 April 2012). https://www.flickr.com/photos/retinence/ (accessed 11 January 2012).

[xiii] Christine Poggi, In Defiance of Painting: Cubism, Futurism and the Invention of Collage, Yale Universiy Press, New Haven/London (1992)

[xiv] Ibid, In Defiance of Painting, p.xvii.

[xv] Picasso, Baboon and Young, 1951, MOMA art collection. (http://www.moma.org/collection/object.php?object_id=81119).

[xvi] The Iron Builders contest is hosted by the Builders Lounge forum (http://builderslounge.proboards.com/), and a collection of creations made as part of the contest can be found in this Flickr group, https://www.flickr.com/groups/2167827@N22.

[xvii] See the Young Engineers website, http://www.young-engineers.co.uk/.

[xviii] See this article from the Business Insider, http://uk.businessinsider.com/shubham-banerjee-braigo-labs-2014-11.