Talking Animation with David Pagano and David Pickett

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David Pickett and David Pagano are two names synonymous with the art of brick filming and LEGO animation. They are also the co-authors of The LEGO Animation Book. Earlier this year they joined me to discuss how the book came about, their work and the future of LEGO animation.

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We started our conversation by digging into both of the Davids’ pasts, searching for that elusive moment that got them hooked on animation.

David Pagano: When I was a kid my dad had a video camera; this was before everybody had a camera in their telephone.  It was a shoulder mounted VHS model with a tripod that could be attached to it.  My Dad used it to record home movies and birthday parties.  At some point, I don’t remember exactly when it was, he and I watched a stop motion documentary together – a behind the scenes type of thing.   I have a clear memory of me asking him if he could explain how you do “that thing where characters move but you don’t see your hands.”

I also had a friend whose dad did puppetry shows for children.  As a result, he had some experience with video cameras.  One day, when I was around 9 or 10 years old, we were hanging out in my bedroom where I had a long layout of a LEGO city.  He said “hey, why don’t we make a LEGO animation with your city set up here.” So he arranged my dad’s camera: he was the photographer and I was the animator. I’d used LEGO as a way to facilitate storytelling and make up little worlds before, so putting them on video was a very natural next step.

David Pickett:  Seeing as how similar mine and David’s stories are, my joke was going to be to just say “ditto” after all of his answers.  My family also had a video camera.  I actually have some video footage of me as a seven-year old kid who when they got a camera immediately wanted to use it to film everything.

The earliest LEGO film I made used the set 60506 Dragon Wagon to make a movie about a dragon.  It wasn’t animated, in fact in most of my early films I literally moved the characters around like little puppets, doing their voices as I recorded.   It’s actually something I’ve started doing again, as a lot of the content on my Youtube channel is simply me playing with the toys as opposed to professional animation.  The VHS tape of these early pieces is probably still in my parents’ basement –  there is a terrible Power Rangers rip off on it, which I know would be right up David Pagano’s alley!

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Things moved on when I made my first LEGO film for a school project.   Anytime in school I could justify using a video to fulfil the requirement of an assignment I would, sometimes with LEGO, sometimes not.  At the time it was still rare for anyone to have video technology at home.  So I was the video guy as much as I was the LEGO guy at school.  It just seemed very natural to me that these two things I liked doing should combine.

My first animation probably wasn’t until I was around thirteen in middle school.  And then in college I had this epic animation that was 60 minutes long.  I realised when I screened it that I was becoming THE LEGO guy.  I made a very decisive choice at that point not to pursue live action filmmaking and focus instead on the LEGO niche.   So far it has worked out pretty well for me.

Having established the formative moments of both Davids careers we traced the journey from their early projects into professional practice.

David Pagano:  When LEGO Studios – the official LEGO line of filming sets – was released, they also ran a film competition to promote it.  By that point I had a capture card that I could use to tie my VHS camera into my computer, which finally let me do legit stop-motion animation.  My film was called Haunted and earned me a semi-finalist place, as well as a trip to New York City.  Which ironically is where I grew up.  My mum got a phone call from the LEGO Company: “You are never going to believe this, you and your family are going to New York City”… and my mum was like: “We are in Queens right now!” That was definitely the first time that I felt like this animation thing could be a career.

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I actually didn’t go to college with the intention of doing animation.  I wanted to do live action work: the real ‘pro’ way to make films.  What I quickly learned was that live action involves a lot of cutting your teeth on other peoples’ projects, which you may have little to no interest in.  Whereas if I made an animated film, I could lock myself in a room for a couple of months and do all the work myself.

So I ended up taking the animation track.  In my senior year, I decided to make a LEGO film as my thesis. The thought was “I’m in college and I’m spending all this money to be here, so I might as well make the LEGO film now, because after I graduate no one is going to hire me to do this.”

The film I made was called Little Guys, and it has been unintentionally responsible for every stop-motion gig I’ve been hired for.  Most specifically, I brought it to the Brickworld Chicago fan event, which is the largest in North American.  (It’s where Dave Pickett and I first met too.) There I met a crew from the LEGO Company who liked my film and asked me to do some work for their in-house agency.  That’s how my weird hobby become a weird career making films with LEGO.

David Pickett:  I initially went to college to study biology and creative writing at the University of Chicago, mainly because it’s a cool liberal arts college and I knew I would get a broad education.  I spent all my free time in the student film group making LEGO movies and other stop-motion stuff for fun.   I made some really long convoluted movies, which I called LEGO Movie 2 and LEGO Movie 2 Vol. 2, which received positive responses.  But I wanted to reconceptualise what I could do, make it more friendly for the emerging trend of internet video sites such as YouTube.

So I came up with the idea of a LEGO web series; this became The Nightly News at Nine.  I spent a lot of time building up characters and a world in the summer of 2006; a short teaser with a few of the characters followed in 2007.  I then spent a further two years revising scripts for what would become Chapters 1 and 2.

I was in a screenwriting circle with some people I met in college.  We’d read each other’s scripts and give feedback.  I always like to emphasise how much time and effort it takes to make something funny and good.  For example, the original scripts had a war between the colours regular green and lime green. This original idea was more conceptual – the war between two gods to decide the official colour of jealousy – which I rejected in favour of the more direct opposition between orange and green.  The final 24-minute piece was cut up into smaller chunks of 5 minutes, which was small back then, but nowadays this is long even for YouTube.

This project ultimately became the basis for my YouTube channel BRICK 101. As of a year ago it has become my main job. The site has moved away from the animation work; it’s a mix of tutorial videos and reviews of LEGO products and other brands.  This helps me to be more profitable.  I have an office now, and a part-time employee.  This has really become my career path now, but it has gotten me away from animation.  I consider myself more of a construction block filmmaker nowadays.

This revelation brought the conversation round to how the LEGO Animation Book bought the two of them together to focus on an animation project.

David Pickett:  It was after the Nightly News at Nine Chapter 1 that we really started talking about writing a book together.

David Pagano: Dave and I have been teaching a LEGO stop-motion animation workshop for a decade.  When we first started, Dave and I would also sell DVDs of our animated films.  People would point to these and they would say “oh is that a DVD about how to make LEGO animations?”, and we would both sort of blush and say “No”. We just looked at each other one day and said we should make a how to book so people stop asking us for it.

David Pickett: As David mentioned we met in Chicago, where we were the only two people involved in making animations.  There was one other guy from Brick Films but he has moved on.  Repeatedly, we have been the only two brickfilmers at this event for the past decade.  The LEGO fan community hasn’t really seen many brick filmmakers, compared to any other sub-genre of LEGO fandom. With the book we really are just trying to create the next generation of LEGO filmmakers and hopefully get current adult fans to try something they didn’t do as a kid.

David Pagano: One of the stated goals of our book is to be the kind of book we would have wanted to read when we first got into brickfilming.  We wanted to answer the common questions and condense the first steps of brick filming into a digestible form.  Being a co-authored book it also offers our two differing perspectives.  We often finish each other’s – [David Pickett interjects] “sandwiches” – … hahah!  If we had written this book on our own we would mostly have focussed on our individual approaches to filmmaking. By writing it together it became more about us exploring the ways in which film making is possible based on our combined experiences.

David Pickett:  This is most pronounced in section 7 of the book where we talk about pre-production. I am all ‘play’ with only the minimum amount of planning.  The Magic Picnic is the most planned project I’ve ever done, because it was planned for a book, but also because I was working with David who has the most amazing spreadsheets.

David Pagano: I tend to plan out my films to a large extent, so that when I am on set I am ready to play, without having to worry where the lighting is etc.  I’ve started over the past 5-6 years, bringing other people into the fold to help me on my films, so I don’t have to keep all the details in my brain or on a spreadsheet. This lets me focus on the fun parts of animation.

David Pickett:  One of the best things about the reception of the book is hearing anecdotes about how it is helping kids’ creativity.  A couple of home schoolers have told us that the book has become a project for their summer curriculum.  Another reason why we made the book was that it was something that simply needed to exist in the universe.

A discussion followed as to how the book was practically written.

David Pagano: One year, after the Brickworld event, we hung out at Dave’s apartment and knocked out a very broad outline for what we thought the book would be.  Some of this came from the workshops we had been teaching together. We started to figure out what the key points and most asked questions were and went from there.

David Pickett:  In late 2010, David contacted me to write a ‘How to Animate’ article for Brick Journal Issue 14.   After that was released in April 2011, we talked again at Brickworld, and that’s when Dave stayed over at my apartment.  One of the key things we decided at that point was whether the content would make more sense as a series of videos or a book.  We decided that a book and an animation developed together would be the best option. We started a website, now known as the Set Bump, originally Brick Animation, to support the project.

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Between 2011 and 2013 we did lots of pre-production work.  I think we officially started writing the book when the LEGO Movie came out in 2014.  We saw it together and went back to my hotel room to start work. David lives in New York and I live in Chicago, so a lot of the creative stuff was done when we were together.

David Pagano: Trying to make the Magic Picnic at the same time as writing the book was a hilarious and insane idea.  One can’t exist without the other—the photography from the book is directly from the set of the Magic Picnic, and these images, to some extent, dictated the text.  The difficulty came in juggling the interrelation of the two projects and meeting deadlines.

David Pickett: It was hard to write a draft of the book with zero photos in it. Our publisher couldn’t comprehend it without seeing the photos.  Having an animation tie in with the book was a huge interlocking puzzle, which at times was extremely frustrating.  Chapter three specifically will make David whimper.

We divided up the work for the book and the animation.  Each of us took the lead for different chapters and passed these back and forth to review.  Similarly, we split the Magic Picnic up, I did town, castle, and pirate and David did space and the robot battle. Having a story about inter-dimensional travel hid the differences between our cameras and was also a shout out to the classic brickfilm, the Magic Portal. It also contains references to the history of LEGO themes, Power Rangers and the 1980s LEGO Idea books.

David Pagano:  Our goal was to make sure that you could not see which parts of the film are me or Dave Pickett. We wanted it to feel cohesive. But if you pay close attention, it should be possible to see which parts were made by each David.

David and David moved on to discuss their respective animation styles.

David Pickett:  Let me talk about David Pagano in terms of a throughline in his work: his PaganoPuppet, which debuted in Playback. These are large scale brick built figures, but not as large as those in Little Guys.  They have human articulations and brick-built mouths.  They feature in his finest commissioned work Country Buildin’; a country music video with the two cowboys live lip syncing to the song of the same name.  It is probably the perfect blend of the needs of the client and David’s personal style.

In addition to the way David has refined his animation and his production process he has also refined the actual LEGO build over the years.  The original version of the character in Playback is not as refined as those in Country Buildin’.  The PaganoPuppet was then revised again, based on the availability of new pieces, when we did the instructions for our book.  It has also shown up in other animators’ works.  Also, non-animators have used it in their work. Monster Brick (Matt Armstrong), for example, has made lots of different interpretations of that base model.

In addition, David’s walk cycle diagram is part of an internal official LEGO document for how the minifigure can be used in any stop-motion animation they produce, whether it’s made by Paganomation or one of their other contractors.

When I was working on the book, I spent a lot of time looking at David’s work, and deconstructing what he does in his animations.  My favourite example is the arm nod, as a way of showing consent or a “yeah that is a great idea!”

David Pagano: What I admire in Dave’s work, especially in his animation, is something I don’t have as much experience with: writing.  So when Dave talks about how long he spent writing the Nightly News at Nine, I’m both impressed and envious.  I just haven’t made the time to develop my own stuff in the way he has.

However, there is an additional artistic l element to Dave’s work that is very important too.  I work in a building with Sean Kenney – the brick artist – and one argument that comes up over and over again is the idea that there are certain LEGO artworks or LEGO artists where the work is made of LEGO bricks but it doesn’t go beyond that.  One nice thing about the Nightly News at Nine is that it is made of LEGO and is a technically proficient build, but it also says stuff about Dave and gets his ideas into the world.  At my studio, the way we describe great works of LEGO art is that “LEGO can be the beginning of the conversation but it shouldn’t be the end.”

This idea turned the conversation around to the theme of what makes a LEGO artwork, and how storytelling and narrative forms are essential to LEGO animation.

David Pagano:  Accessibility is a word that comes up often when we have this conversation.  Anyone can go to a LEGO sculpture show or a fan convention, see how a piece is built, and can go home and try it themselves.  More so than say when you see a watercolour painting in an exhibition. Because LEGO is a toy first and art medium second, there is a lower barrier to entry.

David Pickett:  One thing that elevates great brickfilms is that there is more to them than just technique. A 4K video of a minifigure walking across the floor is not art, nor is it interesting.   I wrote an article about this that looked at the dangers of hyper-reality.  It analysed the mania for technical perfection that prevented film makers from finishing their work or telling meaningful stories.  So much LEGO animation is focused on spectacle.  Spectacle is always a part of entertainment, and art to a certain extent, but pure spectacle seems empty.

I have much more compassion and interest in technically terrible brickfilms made by a kid trying to say something.  A kid doing a poorly animated film about her family is way more interesting than a shot by shot recreation of the latest Star Wars trailer. I hate that the latter is all some people think of when they think of LEGO animation.

David Pagano:  It was important that the Magic Picnic embodied these ideas.  In Chapter 6 of our book we talk about how important play is in the development of a brickfilm.

When I started doing videos for the LEGO Group back in 2008, the company was coming back from near bankruptcy, trying to figure out what they needed to do to be vibrant and profitable again.  Back then they were more willing to take a chance on a video starring a talking mailbox or lumberjacks with magic powers than they are now. Some of the playfulness has gone out of the company’s recent adverts.

This opened up a conversation around the recent LEGO films.

David PaganoThe LEGO Movie is interesting for us because we both have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the rubbish put out by the LEGO group over the years.  If you look at LEGO Friends as a lifelong fan, it is such an improvement over Belville and Scala, but if you look at it from outside the lens of LEGO fandom, it appears as if all of a sudden LEGO is catering to girls.  The LEGO Movie is kind of the same thing – “LEGO has started to get into the film business and got it right the first time.”  Well not quite!  There were a lot of failures before the hit.

David Pickett:  There is this really excellent Henry Selick quote: “Every kid has a toy that they believe is their best friend, that they believe communicates with them, and they imagine it being alive, their toy horse or car or whatever it is. Stop-motion is the only medium where we literally can make a toy come to life, an actual object.” I’ve printed this out and put it on my wall.  When I think of the connection between toys and storytelling, stop-motion animation is just the playing without the hand present. The LEGO Movie embodies this idea even more than most current current LEGO products.  It communicates something deep about creativity.  The fact that you build the thing on the box, or the 3 things that there are instructions for; vs the idea that you can build anything you want to.  It’s a weird paradox and the conflict between LEGO as a concept and a product that is sold, and what it means culturally.

But I also wonder about this from a story telling perspective, what does it mean to be a ‘LEGO’ story.  So I think about all the LEGO themes (Star Wars, Batman, etc.) that reinvent these properties.  The key theme I see between these is a self-aware ability to poke fun at something that is generally dramatic.  For instance what the LEGO Company did with the Travellers Tales Star Wars games and TV shows; these are pretty irreverent. The LEGO Movie is like The ‘LEGO LEGO’ movie, in that it both celebrates and parodies the LEGO brand itself.

On this note we ended our discussion, with a nod to the power of humour and parody in LEGO animation, and a timely reminder to just what makes both David Pickett and David Pagano’s animations so much fun to watch.

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David Hughes at OXO Gallery

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If you turn the corner from Gabriel’s wharf towards the OXO Tower on London’s Southbank this week you will be greeted by the sight of one of David Hughes’ amazing LEGO sculptures.  Taking centre stage in the west facing window of the OXO Gallery is his The Stuff I Didn’t See, a hunched LEGO figure that reflects on the emotional effects of depression.

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The Stuff I Didn’t See by David Hughes

This and a number of Hughes’ other pieces contribute to the collective Caiger Contemporary Art Show MEGALOPOLIS, and fulfils the promise he made to me to me last year when I interviewed him, that he wanted to take LEGO art into mainstream art spaces.  It is something he has been doing for a while now, being featured at Clerkenwell Design Week in May, displaying at the Park Theatre Gallery Space in January as well as regularly turning up to the various London art fairs.

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But this show is different, here for the first time his work avoids the novelty often associated with LEGO art.  Rather than it being a surprise to find LEGO in a gallery, the LEGO art presents itself as a facet of a wide range of creative practices on show.  Fitting in with the exhibition’s aims which declare that: ‘The world seems a bit of a divided place at the moment, so we wanted to celebrate its awesomeness and how it unifies us all.’

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Bowie by David Hughes hung in context

Sympathetically curated Hughe’s works are distributed throughout the show, with his Bowie portrait mosaic, collaboratively created at Roy’s People’s Art Fair last month, sitting between paintings and prints by more traditional artists.  And in this context the work ceases to be only about its LEGO built nature and becomes something else, a work of art that just happens to have been built with bricks.

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Leave Me Alone, Don’t Leave Me Alone by David Hughes

Hughes’ most recent works, the aforementioned The Stuff I Didn’t See and its sister piece Leave Me Alone, Don’t Leave Me Alone, are the stars of the show.  Where he steps beyond works that chime with popular culture or express the human body, often dancers, in architectural terms, and explores the themes of mental illness, the choice of building with LEGO bricks truly attains its potential as a medium for thoughtful content.  In these pieces he takes some of the aesthetic traits of more famous LEGO artists such as Nathan Sawaya, but by playfully selecting the perfect scale for brick recognition and image resolution to oscillate, achieves something more interesting.  The contradictions between a sense of self and its desire for both social interaction and isolation, suggested by a piece like Leave Me Alone, Don’t Leave Me Alone, is perfectly reflected in the LEGO brick medium, which jumps between visual cohesion and a reduction to individual elements if the viewer gets too close.

The show is on till the 15 October, and is free.  If you happen to be in London this weekend and want a chance to see what is happening in the world of LEGO art, a trip to the OXO Gallery is well worth the visit.

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Abstract Experiments in LEGO

Last year I wrote a short article on the issues of building abstract LEGO creations. What happens when you try to use LEGO elements in a non-representational way, and in doing so does it tell us anything more about the way LEGO operates as a creative language?

Having set out a series of arguments about this, I decided to enlist the help of several talented builders to test my theses in a practical way. Here is what they came up with.

Shannon Sproule
Shannon is a superb builder of the most unusual and innovative space creations as well as being an accomplished artist in more traditional mediums. He approached the challenge of building in the abstract form from a symbolic angle, creating three fascinating comments on social/group dynamics, love and the construction of the self. You can find more of Shannon’s work on his Flickr pager here.

Punish/Protect

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Punish/Protect

A rectangular object has a binary nature: either it is standing erect (implying strength) or laying prone (implying placidity). We see a group of erect objects surrounding a prone object and questions are posed to the viewer: is the group protecting the lesser object from danger or encircling it with intend to harm whilst it is alone? Does the viewer identify with the reposed or with the group?

Romeo and Juliet

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Romeo and Juliet

A beautiful object emerges from a nest of angry thorns. The central object represents the ill-fated lovers Romeo and Juliet, white symbolising the purity of their love for one another. A ragged divide splits the object in two, while the thorns on opposing sides (representing the two feuding families), shot red with hatred and adorned with metallic talons, scrape and gouge at one another, oblivious to the broken jewel in front of them.

Components of the Self (moving through space)

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Components of the Self (moving through space)

Here I am contemplating the ingredients of the Self. The light bley spine represents our body. It is the basic frame/chassis that the higher elements are further built upon. The white platform in the centre (the brain) serves as a foundation or growth medium for the Unique Attributes to affix to. These elements (in medium azure) equate to our many and curious unique traits, acquired skills and collected memories.

So the Self is the sum of the particular combination of its parts. All ‘Selves’ are unique and all have inherent value; though the scaffolding may be large, small, damaged or not, curved or straight, etc, the Unique Attributes continue to grow.

Tom Remy
Tom has made his name in the fan community building amazing portraits as well as super-realistic objects, and a whole host of space designs. Breaking from his normal approach, he tackled the challenge through a focus on constraints and building techniques. You can find more of Tom’s work on his Flickr page here.

Kaleidoscopic Rose

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Kaleidoscopic Rose

This piece experimented with a limited amount of LEGO elements as a way to induces an interesting creative process. I gave myself three constraints: 1) to use only transparent elements, 2) to push a little further the well known “brick/rod/brick” curved-wall technique, and 3) to achieve something with a radial symmetry.

With all that, I ended up with only one satisfying shape and here it is. This is pure geometric abstraction, and the shape is the fruit of its own internal logic, without any secret meaning or intention.

One More Dimension

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One More Dimension

My second attempt took a completely different approach: this piece is built with conventional techniques. It depicts a pair of two-dimensional paths that have to painfully break into a third dimension in order to connect.

Lego is an inspiring medium for this kind of stuff, because it provides very rigid and regular structure and palette; but I had to make it smaller than intended due to parts limitation.

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My third piece started with no plan or purpose. I was just feeling the colours and working with them in a basic mosaic format.

Tim Clark
Tim is one of the premier science fiction builders in the community, using detailed greebling to decorate huge spacecraft. For this challenge he took these skills and techniques and turned them to the task of abstract image building. You can find more of Tim’s work on his Flickr page here.

A Violent Intelligence

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A Violent Intelligence

To be honest, when David first presented me with this challenge, I didn’t expect that it would be particularly challenging. Sometimes, when I feel my creativity has been stymied, I may pull out a large plate and build random details, or ‘greebles,’ just to tinker and explore different effects that I haven’t previously considered. In fact, I have, in the past, built an entire MOC based on just this concept. Point is, this kind of work is right up my alley.

With this MOC, however, I wanted to submit something that has the look of what was certainly crafted by my fingers, but with an aspect to which I’ve never given much thought. So I decided to build what I truly love: A science-fiction flavored piece, but with a tenuous marriage to a theme that I tend to shy away from: absolutely anything organic. I didn’t want to introduce much colour to this work, fearing that it would draw too much from the form and intention of the finished product, so I kept the organic components black. When the piece was filled in, I decided the composition was a bit drab, so I added a few splashes of yellow.

A very short time into this build, although it was never my goal to allow the work to be a realistic depiction of any singular thing, I began to feel that what was unfolding before me was a mechanical establishment of some variety which had been subverted by a life-form defined only by its instinctual survivalist tendencies. My initial reaction was to abandon my progress as I saw it starting to take on a bit too much personality, almost to the point of identity, but rather than combat this outcome that I probably could have predicted if I gave it even a second’s contemplation, I embraced it and allowed it to continue to take shape to completion.

I discovered that what I hadn’t previously considered to be a challenging undertaking, indeed had its own set of hurtles. Normally, when I’m adding greebles to a work, the task begins with defining parameters, then filling in the area with details that give the impression of mechanics, and I feel that the most effective greebles are pressed into a recessed area. In this case, the parameters are the borders of the very work itself, forcing me to stretch what is usually confined to a tight space, and all the detail of this work is above the frame, making it appear more like a circular section cut out of a whole. There is also the aspect of having to repress my need to give the viewer, (even if that viewer is me), an identifiable piece.

What I found to be the most trying aspect of this experiment, though, was having to decide that it was finished.

Despite the fact that I think it’s a bit more than strictly nonrepresentational, I’m actually pleased with the result. I have entitled the piece, ‘A Violent Intelligence.’

David Roberts
David has merged irreverent humour and expert engineering experience to create his own unique take on the LEGO space universe. These same skills were utilised for this experiment. You can find more of David’s work on his Flickr page here.

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I made the black wall because I had a lot of the bricks and I like the pattern, texture and the way that the bricks attached to each other, on their corners. The yellow ball was an experiment with techniques but I like how it goes on the black background. The red card behind was a conscious choice.

As with so much of what I build, it’s about colour, pattern, texture and shape. A lot of my spaceships start as shapes or patterns and are really just abstract ABS sculptures that happen to have rocket engines and pilots in order to make them socially acceptable to the Lego cognoscenti on Flickr (honest!).

Caleb Inman
Caleb is an innovative builder with several strings to his bow. Most notably his experiments in portraiture have shown some truly innovative lateral piece usage, which always result in stunning creations. The only builder to utilise LDD, he ran with the automatic building aspects of abstract creation. You can find more of Caleb’s work on his Flickr pager here.

ABStract

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ABStract

I presented this build through a pretty simple edit, and I can’t decide if I like it or not. It’s meant to look harsh, but the simplicity might work against it.

I think it is about as abstract as possible, since I had very little direction or intention while building it. I let my inner sense of connections and creativity direct how I built, following from a vague idea in my head (and sketch I made on paper beforehand).

Abstracting the LEGO Brick

It remains somewhat of a novelty to see a LEGO creation that isn’t representational; you could spend a long time searching and still only turn up a handful that can truly be called abstract. Are LEGO creations predestined to be models of something, and if not, what does it take for them to shed this proclivity for representation?

Nathan Sawaya in his The Art of the Brick[i] exhibition explores some of the issues relating to the representational capacity of LEGO bricks. By taking a selection of the most famous pieces of work from the history of art and rendering them in brick form he challenges the line between the authenticity of the fine arts and artworks made from LEGO bricks. The process becomes even more pointed when he chooses a painting like Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss[ii], a work widely regarded as paving the way towards the development of abstract art in the 20th Century. If Sawaya’s recreation in bricks is making a representation of something supposedly abstract, does it negate Klimt’s original process of abstraction?

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The Kiss by Nathan Sawaya

 

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The Kiss by Gustav Klimt

The critical significance of brick-rendered representations of abstract art is expanded further in another of Sawaya’s creations from the same exhibition. By taking Marcel Duchamp’s notorious Fountain[iii] a “ready-made” artwork that constituted the placement of an actual urinal in an art gallery, Sawaya intervenes in the game that the original plays. Duchamp’s ready-made artworks have been both celebrated and reviled by critics for their alteration of the art landscape. Ready-mades ushered in an era where selection and presentation of ideas challenged that of the artistic craft of representation that preceded it. Fountain issues a challenge to its viewers to elevate it to the status of an artwork. If we accept that the viewers’ power to name an everyday object “art” becomes in actual fact the artwork for Duchamp, it creates a trap for its audience. The urinal must always remain “not-art”, otherwise the process of transformation cannot take place. To take Duchamp’s Fountain seriously, which it is obvious that Sawaya does, we have to find another strategy other than that of giving it the name “art”, or fall foul of the snare that has been laid for us. This is where Sawaya finds his stride, in that the reconstruction of Fountain as a model comments both on this conundrum as well as creating a new artwork; Fountain is an artwork because it inspires new artworks. Sawaya, in his confrontation with Duchamp, achieves a rare creative win: the coup de grace coming in the form of his brick-built rendition of Duchamp’s “R. Mutt” signature which gave pseudonymous artistic verification to the work, but now exceeds forgery as an original creation in its own right.

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Fountain by Nathan Sawaya

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Fountain by Marcel Duchamp

The broadsheet reviews of Sawaya’s exhibition often reduced its value[iv] to that of novelty and spectacle, but for me his engagement with both the history of art and the innate representational potential of LEGO bricks suggests that they have overlooked the subtlety of the intellectual thinking behind his staggering building skill. It also provides a springboard for thinking further about the challenges of building truly abstract LEGO artworks.

Perhaps Sawaya’s highlighting of the pure representational power of LEGO bricks asks us to think what would need to occur to suspend this power? The art critic and theorist Clement Greenburg attempted something similar when he tried to define what within painting could escape its representational potential – even its own signification as paint. Coining the term “post painterly abstraction” in his 1964 foreword to the exhibition of the same name[v], which featured work by artists like Ellsworth Kelly,  he suggested such a project to be possible. The term was used to define those works where the brush marks and expressive nature of paint was removed, along with representational content, to leave canvases that advocated pure colour, graphic line and the other formal aspects of a composition. For Greenberg this approach provided a unique clarity, freshness and openness.

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Red Yellow Blue White by Elsworth Kelly

The question is, can a LEGO creation follow this line towards pure abstraction? Is it possible to remove the quality of a LEGO brick from a LEGO artwork? We find a problem when we attempt this and reduce a brick-built model to its most basic components. When you thin paint out and apply it flat and evenly, it suspends its fluid oil based origins and becomes, for the viewer, pure blue or green or grey. Yet, when you reduce the LEGO artwork to a pile of bricks, each brick remains an object in its own right – a LEGO element. A 2×4 red LEGO brick is never reduced to the qualia of red (the pure sensation of colour), always remaining instead a plastic building block. Like Duchamp’s urinal a LEGO brick remains itself and not an abstract idea such as a colour or shape, precisely because it always announces itself as something that can be transformed into a representation of something else.

This is realised when a LEGO builder tries the same exercise as an abstract colour field painter who tries to present the contingent quality of a colour in a single-toned painting. The LEGO artist who tries to build an expression of the brick ends up, as in the case of Luc Byard’s Self Fulfilling Prophecy[vi], building the medium with the medium. Byard claimed that by making LEGO bricks from LEGO bricks he was evidencing a non-artistic and pointless exercise; that for LEGO bricks to be “art” they had to represent something else other than themselves. However, the piece fails to be “non-art”, working more as a comment on the inescapable representational power of the form, producing something akin to the graphic painting of a brush stroke by the pop artist Lichtenstein[vii].

 

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Self Fulfilling Prophecy by Luc Byard

Brushstroke 1965 by Roy Lichtenstein 1923-1997

Brushstroke by Roy Lichtenstein

However the brick-built brick, unlike the painted brush stroke, surpasses its status as comment. As LEGO bricks are enlarged, they remain no less LEGO elements, as is evidenced in big building projects where bricks made from other bricks are used to scale up a model from a smaller version. In seeking to reduce the LEGO brick’s representational power to a representation, its functional application remains active.

All of which leads back to what might be an obvious fact about the LEGO System: that it is just that, a system. In fact one could say that bricks are words in the LEGO building language, which reiterates a point I have made elsewhere[viii]; that the LEGO System is best understood as a language. Once recognised as such it becomes clearer as to why it proves difficult to use it to create truly abstract or non-representational models.

Languages are essentially linked to a capacity to construct meaning. Music, painting and sculpture have a figurative quality: a material presence we might think of as sound, colour or the contingency of marble or clay. Whereas they allow us to feel rather than rationally understand them. LEGO artworks are less well equipped to do this, instead inviting us to understand according to the way they are made from individual elements.

Despite an initial similarity at the surface level between a LEGO artwork and a sculpture, it shares more in common with poetry. It requires the physical grammar of associating – literally clicking together – semantic elements. Just as is the case in verbal or written language, the meaning or usage of any given word is not irrevocably set and is free to be revalidated in the context of its use: metaphor being the obvious way of achieving this. LEGO elements share this innate capacity for analogy with language. A “window brick” is only ever a window as long as it is used as such; it might equally be used as a door, an eye or part of a spaceship’s fuselage. Sometimes, in the case of a builder like Colin Hemmen[ix], it is all of these things at once.

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Untitled Composition by Colin Hemmen

Yet language can challenge its representational tendency when it carries out experiments with its structure. As is evidenced in the experiments of modernist literature and poetry, the unexpected and often incorrect pairings of meanings combined with unusual rhythms, reductions and repetitions can create new abstract forms of expression; the grammatical experiments of Gertrude Stein or the reduced form of late Samuel Beckett being exemplary cases.

LEGO creations, if they are to achieve a similar development into the non-representational, will need to understand and challenge their grammatical form in a correspondent way. This is often seen unexpectedly at the point where builders forsake traditional building aims and explore new techniques. LEGO bricks are designed to fit together in a set of standard ways dependent on the placement of studs, hinges and clips, but with the use of repetition and subtle placement of elements in ways that push the bricks beyond their original use, new connections can be made. A creation can be developed in this way that appears to challenge the rules of building, making straight bricks bend and non-connecting elements tessellate.

Richard Selby’s Spiral[x] is a case in point. As a building experiment it uses the generation of internal forces to create a curved tension that in turn produces an elegant abstract form. With the addition of a carefully aligned colour blocking technique to highlight its dynamic nodes, the model enforces a self-referential explanation of itself.

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Spiral by Richard Selby

Similarly when a builder like Katie Hall explores a process such as mosaic building[xi], these experiments generate complex abstract patterns. By ignoring the necessity of snapping elements together, the perfect alignment of angles can be exploited in a manner that is at once rebellious in its breaking of the traditional grammatical rules of LEGO building whilst simultaneously exaggerating the beautiful ratios and angles inherent in the pieces.

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Mosaic by Katie Hall

What both Hall and Selby’s works reveal is that by focusing in on building technique a LEGO artwork can divert our expectations away from what it represents by letting its technique become its content.

However an issue arises from the uses these new techniques are put to. Whilst an abstract form is created in these processes, the implication is that they are being developed merely to further representational building. One can’t help thinking that Hall’s mosaics should be used to embellish the interior of a LEGO building. Similarly, the experimental bending of bricks by Selby could be used to build all manner of representational models that require a curved structure.

This transition from pure abstract experiment to representational expression can most commonly be seen in the building that takes place in a “brick pit”: a regular activity at LEGO shows where the public are provided only with the 2×4 brick in a single colour, but in vast quantities. The limited range of pieces encourages abstract approaches to building, with people tending to make according to the abstract rules of repetition and pattern construction. However, as the models come to fruition, often without intention they result in architectural tropes. The patterns become windows; the rows of bricks become towers; the pyramids become pitched roofs. Once more the representational nature of bricks discloses itself.

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Brick pit fun

The component that is perhaps missing in all of these works is an idea of an image; that when pushed the grammatical structure of LEGO building can open up something poetic, unexpected and unique outside the frame of us becoming more sophisticated users of the LEGO language. Michael Brennand-Wood’s[xii] relief The Search for the Lost City of LEGO, produced as part of the 1988 show The Art of LEGO[xiii], achieves just such a poetic coherence. Here, an unusual language is used where bricks are selected as individual elements and layered along with intersecting twine, familiar in Brennand-Wood’s textile works, not so much as to make a whole as a texture. The result, much like a work of abstract expressionist painting, provides a realm where the eye scans and recognises individual elements, but ultimately is concerned with an encounter through the many visual paths that the linkages in the work make. A yellow ladder literally leads the eye to a red beam or grey cog, and the excitement is in the signposting of these connections through the rhythm and repetition of the pieces. This scanning instantly seems familiar, in that it emulates the scanning of words as we read. In this way the work resists its utilitarian absorption into the canon of technique, instead standing alone as an abstract image, a self-contained visual journey and a work of art.

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Search for the Lost City of LEGO by Michael Brennand-Wood

If Brennand-Wood reveals the poetic and intuitive art of placing bricks together, a builder like Arthur Gugick[xiv] channels another aspect of the LEGO language: its fidelity to the logic of mathematics. Exploiting the ratios and geometric associations which are foundational to the connective potential of LEGO pieces, he uses these basic rules to generate  more complex patterns which we read aesthetically as interesting non-representational compositions. Again an image is formed which resists direct representational focus, channelling instead the fundamental of logic of the LEGO brick itself.

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Geometric Pattern by Arthur Gugick

What qualifies a LEGO work of art as being successfully abstract is its ability to present the language of its construction as a site for contemplation, and not a technique to be learnt. Often to achieve this you need to take the work out of the context of representation and model building. This can be seen in a commissioned work like the one built by Rana Begum for the Surbiton Health Centre[xv]. The work consists of a series of large modulated colour panels built in relief. Acting as architectural detail within this medical environment, the pieces replicate the flow of the designed spaces, but also entice viewers in this space to see in these abstract forms the human scale of the hand that clicked each brick together. This reveals a further aspect of the LEGO language; what at first seems to speak a general abstract language of colour and form in fact echoes a scale and form redolent of the human body. In the surgery surroundings, this nod to the human scale within the formal language of LEGO building mirrors the connection we find between the language of the medical sciences and ourselves as individual patients.

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Surbiton Health Centre Instillation by Rana Begam

The notion of the abstract form in LEGO creations, as shown in Begum’s work, are of a very special kind. They link the logical connections necessary to an understanding of a system to an embodied way of making and interacting with the world.

With this revealed, perhaps we can say more about the LEGO mosaics destined for the interior décor of a minifigure’s house or palace. In these cases, where the mosaic becomes the geometrically designed floor in a LEGO house – an artwork built for minifigures – is it not just another form of the panelled walls of Begum’s health centre installation? With a wink, LEGO bricks seem to inevitably turn us back to representation. The joke is made complete in a work like Art Gallery by Melissa Cabral (LEGO Super Junk)[xvi]. In this case the representation of the human encounter with the abstract artwork is rendered at a minifigure scale, remaining both an abstract artwork and a representation of the encounter with the abstract work.

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Art Gallery by Melissa Cabral

Abstraction in the case of LEGO building is a hard-won aim, and as such it necessarily sits alongside an ever-present power to represent things. However, perhaps because the abstract LEGO artwork must always confront its own nature as a model-making medium, it is to be considered as having a privileged position as a form truly able to comment on what it means to be non-representational. It is this challenge which produces the rare occasions of abstract wonder we find in LEGO works such as Hall’s, Begum’s, Gugick’s, Selby’s and Brennand-Wood’s. No doubt LEGO artists will go on to develop the boundaries of what can be built by continuing these fascinating projects that seek to abstract the brick.

Endnotes

[i] Nathan Sawaya’s The Art of the Brick has toured to international acclaim since 2007. Information relating to the show can be found on the artist’s website: brickartist.com

[ii] Klimt, Gustav, The Kiss, 1907

[iii] Duchamp, Marcel, Fountain, 1917

[iv] See for example: Jonathan Jones, ‘Bricking It: Is Lego Art?’, Guardian (2014): gu.com/p/4xz56/sbl

[v] Post painterly Abstraction, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1964

[vi] Luc Byard posted this creation on MOCpages in 2012 as an open discussion piece for the community. You can read the conversation it generated in the comments thread here: http://www.moc-pages.com/moc.php/311343

[vii] Lichtenstein, Brushstroke, 1965

[viii] See my 2015 blog article, The Structural Language of Lego: http://www.buildingdebates.wordpress.com/2015/04/16/the-structural-language-of-lego-a-short-observation/

[ix] See Colin Hemmen’s Instagram page: instagram.com/colinhemmen

[x] See Richard Selby’s Flickr stream: flickr.com/photos/richselby

[xi] See Katie Hall’s blog article on mosaic building: http://www.mosaicbricks.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/cheese-slope-mosaics-tutorial.html

[xii]   Michael Brennand-Wood, is a lecturer, curator and artist. He is best known for his internationally recognised and groundbreaking textiles work. Examples of his work can be found on his personal website: brennand-wood.com

[xiii] The Art of LEGO was a 1988 touring exhibition of the UK envisioned by Steve Brake

[xiv] See Arthur Gugick’s Flickr stream: flic.kr/ps/a7ZgW

[xv] See Rana Begum’s personal website, which documents the project: ranabegum.com

[xvi] See LEGO Super Junk’s website: lego.super-junk.com

What is LEGO Culture?

Something happened to the adult LEGO community fifteen years ago that transformed it from a niche hobby into a cultural movement.   We now live in a world where it is no longer essential to be a fan to see LEGO models pop up in our social media feeds, where large corporations commission LEGO models to increase their brand awareness and news stations cover the latest epic LEGO creation unveiled in our local towns and cities.  The question is what is it about the unassuming LEGO brick that has enabled it to rise so quickly into our shared social consciousness, to become what might be coined ‘bricks culture’?

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Netto Dog by Bright Bricks

Without a doubt the growth of social media, with its ability to share photographs of LEGO models has played a significant part in this story, but this change is perhaps more the catalyst than the primary reason for the transformation.  There is something at the root of the process of building with LEGO bricks that founds our vibrant and self-stimulating community.  It often feels as if just seeing a LEGO model is enough to make us want to build – to participate. Nathan Sawaya[i], who is arguably the most visible LEGO artist working today confirmed this sentiment to me in a recent interview: “Visitors to my exhibitions can connect to the works because of the familiarity with the brick, and I hope that […] leads to inspiration[ii].  Whilst I agree with Sawaya, there is more than familiarity at work here: there is something else about the brick that inspires us all.

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Various woks by Nathan Sawaya 

Perhaps this familiar anecdote can help illustrate the link between a LEGO model’s power to inspire and the formation of bricks culture.  If like me you have ever had the opportunity to display your creations at a LEGO convention then you have probably come across this scenario.  As a small child, normally around the age of seven or eight, marvels at the model you have made, their parent notes: “It’s sad, they only ever make models according to the instructions; don’t you agree that they are missing out on what building with LEGO bricks is all about?”

This story reflects a truism, and a socially accepted belief, that LEGO building is at its best when it is fired by an individual’s imagination.  However, as is the case with most truisms, they often exaggerate one half of an argument at the expense of the facts.  The parent who watches happily as their child marvels at an often incomprehensibly complex LEGO model, asks their child if they could make something similar when they get home, all the while forgetting that one of the LEGO company’s designer’s amazing models had previously inspired their child to pick up a set of instructions and build in the first place.

The parent’s argument misses the vital moment of inspiration inherent in any encounter with a LEGO model, whether the instructions are present or not.  Transferring the value judgement as to what good and bad building is onto the terms ‘similar’ (good) and ‘identical’ (bad).  In both cases the child has seen a creation they love and as a result wants to build – is the value judgment even necessary?

Seeing a LEGO model inherently suggests that the model can be remade; because it is comprised of individual elements, each of which fit together according to established conventions.  Technically looking at a LEGO model allows you to make that model – as long as you have the required mastery of the building system.  It is for this reason that the visual encounter with the LEGO model for the child may produce wonder, and with it an addition to the spectacle, a little voice that whispers in their ear “you could make that.”

The LEGO Company has long understood the power of their product to entice children and adults alike, sparking a desire to not only own, but also build their models.  There is a tried and tested path between viewing a LEGO set and the need to build it.  The children photographed for the company’s advertising material were regularly shot pushing parts together or surrounded by the detritus of the building process – there was no doubt, here was where the fun lay.    The hours many of us spent viewing the LEGO catalogues as a child were more than speculative shopping trips, they were initial attempts to understand how the models were made.  Precisely because the sets wore their mode of construction on their sleeves, they captivated our imagination.  This was perhaps the first induction most of us had into bricks culture.

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In the adult fan community, which for a large part is comprised of collectors, this addition of the building experience to that of owning a set can be seen more explicitly.  Take for example a range of products like the Star Wars Ultimate Collector Series.  These sets aim themselves squarely at the over sixteen market, providing expensive, detailed and challenging models to build, of the most iconic vehicles and characters from the Star Wars franchise.  Their scale and complexity differentiate them from their more play-focused siblings in the main LEGO Star Wars range.  Understandably, given the on-going popularity of the franchise, these sets have proved a huge hit, but why?  There are competitor models as intricate and as impressive as the LEGO sets, yet these have neither captured the popular imagination, nor earned the re-seller price tags of some of the Ultimate Collector series sets.  The answer is simple, that the LEGO sets offer the premise of building the models.

Rewind nearly 40 years to the opening shot of A New Hope[iii] with its iconic sweep of Darth Vader’s Imperial Star Destroyer cruising over our heads.  What made this image so memorable was not just its aesthetic framing and photographic awe, but its impossibility.  A spaceship like this doesn’t exist; this is both a model and a wonderful magic trick.  This unconscious reasoning underpins a large part of society’s continuing fascination with Star Wars, and also gives us that clue as to why LEGO models of these amazing props from the workshops of Industrial Light and Magic[iv] prove so popular.  The LEGO Star wars fan sees the LEGO model with all its tiny elements, and embraces an understanding of these vehicles as a model maker, in short as the creative minds behind Star Wars did.  Buying and building Star Wars models allows them to jump the gap between observer and maker of a world, to being part of a community that wants to understand and build a universe as well as celebrate it.

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Star Destroyer by Hobbyinside

With the move from seeing to building proving so important to the LEGO experience, it was of course always only a matter of time before replication of a model turned into the development of ever more extreme creations.  In the case of the Ultimate Collector Series of models the word ‘ultimate’ might actually be taken as a taunt.  “Is this really the ‘ultimate model’, or could you make something better?”  It is the return of that same voice that whispered in the child’s ear “you could make that.” Builders take up this challenge; designers like Kim ByeongSoek from Hobbyinside,[v] the Korean LEGO sculpture and diorama specialists, whose recent Star Destroyer model lifts detailing and scale up a notch or two.  With his model complete and receiving due praise from the community, the door is open to read the new set of instructions laid out in this model, interpret it, and move forward in the quest to represent the Star Wars universe in the form of ever more sophisticated creations.

Where the LEGO UCS Star wars set lead, in terms of drawing the line from inspiration to a community of innovation, other sections of the LEGO population follow similar paths.  Take for example another of the adult focused ranges, the Modular Creator series, which comprises of sets such as the Grand Emporium and Corner Café, which itself carries an re-seller price tag comparable to the UCS sets.  These models carry in them the code for a city as broad as the builder’s imagination.  Making one block of your city will always demand more, and whilst additions can be added from the official sets, there comes a time when the need arises to improvise.

In these cases rather than trying to build better than the sets that exist, the aim is to do things differently, to add to the world.  In this aspect of bricks culture, a community forms around the exploration of the possibility of the form.  What can be made that fits the city block grid and could sit next to any of the other models that permeate the scene.  A builder like Ryan Taggart[vi] whose Modular construction site makes exciting changes to the standard formula of a modular building looks ready to become a LEGO set having reached the 10,000 supporter mark on LEGO Ideas[vii].  It arguably completes the loop from community building, via a modification of an established form, back to official product.

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Modular Construction Site by Ryan Taggart

Whether we perceive a child’s inspiration from a LEGO catalogue or adult fans interaction with the LEGO Company’s current ranges, a simple fact can be deduced.  The more we look at LEGO creations the more they motivate us to build, and according to the rules and conventions of a given type of model, a culture of interest and innovation develops accordingly.

Bricks culture is in actual fact an ability to speak and read the visual language of LEGO.  It is an easy dialect to learn, disclosing its structure and grammar in every build.  A language that is supremely flexible and adaptive to a group’s shared values.  It also transcends traditional socio-cultural and linguistic barriers, with groups congregating around the ability to understand each other’s love of say mosaic building whether they live in Tokyo or Rome.  Belonging to bricks culture is in short both the process of reading an endlessly growing and universally understandable library of visual images whilst simultaneously being inspired by it.

With this initial conclusion arrived at, that bricks culture is actually a unique and intrinsically inspiring visual language, that illusive shift some 15 years ago that saw the beginning of our current explosion in the enthusiasm for LEGO creations can be identified.  Something happened at this point in time that changed the language of building in such a way to increase its power to inspire and congregate individuals as groups.

There had been throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s a move by the LEGO Group to simplify building, and increase play options through the use of large pre-formed pieces.  As is well documented[viii] the company’s financial standing took a considerable knock at this time, with sales dropping and the toy falling out of favour with the current generation of children.  The genius response, and a move that arguably saved the company, was to embrace the joy of building; this is what is unique to the product and what millions of children had previously enjoyed.  New sets launched with a stronger building focus and sales followed.

A result of this change saw the types of pieces that were produced in these new sets focus more on core building and connective functions.  Play elements remained but were joined by new linking elements, hinges and brackets.  With many of the designers now working for the company previously having been part of a relatively small hobbyist community, a drive occurred for the elements they had wanted to push the experiments they had conducted with the standard bricks further.  Building sideways or at an angle would be less the preserve of the specialist builder becoming now a part of the general language of LEGO building.

The fan community embraced these new LEGO bricks with verve, and original-building techniques proliferated.  Central to the movement was the rise of the so-called SNOT (studs not on top) building technique, where bricks were built sideways or at an angle to standard bricks.  The immediate aesthetic gain was an ability to alter the quality of a LEGO model; a creation could be smooth and studless, or use combinations of angles to create a multitude of other effects and textures. This was quickly followed by the development of a whole host of unexpected new forms and angles opened up by these modes of construction.  Where before the LEGO builder’s mantra was that anything could be built in LEGO bricks, it now appeared that you could build with LEGO bricks in anyway you wanted to.

Before this shift in building techniques a LEGO creation could be recognised by the simple language of its construction, with most models displaying the same features of one element placed on top of another, ending with a top layer of studded bricks that completed the design.  This replicated style might be considered a simple or formal language, to which all LEGO models conformed; but with the introduction of these new building techniques everything changed: formalism was replaced by a host of experiments.  LEGO building could now make visual puns by using pieces in ways previously not possible and decide on appropriate forms rather than those that standard bricks suggested. This new way of building introduced a more pronounced poetic aspect to the practice of LEGO building.  The result was a maturation of the visual language of it used and by proxy it accelerated society’s interest in LEGO creativity.

As I documented in my first article for Bricks Culture back in 2015[ix] my return to LEGO building began through the photographs of LEGO models.  I started out scanning the various websites and sharing fora that sprung up in the 2000’s.  Here I was surprised by the changes that had occurred.  I thought I understood the visual language of LEGO building, but here were models that defied those conventions that demanded to be read in new ways.  Although resolutely still made of LEGO bricks and as immediately understandable as the models of my childhood, they appeared very different.  The way the builders worked now seemed nuanced; there were styles and sub-styles of buildings; active and decisive decisions to use one technique over another; a whole culture lit up in the plethora of fascinating work.   This was a complex culture of varying dialects, expressions and forms; a place that would entice all the corners of society from the engineers to the illustrators to congregate together around a common language that all could speak.

The case was brought home to me in the way the space builders had developed their craft (in both senses) since I had stopped playing with LEGO bricks as a child.  Back then I imagined that the designers of the classic space sets had raised the bar as high as it could go in term of design.  Of course there were always new designs to be added to the genre, but the idea that this aesthetic could be enhanced or developed further within the formal language of the bricks available at the time seemed impossible.  Yet, with the advent of new techniques the ethos and aesthetic of those original space sets were taken to new places, becoming a facet of bricks culture itself.  You can witness this in the work of a builder like Stephan Niehoff who has reimagined some of the classic themes and vehicles of yesteryear according to these new techniques.  The shapes and forms of the original designers could be exaggerated, perfected and pushed, and for me this was a wonderful realisation: LEGO building was now occupying a true creative cultural space.

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Starlet Voyager (reimagined ) by Stephan Niehoff

Bricks Culture is the advent of a visual language, which is readable not only in the sense of pictorial coherence but as that, which is also immediately understandable as a technique that can be replicated.  A language that translates beyond the simple acts of building into a wide range of other cultural practices: photography, animation, street art and even commercial enterprise.  It permeates the current social milieu because it allows it readers to immediately grasp the creative process in each of its creations.  A unifying and utopian aesthetic form, which brings people together through its power to inspire creative expression.  Bricks culture holds our attention, and asks us to belong, because it inspires us; we witness others’ imaginations in action, and are handed as a result the possibility of realising our own.

Endnotes

[i] See Nathan Sawaya’s website: http://www.brickartist.com

[ii] Smith, David Alexander ‘Interview With Nathan Sawaya’, Bricks Culture, Issue 7, October 2016

[iii] Lucas, George, Star Wars: Episode IV a New Hope, 1977, 20th Century Fox

[iv] See the homepage of Industrial Light and Music: http://www.ilm.com/

[v] See the Hobbyinside website: http://www.hobbyinside.com

[vi] See Ryan Taggart’s Fklickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/139079438@N02

[vii] See Ryan Taggart’s projrct on LEGO Ideas: https://ideas.lego.com/projects/129250

[viii] See for example: Knowledge@Wharton ‘Innovation Almost Bankrupted Lego – Until it Rebuilt with a Better Blueprint’ in Time, July 23, 2012

[ix] See Stephan Niehoff’s Flickr stream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stephann001/

Political Bricks

This article was first published in Bricks Culture 4, and responded to the then recent shootings in Paris.

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It is the morning of the 14 November 2015 and I have just woken up to the news that a series of orchestrated attacks have taken place in Paris last night. With millions of others all over the world, I watch television footage and listen to reports of gunmen opening fire on innocent civilians in restaurants and music venues across the city.

Shocked and upset I open my social media streams to see if the people in Paris I know are ok, and to hear the voices of my friends, and listen to their response to the events. Amongst the academics, philosophers and professional artists who make up a large proportion of my social network are the LEGO writers, builders and photographers.

Only a few hours have passed since the news broke from Paris and already they are commenting via the medium of bricks. Harley Quin, a thoughtful and prolific LEGO photographer has quickly rendered a sympathetic Tricolore plaque[i]. Other builders quickly construct vignettes replicating this sentiment. As the day progresses they are joined by many others.

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Tricolore by Harley Quin

This phenomenon is not new. Ten months ago following the previous tragic Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, the LEGO community along with creatives from every other artistic discipline, expressed the ideological need for art’s freedom of speech. Appearing in streams of images alongside satirical cartoons, photographs, illustrations and paintings, stood LEGO creations such as Jimmy Fortel’s Je Suis Charlie[ii].

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Je Suis Charlie by Jimmy Fortel

These examples highlight a critical mass of builders, which when combined with the power of social media, gives LEGO bricks a new political responsibility. As a mode of expression, it is now for many the first port of call when responding to a troubled world. The dam burst some years ago regarding the constrained use of bricks as a model-making hobby. We are used to seeing artists’ LEGO creations respond to popular culture in all its forms, but it is only when a global political event occurs that the nature of this voice is understood. No one can be in doubt that LEGO artworks have been appropriated, and now constitute a way of visually, often in strikingly simple yet communicable terms, saying something politically charged.

This development has come about, not so much through the development of building techniques, rather through the establishment of LEGO building as part of social and cultural life – one could say through the sharing of creative endeavours. In 2001, there was no immediate response for the LEGO builder to the horror of the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers. In 2005, the bombing of London Underground trains and busses equally failed to generate immediate response from the LEGO community. On the day of the Paris terrorist attacks there is an immediate and embedded relationship between the LEGO creations and the voice of the building community. All of which goes to show the growing maturity of what we might call bricks culture.

The simple immediate builds of this morning, that speak to the violence and inhumanity of what has occurred in Paris, are not vaunted on building skill, or the notion of wonder that normally affords them space in the wider media sphere. Rather they are emotive, direct responses that carry the feeling of a whole community. There may be few better mediums for fostering the sentiment of solidarity and pathos than that of the universal building language that LEGO creations use.

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Twin Towers by Todd Webb

Going back only a handful of years, and taking an example such as Todd Webb’s World Trade Centre model from 2007 this change can be noted in more profound terms. His large scale rendition of the twin towers burning moments after two jet airliners were flown into them, advocates model-making over socially communicating, and as such produces, for me at least, an ambivalent response – my gut wants to respond to the tragedy, but my aesthetic sensibility is being seduced by the builder’s talent. The model won best vignette at Brick World in 2007, and is considered an accepted masterpiece by the community, so why does it elicit these contradictory feelings in me.   Webb in his blog article[iii], which records the creation and intention of the build as a monument, is obviously a principled individual. However, the distance from the events of 9/11 combined with the skill of executing architecture and smoke in bricks seems to skew the emphasis away from human tragedy towards aesthetic form. One is reminded of the German critical theorist Theodor Adorno’s warning regarding the aesthetic memorialisation of the holocaust: ‘To write poetry after Auschwiz is barbaric.[iv]

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Nazi Concentration Camp by Zbigniew Libera

If a LEGO artwork is going to tackle the barbarity of our contemporary world it cannot turn, in the words of the military strategists of the second Iraq war, on an affect of ‘shock and awe’ that dazzles and overwhelm the viewer’s senses. The relation to the work has to operate at a level beyond that of aesthetic excellence. The Polish artist Zbigniew Libera expressed this when he recreated a Nazi Concentration Camp as a LEGO set[v]. Using the common relation we have, looking down as omnipotent purveyors onto a LEGO model, he asks the viewer to carry out the problematic game of playing the death camp. To understand the work beyond a representation of huts and out buildings one has to think the role of the murderous minds that built and ran the camps, whilst also playing the role of the interned victims. In doing so, and explicitly as a brick built creation, it moves its audience away from the moral certitude of condemnation, by making them think the logic that made the holocaust possible; understanding and feeling the barbarity of the situation at a more complex and troubling level. As an artwork it indeed makes us confront, and in part appropriate, the barbarism of the 20th Century.

The model concentration camp as political gesture however gained many critics, who saw it as trivialising the Holocaust. Also Libera’s controversial statement printed on the fake LEGO set boxes, which claimed endorsement by LEGO, further complicated the piece, and to this day makes it hard to obtain rights to publish images of the work.

This would not be the last time that the LEGO Company’s association with political events would court outrage. For example in the case of the fake LEGO Rebuild advertising campaign that circulated the internet ten years-ago. The adverts in question took images including the 9/11 World Trade Centre attacks and transposed them with the strap line “Rebuild it” and the LEGO logo[vi].   The adverts were never commissioned nor linked to the LEGO group, but this didn’t stop a host of rumours and re-postings of the images with counter information. In reality, two individuals working for the advertising company Saatchi & Saatchi China, had outside the company’s brief independently created the campaigns.   Neither LEGO or Saatchi and Saatchi wanted to be associated with the adverts, leaving only unreliable traces of the image lingering across the Internet. What is interesting about the campaign, even given its fake status, is that as soon as the LEGO Company is linked to a political event, especially a tragic one, an instrumental link is made between business and politics. Any perceived statement, positive or otherwise, is tainted when linked to a disingenuous motive to make money.   Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the LEGO Company has resolutely steered clear of political advocacy.

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The fake Rebuild it LEGO campaign

However, steering clear of association and actually retaining neutrality are two different things. Without digging too deeply into the LEGO Company’s ethical stance, a political agenda is quickly ascertained. There is a ban in its product range around representations of war (of course there are occasional contradictions to this rule such as the Red Baron fighter plane set from 2002). Originally this was defined by a broad pacifist agenda, which many of us might recognise from the peaceful space exploration sets of the late seventies and early eighties. If this were not clear enough, this advert from the sixties makes the message emphatic. Today of course the stance has been diluted, so as to allow fantasy representations of combat in themes such as Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, but actual military hardware is still – mostly – vetoed.

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LEGO Peace Advert

Beyond the carefully considered political positions the LEGO Group has held, there have of course also been several high profile cases of the company inadvertently inciting controversy. For example, in 2012 following the launch of the new LEGO Friends range, a petition was set up on Change.org that sought to inform the company of its unenlightened gender politics.   The complaints ranged from the colour range of pinks and pastels that the sets used to gender differentiate, through to the set themes of home making, pet parlours and beauty salons. But perhaps of greatest worry was the purported sexualisation of the female dolls in the series. Designed to look like teenage girls, the new figurines abandoned the mini-figure design for a more curvy ‘lady-figure’. Calif Berkley writing in the New York Times summed up the ill feeling toward the new range: “Today’s boys and girls will eventually be one another’s professional peers, employers, employees, romantic partners, co-parents. How can they develop skills for such collaborations from toys that increasingly emphasise, reinforce, or even create, gender differences?[vii]

What of course many of the critics of the Friends range failed to notice was that they tended towards a black or white reading of the LEGO sets, quickly implying a one size fits all reading that was used, not so much to value the sets as to further a broader social debate around gender equality. However, on closer analysis, as seen in this short promotional write-up for the LEGO Friends school set, the company evidenced a more progressive view of young girls’ career aspirations than many of the critics gave them credit for: “Be the star of biology class when Ms. Stevens calls you to the chalkboard to identify the different parts of the owl’s body!”

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LEGO Friends School

It was not only the LEGO Company that offered a more rounded view of gender aspirations, the LEGO community also pushed for a more comprehensive view of women through their own creations. The most successful of which was Ellen Koojiman’s Research Institute proposal, a model that comprised of three female scientists at work in their respective laboratories. Koojiman’s insisted that the professions of these mini-figure women should offer strong role models to young girls. The creation was subsequently submitted to LEGO Ideas, the crowd sourcing arm of the company’s operations. It obtained the required level of votes, and was released as an official set in 2014. This democratic process allowed the fan community through building, a way to steer the ideals that would underpin the sets the LEGO Company would produce. To LEGO’s credit they listened to their customers and delivered the models they wanted.

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Research Institute by Ellen Koojimans

This use of LEGO brick’s ability to be reconfigured makes it a potent political device. In 2014 this was evidenced once more when Greenpeace created a video and petition designed to highlight what they saw as a problematic co-promotional arrangement signed in 2011 between the LEGO Company and the oil giant Shell. The video, a LEGO animation, showed both the plight of the Arctic at the hands of the unchecked asset stripping oil miners, as well as imitating the then recent and highly successful LEGO Movie.

Although relatively simplistic, the emotive tone of the advert proved effective. Where the LEGO Movie had asserted a core set of values, that creativity and personal expression should be prized over the norms of a contemporary hegemonic world, their spoof advert linked these LEGO creations to the destructive drive of unchecked business. Devastation provocatively replaced creation. Increasing the polemic irony, the upbeat theme tune to the film, Everything is Awesome, was supplemented for a cover version performed as a maudlin ballad.   By doing all of this through the power of building with LEGO bricks, the video immediately appealed to the LEGO fans’ aesthetic sensibility, and Greenpeace as result applied pressure on the company where it hurt most, by speaking to its customers.

The campaign achieved its aim later that year, with the company announcing that it would cease its working relationship with Shell. By using LEGO brick’s ability to build anything one wants, Greenpeace rewrote the political narrative of the LEGO Movie in its own image.

Greenpeace was able to differentiate the political potential of building with LEGO bricks from the business operations of the LEGO Company, in a way that was rhetorically divisive. The link between building and critical perspective is obvious in this example, but when the political target is not the LEGO Company itself, what makes building with bricks a useful or more successful medium than traditional forms of political engagement.

Debbie Hickey’s set of LEGO photographs of mini-figures with their associated slogans, which argued for the yes vote in the recent gay marriage ballot in Ireland helps answer this[viii]. Hickey’s campaign was obviously part of a much larger set of political initiatives. What her particular choice of the mini-figure achieved was an immediate understanding of the intrinsic similitude between people irrespective of sexual orientation. Using the generic conditions that establish all LEGO mini-figures as having interchangeable elements that operate according to a universal rule, she provided an analogy for a society that must accept a range of differences under a general law of equality, or accept the failure of the law as a set of principles.

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Yes to Equality by Debbie Hickey

The system of building provided by LEGO bricks provides an interesting analogy for the dilemma our contemporary society faces. As part of a liberal democracy we expect the right to individuality, to express and be the person we are free of intervention. Yet, we also demand that our society provide laws and conventions that protect us from violence and hatred. Building with LEGO bricks provides a practical realisation of these requirements: a set of collaborative and connective rules that enable infinite difference. As long as we build with bricks, rather than break bricks, or as was seen in the LEGO Movie glue them together, we support difference and order at the same time. Perhaps this is the utopian message at the heart of this creative medium?

Possibly it was for this reason that the dissident Chinese political artist Ai Weiwei chose LEGO bricks as his medium for an upcoming exhibit ‘Letgo Room’[ix], which approaches the topic of free speech, at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. His work over the past ten years has grappled with his home country’s repressive stance on free expression and political voice. Risking controversy and arrest he has unrelentingly advocated resistance to the Chinese political system. What better medium than LEGO bricks, that innately refers to infinite difference within a system, to say this with.

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Letgo Room by Ai Weiwei 

However as things transpired, the desire to work with LEGO bricks created a different type of conflict. The Guardian newspaper reporting on the 25 October[x], noted that the LEGO Group had refused Ai Weiwei’s request to buy a large number of LEGO bricks from them wholesale. The reason being to protect their neutrality and not align the company with his or any other political agenda. The LEGO Group had been stung in the clamor around Libera’s Concentration Camp. A project, which they had provided bricks for, without knowing the artist’s intention. Possibly they wanted to avoid a repeat of this incident.   As the Guardian went on to explain this had created a whirlwind of upset, with many people calling the LEGO Group out as being ethically irresponsible, and offering to donate their own bricks to the cause.

Within the LEGO fan and building community a different response resonated. There was an unwillingness to accept this rejection as silencing the artist. Although not able to buy the bricks at wholesale price, there was nothing to stop him buying them at the commercial rate as they had to – did his fame give him a privileged status. Beyond this there lingered a sentiment that neutrality remained important and that it ought to be the builders and users of LEGO bricks through their creations, not the company, that decided the political position of the product.

Of course, there was a misreading of Ai Weiwei in all of this. A provocateur and artist beyond his artworks, the rejection by the LEGO Group had allowed him to turn the situation into a wider debate about the right to remain silent on certain ethical issues. When wrong is being done, do you have the right to stick to ethical principles if it means closing your eyes to injustice? The aim of his dispute was not to obtain cheap LEGO bricks, but instead to highlight a debate about corporate neutrality and world politics.

Amongst the online chatter that surrounded this debate, my friend Paul O’Kane[xi] an artist, theorist and open political voice on the Internet, suggested that a response to Ai Weiwei’s position was for the LEGO community to participate in an outpouring of political LEGO creations. I asked myself why this type of building remains as rare as it is outside the moments of solidarity that events such as the recent Paris shootings instigated; and why O’Kane’s legitimate and interesting response was unlikely to be taken up?

There are very few artists working with LEGO bricks who have put politics and activism at the centre of their work. Maybe it is because there is something difficult about the aesthetics of building and the critical perspective that questions what we do in the name of politics, ideals and religions. However one builder, who chooses to remain anonymous by working under the name Legofesto, attempts this[xii]. Their work comprises of direct reportage combined with simple yet startlingly immediate LEGO creations. If Webb’s World Trade Towers clung to an impossible virtuosity and aesthetic response to horror, Legofesto embraces Adorno’s statement that a work of art has to be barbaric in an era of barbarism – effectively working outside the aesthetic register.

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Northern Rock: the road to nationalisation by Legofesto

Although mainly working with themes to do with war and the troubles in the Middle East, which uncompromisingly depict the brutality of these conflicts, Legofesto regularly draws on issues that impact on our everyday lives.  In Northern Rock: The Road to Nationalism, a comment on the inception of the current financial crisis and culture of austerity, we see the LEGO mini-figure once more used to represent the uniformity of the citizen.  However, here the capitalist system is seen as the dominant force.  The differences presented in the queue of figures are insignificant in initiating change.  Change comes from global forces beyond any individual expression of subjective freedom.

In G20: Death at a Protest, which recreates the events of the G20 protests in London in April 2009, where Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper seller was brutally pushed to the ground by a police officer and subsequently died, she revisits the theme in more harrowing circumstances.  Here the diversity of mini-figure protestors is seen confronting the black-visored LEGO policemen.  The vignette operates as a stark realisation of an inflexible system that can all too quickly turn upon the democratic body.

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G20: Death at the Protest by Legofesto

Perhaps Legofesto is implying we can only build with the bricks the LEGO Company sells us, and our expression and our ambitions – in life as in the hobby – are ultimately limited by the number of LEGO sets we can purchase? The paradox is that Legofesto the LEGO builder reveals this limit critically through their LEGO creations; and in doing so answers their own question with a resounding no.  Political voice is always possible irrespective of the uniformity of a system.

It is just under three weeks since the Paris attacks and in the UK the House of Commons is voting on whether Britain’s response should be to launch air strikes on Syria. My friends who are artists, philosophers and academics are debating loudly on social media about the rights and wrongs of this action. However, the LEGO builders who I was so proud to see responding through building to the tragedy of the 13 November are absent from this debate. Is it that LEGO artworks can only speak of solidarity and consensus? I think not, bricks have an immense potential to argue through showing and feeling. Its voice is often understood when reasoned argument fails.   The aforementioned bricks culture is a new phenomenon, a nascent social dynamic with huge reach and appeal. The culture is growing and attaining greater social reach, but it is yet to fully realise its place and potential as a political tool; able to argue through a literal constructive showing. It is only a matter of time before builders fully deploy their political voice in brick form, and when they do, potentially influence opinions for the good.

Endnotes

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

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

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

[iv] Adorno, Theodor, W. Prisms, Cambridge/Massachusetts, MIT Press (1982), p.32.

[v] Examples of Zbigniew Libera’s artworks including the Concentration Camp set can seen at his artist profile page: www.raster.art.pl/gallery/artists/libera/prace.htm.

[vi] The story of the events relating to the Rebuild campaign, along with images of the adverts, can be read about in this Campaign Brief blog entry: http://www.campaignbrief.com/2006/12/saatchi-china-team-fired-apolo.html.

[vii] Berkley, Calif, ‘Should the World of Toys be Gender Free?’ in the New York Times, 29 December 2011.

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

[ix] Weiwei, Ai, Letgo Room, 2015.

[x] Kennedy, Maev, ‘Artist Ai Weiwei vows to accepts offers of Lego from around the world’, in the Guradian, 25 October 2015.

[xi] See Paul O’Kane’s website: ww.okpaul.com.

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

 

Simon Liu

 

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CL4P-TP by Simon Liu

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

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

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FE Junterr by Simon Liu

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

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

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

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Locust by Simon Liu

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

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

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Point Defense Fighter by Simon Liu

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

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

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

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

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ip s1 by Simon Liu

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ip s2 by Simon Liu

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

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

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UCS Benny by Simon Liu

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

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

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FE Junterr (Deep Space Carrier) by Simon Liu

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

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Moonbase 3 by Simon Liu

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

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Si-Figher by Simon Liu

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

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Clux Flapacitor by Simon Liu

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

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

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

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

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USS Sulaco by Simon Liu

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

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Master Chief by Simon Liu

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Dropship by Simon Liu

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

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Calvin and Hobbes by Simon Liu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Protego Maxima by Simon Liu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Operation Olive Branch by Simon Liu

This interview first appeared in Bricks Culture 4.

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