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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Untitled

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.

 

 

LEGO fables – telling stories with bricks

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LEGO Fabuland

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

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

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

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

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LEGO mini-figures on the cover of the 1978 catalogue

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

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LEGO Maxi-Figures

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

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

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

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

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LEGO Ideas Book 1980

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

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Fabuland

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

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

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

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

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Three Little Pigs by Tikitikitembo 

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

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

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Roger Hargreaves lesser known Timbuctoo series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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VirtuaLUG The Wizard of Oz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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LEGO City Undercover video game

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

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

Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

[v] Reference to add.

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

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

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

[ix] Ibid, p.3

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

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

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

Classical Coupling: Matt & Linda Rowntree

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

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Icarus by Matt and Linda Rowntree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Matt and Linda in their Studio

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

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

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

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

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Marvin the Martian by Matt Rowntree

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

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Emotitron 024 by Matt Rowntree

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

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Perry Mason by Matt Rowntree

DAS: Have you worked on a project together before?

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

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Inception by Matt Rowntree

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

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Forbidden Planet by Matt Rowntree

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

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

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

DAS: How did you go about planning the project?

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

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

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

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

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The Challenge of the Labyrinth

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

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The unique photography set-up

DAS:  How do you feel about the final piece?

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

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

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The Thing Movie Poster by Matt Rowntree

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

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

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

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

This interview was originally published in Bricks Culture 7.

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Irish Yoga by Matt Rowntree