Lego Lilliput or the Politics of Scale

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El Barto’s Mt Olympus (2014)

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

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VLUG collaboration The Odyssey (2014)

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

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

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

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Lego in the 1960s sold with die cast cars

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Miniland London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Populous

Sim-City

Sim City

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Civilization

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

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Minecraft

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

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Lego Minecraft

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

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

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Basilica and Forum display at the Museum of London

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

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Ryan McNaught’s Lego Pompeii

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

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

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

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

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Illustration from Gulliver’s Travels

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lego Movie

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

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

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

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

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

[ii] Populous, Bullfrog, 1989

[iii] Sim City, Electronic Arts, 1989

[iv] Civilization, Microprose, 1991

[v] Minecraft, Mojang, 2009

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

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

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

[ix] Jonathan Swift, Gullivers Travels, 1726

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

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

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