Crimso Geiger’s Infinite Space

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Mysterion Mothership Interior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Classic Space Cargo

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

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Alien Moon Walker

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

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Silver Machine (4)

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

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

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

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Mazone Refuelling Vehicle (4)

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

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

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Ghost Tiger (Crimso Remix)

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

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Biotron THC-500 Ambassador (4)

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

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

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Bronto-Zorg

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

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

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In Flight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Snail Rover – final build Febrovery 2015

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

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

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RMX Starfighter Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Monochrome Interior #1

 

Space Dinosaurs

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Space Brachi0saurus

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

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Space0saurus

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

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Space0saurus (modular function)

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

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Space Brachi0saurus (rocket launcher)

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

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

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Space0dactyl

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

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

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Classic Space Caterpillar Rover

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Triangle Shuttle

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Cosmic Pachyderm

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

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Space Wedge

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

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

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

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Ginger-Bread-Bot

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

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

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Space0saurus (Spine Cells)

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

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

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Tri-Space0tops

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Space0saurus-Rex

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

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Spine0saurus

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

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Ice Planet Penguin (laying Egg-bot)

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Ice Planet Penguin (swim mode)

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

 

 

LEGO and Photography

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

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I will be a Fisherman by Shelly Corbett

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

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Blacktron Alienator designed by Bjarne Tveskov

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

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

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

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LEGOland Space 1979

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

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LEGOland Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Images from the the LEGO Ideas books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Undiri Moon by Tim Clark

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

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Do You Think My Tractor’s Sexy by Chris Maddison

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

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The Thing by Matt Rowntree

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Photographing The Thing by Matt Rowntree

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

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

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

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In LEGO We Connect exhibition

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

Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The structural Language of LEGO (a short observation)

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

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

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Collective conventions and shared inventions: the case of LEGO FebRovery

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Lego Moon Landing (1976)

 

First question:

Q: “Why does the Moon orbit the Earth?”

A: “To get to the other side.”

 

Second question:

Q: “Why does an AFOL build like everybody else?”

A: “Because they want to do things differently.”

There is a paradox at the heart of the LEGO building experience. Certain combinations of pieces imply established uses or conventions. However, as soon as the LEGO builder recognises these rules they seek to use these pieces in ways that push the convention as far as possible. Yet, no matter how extreme the deviation, the convention is preserved.

This is the joke at the heart of the LEGO hobby. Like the joke about the Moon, that gives an impossible answer, that it orbits the Earth to get to the other side – there are no sides to an orbit only perpetual movement – the LEGO hobby offers choices within conventions, which allow us to build together, to be different through our sharing of creative projects.

And of course I chose the joke about the moon, because instinctively it reminded me of this logo; the Classic Space symbol. But in this case the shuttle slingshots out of orbit!

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The Lego Classic Space symbol brick

All art forms have conventions, cultural forms that define them. The realist novel, pop art, atonal music and many others can be taxonomically defined based on stylistic conventions. What is different for LEGO is that it originates from a design driven, or manufactured form. Pieces, even generic pieces that suggest multiple standard building uses, begin from a designed application. No matter how many new functions a specific piece can be turned to, it is the fact that it is turned to a new use that LEGO cannot escape. And the original utility of the piece remains as a possibility no matter how far it is taken away from its designed origin. The croissant that can become a crab’s smile, can still find its place in the LEGO Friends Downtown Bakery.

Many of the principles that pieces in the LEGO catalogue were put to, are doubly designed. In that not only are they created to achieve a given use within a set or theme, they are also imitations of real examples of industrial design. Most obviously you see this in door, window or wheel pieces. Things become explicit when LEGO starts to duplicate the shapes and forms of the space industry. Take set 565 Moon Landing, arguably LEGO’s first foray into the space theme.   Its forms, pieces and structures all echo the technology of the space race era. As the theme of space and science fiction grew in popularity during the 70s so did the design of pieces based on real space exploration.

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Apollo 16 Rover during testing

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Lego Space Buggy (1979)

Possibly one of the most talented and important fan builders, the late and sadly missed Nnenn (Nate Nielson), achieved great things for the building community when he explicitly linked the design potential in LEGO with an understanding of its conventions; that conventions are uniquely placed to inspire invention.

I personally came to the hobby after a long dark age, about a year after Nnenn’s death. Although I never had the chance to speak or meet Nnenn, his magnificent portfolio[i] of space and sci-fi designs immediately caught my eye. Here was someone who understood intimately what could be achieved with bricks. It came as no surprise to find that he was an academic working in the area of graphic design. The knowledge was writ large in every one of his pieces. In the words of Keith Goldman[ii] (another fantastic builder of everything space), writing on the Brothers Brick blog, ‘Nate showed me that our community, the we, are our best when we build. When we create.[iii]

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Nnenn’s Untitled Rover

However, what I think Nnenn’s most important contribution to the community was, as Goldman hints at, is the idea that a collective of builders can engage in a shared design process. By sharing conventions, and exploring them together, rather than this endeavor limiting creativity and inventiveness, it provides a framework for expanding it.

His most famous example was the presentation of the criteria for building spaceships. Taking the Viv Viper, the iconic craft from the Gradius [iv]video games, he set forth that this vehicle could be defined by a set of conventions:

  1. Twin forward prongs.
  2. A single dorsal tail.
  3. Two rear lateral wings.

 

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Gradius (1985)

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Nnenn’s Vic Viper conventions

I’m not sure whether this is true, but video game folklore suggested that the Vic Viper’s shape was determined by the need for the limited graphical capacities of 80s computers to create a roll animation. The twin front prongs giving a distinctive shape when seen from above or below, which sharply contrasted with the sleek side-on view. What Nnenn succeeded in doing was transplanting the design methodologies found in other disciplines, such as video game design, and present it to the LEGO community in a way that was fun, informative and transformative in the way people approached what they built. I think the teacher in Nnenn was offering a way of helping builders better their craft (in both senses of the word). We all learn when we apply our creativity to problems and limits.

Nnenn’s legacy lives on in the yearly tribute to his influence. The month long gala of Vic Viper building, now known in reverence to the master of the art, as Nnovvember.

This way of thinking, although new to the LEGO building community, is of course integral to all design-based creativity, but it is also present in non-problem focused creation. Take for example the literary movement, OULIPO [v](Ouvroir de littérature potentiell), which translated into English means something like, Workshop of Potential Literature. This group of writers that included the likes or Raymond Queneau, Georges Perec, Italo Calvino and Harry Matthews, began from a principle that by establishing writing conventions, experimentation, potential and importantly fun could be fostered. Techniques included the use of lipograms (writing that excluded a given letter) or snowball poems (verses in which each line is one word longer than the last). The results were dynamic and new ways of writing and making literature.

LEGO as a medium, as previously noted, brings with it the type of convention challenges that the OULIPO writers had to impose. LEGO pieces intrinsically enforce designed limits, which require our imagination to expand. The LEGO community soon pushed against these design limits, through experiments like those set by Nnenn, and stumbled into the strange world of invention explored by the OULIPO writers. Being a LEGO builder always means building with constraints, by continually imagining something beyond the constraint!

Where a design precedent was set, for example animation needs for the Vic Viper spaceship, once taken-up as a generative convention for the LEGO builder, the original design aim of the Gradius graphic designers becomes something else. The Vic Viper is no longer a shape suited to 8-bit graphic technologies, but a pure call to explore how far a design principle can be taken. And the Vic Viper was mutated into ever stranger and more unexpected shapes.

Of course following Nnenn’s case study, many other conventions were taken up by the building community: the 100-stud long spaceship festival that is SHIPtember[vi] (The S.H.I.P, standing as an acronym for seriously huge investment in parts), or the currently running FebRovery[vii], a celebration of every type of lunar rover imaginable.

FebRovery is an especially good example of where conventions and shared invention are at present taking the LEGO community. Set-up in 2011 by the irrepressibly inventive and hyper-productive space builder Crimso Geiger[viii], the event can be singled out from other convention building events on two grounds. It is not a contest, to see who can build the best variant of the rover convention; the project’s aim is simple, to explore the fun and joy of experimentation. Added to this, is the fact that the conventions for rover building presented by the event are more instinctive than fixed. No doubt this further expands the level of innovation possible. Taking a look at just a handful of creations made this year, one is struck by the variety and charm of the project.

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Billy Burg’s 4 Unity Lunar Rover

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Abram Harris’ The Anal pRover

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David Robert’s Big Wheel

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Crimso Geiger’s Rover #18

What FebRovery should be celebrated for, is that not only does it explore the creative potential of conventions, but through communal invention alters these conventions. After 4 years of FebRovery, the community’s understanding of what constitutes a lunar rover has changed. It is stranger, more colourful, less tied to the NASA launches of the 60s, or even the nascent thrill of the Star Wars films, than it was in 2011. LEGO rovers have become a genre in their own right. Capable of displaying humour, surreal forms, pastiche and irreverence.

When we talk about LEGO as an art form, it is easy to call on individual builders, or particularly interesting creations. However, we sometimes forget that the best examples of LEGO as art, is found in the shared archive. The way builders, when they share in a project, expand understanding and creative potential. Artists like, Olafur Eliasson in his The cubic structural evolution project (2004)[ix], who I discussed in my first blog article[x], have explored this shared creative potential found in LEGO. And whilst interesting, I would argue, the broader and more exciting projects are found in the self-establishing, shared ventures, such as FebRovery and Nnovvember.   In these catalogues of communal shared expression we see the living and breathing power of LEGO builders. Few other creative practices so successfully join creative minds together in inventive processes as LEGO does. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before a curator steps forward and takes a group archive such as the FebRovery portfolio and places it in the gallery context.

And all that is left to say is that we LEGO builders do it best, when we do it together.

Endnotes

[i] See Nnenn’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/nnenn/

[ii] See Keith Goldman’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/61671941@N00/

[iii] Keith Goldman ‘Farewell to a Legend: Mourning the passing of Nate “nnenn” Nielson’, Brothers Brick 2010 http://www.brothers-brick.com/2010/04/13/farewell-to-a-legend-mourning-the-passing-of-nate-nnenn-nielsen/ (accessed 20 Februray 2015)

[iv] Gradius, 1985, Konami

[v] For an overview of the OULIPO see this article from The Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2013/jul/12/oulipo-freeing-literature-tightening-rules

[vi] See the SHIPtember photo pool on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/groups/the-shipyard/pool/

[vii] See the FebRovery photo pool on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/groups/1841195@N22/

[viii] See Crimso Geiger’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/crimso-giger/

[ix] Olafur Eliasson, The cubic structural evolution project (2004)

[x] 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)

Lego Lilliput or the Politics of Scale

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El Barto’s Mt Olympus (2014)

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

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VLUG collaboration The Odyssey (2014)

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

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

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

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Lego in the 1960s sold with die cast cars

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Miniland London

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Populous

Sim-City

Sim City

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Civilization

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

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Minecraft

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

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Lego Minecraft

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

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

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Basilica and Forum display at the Museum of London

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

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Ryan McNaught’s Lego Pompeii

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

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

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

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

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Illustration from Gulliver’s Travels

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

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

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

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

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

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The Lego Movie

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

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

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

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

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

[ii] Populous, Bullfrog, 1989

[iii] Sim City, Electronic Arts, 1989

[iv] Civilization, Microprose, 1991

[v] Minecraft, Mojang, 2009

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

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

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

[ix] Jonathan Swift, Gullivers Travels, 1726

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

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

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

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Lego Batman gives a knowing wink in Lego the Movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rick Moranis as Dark Helmet in SpaceBalls

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

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

Kevin Rhyal's Bat Speeder

Kevin Ryhal’s Batspeeder

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

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

Louis K's  All Terrain-Ice Cream Transport

Louis K’s
All Terrain-Ice Cream Transport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riccardo Zangelmi's  Mr. Sandwich and Angry Toaster

Riccardo Zangelmi’s Mr. Sandwich and Terrible Toaster

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

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

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

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

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

Endnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[viii] Ibid 2002.

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

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

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