From Pixel to Plastic

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Atlas and P-Body Wedding Cake Toppers by Legohaulic

LEGO bricks and digital technology have become intimately connected. So much so, that trying to imagine a time before the two worked together is now unthinkable. The plastic brick and the digital pixel in a profound sense have become interchangeable.

An easy answer, which might explain this relationship, would see this connection reduced to prophetic business sense. Speaking with the former LEGO designer Bjarne Tveskov in 2015[i], he noted how his engagement with the early home computer scene corresponded with the company’s nascent project to harness digital technologies alongside more traditional building. This early investment has certainly proved important, whether it be through the highly lucrative partnership it has forged with the video game producers Travellers Tales[ii] or the development of the Mindstorms[iii] range, replete with its educational programming language; or its ability to link with innovative video games such as Minecraft[iv]. Today additional digital content is a staple of many of their ranges, from Nexo Knight power shields to the redeemable digital codes found in collectable mini-figure packs. Undoubtedly this is a trend set to continue.

Yet there is something resolutely material, real and grounded in the phenomenal experience of LEGO creations, that makes one ask how we got from the bricks we hold in our hands to the digital representation of  bricks on a screen. Are these two objects – one material, one not – even of the same type? Douglas Coupland, the Canadian, novelist, essayist and artist, put the problem succinctly when he suggested that ‘Aesthetic experiences and objects are now dividing into the binary categories of downloadable and nondownloadable.’[v] Taking Coupland’s thesis seriously the video game ‘experience’ of LEGO creations and the ‘objects’ that are built from ‘real’ LEGO bricks should gravitate to the polar axis of his binary distinction?

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Manic Miner by Dr Dave Watford

Yet, as is so often the case with proclamations that make extreme cases, in practice something else happens. It might in fact be possible to download the digital image in a unique way through the medium of LEGO bricks. For example Dr Dave Watford’s[vi] Manic Miner[vii] model of the eponymous 1980s video game produces a literal translation form digital to plastic representation, where one stud equates exactly with its associated pixel. Given the simplicity of Manic Miner’s 8-bit graphical style, where each pixel is easily definable, it  becomes a code that is effortlessly understood and replicated. The rectilinear form of this aesthetic language allows it in a straightforward way to be recreated via the medium of LEGO bricks

What happens in this process of transliteration between digital and brick languages is a change in status from interactive experience to phenomenal object. The movement between pixel and plastic becomes one of making ‘real’ in the material sense something that previously existed in the virtual realm. This encounter repeats a non-digital experience all LEGO fans have previously practiced: building from instructions. Taking a visual code and using it to build an object in real space.This relationship has come full circle in one of the LEGO Group’s latest ventures. At the newly opened LEGO store in Leicester Square you will now find a portrait mosaic maker. A customer enters a small photographic booth, much like the one you find in post offices and railway stations for taking passport photos. Once inside a picture of the sitter is taken. With the help of a little computer processing this is subsequently rendered as a plan, which can be used to build the mosaic portrait.   A few minutes later the machine deposits a box containing the thousands of 1×1 LEGO plates needed to do just this. As was seen in the recent Channel 4 documentary LEGO at Christmas[viii] this provided hours of enjoyment for the shop’s retail manager, as he diligently demonstrated the fun of translating pixels into plastic.

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LEGO Store Leicester Square Mosaic Maker

What makes this process interesting is more than the fact that pixels translate easily into bricks. It is something that many of the best LEGO fan builders have discovered when building models based on video games. When one builds a model of an existent thing from LEGO bricks there is always a sense that it is a representation of the real and tangible object. As amazing as the piece is it remains a dissimulation of the thing which it copies. On the other hand, the unreality of digital subject matter means that copying it is no longer about copying the uncopyable, rather instead it becomes about locating the code initially used to create it. Once this code is identified it provides a set of identical principles initially founded by the computer programer, and that can now be approached through the medium of LEGO bricks. Solving this puzzle, in and for itself, is pleasing.

Matt De Lanoy’s[ix] Bob-omb Battlefield from Super Mario 64[x] ticks all the boxes when it comes to this form of building. A complete recreation of the fist level of the much-loved game, this has everything you need, from launch cannons to Chain Chomp straining on his leash. Putting its subject matter in context, Super Mario 64 saw Nintendo place its iconic plumber into a true 3D world for the first time; and unlike the 3D worlds of today’s video games it wore its limited set of polygons on its sleeve. As such the code that underpinned it was as visible as the simple pixels found in the 8-bit Manic Miner, but now added the extra qualities of space and depth that called out for it to be made in LEGO bricks. There is a satisfaction both in the building and viewing of this type of model – an ability to see the code at work in both the original game and it LEGO  double. In fact the code becomes more visible because we see how it differs yet remains the same across both media.

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Bob-omb Battlefield by Matt De Lanoy

The spatial and geometric references that make De Lanoy’s creation so appealing is just one way in which the LEGO brick formula can work. For example Iain Heath (AKA Ochre Jelly)[xi] has in a similar way reworked the first Doom[xii] game in LEGO bricks. His sprawling diorama recalls the original pixelated demons and texture mapped Martian environments, right down to the perfectly rendered gore splatters and ammo pick-ups. In this case, it is the LEGO bricks’ ability to provide sprite-like details that holds the attention, and reveals the shared code between model and game.

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Doom by Iain Heath

Surprisingly even when a game’s graphical presentation reaches a level whereby its code is hidden to the player, the process of being translated into a LEGO model may still perform this function. Imagine Rigney’s[xiii] epic model of The Bank of the Prophet from the game Bioshock Infinite[xiv] is perhaps one of the best ways to appreciate this.  From its vast scale complete with emblematic sky rails to the huge Song Bird that perches at the top of its domed roof, it renders the lead designer Ken Levine’s world in a form that reminds us of its coded origins. At a time where the gaming world appears to be pushing ever harder for absolute immersion through the development of virtual reality and the race for pure graphical fidelity, LEGO models that remind us of the human code that made them possible, play an important role.

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Bank of the Prophet by Imagine Rigney

Often the supposed retro-graphics, which hark back to a simpler era in gaming’s history, are summarised in terms of fashion. Like the shifts in music and clothing, these games are framed as a stylistic reappraisal of that which was great and authentic about a scene a generation or two before. However, with video games there is another reason why a simpler aesthetic appeals; because again it reveals the code that founds it.

As video games have increased in visual complexity, this relationship to a code has become ever more distant. This growing gap provided the catalyst, which finally provided the LEGO Group with the mainstream success it sought in the digital market place. By teaming up with the games developers Traveller’s Tales they found a way of referencing this fascination for the visibility of a code in a game’s aesthetic without compromising on production values. They achieved this explicitly through a representation of another code, the code of LEGO bricks, within a game.

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Welcome to ‘LEGO’ Jurassic Park

The Traveller’s Tales franchise of LEGO games do not reduce their style to a blocky or retro form. Instead they revel in the high level of polygons used in contemporary video game graphics. Their worlds choose to render glossy 3d recreations of actual LEGO bricks, and by doing so use these as an analogy for the actual code beneath the shiny surface. As players we read the world dressed in studs and populated by mini-figures as coded by the building language of LEGO bricks even when the way they operate flaunts many of these principles. In fact these games use many elements that are explicitly not formed from LEGO bricks in their presentation. The gameplay too has little to do with the build-and-play experience of creating with LEGO bricks, relying instead on problem solving, narrative structure and item collection. What the LEGO language offers the game is a metaphor regarding its created other-worldly nature; a reference not lost on the designers during the creation of the LEGO Jurassic World[xv] game, which translates the story of a forgotten genetic code found in an amber brick into LEGO form. A code which allows the possibility of bringing an earlier prehistoric time back to life. Splicing bricks and genes becomes inter-changable in the dinosaur lab and allows the player to create a huge variety of prehistoric monsters through the metaphor of mastering a code.

Lego_Amber

However it is not the LEGO Group or Travellers Tales who have undertaken the most notable translation of brick language into digital form . In 2009 the developer Mojang released the genre defining game Minecraft. It took some of the recognised block building code from LEGO construction and inserted it into a new ontological context. Here the movement from plastic to pixels retained the creative aspect of the code but altered the rationale for building. Unlike building with LEGO bricks, where there is always maintained a perception of one’s inventions as models, in Minecraft a new status is established. In its biomes the player is completely immersed into to a block-built word and from this a new existential relationship arises.   The reason for building becomes innately connected to the world in which one finds themselves; and the competency of making and creating is as such tied to the needs of survival: building shelters from evil mobs and the elements, finding food and crafting tools and kit to better tame the environment.

The game through its use of code scratched many of the same itches that LEGO building does, and as such a link between the two seemed almost inevitable.   Starting initially with the LEGO Cusso Microworld range, The LEGO Group quickly developed its own assortment of mini-figure scale sets. These products effectively took the Minecraft experience, and once more through the sharing of a familiar code, moved the product back from pixels to plastic.

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Minecraft Micro World

As if to point out the truly symbiotic interaction between LEGO products and Minecraft, YouTube’s most popular advocates set about building the LEGO sets according to the logic of their game. In Grian’s 2016 video LEGO VS MINECRAFT – Which Can I Build Faster?[xviii] we see the difference played out in the construction of the LEGO Minecraft set The First Night, both in game and in LEGO bricks. The advantages and disadvantages of each are discussed and the nature of the translation between the two solidified. At this point, it has become apparent that it is next to impossible to decide whether the digital pixel or the plastic brick came first, but more importantly that searching for such an origin is unimportant.

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LEGO vs Minecraft -Which Can I Build Faster by Grain

LEGO bricks reliance on a code has meant that from the outset, whatever was built already invested in the building of ideas. In fact one cannot build with LEGO elements without already manipulating a code, and by proxy developing ideas. One could say, that the natural framing that a rendering of our world in the right angled form of bricks archives, is in fact already a digitisation of the world: an obvious ability that transforms the unknowable world of things into the instructions for representation. The thesis follows that LEGO bricks are already pixels – material pixels if you will – and our use of them requires a technological thinking that deals in the logic of coded manipulation.

In conclusion, whilst it was of course financially prudent for the LEGO Group to embrace the digital sphere, it already had a massive advantage over many of its competitors in the toy market. It had a language that did not so much need to be reimagined in digital terms, as it was already a code that a computer could manipulate. But perhaps more importantly it was also a way of thinking that aligned itself with our own technological evolution.

Endnotes

[i] David Alexander Smith, ‘Interview with Bjarne Tveskov’ Bricks Culture #4 (January 2016)

[ii] See Travellers Tales website http://www.ttgames.com

[iii] See LEGO Mindstorms website https://www.lego.com/en-gb/mindstorms

[iv] See Minecraft website https://minecraft.net/en-us/

[v] Douglas Coupland ‘On Craft’ in Shopping in Jail (Sternberg Press, 2013) p.2

[vi] See Dr Dave Watford’s blog Gimme Lego http://gimmelego.blogspot.co.uk

[vii] Play Matthew Smith’s classic Manic Miner here: http://torinak.com/qaop#!manicminer

[viii] LEGO at Christmas, Channel 4 (2016)

[ix] See Matt De Lanoy’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/pepa_quin/

[x] See the Super Mario 64 wiki https://www.mariowiki.com/Super_Mario_64

[xi] See Iain Heath’s Flickr Stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/ochre_jelly

[xii] See the Doom webpage http://doom.com/en-us/

[xiii] See Imaging Rigney’s Flickr stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/imaginebrickzone

[xiv] See the Bioshock Infinite’s webpage https://www.bioshockinfinite.com/?RET=&ag=true

[xv] See the LEGO Jurassic World page https://www.lego.com/en-gb/jurassicworld

[xvi] See Grain’s LEGO VS MINECRAFT – Which Can I Build Faster? video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUCr2UexTHo

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).