AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Interview with Philosopher & LEGO Sculptor Roy T. Cook

Leave a comment

Roy T. Cook is an extremely nerdy associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota – Twin Cities, a resident fellow of the Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science, and an associate fellow of the Northern Institute of Philosophy – Aberdeen, Scotland. He has published over fifty articles and book chapters on logic, the philosophy of mathematics, the philosophy of art (especially popular art). He co-edited The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012) with Aaron Meskin, and his monograph on the Yablo Paradox is forthcoming from Oxford University Press. He is also a co-founder of the interdisciplinary comics studies blog PencilPanelPage, which recently took up residence at the Hooded Utilitarian, and hopes to someday write a book about the Sensational She-Hulk. He lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife, two cats (Freckles and Mr. Prickley), and approximately 2.5 million LEGO bricks.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Presumably mathematics as well as its philosophy requires creativity, but before that creativity can be usefully employed one must have already mastered a rather imposing set of technical skills. Do you find that LEGO sculpture is much the same?

ROY T. COOK: Definitely, and much of it is, in fact, mathematical: LEGO bricks have a very specific, and very precise, geometry: a stack of five one-stud bricks, connected stud-to-slot is (not including the stud) exactly the height of six of those same bricks stacked on their sides. And pretty much every LEGO element is designed in terms of this ‘unit’ (i.e. one sixth the height of a standard brick). This opens up a lot of possibilities for creative building, in terms of using this geometry to ‘fit’ pieces in upside down, etc., where they aren’t ‘standardly’ meant to go. And of course, there is a lot of specialized terminology, such as SNOT (studs not on top) used within the community to describe these techniques. So there is a whole set of technical building skills and background knowledge that adult fans of LEGO (or AFOLs) gradually master – techniques that go well beyond the basic brick-stacking utilized in official sets. 

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: What would you consider to be the hallmarks of a LEGO purist? Prohibitions on cutting or gluing? Working with LEGO brand blocks as opposed to those of knock-off brands? Are there any notable schisms within the adult Lego community?

ROY T. COOK: There is definitely a significant notion of ‘purism’ within the adult LEGO community, and although most builders will claim to be some sort of purist, there is a good bit of controversy regarding where, exactly, the line is to be drawn. Pretty much everyone agrees that cutting or painting LEGO bricks is off-limits, although there are possible exceptions (for example, some builders think it is okay for long pieces of LEGO ‘flex tubing’ to be cut to shorter lengths that LEGO also produces but that the builder does not have on hand at the moment). Gluing is also verboten, but with exceptions: Most builders I know wouldn’t dare bring a glued model to a fan convention like Brickworld (part of the challenge with complex builds is often getting the work to stay together due solely to the ‘clutch’ power of the bricks themselves), but I myself have glued models or mosaics that were being given away as gifts to family members that don’t want the hassle of a model falling apart without me there to put it back together.
The ban on ‘clone’ bricks (e.g. Megablocks, Tyco bricks, etc.) is as much practical as it is principled: LEGO bricks have thicker, sturdier walls, and their significantly superior quality control means that there is much less variance in wall thickness, etc. This might not matter much to the typical ten-year-old, but if you are building a six-foot-tall tower or four-foot-tall mosaic, you want the edges to be straight. Clone brick builds of that scale tend to visibly bend, while LEGO bricks won’t.
While people are vocal about their views on ‘purity’ (and on many other topics), I don’t think there are any real ‘schisms’ with regard to this issue – the LEGO community is surprisingly congenial compared to other demographically similar fandoms where much of the interaction occurs online.
I have encountered something akin to a ‘schism’ concerning a related issue, however. I have given a series of presentations on thinking about LEGO as art at various LEGO fan conventions (e.g. Brickworld outside Chicago and Brickfest in Washington D.C.) including one that compared the purist phenomenon (at least some aspects of it) to similar debates about the addition of sound to cinema in the 1920s. I was surprised that the audience was often very divided – one group would be extremely enthusiastic about taking LEGO seriously as a significant artistic medium, while the other group were rather antagonistic, and seemed to view my efforts as an attempt to take the ‘fun’ out of their hobby. Interestingly, demographically the former group tends to run a good bit younger than the latter.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: What are some of the principal advantages and disadvantages of working in the LEGO medium? What sorts of depictive subjects do you think Lego sculpture ill-suited to capture, as compared to traditional sculptural media (metal, stone, wood, etc.)? Any subjects that LEGO is perhaps better-suited to capture than traditional types of sculpture?

ROY T. COOK: Well, I think the primary disadvantage of working in LEGO is cost – LEGO bricks retail for anywhere from 5 to 12 cents per piece, so a single 30 x 40 inch mosaic can often run well in excess of $1000 just for raw materials. In addition, unlike other sculptural media, where you just need enough metal, or stone, or wood, or a big enough piece of the same, with LEGO you have hundreds of different shapes which are (or have been) produced in dozens of different colors. Each different project is likely to involve very different parts and colors than the one before it, so a well-stocked LEGO studio/workspace is going to require a huge amount of bricks. I estimate that my own collection comes in at something like 2.5 million LEGO elements (note: I didn’t pay retail prices for most of this). The corresponding advantage, however, is the reusability of the raw materials. If you get sick of a particular work, you can take it apart, and eventually those pieces will get worked into some future project.

lego minnesota state capitol
Model of Minnesota State Capital Building by Roy T. Cook
photo courtesy of Amanda J
lego cathedral of saint paul
Model of St. Paul Cathedral (St. Paul, Minnesota) by Roy T. Cook
Photo courtesy of Amanda J
In addition, building in LEGO is unlike traditional sculpting in that you are not literally ‘sculpting away’ material, but you are instead ‘building up’ the work piece by piece. In addition, and unlike other contemporary sculptures that might be ‘built up’ in a similar way from found objects or whatever, with LEGO art you are working with a fixed and pre-determined set of possible components. This isn’t really a disadvantage so much as it is just a limitation – one adult builder I know described LEGO art as ‘quantum sculpture’ for just this reason.
I don’t see any particular topics that LEGO sculpture is ill-suited to capture or address, although it must be admitted that the range of topics addressed by LEGO work is rather limited at present. I do see two topics/themes that seem particularly well-suited for exploration with LEGO art. The first involves issues of construction and deconstruction, taken quite broadly: What are we, and our world, made of? What are the differences between our true natures and the persona we construct for the consumption of others? How can the ‘building blocks’ nature of LEGO artworks be used to address and interrogate these larger issues of ‘constitution’? 
Nathan Sawaya’s travelling exhibition The Art of the Brick (http://brickartist.com/) is notable in this regard. His sculptures focus primarily on reflexively embracing, exploring, and interrogating LEGO itself as a medium and a means for exploring the constructed nature of our world, and only secondarily on explicitly representing ‘things’ found in that world (and further, where the works are intimately concerned with representing particular ‘things’, this is usually tightly interwoven with consideration of the means of representation). The majority of works exhibited at AFOL conventions – even those that do embrace self-referentiality or other sophisticated expressive techniques – usually focus in the first instance on straightforward representation of real or imagined ‘things’, and only secondarily on the medium itself. Of course, this isn’t an all-or-nothing distinction: Sawaya also built a much-blogged-about life-size model of Han Solo in carbonite, and works as aesthetically ambitious as anything Sawaya has done do occasionally show up at fan conventions. But Sawaya is notable for being the first adult LEGO builder to produce an substantial body of work in LEGO with a consistent, aesthetically significant, overarching theme.

Untitled by artist Nathan Sawaja
photo courtesy of brickartist.com
The second involves interrogating the division between toy and artistic medium. Although there is a wealth of impressive work being created by adults, the immediate reaction you typically get after admitting (i) you own over 2 million LEGO bricks, but (ii) you don’t have any children, is somewhere between incredulity, scorn, and (in some cases) nerd-boy/girl envy. While LEGO might be a serious artistic medium, the obvious problem is that it isn’t viewed as one – it is viewed as a toy, so if you work in LEGO you are viewed as playing with toys, not creating art. One way to address this is to create works that challenge this assumption that LEGO is merely a toy. A year or so back I constructed a LEGO mosaic titled “Oops, I forgot it was a toy!” that depicted a topless portrait of my wife (nope – not posting pictures here – sorry!) and displayed it at Brickworld Chicago. The point was to try and challenge the idea that LEGO is just for kids (in a rather overt and unsubtle way, it must be admitted, but I viewed it merely as an early salvo in the right direction – not as an early masterpiece of the ‘my-wife’s-boobs’ genre). And it did spark some novel discussions amongst convention attendees about the nature and potential of the medium and the appropriateness of depicting ‘adult’ themes in a medium originally designed as a toy (it also generating the expected, obvious, rather sophomoric reactions), although in a limited way since we decided to censor it for the public display periods.

AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS: Do you regard work in LEGO as a legitimate art form? What is the principal difference(s) between what you do now as a Lego builder and what you did as a child with LEGO bricks that might ground an art/non-art distinction?

ROY T. COOK: First, I don’t see any real difference between what I did with my LEGO bricks as a kid and what I do now that goes beyond the difference between what I drew as a kid and the drawings by Rembrandt or Manet or whoever hanging in museums. Of course, there are differences – I bring a different sort of sensibility to the work (sometimes – I also still like to build cool spaceships that I can ‘swoosh’ around the workshop) and I have significantly better building skills and better (i.e. more) materials. But I see the one as continuous with the other – it isn’t like Rembrandt had an epiphany one day and stopped drawing one way and started drawing ‘serious’.
Lego Halle
Halle Berry mosaic by Roy T. Cook

 

Along similar lines, I don’t see any reason why LEGO isn’t or can’t be a legitimate art form – as I already noted, I think the challenge is to convince the public (whoever that might be) that it is a legitimate form and worthy of attention. This process has already begun: a number of LEGO artists, including Nathan Sawaya and Sean Kenney, have displayed their work in museums, and my own commissioned models of the Minnesota State Capitol, the St Paul (MN) Cathedral, and the Split Rock Lighthouse are prominently displayed inside their respective real-world buildings. But LEGO art still lacks a medium-specific context and history against which individual works can be judged – at present LEGO works are either judged against traditional sculpture and via the same criteria, or they are judged against the larger body of DIY work (costuming, modeling, fan art, fanfic, etc.) within fandom more generally. It seems to me that, in order to be taken seriously as a legitimate art form, LEGO artists and their admirers and critics will need to generate a large enough body of quality work, and some sort of theoretical/historical narrative to go with it, so that we can legitimately compare and, perhaps most importantly, contrast LEGO art with other artistic media and traditions.
With this in mind, I think it is the time in this interview where I put my own cards on the table: I actually don’t view my own work or, at least, the work for which I am perhaps best known in the LEGO community – technically complex LEGO mosaics – as the best candidates for consideration as serious, legitimate LEGO artworks. Now, great art usually requires some serious technical skill, and my mosaics have that and then some, but art also (to my mind) requires some sort of content. And my mosaics are rather thin on content: other than my choice of subject (usually females – either fictional, celebrity, or acquaintance – that I admire) these mosaics are for the most part technical feats – reproducing the photograph utilizing a limited set of resources – rather than an attempt at any sort of message.
Of course, some of the more ‘sculptural’ works created within the LEGO community are, quite clearly, attempts at expressing exactly the sort of content we might expect in more traditional art works, and I think some of them succeed admirably in this regard. But lately I have begun thinking about LEGO art in a completely different way – as a sort of storytelling rather than as a sort of sculpture (note: I see these as compatible, not competing, conceptions of what LEGO art is or might be). Influenced by Henry Jenkins’ work on the participatory aspects of popular fiction and mass art, I have been thinking a lot about the sorts of LEGO builds that don’t typically get as much attention in discussions of LEGO and art: the huge train layouts, town scenes, castle dioramas, Star Wars hangars, etc., populated with dozens of minifigures carefully set out in humorous and sometimes poignant slice-of-life vignettes. These sorts of builds are often as technically proficient as the overtly more ‘serious’ sculptures and mosaics, but they are often ignored in discussions of art due to their obvious similarity to (and often inspiration from) official LEGO sets and the sorts of LEGO creations typically produced by children. But viewed as a sort of 3-D storytelling I think that something more might be going on here. In constructing the idyllic small town, or the beautiful, efficient train yard, or the heroic impregnable castle, or the unseen portions of the Rebel hangar, these builders can be seen as contributing to an ongoing narrative initiated by either LEGO (in the case of their official train, castle, or town sets) or by the companies providing the licensed content (e.g. Lucasfllm). In short, they are Jenkins’ textual poachers, contributing to an ongoing collaborative story told both in official sets (and other materials in the case of licensed properties) and in the creations of fans. Although, as I noted, I am just beginning to think about this issue, I think there are interesting possibilities here for treating minifigure-based LEGO builds as a sort of significant, legitimate narrative art form.
Well, that’s all for now. I have to get back to working on my four-by-six foot LEGO zombie pirate town!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s