Listen to this article
Two years ago last July I was in Washington DC, viewing an exhibition at the National Building Museum titled America’s World’s Fairs of the 1930s. Afterwards I noticed that upstairs was a Lego show called Towering Ambition – 15 seminally famous towers made of Lego – so I went to see the Empire State Building, the St Louis Arch et al, all in Lego. But what I found just past the exhibition space was far more interesting: children visiting the display were encouraged to build their own towers using bricks provided in vast quantities. Being Washington, most kids only had 30 minutes to build something before Dad said, “Come on, let’s go to the Lincoln Memorial.” Vacating children left chunks of unfinished towers behind them, chunks in turn cannibalised by succeeding children, a process leading to the creation of remarkable hybrid structures of alien beauty. Had I lived in DC, I’d have been at the museum at the end of every day, documenting the DNA of these buildings as they were mutated forward.
Cut to last November. Haunted by the images of these towers, I decided to clone the show’s building dynamic and held a series of public Lego-based events at the Vancouver Art Gallery – two afternoons with children and two evenings with adults. My aim was, and is, to mash together the results of these events in the hope of recreating the visual freshness I’d seen in Washington. I was very nervous to see if it would work.
Did I get good results? As these photographs show, yes. The process worked flawlessly and the ensuing hybrid buildings might well have emerged from a parallel universe, or from the year 2500. What pleases me most is that I know I can take these crowd-sourced forms and further recombine them into their next step in their artistic life, which will be large tower forms that I hope will be stripped of their human connotations, and push towards some new architectural language.
However, there was one weird aspect to the forms people created. Almost all of the boys kept using a certain kind of “camouflage” pattern in their buildings. I’d expected adults to use camo, but kids? I certainly never saw this kind of patterning in 2011 in Washington. And when I asked people at the gallery what they thought was behind this camo pattern, everyone gave me the reply, “Oh, that’s Minecraft.”
Cut to last night. I was out for dinner with friends who brought their five-year-old son, Anthony. This would be unremarkable were it not for the fact that Anthony was utterly transfixed for most of the evening by a video game called (yes) Minecraft that he was playing on an iPad mini. This was a perfect chance to see Minecraft being used by a child whose astonishing speed and dexterity within its 3D navigation system was like watching Roger Daltrey as the Pinball Wizard.
To be honest, Anthony’s game navigation was (as with watching any digital activity performed by digital natives) humbling – humbling with funny dialogue. His commentary was much along the lines of, “Now I’m going to spawn a chicken. And now the chicken’s going to battle the castle walls. There. It just won the battle. Now I’m going to respawn more chickens.”
During brief moments when I was able to see the screen, I saw Minecraft’s distinct three-colour camouflage, only to be again left in the weeds by Anthony’s brain and fingers racing forward with the speed of extreme youth. I tried to imagine I was inside Anthony’s brain, in particular in that part of the brain that regulates one’s relationship with the three-dimensional world. I imagined a cluster of cells that were being wired together in a way so profoundly different from my own as to make me wonder if Anthony would himself morph into some new version of Homo sapiens, leaving my kind behind.
And then I began to wonder what sorts of 3D creations Anthony would himself be feeding back into the world when he was older and his brain at that stage where it was time to create. But I don’t know, and I get a profound happiness from knowing that I don’t know. Nature provides its children with whatever she deems they need in order to survive. In 2034 it’s Anthony’s world and I think I want to see it very much.
But here’s the thing about Minecraft: I looked it up online only to learn from discussions and articles I hadn’t seen before that I may have inadvertently spawned it – back in 1995 – in a novel I wrote called Microserfs. I’m not trying to be self-serving: the information came as a jolt, like suddenly finding out I have an 18-year-old child.
Back in 1995 I called my Minecraft idea, Oop! (short for Object Oriented Programming). I was trying to describe a product so compelling – so cool – that even a person working at Microsoft in its glory days would want to leave in order to make it: “Oop! is a virtual construction box – a bottomless box of 3D Lego-type bricks that runs on IBM or Mac platforms. If a typical Lego-type brick has eight ‘studs’, an Oop! ‘brick’ can have from eight to 8,000 studs, depending on the precision demanded by the user.
”Oop! users can virtually fly in and out of their creations . . . Oop! users build their ideas in 3D space: a revolving space station? . . . Running ostriches? . . . Whatever. Oop! allows users to clone structures, and add these clones on to each other, permitting easy megaconstructions that use little memory. Customised Oop! blocks can be created and saved.”
It goes on, and there’s more. But the thing is, if I had anything to do with Minecraft, I’m very happy to know I was possibly useful in inspiring a world that tries to defy my ability to describe it. Another brick in the wall is now no longer just another brick in the wall. Bricks clone themselves. They come alive, just like aliens erupting from a scientist’s thorax. Bricks spawn. They become whole new universes.
I’m curious to see how my further hybridised real-world Lego forms evolve. Will they be worthy totems of our era? Will they take us to some place new? My hunch is that they will. If there’s any sensation that defines the present historical moment, it’s that we all feel as if we have alien eggs laid inside us and we all know that, some day soon, they’re going to hatch – and these forms are part of what will emerge.
These Lego towers will be incorporated into one of Douglas Coupland’s sculptural installations at his solo exhibition, ‘everywhere is anywhere is anything is everything’, which will run at the Vancouver Art Gallery, May 31-September 1