Political LEGO: an interview with Legofesto

Sri Lanka: Bombing a refugee camp 4

Sri Lanka: Bombing a refugee camp 4 (Legofesto 2009).

We re-create scenes from the trade justice documentaries, art and activist work in LEGO. We photograph them, put them online and embed them on our site’s pages. You can see what we’ve done here. This work was inspired by LEGO scenes from the ‘War on Terror’ produced by a person calling herself Legofesto. We read interviews with and articles about her that were published in 2009, but hadn’t found anything since. This year, after teaching Political LEGO on the MRes Critical Human Geographies at Exeter University, one student – Julia Zielke – emailed Legofesto to interview her for an essay. What questions hadn’t been asked in those 2009 pieces? What had Legofesto been doing since then? Can we expect any new Legofesto work? This is what she said…

Julia: Why do you want to remain anonymous?

Legofesto: More than anything remaining anonymous is because I’m not that important, I’m a regular person, who felt strongly about human rights abuses and decided to do some creative work about it. It shocked me there was very little art work about the war on terror, so I made some. Details about who I am only cloud the real subject: the victims and the abusers.

Julia: I admire your eye for detail and the fact that you are trying to work as closely to the real event as possible. But how can you trust that the sources you are quoting and to what extent are your creations congruent with the ‘actual, real’ event? Or in other words, how are your recreations maybe misrepresenting or better representing the ‘real’ event with all its multi-layered emotions?

Legofesto: Most of the recreations are not from one source, more often they are from many still or moving images of the actual events. The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib were recreations of actual photographs taken by the abusers; the death at the G20 protest of the newspaper vendor Ian Tomlinson was taken from CCTV and media footage plus video and photos taken by nearby citizens. Footage of the bombardment of the Tamil refugees in Sri Lanka was used as source material, as well as satellite imagery of the destruction (and the placement of armaments used by both sides in the fighting) and testimony from refugees. The Guantanamo Bay pieces were from detainee and prison warden testimony, as well as a few photographs.  I tend to use multiple sources, including blogs, as witness testimony differs as people all have different memories and interpretations of the same event. Also it is harder to manipulate or falsify multiple differing sources.

Death at G20 protest 4

Death at G20 protest 4 (Legofesto 2009)

With something like the Darfur piece, using multiple first hand testimony of the same events, I subjectively chose what to focus on, and then produced a narrative representation based on a combination of these sources, which gives an overview of the actual events. The aim was to recreate the fear, the terror, the heightened emotions evident in the children’s drawings rather than recreate a single video of events in sequence. Julia: Why does legofesto only focus on what is said in the newspaper, could there not be an equally disturbing horror in the unrecorded, everyday lives of war’s victims?

Legofesto: I don’t agree that I focus on what is in a newspaper, having purposefully used many sources for the sculptures, both visual and written. Purely  to give the visual images a context, for those who may not have known about the events already, I wrote pieces on my blog to go with the artwork which needed a citation of sources, which often was newspapers or media outlets but also blogs. (Remember 2005-9 was still before YouTube and the easy linkage to video  or news footage). When I used newspaper reports for a subject, it was because a basic verification of events had occurred e.g., Rape in Mahmudiya, which was later backed up by the trial of the US army perpetrators.

In the years since Legofesto started, the rise of citizen-produced content via smartphones has rocketed and can make the recreation of any “actual, real event” harder to verify but gives more visual source material to work with. Truly horrific stories have been coming out of places like Syria, Iraq and Libya via citizen journalists, repeated on such a scale, with such similar stories it seems unlikely to be an untruth. Many many hundreds of thousands of horrific stories are unrecorded by the media, but for ease of verification at the time and to give the pieces a context I used media/newspaper sources in my writing. Today I would be linking to YouTube images to do the same thing.

Julia: When do you have the sense of fully capturing the scene you are referring to and when does it become necessary to manipulate the LEGO figures, e.g. by burning or snatching them?

Legofesto: With the Darfur village and Sri Lanka refugee camp pieces I felt the burning was necessary as just using LEGO flames didn’t show the absolute destruction in enough detail. A scene is never fully captured, not least because of the restriction of size.  For a diorama to be proportional to a minifig there are obvious limits to the amount of detail that can be produced on a 4×2 brick level. Thats the ‘art’ bit -trying to convey as much detail and info as possible within the constraints of the medium.

Rape In Mahmudiya, Iraq 7

Rape In Mahmudiya, Iraq 7 (Legofesto 2006)

It was absolutely necessary to burn the LEGO minifig murder victim in Rape in Mahmudiya. Burning is a subtraction not an just a manipulation, and the soldiers tried to subtract the victims identity, to remove her very existence to cover up their crime.

The use of fake blood or other props would be different, and I would regard that as an unreasonable manipulation, and not true to the original idea of recreating events in LEGO (ditto using generic blocks, but that is because I’m a purist :))

Julia: Is there anything that legofesto cannot build with LEGO?

Legofesto: I’d say probably not, it is just a matter of scale and cost. But then I would say that. There are things I have chosen not to recreate but that is different.

Julia: If the actual victims of your scenes were to build their experience with LEGO, how would they differ?

Legofesto: It’d be interesting to take a giant tub of LEGO into the destroyed Palestinian refugee camp in the city of Yarmouk, Syria, for example, and see what the children and adults would recreate. Victim’s builds would be different from mine (more subjective, and personal; whereas I try give an overview of many differing experiences) and different from each other’s in the same way that witness testimony differs as people all have different memories and interpretations of the same event.

Julia: In a Times interview, you said that people would linger longer over the scene as it is spoken in a common, visual language: LEGO. Do you think that someone who has never played with or even heard of LEGO will have similar reactions? To what extent is this cultural commonplace maybe ethnocentric?

Darfur: A Village attack 14

Darfur: A Village attack 14 (Legofesto 2009)

Legofesto: The recreation of the village massacre in Darfur is based on many drawings by children [these can be found here, here, here, and here]. Few if any of the kids had held a pencil before, they had neither experience of drawing as an outlet for fun nor emotional trauma, unlike our kids who draw anything and everything, as our cultural norm. But they were able to draw images with a real emotional content. Because the LEGO minifigs are so adaptable, able to show such a range of emotions and clothing / accessories / weapons my guess would be that even people with no experience of playing with LEGO as children would be able to recognise the emotional impact of the faces and to recreate their own experiences in this medium. The yellow colouring of the minifigs removes any reference to ethnicity, race, religion or sect, identifying the events depicted as a human one, not a Tamil, or Muslim or Iraqi one.

Julia: In the same Times interview you said, that there is a tension between the smiley children’s toys and the horrific acts, what do you think lies at the heart of the tension?

Legofesto: It is unexpected that LEGO be used to recreate such horror and pain when we are used to seeing it as something innocent that children use to recreate cityscapes with firemen not torturers, or happy domestic scenes, not those of slaughter.

Julia: You have posted a YouTube video, however, when clicking on the link it says: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy on nudity and sexual content” What did the video show and do you think YouTube’s decision is justified?

Legofesto: It wasn’t my video but posted by someone else after an exhibition; it showed the Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo sculptures  in 3d and complete rather than as still photographs. It says something about our society’s priorities when YouTube is fine for videos of ISIS beheading or Miley or Rihanna shaking their arse right into a camera to pop up in the feed of devices with safesearch on, but will censor videos showing “naked” toys: LEGO minfigs being tortured or abused. Then again, I came up against similar censorship some years back when Amnesty International was running a “Protect the Human” project, inviting submissions from the public, with a focus on rape as a weapon of war; they asked me to take the recreated rape scenes (Rape in Mahmudiya and Darfur) down as they showed sexual imagery which could be viewed by 14 year olds. I refused saying if they wanted to censor my anti-rape images they could, it was their website after all, but I would not be party to it. For a long time they stayed up there but have now been taken down.

Similarly, I was working with a collection of NGOs, planning to get some recreations shown at a big meeting at the UN in New York. Some of the NGOs became, shall we say, a bit squeamish about what I was depicting and the project was dropped – I was told – so as not to offend any of the member states present. Personally, I want states that are inflicting human rights abuses to be offended!

Julia: One commenter on the Abu Ghraib scene was upset as he/she felt you were mocking a serious scene by making it funny. You reacted by saying it said more about the viewer who finds your recreations funny. How can you justify that the inherently playful, innocent and indeed entertaining nature of LEGO is not at play in your recreations? Isn’t it possible that in the light of war’s unimaginable absurdities and LEGO’s cultural assumptions, finding your work ‘funny’ is a somewhat natural and human reaction?

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib - overview 2

Ghosts of Abu Ghraib – overview 2 (Legofesto 2009)

Legofesto: But who thinks that what is recreated is funny? Perverse, absurd, odd, disconcerting or just rubbish, that is fine. But funny? Lolz?

Only a tiny proportion of the people who have been in touch via comments, email, pm etc have ever felt that way. Most of the (very, very few) negative comments have been from people who say it is fine to treat other humans that way because they were Muslim or Iraqi so must be terrorists. Or found it funny because they find naked human pyramids funny, with no consideration for the people involved. Many more people have contacted me to say the work tells important stories that were not being told or discussed, including ex-Guantanamo detainees who used it to explain to their kids what had happened to them; an ex-Guantanamo prison warden; the head of international NGOs in Sri Lanka and Myanmar who used my images to show others what traumas the people their organisations were looking after had gone through.

Julia: You have recently exhibited your work in a War and Trauma themed exhibition in Belgium. Are the reactions to viewing the actual LEGO scenes different to seeing the photographs of your LEGO recreations?

Legofesto: I’m not sure…. People have said the sculptures can be read as more of a narrative as opposed to a snapshot of a specific event. Sadly I couldn’t get over to Belgium to see for myself how people reacted to viewing them.

Julia: Your last legofesto creation dates back to 2009, what has happened since and what is the future of legofesto and projects like legofesto? Have you been paying attention to the new waves of LEGO, like the Greenpeace Campaign, and what do you think of them?

Legofesto: I really liked the use of LEGO by Greenpeace. If we don’t sort out our wasteful, polluting, consumerist head set it will be our kids and their kids who are left to pay the price, so it was a nice touch to use LEGO. Since I stopped doing Legofesto I’ve become a parent which has taken most of my time. I also became unable to use my hands so the LEGO work became impossible for a long while, but hopefully I will start it up again at some point.

End.

Reference this interview: 

Zielke, J. (2015) Political LEGO: an interview with Legofesto. followtheblog.org 29 May (https://followtheblog.org/2015/05/29/political-lego-an-interview-with-legofesto/ last accessed )

Legofesto originals: 

Articles about and interviews with Legofesto:

Carling, A. (2009) Throwing Plastic Bricks At Torturers Because Words Bounce Off. andycarling.com 9 May (http://www.andycarling.com/2009/05/throwing-plastic-bricks-at-torturers-because-words-bounce-off/ last accessed 29 May 2015)

Mackey, R. (2009) Visualizing Torture, With LEGO. New York Times 5 May (http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/05/05/visualizing-torture-with-lego/?hp&_r=0  last accessed 29 May 2015)

Pickert, K. (2009) LEGO Violence. Time magazine 6 May (http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1896362,00.html last accessed 29 May 2015)

Thanks to Julia and Legofesto for giving us permission to publish this interview.

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